The 19 Best Literary Debuts Of 2016
Here are the most exciting new voices in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in 2016 (ranked in no particular order).
1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
In Yaa Gyasi's ambitious novel Homegoing, two half-sisters in 18th-century Ghana embark on two very different paths, with one sold into slavery while the other remains in Africa. A stunning account of the lives of their many generations of descendants in America, Homegoing is an examination of family, history, and the effects of racism and slavery over three centuries.
2. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
When housewife Yeong-hye in Han Kang's novel The Vegetarian begins to have invasive, violent nightmares, she decides to give up eating meat. Initially her choice to become a vegetarian seems harmless, but it sets off a disturbing spiral of events within her family. Dark and twisted, The Vegetarian looks at obsession, violence, power, and rebellion. (While The Vegetarian was first published in South Korea in 2007, this is Han Kang's debut in English translation.)
3. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett’s lyrical debut novel The Mothers is set in a small black church community in California where three teenagers have a complicated relationship: after 17-year-old Nadia’s mother dies, she begins a romance with the local pastor’s son, Luke, that leads to a pregnancy she must hide from everyone in the community, including her religious best friend Aubrey. Following Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey into adulthood, The Mothers shows how the consequences of love, loss, and the decisions we make in youth can continue to haunt us years afterward.
4. Boy Erased by Garrard Conley
Garrard Conley's memoir Boy Erased traces his struggles growing up as a young gay man in a small Arkansas town with a Baptist pastor father. After being outed to his parents at 19, Conley agreed to undergo an ex-gay conversion-therapy program to “cure” his "illness." A powerful meditation on identity, faith, and resilience, Boy Erased is the story of one man’s brave journey to self-acceptance despite shame and trauma.
5. The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam
In Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel The Story of a Brief Marriage, set two and a half decades into the Sri Lankan civil war, an old man proposes Tamil refugee Dinesh with an offer that could change his life: if Dinesh marries the man’s daughter Ganga, both would have a greater chance of safety. The tale of two strangers thrust into a strange new relationship, The Story of a Brief Marriage depicts the grim actualities of life touched by the despair and violence of war.
6. Shelter by Jung Yun
In Jung Yun’s novel Shelter, a young man and his wife struggle with debt and live in a house they cannot afford, while in a wealthier neighborhood nearby, his parents live in material comfort. When an unthinkable act of violence leaves his parents unable to live by themselves, he is forced to take them in despite the tension and bitterness between them. Dark and heartbreaking, Shelter examines dysfunctional parent-child relationships and the sacrifices one makes for family.
7. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures is the true story of the group of black female mathematicians at NASA whose work — while oft unrecognized — made it possible to launch numerous astronauts and rockets into space. Hidden Figures is an inspiring account of the careers of five extraordinary women whose calculations helped establish America as a leader in the space race, and the discrimination they faced and fought to get there.
8. What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You follows a complex sexual relationship between an American professor in Bulgaria and a male prostitute named Mitko he encounters in a public bathroom, a relationship that will have profound consequences for the both of them. With tenderness and lyricism, What Belongs to You explores lust, connection, shame, violence, and the ways in which sexual and emotional pain can haunt us.
9. Look by Solmaz Sharif
Solmaz Sharif’s brilliant poetry collection Look mourns the suffering and horrific loss of human life in war, and exposes the real consequences of its violence. Incorporating her family’s personal experiences with trauma and grief as well as the sterilized military terms and euphemisms intended to desensitize us to violence, Look makes vivid the contrast between the harsh reality of war and the language we use to talk about it.
10. Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
Idra Novey’s colorful novel Ways to Disappear is as quirky as it is delightful. Part mystery, part romance, Ways to Disappear tells the tale of a famous but debt-stricken Brazilian novelist who vanishes suddenly, leaving her children and one young American translator determined to solve the puzzling circumstances of her disappearance.
11. Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong’s haunting Night Sky With Exit Wounds is simultaneously one of the most powerful and vulnerable poetry collections I have read this year. Vuong's lines are lyrical yet raw in their emotion and intimacy, encompassing everything from identity and being an "Other" to history, grief, family, sex, and violence. A stunning collection with rare insight on love and loss.
12. Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel Here Comes the Sun centers on three Jamaican women — a mother and her two daughters — who must come together to fight for their community and village when it is threatened by plans for a new tourist resort, all the while also reckoning with their pasts and each other's expectations. Vibrant and moving, Here Comes the Sun explores the steep toll of exploitation, tourism, and poverty, and the sacrifices we make in the name of freedom.
13. Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte
Tony Tulathimutte’s novel Private Citizens is a hilarious and clever romp through modern San Francisco. A sharp, satirical portrait of the Bay Area and some of its more privileged denizens, Private Citizens follows four once-estranged friends post-college who struggle with their ambitions and subsequent failures.
14. We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
Kaitlyn Greenidge’s novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman skillfully tackles race and language through the lens of the Freemans, an African-American family hired by a New England research institute to raise and teach sign language to a chimpanzee. Yet the institute happens to have a secret, dark past, and through the crisis that results, We Love You, Charlie Freeman thoughtfully comments on history and race in America with both humor and insight.
15. The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang
When Taiwanese-born American businessman Charles Wang loses all of his money in the 2008 recession, he must unite his family to start over fresh in China. Thus the Wangs — along with stepmother Barbra — set off on a hilarious, dramatic road trip across the country, struggling to deal with their new financial situation as well as each other. A captivating adventure of a novel, The Wangs vs. the World shows the surprising ways in which hardship can actually bring a dysfunctional family closer together, and speaks to what it means to be an immigrant in America.
16. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Imbolo Mbue’s novel Behold the Dreamers is the story of a young Cameroonian couple in Harlem, New York, who are pursuing the American dream when the financial crisis of 2008 has other plans for their future and their marriage, which begins to unravel. With honesty and heart, Behold the Dreamers offers a new, more realistic perspective on the Great Recession, as well as on immigration, race, class, marriage, and the hope we maintain despite it all.
17. Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond
Jason Diamond's Searching for John Hughes looks at Diamond's obsession with iconic filmmaker John Hughes' movies — an obsession so great he believed he should write Hughes' biography, despite zero qualifications for the matter. The end result of this journey was not a biography, but instead, this funny, unconventional memoir detailing what Diamond learned along the way from Chicago to New York City earnestly pursuing his absurd dream.
18. Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair
Safiya Sinclair's collection Cannibal explores the meaning of womanhood and "Otherness" with poems as provocative as they are lyrical. Filled with beautifully rich imagery, Cannibal is a contemplation of Jamaican identity and culture, blackness, history, memory, family, and exile.
19. Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
Claire-Louise Bennett's unusual novel Pond seeks to capture the interior world of an unnamed young woman who lives alone in a small village through detailing her experiences in depth. While the narrator's daily life is filled with often unremarkable mundanity, it is through her everyday observations that we begin to see her eccentricities and ourselves reflected in them.