The Present Is Female
A List of 12 Novels You Should Read
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Never mind the adage that “the future is female”; the present is female, and we have Morrison to thank for it! Beloved speaks with such power and verve to the originary historical trauma of U.S. contemporary life that Morrison’s novel spurred the emergence of trauma studies as a major field of work in the U.S. academy and beyond it. I cherish this novel and do not want to imagine a contemporary Anglophone literary field without it.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Possibly the best novel of this millennium. (You can quote me on that.) Four friends from college make their way through turbulent comings-of-age often shaped and marred by the unspeakable traumas of late capitalism. Literary lore has it that Toni Morrison told her creative writing classes at Princeton that ”I don’t want to hear about your little life”; Yanagihara’s novel offers a wonderful example of how ostensibly personal stories can offer macronarratives about our cultural moment at the start of the 21st century.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
A rival for the title as this young millennium’s best novel so far. Smith published White Teeth within three years of receiving her BA in English Literature from Cambridge University. In significant ways, the novel reads like a showdown with the English canon in which Smith’s studies had immersed her: Opening ”early in the morning, late in the century,” the novel treats us to a sweeping, Saturnalian panorama of the post-empire. Initially panned by conservative critic James Wood as ”hysterical realism,” the novel and its successors in Smith’s oeuvre embrace the disorderly, the messy, seeing in chaos and dynamism a new way to narrate contemporary life and its peculiarities.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
A story of addiction, the post-plantation, racialized income inequality, and police brutality, Ward’s novel speaks with clarity and indignation about the reality facing Black bodies in the U.S. today. Like Morrison, to whom she professes her literary matrimony, Ward physicalizes Black female suffering in the figure of a tree. Readers of Beloved will find Ward’s climactic last scene impossible not to juxtapose with the scars on Sethe’s back, though Ward goes even further than her predecessor in discussing the web of roots that nourish the tree that comes to represent fraught U.S. history post-1619.
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Danticat contemplates migration (Haiti to New York), institutionalized misogyny, childhood sexual trauma, and the interconnections of language with race and gender. I will never forget the novel’s descriptions of “testing” rituals that intend to gauge a girl’s virginity but serve the de facto function of legitimating male physical overreach in the context of unquestionable patriachy. Read the novel for the horrors it exposes, yes, but also for its protagonist’s efforts to survive and overcome them.
Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
Any reading of Kincaid’s novels must begin from a consideration of her relation to Antigua, the island she calls home and whose systematic exploitation by predatory tourism industries she documents in the non-fiction work A Small Place. Kincaid locates much of the social malaises plaguing Antigua(ns) in their role as perpetual servants to transient white visitors, bringing to mind what Tsitsi Dangaremba called the “nervous conditions” of postcolonial subjectivity. This novel’s explorations of depression and poverty thus gestures toward efforts to explain their occurence by the indignities that Antiguans experience as servants in their own nation. But perhaps the novel’s deftest move occurs in its discussions of female homosocial relations and lesbian desire in the private sphere—a rebuttal of Western queer studies discourses that see private queerness as deficient and premodern. Annie John challenges Western readers to check their/our assumptions of what modernity looks like, and to ask to what extent we caused the problems in Antigua that we now lament.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
After Morrison’s death earlier this year, Walker has become the custodian of U.S. moral consciousness. No less grandiose claim would do justice to Walker’s role in shaping contemporary U.S. awareness of the legacies of plantation slavery and the contemporary realities of the post-plantation and gender violence. Nor does it seem grandiose to elevate Walker to this position of cultural arbitrarion and record-keeping if we consider the shaping influence The Color Purple and its author had on younger novelists. Zadie Smith may have grown up in London, but speaking about her earliest literary exposure at Stanford University earlier this year, she said: “Toni Morrison [and] Alice Walker […] for those of us who grew up Black-British, our models were [U.S.] American.” With a legacy that crosses the Atlantic Ocean, Walker offers narratives that explain our contemporary moment and demand moral actions to undo our freighted legacies.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
As the most prominent women writer in the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston created the discursive space for African-American women to narrate their own realities—to give accounts of themselves. The line of inspiration from Hurston via Morrison to a plethora of (queer) women novelists (of color) working today makes Their Eyes Were Watching God required reading for anyone who reads contemporary novels. But what makes Hurston’s novel more than required reading is her capacity for world-making in African-American vernaculars. Their Eyes Were Watching God inserts itself in flood narratives from Gilgamesh and Noah/Nuh through Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, warranting that we read Hurston not just for her historical role in clearing discursive space, but as a poetic master in her own right.
Passing by Nella Larson
As a Danish citizen who crossed the Atlantic to study in the U.S., I have long wondered at Larson’s absence from mainstream Danish literary canons and at her relegation in the U.S. to niche/historicizing reading lists (“women writers in the Caribbean”; “interracial queer novels of migration,” etc.). Passing could well serve as the premier text through which to capture the African-American prose tradition of the 1920s. In its efforts to make “the great (U.S.) American novel” a story of racial passing and border-crossing, Passing might well rival Moby-Dick and Absalom, Absalom! as one example of that elusive national narrative.
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
No survey of contemporary U.S./Anglophone novels (as I am realizing that this list seems to offer) would be complete without reckoning not just with slavery, but also with the Native American genocide starting in 1492. Silko’s novel probes the limits of the novel as a cohesive form, while her narrative experiments with non-linearity to unsettle readers’ expectations of what Native American novels should represent. I think of the contemporary Native American poet Tommy Pico’s “Nature Poem” (“I can’t write a nature poem bc English is some Stockholm shit,/makes me complicit in my tribe’s erasure—why shld I give a fuck abt/‘poetry’? It’s a container”): Silko bends the novel’s form to her will, interrogating even the act of readership and suggesting its tacit extractivism.
Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
The stories of at least seven women (Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, Saint Thérèse, Cha, her mother, and the Greek goddesses Demeter and Persephone) weave together and form a thoughtful, rich meditation on womanhood, trauma, and martyrdom. Dictee and its author traverse oceans and literary borders and ask whether it makes sense to persist in grouping texts togetehr in national canons given the porous nature of contemporary cultural boundaries. In a gruesome echo of Cha’s misgivings about female martyrdom, Cha died from gendered sexual violence in a brutal murder shortly after Dictee’s release. Dictee thereby presents readers with the chance, if nothing else, to commemorate Cha’s life by engaging with her work, all the while recalling the acute insufficiency of our efforts to curb gendered sexual violence.
Crimson / HOMO Sapienne by Niviaq Korneliussen
Let me conclude this list with a recommendation that differs from the eleven novels above both because it comes from the ultraminor field of contemporary Greenlandic lesbian literature, but also because it approaches representations of trauma not through dramatizations of it, but through its elision. Crimson imagines a Greenlandic society all but sanitized of its Danish colonizers. It responds to the contemporary reality of rampant homophobia with a strident vision of queer acceptance and celebration. (I worked with Professor Ken Nielsen on a capstone project about Korneliussen’s counterimaginative moves for my capstone project in 2018 and recommend the novel almost as an antidote to the Arctic Orientalism that pervades representations of Greenland, not least in the wake of the 45th U.S. President’s suggestion that he wanted to “buy” the (autonomous) island.) Read it to feel renewed hope that no matter the catalogue of traumatized texts above, a decolonial and post-violent world might just be waiting to be born.
Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi in 2018 with a degree in Liteature and Creative Writing. He is currently a doctoral student in comparative literature at Stanford University.