Reading in 2021

These are 9 of the 61 books I read in 2021 whose magic will remain with me.

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Musa Okwonga’s memoir, One of Them, will leave you in no doubt – should you have ever had any – that systemic racism exists in our education system, in a place where privilege affords the individuals who possess it much distance from reality. It’s of little wonder that the sneering and discriminatory political landscape of today can be met by any number of quotes from this book. Unlike other biographies I’ve read, where a life is recounted as if observed from a distance, often through a rose-tinted lens, this account of a life is far more honest. The memories are presented as snapshots that hang heavily in time, encased in the sensations and realisations that arrive with the passing years. This memoir is not one that will necessarily nourish you but it is one that will provide a response when you wonder, ‘where do they get the audacity?’

‘The idea that you can simply be overwhelmed by your circumstances is utterly alien to them. This is not a system that fails them, and so they not only learn to trust it but to treat it as the norm. It quickly becomes the prism through which they see everything.’

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Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s series of essays in World of Wonders will fill you with, well, wonder. The living creatures introduced are described in a way that evokes the curiosity of childhood and fills you with the joy of learning new things. Love for life leaps from the page and reminds you of all the reasons you love the natural world too. The book weaves together anecdotes about the author’s life and ancestors with the tales of creatures it’s difficult to comprehend actually exist. The poetic words are made all the more immersive by the illustrations from Fumi Nakamura that accompany the essays. I’ve never seen fireflies, an axolotl or a blooming corpse flower yet if asked the question, I’d have to wonder whether I had. 

‘There is a time for stillness, but who hasn’t also wanted to scream with delight at being outdoors? To simply announce themselves and say, I’m here, I exist?’

Long Division book cover

Long Division, by Kiese Laymon, is not the sort of book you can resist purchasing since when you turn it over for a window into its contents, you’re met instead by a copy of the cover upside down. Leafing through the pages, you soon realise that the book is written in two halves that means you’ll read from one side of the book and then the other. The dialogue and mannerisms of the characters fast make them your acquaintances. Still now, I can see their streets, their houses, and hear their voices. The time travel becomes almost incidental to the experience of getting to know these characters. This is not the kind of book you can easily explain. The plot and structure does not follow convention and will repeatedly surprise you to the point where you exclaim aloud, ‘what the…?’ and your partner will harumph in frustration at your familiar reply, ‘This book is SO good. I can’t possibly explain. You’ll just have to read it.’

‘The ellipsis always knows something more came before it and something more is coming after it. It connects sentences, but it holds space for itself, too.’

Cover of decolonising the history curriculum with a bookshelf in the background

Dr Marlon Moncrieffe’s exploration of the primary history curriculum reveals the exclusionary impact of Eurocentrism. The dominant discourse is not representative of the past since it reproduces stories from a predominantly white British perspective. This can never be the true story of the British Isles since it neglects centuries of migration and settlement, and it discards the achievements of countless individuals. This book sets out powerful reasons to redesign the curriculum, and provides plentiful examples of how this might look. The book considers how the theoretical lenses provided by historical consciousness might support teachers to decolonise the primary curriculum. There is a focus on how this work might begin with training teachers and the book advocates for long-term and systemic change to the education system. As Marlon asks, ‘why should young people engage with a curriculum from which they are ignored and absent, or if present are often cast as victims of slavery and oppression’?

‘What gets included in the curriculum, and perhaps more importantly, what gets excluded from the curriculum, sends out powerful messages to young people about what is valued. Excluding the presence and voice of people from minority ethnic backgrounds therefore sends out a clear signal to all students that somehow the past activities of these groups is not worthy of attention.’

Cover of Slug with a bookshelf in the background

It was about a decade ago when my friend introduced me to the spoken word poetry of Hollie McNish. ‘Mathematics’ was a poem about race that I chose to introduce to my A Level English students all those years ago and I saw how her words landed with them as powerfully as they had with me. Hollie’s latest collection of prose and poetry was read on hot summer’s days in my garden hammock and my neighbours no doubt experienced it with me as I laughed out loud, gasped in recognition and cried a bit too. This collection doesn’t shy from subjects that are bizarrely and unnecessarily taboo in society such as female orgasms, period blood, and women masturbating. Hollie is equally unafraid of addressing unspoken realities of death, parenting and living. It’s a poetry collection that makes you feel less alone in the world.

view of the world in the three days before my period is due

‘yes, I might get angry

and no doubt I will cry,

for the world in all its glory

is essentially shite’

Cover of Thinking with Trees, Jason Allen-Paisant

Thinking with Trees is a poetry collection that I devoured in a single sitting, immersing myself in the woodland and countryside Jason describes. I’m yet to find poems – or indeed any writing – that better describes the embodied sensation of travelling on foot beneath a canopy of leaves. I may have loved it all the more since Jason lives in Yorkshire, and my beloved Leeds at that. Jason asks the reader to question who belongs in this green and pleasant land as he narrates his out of place experience as a black man occupying these predominantly white spaces. The juxtaposition of poems that describe his opposite and at home experience of Jamaica’s woodland allows us to notice and question the privilege afforded by both class and race to enjoy nature in the UK.

‘now I am walking through the forest

now I am penetrating the slow composition 

of what makes me 

standing 

spreading 

deepening’

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‘There is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children. There is something at-loose-ends feelings about such a woman. What is she going to do instead? What sort of trouble will she make?’

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‘One after another, he tossed pebbles into the swamp of my mind, but instead of coming to rest on the bottom, they continued to drift deeper and deeper down without end.’

Audre Lorde - The masters tools will never dismantle the masters house

‘We do not have to romanticize our past in order to be aware of how it seeds our present. We do not have to suffer the waste of of an amnesia that robs us of the lessons of the past rather than permits us to read them with pride as well as deep understanding.’

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