Vanessa Kisuule, the newly appointed Bristol City Poet, has drawn up a list of books she would like to recommend to readers.
Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahnemann
A book that will completely shift your understanding on how we think! It is a challenging read but written in a clear, digestible style – this is a great introduction to neuroscience if you’ve never read anything on the topic before. Prepare to marvel at the intricate machinery of cognition and also to cringe at the many ways in which our thought processes can be lazy and ill-considered.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo Lodge
Timely and urgent, this book was written by a brilliant young writer off the back of a viral blog post of the same title and details the historical and contemporary foundations on which systemic racism lies. The title may seem controversial, but I encourage you to lean into the potential discomfort. This book opens a conversation that is certainly not easy but is essential and potentially transformative. (Listen again to the audio recording of the Festival of Ideas event with Reni Eddo Lodge from 2017).
When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalinthi
I finished this sumptuously written book in three days – it left me winded and aching, but miraculously full of hope. The now deceased author was a doctor and an ardent lover of literature – these two disciplines offered him a uniquely measured take on life and mortality. The book brims with wisdom, intellect and grace. It is a true testament to the inherent worth of living, even when, in Kalinthi’s case, we don’t get as long to do it as we’d like.
The Lonely City – Olivia Laing
Loneliness, it seems, is a modern epidemic. Some blame it on urban living, some blame it on technology, some argue that loneliness is a stubborn thread that is woven throughout the timeline of our existence. Whatever you believe, this book is like a warm, comforting hand squeezing your own, a book that is both a meditation on and a soothing balm for the ache of loneliness. Pulling from her own experience as well as the lives of artists such as Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper and Henry Darger, Laing describes not just why loneliness occurs but how it feels, building an intricate and humane language that removes the shame shrouding this all too human emotion.
Sister Outsider – Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde is very important to me. Her writing has given me strength in some emotionally fraught times. She was an unapologetically black lesbian feminist at a time when this was the status quo’s nightmare (and in many ways still is). This collection of essays is as relevant as it was in the time Lorde was writing. My favourites are ‘Poetry Is Not A Luxury’ and ‘Uses of the Erotic’ but all the essays are stunning. Lorde’s writing is unburdened by frill or fuss: she makes eloquent points with compassion, bite and fearlessness. This is essential reading for anyone, but especially women and women of colour.
Hope In The Dark – Rebecca Solint
It can be hard to fight for a better world when the news overwhelmingly suggests that suffering is inevitable. This small but powerful book makes a compelling case for hope in our trying times. Written after George Bush was voted President in 2001, the book was born from the frustrations surrounding the Iraq War. The parallels between that and the rise of Trump, Brexit and an increasing polarisation between the right and the left are uncannily strong. Solint harmoniously utilises history, poetry, humour and political science to paint a picture of hope and how we can wield it even in the most bleak of circumstances.
The Owl Who Was Afraid of The Dark – Jill Tomlinson
This was my favourite book when I was little! It’s about a baby barn owl called Plop who is afraid of the dark. I was afraid of the dark when I was a kid too, so I very much related. This is a sweet little story which is great for kids – even their parents can take something from the moral of this story: the things we’re fearful of often have their own beauty when we look at them from a different perspective.
The Girls – Emma Cline
Perhaps one of the best books I’ve read in years, this disturbing and brilliant novel takes inspiration from the infamous Manson murders of 1969. It follows Evie Boyd, a young and bored teenage girl living in a sleepy town in California. She finds herself enticed by a Manson-like cult where ethereal, rebellious girls are drawn to the charisma of the leader Russell. The action, though thrilling in its tense and suspension, is secondary to the brilliant character development. Cline gives one of the most honest, nuanced and painful meditations on girlhood I have ever read.
Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Perhaps my favourite living novelist, Adichie has yet to write anything I haven’t fallen in love with. Americanah shines with such humour, readability and acute observation that it’s hard to imagine that this book was engineered and did not just elegantly fall onto the page fully formed. The book follows a young Nigerian woman called Ifemelu who moves to the US for university and starts a blog on her observations around race. It is an indictment on the false notion of a ‘post-racial society’, a layered examination of how culture splinters across generational and geographical lines and it is also a deeply affecting love story.
Habibi – Craig Thompson
If you’ve never read a graphic novel before, this will open your eyes to what a wonderful genre it can be. Habibi’s illustrations make it as stunning to look at as it is to read. The story has an ambitious amount of breadth, covering love, abuse, religion, death, poverty, climate change and gender issues without seeming excessive. It is an ‘Islamic fairy tale’ of sorts, with many stunning pages of detailed Arabic calligraphy. It follows the adventures of Dodola and Zam who grow up together, lose each other and in a beautiful conclusion find each other again. This story is a veritable feast for the mind, the eyes and the spirit.
Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeyemi
This YA novel is the first of a trilogy and it is an absolute game changer. The Nigerian-American author was offered a six-figure advance for the books and the movie rights have already been sold to Fox 2000. It weaves in elements of Yoruba folklore to tell a gripping tale of two warring parts of the fantasy land Orisha. There are the ‘magi’, who have incredible magical powers, and the kosidan, who fear the powers of the magi. Magic was violently wiped out by the kosidan royal family and the protagonist Zelie’s mother was one of the people brutally killed. We follow her as she attempts to bring magic back. Expect many twists and turns, vivid fantastical elements and a poignant commentary on racial prejudice and colourism.
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
Sickeningly, Smith wrote and finished this book when she was just 21 and still studying at Cambridge University. It remains, in my opinion, her best novel. It’s an inter-generational story that boldly encapsulates the joys and tensions of multi-cultural Britain. Her characters are all fully fleshed out and highly, endearingly flawed (quite a feat, considering how many of them there are!). Those from immigrant backgrounds will be sure to see reflections of their own families or communities but anyone can identify with its questions of what it is to belong within a family as well as in a country or culture.
Staying Alive – Bloodaxe Anthology
For those who prefer the variety of a box of Celebrations to the monotony of a box of Lindor truffles, this collection is a wonderful introduction to the sheer breadth of poetry. I defy anyone to not find something in here that they like! There are poems on every theme under the sun, in a dizzying array of lengths, styles and voices. This is what I’d most recommend to those completely new to poetry – this is a book you can easily flick through and read one or two a day, or spend a whole afternoon with. Some of my favourite poems are ‘Begin’ by Brendan Kennelly, ‘Yearn On’ by Katie Donovan and ‘Choose’ by Carl Sundberg.
In These Times of Prohibition – Caroline Bird
Caroline writes playful, wacky poetry that is exquisitely written but refreshingly unpretentious. You get the strong sense that she is having fun with language and she can turn a moment from funny or absurd to deeply poignant with one line. She is certainly a poet to try if you want something unpredictable and challenging.
Plum – Hollie McNish
A fantastic poet and dear friend, Hollie McNish went viral with her searing pieces ‘Mathematics’ which explores the hypocrises in anti-immigration rhetoric and ‘Embarrassed’ which derides the social stigma around public breast feeding. She has since won the Ted Hughes Poetry Prize for Nobody Told Me, a brilliant book on the unexpected challenges of motherhood. In Plum, she explores sex, love and the body in her uniquely conversational, witty and honest style. Women all over the UK and beyond have fallen in love with McNish – pick up this book and find out why.
Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth – Warsan Shire
Most known for her poetic contributions in Beyonce’s (divine) ‘Lemonade’ album, Warsan Shire has long been a shining light in the British poetry scene. Her writing is clean, uncluttered and cleaves you right down the middle. You may have seen extracts of her piece ‘Home’ which were widely shared when the Mediterranean refugee crisis was in the headlines. The chilling line: ‘No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of the shark’ has resonated deeply in the public consciousness and this collection proves that Shire has much wisdom to offer. Her Somali/Kenyan roots heavily influence her work, as do themes of home, motherhood, the body and heritage.
Physical – Andrew McMillan
This collection is a breathtaking feat, the type of writing that leaves me equal parts joyful and jealous. McMillan is the first poet to win the Guardian First Book Award and I’m sure you’ll see why when you peruse its contents. His poetry does the brave job of examining conventional masculinity and its many limitations. He explores the pain and insecurity often felt at the gym, the yearning for intimacy as a gay man and the many ways in which we worship and desecrate the body. This book is sometimes bleak, sometimes tender but always unflinching and ultimately celebratory of the wide spectrum of the male experience.
The Best Poetry Book In The World – Burning Eye
Burning Eye is a pioneering publisher that focuses on showcasing the wealth of brilliant spoken-word artists performing in the UK. It has published such names as Hollie McNish, Harry Baker, Deanna Rodger, Salena Godden, Mark Grist, Toby Campion and yours truly. This is the book you need to get a tasty glimpse into the variety of the current poetry performance scene. Even better, most of the poets in the book have YouTube videos that you can watch to get a sense of their live performance – because poetry is meant to reverberate through rooms just as much as it sits on pages.