|photo: Emily Poland
Zak Salih lives in Washington, D.C. His fiction and essays have appeared in The Millions, Foglifter, Crazyhorse, the Chattahoochee Review, the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books and other publications. Let's Get Back to the Party (Algonquin, February 16, 2021) is his debut novel.
On your nightstand now:
There's something reassuring about a healthy stack of books on my nightstand--even if it ends up taking me months to get through it. Right now, those books are Watership Down by Richard Adams, G. by John Berger, Frost by Thomas Bernhard, Where the Stress Falls by Susan Sontag, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross, The Recognitions by William Gaddis, Heaven's Breath: A Natural History of the Wind by Lyall Watson, Crossing by Pajtim Statovci and Poems: 1962--2012 by Louise Glück.
Favorite book when you were a child:
The Ghost-Eye Tree by Bill Martin Jr., John Archambault and Ted Rand. A nervous boy and his sister cross town in the middle of the night to fetch a pail of milk and have to make their way past a wicked and ominous tree. As a boy being read to by his mother, I was terrified by the book; as an adult on the doorstep of 40, I'm terribly nostalgic for it.
Your top five authors:
I tend to avoid ranking authors, as my list of favorites can easily change between books or days--or breaths, even. Still, given how many of their books I have on my shelves, I would count among them Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, W.G. Sebald and Susan Sontag. Each of them, I like to think, has helped shape the way I write and read.
Book you've faked reading:
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I still have bookmarks on page 284 (of the novel) and page 1,002 (of the footnotes). There's a manic energy to Wallace's writing that ramps up my own anxiety; after a time, I start to feel trapped inside his head. I suspect that's why I've only been able to finish his stories and essays.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, which I could easily read every Sunday morning. There's something devotional about this novella: its brevity, its language, its uncanny embodiment of the American myth. And oh, God, that final scene, where the wolf-boy howls before a laughing carnival crowd, "the originating ideal of all such sounds ever made."
Book you've bought for the cover:
I was tardy to the Alan Hollinghurst fan club, but I eventually arrived. I have the cover to the first American edition of The Stranger's Child (designed by Chip Kidd, with its beguiling, effaced portrait by Eugene Speicher) to thank for that.
Book you hid from your parents:
If we're including books hidden in plain sight: The Vampire Armand by Anne Rice. I was in love with the title character; or, at least, with the detail of Mercury's face from Botticelli's Primavera on the cover. The erotic gay sex scenes early in the novel quickly became daily after-school reading for me.
Book that changed your life:
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (alas, no relation). I was a sophomore in college when I discovered this short novel in a world lit course. Up to then, I had only a passing interest in my Sudanese heritage. How stunned--and proud!--I was to come across this anti-colonialist retelling of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a psychosexual revenge tale in which a Kurtz-like Sudanese man sets out to "liberate Africa with [his] penis."
Favorite line from a book:
"Out, vile jelly!" from Act III, Scene 7 of William Shakespeare's King Lear. I remember our high-school English class reading this play aloud, and I can still hear the preternaturally deep voice of the girl who played the part of the Duke of Cornwall saying this line, then mock-blinding the student who played the Earl of Gloucester.
Five books you'll never part with:
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih and T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. For all the reasons noted above.