This week’s clutch of captivating reviews includes Parul Sehgal on African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, Stephanie Hayes on Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, Jennifer Wilson on Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, David W. Blight on David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie, and Chigozie Obioma on David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black.
“…a monumental tribute to that persistence, from the colonial period to the present. It features poems on injustice, harassment, hunger—protests on the page—but also rapturous odes to music and food, to gawking at beautiful strangers, to boredom and birth pains and menopause … [Young’s] many endeavors are linked by the effort to rescue from oblivion, to supply context, to indicate points of continuity while insisting on the multiplicity of experience. One of Young’s achievements with this new book, six years in the making, is in surfacing lesser-known writers—specifically women writers, like Anne Spencer and Mae V. Cowdery, forgotten figures of the Harlem Renaissance—and interrogating why their work went missing. Did they never publish a book? Did they live in a time, like the 1980s, with scant institutional support for Black poets? Did they write in trivialized forms? Were they forced to keep their writing secret? … If this anthology reads like a form of history, it is also a history of form. It traces the tributaries of English and folk traditions, the rhythms of jazz and the Beats, the influence of modernism and the Black Arts Movement … It is overwhelming to contemplate the variety and history contained in this volume. The poems gathered here have the force of event. They were written as acts of public mourning, and as secrets; they are love poems and bitter quarrels. They are prized company.”
–Parul Sehgal on African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, Ed. by Kevin Young (The New York Times)
“In Earthlings…her petri dish is far more outlandish and grotesque. If Convenience Store Woman flirts with a science-fiction-inflected critique of conformity, Earthlings strains the bounds of realism to test foundational taboos of human society—not to mention the reader’s stomach—while never straying from Murata’s signature emotionally flat prose … As in Convenience Store Woman, Murata displays her gift for scrambling notions of utopia and dystopia to propulsive effect—only this time, her characters are convinced that they’re rebelling, not conforming … As Earthlings swerves into violent, transgressive, fantastical territory, Murata—ever the good scientist—keeps us in thrall by never putting her thumb on the scale. Her matter-of-fact rendering of wild events is as disorienting as it is intriguing. There is no right or normal, there is a narrator but no clear protagonist. Again and again, Murata frustrates our desire to make judgments or find meaning based on accepted norms. If the book’s ending feels unreal and unsatisfying, perhaps Murata has succeeded in her experiment—and we were her subjects all along.”
“In scope and feel, Transcendent Kingdom is Homegoing’s opposite. Where Homegoing was grand, magical, and expansive, Transcendent Kingdom is earthy, grounded, and small; it is as if the two books should trade titles …The question here is how we bear witness to shared realities while avoiding the traps of stereotype. Animated by this wariness, Transcendent Kingdom is less a search for origins than it is a study of origin stories and the ways they can be wielded against people, particularly ones who grew up poor and Black … Transcendent Kingdom exudes a bone-deep exhaustion with having to explain one’s background. Sad origin stories seem to Gifty little more than grist for fitting one’s life into a neat arc for others’ consumption … Despite a change in scope, in Transcendent Kingdom Gyasi is still plumbing the questions that guided Homegoing. Gyasi has returned to her roots, and they run deeper now.”
“David Zucchino’s engaging and disturbing book, Wilmington’s Lie, not only vividly reconstructs the events of 1898 but reveals the mountain of lies that has stood in the way of a truer, if not a reconciled, history. All those in America who do not understand the old and festering foundation of contemporary voter suppression should read this book … Zucchino’s writing is crisp and declarative. Some of the book reads like in-depth reporting, yet he also expresses a careful level of moral indignation against the blunt racism he uncovers. His portraits of the three principal leaders of the white supremacy campaign in 1898 are particularly skillful … Zucchino is at his best as he builds the historical infrastructure of lies from which the story of Wilmington emerged … Zucchino’s work is both enlightening and painful. At times the reader feels some whiplash from being pushed back and forth through history … But Zucchino is a marvelous writer. Only at the end of the book does he draw any direct comparison to today’s voter suppression in North Carolina and elsewhere, but one feels that treacherous legacy on nearly every page.
–David W. Blight on David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (The New York Review of Books)
“From the very first pages, there is something beguiling about At Night All Blood Is Black, a slim, delicate novel by the Senegalese-French writer David Diop … This transgression against the dead—or the delusion of such—fills the story with a mythic affliction that recalls the old sailor’s in Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The narrative voice brims with innuendoes and habitual repetitions like ‘I know, I understand’ and ‘God’s truth,’ which imbue the character with an edgy eccentricity … But this book is about more than a lone man’s spiritual burden. Diop realizes the full nature of war—that theater of macabre and violent drama—on the page. He takes his character into the depths of hell and lets him thrive there … As violent and disturbing as these encounters are, they are rendered with such artistic grace that one derives a strange pleasure in reading about even the bloodiest of nights. The novel, though originally written in French, is grounded in the worldview of Senegal’s Wolof people, and the specificity and uniqueness of that culture’s language comes through even in Anna Moschovakis’s translation … By the time we reach its shocking yet ultimately transcendent ending, the story has turned into something mystical, esoteric; it takes a cyclic shape … More than a century after World War I, a great new African writer is asking these questions in a spare yet extraordinary novel about this bloody stain on human history.”