20 Small Press Books from 2020 You Might Have Missed
Help independent presses survive by catching up on the year’s best books
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There’s no denying that this is a rough—if not catastrophic—year for many businesses, from mom-and-pop-run local eateries to huge corporations like Macy’s. But as the Washington Post noted, a national array of bookstores and readerly good-will has helped Bookshop.org raise millions for indie book businesses. Luckily for us, this means that the indie publishing industry is also being kept somewhat afloat; like 2019, it’s still an exciting time for diverse works from smaller presses.
With the intense influx of news, you might have missed some of these exciting titles. (Dare we make a joke about 20/20 vision?) Below, we’ve curated a list of 20 books from 20 independent presses to round off your 2020 reading list.
The Brooklyn-based indie press publishes urban literary fiction and political nonfiction, focusing on voices that are typically ignored by mainstream media or go against the corporate publishing world.
The Schrödinger Girl by Laurel Brett
Laurel Brett’s debut novel features Garett Adams, a psychology professor in the 1960s, who is faced with a dilemma: a young woman, Daphne, seems to multiply into four different versions of herself, each accompanied by a different timeline. Is Daphne’s existence(s) scientific proof, a part of Garett’s research? Or is it all self-delusion? The Schrödinger Girl illuminates, explains, and juggles complex concepts with ease, leaving readers pondering the multiple realities after the book is finished.
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat
The books division of Catapult—an organization that also offers writing classes and community, as well as a digital magazine—publishes “award-winning fiction and nonfiction of the highest literary caliber.”
Zaina Arafat’s debut novel features a bisexual Palestinian American narrator who struggles with self-destructive love addiction. Her girlfriend leaves after discovering evidence that the narrator has cheated on her, prompting the narrator to check herself into rehab for love addiction, which doesn’t quite deter her from picking up and discarding numerous other lovers as she moves to the Midwest for graduate school and then back to New York. Meanwhile, she craves the approval of a perpetually disapproving Palestinian mother who won’t acknowledge her queerness. This isn’t a coming-out story or an immigrant story, but one about a complex, messy protagonist caught between identities and homelands, obligations and desires.
Coffee House Press
Dedicated to community inclusivity (check out their virtual programming!), the Minneapolis-based press aims to widen “the definition of what literature is, what it can do, and who it belongs to.”
Sansei and Sensibility by Karen Tei Yamashita
Sansei and Sensibility combine a few of our most favorite things in a dazzling array of short stories: Jane Austen, a re-imagined Mr. Darcy, and Yamashita’s energetic prose. Karen Tei Yamashita takes Austen’s themes and sets them against a multicultural California landscape of the 1960s and 70s; beloved canonical characters are re-cast as Japanese American immigrants. Throughout the collection, Yamashita explores the question of inheritance—of how and what we inherit from our cultures, families, and histories—with poignant insight and humor.
Berkeley-based Counterpoint Press is author-driven and devotes their energy to “fresh, cutting-edge, and literary voices,” publishing fiction and nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and anthologies.
The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun, translated by Lizzie Bueler
In The Disaster Tourist, Yona Ko works for the South Korean company Jungle, which specializes in creating tour packages to destinations that have recently experienced some major disaster. After she speaks about a sexual assault by her boss, she is sent to evaluate a Vietnamese island that once had a sinkhole to assess whether it is still a worthy inclusion in Jungle’s portfolio. There, she discovers that desperate islanders who fear losing the business of Jungle tourists are planning to engineer a new sinkhole during a festival that might kill at least 100 people.
Deep Vellum Publishing
This Dallas-based non-profit emphasizes the importance of cross-cultural communication and translated literature. They’ve also recently awarded 43 emergency grants for Texas writers in response to COVID-19.
The Ancestry of Objects by Tatiana Ryckman
The Ancestry of Objects is both urgent and lyrical, braiding together themes of consent and control, family ghosts, and epic tragedy. A young woman starts an affair with a married man she meets at a restaurant. Within that same week, she can’t stop thinking about ending her own life. Tatiana Ryckman’s darkly erotic new novel questions what it means to survive, and the ways in which we split our identities to do so.
In addition to publishing innovative new fiction, the Detroit-based non-profit runs an online literary journal and multiple literary programs. The name, “Dzanc,” was formed from the five initials of the founders’ children.
The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall
The Snow Collectors combines a Gothic murder mystery narrative with the impending doom of environmental crisis. Henna goes to a forested, ever-snowing village to forget about the loss of her family; far from finding peace, she discovers a dead body and becomes involved with finding out the truth behind the Franklin expedition, a long-ago Arctic expedition. Tina May Hall’s prose is dreamily haunting, conjuring up ghosts, danger-tinged snowy landscapes, and eerie beauty.
Perhaps the most well-known in the U.S. for publishing Elena Ferrante’s The Neapolitan Quartet, Europa Editions was founded in 2005 in Italy. Europa Editions is dedicated to bringing a wide range of international voices to British and American publishing markets.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar
Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2020, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree explores the connections between the dead and the living. The novel is narrated by a ghost, 13-year-old Bahar, who tells the story of an Iranian family in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Set amidst the chaos of post-revolution and oppressive violence, Azar’s novel examines how to process trauma through storytelling.
Based in New York, this non-profit has been publishing feminist works and pushing for equality since 1970; they pride themselves on “books that ignite movements and social transformation.”
Apsara Engine by Bishakh Som
Apsara Engine is a graphic short story collection centered on women and gender-diverse characters. Bishakh Som blends South Asian mythology with contemporary reality, featuring half-human creatures, futuristic worlds, postcolonial cartography, time traveling tourists—and more. Som’s fiction debut is strikingly illustrated, full of sepia-toned watercolors, and poses questions about gender, bodies, and dualities.
Graywolf—a Minneapolis-based indie nonprofit publisher—specializes in poetry, literary fiction and nonfiction, and works in translation for adventurous readers.
Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth
In Deb Olin Unferth’s latest novel Barn 8, a rebellious teenager from Brooklyn ends up working as an auditor for United Egg Producers after heading to rural Iowa to find her deadbeat dad. Incensed by the conditions the chickens are kept in, she joins forces with the disillusioned head auditor and a band of animal rights activists, vegans, a farmer’s daughter out for revenge, and others to rescue 900,000 hens.
Red Hen Press
Red Hen Press sees literature as an essential human practice and is “committed to publishing works of literary excellence, supporting diversity, and promoting literacy in our local schools” in the greater Los Angeles area.
Subduction by Kristen Millares Young
In this debut novel by Cuban American journalist Kristen Millares Young, Mexican American anthropologist Claudia flees Seattle for the Olympic Peninsula Makah reservation after her husband leaves her for her younger sister. She hopes to disappear into the whaling village of Neah Bay under the cover of interviewing an elderly woman she had previously befriended, aware of her connection to all the well-meaning but flawed interlopers of Neah Bay’s past. When the woman’s son also returns home seeking answers about his father’s murder, the two begin a complicated affair that ultimately highlights the awkwardness of Claudia’s presence in the community, problems with cultural appropriation, and the limits of her hopes of belonging there.
Founded in 1936 by James Laughlin as a series of anthologies, New Directions Publishing “relaunched many classics with introductions by contemporary authors” and “proudly publishes great literature from around the world.”
The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd
The Hole is the latest novel by Akutagawa Prize-winner Hiroko Oyamada. In it, a young woman named Asa quits her job so she and her husband can live closer to his job, in a house her in-laws have generously offered that also happens to be right next to theirs. Trapped at home all day, Asa has bizarre encounters with her husband’s family, about whom she knows very little. One day, she falls into a hole and meets someone there. This surreal, atmospheric literary thriller is a fresh take on the domestic suspense novel that builds to a neat, satisfying conclusion.
Other Press is an independent publisher of literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that “attracts authors who are guided by a passion to discover the limits of knowledge and imagination.”
Beside Myself by Sasha Marianna Salzmann, translated by Imogen Taylor
In this debut novel by German playwright and essayist Salzmann, a young woman travels to Istanbul to hunt for her lost twin brother Anton. Gender-changing drugs are for sale on the streets, and as Ali wanders around looking for Anton, her own gender begins to break down and open up. The history of Anton and Ali’s family—who left the USSR for West Germany in the face of rising anti-Semitism after Stalin’s death—is woven into the present day events, as Ali navigates political upheaval and searches for connection and belonging.
Seven Stories is a literary and political press named for the first seven authors “who committed to a home with a fiercely independent spirit” (Octavia E. Butler among them).
The Emotional Load by Emma, translated by Una Dimitrijevic
French cartoonist Emma gained international attention a few years ago when her cartoon blog post “You Should’ve Asked” went viral, highlighting how women often get submerged under the mental load of being the household task manager. In her second full-length translated graphic narrative, Emma explores everything from the burden of care placed on women to rape culture to police violence and green capitalism.
Soft Skull Press
Soft Skull Press publishes books in every genre that “engage art, culture, and current events in new and radical ways.”
Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, translated by Polly Barton
Aoko Matsuda’s linked story collection Where the Wild Ladies Are (a reference to Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are) offers up a subversive, feminist reimagining of traditional Japanese ghost stories and folktales. In one story, a woman sleeps with the ghost of another woman who was killed by a man she refused to marry. Almost all the narrators are twists on stereotypes about women, such as a jealous wife or an overly talkative middle-aged woman, and many are linked to one another in clever ways throughout the collection.
Originally founded as a literary journal in 1999, Tin House is now an acclaimed publisher, leader of workshops and seminars, and a podcast partner. They are based in Portland, Oregon.
A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
A Girl is a Body of Water is a feminist epic centered on Kirabo, a young Ugandan girl, who starts questioning her origins. Kirabo has been raised by the women in her village, but struggles with the absence of her mother. In her quest to find answers, Kirabo starts spending more time with the local village witch, who teaches her about the “first woman.” Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi explores what it means to honor one’s heritage and traditions, and what it means to come-of-age as a young woman in 1970s Uganda.
The Oakland-based non-profit, founded in 2015 by two MFA friends, is “committed to the discovery and promotion of enduring works that carry readers across borders and communities.”
Include Me Out by María Sonia Cristoff, translated by Katherine Silver
In Include Me Out, Argentine writer María Sonia Cristoff probes deeply at the idea of female silence. Mara, an interpreter, decides to conduct an experiment on herself: to be silent. She moves to a rural town in Argentina and becomes a museum guard, in order to speak as little as possible; however, it becomes trickier to keep her self-imposed rules when she must help re-embalm two highly-prized museum artifacts.
Two Dollar Radio
Two Dollar Radio, founded in 2005 by a husband-and-wife team, has a mission to “reaffirm the cultural and artistic spirit of the publishing industry” by “presenting bold works of literary merit, each book, individually and collectively, providing a sonic progression that we believe to be too loud to ignore.”
A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt
A History of My Brief Body is a genre-bending memoir in essays from Billy-Ray Belcourt, a queer man from the Driftpile Cree Nation and Canada’s first First Nations Rhodes Scholar. Belcourt writes about his identity and sexuality, about family connections that defy colonial brutality, about racism in online dating and medical care, and much more, ultimately calling on readers to imagine what a world without such structures of oppression might be.
Two Lines Press
Run by the Center for the Art of Translation, Two Lines Press is dedicated to “finding dazzling new, overlooked, and underrepresented voices, brought into English by the best translators” and to celebrating the often unsung work of literary translation. They publish both “exceptional new writing and overlooked classics that have not previously been translated into English.”
Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong, translated by Natascha Bruce
Lake Like a Mirror is the first story collection by Malaysian author Ho Sok Fong to appear in English. Her stories follow a dreamlike logic, full of eerie images and otherworldly elegance, and are pointedly political. One tells of women straying from the Muslim faith who are sent by religious authorities to a rehabilitation center—complete with cats yowling at the edges—where one woman walks naked and unimpeded at night, guards unsure how to apprehend her.
The L.A.-based publishing house, founded in 2014, aims to publish both new and established voices that “challenge conventional perspectives while appealing to a broad general audience.”
A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers
A satire of foodie-ism and gender norms, A Certain Hunger makes for a delicious—albeit twisted—read. Chelsea Summer’s debut is about an established food critic, Dorothy Daniels, who is passionate about both sex and good food. Dorothy, an unashamedly smart woman who is unafraid to claim that “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” discovers a morbid taste that leads her down a darker path than Michelin-starred restaurants.
Founded in 1970, Verso is a leading force in independent radical publishing.
Burn It Down! Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution edited by Breanne Fahs
Burn It Down! Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution is an inclusive, comprehensive collection, containing over 75 feminist manifestos that span a vast time period, beginning from Sojourner Truth’s speech in 1851 and ending in the present. Editor Breanne Fahs states, “The feminist manifesto is impolite by nature.” These documents are a testament to the lasting power of female rage and the action-filled potential of unabashed female ambition.