I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
A round-up of titles published by independent presses in 2020.
Each of Us Killers by Jenny Bhatt
“[Jenny Bhatt’s] luminous debut short story collection, Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books), focuses on the ethos of work. Whether a place of employment is a wealthy owner’s home or the shop of a very small village that becomes the scene of a gruesome crime, Bhatt studies how work, and the relationships it forges, foment both trusting and toxic environments.” —Anjali Enjeti
“I spent over a year and a half querying this collection—I’ve been around the block enough to know that I don’t fit the preferred mold. I’m not young and haven’t written this big novel about love and sex… I support South Asian literature because I want different kinds of stories. We are capable of writing other stories. We as a community of South Asian writers should be vocal to speak out against gatekeepers and push away these timeworn tropes expected of us.” —Jenny Bhatt
The Society of Reluctant Dreamers by José Eduardo Agualusa
“The story takes place against the complex political backdrop of Angola and follows Daniel Benchimol, who dreams of interviewing famous figures from history—Jonas Savimbi, Muammar Gaddafi, Julio Cortázar. After finding a camera on the beach, he becomes entranced with the subject of the woman in its photographs, an artist who turns her dreams into art.” —Bibi Deitz
“I often dream characters, book titles, and sometimes whole plots. I remember the story of a French poet who when he went to bed would hang a sign on his bedroom door: ‘Silence—poet at work.’ It’s the same with me.” —José Eduardo Agualusa
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat
“Zaina Arafat’s much anticipated debut novel, You Exist Too Much (Catapult), is a magnetic read… It’s an aching book, preoccupied with intergenerational trauma, the cultural and emotional rifts between a first-generation Palestinian-American woman and her immigrant parents, and the various forms of isolation she experiences. But it’s also a warm and occasionally hilarious read that plays with the narrator’s unconscious knowledge and embodied memory, especially when it comes to her difficult relationship with her sometimes loving, often overbearing, and occasionally furious mother.” —Ilana Masad
“I did not know that I was going to be writing about desire and all the different contexts in which it manifests in the book. I thought I was going to be writing about desire in the context of romantic love, and specifically in the context of unrequited love. From there, it led to desire around food, and to love that comes from other sources besides romantic love, desire for home and a homeland….” —Zaina Arafat
Natch by Sophia Dahlin
“The world of Natch is, in part, an old world. A world where horny herds people take a break and steal time from their lords by exchanging dirty verses with each other. But her work doesn’t founder in nostalgia. Dahlin’s poems are for our time, for our yucky and seductive mouths and lips, and we should all be stealing hours from our lords to revel in it.” —Brandon Brown
“I feel very free to misuse terms, because I’m not an academic, not at all! So, I called the book Natch because it sounds like nature, the natural. And the natural is vexed, for me and the beloveds in that book, for many reasons—being queer and having to rally the community to get gay pregnant, or having one’s own body and sexiness slurred by those invoking ‘the natural.’” —Sophia Dahlin
THRESHOLES by Lara Mimosa Montes
“With its aphoristic lines and longer paragraphs, [Montes] is constructing a sort of anti-monument: to events in her own life that resist description; to the past and present of the Bronx; to contemporary artists and writers and friendships; in the spirit of the artist Gordon Matta-Clark; against death but not without deep engagement with loss.” —Lucy Ives
“I don’t understand how an author becomes a character, or when a carefully coordinated set of truths becomes literature. I just know that it happens all the goddamn time.” —Lara Mimosa Montes
Indigo by Ellen Bass
“There’s a saying that happiness can only be found where there is denial of nothing, and Bass’s poems look plainly at the world. The grace in watching as the cartography of your aging body follows the patterns you once saw in your parents, the finely-honed joy of being a wife, a mother, a lover, or a cook in a land where only contradiction and beauty hold dominion.” —Wallace Ludel
“When we talk about being enlarged and transformed and enriched, it can sound like it’s all good, but of course, you have to be brought to your knees for that. I think of those life experiences as throwing me down hard, over and over, enough that my edges are smoothed.”
A World Between by Emily Hashimoto
“Emily Hashimoto’s debut novel, A World Between (Feminist Press) is an incredibly refreshing exploration of how the bond between two queer women of color evolves over the course of a decade. Hashimoto spins some serious queer theory into delicious rom-com realness, pushing past the bounds of [Adrienne] Rich-era notions of gender and womanhood. Down with the patriarchy and on with the romance!” —CQ
“I’m a hopeless romantic and I wanted to read about women falling in love, even for the first time… I’m not trying to define my own genre here, but I don’t think I’ve read a lot of stuff like A World Between, at least not for queer women. Unfortunately, it’s still revolutionary-ish to write and read something fun about women falling in love and having sex with other women.” —Emily Hashimoto
Catrachos by Roy Guzmán
“Guzmán casts a wide aural and theoretical net of flirtatious fossils, litigious ghosts, and bodies liberated from maps. The bright, barbed mouthfeel of these poems snapped me out of my pandemic brain fog, and I was hungry for someone, anyone, that I could read to.” —Aegor Ray
“Even when I was writing a lot of this work, I thought, Holy shit, are you sure you want to say this, Roy? Are you sure this is a statement that wants to be said? Then I was like, Yeah, push it… Push it real good.” —Roy Guzmán
Heaven by Emerson Whitney
“Heaven is a toast to the incongruence of identity, the beauty of imperfection, the marriage of contradiction—an all-around messy and beautiful display of triumph. It’s a story told in fragments, but what is selfhood if not fragmented?” —Greg Mania
I believe in welcoming the discomfort of not knowing and the complicatedness of that: curiosity helps, so does noticing when I’m really trying to “figure it out” or force something to make sense. I have a good friend who regularly talks about having a sticky note on his bathroom mirror that says, “It’s not going to go the way you think,” and then another one on the front door that says, “It’s not going to go that way either.” —Emerson Whitney
The Galleons by Rick Barot
”[The Galleons] moves through the marrow of a family’s journey from the Philippines to the Americas—simultaneously widening and pinpointing the trauma of colonialism. Rick’s work has always been a space of visceral listening. These poems remind me of scientists pressing their ears against the ice, listening for whale sounds.” —Jane Wong
“My grandmother died at ninety-two years old in 2016, and The Galleons is partly an elegiac consideration of her long life… When I began The Galleons and thought of how I would represent her life, I knew that I didn’t want to write reconstructive narratives about what she experienced… As a poet I was drawn to representing what was intimate—the glimpse, the fragment, the image, the anecdote—knowing that the intimate could suggest the epic.” —Rick Barot
Sun of Consciousness by Édouard Glissant
“From Glissant I am learning how to stand between two worlds: the beauty of nature and the darkness of history. Sometimes the rift between them looks endless, but the important thing is the present. That’s my personal insight into Sun of Consciousness. In Western ideology, it’s crucial to have definitions. As he says, ‘Who hasn’t dreamt of the poem that explains everything, of the philosophy whose last word illumines the universe, of the novel that organizes all the truths, all the passions, and conducts and enlightens them?’ I believe Glissant understands how fragile that need for definition is.” —Miho Hatori, reviewing Sun of Consciousness
Reverse Cowgirl by McKenzie Wark
“Wark refuses to call this book a coming-of-age tale, even if it ends up marking her coming-into-identity as a trans woman. If the text may initially feel dystopic in spite of its moments of ecstasy that transcend and descend, it ends in a space of utopic self-invention.” — Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
“Reverse Cowgirl is not autobiography or memoir in that I don’t claim to arrive at any truth of the self…. You could say it’s about losing my mother so young, or you could say it’s a product of a rather obtuse kind of gender dysphoria. Or that I’m just an asshole. What I do know, as a writer, is memory and sensation. What I don’t know is how to interpret what those mean. I don’t want to take away the reader’s pleasure in the text of knowing more about me than I do.” —McKenzie Wark
Figure It Out by Wayne Koestenbaum
“Seeking pattern, a detectively reader might observe the first four essays could each be said to turn toward the senses, different elements of touch, sight, smell, and sound. Yet the pattern is disrupted, and those who expect an essay on taste will be confronted with, instead, death. What unifies these essays isn’t an exploration of a single subject, as has been the case in Koestenbaum’s monographs, such as Humiliation; here, the collection’s title might be read as the writer’s wry, modernist incitement: Figure it out.” —Tracy O’Neill, reviewing Figure it Out
Sensation Machines by Adam Wilson
“Sensation Machines (Soho Press), is an ambitious book with a broad social message and a polyphonic narrative structure. Tackling broken systems and the fragility of marriage, it’s a story anchored by characters who are funny, inept, driven, depressed, and hopeful—sometimes all at once.”
—Kimberly King Parsons
“The book took nine years to write, and a lot of those nine years were spent moving in wrong directions…. I also did other things during those nine years, like get married, and become a parent, and I’d like to think that Sensation Machines reflects my attendant maturation.”
Devil’s Lake by Sarah M. Sala
“[Sarah M. Sala’s] poems reveal the love of queer community—and the terror against that love—in a world where queer people get killed and erased. And yet, she knows how to take the small gifts of our lives and push them together until we cannot believe how abundant they are.”
“It feels surreal—both to see the manuscript in print, but also for the book to enter the world as we fight for social justice amidst a pandemic. Devil’s Lake identifies and reckons with the status quo—presenting and reimagining how we treat “the other” in the United States. It’s my hope that the collection also models how we might practice radical vulnerability and tenderness toward one another.” —Sarah M. Sala
Blood Feather by Karla Kelsey
“Here, history, its textual artifacts, and its discontents become an alterity or an otherness that speaks through the poet, revealing the seismic shifts of power, agency, and influence buried beneath our current moment.”
—Kristina Marie Darling
“The book began as a six-sentence dramatic monologue, spoken by an aspiring actress in Los Angeles, whom I invented as I wrote. While I wanted the monologue to give the flavor of individual experience, I also wondered about the cultural and social forces that resided behind this young woman’s words. To investigate this I took each sentence from the monologue and located a potential thread of philosophy, history, or other form of cultural or personal narrative connected to the essence of the sentence.” —Karla Kelsey
Syncope by Asiya Wadud
”[Syncope is] a choral book-length poem that focuses its attention towards the ‘Left-to-Die’ boat, a small rubber vessel on its way from Libya to Italy carrying seventy-two passengers whose cries for help and assistance from various governments were ignored for fourteen days. Only eleven of the passengers survived. In Syncope, what emerges is at once document, lyric, eulogy, chorus or as Wadud subtitles the poem, ‘A reckoning, a recitation, a dirge, an imprint.’” —Emily Skillings
“I repeat myself and use anaphora and repetition so much in an effort to remind us that we have been here before. It’s a way to burnish something, memorialize it—eulogize it, create a rightful reverberation around it.” —Asiya Wadud
Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell
“I shouted ‘Yes!’ at the screen. It was one of those reads…. What caught my attention was the sharp way that Russell connects questions of race, gender, sexuality, tech, and aesthetics—like sounding a magnificent chord, rather than the one-note takes that so often come out of Internet writing.” —McKenzie Wark
“The thing that manifestos share with artists is that both are able to extend beyond the restrictions of a standard narrative. They can be ambitious and wild and experimental. They can set out new rules for things that haven’t even been built yet. They can make demands that feel impossible, but give us all something to work toward.” —Legacy Russell
Selected Works by Yi Sang
Yi Sang (1910–1937) was a poet and a short story writer during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Despite his brief literary career, he left behind perhaps the most influential body of work in modern Korean literature. Suffering from tuberculosis, Yi Sang channeled the pain of his illness as a metaphor for the tumultuous world in the early twentieth century.
“… These expressions of loneliness and guilt, drawn from the poet’s personal illness and hardships, speak to us in our time of pandemic and economic downfall.” —Jack Jung, reviewing Four Poems
Hope Against Hope: Writings on Ecological Crisis
In Hope Against Hope, the Out of the Woods collective investigates the critical relation between climate change and capitalism and calls for the expansion of our conceptual toolbox to organize within and against ecological crisis characterized by deepening inequality, rising far-right movements, and—relatedly—more frequent and devastating disasters. While much of environmentalist and leftist discourse in this political moment remain oriented toward horizons that repeat and renew racist, anti-migrant, nationalist, and capitalist assumptions, Out of the Woods charts a revolutionary course adequate to our times.
I’m Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking by Leyna Krow
In I’m Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking, the strange collides with the mundane: close to home and far from it, in suburban neighborhoods and rural communities, with cycling apocalypses and backyard tigers. Each story stands alone, but they are connected through reoccurring imagery and a shared theme of protagonists in emotional peril. At its core, this collection is imbued with mystery, oddity, humor, and empathy, but what it really wants to show us is that we’re never really alone—most especially when we’re certain that we are.
Wild Peach by S•an D. Henry-Smith
Wild Peach is a multisensory roaming of landscape and interior, often (but not always) in near stillness and varying light. The power to disrupt and obscure language is an essential tool in protecting this multimodal endeavor; in this project, poetry and photography warm the taste of memory, exploring nonlinear, non-narrative time through the sonic offerings of image and text—and the Outdoors, the interpersonal, and all offered onto.
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
The Witch is dead. And the discovery of her corpse—by a group of children playing near the irrigation canals—propels the whole village into an investigation of how and why this murder occurred. Rumors and suspicions spread. As the novel unfolds in a dazzling linguistic torrent, with each unreliable narrator lingering details, new acts of depravity or brutality, Melchor extracts some tiny shred of humanity from these characters that most would write off as utterly irredeemable, forming a lasting portrait of a damned Mexican village.
The Complete Gary Lutz
For nearly three decades, Gary Lutz has been writing quietly influential, virtuosic short fictions of antic despair. In barbed sentences of startling originality, Lutz gives voice to outcasts from conventional genders and monogamies—and even from the ruckus of their own bodies. Making their rounds of daily humiliations, Lutz’s self-unnerving narrators find themselves helplessly trespassing on their own lives.
Pen Pal: Prison Letters from a Free Spirit on Death Row by Tiyo Attallah Salah-El
Tiyo Attallah Salah-El died in 2018 on “Slow Death Row” while serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison. He was a man with a dizzying array of talents and vocations: author, scholar, teacher, musician, and activist: he was the founder of the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons. He was also, as is apparent from the letters that make up this book, an extraordinarily eloquent correspondent.
Software for Artists Book: Building Better Realities ed. Willa Köerner
How can we co-opt digital tools to build a more beautiful future? In the spring of 2020—amidst a global pandemic, economic depression, and transformational movement for racial equity—we talked to artists and activists about tech’s potential to help reinvent our shared realities.
A History of my Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt
The youngest ever winner of the Griffin Prize mines his personal history in a brilliant new essay collection seeking to reconcile the world he was born into with the world that could be. For readers of Ocean Vuong and Maggie Nelson and fans of Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, A History of My Brief Body is a brave, raw, and fiercely intelligent collection of essays and vignettes on grief, colonial violence, joy, love, and queerness.
The Odd Years by Morgan Bassichis
Every Monday in 2017 and 2019, comedic performance artist Morgan Bassichis created a to-do list. The Odd Years is a collection of those lists, which served both as a way to generate material for live performances and as a place to archive the logistical, emotional, and political business that just kept piling up throughout this two-year project. A record of routine and impossible tasks—some completed and others left unfinished—The Odd Years is one response to the oddness of times in which intensified crisis becomes ordinary.
I am, am I, to trust the joy that joy is no more or less there now than before by Evan Kennedy
Short lyric essays meditate on routines and habits, as well as elusive pleasures like reading and travel. These topics serve as prompts for exercises of attention and examination of its lapses. Deeper into the book, the speaker’s anatomy is pared away, resulting in a voice engaged in direct address, attempting devotion.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee