My reading list for 2021

January 3, 2021

As the New Year begins, we reach out to some of our favourite authors and critics to tell us about the books they plan on reading in 2021. Here, in alphabetical order, is what they say


Aamer Hussein

Critic, novelist and short story writer

First among my choices, as it’s just been published and I am waiting for my copy, is The Stained Glass Window, Taha Kehar and Sana Munir’s anthology of short stories that engage with the pandemic and its effect on our personal and public lives. I’m also intrigued by this collection because it counterpoints known with unknown voices, and I always feel I’m far behind in my acquaintance with English writings from Pakistan.

Speaking of Pakistan, I’ve started reading Sascha Akhtar’s debut collection of long stories, Of Necessity and Wanting. Akhtar is best known as a poet with a resolutely cosmopolitan sensibility and has lived for many years in the UK. It’s intriguing to see her portray the middle and lower-middle-class Karachiites, all the more beguiling for its combination of a searing postmodern critique of consumerism with the humour and intimacy I associate with the best vintage TV drama.

Moving on to 2021 and away from Pakistan, I’m also looking forward to Ruth Padel’s ambitious Daughters of the Labyrinth, the story of an artist daughter’s search for her mother’s life in the erased annals of wartime Cretan history.

I’m increasingly fascinated with the possibilities of the forms we call lifewriting, and can’t wait to read Address book: A publishing memoir in the time of covid, pioneering Indian feminist publisher and writer Ritu Menon’s vivid account of this past year, in which her Delhi lockdown allows her to evoke her memories of the US, France, England and Pakistan.

Fatima Bhutto

Novelist and non-fiction writer

I’m lucky to have gotten an early copy of George Saunders’ new book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life, which comes out in January. Saunders has written an incredibly generous - and funny - book about writing, Russian short stories, and how we tell stories. A great read for anyone interested in the craft of writing. Two of my favourite writers, Rachel Kushner and Jonathan Franzen, have books coming out in 2021 and I’m really looking forward to those. Kushner has a book of essays The Hard Crowd and a new novel The Mayor of Leipzig – I loved all her other books so I can’t wait. And Franzen is releasing the first volume of a new trilogy, Crossroads: A Novel: A key to all Mythologies. Thrilling.

Julien Columeau

French writer of Urdu fiction

In 2021 I intend to read Ek khanjar paani mein, the new novel by Khalid Jawed (which continues with a humorous and ruthless exploration of the mediocre and surreal reality of middle-class life Jawed started with his Nemaat-khaanaa), as well as Binte Daahir by Safdar Zaidi, a novel narrating the first years of the Arab conquest of Sindh and the encounter of the Arabs with Sindhi civilisation. I also look forward to the release of an Anwar Said monograph, which White Turban is expected to publish this year, the first monograph dedicated to the most daring, original and unclassifiable Pakistani painter of our time.

2021 will mark the 50th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh and I plan to reread the remarkable Padma surkh hai by Anwar Shahid Khan on this occasion. It is a moving testimony (in the form of a diary) on the conflict that led to the creation of Bangladesh and the exodus of the author. I hope that this unbiased account, which has been out of print for decades, will be republished soon.

I wish to be able to finally read in 2021 two books which are still ‘in the making’. The first is Raqeeb koi naheen, a collection of extraordinary poems by Taimoor Shahid, featuring the long poem Laa-makaan kaa soorat-gar, which introduces a completely new poetic genre in Urdu. The second is Ahmad Nadeem Tonswi's collection of short stories. The release of a book would allow the author of gems like Ghubbaaraa movement and Jhaag kaa daryaa to be read and appreciated beyond Multan’s literary circles. A bon entendeur, salut!

Maheen Usmani

Journalist and author

In 2020, I started reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, a memoir which looks back on the death of her husband. The prose has the clarity of a glass of water and there is a distillation of Didion’s anguish. Absolutely beautiful writing, but I was unable to read it through, given that my father had recently passed away and my mother was going through the trauma the valiant Didion described. I set it aside, but it’s on my reading list for 2021. Two excerpts that give you an idea why: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.”

Linked to this is the memoir When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalimanthi, a soaring inspirational tale that teaches you to appreciate each day. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is another book I have earmarked for 2021.

Next is The Nine Lives of Pakistan by Declan Walsh who casts an eye on nine larger than life characters who reveal Pakistan in all its contradictions and glory. By the end of the book eight of the nine characters have lost their lives which could be an ironical take on the nine lives of the country being used up so it is no longer possible to live on a wing and a prayer.

I just got my hands on The Bhutto Dynasty by Owen Bennet Jones who has a forensic mind when it comes to the family. Their story is intertwined with the history of Pakistan.

Mehvash Amin

Poet and editor-in-chief of The Aleph Review

Just the other day I was thinking that I am going to get all the books I didn’t read this year, because initially, I couldn’t go to a bookstore due to the lockdown and subsequently because I became so busy with The Aleph Review. The first one is Snuffing out the Moon by Osama Siddique. He moderated our session at Lahore Literary Festival in 2020 and I found him to be witty and erudite — I am sure his book will not disappoint. The next lot would be the International Booker shortlist — The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shakoofeh Azar (from Iran, dying to read this), Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa and The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabeón Camára. I love a range of reading by international authors. Another one I would read is Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, winner of the 2020 Booker.

Back home again, I would like to read Typically Tanya by Taha Kehar and Abdullah the Cossack by HM Naqvi. I would also love to read Guapa by Saleem Haddad, an Arab writer. I think it will be an achievement to manage all these. I would also love to go away to an isolated cottage somewhere with my stack of books.

Moazzam Sheikh

Critic, librarian and lecturer

Pandemic nudged me to pick up Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities vol.1, and Yashpal's Jhoota Sach vol.1 (six hundred pages each). While the Viennese master explores the world just before the WWI, the latter probes Lahore around the partition. Belgian-French Amélie Nothomb was a pleasant surprise. I read Fear and Trembling, and Strike Your Heart, not everyone's cup of tea, though her mixing of innocence and weirdness is unique. Punjabi writer Ijaz's story collection Goraan Naal Ulahmay is impressive, especially the title story for its Rashomon-like treatment of the matriarch by four relatives. Very well-written also are, what seems to me, a pioneering attempt at flash fiction, precise and fresh. The books I'm looking forward to are Nain Sukh's Jogi Sap Trah. Among my favourite Pakistani Punjabi prose writers, Nain Sukh pushes boundaries, unlike his contemporaries, both how language operates and the content, which got him into trouble not too long ago. Ijaz is right behind regarding experimentation with narrative structure. Eshkol Nevo's The Last Interview is next. I’d really liked his Homesick wherein he'd situated two main characters in a village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and subtly put ethnic cleansing at centre stage. The third novel is also by an Israeli writer Yishai Sarid, The Memory Monster, which explores how victims of Nazism can become its admirers subconsciously. I’m about to start reading Asian Best Short Stories 2020 ed. by Zafar Anjum, and Murzban Shroff's recent novel Third Eye Rising. From my shelf of Punjabi literature also beckons Najm Hosain Syed’s Alfo Pǽrni di Vaar, his most ambitious play.

Muneeza Shamsie

Critic, literary journalist, bibliographer and editor

I am looking forward to Mehr Afshan Farooqi’s forthcoming book Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep: A Critical Biography which discusses Ghalib’s Urdu and Persian work, his time and age. I plan to read Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s story collection, translated by him from his Urdu original, The Sun That Rose from the Earth set in literary, Mughal Delhi; also a very different work, Mahmood Jamal’s recently-launched Anglophone poetry collection The Dream and Other Poems. The tragic loss of both Faruqi and Jamal recently has saddened me deeply. I hope to track down Emma Donoghue’s recent novel Pull of the Stars, longlisted for Canada’s Gifford Prize and narrated by a nurse in Dublin during the 1918-1920 flu pandemic; also The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson, which was recited and live-streamed from London recently. I am interested in Victoria Schofield’s The Fragrance of Tears: My Friendship with Benazir Bhutto and Wajahat Habibullah’s My Years with Rajiv Gandhi: Triumph and Tragedy which provide rare personal insights into two public figures respectively, known to both authors as friends. I see that 2021 promises new novels by two of my favourite authors Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro and Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri – and a non-fiction work A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life by George Saunders. Will I find all these books in Karachi? I have no idea, but I will certainly try.

Nasir Abbas Nayyar

Critic and short story writer

Every year hundreds of thousands of books see the light of day in tens of thousands of languages around the globe. As a voracious reader of books, I wish to read all the books that seem interesting to me but only a handful of them I can get and read. Alas, life is short, and the number of must-read books keeps growing every day. Honestly, I don’t make any list of books to be read in the year to come. As I come to know, through ads and reviews, that books of my taste and interest are out, I try to get them as quickly as possible. Whenever I happen to visit bookstores, I purchase a great many numbers of titles. I have just finished Siddiq Alam’s Cheeni Kothi and Khalid Javed’s Aik Khanjar Paani Men. These two novels are by Indian Urdu writers and highly recommended. I want to read Delhi-based Urdu writer, Musharaf Alam Zauqi’s new novels Marg-i-Anboh and Murda Khanay Mein Aurat. Rifat Abbas, the distinguished Seraiki poet, has just published his first novel Loon Da Jeevan Ghar (A House of Salt). I can’t wait to read it. Rawalpindi-based literary magazine Loh has brought out a voluminous Novel Number. This, I think, is also a must-read. Neelofar Iqbal’s Siah Sona and Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s Roop Bahroop and Koocha Khali, Shehr Khali are lying at my study table. Patricia Lockwood’s forthcoming novel No One is Talking About This is about the experience of constantly being online. Klara and the Sun is from Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro which is about the artificially intelligent Klara and naturally wise humans. Both books I intend to read soon. Without further delay, I want to read Amir Mufti’s Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures. I just accidentally came across Andreas Reckwitz’s The Invention of Creativity, but I could just skim it. It discusses a very fascinating subject: the relation between capitalism and creativity. Seneca, Eric Fromm, Jorge Luis Borges, Qurratulain Hyder, Orhan Pamuk and Ghalib are my all-time favourites. I'll keep reading their books throughout the year.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Translator and storyteller

It all began with my search for George Simenon’s novels in the local bookshops and online stores. I searched on kitabain.com and purchased four or five novels I found there and also a biography of Simenon. The biographer mentioned that he placed Simenon in the same tradition as Balzac, and the same kind of people followed Simenon’s work who read Balzac in his time. It reminded me of my beloved edition of Balzac’s Droll Stories purchased many years ago from the old books market and lost during one of the many house moves. I searched for it on kitabain.com which had no fiction by Balzac, but three biographies of the man, so I bought all three and started on the one by Graham Robb. It is one of the most delightful author biographies you will ever read, and it made me search for Balzac’s complete works. I was looking for the celebrated Caxton edition of Balzac’s works totalling 53 volumes. I managed to find one bookseller in the UK who sold me the set for a nominal cost and that is my reading pile for 2021. There are some theories about the proper order in which Balzac should be read but I have started with Droll Stories which I believe is the best way Balzac, as I know him, should be introduced to a reader.

Simenon will have to wait another year.

Photo by Christa Holka

Sascha Akhtar

Author, educator and translator

As an artist, I don’t operate on the timeline of the publishing world. Books appear ‘new’ to me when they appear in my consciousness as necessary for the next steps in my own evolution. They may appear in different ways. Here are some books that have ‘appeared,’ that I would like to look into going forward into 2021.

Asha & the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan: the book was awarded a children's book award but it can be read by anyone who is keen on magical realism. It is not often that modern writers with links to the subcontinent pen tales of magical realism, so this will be a real treat.

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes translated by Frank Wynne: Despentes is a star. As far as I’m concerned she stands for all that is to be admired in a woman taking a stand against the patriarchy. And she does this again and again and again. In public, in private – she takes it on; all of it. I can’t wait to read this book.

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa: I had a realisation recently that a great majority of the fiction I was drawn to as a young reader was written by Irish writers. I had not read Iris Murdoch in a while, but every book of hers I did read has informed me as a writer myself. I sense very strongly that this book by a contemporary Irish woman writer, a poet to boot, is going to re-connect me to the kind of writing that only the Irish can do, frankly.

Real Magic: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science, and a Guide to the Secret Power of the Universe by Dean I Radin: “Magic is a natural aspect of reality, and each of us can tap into this power with diligent practice” says the author. How can you not want to read this book!

Soniah Kamal

Essayist and novelist

In novels: Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian Klara and the Sun, which is about a robot who judges humans; Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were, which is set in Liberia and is about immigration; Nancy Johnson’s novel The Kindest Lie, set in ‘post-racial’ Obama era race conflict and parenting; S Kirk Walsh’s The Elephant of Belfast, set during the Blitz and about an Indian elephant and an Irish zookeeper; Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s satire on colourism We Cast a Shadow set in the American South; Cherie Jones’s novel How the One Armed Sister Sweeps Her House deals with class conflict in Barbados. I’m also looking forward to Alka Joshi’s The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, Sonali Dev’s Incense and Sensibility, Uzma Jallaludin’s Hana Khan Carries On, Awais Khan’s No Honor, Saba Karim’s Skyfall, and Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill. In short story collections Alligator by Dima Alyzayat, about Syria and survival. In memoir: Wayeti Moore’s The Dragons, The Giant, The Women; Rajiv Mohabir’s Antiman; Anna Weiner’s Uncanny Valley; Gayatri Sethi’s Unbelonging; and Amrou Al-Khadi’s My Life As a Unicorn. Also on my list are Khaled Muttawa’s poetry collection Fugitive Atlas, Jenny Bhatt’s translation from Gujrati Ratno Doli: The Best Short Stories of Dhemketu; Saadia Faruqi’s middle-grade novel set in Pakistan A Thousand Questions; Shelly Anand’s picture book Laxmi’s Mooch, and NS Vinodh’s biography A Forgotten Ambassador in Cairo: The Life and Times of Syud Hossain, a 1947 freedom fighting and immigrant narrative.

Uzma Aslam Khan

Novelist and non-fiction writer

Here are two of the many books my shelves are stacked with for the coming year. The first is The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar. Though I read this beautiful poem a long time ago, there are few things I love more than birds. This year of quarantine, the birds in my yard and around the pond near my home have made me need to return to this epic, and I look forward to poet Sholeh Wolpé’s newer translation. Another book on my list is All About Love by Bell Hooks, which I’ve already begun. Normally, I shy away from books that are highly talked about. But this book was first published twenty years ago, and there’s a reason for its renewed attention. Our cyclical history of bigotry and hate, racism and misogyny, as well as worldwide protests against these injustices, is inviting some folks to turn the lens in closer. Injustice is harder to talk about when it hits home. Fiction writers, of course, already know this. When we tell stories of harmful normalised “private” practices at home, we refuse to distinguish between personal and political. All About Love spells it out more plainly, through essays, without glossing over the complexities of internalised habits and how they are learned. It is a book that challenges intimate familial and societal paradigms. Though I’ve only just started reading this book, it is one to carry forward, for many years.

Usman T Malik

Sci-fi short-fiction writer and novelist

The year of pandemic, 2020, has been dispiriting to some and devastating to others. Between worrying about work – who didn’t? – and staying ahead of deadlines, I managed to read some excellent books and added others to my To Be Read pile. Without a doubt, the most interesting book I read in 2020 was Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s The Merman and the Book of Power. It is hard to overstate its importance: part novel, partly illustrated bestiary, often a collage of Muslim ontological philosophies and eschatological myths, Merman leaps from one genre crag to another, eventually settling, in the words of Maurice Blanchot, into a book that ‘arises from literature alone’.

Books I’m looking forward to reading in 2021 are:

E Lily Yu’s debut On Fragile Waves: A 'literary' novel with the gentlest ghost of fantasy, it is the story of a migrant family that travels from war-torn Afghanistan to the refugee camps of Australia.

Isabel Yap’s debut story collection Never Have I Ever from Small Beer Press: I’ve been a fan of Yap’s stories since her 2014 story A Cup of Salt Tears, and I know the collection will be excellent.

Saba Karim’s debut Skyfall: Saba’s novel has garnered praise from the likes of Bapsi Sidhwa and McSweeneys’ editor Gabe Hudson, and I’m excited to read her.

The novels of John le Carré: I loved The Spy Who Came in From the Cold some years ago and have been meaning to return to le Carré’s wonderful prose and complex novels. 2021 is the year I binge on all of them.

My reading list for 2021