Lily Meyer

The writer and video artist Akwaeke Emezi, who was born in Nigeria and lives in New Orleans, burst into the literary world with their 2018 debut Freshwater, which mixes Igbo ontology, perspective-shifting narration, and fearless, swaggering prose to bring a coming-of-age tale radically alive. In Freshwater, Emezi prioritizes voice above all else. Their propulsive writing blasts through the familiar plot beats of literary fiction. Abandoning structure is a risky choice, but Emezi pulls it off: Freshwater is a tough book to look up from.

Five years ago, I decided, essentially on a whim, to teach myself to translate fiction. Before then, I had neither sought nor avoided translated books, but as part of my — very steep! — learning curve, I made a habit of reading translations from across the globe. Of all my habits, good and bad, this is the one that has served me best in quarantine. I may not be able to leave Cincinnati, but, in my reading life, I can go all over the world. Translated literature has helped me wholly, if briefly, escape my surroundings. Here are the three novels that transported me most so far this year.

Like many Algerians and Franco-Algerians, the novelist Kaouther Adimi has spent much of her life moving between Algiers, where she was born, and Paris, where she now lives. Thanks to France's 132-year colonization of Algeria, the two countries are thoroughly intertwined — a relationship Adimi explores with nuance and determination in her third novel, Our Riches, newly translated by the excellent Chris Andrews.

Rebecca Dinerstein Knight's strange and delightful second novel, Hex, opens with its protagonist in crisis. Nell Barber is an ex-doctoral student at Columbia; her lab, which studied toxins, has been disbanded after a student accidentally poisons herself, and now Nell is floating through New York, grief-stricken and in need of work. She's also profoundly lovesick for her dissertation advisor, a magnetic young botanist named Dr. Joan Kallas. Without Joan's "absolutely necessary nearness," Nell is undone.

The writer Elizabeth Tallent released her first story collection in 1983. Over the following decade, she joined Stanford's prestigious creative writing faculty and published a novel and two story collections, all well-received.

Calling a novel The Gimmicks is a big risk. The title promises charm and entertaining contrivance, perhaps a certain fun boardwalk-prize tackiness. But too much charm becomes phony, and a too-contrived plotline wrecks a reader's suspension of disbelief. As for tackiness — that depends on the novel itself.

In Nicole Krauss's 2017 novel Forest Dark, an Israeli scholar asks a Jewish-American writer, "'You think your writing belongs to you?'" The writer, whose name is Nicole, responds, "'Who else?'" and the professor shoots back, "'To the Jews.'" This scene springs from Krauss's own life. Like the fictional Nicole, Krauss struggles often against readers' desire for her to speak not for herself, but — somehow — for her entire religion.

The Chilean playwright and fiction writer Nona Fernández's Space Invaders, translated into English by the masterful Natasha Wimmer and nominated for a National Book Award, is as addictive as its video game namesake. Fernández writes in short chapters, rarely more than three pages, and each one slides by quickly, but lingers like a dream.

The actress and comedian Jenny Slate opens her memoir-in-essays Little Weirds with an "Introduction/Explanation/Guide for Consumption" — a description of her stage fright, which doubles as a description of her nerves about writing a book.

The Argentine poet and fiction writer Silvina Ocampo (1903-1993) led a truly enviable artistic life. She studied painting with Modernists Giorgio de Chirico and Férnand Leger, then imported their bright, dreamlike techniques into a Surrealist literary style driven by vibrant description. Her sister Victoria Ocampo ran the seminal literary magazine Sur, whose star writers included Ocampo's husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and the couple's friend Jorge Luis Borges.

During the 2016 election, I worked in events at Politics and Prose, one of Washington, D.C.'s best-beloved bookstores. My office shared a wall with Comet Ping Pong, a similarly beloved pizza restaurant that became the target of the alt-right conspiracy Pizzagate. The conspiracy, which posited Democratic Party higher-ups trafficking children for sex beneath Comet's concrete floors, was conceptually ludicrous.

Jennifer Croft is among the most accomplished translators working other languages into English today. She translates Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian — and is perhaps best known for translating the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk's Flights, a genre-straining work for which Croft and Tokarczuk won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.

Croft's first non-translated work, Homesick, is similarly boundary-pushing, or boundary-expanding. On Homesick's website, Croft notes:

I have always looked like my mother. When I was a teenager, the resemblance was so extreme that once, two women — total strangers — stopped us on the sidewalk to demand that we write an essay about our lives as lookalikes.

"For Elle," they suggested. "Or Ladies' Home Journal." We laughed them off, but 15 years later, my mother still tells the story.

My grandfather, Bunny Meyer, ran a Chicago tannery called Gutmann Leather. When I was a child, it was a source of both terror and pride.

The tannery was full of frightening, evil-smelling machines and chemicals. It had also been in the family since 1885. Bunny took pride in providing high-quality leather and high-paying, stable employment. My father and his siblings were proud, too, but when he died in 2002, none of them wanted to run Gutmann. The tannery — like most in the United States — shut down.

The novelist Tash Aw has spent his literary career exploring migration and class tension from British-colonized Malaya to contemporary Shanghai. His fourth novel, We, the Survivors, focuses intently on social class in contemporary Malaysia, where his working-class protagonist, Ah Hock, struggles to lead a calm, quiet life. Long ago, Ah Hock killed a man under murky circumstances, which emerge over the novel's course, and was incarcerated.

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