LJ Best Books 2016

A jury of our peers discussed, debated, disagreed, and finally declared LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles. VISIT THE WEBSITE

The Literature of Exile

On January 27, President Donald Trump issued an executive order suspending entry of all refugees to the United States for 120 days, blocking Syrian refugees indefinitely, and forbidding entry for 90 days to citizens of the seven largely Muslim countries of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Though a federal court countered with a temporary stay, a revised ban just issued continues targeting all those countries but Iraq. The situation surely reminds us that if choosing to emigrate is hard and being forced to flee cataclysm harder, current sentiment has made it especially challenging for individuals rooted in Islamic culture to settle in this country.

Anyone wanting a visceral understanding of that experience would do well to go beyond reportage and pick up a good novel, poem, or play on the subject. For instance, Beirut-born Laila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land (Beacon), a Discover Great New Writers pick, portrays a Jordanian couple struggling in post-9/11 Arizona, while Pakistani American Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize–winning and Tony-nominated Disgraced (Back Bay: Little, Brown) takes us to New York to meet a nonobservant Muslim American encountering suspicion among upper-crust professionals. Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Harvest), short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, features a Pakistani disenchanted with America, where the author was educated. And Yale Younger poet Fady Joudah’s The Earth in the Attic (Yale Univ.), an examination of displacement and identity, is written by the son of Palestinian refugees.

Despite the success of these and other authors, there are still too few books available on the American experience of Muslim Americans. This is especially true of the seven scarfcountries affected by the president’s travel ban. Below, we highlight works from each of the affected countries and their diaspora, plus new and forthcoming titles exploring exile generally.

Syria

Syria’s civil war is too current for much of a literature to have emerged, except perhaps in blogs and online magazines. But the Syrian American experience is represented by Mohja Kahf, whose The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (Public Affairs) portrays a young woman struggling to negotiate the line between Muslim and American. Also a poet, Kahf uses E-mails from Scheherazad (Univ. Pr. of Florida) to relocate a celebrated cultural figure to 21st-century Hackensack, NJ, and explores a biblical story shared by three faiths in Hagar Poems (Univ. of Arkansas).

In addition, Syrian American Osama Alomar’s The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories, a collection of surreal, sharply observed fables coming from New Directions in April, captures the mood of a people used to speaking tangentially under a harsh regime. Alomar is also the author of Fullblood Arabian, a New Directions poetry pamphlet.

For a better understanding of the conditions driving flight from Syria, readers can also look to three recently translated Syrian novels. Nihad Sirees’s The Silence and the Roar (Other) is the Kafkaesque tale of an author banned for osamarefusing to write propaganda, Mustafa Khalif’s forthcoming The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer (Interlink) features a nominally Christian atheist mistaken for a radical Islamist and held 13 years without trial, and Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of This City (Hoopoe: American Univ. in Cairo) depicts a family in Aleppo coming to ruin under harsh rule from the 1960s to the 2000s.

For more background on Syria’s current crisis, don’t forget French-Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf’s graphic novel series, The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978–1984 and The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984–1985, a  Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner. The narrative moves among rural France, Syria, and Libya, and here’s the good news: The Arab of the Future 3: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1985-1987: A Graphic Memoir is coming from Metropolitan: Holt in September.

Finally, PEN Pinter Prize–winning Syrian journalist Samar Yazbek, now living in exile in France, is best known here for The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria (Ebury) and A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (Haus), but she is also the author of novels and short stories. Cinnamon (Haus), the story of an alienated wife finding comfort with other women, is her only fiction available in this country, but her reputation and experience recommend watching for translations to come.

Iraq

Though readers interested in Iraq are encouraged to look at novelist Mahmoud Saeed (Saddam City, Saqi) and poet Dunya Mikhail (The War Works Hard, New Directions), as well as American-born playwright Heather Raffo’s Lucille Lortel Award–winning 9 Parts of Desire spiral(Northwestern Univ.), books directly addressing the Iraqi American experience are thin on the ground. One possibility: veteran poet Jack Marshall, a Pen West Award winner born to Jewish parents who emigrated from Iraq and Syria, details his life in the well-regarded memoir From Baghdad to Brooklyn: Growing Up in a Jewish-Arabic Family in Midcentury America (Coffee House). He also touches on his complex heritage in his poetry, most recently Spiral Trace (Coffee House).

Otherwise, the Iraqi American experience seems overshadowed by the surging troop of American soldier writers like Phil Klay and Kevin Powers. Those wanting a contemporary understanding of diaspora from the Iraqi perspective must turn to writers compelled to relocate to Europe. Muhsin al-Ramli, who has long lived in Spain, tells the story of an exile who unexpectedly encounters his father in a Madrid nightclub in Dates on My Fingers (American Univ. in Cairo). Award winner Hassan Blasim, now based in Finland and called “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive” by the Guardian, nightmarishly evokes the Iraqi War and conditions for flight in The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq (Penguin), though he touches less on life outside the country.

As Blasim’s book shows, understanding the Iraqi American experience requires understanding Iraq during wartime, and for that four books are especially recommended. Baghdad-born, German-based Amal al-Jubouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation (Alice James) antoonoffers wrenchingly heartfelt poems that contrast the country before and after occupation by U.S. troops. Meanwhile, Iranian American poet Solmaz Sharif’s Look (Graywolf) assays the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan through raw, unsparing poems that show how Americans use language to distance themselves from the consequences of war. Sharif’s book was a National Book Award finalist, and both collections were LJ Best Poetry Books.

Fiction readers can rely on Sinan Antoon, currently a professor of Arabic literature at New York University and cofounder and coeditor of the journal Jadaliyya. In his recent The Corpse Washer (Yale Univ.), an aspiring artist must return to his family’s traditional occupation when war comes. The Baghdad Eucharist, coming from Hoopee: American Univ. in Cairo in April, features a young woman displaced by violence and, with her husband, taken in  by a distant relative in the city. Throughout her life, Maha has known nothing but war.

Iran

After enjoying Dalia Sofer’s celebrated The Septembers of Shiraz (Ecco), which focuses on a Jewish family in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, those seeking insight into the Iranian American experience can turn to works by Porochista Khakpour, Nahid Rachlin, Laleh Khadivi, and Dina Nayeri. Khakpour’s Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove) portrays the post-9/11 rachlinstruggles of an Iranian American family, while The Last Illusion (Bloomsbury USA) limns a misfit Iranian boy in New York. Rachlin’s Jumping over Fire (City Lights) features a teenage girl of mixed Iranian and American heritage enjoying the liberal mores of America, where her family is forced to resettle, even as her brother faces tough choices of allegiance.

Laleh Khadivi’s The Age of Orphans and The Walking deal with the weight of 20th-century Iranian history from a Kurdish perspective, while her forthcoming A Good Country explains how all-American teenager Alireza Courdee, the son of strict Iranian Americans, finds himself part of jihad in Syria. (Khadivi’s books all come from Bloomsbury USA.)

Nayeri approached America differently in her much-lauded debut, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea (Riverhead), treating it as dream and aspiration for twin sisters, one of whom vanishes with her father. The forthcoming Refuge (Riverhead) deals more broadly with exile, featuring cultured European Niloo, who left Iran as a child and now misses both father and homeland, especially as she considers the plight of the refugees flooding Europe.

Coming from Algonquin in April, celebrated chef Donia Bijan’s The Last Days of Café Leila portrays a woman sent to America in the wake of the Iranian revolution. Recovering from a marital breakup, she returns to Tehran with her teenage daughter to see her family and their café. Finally, don’t miss the work of award-winning poet and translator Sholeh Wolpé, whose collections, from Rooftops of Tehran (Red Hen) to Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths (Univ. of Arkansas), deal with love, grief, and displacement both personal and political.

Readers eager to continue exploring the Iranian American experience can look to two anthologies. Published in 1999 and edited by Persis M. Karim and Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami, A World tremorsBetween: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays by Iranian-Americans (Braziller) is the first-ever collection of its type in English and comes highly recommended by LJ’s reviewer. Tremors: New Fiction by Iranian American Writers (Univ. of Arkansas) appeared in 2013 and was edited by Karim and novelist Anita Amirrezvani, a much-praised writer of historical fiction. Featuring 27 diverse writers, it also received strong reviews.

Libya

American readers are familiar with Libya through the work of multi-award-winning novelist Hisham Matar (In the Country of Men, Viking), who was raised partly in New York and now lives in London. But their distinguished at-home guide for all things Libyan (and an important voice in all things Arab American) remains Khaled Mattawa, an award-winning poet, translator, and anthologist who teaches in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. MacArthur fellow Mattawa, who left Libya in 1979, is a contributing editor to Banipal magazine, a leading source of contemporary Arab literature translated into English, and also served as president of Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI).

Mattawa’s poetry collections, Zodiac of Echoes, Amorisco, Tocqueville, and Ismailia Eclipse, reveal an author comfortably located in two worlds; it’s invigorating to see “Date Palm Trinity” cite mattawwaboth Muhammad and Walt Whitman. Those less familiar with poetry can be reassured that Mattawa is a forthright and accessible writer whose work Yusef Komunyakaa described as “novelistic in its reach and depth.” In addition, two key anthologies coedited by Mattawa include Post Gibran: Anthology of New Arab American Writing (Kitab) and Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction (Univ. of Arkansas).

Somalia

Readers interested in literature from the remaining countries affected by the travel ban will find their options scarce. World-renowned Somali writer Nuruddin Farah touches on the dislocation of compatriots returning from abroad but remains focused on his country, as does London-based Nadifa Mohamed, one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Of special interest, her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls (Farrar), treats the plight of women directly before the late 1980s Somali civil war that temporarily trapped her family in the UK. Also of interest: Igiaba Scego’s Auda (New Vessel), about a Somalian in Italy deciding whether to return home when the civil war subsides. Novelist/journalist Scego was born in Italy to Somali refugees.

A good bet for America readers interested in Somalia is Ahmed Ismail Yusuf’s Somalis in Minnesota, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press as part of its “People of Minnesota” yusufseries. This nonfiction title traces the history of the Somali people in both Africa and Minnesota, home to a large Somali community. Significantly, Yusuf has a creative writing degree from Trinity College and writes stories, poems, and essays about his people. His work has appeared in venues like Bildhaan, an international journal of Somali studies, and Mizna, an Arab American literary magazine.

Sudan

Another nonfiction title with literary merit, this one about Sudan, is Benjamin Ajak & others’ They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan (PublicAffairs). This book relates the story of Ajak and his cousins Benson and Alephonsion Deng, youngsters during the Sudanese civil war who endured horrific attacks on their villages, then left for America around 9/11. The book, a best seller and Christopher Award Winner, was recently reissued in a tenth anniversary edition. In addition, current U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera writes heartrendingly about Janjaweed attacks in Sudan’s Darfur region in Senegal Taxi (Univ. of Arizona).

Those interested in investigating the Sudan diaspora through fiction should read the works of Leila Aboulela. Now living in Scotland and writing in English, Aboulela won the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award, and her novels Lyrics minaretAlley, The Translator, and Minaret (all from Grove Atlantic) were long-listed for the Orange Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Both The Translator, about a Sudanese widow working at a Scottish university and falling in love, and Minaret, featuring an African Muslim woman negotiating her new life as a maid in London, offer incisive looks at the outsider’s experience.

Yemen

This leads us to Yemen, a country with a proud community in America but apparently no poet or novelist as yet to voice its concerns. In fact, Yemen does not have a large literary tradition in the modern sense. “Political Crisis and Yemen’s Literary Resurgence,” a March 23, 2015, story by Fareed Al-Homaid and Shannon Mckimmin in the English-language Yemen Times, notes, “Despite ongoing political and economic turmoil, national literature saw an unexpected surge in 2014. Twenty novels were published by Yemeni authors [in 2013], and while that figure may seem insignificant in a regional or global context, it is considerably more than the eight books produced the previous year.”

Not many of these titles have been translated yet, but a March 27, 2015, post on the blog Arab Literature in English highlighted several possibilities for those interested in the Yemeni community. Older titles like Mohammad Abdul-Wali’s They Die Strangers (Univ. of Texas) and Zaid Mutee’ Dammaj’s The Hostage (Interlink) clarify decades of civil strife leading to the turmoil today.

For an up-to-date view of Yemen, Wajdi al-Ahdal’s recently published A Land Without Jasmine hurma(Garnet) offers a look at social tensions in the guise of a thriller. Another striking title is Ali al-Muqri’s Hurma (Darf), appearing here as an ebook in February and in paperback in September. Issued by a longstanding British house specializing in literature of the Middle East, it features a socially repressed young woman struggling to assert herself, who joins the jihadist cause and returns home to further uncertainty.

New Titles on Exile

The different communities represented by these books have one thing in common; many of their members are in this country as refugees, not immigrants choosing to dream the American dream but individuals fleeing cataclysm at home and struggling to adapt to a country where they had not initially thought to live. (For an excellent discussion of the distinction, see Viet Thanh Nguyen’s current interview in Mother Jones.)

From Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (Pantheon), Aleksandar Hemon’s Love and Obstacles (Riverhead), and Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury USA), to Kim Thúy’s Ru (Bloomsbury USA) and Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, How To Read the Air, and All Our Names (Riverhead), to two recent LJ Best Poetry books, Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria (BOA) and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon), readers have available a wealth of titles on the refugee experience worldwide. This spring, there’s a surge of new titles that can help readers grapple with that experience.

Following his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Sympathizer (Grove), Nguyen defines the topic at hand with The Refugees (Grove), a story collection spanning decades that chronicles the lives, dreams, nguyenand difficult adjustments of refugees in America. In Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Riverhead), another wide-angle view, two young people in love somewhere in the Middle East or South Asia determine to escape civil war and end up traveling from a migrant camp on Mykonos to Vienna, a west London squat, and finally California.

In her debut novel, Salt House (Houghton Harcourt), Palestinian American poet Hala Alyan explores displacement in the Middle East by chronicling the fate of one family repeatedly uprooted after the Six-Day War of 1967. Also a debut, Omar Robert Hamilton’s The City Always Wins (Sean McDonald: Farrar) features an idealist who battles the police in Cairo, then finds himself in lonely New York exile. Hamilton, a cofounder of the Palestine Festival of Literature, is also editor of the forthcoming This Is Not a Border: Reportage & Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature (Bloomsbury USA).

Yet another debut, Ian Bassingthwaighte’s Live from Cairo (Scribner) portrays four people, including a Baghdad refugee and her Iraqi American caseworker, during the fall of President Mubarak’s regime. Fulbright grantee Bassingthwaighte has worked in Egypt with refugees from Iraq, Sudan, and the horn of Africa.

Anglo Indian author Tabish Khair offers the eye-opening Just Another Jihadi Jane (Interlink), featuring two young women from Britain who throw in their lot with jihadis in Syria. In Sonora (Soho), jihadijaneHannah Lillith Assadi explores the fate of two very different young women. Protagonist Ahlam, of Palestinian-Israeli heritage like Assadi herself, counters increasing alienation by fleeing her Arizona desert home for New York with a like-minded friend.

Vaddey Ratner’s Music of the Ghosts (Touchstone) follows up In the Shadow of the Banyan, which drew on the author’s escape from Cambodia’s killing fields, with an account of one refugee’s return home in a bid for understanding and perhaps reconciliation. A PEN/Bellwether Prize winner, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers (Algonquin) clarifies the fate of 11-year-old Deming Guo, adopted by two well-meaning but clueless professors when his Chinese mother vanishes. Finally, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart: Stories, the inaugural offering in Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s new Random imprint, focuses on young women whose families abandoned dangerous lives as artists in China and Taiwan for poverty in 1990s New York.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s produced a wave of refugees whose experiences have been captured in books like Sara Nović’s Girl at War (Little, Brown), Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (Random), Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (Grove), and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children (Harper). Forthcoming books on that experience include Kosovo-born, Helsinki-based Pajtim Statovci’s My Cat Yugoslavia (Pantheon), whose narrator is a Bosnian refugee in Finland. As a gay man in a restrictive society, the narrator is doubly an outsider, and his family’s life is further torn apart by a disaffected father who no longer feels at home anywhere.

In Heritage of Smoke (Dzanc), Croatian Canadian and Man Booker International prize finalist Josip Novakovich explores war, exile, and spiritual uncertainty in a series of evocative stories. Finally, solaceRobert Madrygin’s The Solace of Trees (New Europe) shows us Amir, of secular Muslim heritage, fleeing to a UN camp and then to America after witnessing the murder of his family. As a college student, Amir accepts an invitation to work on a documentary about Palestinians.

Instructively, in a conversation with his publisher, debut novelist Madrygin comments, “I began writing The Solace of Trees before the Syrian War began. But this story is the story of the Syrian conflict.” Whether specifically addressing a community’s suffering or investigating the larger issue of exile, the books here help clarify the worldwide refugee crisis today. Reading isn’t a solution to the problem. But if it gives voice to those caught between an exploding homeland and their fate in America while helping other Americans better understand and empathize, it’s a start.

Note: Readers are welcome to suggest more titles for this list. In a forthcoming piece, in response to President Trump’s plans to build a wall along America’s southern border, LJ will explore the literature of Latino exile and immigration, along with the literature of other nationalities with a significant population of undocumented residents in this country. 

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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