Our Favorite Indie Books Of 2020

At this point, everyone knows that they should buy books from their local independent bookstores, and, failing that, from small bookstores online. (I'm personally a huge fan of buying books from Pilsen Community Books, which gift-wraps each book they send you! A real treat!) And there's always bookshop.org in a pinch. But, have you paused to consider the importance of supporting indie publishing houses? Perhaps not! But now is the time to do just that. Publishing — like basically every other creative industry — is dominated by mega-corporations, which, yes, often produce wonderful books, but also flood the market with crap released only to help their bottom line (why, yes, I am thinking of all those former-Trump staffer tell-alls).

It's not that every book released by a small publishing house is perfect, but they're almost always better than perfect: They're strange, they're risky, they're singular. Supporting books like these is good for these publishing houses, but it's also good for art, and it's good for opening readers' eyes to those stories that aren't always the most marketable, and are all the more special for it. Here, then, are 15 of our favorite books to come from indie publishers this year.

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Homie by Danez Smith (available here)

Danez Smith is at the top of their already dizzyingly high game here, in this glorious paean to friendship and community, love and loss. In Homie, Smith is provocative and playful, and nothing less than exuberant as they explore the meaning of affinity, creating vibrant portraits of relationships in all their messy glory. The poems are unflinching as they touch on subjects like race, violence, and queerness, and exalt in the ecstatic elements of our most intimate interactions.
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Like A Bird by Fariha Róisín (available now)

In Fariha Róisín's debut novel, Taylia Chatterjee has what must seem, from the outside, like a charmed life: Growing up on New York City's Upper West Side, she's the daughter of well-off intellectuals, who might primarily focus on their other, "golden" child, Alyssa, but who are smart and engaged and provide their daughters with a life of privilege. But on the inside, things are different: Her parents are not so much "involved" as they are oppressive, and their emotional distance reveals an unwillingness to understand either of their daughters on any level beyond the superficial. The depths of this disconnect becomes clear when tragedy strikes the Chatterjees; soon, Taylia is disowned by her parents and forced to figure out how to survive independently, and create a new family from the community she finds. In Like a Bird, Róisín — also the author of poetry book, How to Cure a Ghost — grapples with big issues, from identity to racism to sexual assault, but she does so with a lyricism and generosity that allow the reader intimate access into Taylia's experience, and the opportunity to feel the same empowerment and freedom that Taylia achieves for herself.

Read my interview with Róisín, here.
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Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau (available on now)

Simply existing as a 15-year-old in the world is a dizzying, disorienting task, but for Monk, the protagonist of Jamie Marina Lau's strange and raucous debut novel, there's a lot more that's confusing than just typical teenage stuff. For one, she's attracted to a guy, Santa Coy, who's more interested in hanging out and making art ("Basquiat-lite") with her dissolute father, than being with her. In a sense, it's pretty perfect that one of the best novels about art and scams and art scams that I've read in a while is also a high-school novel, because — as can be seen via different scenes set in similarly drug-infused high school and art world parties — the two milieus aren't that different at all; they're all about illusion and pretense and a desperate desire to belong. Lau captures all this with a chaotic, instantly addictive style and canny insights into the motivations that drive people to do some very dark things.
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The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun (available here)

There's a pretty good chance any summer travel plans you'd had for this year might have needed to be curtailed (if not fully canceled), but that doesn't mean you should stay away from this mordantly witty novel that touches on everything from the rise of "dark tourism" to sexual predators in the office to climate change. When, in an effort to defuse the after-effects of a case of office sexual harassment, Yona is sent on a trip by her travel company to the desert island of Mui, she discovers the cruelty inherent to our modern fixation on travel without considering the environmental and human cost. This propulsive novel reads like a highly literary, ultra-incisive thriller; it reminds us that the disasters with which we are now grappling with on a near daily basis are not acts of god, they're acts of man.
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You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat (available here)

When she was just 12 years old, in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, the narrator of this extraordinary debut was yelled at by a group of men, excoriated for exposing too much of herself. Exposing too much of herself — or, as her mother says, "exist[ing] too much" — will be a problem for the narrator as she moves through her life as a queer Palestinian woman, traveling through the world, engaging in heated, messy relationships, trying to figure out why she is who she is, and why she behaves the way she does. This is a book of appetite and recklessness, obsession and addiction. It's the trickiest of territories, this type of intense examination of the self, but Zaina Arafat's lyrical, provocative writing is wholly captivating, startling in its honesty, unsettling in all the best ways.
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Heaven by Emerson Whitney (available here)

It might not be typical to praise a book by calling it a mess, but then there's little that's typical about Whitney's provocative, emotional, infinitely faceted mess of a reckoning with their identity, their body, their mother, their grandmother — their everything. And besides, as Whitney themself writes, "Really, I can't explain myself without making a mess." The resulting explanation is Heaven, a fearless, probing journey into womanhood, transness, and a search to reconcile all the disparate parts that make up a person into one cohesive whole. It's also a reminder that messiness is at the heart of all beautiful things, since it gestures to the haphazard nature of connections and love and simply being alive. We can try and control and contain the mess, but, in the end, it's hard to know what is even ours to control, better maybe to revel in the messy exuberance of it all.
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Thresholes by Lara Mimosa Montes (available here)

In the preface to Thresholes, Lara Mimosa Montes recalls that, when people would ask her: “'What are you writing?' I would
return in response, 'It’s more like the book is writing me.'” And, in fact, there is that feel throughout this powerful, beautiful work, that there is some strong force guiding it, that it is revealing truths (no capital T, but still foundational ones), some kind of ancient universal equation that brings Montes to a place where she can traverse time and space and other once-meaningful boundaries, all in order to tell her story. It's a story of the Bronx of the '70s and '80s, and of the body and art, of entrances and exits, of life.
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Temporary by Hilary Leichter (available here)

Wildly unhinged and exhilarating in its derangements, Hilary Leichter's debut is a thrilling, subversive, mordantly funny look at what it means to be alive today — aka what it means to have to work. Temporary's unnamed protagonist goes through a series of surreal jobs (why, yes, she is a pirate for a little while) and has a boyfriend for all of her different needs, but she longs to reach the status of permanent worker, that most elusive of goals. Pre-pandemic, Temporary was an astute critique of late-stage capitalism, a reminder of how important it is to resist letting work consume every minute of the day. Post-pandemic? It feels even more relevant, a reminder that living to work is really no life at all.
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Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker (available now)

A combination of essays, analysis, and reporting, Cristina Rivera Garza's Grieving is a powerful, heartbreaking chronicle of the violence that's taken place in Mexico along the U.S.-Mexico border. And, powerful is the key word here — Rivera Garza's unflinching
descriptions of the horrors wrought by America's War on Drugs serve as essential testimony, a reminder that staying silent about violence only allows it to continue. As she explains: "As we write, as we work with language—the humblest and most powerful force available to us—we activate the potential of words, phrases, sentences." Grieving, then, is not only a book of mourning and loss, but one of vitality, of love, and of hope for a changed future.
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The Superrationals by Stephanie LaCava (available now)

Offering the same slick, silvery, slightly dangerous appeal of a ball of mercury unhoused from an old glass thermometer, Stephanie LaCava's The Superrationals seeps under the skin, creating an indelible impression along the way. Centered around Mathilde — young, beautiful, brilliant, and rootless — The Superrationals hops around from New York to Europe, navigating the thorny and absurd worlds of art and media, giving insight into the specific intensity of the friendships that form at this time of life, and revealing the underlying darkness and detachment that motivates decisions about careers and sex and everything in-between. LaCava's language is precise and complex, beautifully capturing the ecstasy and ennui inherent to those most precarious moments of life.
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Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos (available here)

There is a particular type of displacement that only occurs when returning to your childhood home after a long absence. It's not only that you have changed, even as you've retained all your memories — it's that your home has changed, too, even as it holds your shared history in its foundation. When, following the unexpected death of her parents, 30-something Mira returns from the U.S. to her childhood home in Athens, a flood of memories crashes up against a wave of new experiences, including an electric connection with an elusive neighbor. Bakopoulos expertly weaves a narrative about the ways in which our identity is intimately tethered with those of the people around us, and the places from where we all come. Her language is lucid and precise, yet still easy to lose yourself in — it's only when you finish that you realize how much of Mira's story now feels lost inside you, embedded, like its been written on your skin.
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What Happens at Night by Peter Cameron (available here)

This beautifully eerie tale of desire and death goes down like an icy shot of schnapps: first it burns you with its chill, then it ignites in you a lingering fire. In it, an unnamed married couple from New York has arrived at the Grand Imperial Hotel in the fictional city of Borgarfjaroasysla, where they are trying to sort out the adoption of a baby boy. They're helped or hindered, or perhaps both, by the myriad locals they meet in this surreal setting, in which reality seems as warped and unexpectedly labyrinthine a thing as the hotel itself. Cameron reveals himself to be a master at portraying grief and despair, longing and love.
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A Woman, A Plan, An Outline of a Man by Sarah Kasbeer (available now)

In her debut essay collection, Sarah Kasbeer reflects on the instances of her life — messy and traumatic, revelatory and hopeful — that have shaped who she is, and that expose the difficulties that come with coming of age as a woman in America. Kasbeer's style is lucid and frank; reading these stories feels like a conversation with a good friend — nothing feels hidden, no matter how painful or how deeply buried. But these aren't only essays about trauma, they are also about resilience and recovery and release.
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Hysteria by Jessica Gross (available here)

Jessica Gross' debut novel is a serpentine exploration into the dark behaviors and even darker thoughts of a young woman who uses sex and alcohol and more sex and more alcohol to better understand the twisted roots of her fears and desires. Centering around a young woman who has made a sexual faux pas or two (and that's all over the course of one weekend), Hysteria is unafraid to plumb the complex depths of our most compulsive behavior. Lest you think it's just all pitch-black sexual drama, let me also reassure you that it's very funny — the bartender with whom the narrator works out some of her issues with is dubbed Freud, and, really, what's funnier than that?
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Negotiations by Destiny O. Birdsong (available now)

In her stunning debut book of poetry, Destiny O. Birdsong explores themes of desire and violence, oppression and complicity, ecstasy and grief. It can feel like, when you're reading these poems, they're reading you right back; they confront those parts of the world, those parts in you, that are all too often hidden, but that urgently need to come to the surface. These poems are personal and political, and are, perhaps most of all, a powerful paean to Black womanhood — to resilience, and, especially, triumph.
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