The PEN Book Report is a weekly series that challenges the notion of “best of,” “top,” and “seasonal must read” lists and the default books and authors that regularly appear on them. We simply asked contributors to share with us a list of books they turn to over and over again, ones that both inspire and challenge how they engage with the world.
Founded by Hafizah Geter and Antonio Aiello, participants include Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Melissa Febos, Kelly Forsythe, Nathalie Handal, Abeer Hoque, Gene Luen Yang, Loma, Lisa Lucas, Joseph Mains, Colum McCann, Rick Moody, Darnell Moore, Celeste Ng, Gregory Pardlo, Khadijah Queen, Camille Rankine, Jeff Shotts, and many more.
Growing up, I used to have to wash my hands before touching books. In our house, books were sacred—we were not allowed to leave them on the floor or strewn about. Any book could contain the word of Allah, or a lesson needing to be learned. My love for books has continued throughout my life, and it is so difficult for me to come up with such a brief list of books that have changed me. There are so many writers that have had a profound impact on me—such as Lucille Clifton, Evie Shockley, Gwendolyn Brooks, Tarfia Faizullah and Danez Smith. I have written and rewritten this list many times, and decided on composing a list of books that I find myself returning to, which have marked important lessons for me in writing and changed the way that I look at the world. -Fatimah Asghar
Patter, by Douglas Kearney (Red Hen Press)
Douglas is one of the most inventive writers I have ever read, toying with the lines between experimental form and accessibility. The poems are visceral and raw; all the while challenging what poetry can be and do.
When My Brother Was an Aztec, by Natalie Diaz (Copper Canyon Press)
An unwavering exploration of family, trauma, body, and identity, Natalie’s work is a masterpiece. This book’s bravery taught me how to look at my identity full-on, with pride, and not shrink away.
Lucky Fish, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Tupelo Press)
What a revolution, to be joyous when the world insists on so much violence, trauma, and despair. Aimee insists on wonder—and not in a naïve way, but a complicated wonder side-by-side teeth and a strong bite. In Aimee’s work, we are encouraged to play, to never give up light and hope.
Floating, Brilliant, Gone, by Franny Choi (Write Bloody Publishing)
Grief is not a thing to fear in Franny’s work, but an old friend. Franny teaches us how to deal with loss with dignity, how to hold your head high in the face of death and continue existing.
Fast Animal, by Tim Seibles (Etruscan Press)
This is a gorgeous collection that houses two of my favorite poems ever—“Delores Jepps” and “The Last Poem About Race.” Tim’s work is alight with tenderness, each of these poems read as an ode, as lovesongs to the world.
Wild Hundreds, by Nate Marshall (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Nate’s work teaches us not only are we experts in our own stories, but our stories and communities deserve the space of songs, of love sonnets, of elegy. In this book, Nate arrives at the table demanding seats for him and everyone he loves and says, “We are here.”
Fatimah Asghar is a nationally touring poet, photographer and performer. Her work has appeared in many journals including POETRY Magazine, The Margins, and Gulf Coast. She is a Kundiman Fellow and a member of the Dark Noise Collective.