So many of the books published by Latino authors this year seemed to be working in response to our burning dumpster fire of a political climate. Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends and Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied dealt directly with the child migrant crisis and the violence and injustice of borders through non-fiction and poetry, respectively. Carmen Maria Machado, Cristina Rivera Garza, and Mariana Enriquez all used horror story tropes to deal with the real-life horror of violence against women; Samanta Schweblin and Juan Villoro do the same with environmental issues. We also were lucky enough to get straight-up radical joy and sorrow from poets like Melissa Lozada-Oliva, and Marcela Huerta and memoirist Miryam Gurba.
These books are all worth a read, whether to transport you to a totally different world, like the California gold rush in In the Distance or a Brooklyn suffused with old magic in Shadowhouse Fall, or to engage with the world and see it all the more clearly, no matter how difficult the looking may be.
Without further ado, here’s a list of 15 unmissable books from 2017.
'Tell Me How It Ends' by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House)
Hands down the most important book of the year, Luiselli’s non-fiction account of her work with undocumented child migrants is loosely based around the questionnaire they are asked to fill out to apply for asylum, and woven through with her own experiences traversing the bureaucracies of American immigration. Tell Me How It Ends leaves the question of its title urgently unanswered, and lights a fire under the reader to get them involved.
'Unaccompanied' by Javier Zamora (Copper Canyon Press)
This book and Luiselli’s make perfect companions – where Luiselli focuses on the systemic and overwhelming nature of child migration, Zamora takes us into the the intimacies of the experience. Born in El Salvador, Zamora crossed the border to rejoin his parents in California at the age of 9. Unaccompanied is the story of that journey, told through poems that expand details to the size of the Sonora, from cooking with his grandmother, to the thirst that accompanies you through the desert.
'In the Distance' by Hernan Diaz (Coffee House Press)
This is a wild, sprawling novel about the American West and the inside of one man’s head. Hakan is a Swedish immigrant stranded in California during the gold rush with no money and no English, desperately trying to reach his brother in New York. Diaz writes the experience of being a stranger as well as anyone (there’s a full page of “English” as Hakan hears it that is perfect), and In the Distance deals beautifully with the endless expanse of a country, and the claustrophobic space of a mind after trauma. Diaz’s book is a brilliant, brainy adventure story that will stay with you long after you read the last page.
'Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos,' written by Monica Brown and Illustrated by John Parra (NorthSouth Books)
A gorgeous, lovingly illustrated picture book about Frida Kahlo, and all the animals that she had as pets and that recur in her art. It reflects cleverly back on Frida’s art by talking about all the different ways she embodied her animals – she loved dressing herself in colors like her parrot, and was independent like her cats – thereby keeping Frida’s biography light for younger readers.
'The Iliac Crest' by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker (Feminist Press)
This creepy feminist ghost story has it all: Hitchcockian body-doubles, the ghost of forgotten Mexican writer Amparo Davila, a lonely asylum by the sea, a slow descent into madness. Written as a response to the rising tide of femicide throughout Latin America, The Iliac Crest uses these horror-movie tropes to deal with topics of female erasure, violence, and borders. This book is unsettling and strange and so, so good.
'Shadowhouse Fall' by Daniel José Older (Arthur A. Levine)
The second book in DJO’s Shadowhunter YA series, Shadowhouse Fall brings us right back to Sierra’s old-world-magic inflected Brooklyn, where an epic battle between good and evil rages across Prospect Park and into Flatbush. Older has a sharp ear for the way teens talk, a fierce commitment to bringing real-world issues like police brutality and colonialism to bear on his magical Brooklyn, and masterful command of both white-knuckle adventure pacing and cute-as-hell teen romance.
'Peluda' by Melissa Lozada-Oliva (Button Poetry)
“Maybe someday i’ll actually be chill / like the white girls, the ones who don’t shave / for political reason, the ones who took / an entire election cycle to grow / out a tuft of armpit hair.” I laughed out loud on the train at this line in Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s Peluda. You might recognize her from some of her slam poetry videos – “Like, Totally, Whatever” has over 750,000 views on YouTube alone. Lozada-Oliva’s first book, Peluda, is what it says on the tin: a book about body hair, and families and girlhood, and it will make you laugh and then break your heart.
'Kingdom Cons' by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories)
The third part of the loosely-connected trilogy of life on the border that also includes Signs Preceeding the End of the World, and The Transmigration of Bodies, Kingdom Cons is, at least on the surface, about a bard, a singer of narco-corridos for The King. Going deeper, Herrera’s recurring themes begin cropping up: a single person, in the midst of a violent, chaotic environment, searching for some form of tenderness. As always, Herrera, in collaboration with his translator, Lisa Dillman, capture and create a language all their own.
'Mean' by Myriam Gurba (Emily Books/Coffee House)
Mean somehow manages to be a hilarious book about sexual assault, trauma, and hauntedness. Gurba is a mean, queer Chicana growing up in a mostly-white town in California. Mean is her coming-of-age story, and covers everything from the disappointment of white people food to the joys of skipping school. Further, her joyous reclamation of meanness, of bitchiness, her insistence on it as her holy mission is delightful. A mishmash of wildly diverging references, from Michael Jackson to Walter Benjamin, Cindi Lauper to girl saints, Gurba’s book is an utterly unique exploration of girlhood, trauma, and growing up.
'Her Body and Other Parties' by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf)
If you haven’t heard of Carmen Maria Machado’s book at this point in the year, you must have been living under a rock. Her debut collection of short stories hit the National Book Award longlist before it even came out, and made it to the shortlist a few weeks later. Since then, it’s made dozens of best-of lists, and praise has been heaped on it from all directions. The. Hype. Is. Real. Machado’s postapocalyptic/horror/sci-fi-ish/incredible short stories are meant to worm into the darkest parts of your brain and stay there – especially the opener, “The Husband Stitch.” If you remember the I-Can-Read classic, “The Green Ribbon,” you know there’s an absolutely bone-chilling story coming.
'Tropico' by Marcela Huerta (Metatron)
A book of poetry and prose that spiral around violence, a difficult father, being the child of immigrants, girlhood, and memory. The title poem, “Tropico,” tells the story of Huerta’s parents immigration from Chile through a Rollercoaster-Tycoon-style computer game about dictatorships – a brilliant mashup of old world and new. Huerta’s writing is by turns tough and tender, but always brilliant and startling and emotionally astute.
'Things We Lost in the Fire' by Mariana Enríquez, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead)
A series of deeply Argentine short stories, circling around real-life news items like addiction epidemics and illegal abortions. Standout stories include “The Intoxicated Years,” a story of drugs and female friendship told in a haunting, Greek-chorus style, and “Adela’s House,” an absolutely terrifying story I won’t say any more about for fear of spoiling it.
'Fever Dream' by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead)
Both this book and Things We Lost in the Fire have a lot in common. Both are by Argentine women, were published by the same house, and translated by the same person, and both had the power to keep me awake at night. However, Fever Dream is totally and completely its own nightmare. Similar to the work of authors like Jeff VanderMeer, a completely calm and quiet narrator slowly and methodically describes increasingly disturbing events, all leading to a meditation on toxins, mother’s love, and the destruction of the earth.
"I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter" by Erika L. Sánchez (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
15-year-old Julia’s life starts to spin out of control when her perfect older sister, Olga, dies. What follows is a pitch-perfect account of what it is like to be a Mexican daughter who doesn’t want to stay acomodadita at home, who longs for bigger things than what she finds in the neighborhood, who carries family secrets. Julia’s anger and sadness and confusion and joy all got to my slightly-older imperfect Mexican daughter self. A perfect gift either for the best teen you know, or for yourself.
"The Revolutionaries Try Again" by Mauro Javier Cardenas (Coffee House)
This debut novel from Ecuadorian author Mauro Javier Cardenas is a dizzying, fractured narrative of Ecuadorian politics, failed insurrection, failed ambition, and failed friendship. The book centers on a group of friends from the same Catholic school as they grow up and change themselves and their country. The book’s style can be tricky – the story is told through fragments – of school stories, of lives, of sentences, of words, even, and circles back on itself time and time again, but the end product is a brilliant constellation of ambition, friendship, and the responsibilities we have to the place we were born.