Pushing Past Constraints: A Reading List
In anticipation of February’s PEN Out Loud event with Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and #AMtoDM host Isaac Fitzgerald, here is a list of works that foreground those who have been deliberately placed in socio-economic and historical peripheries—like Adjei-Brenyah’s critically-acclaimed, satirical short story collection Friday Black. Largely speculative or shattering traditional notions of genre, this collection aims to highlight authors who push past constraints in both society and literature. Purchase tickets for the event here »
Friday Black, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
These 12 stories take readers on a probing and unforgettable journey through the extraordinary racism and political assailments of our times. From school shootings to zombie wastelands, the mundane to the outlandish, these are horror stories that prioritize a hopeful future without sacrificing any of our present pain. A finalist for the 2019 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah delivers an original and impactful piece.
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Terrance Hayes
Utilizing the rigid form of the sonnet, Hayes investigates what it means to be a Black American missing a homeland. A book which reinvigorates both a confined form of writing and a persecuted identity, this is an essential read for anyone living in present-day America.
Some Trick, Helen DeWitt
A smart and skillful collection of 13 stories, Some Trick proves that fiction can act as a microscope for investigating any system of life. Informative, elucidating, and exciting, this 2019 PEN America Literary Awards finalist is not to be overlooked.
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
A hilarious and witty satire which exploits and deconstructs fundamental principles of legal justice and the criminal justice system. As relevant as ever, this is a biting book sure to make you laugh while scrutinizing the impulse to do so.
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
This is a collection of stories which lays the female body bare: a vessel by which things ooze in and out of, a center for birth and destruction, a house with no walls. A necessary read, and a 2018 PEN America Literary Awards finalist, this is contemporary fiction at its finest. These stories nestle inside the grotesque, intellectualize and understand it, then arrange a distorted but undoubtedly valid picture of inhabiting the world in the body of a woman.
Fox 8, George Saunders
A spectacular adventure told from the perspective of a fox named Fox 8, the book prompts readers to redefine perimeters of language and step into a world that plays with the nuances of linguistics, provoking our innermost emotions. As playful as this book may be, it is also disturbing, awakening, and insightful: For an animal, Fox 8 is as utterly human as any of us can hope to be.
Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi
Nonlinear and multiplicitous, this outstanding novel is told from the perspective of Ada, who experiences the world through multiple identities—a “we” as opposed to an “I.” Ada is fragmented, with histories that challenge present realities and feelings that seem irreconcilable. A 2019 PEN America Literary Awards finalist, this is a fantastic, animating, and relatable read.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James
An epic fantasy novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf opens our senses to the page and then flips them inside out. Layered with mystery, mythology, and romance in an African setting, this book will captivate, entrance, and alter the scope of your literary world.
We Cast a Shadow, Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Set in a painfully recognizable future wherein whiteness is attainable through expensive surgical alterations, this is the story of a father grappling with his son’s multiracial identity in a world which preys upon any semblance of otherness. We Cast a Shadow is a gripping speculative tale that investigates traditional notions of family dynamics and redefines the limits of the lengths one will go to protect his beloved.
A People’s Future of the United States, edited by Victor LaValle & John Joseph Adams
Featuring 25 different sci-fi stories, this collection emboldens readers to foster a new political imagination. From debut to established voices, each author’s story holds the same level of urgency, importance, and drive toward a future imagined by the people, for the people.
The Vegetarian, Han Kang
This is a fascinating and philosophical account of a Korean woman who becomes a vegetarian. With hues of Franz Kafka in its ambiguities for the speculative reader, this is an unsettling and dazzling book that wrestles with essential questions of humanity. The Vegetarian posits a series of unsettling questions and its answers evoke a hallucinatory experience.
Severance, Ling Ma
A 2019 PEN America Literary Awards finalist, Severance is a piece of dazzling new fiction, which brings a new vitality into the post-apocalyptic genre. Reinvigorating our imagination of the end of the world, this novel renders capitalism both the problem and the solution, a vicious and inescapable cycle. A brilliant and unique inquiry into the intricacies of consumerism, memory, and identity.
How Long ’til Black Future Month?, N. K. Jemisin
How Long ‘til Black Future Month? is a series of stories that play with the tropes of speculative fiction in a fresh and exciting way, offering a new face and dimension to the genre. Jemisin’s stories are discerning, thought-provoking, and beautifully crafted, showcasing a master at work.
Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires
Thompson-Spires’s short story collection Heads of the Colored People is crafted with precision and often tremendous levity. The collection scrutinizes our political imagination in a supposedly post-racial era, juxtaposing stories of heart-wrenching tragedy with those that display dark humor with a fresh and tender voice. Imaginative, compelling, and witty, this is an essential read and a 2019 PEN Open Book Award finalist.
The Shape of the Ruins, Juan Gabriel Vásquez
The Shape of the Ruins explores questions of identity, querying whether the political and historical are capable of interfering with the manifestation of the personal. A beautiful inquiry into the virtual wounds of memory and violence which persevere across generations and boundaries, Vásquez has created a compelling thriller and an immersive novel you will find impossible to put down.
The Lonesome Bodybuilder, Yukiko Motoya
Offering a fascinating and insightful dimension into the intricacies of human paranoia, the 11 stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder study extremes and absurdities rooted in the mundane. A hopeful exploration of things that appear outlandish or foreign, these stories are deft, courageous, and written with intense honesty and clarity.