I came back from my short birthday vacation on Monday morning with a copy of Natalie Hopkinson’s A Mouth Is Always Muzzled on my desk. I’m not sure who left it, nor am I sure how folks always seem to know what’s on my book list, but I’m grateful for whoever this mystery samaritan happens to be. (Thanks and keep them coming, please.)

A former staff writer, editor and culture critic for The Washington Post and The Root, Hopkinson is an assistant professor in Howard University’s graduate program in communication, culture, and media studies (related but unrelated: she also connected me with HU’s brilliant Taryn Myers for CASSIUS’ Black Etymology in May). As her book cover explains, Muzzled parses how art fosters optimism amid turmoil. “Part postcolonial manifesto” and “part history of the British Caribbean,” Hopkinson’s sharp meditation also taps painter Bernadette Persaud, poet Ruel Johnson, historian Walter Rodney, among others, in order to provide an explorative narrative detailing art’s role in present-day politics.

“The book began as a project for the Interactivity Foundation (IF), a nonprofit based in West Virginia where I am a fellow,” Hopkinson explained to The New Press in January. “The topic was the ‘Future of the Arts & Society.’ I convened many, many panel discussions with artists, including one in Guyana (formerly British Guiana) when I was on an extended family visit in 2011. That was when I first connected with the young writer and activist Ruel Johnson, who won his second Guyana Prize for Literature soon after.”

A couple years later, The New Press’ Julie Enszer approached Hopkinson about developing the arts project into a book-length treatment. Hopkinson then made her way back to Guyana, where she connected with Guyanese painter and writer Bernadette Persaud.

“The best part is getting to hang out with art and artists. They are the best,” Hopkinson continued. “I also love getting to understand history, to unfurl all of the craven dimensions of sugar in the past and its legacy today.”

Since its inception, the book has gone on to receive glowing reviews from The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews, who called the book “an impressively rendered story about imperialism in general and cultural imperialism in particular.”

You can read Hopkinson’s full New Press Q&A here. When you’re done, you can also head to Amazon to purchase her new book, officially out today. As for me, I’ll be diving in as soon as I finish reading A Wrinkle in Time ahead of Ava’s film. Oh, and ICYMI here’s everything else we’re looking forward to reading this year.  🤓

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