Electric Lit’s Most Popular Posts of 2021

RO Kwon, Malavika Kannan, and Nadia Hashimi wrote some of the most read essays and book lists of the year

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In a year marked by epic highs and devastating lows, we’re taking a look back at our archives to see the essays, reading lists, and interviews that resonated the most with you, our readers. In a time of both hope and turmoil, you looked for reading lists to help you make sense of the world, from combating anti-Asian violence to books that center the voices of Afghan women. You read essays that reckon with the colonial legacy of English and how the myth of universality favors white women. But alongside our insightful pieces grappling with racial equity and feminism, we also published fun, entertaining fare, like seasonal literary horoscopes and a round-up of the coolest literary tattoos on the internet.

Here are our most popular posts of the year, starting with the most read:

1. Please Just Let Women Be Villains by Elyse Martin

In our most popular post of the year (by a lot!), Martin writes about why Hollywood can’t allow women to revel in their wickedness without adding a gratuitous redemption arc. In her essay, she analyzes how rehabilitated villainesses rely on outdated ideas of women’s virtue:

“American culture tends to want to explain away the evil actions of women—mostly fictional women, but sometimes real ones—because female villainy rests uncomfortably with lingering cultural perceptions of women’s purity and virtue.”

2. Please Stop Comparing Things to “1984” by Rachel Klein

Klein, a former high school English teacher, writes that George Orwell’s classic novel is no longer the cautionary tale it was intended to be—at least not in high school classrooms:

“A reading of 1984 in an American classroom has almost always brought with it comparisons between our system of government and the ‘evil’ regimes against which we’ve historically placed ourselves in relief; we read it as being about those people, not about us.”

3. 43 Books By Women of Color to Read in 2021 by R.O. Kwon

This perennially popular book list, curated annually by R.O. Kwon, has become an Electric Literature tradition. As more and more people are increasingly intentional about diversifying their reading habits, Kwon’s reading list is one of the best resources for readers:

“My extravagant hope is that, one day, publishing will be so inclusive, so much more reflective of an increasingly and splendidly diverse country, that we’ll have no need for such a list.”

4. The Coolest Literary Tattoos on the Internet by McKayla Coyle

We asked our readers to send us their book inspired tattoos and boy did they deliver! Favorites include ink inspired by Langston Hughes, Angels in America, Phillis Wheatley, and the Wayside School series:

“Books and tattoos have one major thing in common: ink. Maybe that’s why book-lovers like getting literary tattoos so much. I asked our social media followers to send us their literary tattoos. I expected ten, maybe twenty responses. Instead, we got over 250. 250! Our feed was all skin and ink for days.”

5. Chinese Cooking Helps Me Connect With My Mother—And Helps Me Prepare to Lose Her by Nicole Zhu

Michelle Zauner’s memoir Crying in H Mart helped Zhu cope with anticipatory grief after her mother was diagnosed with cancer:

Crying in H Mart made me realize how important it was to cook, to root myself in some form of action. Finally, here was something tangible I could do that wasn’t wallowing or weeping. Building muscle memory and a reference point for different tastes were ways I could hold onto my mom and by extension, my Chinese culture. In this limbo of anticipatory grief, there could also be joy.”

6. Why Do I Write in My Colonizers’ Language? by Anandi Mishra

Growing up in India, Mishra was taught to view English as more ambitious and educated than Hindi—but now she struggles to reckon with its colonial legacy:

“For my family, friends, relatives, and teachers, English was seen as a language of access. It could land you better jobs, remove limitations, and open up avenues. English speakers were high achievers, often conflated with the colonizers who ruled over us for about 200 years. It was ironic that the language of our colonizers was seen as aspirational, something that could lift us out of the discomfort that our parents’ mid-level jobs put us through. In reading all the subjects at school in English, we were made to understand that English was the language of possibilities.”

7. “When Harry Met Sally” Makes Adult Weekends Aspirational by Bekah Waalkes

To Waalkes, Meg Ryan’s iconic romantic comedy isn’t about fall at all, but it’s really about what adults do with their leisure time over the weekend:

“Weekends might be the background for the film, but they’re also what makes the relationship possible. Sure, When Harry Met Sally wants us to think that a scene at the Met is important because it’s the first time Harry asks Sally out. But if we can look past the plot of the film, we’ll see a relationship that unfolds over weekends. With Harry and Sally, weekends are an opportunity for connection, for catching up.”

8. Move Over, Poe—The Real Godfather of Gothic Horror Was Nathaniel Hawthorne by Adam Fleming Petty

Most famous for his iconic novel The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne’s lesser known, eerily prescient short stories examined “the supposed innocence of the early American character” in search of the “darkness that lies beneath”:

“Hawthorne was the descendant of New England Puritans, including his great-great-grandfather John, who served as a judge of the infamous Salem witch trials. Hawthorne’s familial guilt over being involved in such a grotesque undertaking colors much of his work.”

9. In Praise of “Murder, She Wrote,” My Pandemic Lullaby by Hannah Berger 

In this essay, Berger examines what it is about Jessica Fletcher and her murder-solving escapades that she found particularly comforting during sleepless nights in the early months of the lockdown:

“The comfort in Murder, She Wrote is in what is known. We know that there will be a murder, a motive, and a confession. Jessica uncovers the truth as if she’s brushing dust off a fossil. All it takes is time.”

10. A Literary Guide to Combat Anti-Asian Racism in America by Jaeyeon Yoo and Stefani Kuo

In 2021, reports of anti-Asian hate crime has risen by more than 164% in the United States (and in New York City, that increase is a staggering 361%), but anti-Asian discrimination has a much longer history in the United States. Yoo (a former intern at Electric Literature) and Kuo curated a reading list of fiction and non-fiction for readers to gain insight into the systematic structures of racism, inequity, and oppression operating against Asian Americans:

“In the last year, the Asian American community has seen an onslaught of verbal harassment and physical attacks, triggered by the onset of COVID-19—still called ‘the Chinese virus’ by many Americans…

We’ve compiled this list as a way to better understand the deep roots of Asian American discrimination in the U.S. We hope we can help amplify the urgent need to acknowledge anti-Asian racism and the complexity of Asian American identity today.”

11. Your Summer Reading Horoscope by McKayla Coyle

We’re obviously past the summer at this point, but if you’re looking to relive the sunny days, why not start with a summer reading horoscope divined by Coyle, our social media editor and resident astrologer:

“As both a Virgo and a lesbian, I love talking about books, and I loved talking about astrology, and I’m always right. Therefore, you can be assured that this list is scientifically accurate and you’ll definitely love the books assigned to your sign. I’m not here to tell you who you are, I’m just here to tell you what to read.”

12. I Love Sally Rooney’s Novels, But They Aren’t Written For Me by Malavika Kannan

Why aren’t we seeing branded coffee trucks and bucket hats promoting the books of women of color? In this essay, Kannan writes about the hype around Normal People and how the myth of universality keeps white women at the center of the literary ecosystem:

“If you are an angsty white girl seeking media representation, there’s never been a better time to be alive. But if you are a girl of color like me, you’re more pressed for options—while authors like Akwaeke Emezi, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jacqueline Woodson are writing us gloriously into narratives, few of them receive Rooney levels of hype or status. For a time I wondered: Where are the Normal People of Color?”

13. 7 Novels that Subvert Social Norms by A. Natasha Joukovsky

What is it about crossing the boundaries of acceptable social behavior that we find so irresistible? Joukovsky recommends books that resist the pressure to conform:

“What norms and etiquette convey, above all, is social class. It is no wonder that bad manners offend us so profoundly. A subversion of social norms is tantamount to a subversion of society, a threat to our delicately calibrated place in the world. And yet, we are often drawn to taboo even in its repellence, be it due to schadenfreude or morbid curiosity; it seems to be a fundamental aspect of human nature that sheerly being told not to do something makes us all the more attracted to the idea.”

14. 7 of the Best Mystery Novels Set by the Sea by Emma Stonex

It’s clear that our readers are craving a seaside vacation. From lighthouses and ocean liners to mysterious Thai islands and the glittering Mediterranean, Stonex recommends books that revolve around the seascape:

“I might argue that the sea is literature’s greatest character, living as she does among the best mysteries ever written. And yet she is modest. She rarely takes center stage. Instead, she washes around the drama’s edges, an ever-present, ever-changing companion. She is a shining, shifting backdrop, quietly reflecting all that’s worth knowing about the story and its players.”

15. I Got an Artificial Intelligence to Write My Novel by Erik Hoel

In his experiment, Hoel tested GPT-3 to see if the natural language processor could write his debut novel. He discovered that it didn’t do a better job than him—but we should maybe be worried that it didn’t do much worse:

“Consider that when I was born, language, whenever I encountered it, was always generated by human consciousness. When I die, will most language come from a source separate from consciousness? Things that speak and things that feel are now entirely dissociable. I grew up in my mother’s independent bookstore, so to me this is anathema, a debasement of the holy. Why is no other writer in the world freaking out about this new Babel?”

16. 8 Books By and About Afghan Women by Nadia Hashimi

Written five months before Afghanistan fell into the control of the Taliban, Hashimi’s reading list of literature that centers the lives of Afghan women is more important than ever:

“In a time when Afghan women have been forgotten from the world’s consciousness and priorities, it feels more vital—either as an act of protest or desperation—to collect books that center them.”

17. Why New Fiction Is Making Mothers into Monsters by Rachel Mans McKenny

In this essay, McKenny examines novels and short stories that are using horror to convey how utterly dehumanizing motherhood can be and to question what the act of the mothering transforms women into:

“Motherhood is monstrous this year—an impossible debit when emotions and workloads are already maxed out. The only word that comes to mind is horrific, and the literature that helps me come to grips with this time period weaves in elements of horror.”

18. 7 Books About the Partition of India and Pakistan by Anjali Enjeti

The Partition is the largest human migration in history, cleaving the British Raj into India and Pakistan. In her reading list, Enjeti recommends literature about the severing of the Indian subcontinent that “capture some of the most harrowing events of the era, but also the courage, sacrifice, and generosity of the human spirit.”

“What I hoped to convey is how Partition has lived on. It is not so much an event in the past, but one that continues to influence the descendants of those who survived it.”

19. 10 Stories About Hunger and Hustle in the Restaurant Industry by Karen Tucker

For the past two years, we’ve hailed restaurant workers as heroes for performing the essential work of keeping us fed and giving us a place to gather. But The Great Labor Shortage of 2021 has made it clear that the restaurant industry as a whole can’t survive without structural labor reform. In this reading list, Tucker recommends books on the good and the ugly of working in food service:

“What I want to share with you here are some stories that capture the powerful highs—and crashing lows—of food service, as well as the intoxicating tug of restaurant life and why it’s often so difficult to quit.”

20. A New Graphic Novel Shows the History of the Black Panther Party by Jennifer Baker

David F. Walker and Marcus Kwame Anderson’s graphic novel The Black Panther Party charts the history of the Black Power organization from its 1966 inception in Oakland to its demise over a decade later. Former contributing editor Jennifer Baker interviews the authors about how the past repeats itself:

“I would like young people to look too, as they wonder why nothing has changed in their mind, look at why it hasn’t changed. Look at what’s happening. Look at what happened to the Panthers, understand how they were infiltrated, how they were turned against each other. And know that those same tactics are being used against you right now. 

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