Posted on Jan 11, 2018
In the past year, the books that have stuck most with me did so for two reasons: personal and political. As a writer and a reader, I am interested in books that do not only address my personal and social concerns but ones that challenge me to create and appreciate art in a new way, whether in format or language or style. I am also, however, a citizen living in a society where the Black Lives Matter movement is necessary, where the Women’s March has happened, where Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel effectively made the ongoing oppression of Palestinians acceptable, and where challenging and dismantling current systems of power becomes more necessary every day.
I've included a short review of each of these books - venture freely, no spoilers!
1. Negroland by Margo Jefferson
Margo Jefferson writes about being a fair skinned black daughter of two doctors of the black bourgeois of the 50s and 60s. I will be honest - the main reason this book defined 2017 for me was that I am a relatively well off and light-skinned Arab Muslim girl living in Islamophobic war-on-terror- America. I had never understood how to talk or write about the racism and Islamophobia of the America I live in without also pointing to the privilege I have. This book was also tremendously helpful for me, as a writer and a reader, to see how clearly but beautifully she incorporates social history in a memoir. This is a critical way of examining a social history - not only a personal one.
2. At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell
Not everyone is into philosophy. I get that. But this isn’t a book of philosophy. Philosophy, existentialism, and a different way to see the world is an [intentional] by-product of this book (which I haven’t even finished yet, by the way). You know when people want to praise a writer and say, “She paints a picture”? Bakewell does that. She is so deliberate and graceful in her brushstrokes and in the way the conversation and the photos so seamlessly come together to bring to life the lives of more than seven philosophers and writers so that you feel like you’re at the cafe hearing them work out their ideas out loud with you. If you want to be there - in the places where Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger, and the other greats came up with all their ideas, if you want to figure out what works for you in their theories and what doesn’t instead of just having it presented to you as a final and finished project - if you want to think through it, and you have zero idea what existentialism is, you need to read this.
3. The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
Jandy Nelson is one of those writers whose prose you forget is anything by poetry. Her sentences explode with metaphors, and you are somehow always caught in a storm of color and feeling, sometimes uplifting and bursting with joy, and sometimes filled with tremendous grief and such deep longing you don’t know what to do with yourself. The only bad thing about her writing is that she’s only written two novels, so if you love her writing, you end up re-reading them both and all her interviews once every few months. This story is about how a young high school girl deals with the grief of losing her aspiring actor sister, her relationship with writing and music, and two love interests (one of whom is her late sister’s boyfriend). Both the musings on grief and the beautiful lyrical language of this book having very real healing powers.
4. Ukhruj fi Maw‘id ma‘ Fatā Tuḥib al-Kitāba compiled and translated by Mohammed Al-Dhabaa
This book’s title is based on an anonymous blog post online with the same title (Date A Girl Who Writes). The book is a collection of translations of essays, letters, interviews, poems and selections from the works of different writers like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Charles Bukowski, Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, Andy Martin, Vladimir Nabokov, Billy Collins, Sylvia Whitman, Janet LeBlanc, and more. It was the first translated book I intentionally (and almost religiously) read. I carried it with me everywhere for months - always referring to it, always copying it, trying my hand at the works he’d translated, writing alternative words I would have used, underlined and circled and drew hearts around his many spot-on translations. The book is like a paperback Arabic Brain Pickings. If you can read Arabic, especially if you have any interest in translation, you should definitely pick it up.
5. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Selected and Edited by Ronald de Leeuw and Translated by Arnold Pomerans
Even if you only read this one or two letters at a time, and over many years, you must read it. For one, I love to know the intimate details of the lives and inner worlds of artists whose work I admire. These letters exhibit such a desire to discover truth and to chase beauty and a deep understanding of loneliness that any parting with them is emotional. When I was reading them, I also watched different documentaries on VvanGoghh, to truly immerse myself in his world. If for no other reason then to properly enjoy the collection of paintings in the MET, you must read this.
6. Scratch edited by Manjula Martin
This book is a collection of essays and interviews that deals with the age-old “starving artist” trope. Writers talk about how to make money, what sorts of day jobs they kept, how they did or didn’t pay their rent, how they dealt with hunger and what freelancing can actually look like. They talk about being a woman, about race, motherhood, the internet, and character likeability - and how to sell these things. This book scared me, in a way, it and the debt from my MFA shattered any illusions I had about how easily I was going to make money doing what I love. At the same time, it, like so many other books, left me in good company, thinking, “Hey, if these writers had it tough and made it, so can I.”
7. In Jerusalem by Tamim al-Barghouti
This collection of poems is in Arabic, but different poems in this collection can be found translated online or in the book In Jerusalem and Other Poems which features translations by the author himself, Ahdaf Soueif and the late Radwa Ashour. The poems in this collection are political and harsh in their realism, but the language that Tamim Al-Barghouti employs is filled with beautiful metaphors. Even though the subject matter and the events and the people are so distinctly contemporary, there is so much, in his style and the language that hearkens back and reads like an ode to classical Arabic and poetry. If you want your life to change, start this by listening to him perform the poem after which this book is titled.
8. A House of My Own by Sandra Cisneros
I hadn’t realized just how white all the women I was reading were until I read this book for the first time (which wasn’t in 2017, but a few years earlier). The essay after which the book is named is the reason, in 2017, I took so much care collecting postcards of women writers, of scientists and prints of paintings and silhouettes and anatomical hearts and flowers to decorate the rooms of my wall with. This book of essays, written at different points in the author's life, and complete with photos, not only made me more comfortable directly reggering to and exploring my Arabness, but also made me aware of the importance of space to a writer’s work. And that the spaces in which we live are not merely composite of the setting - but of the things we use to fill that space and the people in whose company we spend time in that space.
9. A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf by Ilana Simons
I haven’t even read all of Virginia Woolf’s works. Still, my long-standing infatuation with her (going on 11 years, in fact) and the fact that I own every one of her books (some in more than one edition), and most of the biographies written about her, makes this book necessary to include in the list because it perpetuates the love. The book is written by a professor of literature who is training to be a clinical psychologist: someone who knows that the very point of literature (at least, modernist literature) is to get inside the heads of people and bring the inner life to the page. She takes relevant parts of Virginia’s external life and shows us how it helped create her inner life - how she, in turn, externalized it and how we can internalize it. It isn’t a self-help book in any traditional sense - only someone who is interested in the Bloomsbury group, and the lives of artists and their complicated relationships and their deepest tragedies could weave in so beautifully the letters and conversations and characters of a writer to become this guide.
10. I Am Not Your Negro adopted from texted by James Baldwin
Something has to break the pattern right? This is technically a film directed by Raoul Peck, but the script is based on James Baldwin's unfinished manuscript Remember This House, so it counts. The documentary film features a collection of letters and notes on racism and the civil rights struggle in America namely through the lives of Baldwin himself and his friends Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. If you have had very little to no exposure to these great men, I suggest you start here. This film will help you understand them in light of their similarities as well as their complexities and differences, and inspire you to read more about them. For me, the lack of “political correctness” I found in the film was so liberating. Baldwin takes such a critical lens to the institution of racism and challenges the very essence of white America in a way that cannot leave you the same person you were before you watched it (unless you have successfully managed to avoid drinking the kool-aid).
Ruwa Alhayek graduated from Princeton University in 2014 with a degree in Near Eastern Studies and certificates in Arabic, Creative Writing, and Gender and Sexuality Studies. She graduated in June with an MFA in Creative Writing (nonfiction) from The New School and is now a freelance writer, editor, and translator. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org