Best Books of 2011


Color Me English: Migration and Belonging Before and After 9/11
By Caryl Phillips

The New Press
In this book of personal and critical essays, Caryl Phillips explores themes of cultural awareness and racial identity that are often at the center of his engaging fiction. Color Me English is a profound collection of previously written, introspective essays that examine attitudes toward people of different cultural backgrounds. The author, who was born in St. Kitts, raised in England, and traveled around the world, explores the immigrant experience and looks at his life as a writer and recalls personal experiences, some with fellow authors, to examine how “otherness” has affected him and how race, ethnic, and cultural background are key factors in the ways people are perceived in American and European society, particularly as they pertain to our now post-9/11 world.


One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir
By Binyavanga Wainaina

Graywolf Press
At the age of seven, the author realizes, as he states, “Words, I think, must be concrete things. Surely, they cannot be suggestions of things, vague pictures: scattered, shifting sensations.” In this vividly expressive and poignant memoir, Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina shares that books have been his comfort and reading his solace. His careful use of language is the heart of this beautifully written book from a writer, editor, and intellect who retells his school years and growing up in Kenya, attending a family reunion in Uganda, and his working in South Africa. The result is a portrait, or portraits, of the spiritual richness of the continent, the inspiring individuals, and the varied rhythms that flow through Africa and that he experienced during both jubilant and turbulent times.



By Randall Robinson

Akashic Books/Open Lens
Randall Robinson is well known for his best-selling reformist nonfiction titles and as an activist and founder of TransAfrica Forum. With Makeda, his second work of fiction, he has created a memorable character in Makeda Gee Florida Harris March, a blind laundress who “sees” and “has seen” life in color through her many incarnations. As Makeda retells revelatory events, from as far back as ancient African civilization to the twentieth century, she shares her transformative journeys with her perceptive grandson. Robinson’s distinctive style is befitting for this tale that is part coming-of-age story, a love story, a history lesson, and spiritual discovery.


Open City
By Teju Cole

Random House
In Teju Cole’s contemplative debut novel, the protagonist is a mindful and curious observer who traverses the open city of New York City and becomes reflective about his existence and his future. The plot line of this pensive and lucid story centers around Julius, a Columbia-Presbyterian psychiatry fellow who is of African and German parentage; as begins to have strong feelings of isolation, he wanders the city landscape and strikes up conversations with both old acquaintances as well as strangers he meets. These intimate encounters stir in him perceptions and thoughts about aloneness and his own identity; and as he is moved to examine his past, he reflects on his place in the world.


By Mat Johnson

Spiegel & Grau
Inspired by an obscure novel written by Edgar Allan Poe, Mat Johnson’s Pym is a brilliantly crafted comic story with a hilarious twist to Poe’s tale. Chris Jaynes, a passionate book lover and professor of African-American literature recently canned from his position, discovers that the characters in Poe’s mysterious tale embarked upon a journey to the South Pole. He assembles an enthusiastic and motley crew of explorers and set out to retrace the trek. What unfolds is a laugh-out-loud adventure; a clever and original tale with commentary on ambition and desires, obsession, history, and, of course, the complexities of cultural and racial relations.


Salvage the Bones
By Jesmyn Ward

Randall, Skeetah, Esch, and Junior are characters you won’t forget. The Batiste siblings are a close-knit family. After their father hears the news that Hurricane Katrina is about to hit the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where they live, the family prepares for what’s to come. As they begin to stock up on what food and supplies they can gather, the youngsters exhibit strong bonds of protecting one another. The story also portrays a chapter in the lives of youngsters growing up without a mother in an impoverished community and the obstacles they face as they navigate themselves toward adulthood. This year’s National Book Award winner novel for fiction is a compelling story, and Jesmyn Ward has created a narrative filled with affectionate characters and layered their story with themes of bravery, fearlessness, hopefulness, and, above all, love.


Silver Sparrow
By Tayari Jones

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Set in contemporary Atlanta, Dana and her mother, Gwen, are the other, secret family of polygamist James Witherspoon. The two teenage “sisters,” Dana Lynn and Bunny Chaurisse, eventually meet, and what starts as a friendship stirred by curiosity ends with a painful blow. The two young girls do, indeed, have their say: the book is divided into two parts, one for each. Through her use of authentic dialogue and headstrong characters, Tayari Jones serves up a dramatic story about an unconventional family relationship—which rings with some uncomfortable reality—complete with all of the laughs, heartache, and truthfulness that inevitably surface.


Clarence V. Reynolds, an independent journalist, is the assistant director at the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY, and a contributing writer for The Network Journal.

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