Elinam Agbo holds an M.F.A. from the University of Michigan's Helen Zell Writers' Program. Born in Ghana, she grew up in the U.S. Midwest.
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Their Love Belongs to Them
ON A MISSISSIPPI plantation known as “Empty,” two young enslaved people work and live in the barn, tending to the animals and each other. Despite opposing personalities, Isaiah and Samuel fit together: Where Isaiah is soft and accommodating, Samuel is hard and unyielding. As Samuel actively fights the system that seeks to bend him, Isaiah bends to survive, even as he mourns the name that was stolen from him. While Empty constantly seeks to erase their humanity, these young men find a quiet peace in their love, which touches the community around them.
In The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr. richly renders the perspectives of the enslaved and their enslavers, allowing for a complexity that a story with a single point of view would miss. The novel contains multitudes, among them a love story, an epic, an origin story, and a spiritual journey. This formidable debut weaves the ancestral past with the characters’ present to illuminate histories, realities, and possibilities that are just beyond reach. In his testament to Black queer love and storytelling, Jones confronts questions of gender, power, and consent in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade.
As the owner of Empty, Paul’s priority is to breed more slaves, and Isaiah and Samuel’s union poses a threat to these goals. In his own attempt at survival, the slave Amos proposes a solution: In exchange for “being learned in the ways of Christ, which meant being learned in ways forbidden by law,” he would preach to his fellow slaves and instill that “docility was treasured over rebellion.” For Amos, a glimpse of freedom means access to doors that have been closed to him. But for Amos to succeed, Samuel and Isaiah must give up their ability to choose who they can love.
Doom and Success in the World of Startups
IN HIS DEBUT novel Black Buck, Mateo Askaripour tackles race in the world of startups. Doubling as a kind of self-help manual for Black people in sales, the novel’s structure and tone allow it to hold multitudes: the dark, the hopeful, the comical, the horrific. But at its heart, this is also a novel about community.
We meet Darren, a 22-year-old shift supervisor at Starbucks who lives with his mother in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, New York. They’re not poor, he insists, pointing to the home his mother owns. But this doesn’t negate the harsh conditions she is exposed to at her factory job. Still, life is good—and if a day is not “good,” then at least he can come home to a warm dinner with his mother, girlfriend, best friend, and the neighbor who is practically family. Darren would be content, if not for a few reminders that he could aim higher, achieve more. He was, after all, valedictorian of his class at the Bronx School of Science.
Enter Rhett, the charismatic CEO of Sumwun, a startup located on the 36th floor of the building where Darren works. When Darren smoothly attempts to sell Rhett a new drink, Rhett sees his potential and recruits him. This is how Darren becomes Buck, the first Black man at Sumwun. Racist shenanigans ensue, popular among them: Has anyone told Darren that he looks like Martin Luther King Jr.? Sidney Poitier? Dave Chapelle? Against a background of overt racism, appropriation, and consumerism, the cult-like culture of Sumwun is unforgiving. Meanwhile, the company’s mission is opaque, rife with danger and risk. What impact are they really making? Are they helping anyone? Where is all the money coming from?
When a Haunted Past Overtakes Us
IN THE NOVEL Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty is a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University, aiming to identify the neural pathways that suppress reward-seeking behavior. She is at the lab trying to keep two mice from tearing each other apart when her mother’s pastor calls. Gifty’s mother is sick, severely depressed ever since her son, Gifty’s brother Nana, died of a heroin overdose. Now, years later, Gifty wants nothing more than to bring her mother back to life.
In her second book, author Yaa Gyasi continues to grapple with familial loss and inheritance. But while her debut novel Homegoing examined the legacy of slavery, Transcendent Kingdom follows a young woman as she recalls her immigrant family’s triumphs alongside their devastating fight with depression and addiction. Through her methodical (scientific, spiritual, and philosophical) inquiry, Gifty tries to keep their memories alive.
What happens when the past haunts and overwhelms the present? At 28, Gifty’s life is lonely lab work and rumination, a mother unresponsive save for her hum, a father so distant he is not called by name. Even when Gifty is silent, the past reverberates loudly in her relationships. If she can find answers to her research questions, perhaps one day someone could be saved from the throes of addiction. But who will save her?
The Enduring Poison of Whiteness in ‘The Vanishing Half’
IN HER STUNNING second novel, Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers, once again examines race and kinship. This time, she interrogates the color line through the Vignes twins—their coming of age and its impact on the subsequent generation. Born and raised in the fictional town of Mallard, La., the twins dream of escaping their stifling community. At 16, they run away together. In New Orleans, a desperate choice severs their bond: Stella passes as white to get a job, then leaves her sister Desiree in order to marry a white man.
Years later, when Desiree flees an abusive marriage and returns to Mallard with her daughter, Jude, the town is shocked by the child’s color: “black as tar,” “blueblack.” Having inherited her father’s complexion, Jude looks nothing like her mother. From its opening pages, The Vanishing Half grounds us in this “strange” town that, “like any other, was more idea than place.” The idea: a community for those “who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.” An idea born of a freed slave, the twins’ ancestor, as he “stood in the sugarcane fields he’d inherited from the father who’d once owned him.”
The Hypocrisy of Colonialism
IN HER LATEST novel, Petina Gappah reimagines the death of Scottish missionary and doctor David Livingstone, focusing on his African servants, the names history forgot. They are Christians, Muslims, healers, porters, women, and children: a family of strangers who band together to carry Livingstone’s body, marching more than 1,500 miles in 285 days, so his remains may be claimed in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, and returned to England.
Every name on this trip holds stories that could occupy a novel of their own. To encompass them, Gappah employs two distinct narrators: Halima and Jacob Wainwright.
Halima, the doctor’s cook, is known for her sharp tongue, which ridicules the caprice of men and repeatedly tells of her youth as a sultan’s slave. In the early days of the journey with Livingstone’s body, Halima mourns the doctor, whom she calls “Bwana (Master) Daudi,” like a paternal figure. Though the men on the journey take credit, she is the one who proposes a way to preserve the doctor’s corpse for the long road ahead.
But Halima’s love for the bwana does not prevent her from noting his contradictions. She wonders why he would leave his family to search for the source of the Nile, argues with his colonial perception of a children’s game, and questions how a man who condemns the slave trade would have one of their company whipped.
A Tale of Fevered Capitalism
“AFTER THE END came the Beginning.” This is how we enter the world of Ling Ma’s debut novel Severance: in the liminal space between end and possibility. In a narrative that alternates between aftermath and memory, we find a stark reflection of our present.
Protaganist Candace Chen works for a book production company, and her specialty is the acquisition of Bibles. Tedious office work. She has lost her parents, recently left a relationship, and lives alone in Manhattan when news of a spreading illness—Shen Fever—erupts. The fever begins in China, in a region that produces the Gemstone Bible, one of Candace’s specialty Bibles. Before and during this outbreak, work, for Candace, is at once sustenance and distraction.
Who can live outside capitalism? Jonathan, Candace’s ex, certainly tries. But that is not the life Candace wants—or, rather, that is not the life her immigrant parents raised her to want.
Familiar and Painful Realities
“FENGBE, KEH KAMBA BEH. Fengbe, kemu beh. We have nothing but we have God. We have nothing but we have each other.”
Like the voice of the wind, this song pervades the vivid landscape of Wayétu Moore’s debut novel, in which the Liberian-born writer explores the early days of Liberia, in the 1840s, through three characters: Gbessa, June Dey, and Norman Aragon.
In She Would Be King, these three impossible lives (and a country) emerge out of slavery, violence, and exile. Death eludes and “mocks” Gbessa, of the Vai people, who constantly suffers the pain of dying without its relief. Born on a cursed day, Gbessa grows up under house arrest until she is exiled. Alone in the forest, torn from her family and people, she sings, “Fengbe keh kamba beh. Femgbe, kemu beh.” The “we” of this song haunts the reality of Gbessa’s situation, and to offer a glimpse of the big picture, Moore writes: “The words ascended, joining the traveling wind, and sometimes it was as though someone were singing with her.”
And someone was. Across time, language, and distance. Ol’ Ma Famatta sits in the moon, and the slave once known as Charlotte whispers comfort in the wind as if to say loneliness is not forever, as if to promise Gbessa that she is not alone.