Books of the Year 2020

I’ve read more books this year than I’ve ever read in a year before. It’s been a very strange time, but these are the books published this year that have resonated with me.

This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber)

Tambudzai’s life is not going how she expected. In her 30s, living in a hostel, unemployed, in a country that’s hostile, there are multiple structural barriers preventing her progress. An examination of a woman and a country. A masterpiece. Longer review here.

Love After Love – Ingrid Persaud (Faber)

A woman widowed from her abusive husband; her young son, and a gay man hiding his sexuality. Their bond asks the question what really makes a family? Betty, Solo and Mr Chetan have lived in my head since I read this in the first half of the year. Gorgeous. Longer review here.

So We Can Glow – Leesa Cross-Smith (Grand Central)

Cross-Smith’s latest short story collection celebrates women and girls. Their triumphs, their tribulations, their crushes, their loves, the way they support each other to rebuild themselves and their lives. The language and the characters fizz. Longer review here.

The Meaning of Mariah Carey – Mariah Carey with Michaela Angela Davis (Macmillan)

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that Carey’s memoir isn’t your average celebrity memoir. Open, honest and reflective, Carey looks at her traumatic childhood, her marriage to Tommy Mottola and her career. A fascinating insight into who she is and how she became one of the most successful singers in the world.

The Bass Rock – Evie Wyld (Jonathan Cape)

The story of three women, in three different time periods, lived in the shadow of the Bass Rock. They’re linked by what one of Wyld’s minor characters – the brilliant Maggie – describes as a serial killer: toxic masculinity. Maggie’s idea of a map showing places where women have been killed by men has haunted me all year, as has the final page of the novel. Longer review here.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)

Named for Shakespeare’s son who died – probably of plague – and the play that was probably written about Shakespeare’s grief: Hamlet. Really though, this is the story of Agnes (Anne), Shakespeare’s wife. Beautiful and vividly told. O’Farrell’s well-deserved acclaim was long overdue. Longer review here.

Breasts and Eggs – Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd) (Picador)

A novel in two-parts exploring Natsuko’s sister’s desire for breast implants and then Natsuko’s questions around whether or not she wants a child. An examination of the expectations placed on women from a working class Japanese perspective with a bonus send-up of the literary industry. Longer review here.

In the Dream House – Carmen Maria Machado (Serpent’s Tail)

A ground-breaking memoir of an emotionally abusive, same-gender relationship. It questions notions of the canon through a range of devices and genres while delivering a devastating portrait of domestic abuse. Longer review here.

Postcolonial Love Poem – Natalie Diaz (Faber)

An investigation of the body as a site of trauma and of desire. Diaz connects the body to the land, the water (particularly rivers) and the air, showing how violation of the elements by white Americans has led to irreparable damage. This is also a celebration of queer love and language that elevates and transcends. Longer review here.

Bad Love – Maame Blue (Jacaranda Books)

19yo Ekuah has an on / off affair with up-and-coming musician Dee. Later she meets English teacher and spoken word night organiser Jay Stanley. The two men exert different pulls on her life, but Ekuah has to work out how she wants to live. I was rooting for her all the way. Longer review here.

Writers & Lovers – Lily King (Picador)

Casey’s in her 30s. Single, a waitress trying to write a novel, living in her brother’s friend’s shed, she meets two men: Silas is a teacher and a writer, but unreliable; Oscar is slightly older, an established writer, widowed with two young boys. Casey has to decide whether to accept or reject a conventional life. I wrote about her choices for the Pan Macmillan blog.

Nudibranch – Irenosen Okojie (Dialogue Books)

Okojie is the queen of stories that take you to unexpected places. Her latest collection is a wild ride of time-travelling silent monks; some unexpected zombies; a heart-eating goddess; mechanical boys, and an albino man who brings fountains to a small town in Mozambique. The incredible ‘Grace Jones’, about an impersonator and her past, deservedly won the 2020 AKO Cane Prize. Slightly longer review here.

Thanks to the publishers (as listed) for This Mournable Body, The Bass Rock, Hamnet, Breasts and Eggs, and Writers & Lovers. All other books are my own purchases.

She Called Me Woman – Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak ed. Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan and Rafeeat Aliyu

I’m very pleased to have an extract from She Called Me a Woman – Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak, and a short clip of two of the book’s editors discussing their hopes for it. The book is published by Cassava Republic in the UK,

From the publisher:

She Called Me Woman is a collection of first-hand accounts by a community telling their stories on their own terms. This engaging and groundbreaking collection of queer women’s narratives includes stories of first time love and curiosity, navigating same-sex feelings and spirituality, growing up gender non-conforming and overcoming family and society’s expectations. What does it means to be a queer Nigerian? How does one embrace the label of ‘woman’? While some tell of self-acceptance, others talk of friendship and building a home in the midst of the anti-same sex marriage law. The narrators range from those who knew they were gay from a very early age to those who discovered their attraction to the same sex later in life. The stories challenge the stereotypes of what we assume is lesbian, bisexual, gay, and *trans in Nigeria and they offer us a raw, first-hand look into the lives and realities of our family, friends, neighbours and co-workers who are queer.

The editors:

Azeenarh Mohammed is a trained lawyer and a queer, feminist, holistic security trainer who spends her time training non-for-profit organisations on tools and tactics for digital and physical security and psycho-social well-being. Azeenarh is active in the queer women’s issues in Nigeria and has written on queerness and technology for publications like This is Africa, Perspectives, and Premium TimesNG. 

Chitra Nagarajan is an activist, researcher and writer. She has spent the last 15 years working on human rights and peace building and is involved in feminist, anti-racist, anti-fundamentalist and queer movements. She currently lives and works in Maiduguri, Nigeria, focusing on conflict mitigation, civilian protection and women’s rights. 

Aisha Salau has a BA in Marketing and works in communication and research. She is particularly interested in sex and sexuality in both modern and historical Nigeria. 

Why Do I Have To Ask You To Consider Me Human? 

In Yorubaland, girls have sex with girls all the time, especially while growing up – your next-door neighbour, your cousin. I have had all kinds of sex. I have had sex with men and sex with women. I like men but not in a sexual way. I love all the men in my life – but I’m not attracted to them. I refer to myself as queer because I’m more emotionally attached to women.

When I met the woman I’m living with now, she made me realise how much I love and enjoy talking with women. I really liked her. I said, ‘Let’s have sex and see if we enjoy each other’s bodies.’ When we moved to this area, we were formally dating but after we had lived together a few months, I realised she didn’t like children and that neither of us could have the kind of relationship we wanted. We are both still sexually attracted to each other and have sex but we are not seeing each other. We are just friends. I know she sees other people. For me, if I find somebody, that’s great but I can’t deal with a lot of the women I meet.

I have no idea if people around us know about the two of us. When we first moved to this area, we sat down in a bus and some random woman sat down beside us and said, ‘Awww, the way you treated your wife is so beautiful.’ I said, ‘She’s not my wife. She’s my sister.’ Some okada riders have said, ‘This your girlfriend is fine o.’

In my circles, we have long debates and my friends are pro-gay rights. They are feminists. I choose my friends well. All my male friends see me as an adventurous girl. I think they thought I was just experimenting about two years ago. I don’t know what they think now. When I meet them, I always go with her. Everyone thinks we are dating and it’s good. It’s like I’m making a statement. They tease us and they’re fine with it. On the other hand, I’ve lost jobs because of my sexuality. I got a job two weeks ago that I lost because somebody told them I was a lesbian. I was banking on that money.

Things have really changed on this issue since I was young. People weren’t so religious back then. They weren’t so corrupt. We use ‘lakiriboto’ to describe women who go against the grain, women who won’t sleep with men, including those who go with other women. The first time I saw two girls kissing was in my grandmother’s house – my aunt and one of the girls. They were all sleeping on this long mattress they would spread on the floor. The two of them would have sex and nobody would turn. My grandmother’s younger sister lived in Ghana for a long time. When she became old, she went to the house of this young girl who lived in the next compound and said she wanted to marry her. She promised to take care of the girl, send her to school, take care of all her expenses – and they gave her out in marriage. She married her so the girl could take care of her. They’re both dead now but the practice of women marrying women was common in the past – and I think it still is.

This is one of the reasons I love living in this neighbourhood. People are still living the way they were. Technology is not as fast here. They use old phones. We have a man who dresses obviously as a woman. Everyone knows him. They call him Baba Sango and think he gets possessed by the spirit of Sango. We have girls who dress like boys. Nobody looks at them in a weird way. We have all sorts of people and there’s still the polygamous way of life, which is a great way to cover a lot. Two women, best friends, would say they are marrying the same man, then they would marry other women for their husbands. They would say ‘I’m marrying a woman for myself and my husband can have part of it.’ A lot of these things are covered up under the Agbole system. You don’t know who has children or who does not because there are always children in the compound and everybody’s called by some child’s name. Nobody cares if you are married or not. The compound system really worked for them.

They still have it here but it’s changing. People are moving out of their compounds and becoming individuals. Now people have a really bad name for it. People are seen going to churches and mosques. Imams are saying that the women who sleep with women or the men who sleep with men are all going to hell. They pretend to be moralistic. They don’t remember that, when they were boys, they used to have sex with each other in all these corners. They still have these ‘all boys’ clubs’ where men meet. We all pretend to be religious and moralistic so that we can be accepted.

I want to see a community that is stronger, more educated, with people coming to knowledge of themselves. A community that is bolder. I want to tell people that they should be themselves. It’s when you are yourself that you can accept other people. I always say that it took me almost half my life to get to this point.

When I talk to young people, I tell them, ‘Don’t waste years struggling with yourself. Just accept yourself the way you are.’

– DK, age 42, Oyo