2021 may not have been the year I read the most books, but I discovered some true gems nonetheless. I have listed my 5 favourites in no particular order.
1. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem – Maryse Conde (Original title Moi, Tituba… Sorciere, Noire de Salem, translated by Richard Philcox)
Although I mentioned that there is no order to my list, this novel by Guadeloupian author Maryse Conde does stand not only as my favourite of the year, but among my favourite novels ever.
I, Tituba… was recommended to me by a friend. It is the fictionalised story of Tituba, a real woman who, while a slave to a wealthy family in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts, was accused of witchcraft.
In scholarship and history, Tituba’s life has been scarcely documented, her story often featuring as a mere side note in relation to the witch trials in Salem. Maryse Conde expands Tituba’s story, weaving historical documentation and fiction together to create a portrait of Tituba’s life. Tituba’s origins have been somewhat contested amongst scholars, though many agree that she was most likely a Native American woman. In Conde’s version, Tituba is a Caribbean woman of African descent.
In Conde’s re-telling of Tituba’s life, we follow Tituba from her early years on the island of Barbados, where she lives as a free woman in a shack enveloped by thick vegetation. Here she grows her own food and medicines and talks to the spirits of her deceased mother and Mama Yaya. Falling in love with and marrying the slave John Indian, she too is forced into a life of slavery, hardship, and submission. We follow her as she boards a ship, setting sail for Salem, where she becomes a slave in the Parris home, and subsequently is accused of witchcraft.
Conde has a pen that crafts magic. A pen that bleeds Tituba’s rage onto the page. The rage of being silenced by history, the rage that comes from oppression, the rage that comes from colonial violence. But she bleeds also onto the page Tituba’s heart. A heart that overflows with love and compassion, for the natural world around her, and for the people she meets during her life journey. Tituba succumbs again and again to love, despite the echoes of her dead mother’s words; “Why can’t women do without men?”
2. Slemme Piker – Camilla Sosa Villada (Original title Las Malas, translated to Norwegian by Signe Prøis)
Slemme Piker is the Norwegian translation of the Argentinian novel Las Malas, which could be translated into The Bad Ones. It tells the story of Camilla Sosa Villada’s life as a transwoman, or travesti. We follow her from her childhood as a boy in rural Argentina, with a violent and alcoholic father, to the city of Cordoba where she travels to study.
In Cordoba she befriends other travesti, who take her under their wing. She befriends them in the dark and cold Sarmiento park, where they work through the long nights, selling sex.
Sosa Villada demonstrates the violence, risk and fear involved in selling one’s body. She demonstrates the companionship and solidarity founded amongst friends. In the home of Tia Encarna, a mother-like figure for the other travestis, they find a haven, free from the judgements and threats that face them outside the house’s four walls. A fortress in the form of a patio overgrown with lush vegetation, functions as a protective barrier between them and the outside world.
Slemme Piker is, as far as I am aware, not yet translated into English. But I dearly hope it will be soon. Sosa Villada’s novel is witty, tender, dark and sorrowful, and tells a story that doesn’t beg, but rather insists to be heard.
3. Dead Girls – Selva Almada (Original title Chicas Muertas, translated by Annie McDermott)
My third book on the list is also by an Argentinian writer, Selva Almada. I came across this book quite by accident, browsing the bookshelves during lunchbreak one day. I bought it, and devoured it over the weekend.
Dead Girls is a piece of journalistic fiction which delves into three femicides that happened in Argentina during the 1980s. Almada herself grew up in Argentina during this time period, and describes the fact that she survived her girlhood while other girls and young women did not, as pure luck. Femicide was, and still is prevalent in Latin-America, Argentina included. Almada’s work aims to shed light on the fact that so few murderers of women are held accountable for their actions.
By getting in touch with family and friends of the three murdered women, and by giving the reader insight into the lives they lived, Almada moves away from the anecdotal and de-personalized documentation of femicide, so common in mainstream media.
Almada manages to touch on the very brutal realities of femicide and its aftermath, while remaining sensitive and respective. Her language is at times lyrical, at times dreamlike, at times sparse. On a broader level, Almada shows how femicides are not isolated incidents, but a result of wider political and societal structures that breed misogyny and violence against women.
4. Republic of Shame – Caelainn Hogan
This brilliant work of journalism has been my “read on the train”-book. Which means its home has been my rucksack and I have read it in breathless sittings of about ten to fifteen minutes on my way to and from work.
In Republic of Shame, journalist Caelainn Hogan explores the not-so-distant history of Ireland’s many institutions that were created to hide and shame young women who became pregnant out of wedlock, and to also house the babies they gave birth to.
Hogan depicts the “shame-industrial-complex” that was born out of a staunchly catholic society that viewed sex outside of marriage as a sin. These so-called mother and baby homes were run by religious orders supported by the state, from the 1920s until the 1990s. Women who became pregnant out of wedlock were often sent against their will to these institutions by their own families, to hide their “sinful” ways from the community. Others came of their own will, undercover, desperate to hide the fact that they were pregnant from their loved ones.
Many women never left the institutions once they entered them, spending the rest of their days there, living in poor conditions and working for free, often doing laundry for state-run hospitals, in so-called Magdalen laundries. After giving birth, many women were also coerced by the nuns and/or their families into giving up their babies for adoption, made to believe they were unfit to raise a child.
Hogan spoke to survivors, women who had been in the institutions. Many of them were opening up about their experiences for the first time in their lives, having been silenced by years of guilt and shame. Hogan also spoke to the children, now adults, who were born in the institutions. Those who were brought up by adoptive parents, had no idea who their real mothers were, and because of the laws that restricted the right to information about one’s biological parents, many are still searching for answers.
Republic of Shame brings forth voices that have been silenced for too long, to open up about the horrendous conditions, the neglect, and the stigma they survived. It is a cleverly researched piece of journalism, shedding light on a dark side of Ireland’s history and making room for conversation about shame, morality, and the hypocrisy of certain religious authorities.
5. Notes to Self – Emilie Pine
Another Irish gem is the book of personal essays written by Emilie Pine. To
be honest, I cannot remember if I read this one in 2020, or 2021, as those
winter months were a long, dark blur. Either way, it has made the list.
Emilie Pine writes blatantly honest and vulnerable essays on the topics of
alcoholism, infertility, sexual violence, sadness, and rage. From the challenges of having an alcoholic father, to the helplessness of realizing your own body is
incapable of conceiving, Pine holds everything up to the light.
In a country that is known for avoiding talking about difficult topics, Pine’s essays are a force that pulls the carpet from underneath this hush-hush mentality, opening up space to talk about and reflect upon the sorrows and hardships of life.
 I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Conde, 1992, p.17.