Happy New Year! 2022 is finally over. Even though this year was miserable on many fronts, I read 56 awesome books, some even published this year! Here are some of my favorite/most interesting reads of the year.
Amanat: Women’s Writing From Kazakhstan Selected and Translated by Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega
If you know me, you know I love Central Asian literature, so you can imagine my joy at finding out there was an anthology of Kazakh women writers!
Even though I only finished this book a few days ago, it might be my all time favorite read of the year. It’s the first ever anthology of all Kazakh women writers and it was organized by writer Zaure Batayeva with support from Shelley Fairweather-Vega, who helped with the translations, Words Without Borders, and the publishing house: Gaudy Boy.
The stories were written within the thirty years since Kazakhstan’s independence and covers vast topics such as widows waiting for their loved ones to return from WWII, the Kazakh Famine, and the 1986 protest. However, there are also stories that capture the small everyday moments of living in Kazakhstan during three decades of extreme upheaval, where nothing is stable, but everything remains the same. Approximately half of the stories were written originally in Kazakh and the other half were originally written in Russian.
Each story is absolutely beautiful with gorgeous and tragic lines like: “When life changes as fast as evil, there is nothing you can do” from the short story “Hunger” by Aigul Kemelbayeva. Each story is an amazing collection of tragedy, joy, and the struggles of everyday life that are common to everyone, no matter where one is from.
While I loved every story, some of my favorites were;
- “Aslan’s Bride” by Nadezhda Chernova which narrates the lives of the widows in a small village waiting for the return of their husbands from WWII
- “The Rival” by Zira Naurzbayeva which explores the importance of the dombyra in the lives of a couple
- “Operatic Drama” by Lilya Kalaus in which two characters compete in whose family suffered more during the Soviet Union
- “Black Snow of December” by Asel Omar which is a moving and exhilarating tale of the 1986 protests. The Kazakh Government still refuses to acknowledge the dead and wounded and it’s a delicate subject in modern day Kazakhstan
- “The Lighter” by Olga Mark which is a heartbreaking tale of a young sex worker who does what she has to, to survive the city streets
- “My Eleusinian Mysteries” by Zira Naurzbayeva which is a touching tale of the relationship between mothers and daughters and what people will do for love.
- ”The Beskempir” by Zira Naurzbayeva which is a humorous but also sad story of several old women/grandmothers which reminded me of the older Russian women I used to work with at the Refugee Processing Center.
Overall this was an amazing collection of stories from writers who are often overlooked because of their gender and their homeland. I highly recommend this book to everyone. You can find it on bookshop as well as your other favorite bookstores.
My Pen is the Wing of a Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women
I don’t think there’s a more timely book than My Pen is the Wing of a Bird, as women all over Afghanistan fight for their right to live as they desire, not as men deemed is best for them. These stories were written, edited, and collected during the American occupation and up, through the United States abandonment of Afghanistan. Many of the writers included in this collection are now living abroad or still fleeing the Taliban and so many stories were published under a pseudonym.I don’t think there’s a stronger testament to Afghan beauty and strength than this collection of short stories.
It’d be impossible to pick a single favorite story from this collection, but some stories I really enjoyed are:
- Companion by Maryam Mahjoba which is about a mother who ensured her children had a future elsewhere, but she remained in Afghanistan and lives alone
- Daughter Number Eight by Freshta Ghani which is about a woman who is pregnant with her eighth child and is already on the rocks with her husband and his family. She’s not sure what will happen if she gives birth to an eighth girl
- Dogs Are Not To Blame by Masouma Kawsari which is about a petitioner who watches a dog with her pups as they try to survive just one day more
- A Common Language by Fatema Haidari in which three employees stick together to resist a sexist, abusive boss
- The Late Shift: in which a news anchor has to report on the news during a late night bombardment
- The Most Beautiful LIps in the World by Elahe Hosseini which is based on the August 18, 2019 suicide bombing that occurred in a wedding hall
- I Don’t Have the Flying Wings by Batool Haidari in which a trans woman experience a moment she can be herself
- D for Daud by Anahita Gharib Nawaz in which a teacher helps a child with an abusive parent
- An Imprint on the Wall by Masouma Kawsari a story told from the POV of a victim killed by a suicide bombing
- Ajah by Fatema Khavari in which a group of women work together and save their village from a flood
- Haska’s Decision by Rana Zurmaty in which a widow takes a chance on her biscuits to support her family
The entire book is full of amazing stories and it’s never been more important to listen to the voices of Afghanistan then now. I highly recommend this book to everyone. You can find it on bookshop as well as your other favorite bookstores.
Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan by Joanna Lillis
If you listen to my podcast, you know I’ve spent all of 2022 discussing the Russian Civil War in Central Asia which has led to an enduring interest in the region. This book studies Kazakhstan from the moment of independence with an afterword discussing what the future might have in store for Kazakhstan now that Nursultan Nazarbayev has “stepped down” from the presidency.
This is one of those journalist written books where it’s not a coherent historical story, but more of highlights of what the journalist found interesting about the region while reporting there. Normally, I have a love/hate relationship with these kinds of books, but I loved this one. Lillis does a great job of actually providing a coherent arc for the book and keeps her own experiences to the background, pushing the words and stories of the Kazakh people to the forefront – which was refreshing.
This book focused a lot on the “underground” of Kazakh politics so there are many almost too surprising to believe stories about corruption, assassinations, and consolidation of power, but there are also tales of intrepid journalists who are still publishing articles despite being shut down, fined, and jailed multiple times. There was a study of the 1986 protest and the scars it left behind. There is a tension that isn’t really highlighted but exists in all of the chapters about Nazarbayev’s cult of personality and a growing anger and distrust of the government and disgruntlement over the state of Kazakhstan 30+ years after the Soviet Union collapsed. I read this book immediately after reading Atomic Steppe, so I was expecting a bigger reference to the environmental crisis facing Kazakhstan as well as the legacy of its nuclear program.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It finds a nice balance between titillating readers with stories of corruption and acknowledging the very real issues facing the Kazakh people. I highly recommend everyone read this book because Kazakhstan is in an interesting place as we enter 2023. The people are demanding more from a government that is trying to function with a “former” president that is still calling the shots while Russia increases its threats to invade so they can save face when they have to withdraw from Ukraine. I predict Kazakhstan is going to become very important in the next few years and this is a great book to orient yourself about the country’s interesting history and culture.
Dark Shadows can be bought on bookshop and any of your other favorite bookstores.
Atomic Steppe by Togzhan Kassenova
This is my all time favorite book of 2022. If you love the Chernobyl mini-series, then you’ll love this book. It tells the story of Kazakhstan’s nuclear program from its creation to its dismantlement championed by the Kazakh people.
The Soviets built several nuclear testing facilities in the Kazakh Steppe and conducted testing with limited safety precautions throughout the 50s. This meant that anyone who lived around the testing facilities were frequently exposed to nuclear radiation which has led to generations of birth defects, health conditions, and high mortality rates. Once the Soviets got an inkling that radiation was bad, they bussed some people out of the area only during the blast before bussing them back in. Some groups of people, they didn’t evacuate at all and it is suggested that they were using these people as guinea pigs to study the effects of long term exposure to radiation.
Grassroot movements in the 70s and 80s protested against the nuclear tests and forced the Soviets to conduct their testing underground – which poisoned the land and the lakes. To this day there are radioactive lakes (which is what Hamid Ismailov’s book Dead Lake is about). The people of Semipalatinsk (which is where a lot of the testing occurred) met and worked with the people of Nevada to protest further nuclear proliferation and to end all nuclear testing. As the Soviet Union was disintegrating, the Kazakh government was negotiating with its people about the future of its nuclear program.
Kazakhstan would wait on Ukraine to negotiate their own denuclearization, basically to see what guarantees were possible, but when they finally agreed to dismantle their nuclear program, they needed help from the United States to secure the nuclear material. The Russian scientists who were running the programs just left and said “good luck”. There were covert operations to literally smuggle nuclear material out of Kazakhstan before anyone found out.
This is such an amazing book. It needs to be turned into a series as it’s a great study of the irresponsible use of nuclear programs and testing, the environmental harm, and the people’s ability to force even a Soviet sponsored government to address their concerns. I cannot stop talking about this book and I need everyone to read it now so I can talk about it because it’s amazing. And everyone should be aware of the role Kazakh played in the Soviet’s nuclear program and how they were abandoned to deal with the consequences.
You can buy Atomic Steppe on bookshop or any of your favorite bookstores.
The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya Volume 2 by Reimena Yee
The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya Volume 1 and 2 may be the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen. These graphic novels tell the story of Zeynel, a Turkish carpet merchant who has a fatal encounter with a vampire. The first volume talks about his marriage to Ayse, how he became a carpet merchant, and how he was turned into a vampire. The second volume is how Zeynel traveled to the United States and is confronted by the vampire who turned him – and is looking for forgiveness?
It is a gorgeous tale of love, forgiveness, and faith. It’s so rare to see vampires outside of the Christian/Western European context that I loved reading about Zeynel and his struggle to be a good Muslim while also being a creature of the night. It is a quiet, soft book that is gentle while also being funny and occasionally tense. I’m a huge history nerd and it was interesting to see all the references Reimena worked into the story capturing life in the 17th century Ottoman Empire and then 17th century United States with its Ottoman obsession. I loved the tension in the second book between having your culture “accepted” but then exploited and duplicated by people who have no true interest in your culture or art. It hits twice as hard because the first book spends so much time explaining the importance of carpet weaving to Turkish culture as well as how much it means to Zeynel on a personal level.
The art is breathtaking and I wish I could turn every page into a print (or a carpet) and hang it on my wall, but what I love most of all about it is that it forces the reader to stop and breathe in the scene. The artwork is designed like a ornate rug and even if the story is moving forward, you want to stop and drink in all the details. It is definitely a graphic novel that should be read over the course of hours, if not days, to enjoy the full experience. I CANNOT wait to find time to sit down the Remena’s newest comic about Alexander the Great.
You can learn more about Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya Volume 2 here and by the volumes here
The Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem Jamina
The Bruising of Qilwa is a well-written, engaging story and my biggest complaint is that it wasn’t longer, haha. But since it’s a novella with promise of a series, I think that means it did its job.
The book is about Firuz, a refugee who can perform blood magic and is fleeing a genocide of blood magic wielders.What I love about this story is that not only is it inspired by Sassinian Persia, Firuz is nonbinary and somewhere on the ace spectrum. Do you have any idea how rare it is to find a nonbinary ace rep?
Firuz is trying to protect their trans siblings as they settle in the town of Qilwa. She is on the ace spectrum (which is amazing!) and is trying to protect her trans sibling as they settle in the town of Qilwa. The citizens of Qilwa aren’t necessarily thrilled about the influx of refugees and they are on the lookout for anyone who can perform blood magic. Firuz adopts a girl who can wield blood magic as well and soon they discover a strange disease that is ravaging the city. The city leaves behind strange bruises and soon people are whispering about the mis-use of blood magic. Firuz has to find the source of the disease to avoid tragedy.
I really enjoyed this book. I loved the world, the characters, and the sociopolitical setup, but I wish it was longer because I felt certain aspects weren’t properly fleshed out. I was a little unclear as to the villain’s true motives or goal and his death was so violent it stuck out in contrast to the rest of the story. I’m not sure why the author went that route or if they wanted me to feel sad about the death or not.
Other than that minor quibble, I really loved this book and I look forward to Jamina’s other stories. I really hope we get to dive deep into this world soon.
The Bruising of Qilwa can be purchased at bookshop and any other bookstore.
Allow Me to Retort by Elie Mystal
I love Elie Mystal and his commentary on American politics and this book is a great overview about why our constitution is the worse and how the US government is making the document worse by ignoring some of its key principles. If you want to be angry, but also educated about all the ways our rights have been curtailed by the conservatives, then this is the book for you.
Elie does a great job of going through every line item in the constitution and bill of rights, explaining what the constitution does and does not allow, how it’s twisted by law makers and the supreme court to mean something different, and the ways we can fix the damage done. He even gives some hints on how to improve the document once we fix it.
He also shares how our constitution was designed to punish people of color and LGBTQ+, pulling from his own experiences, and what he has to tell his own children about how our laws work so they’ll be as safe as they can be. It is an enraging, moving, and important book that everyone should read as we enter 2023 and our politicians tell us once again to be satisfied with the most meager of crumbs.
This book challenges us to dream big and demand more.
Allow Me to Retort can be bought on bookshop or any of your other favorite bookstores.
2 thoughts on “My Favorite Reads of 2022”
Thanks for reading Amanat and highlighting it here! I’m delighted that you enjoyed it. Here’s to more people discovering Central Asian history and literature!
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Thank you for your lovely comment! I hope my post convinces other people to read more about Central Asia. I also look forward to leading your future translations and any other collaborations you may have with Central Asian writers.