This was the year, as Wesley Morris pointed out in the New York Times, of “a great cultural identity migration” — it was a year we wrestled with identity. This fact is everywhere evident in our independent literature — take, for example, John Keene’s exploration of race and historical identity in Counternarratives, the year’s best work of short fiction, independent or otherwise. Or Maggie Nelson’s much celebrated The Argonauts, which wrestles with family, queerness, and gender-fluidity by way of a courageous act of autotheory. It’s worth pointing out, too, that these examples, like many others on this list, rely on hybrid or altogether new forms of writing. Migrating identities, in other words, require migrating forms.
This is why I’ve chosen to include independent nonfiction on this year’s list. It’s also why I haven’t shied away from selecting from a wealth of translated fiction. National identity, or identities that build and dissolve within foreign borders, likewise migrate — sometimes into English. And they shouldn’t be ignored.
Here is your list of the 50 best books from independent presses that I knew of — or managed to remember — from 2015.
Binary Star, Sarah Gerard (Two Dollar Radio)
One of the breakout American independent books of the year. Gerard handles her subject matter — the cavernous nature of relationships, politics, the material and psychological condition of the body — with the care of an author who refuses to write down to her readers.
Counternarratives, John Keene (New Directions)
This collection of historical short fiction is the year’s best. Sharp, often funny, with erudition for miles, these counternarratives reconsider everything from Mark Twain to Langston Hughes, passing through Brazilian slavery and magic in between.
The Infernal , Mark Doten (Graywolf)
A polyphonic novel about war and torture that reads even better the second time through. Doten demonstrates remarkable control over his many voices.
Signs Preceding the End of the World , Yuri Herrera (And Other Stories)
One of 2015’s best works of translated fiction. Herrera’s novel comes with an emotionally shattering protagonist. It tells the story of her passage across the US-Mexico border, and how her own state changes as she changes states.
The Complete Stories , Clarice Lispector, trans. Katrina Dodson, ed. Benjamin Moser (New Directions)
The ineffable Lispector, truly one of the great mid to late modernists, and one of the great 20th-century writers from South America — or anywhere, really — gets her due with this collection of short stories. My favorite is one where the narrator admits to be being the mother of God.
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove)
Narrated by a double agent in the wake of the Vietnam War, this debut will be read for years. A literary spy novel for the dextrous mind.
The Story of the Lost Child , Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa)
A fitting conclusion to her landmark series of violent, Neapolitan novels, which may be the great literary cycle of our lifetimes.
Sphinx, Anne Garréta, trans. Emma Ramadan (Deep Vellum)
An exceptionally well-reviewed novel, this genderless “love story” (and work of Oulipian fiction) has been, if anything, underrated.
The Things We Don’t Do, Andreas Neuman, trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Open Letter)
Even better than his novel The Traveler of the Century. Neuman’s stories, which deal with everything from family to death to psychological breakdown, are just shockingly good. And they’re unlike anything you’ve ever read.
Mort(e) , Robert Repino (Soho)
A posthumanist novel about a militarized cat.
Half an Inch of Water, Percival Everett (Graywolf)
Wonderfully precise and self-altering stories from arguably our most consistent writer.
The Story of My Teeth , Valeria Luiselli, trans. Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)
Forms and genres collide in this often hilarious experimental fiction from one of our most consistent young writers. It tells the story of an auctioneer and his collection of teeth, but it doubles as a kind of labor theory of art and writing.
The Only Ones, Carola Dibbell (Two Dollar Radio)
When was the last time you read a novel that called to mind Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and deserved to? Of the many post-plague novels to read this year, this is the most recommended.
Beauty Is a Wound, Eka Kurniawan, trans. Annie Tucker (New Directions, September 8) / Man Tiger, Eka Kurniawan, trans. Labodalih Sembiring (Verso)
Two searing novels from one of the world’s great young talents. They read like Peter Weiss passed through Gogol. Sex and violence and preternaturally engaging storytelling from Indonesia.
Vertigo, Joanna Walsh (Dorothy)
Understated and measured — until what you’ve just read accumulates on its own in your mind — Walsh’s fiction achieves a perfect balance of experimentation and story. One of the English-language debuts of the year.
The Sleep of the Righteous, Wolfgang Hilbig, trans. Isabel Fargo Cole (Two Lines)
Hilbig’s fiction is brutal, materialist, and unrelenting. It’s also strangely beautiful, not unlike the novels of Laszlo Krasznahorkai, one of his biggest fans.
Rails Under My Back, Jeffery Renard Allen (Graywolf)
Originally published in 2000 by FSG, this reissued novel is a feat of musical language and a must-read on the level of Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth.
Two stories of rurality from one of our most interesting and consistent young writers. If you like your acid mixed with humor and violence, read Haints Stay — the best Western published this year. Increasingly, Winnette’s America is the only one I recognize in fiction.
A School for Fools, Sasha Sokolov, trans. Alexander Boguslawski (NYRB Classics)
A work of genius voiced by a narrator and his double — simultaneously. It’s a Joycean work that unravels in fits and starts, but always beautifully. Sokolov, one of the great living Russian writers, lives in exile in Canada. This is a great place to start.
Captivity, György Spiró, trans. Tim Wilkinson (Restless Books)
There is no shortage of Hungarian masters writing enormous novels — Krasznahorkai and Nádas immediately come to mind — but Spiró’s epic road novel stands on its own. A picaresque that doubles as a kind of Jewish history, it’s remarkably still a page-turner.
Rock, Paper, Scissors, Naja Marie Aidt, trans. K. E. Semmel (Open Letter)
After discovering Aidt’s Baboon last year, I’m now a lifelong reader of her poetic, sometimes violent fiction. This, her first novel, about a discovery made after a criminal father’s death, somehow reminds me of a grownup version of The Night of the Hunter.
Oreo, Fran Ross (New Directions)
This hilarious satire of race and gender roles is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read from the 1970s. Ross, who wrote for Richard Pryor, here tells the story of a girl born to Jewish and black parents who travels from Philadelphia to New York City in search of her father.
Drawn and Quarterly: 25 Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels (Drawn and Quarterly)
Eight hundred pages of the world’s best cartoons, comics, and graphic novels from the 25-year-old archive of Drawn and Quarterly. It’s self-explanatory.
Extracting the Stone of Madness, Alejandra Pizarnik, trans. Yvette Siegert (New Directions)
One of the year’s most valuable unearthed treasures, this collection of Pizarnik’s tense, often emotionally brutal poems is not to be missed.
Black Cat Bone, John Burnside (Graywolf)
Burnside, a Scottish poet, won the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for this intense collection, which includes a poem about a hunter losing himself in the forest that ranks among the best of the decade.
Fantasy, Ben Fama (Ugly Duckling Presse)
If one of the hallmarks of recent poetry is its tonal two-dimensionality, here Fama achieves something slightly deeper, a fascinating shallow depth that betrays the mundanity and unwanted pain of life at the edge of a crumbling technocracy.
DEAD HORSE, Niina Pollari (Birds LLC)
“Nature bores me,” Pollari writes in this collection, which only gets better as it moves forward. The body, one would think, does not. Reading Pollari is sometimes (literally) like watching a poet eat herself.
Swan Feast, Natalie Eilbert (Coconut Books)
Eilbert’s poetry moves from a “behind the scenes” quality of writing life through moments of confession and into real or hyperreal experiences of the speaker’s body — sometimes in reverse. After reading even a few of her poems, your mind may begin to trace the same course of body and thought.
CAT TOWN, Sakutarō Hagiwara, trans. Hiroaki Sato (NYRB Poets)
A short, indispensable collection of sometimes crushingly sad poems from a Japanese master, expertly translated. Ignoring Hagiwara is like ignoring Eliot, except maybe worse.
The Last Two Seconds, Mary Jo Bang (Graywolf)
More playful, interesting, and intellectually alive than the vast majority of poetry written this year, Mary Jo Bang’s collection — which deals with what the title suggests: time and death — is also among the funniest and most serious.
C’est la guerre, Danniel Schoonebeek (Poor Claudia)
Poetry of conviction and detail, with a sense of history that is more powerful because it is never overbearing. Writers like Maggie Nelson and Wayne Koestenbaum know: Schoonebeek has been writing major poetry for a while now.
i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where, Uljana Wolf, trans. Sophie Seita (Wonder)
This is poetry, as its excellent publisher explains, written between German and English, which is to say that it finds its depth and playfulness — and seriousness — in the liminal zone of the unsayable. Wolf is a genius. Here’s the tiniest example:
they say surplus, i say bloody overplus, blossom guff. they ruffle and puff up pillows, i hiss: what can all this green stuff be?
Tender Data, Monica McClure (Birds LLC)
McClure has a lock on the pain and surprises born from the clashing, tectonic stupidities of 21st-century life. There is a poem here called “Blue Angel” — reading this collection does sometimes feel like listening to Marlene Dietrich mock Josef von Sternberg, except McClure plays both roles. This is to say that, like von Sternberg, her camera shoots at point-blank range.
Visions and Revisions: Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS , Dale Peck (Soho)
Peck’s collagist memoir is formally precise, daring, funny, and brimmed with unforgettable observations of love and sex during the AIDS epidemic. One of the best and least conventional memoirs of the year.
After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction , Renata Adler (NYRB)
One of the most important postwar writers (and prose stylists), Adler here covers everything from generational silliness to civil rights in the South. It’s all the harder to put down because it sometimes boils your blood.
City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis , ed. Stephen Squibb and Keith Gessen (n+1)
A bevy of young writers chronicling the disaggregation of American life and politics in the wake of the financial crisis. It’s almost like reading a novel of social realism from the 1930s translated into to post-crash American nonfiction.
Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal , Wendy S. Walters (Sarabande)
Many of the best nonfiction works this year worked in elements of fiction (or other forms of form-splicing), but none more shrewdly than Walters’ collection, which looks through race and gender to find the absurd, frankly surrealist genius loci of American life.
Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution, Michael Denning (Verso)
Denning, one of our great cultural histories, here digs into the audiopolitics of decolonization. It’s a must-read for any crate-digger.
I Can Give You Anything But Love, Gary Indiana (Rizzoli Ex Libris)
Known to be one of our sharpest critics, Indiana is better pitched as one of our best prose writers — he just happens to have impeccable taste. He also happens to have lived a packed and entertaining life. You’ll come for his anecdotes about Cuba, Susan Sontag, and Werner Schroeter, but there is no reason, really, to leave.
The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson (Graywolf)
A formally precise and thematically manifold work of autotheory, Nelson’s book will be discussed as if it is brand new for decades. There is certainly not a more exploratory book about gender-fluidity, sexuality, and the political possibilities of the family that I know of.
Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich, trans. Keith Gessen (Dalkey Archive)
Dalkey reissues a seminal work from the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize, originally published in 2006. A chorus of voices in the wake of nuclear fallout, it confirms the Nobel committee’s assertion that Alexievich invented a literary genre.
Trans: A Memoir , Juliet Jacques (Verso)
A remarkable book not in the least because it eschews narrative expectations in favor of a much richer, more diverse story that includes art and culture and sports alongside trans politics. I have friends who were teaching it in schools a month after its release.
Speculations (“The future is ______”), Triple Canopy (Triple Canopy)
A major collection of speculations on the future — which is to say, the present — by an array of well-regarded thinkers and writers. Speculations was put together by Triple Canopy, an insistent, intellectually rigorous, and often surprising publisher and online outlet that demands to be read on the regular.
When the Sick Rule the World, Dodie Bellamy (Semiotex(e) / Active Agents)
Bellamy switches between the humorous and the painful on a dime in this sui generis collection of writings on everything from E.T. to Kathy Acker’s wardrobe.
Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, Hal Foster (Verso)
One of the year’s best critical-historical collections of art-writing. This is the place to go if you want a taxonomy of contemporary art — and a healthy argument about its political viability — in the last few decades.
The Internet Does Not Exist, e-flux (e-flux)
e-flux is known in the art world for its experimentally minded yet sane essays on developments in art and theory — essays often written by artists themselves. In this collection, they tackle the state (or non-state) of the Internet and its attendant impact on art.
The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy , David Graeber (Melville House)
Here Graeber, who seems to only get better as a writer, considers the unholy marriage between capitalism and bureaucracy. It will thankfully baffle partisans of the prevailing left vs. right divide.
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, Jessica Hopper (Featherproof)
Hopper moves through a range of forms to deliver a smart, entertaining update on the contemporary scene in this much-needed collection. It’s the second in what promises to be a long career of music books.
The Next Next Level, Leon Neyfakh (Melville House)
This short, entertaining book about the author’s relationship with rapper Juiceboxxx is actually a post-aesthetic treatise on the many binaries we’ve constructed — necessarily or not — for art in the Internet age.
Chameleo: A Strange but True Story of Invisible Spies, Heroin Addiction, and Homeland Security , Robert Guffey (OR Books)
Is this book nonfiction, really? I don’t know. Either way, its truths are hard to ignore. A paranoiac tale of heroin addiction, the unrelenting intensity of needless state surveillance, and, ultimately, friendship, Chameleo might be the funniest — and in some ways the saddest — book of the year.