What was on gal-dem’s 2021 bookshelf?
In a year of change and uncertainty, these are the titles that provided an escape for the gal-dem team.
This year has been tumultuous, to say the least. We started the year with a collective Bridgerton obsession, found out that Kanye West and Kim Kardashian filed for divorce, had our deliveries delayed because a boat got stuck in the Suez Canal, finally witnessed Britney being freed and watched Lil Nas X’s ‘Montero’ on loop. Many more things happened of course, and some were also disheartening, but… we don’t need to talk about that here because it’s the holidays!
Despite the continuous news cycle dropping one ridiculous story after another, the gal-dem team found some respite in reading books. Tucked away in the corner of our rooms, we laughed and wept as we leafed through pages of some incredible titles. These were our top picks of 2021:
Such A Fun Age, Kiley Reid
I gobbled up Kiley Reid’s debut novel in a few days, which for a life-long slow reader with the attention span of a spoon, feels like proof of how brilliant it is. It follows the events after 25-year-old Emira is mistakenly accused of kidnapping the white child she babysits while shopping in an upmarket grocer. Such A Fun Age encapsulates those awkward and uncomfortable feelings of being surrounded by overfamiliar ‘well-meaning’ white people which are often so hard to put into words. It illustrates just how subtle racism and privilege looks and feels in real-time. As a black 20-something, it was all a hard relate.
Niellah Arboine, Life Editor
A Dutiful Boy, Mohsin Zaidi
It’s difficult to be moved to tears when reading a book, but Mohsin Zaidi’s memoir kept me on the brink of full waterworks as I frantically leafed through the pages to find out what happens next. They weren’t just tears of sorrow though, they were also tears of unexpected joy. A Dutiful Boy is a coming of age story of a young gay man growing up in a working-class Pakistani Shia Muslim household. Zaidi writes about his experiences of being unable to initially come out to his family, mental health struggles, exploring his sexual identity at Oxford University and his life as a young adult. Eventually, Zaidi falls in love, but will he be able to bring his new boyfriend home to his strict religious family and finally live out his truth?
Diyora Shadijanova, First Person Editor
Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
I was given this book by a friend when we did a book swap in 2017. Norwegian Wood tells the life of Toru Watanabe, a young student who is damaged by the death of his high school friend Kizuki. He connects with Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko, who seems to be struggling with the loss too. When she goes to a mental institution, Watanabe waits for her. The book is old but I always enjoy reading it, and I find Murakami’s writing style quite swift and realistic in his descriptions. What I love the most about his novels is that although the characters are fictitious, everything in this book feels very real. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to feel like there is someone telling them of their life, of their loss, of their pain; of the thoughts, and the lack of thoughts that pass through their head. But… it can be quite a triggering read due to the topics of loss and death by suicide and sexual references, so do take care if you find these themes upsetting.
Esther Hooper, Junior Commercial Producer
Crying in H Mart, Michelle Zauner
I put off reading Crying in H Mart for most of this year, because I knew it would be so emotionally wrenching. I wasn’t wrong, but have recommended it to everyone I know so that they have it in their lives sooner than I did in mine. When then-25-year-old musician Michelle Zauner, also known by her stage name, Japanese Breakfast, discovers her Korean mother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, it prompts a deep re-examination of her own identity and sense of self. Crying in H Mart is not only a memoir about grief, but about belonging, food, and most importantly, longing for those we love, even though they may still be with us. I keep thinking about how Andrew Garfield recently described grief as unexpressed love reflecting on the loss of his own mother. In this memoir, that expression of love from Zauner is so moving and compelling, it left me thinking about my relationship with my mother and all that is so often left unsaid.
Suyin Haynes, Editor in Chief
Detransition, Baby, Torrey Peters
In Detransition, Baby, Torrey Peters masterfully takes complicated relationships, friendships and dynamics of all forms to unpack the concept of parenthood. The story unfolds primarily through the lens of Reese (a trans woman), her ex Ames (who, since their break up, has detransitioned to present as male again) and Ames’ new partner Katrina – his cisgender boss who unexpectedly gets pregnant by him. Still trying to find comfort in his gender identity and struggling to see himself in a cis-heteronormative father role, Ames proposes that he’d only be comfortable raising a child in a three-parent unit with both Reese and Katrina. Regardless of their various identities, all of the characters grapple with the idea and what it means for their pre-existing notions of family.
Their feelings are messy, complicated and sometimes very ugly, but Peters leans into that in a beautifully honest way. The unrefined humanity she displays through the characters is so refreshing and reflects truthfully on my own views on womanhood, selfhood and family. It reiterates the power of being able to remould and reimagine traditional concepts and ways of life.
Shanice Dover, Social Media Manager
Experiments in Imagining Otherwise, Lola Olufemi
I’ve been having lots of conversations this year about the Left, radical imagination, and belief, but Experiments in Imagining Otherwise articulates it all in ways that go beautifully above and beyond my overblown pint chat. Through prose, poetry, lists and trial and error, Olufemi gently coaxes and pushes against comfort zones and the things we have accepted as true. Questioning narratives and linear histories, she posits that we can dream and imagine and build beyond what we perceive as the present – that we should realise that the future (and past!) is present. It’s complex but not overly dense, and I devoured it in three sittings. I felt my brain spark and spin with possibility and confrontation of pre-learned limitations while I read. I don’t really read that much non-fiction, but I reckon I’ll be revisiting this after processing: not least because in all its bright, rich generosity, it reminds me that our reality is all a fiction that we co-author in the first place.
Tara Joshi, Music Editor
Earthlings, Sayaka Murata
I walked past the cover of this book in a book shop and thought: “I have to get it because it’s got a cute little hamster on the front.” Little did I know the bizarre and overwhelming story I was going to be reading. Earthlings is a coming-of-age story of a young girl named Natsuki and her cousin, Yuu, who process and explain their sense of alienation from their families by internalising the belief that they are both actually from another planet. I’m very surprised that this is what I am putting forward because the ending is wild. But I think it’s for that very reason you have to read this. It covers themes of aliens, romance, asexuality, incest and cultural pressures. I think when everything feels very serious, it’s nice to live so out of our bodily experiences.
Bijal Shah, Creative Producer
Open Water, Caleb Azumah Nelson
In an attempt to read more fiction this year and after many recommendations from friends, I finally got round to reading the award-winning Open Water and it didn’t disappoint. The beautifully poetic and intimate words effortlessly flow across the pages to tell the love story of a dancer and photographer from southeast London. It was an emotional couple of days being immersed in the ups and downs of a couple very much in awe of each other. The text reflects on both personal and societal issues weighing down on the couple’s attempts to be with each other. Caleb writes so eloquently and rhythmically on love and loss, freedom and liability, delving into themes of racial trauma, masculinity, mental health and much more. A beautiful, intimate read that fills your heart with all the emotions in between.
Yasmin Rai, Memberships Manager
Witchbody, Sabrina Scott
I’ve been reading up a lot about magic and witchcraft (sorry mum) and I’ve found this space fascinating as a prism to understand different cultures, history and philosophy. Witchbody is a graphic novel that combines magic theory and philosophy and asks the central question – what can it mean to be a witch in the city today? As a pantheist, I’m always open to exploring different ways in which communities access spirituality and conceptualise their sense of God. It has an absolutely stunning cover and it’s genuinely fascinating to flip through, even if you aren’t interested in witchcraft necessarily. The foreword by Timothy Morton is genuinely magical in how authentic it is, even though they’re contending with such an abstract far-reaching sprawling topic, they find a way to articulate this space in a way that’s contemporary and accessible to anybody! I’m already treating it like another bible to add to my collection and looking forward to finishing it.
Obsidian Adebayo, Head of Commercial