Though 2020 sucked on a broad scale, I tried to make the most of what remained within my control, which I feel like I did well by healing from a rough friendship breakup that happened toward the end of 2019, celebrating and further cementing my close friendships with folx I love, and forming new community. I also read 96 books. As I wrote about last year, I do not read for the sake of finishing some grand number of books. Rather, I read as a way to practice self-care amidst lots of time with clients and students, as well as to feel connected with people from various similar and differing social identities than mine. Over the past few years, I have made a more targeted effort to read books by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and this year I continued that trend by reading 76 books by BIPOC authors. This year was the first I actually counted and I will say I felt surprised seeing how many books by white folx I read. Furthermore, for the first time in awhile I felt really impressed and emotional about the fiction I read more so than the nonfiction I read, which has not happened in awhile (the love stories between queer BIPOC in #2 and #3 and the friendship breakup between two BIPOC in #1 probably did me in, ugh my poor gay non-amatonormative heart). Anyway, I included links to my full Goodreads reviews of each book and links to past years’ top ten lists for easy reference at the bottom.
Top 5: Fiction
5. Caucasia by Danzy Senna. A heartrending coming of age novel that follows Birdie, a young girl with a darker-skinned older sister, Cole, a white mother and a Black father. Danzy Senna does an excellent job exploring Birdie’s confusion about her biracial identity and her struggle to find a place for herself in the dichotomy of Black and white. The most stirring parts of this novel revolved around Birdie’s search for her Cole after they are separated in the wake of their parents’ divorce. Senna portrays how our parents’ unresolved conflicts can affect us in such rich and nuanced ways. Even more impressive, she accomplishes this all through Birdie’s voice, both her initial innocence about the world and her poignant observations after. I know I will root for Birdie in her process of self-discovery for a long time.
4. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. Yaa Gyasi knocks it out of the park again with her sophomore novel that follows an immigrant Ghanaian family living in Alabama. The story revolves around Gifty, a doctoral candidate studying neuroscience whose older brother died of a heroin overdose and whose mother shortly after tried to die by suicide. Gyasi addresses so many important and nuanced themes in Transcendent Kingdom: the tension and chemistry between religion and science, the effects of racism on Black men, the stigma and shame surrounding addiction, grief, and eventually, healing. I most loved Gyasi’s use of flashbacks to portray Gifty’s journey through her devastating trauma and loss. When Gifty started to open up both to her friends in the novel and to us as readers, I cheered out loud.
3. A World Between by Emily Hashimoto. Finally, a love story between two queer women of color that does not end in tragedy. This novel follows Eleanor Suzuki and Leena Shah as they meet during their college years, fall in love, and exit and enter one another’s lives from 2004 to 2017. This novel reminded me of Sally Rooney’s Normal People in that it features an intense, all-consuming romance with lots of engaging dialogue and addictive drama between two young people who grow up both with and without one another. What I most appreciated A World Between and what distinguishes it from Normal People: we witness Eleanor and Leena’s growth as individual people. Their respective journeys to self-love and self-acceptance felt like pure joy to read amidst the doom and gloom of 2020.
2. Such A Lonely, Lovely Road by Kagiso Lesego Molope. This book tore my sensitive gay heart to shreds and I cherished every second of it. The novel follows Kabelo Mosala, a young man living in South Africa whose parents want him to attend medical school and marry a woman. Kabelo’s trajectory shifts, however, when he forms an intense connection with his childhood friend Sediba. I loved Kabelo and Sediba’s relationship so much: it felt sexy, angsty, and romantic in all the most compelling ways. I appreciated reading about Kabelo’s growth throughout the novel and how Molope embraced a happy and nuanced ending for his relationship with Sediba instead of defaulting to queer tragedy. I did scream out loud multiple times on my couch because of how much I fanboyed the freak out of Kabelo and Sediba, without a doubt my favorite m/m pairing of the year.
1. When You Were Everything by Ashley Woodfolk. Whenever I feel sad about how society devalues friendship I remember this beautiful novel and experience hope again. When You Were Everything follows Cleo Baker, a Shakespeare fan who’s been friends with Layla Hassan since the age of 12. Some drama starts that escalates into a painful and bewildering friendship breakup. I felt so enamored with this book’s prioritization of friendship and how Ashley Woodfolk centered how much Cleo’s friendship with Layla meant to her. Woodfolk captures both the heart crushing pain of losing a close friend as well as the gradual feelings of joy that come with opening your heart to new intimate friendships and connections once you begin to heal. This novel helped me so much in my recovery from a tough friend breakup in 2019. I will cherish Cleo’s story for a long time.
Top 5: Nonfiction
5. How To Kill a City by Peter Moskowitz. I knew the basic premise of gentrification before reading this book and appreciated the opportunity to learn even more. With accessible and passionate prose, Peter Moskowitz dives into how urban land is used to enhance wealth and how suburbanization and gentrification interact to disadvantage poor people and discourage radical community-building. He acknowledges his and his family’s whiteness given how gentrification predominantly affects Black and Latinx folx.
4. The Privileged Poor by Anthony Abraham Jack. An amazing sociological work that highlights the differences between two sets of poor college students: those who entered from local and under-resourced public schools and those who came from more affluent preparatory and private schools. I most appreciated how this book openly names the influence of class and classism given that I feel like many people both within and outside of higher education shy away from recognizing class privilege. I also enjoyed how Jack included the voices and lived experiences of his participants. Yay qualitative research methods!
3. The Next American Revolution by Grace Lee Boggs. A wisdom-filled book about revolutionary and sustainable activism written by a Chinese woman who partook in a lot of the twentieth century’s major social movements related to civil rights, workers’ rights and women’s rights. Boggs drops so many helpful insights for organizing such as prioritizing connection and community over individual satisfaction as well as solidarity between Asian and Black communities. The lesson that stood out the most to me: we should rely on ourselves and our communities to affect change, instead of waiting for elected officials and/or the state to create the change we want to manifest in the world.
2. Assata by Assata Shakur. A powerful and courageous autobiography about Assata Shakur’s coming of age as a Black woman, her involvement in the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation movement, and her egregiously mishandled court case. Shakur drops so many pearls of wisdom about slavery and racism, the perils of capitalism, and how Eurocentrism and the glorification of whiteness continue to harm Black people. Among many impressive ideas, one that still reverberates for me includes how your oppressors will not provide you with the material to liberate yourself. You have to search for and create that content yourself.
1. Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. An incisive, rich exploration of Asian American identity and racial consciousness through the lens of history, psychology, and Cathy Park Hong’s lived experience as the daughter of Korean immigrants. In Minor Feelings, Hong eviscerates stereotypes about Asian Americans and embodies our complexity by writing about our history rife with colonization, the trauma our parents underwent and how that trauma affects us as their children, and how we either resist or assimilate to whiteness and white supremacy. This book shines in how Hong integrates the personal with the political. Her sharing of her own internal wounds as well as her commitment to fight for the Asian American community imbues Minor Feelings with the fire necessary for it to serve as a seminal work in Asian American literature.
My honorable mentions in nonfiction go to Presumed Incompetent II: Race, Class, Power, and Resistance of Women in Academia, Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, and Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.
What were your favorite books of 2020, and what books do you want to read in 2021? I’d be grateful for all recommendations, though I’m particularly keen on reading books about friendships and romances between BIPOC and queer BIPOC to fight the omnipresent white gaze. I’d also love a soul-searching, vulnerable, and emotionally insightful memoir by a BIPOC writer. Hope everyone has a wonderful New Year and see you next post!
Past years’ Thomas’s top ten reading lists (probably next year I’ll think of a way to conglomerate these so I don’t have to copy and paste them every single year lol): 2019| 2018| 2017| 2016 | 2015 | 2014