Olga Zilberbourg’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Olga Zilberbourg (@bowlga). The author of Like Water and Other Stories (WTAW Press) and four Russian-language books, Olga co-hosts the San Francisco Writers Workshop; and together with Yelena Furman runs Punctured Lines, a feminist blog about post-Soviet and diaspora literature.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

El Anatsui, Fading Cloth, 2005

My reading life this past year was dominated by my role as a juror for the 2022 Neustadt International Literary Prize. The first task we were given was to nominate an author based on the quality of their writing. After considering (and rereading) authors from Yoko Tawada to Jenny Erpenbeck to Polina Barskova, I finally settled on the writer, whose work had propelled me into adulthood back in the early 1990s and whose books played a foundational role in forming my outlook on contemporary literature: Liudmilla Petrushevksaya.

I chose to submit There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales (Penguin), selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. This book rose to bestseller lists in 2009 and it delivers on its title: the tales she tells are indeed magical and very disturbing. In retrospect, I wish I would’ve let the jury members to discover that book for themselves, and nominated an earlier volume, The Time: Night translated into English by Sally Laird (Northwestern UP). This book is both naturalistic in its portrayal of life in late Perestroika Russia, with its total breakdown of all familial and social relationships, and it amplifies its naturalism with an ironic “what-if” scenario: what if a poet akin to Anna Akhmatova had been born half a century later? How would she fare? It’s a powerful short novel (that Anna Summers also translated and Penguin published in a follow-up volume There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In) and I love that it also features on Yelena Furman’s syllabus on contemporary Russian women writers. I strongly believe that this book (alongside Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna) belongs on every syllabus dedicated to 20th Century Russian lit.

Jury members submitted nominations in March; in May we received a stack of nine books and a website to an electronic literature project by Jean-Pierre Balpe, for a total of ten works of literature, representative of their authors’ oeuvres. Having spent the summer with these books, the jury then gathered in October, via Zoom, during the Neustadt Literary Festival, to deliberate and choose the winner: Boubacar Boris Diop, who had been nominated by Jennifer Croft (@jenniferlcroft). I should add that though the process of selecting the winner was painful—the inevitable competitive nature of voting does seem inimical to the nature of literary achievement—Diop was chosen in the spirit of total admiration, not to say, awe.

Diop’s is a rich body of work. I began with Murambi: The Book of Bones, which Jenny had nominated. Translated from French by Fiona McLauchlin and published by Indiana UP, this book came with a blurb by Toni Morrison: “This novel is a miracle. Murambi, The Book of Bones verifies my conviction that art alone can handle the consequences of human destruction and translate these consequences into meaning.” Diop, a writer from Senegal, was a part of a group of writers invited to come to Rwanda in 1998 and to write about the genocide that had occurred four years prior. As an outsider, Diop has had to invent his own structure in order to approach his subject matter, which he does brilliantly. The novel contains separate, tentatively connected sections, centering both the point of view of a victim and the point of view of a perpetrator. Diop then adds to it a perspective of an observer, a man who returns home after a long absence from the country and who will have to live with the outcomes of the genocide, finding his way through social and personal trauma. Remarkably, this strategy allows Diop to capture the scope of the horrific events and their history in colonial politics, as well as to tell memorable stories of a few individuals.

In my public library, I was also able to locate a copy of Diop’s novel Kaveena, translated by Bhakti Shringarpure and Sara C. Hanaburgh, and published by Indiana UP, a gripping murder mystery that takes us on a tour of intricate relationships between the various parties involved in running a fictional francophone African state. This novel showcases some of the mechanisms in which imperial economic interests continue to hold sway in so many independent post-colonial nations.

Then, there’s Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks, a novel that Diop wrote in Wolof, one of the languages of Senegal, and available in English in translation by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Michigan State UP). My library didn’t carry it, and neither did any of the connected public libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area—which I tried to rectify by requesting that they purchase it. I didn’t get a chance to read it before the jury deliberations; it’s going right onto my 2022 reading list.

The full list of works nominated for the Neustadt Prize this year is available online. The authors included Kwame Dawes, Natalie Diaz, Michális Ganás, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Naomi Shihab Nye, Cristina Rivera Garza, and Reina María Rodríguez. Writers: the most generous gift-givers. I should add that I enjoyed reading not only the books of the finalists, but also the books by my fellow nominating jurors, including Jennifer Croft’s book Homesick (Unnamed Press), a novelized memoir of a close sibling relationship, and Hamid Ismailov’s Gaia, Queen of Ants (Syracuse UP), translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega, centering around a pair of transplants from Uzbekistan trying to make a life in Europe.

Outside of the reading I’ve done for and around the prize, I very much enjoyed participating in my first ever Twitter read-along, organized by the amazing @ReemK10. For me, this was a rereading of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude (Harcourt). I’d read it for the first time a decade ago, and had in the interim forgotten how much of a post-Holocaust story it is. This aspect struck me deeply during the reread. Alongside, I picked up a volume of essays by and about its translator, the famed Michael Henry Heim, The Man Between (Open Letter), edited by Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino. It was fascinating to learn a little about the history of contemporary translation from Eastern European languages, and the central role Heim seemed to play in it.

And speaking of Eastern Europe, this year, I discovered the writer Vesna Maric, whose memoir of leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war at the age of sixteen, The Bluebird (Granta), was as fascinating as it was strangely funny. I reviewed Maric’s first novel The President Shop for Ron Slate’s project On the Seawall, and I’m also keeping an eye on this book’s publisher, Sandorf Passage, who is bringing to English more fascinating East European titles.

Yanina Boldyreva, from Birch People, 2021

Looking over what I’ve just written I note that most of the books I talk about were published in English translation by independent or university press publishers. This was not intentional on my part, but I’m also not entirely surprised. It’s a vast, vibrant literary world out there, and translators and publishers of indie and university presses are a big part of what makes it so. Book Twitter friends are another big part—thank you all!