Earlier this year, Karen and Lizzy hosted ReadIndies and it reminded me how many years had passed since an installment of my Fiercely Reading Indie project (the most extensive was my deep-dive into House of Anansi’s backlist). Maybe I’d slipped into devotedly reading from the Big Five, I wondered. But, no: this year, I’ve read books from more than two dozen different indie publishers so far. And I think there’s something for everyone in the sample below…which one is perfect for you? Or, perhaps you’ve got another to recommend instead?

First, Kamau Brathwaite’s Words Need Love Too (2004) is from Salt Publishing, an independent literary press in the UK that celebrated its 20th birthday last year. (Their history in 10 books is here.) Words illustrates the Barbadian poet’s concept of “tidalectics”, wherein a sea consciousness (as playground and graveyard) pervades both his poetry and his experience of life. Stewart Brown’s introduction fills in the gaps for readers, succinctly illuminating aspects of literature, history, and biography to pull readers into the surf. “o words. need love. love too”

There’s a second volume of Brathwaite’s poems, Strange Fruit, in my log too, this one from Peepal Tree Press, which publishes Caribbean and Black British literature. (They also publish Shivanee Ramlochan, whom some of you may know via her passionate bookblog, Novel Niche.) The collection opens with an epigraph from Kofi Annan: “When people are in danger, everyone has a duty to speak out. No one has the right to pass by on the other side.” This volume is Brathwaite’s way of speaking out. No need for an introduction; the writing, the fonts, the footnotes, the photographs, the artwork, the clipart, and the empty space collect and reflect the poet.

Eman Quotah’s Bride of the Sea comes from Tin House, a longtime favourite indie press in Oregon.

The story of the young married couple from Saudi Arabia, adjusting to life in Cleveland (Ohio) reminds me in the beginning of Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds or Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.

“He’ll spend most of his time at the library, and when he returns home, Saeedah will usually be sitting in the rocking chair, holding the baby when her mother lets her, looking always like she is in shock.”

But the crises of belonging and the complexities of conditional love intensify: relationships are strained past the breaking point.

Quotah has some choice descriptive bits, like one woman’s house smelling of cough lozenges, raisins, and cigarette smoke.

But, by virtue of the characters’ relentless seeking, this is a fractured story. And, when that baby grows up, she must conduct her own search: “In this kitchen smelling of hamburger and onions, cilantro and Colby-Jack, she feels trapped by Taco Tuesday, the Americanness of her existence.”

An astutely observed and occasionally surprising debut.

Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body begins with a pigeon, but she also discusses Penelope Fitzgerald’s fiction. My eyes could not keep up with how quickly I wanted to read it.

This is a small book—just over a hundred pages—about big ideas. The kind that are hard to simplify and, sometimes even, hard to contemplate.

But if we “approach it in ways that we can describe with words” that can help us “use imagination”, we can begin to understand both very small and very large phenomena and the relationships between them.

Hildyard hangs out with butchers, and one of them dreams of writing a book for housewives about selecting the right cut of meat; she also meets with a Siberian scientist who discusses photophobic bacteria and how she and her husband disagreed about how to simply answer their children’s complicated questions (something like ‘why is the sky blue’) about the world.

Nina Simone and a smuggled iguana, Raymond Carver and the scent of a garden after rain, first flight and fungi and Elena Ferrante: in The Second Body, everything is connected. Because it is. But it’s not a book of answers, rather a book that urges us to ask questions. (This landed in my stack thanks to Kaggsy’s Fitzcarraldo Fortnight last year.)

Annie Pootoogook’s cutting ice (from Goose Lane Editions—in conjunction with the McMichael Canadian Art Collection—which is based in the capital of New Brunswick, Fredericton) is a pure joy to browse, the Inuktituk translation by Rhoda Kayakjuak extending from the cover straight through.

Nancy Campbell provides a short history of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, which is informative and interesting, in terms of how it opened and closed doors for artists (just like “The New Yorker” has a style and you hear short story writers both celebrate and bemoan that fact—but, plus colonization).

Norman E. Hallendy’s photographs immediately immerse us in the artist’s landscape: ice, sky, rock, and isolated buildings. The pencil-crayoned figures in Annie Pootoogook’s colourful drawings frequently depict indoor scenes, in which figures often look directly at viewers, while they’re eating seal or sewing.

One of my favourites depicts an Inuit mother out walking, and she pulls her hood to one side, so that the toddler strapped against her back beneath her parka can peer out too. In the photograph of the artist by William B. Ritchie, her gaze is directly outward, but her face is turned just slightly. Like she’s peeking. The portrait represents her in 2004; she began seriously drawing in the later ‘90s and she died in 2016.

For art lovers, exploring this Inuit artist’s work would be fascinating (as is the essay about her contemporaries); for creatives, her capacity to represent ordinary life in pencil-crayoned drawings is inspiring; and, for anyone stuck indoors in COVID-times, her work can take you away from your everyday.

Vigdis Hjorth’s Long Live the Post Horn! 2013; Trans. Charlotte Barslund, 2020 (from Verso Books, with offices in London and Brooklyn) was in my stack thanks to a NYT review but nudged up the priority list thanks to Kaggsy’s musings and Deepika’s too.

Reading the book in one hand, it’s a quietly existential, what-are-we-all-doing-here kind of story: “Outside on the trees the yellowing leaves that had yet to fall were shaken by the wind, especially those near the top; it must be unnerving not to be able to choose your own ending, not to know which gust of wind will carry you off, not to be able to prepare for it.” Every detail in the two-hundred paged story is rooted in the narrator’s sodden view of the world, which you’d expect to be tiresome but somehow it’s not.

Reading the book in the other hand, Ellinor is telling her story, so you have the sense that she does survive this dark time in her life: “It felt as if I was granted a temporary reprieve from a harsh punishment as long as I carried on writing.”

It’s also the perfect length: any longer, you might be overwhelmed by the restlessness and discontent but, any shorter, and you’d not have time to work a tendril of connection beneath Ellinor’s crusty layer of despair.

Eric Dupont’s Life in the Court of Matane (2015) was first published in English translation by Peter McCambridge in 2016, the first of Montreal’s QC Fiction’s volumes; the second edition is forthcoming in 2021 with an introduction by Heather O’Neill.

What could possibly compare, I speculated, with the operatic high-fantasy realist doorstopper of Songs for the Cold of Heart (also translated by Peter McCambridge).

Certainly not this story of two children of divorce, in which the father and mother are compared to the high and low, uneven bars in the Olympic gold, gymnastic routine of Nadia Comaneci, I pshawed.

But after a few dozen pages, all the other stories about divorce I’ve read (and it’s a pet theme of mine, so…a lot) were observed to have failed, for clearly a set of uneven bars is the only way to adequately and honestly describe family breakdown. Of course, that’s not true, and now that I’ve finished reading, I know that (again).

Dupont’s gift is that his stories have never been told in such a way before, could only ever be told in that way, and will never again be told like that. No, no: the actual magic is that you believe that while you’re reading.

When I talk about falling into a certain kind of book, Dupont’s book is that kind. And if you don’t think so, don’t worry, it will only last a couple—or, few—hundred pages: “The funny thing about memory is that it always ends up chasing its own tail. The most important thing is to keep it moving.”