Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Wednesday, December 1 Dedicated Issue: Astra House Fall '21 and Spring '22 Titles


Astra House: Dedicated to publishing authors across genres and from around the world.

Editors' Note

Astra House

With the support of the publisher, Shelf Awareness focuses on Astra House's fall and spring lists, featuring original works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry that expand beyond genre conventions and broaden and deepen our understanding of the world.

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Books & Authors

Astra House Fiction: 'We Lead with Our Convictions'

Danny Vazquez, an Astra House editor, offers an introduction to the publisher's fiction program:

It's the year 2012 in Adam Soto's debut novel, This Weightless World, when a mysterious signal reaches earth from a planet 75 light years away. Initially received as a sign of hope for a technologically advanced future, the signal eventually stops as abruptly as it had started. A classic science fiction trope that typically leads into a story about a war between worlds, here, is instead turned inward, to examine the lives of a revolving cast of characters. Exploring the everyday effects of a supposed cataclysmic, paradigm-shifting event that ends up not really changing much at all, This Weightless World paints an ugly portrait of human exceptionalism and reveals the destructive, paralyzing effects of capitalism, the confusing realities we've created for ourselves, and the reasons we're so often reluctant to break away from them.

In God of Mercy, Igbo-American author Okezie Nwọka enters into a powerful tradition of magical realist, postcolonial works of fiction. In the novel, we follow the life of Ijeọma and the village of Ichulu, which finds itself at a crossroads, a crisis of warring gods triggered when Ijeoma begins literally to take flight. God of Mercy imagines the condition of African peoples unchanged by external influence into the modern day by way of a village in Igboland that has escaped the exploitation, deprivation, and displacement of colonialism. A celebration of tradition as a marker of cultural identity and an appeal to the value of shifting norms, God of Mercy is a novel about what might become of a people left to design their own future, what conflicts might arise among them as they might have appeared in an alternate timeline.

Our ambition to represent multifaceted expressions of intellectual thought and personal experience are on full display in this stunning pair of fall 2021 debut novels, as in the rest of our fall fiction list. Melissa Lozada-Oliva's Dreaming of You is a novel-in-verse as rock opera as seance, resurrecting Tejano pop star Selena Quintanilla from the dead while exploring and exploding ideas of Latinidad, love, loss, celebrity worship, and disillusionment. And in Jerusalem Beach, Israeli author and neuroscientist Iddo Gefen plays with speculative technologies in deeply humane and often humorous short stories that reveal a world that's just a step from the familiar. At Astra House, we lead with our convictions and we value works that present counter-narratives and original thinking, works that expand beyond genre conventions and broaden and deepen our understanding of the world.

Astra House strives to publish works that challenge readers' expectations, and it is our great hope that readers will find the challenge as rewarding as the experience of being submerged in these expansive fictional worlds.


Astra House: Explore new nonfiction


Astra House 2021 Gift Guide: A Gift Book for Every Reader

When you give a book as a gift, you're giving someone a new perspective, an adventure, an opportunity to light up their imagination and stir up passion. Astra House makes books that invite readers to see the world in a whole new way—and we have a great gift book for every reader.

If Cheryl Strayed's Wild made you long for the Appalachians, visit the Altai Mountains in Northwestern China with Li Juan (translated by Yan Yan and Jack Hargreaves). Winter Pasture is the gift for readers who like travel writing and adventure in faraway lands, and was named one of the Best Travel Books of 2021 by The Washington Post, Smithsonian, and Forbes.

If Etgar Keret speaks to you, get to know Iddo Gefen (translated by Daniella Zamir). Jerusalem Beach is a perfect gift for readers with an interest in Jewish family life across the long 20th century and a penchant for witty critiques of the tech industry.

If you love Mary Oliver's poetry about nature and desire, discover Yu Xiuhua (translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain). Moonlight Rests on My Left Palm is a great gift for readers who like poetry about nature and rural life, with explorations of desire confined to the limits and possibilities of the human body.

If The New Jim Crow opened your mind, Derecka Purnell's new book will be an unforgettable next read. Becoming Abolitionists makes a great gift for readers who are tired of violence and inequality and hungry for real structural change. It was named a Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book and Best, Most Urgent Current Affairs of 2021.

If you are moved by Arundhati Roy's lyrical, unnerving, and deeply humane tales of modern India, allow Saumya Roy to introduce you to the residents of Deonar. One of NPR's best books of 2021, Castaway Mountain is an impossible true love story set against the backdrop of climate catastrophe, a tale that will speak to readers who want to better understand the ways we are all connected.

If you love unique explorations of Latinx identity and culture, try Melissa Lozada-Oliva's new novel in verse. Dreaming of You is just right for readers who want to know the what the latest buzz is all about, and who enjoy self-deprecating humor, juicy gossip, and beloved pop stars resurrected from the dead.

If you love sci-fi and pondering the meaning of life, meet debut author Adam Soto. This Weightless World will captivate readers who enjoy introspective characters; sci-fi plot twists; and musings on the meaning of life on Earth.

If you are moved and inspired by the works of Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison, meet Okezie Nwọka. God of Mercy will speak powerfully to readers reconciling their faith in a higher power with the vile history of religious zealotry and looking for a rich, vibrant world unfettered by colonialism.

If you like queer stories with an edge and Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, meet Iván Monalisa Ojéda (translated by Hannah Kauders) and his/her incredible friends. Las Biuty Queens is for readers who love gritty stories about New York City at night and about friends supporting each other as they try to make it in the big city.

If you love Sally Rooney's socially conscious novels about friendship and desire, get to know Iranian literary star Nasim Marashi (translated by Poupeh Missaghi). I'll Be Strong For You is perfect for readers who like to immerse themselves in coming-of-age stories that center on female friendship.


Astra House: Explore queer voices


Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah on The Sex Lives of African Women

Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah Photo: Nyanyi Quarmyne

Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah is the author of The Sex Lives of African Women, which Astra House will publish in March 2022.

How important was your blog "Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women" to the creation of this book?

The Sex Lives of African Women wouldn't exist if my best friend Malaka Grant and I had not created "Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women." For over a decade I have been encouraging African women to share their experiences of sex and sexualities, and in that time I learnt just how dynamic, complex and fascinating our experiences are. I had also seen African women take agency over their sex lives in ways that I didn't see portrayed in the media, and that is why I wanted to write a book that showed the full complexity of our desires, pleasure and sexual experiences. I hope spaces like our blog, my book and Adventures Live (a festival on sex and sexualities we have convened annually for the past three years) encourage women to continue to explore paths to sexual freedom and liberation.

There is, globally, an oversexualized portrayal of African and African-American women and this stereotype that they are in danger or distress and need to be controlled or "saved." How does your book address these stereotypes?

I think one of the things that is very clear from my book is that African, African-American and Afro-descendant women are saving ourselves. We're pushing back against the societal norms that try to limit us and we're expanding our understanding of our identities, and actively creating models of freedom that everyone else can learn from. Stories by women like Helen Banda, a Zambian woman now resident in the U.S., and Alexis Deveaux, a woman of Afro-Caribbean and African-American heritage, are inspirations for all of us who seek to live radical lives of abundance and pleasure.

The North American edition of your book is publishing in March 2022. What can you tell us about how it differs from the U.K. edition? What are you most excited about when you think about the book being published in the U.S.?

I feel like the North American edition of my book is an entirely new book. Everyone who loved the U.K. edition should also buy the American edition :) Seriously. My incredible editor Alessandra Bastagli pushed me to weave more of my own story in the book and I am so glad I did. Readers will get insights as to why I chose to interview the women that I spoke to, and learn about what I personally took away from all those conversations. I am also super excited about this book speaking to Africans in the Diaspora, and African-Americans and Afro descendants. I feel like we often hear about the Diaspora wars, and this book shows that we have more in common than what divides us. I consciously claim the global African diaspora in this book. As a pan-Africanist, I recognize that we are divided by the legacies of slavery, colonization and migration, and so this book is also to say that we are all family.

Some of the women you interviewed in the book are based in the U.S. Did you notice patterns in their stories and struggles that are unique to American society? In what ways were they similar to the stories of other women around the world?

The main difference between the experiences of women in the U.S. versus the majority of the African continent is the civil rights gains that have been made in the U.S. in regards to LGBTQIA rights. At the same time, we know that legal rights do not always translate to equitable socio-cultural change. Nevertheless, it did feel like folks in the U.S. had more space to navigate openly queer relationships for instance. Overall, there were more similarities than differences, especially in terms of people being raised without much access to comprehensive sex education, struggling to own one's sexuality/taking time to come into one's queer identity because of queerphobia, especially in younger years.

What are you hoping readers in the U.S. will take from your book? What kind of conversations are you hoping readers here will have when they read your book?

I wrote this book because I wanted to continue to create space for African women to talk about sex. A subject that we are often told is "private" and only to be discussed in closed quarters. On the contrary, we know sex is a deeply political issue--it is why some countries try to legislate who we love or choose to have sexual relationships with. I feel that by having conversations about sex we will also learn to take control over our own bodies and pleasure, and that is a radical act of self-love.


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Alejandro Varela: 'Hierarchies Are Harmful to Our Health'

Alejandro Varela Photo: Matias Pelenur

Alejandro Varela is the author of The Town of Babylon, which Astra House will publish in March 2022.

You have a background as a public health researcher. In your writing, from the short story "Carlitos in Charge," as featured in Harper's magazine, to "The People Who Report More Stress'' (from which your forthcoming story collection takes its title), and in this novel, are you following the same interests in your fiction as you did as a researcher?

I have always wanted to make complicated ideas accessible to others. I suspect this has something to do with being a second-generation kid who helped his parents communicate in the dominant language, or being a brown kid in a white neighborhood, or being a gay guy among straight people. If I get them to see that I'm safe, intelligent, American, masculine, etc., they will see how insignificant my differences from them are. But this sort of defensive assimilation was doing myself and my communities a disservice. And yet, that desire to synthesize and communicate effectively remained, and it dovetailed nicely with a career in public health.

Public health work focuses on changing health behaviors, often putting the onus on the individual, but I am more interested in the upstream risk factors, the structural changes that would reduce death and illness across the board—heart disease, cancer, overdose, suicide, occupational deaths, AIDS, etc. Fiction allows me to explore these ideas, in a way that science writing, op-eds, and even creative nonfiction doesn't.

In the acknowledgments in The Town of Babylon, you cite the documentary "The Great Leveller (Paul Sen, 1996), the macaques at Wake Forest, the baboons in the Serengeti, the civil servants at Whitehall, and the residents of Roseto, PA." How did these all influence you?

The Great Leveller is a BBC documentary that was seminal in my understanding of how humans influence one another's health. In brief, hierarchies are deleterious, whether among humans or other primates—baboons and macaques. Animals at the tops of their pyramids are healthier than those at the bottom. The primary mechanism is control: if one feels they have agency over their lives, they are healthier than if they don't. One flaw of hierarchical societies is that if the best health is at the top of the ladder or pyramid, the overwhelming majority of us are destined for poorer health. There are physical costs to being constantly alert or on guard; there's a price to feeling less than or isolated, to not having control over your destiny.

In The Town of Babylon, one character, the Evangelical minister Paul, is a suspect in a long-unsolved murder. Yet, this isn't a work of crime fiction or mystery. Did you struggle to find a balance between the kind of interior, realist mode in which the novel is written and this pulpier more genre element?

Life is full of these extraordinary events and moments, and it didn't initially occur to me that I was crossing genres. There are lives and experiences for whom violence of the kind in the book isn't far-fetched or even uncommon. In that regard, maybe I wasn't dipping between genres as much as I was code switching. Or maybe I was falling back on a desire to please everyone at once. I did my best to be mindful of a shifting tone. I didn't want to promise more than I could give, but neither did I want to offer neat resolutions to violence, which, in our society, are typically about retribution and rarely about justice. That sort of conclusion didn't appeal to me, and certainly wouldn't have appealed to Andrés, the narrator.

In The Town of Babylon, one of the characters is Simone, a Black woman whose family experienced racism that couldn't be escaped via upward mobility or assimilation. As an adult, Simone is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Are there parallels between how Simone experiences the world and how her parents experienced it? Is there something you hope readers come away with about the way we treat race and mental illness?

Racism is a very real and persistent risk factor for poor health. Not only does it lead to death directly, as we've seen throughout history and on the nightly news, it especially affects the health of Black and Indigenous people, who have suffered from the lack of access to suitable housing, employment, education, or food; the dispossession of land and culture; and the chronic stress of being treated second-class. While everyone has a degree of predisposition to illness—whether diabetes or schizophrenia—chronic stress and isolation increase the likelihood of illness and poor health outcomes. Meanwhile, Jeremy, whose life was effectively a downward spiral, collects on the generational wealth of his family, as if society had decided long ago that white people would get an unlimited number of opportunities to succeed, while everyone else would be relegated to a two- and three-strikes paradigm. Racism is an affliction for the perpetrator, too. The need to subjugate one's fellow humans is detrimental to the aggressor. The imaginary town in the book, for example, was a stronghold of good health outcomes and strong community until they self-segregated and isolated those who arrived later. In the process, they introduced insecurity, tension, mistrust where it hadn't previously existed. Their health suffered as a result.

Andrés, the narrator and protagonist, stands outside of the community in which he was raised—ultimately a means of self-preservation. He is outraged by this country and its imperial legacy, by the harms wrought by the mechanisms of capitalism, and by the ways in which harmed people have failed to overcome them. But, he finds his way back into the community. Is there something of a solution to our modern condition in the way Andrés connects with the people of his town?

Andrés is the sort of person who wants humanity to thrive, despite having very little tolerance for humans. He finds it difficult to abandon the people he once knew, but he's also wise enough to understand that he cannot change the world one human at a time. He sees the world's problems primarily as structural ones, not interpersonal. Ultimately, his participation in the town is for the sake of his family and for Simone. Anything else is a social experiment for him. He is inclined to push people to reveal themselves. I believe that if Andrés lived in the town, he'd remain guarded, at least at the beginning. Over time, he might get more involved, make strategic moves, and find himself invested. Maybe. For now, the train back to the city is always waiting for him on Sunday afternoons.


Astra House: Explore our books in translation


Erika Kobayashi and Brian Bergstrom on Trinity, Trinity, Trinity

Erika Kobayashi Photo: Mie Morimoto

Erika Kobayashi is the author of Trinity, Trinity, Trinity, translated into English by Brian Bergstrom, which Astra House will publish in June 2022.

There is an almost poetic style in Trinity, Trinity, Trinity—specifically in the use of line breaks, with sentences that might appear in a single paragraph broken up into separate lines. Is this a device to communicate something untranslatable from the Japanese? Or is the original text as unconventional as the U.S. edition?

Brian Bergstrom: Erika's style is both unique to her and builds on tendencies in modern Japanese writing.

Japanese prose tends toward shorter paragraphs and more line breaks than English, especially in its sense of momentum ("thrillers" are usually written in dramatic short graphs, for example). Traditional Japanese poetry is written in a single line (instead of each 5- or 7-syllable unit getting its own line, as in English translations of haiku or waka), and, like prose, it is written vertically on the page. The shortness of poetic verses means that each poem runs down the page and disappears into the white space below, giving the reader a "space" to contemplate each one before moving on to the next.

Erika's use of single-line paragraphs and sentences broken into single-line fragments introduces this poetic effect into her prose, balancing it against the thriller-like pacing of the story overall. The tension between the two effects is a major achievement and something I tried to replicate in my translation.

In the Japanese edition of Trinity, Trinity, Trinity, there is a list of real-world references in the back matter, an unusual feature for works of fiction. Is this common in Japan?

Erika Kobayashi: This is something unusual in Japanese fiction as well, which made me sometimes feel a bit lonely. However, when I encountered the works of Svetlana Alexievich, they gave me great encouragement to go on. Also friends and critics have brought to my attention other writers whose fiction is based on painstaking historical research, including the Japanese American writer Julie Otsuka and the Korean writer Kim Soom. I've derived great inspiration and courage from reading their work as well.

Bergstrom: Frequently, the most surreal-seeming elements of Erika's work are the ones drawn from history. The bibliography allows readers to explore the depth of documentary history lying beneath her prose's poetic, evocative surface.

There is a distinct connection between Erika's writing and her visual art practice. Her series of photos titled "My Torch" feature the image of a hand with the tip of the index finger lit aflame. This image is featured on the cover of both the Japanese edition of Trinity, Trinity, Trinity and the U.S. edition. What is the significance of this image?

Kobayashi: "My Torch" was part of an installation called "She Waited" that was in the group show Image Narratives: Literature in Japanese Contemporary Art at the National Art Center in Tokyo. The exhibition opened in fall of 2019, coinciding with the release of Trinity, Trinity, Trinity in Japanese. I created "She Waited" in tandem with Trinity, Trinity, Trinity, and a visual presentation of it, along with the accompanying text in Japanese and English, are available online at the Chic Magazine website.

Incidentally, the hand in "My Torch" is my hand, and the photograph was taken as I physically lit it on fire. I was inspired by a chemistry experiment described in Richard Feynman's book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!.

Trinity, Trinity, Trinity takes place at the time of the 2020 Summer Olympics, which were held in Tokyo a year later due to the outbreak of Covid-19. How have the events of the last year affected this? Are there any messages in the book that readers might connect to the upheaval and loss of the last year?

Kobayashi: Seeing Olympic flags all over Tokyo that read "2020" in big letters during the summer of 2021 made me feel like I was living in a piece of science fiction. I've been told by many readers that Trinity, Trinity, Trinity struck them as a kind of prophetic work. People reading it during the time the Olympics actually opened were even more disturbed, saying that it was as if what I'd written had become reality.

Seeing adults and children walking the streets in masks due to COVID-19 reminded me of seeing the same thing happening after the earthquake in 2011. During that time, children from Fukushima faced bullying and discrimination due to concerns that they'd "infect" others with radiation; cars with license plates showing that they were from Fukushima were frequently vandalized. The same thing happened in the COVID-19 era when cars from the Tokyo area were spotted in other parts of Japan.

Bergstrom: Reading and then translating Trinity, Trinity, Trinity over the course of 2020 was a strange experience. Erika's speculative version of the 2020 Olympics incorporates many elements that were "real" in the sense of "really planned," which at the time she wrote it was meant to ground the more fantastical elements in a concrete reality, as well as show how strange that "reality" actually was. But with their postponement, the "real" Olympics as they exist in the novel became the only place they remained.

The postponement of the 2020 Olympics brought to mind the cancelled 1940 Tokyo Olympics, which play an important role in the novel as well; the layering of real and speculative versions of various Olympics through the years is a major part of the novel that only grew more eerily resonant as these newest "real" Olympics became more and more speculative themselves.

Erika's parents were the primary translators of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels into Japanese. Did that affect her writing style?

Kobayashi: I grew up in a small house in the Tokyo suburb of Nerima, surrounded by cabbage fields and modest apartment buildings, eating oranges while tucked cozily beneath the blankets of the heated kotatsu table; at the same time, though, it also felt like I was living in 19th-century Victorian London (though I didn't get a chance to visit London until I was in my twenties!).

Watching my mother and father sit at the kitchen table translating Sherlock Holmes stories was, to me as a child, like witnessing magic itself.

Seeing the words of those no longer living come back to life through books struck me as something close to spiritualism (and after all, Arthur Conan Doyle was a devotee of spiritualism himself in the latter part of his life). For this reason, seeing my own words given new life in translation, including Brian's wonderful translation into English, fills me with such joy, as if I'm seeing myself reborn.


Spring 2022 Preview

Broken Halves of a Milky Sun by Aaiún Nin (2/1/22)
With the emotional undertow of Ocean Vuong and the astute political observations of Natalie Diaz, a powerful international poetry debut exploring the effects of racism, war, religion and colonialism on the body and mind. Born in Angola and now living between Poland and Denmark, Nin speaks to the universal vulnerability of existence.

The Sex Lives of African Women by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah (3/1/22)
A singular, subversive book that captures the rich tapestry of sex positivity among African women and is a monument to women's liberation and self-expression. Sekiyamah gathers testimonies from 30 women from the African diaspora and around the world, framing them with her own experience. In these confessional pages, women control their own bodies and pleasure, and assert their sexual power.

The Town of Babylon by Alejandro Varela (3/22/22)
A debut novel about domestic malaise and suburban decline, following Andrés, a gay Latinx professor, returning to his hometown for a twenty-year high school reunion. An examination of the essential nature of community in maintaining one's own health, The Town of Babylon is an intimate portrait of queer, racial, and class identity, a call to reevaluate the ties of societal bonds.

Stalking the Atomic City by Markiyan Kamysh, translated by Hannah Leliv and Reilly Costigan-Humes (4/5/22)
Like a real-life Trainspotting, a rare portrait of the dystopian reality that is Chornobyl today, and the marginalized people who now call the "Exclusion Zone" their home. Complete with a map and stunning personal photographs by the author, Stalking the Atomic City is a haunting account of what total autonomy could mean in our increasingly fractured world.

Golden Age by Wang Xiaobo, translated by Yan Yan (5/31/22)
Like Charles Bukowski or Jack Kerouac, Wang Xiaobo is a Chinese literary icon whose humorous and controversial work ruminates on a shifting China in the late 20th century. Xiaobo used the awkwardness of sex as a metaphor for all that occurred during the Cultural Revolution, placing Golden Age in the great pantheon of novels that argue against governmental control.

Trinity, Trinity, Trinity by Erika Kobayashi, translated by Brian Bergstrom (6/28/22)
A speculative literary thriller unpacking the implications of the past and continued effects of radiation, Trinity, Trinity, Trinity follows the lives of three generations of women connected by blood, history, and nuclear power as embodied by the relay torch from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a symbol of Prometheus's fire.

Identitti by Mithu Sanyal, translated by Alta Price (7/19/21)
An international bestseller, this satirical debut follows the unraveling of a German Indian student whose world is upended when she discovers that her beloved professor (who passed for Indian) is, in fact, white. A darkly comedic tour de force, Identitti showcases the outsized power of social media in the current debates about identity politics and the power of claiming your own voice.


Astra House: Winter Pasture: One Woman's Journey with China's Kazakh Herders by Li Juan, translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan

Astra House: Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom by Derecka Purnell

Astra House: Dreaming of You: A Novel in Verse by Melissa Lozada-Oliva

Astra House: God of Mercy by Okezie Nwoka

Astra House: This Weightless World by Adam Soto

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