“I'm seduced by writing that makes me feel something—and intensely so. I love the thrust of shorter literature it pulls, rolls, and leaves before you can tie it down to one idea.”
Document’s contributors are compiling summer reading lists with a twist. We’re asking writers, authors, artists, scholars for their old favorites and anticipated releases. Writer and model Jess Cole breaks down her reading list into manageable bites with a collection of short(er) fiction, essays, and poetry. She gives us a B.C.E. female utopia, a Harlem Renaissance political satire, and a modern reinterpretation of coming of age tales—all short enough to crush on a Saturday afternoon.
Assembly of Women by Aristophanes
Fed up with the ineptitude of male politicians, Women dressed up as men seize control and create a form of economic and sexual communism. Everyone is equal and all property is shared along with all forms of physical pleasure. It is debatable if Aristophanes is proposing or satirizing this female utopia in Ancient Greece, but regardless of where he stood on the woke scale (this was 392BC!), I find it fascinating that concepts of communism and female power were being considered way back when.
Black No More by George Schuyler
This book made me laugh, then whimper, and finished me off with a migraine. One of the key satires of the Harlem Renaissance, Schuyler’s fictional novel proposes a way to fix America’s race problem—just turn all the black people white. ‘Erasing’ all of the physical indicators of ethnicity, Schuyler pulls the rug out from the concepts of racialized bodies. The book is fascinating in how it turns its steely glare not only how white people benefit from racism, but how some black people piggy-back profit from black racial oppression.
Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman
Osman has created a kaleidoscope of experiences when you are young, queer, and Somali. Each short story narrative teeters on the verge of self-revelation: From schizophrenic lesbian artists in south London, to spliff-puffing gay teenagers in Nairobi, and then skipping to trans mental health nurses. I found this illustrated novel to be a vital insight into how queer Somalis identities are shaped as much by their sexuality as they are their cultural origins—a feeling that can be translated across many boundaries of ethnicity and sexuality. As we, the world, seem to be rolling back queer rights, this book feels highly necessary in its exploration of being not only black and an immigrant, but also queer.
Like a Mule Bringing Ice cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Just because she’s over 70 doesn’t mean that she can’t have sexual desires, be footloose, and fancy free. In this delightful novella, the 75-year-old protagonist is a Nigerian woman called Morayo Da Silva who zips around San Fran in a porsche, whilst at the same time driving into the prejudices of old age. She is relatively sane, and perfectly able to just live her fabulous life. Morayo does something new for each birthday (scuba, tattoo) and she organizes her bookshelf according to which characters she thinks should be talking to each other, and she always dresses dashingly. As Morayo sassily remarks ‘All the more reason then, to dress with panache while I still can.’ She is the kind of women you know makes a mean martini. This book gives me energy in pointing out that life doesn’t have to stop when you get older. It just gets more flamboyant.
Human Acts by Han Kang
This is the longest of the books. The word page turner gets flipped around a lot, but I literally could not stop reading this novel. Floating between the narratives of torture victims and survivors, Human Acts recalls the 1980 Gwangju uprising in South Korea. At one point in the book, a dead boy’s soul converses with his own rotting flesh, another sees someone looking for their friend’s corpse, other narrated bodies lose their souls. It is a book that splices gothic lyricism with the cold facts of the South Korean government massacring its own people. At times of stillness in the book you can hear the question of what is humanity whispered over and over.
The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941 -1945) by Suzanne Césaire
I recently found out that during the ’20s and ’30s that intellectual Francophone Caribbeans were engaged with Surrealism and had relations with the French surrealists. A decade after the Harlem Renaissance, the Francophone Caribbean desire was to create a new vision of the modern African diaspora through a fusion of French culture, pan-African thinking, and surrealism. In this collection of essays, the Martiniquan writer Césaire writes of how surrealism creates a means of critical reflection to explore the cultural context of the diaspora. There is a quivering lyricism to her essays and, as D. Scot Miller wrote, her surrealist “quest for ‘The Marvelous’ over the ‘miserabilism’” expressed in the usual types of protest art. She is oft quipped as the mother of the Afro-surreal aesthetic – so a good one to read if you want a deeper contextualization of people like Arthur Jarfa or Jordan Peele.
Imagist Poetry edited by Peter Austin Jones
Damn it. I dream of writing as crisply as these imagist poets. This group of writers cut poetry into sharp imagery, using short and clear language. No frills and dills here, sir—economic words means richer poems. Bookmark “The Garden” by H.D. from the collection of work. It is about a figure stifled by the repressive garden heat.
‘Cut the heat –
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path’
Find Jess Cole on her website and @jesscole__.
Read all of Document’s reading lists here.