Amitava Kumar on Fiction, Truth, and Fake News

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Amitava Kumar tends to talk about his forthcoming novel, A Time Outside This Time, as if he’s still in the process of writing it. He says he’s “going to” try to achieve certain effects with it. He says “I will” adopt certain narrative strategies. He poses provisional questions: “What form do I give,” he asks, to the story he wants to tell?
It’s a curious tic but, given the novel’s subject matter, it’s not surprising. A Time Outside This Time, set primarily in the first half of 2020, is about the global proliferation of fake news and the writer’s obligation to combat it. Rather than examine the vagaries of our moment from a retrospective distance, the novel allows itself to be shaped by them, navigating events—the Covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, the last breaths of the Trump presidency—as they unfold. No wonder Kumar describes his novel as if he’s still writing it: the story he’s telling is still happening.
“I’m going to put down the news,” Kumar says via Zoom from a hotel room in Sewanee, Tenn., where he’s teaching a class at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. “I will put everything down as it is occurring—there will be an immediacy—but also I’m doing something that is artistic, or cunning.”
The book’s protagonist is a writer much like Kumar who is at work on a novel much like A Time Outside This Time. When readers first encounter the narrator, Satya, he’s staying at an artist’s retreat in what appears to be Lake Como, Italy, near a mansion owned by George and Amal Clooney. (The Clooneys’ Lake Como house is becoming something of a fixture of the literary landscape. It also figured briefly in Ayad Akhtar’s 2020 novel Homeland Elegies.) Satya describes his work in progress as a “report from the world of #fakenews”—a book “made up entirely of rumors. A compilation of fatal falsehoods.”
What follows is a pastiche of memoir, journalism, and diaristic note taking. Satya thinks back to his childhood in India, recounts two reporting assignments during which he was fed deceptions, and, in a long chapter of numbered fragments, gathers anecdotes and ephemera about literature, history, and political misinformation, juxtaposing images, quotes, and tweets from @realDonaldTrump.
Satya’s goal, he says, is to “slow-jam” the news (a phrase taken from a recurring segment on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon). By lingering on current events and framing them in surprising contexts, he aims to “perform the news so that it reveals its inner self.”
“Why,” Satya asks, “must one slow-jam the news? Because all that is new will become normal with astonishing speed.”
With this multimodal approach, Kumar, 58, feels he’s landed on his literary form. But it took him a while to find it. He began his career in academia, arriving in the U.S. from India in the late 1980s to pursue a master’s in English at Syracuse University. After completing a PhD in comp lit at the University of Minnesota, he held teaching posts at the University of Florida, Penn State, and elsewhere.
But Kumar found the language of scholarship constricting. “I was generating writing that had the consistency of freshly mixed cement,” he says. “I wanted to do something more inventive.”
Kumar’s bibliography is, like A Time Outside This Time, a mix of reportage, cultural criticism, and fiction. His books include Passport Photos, a genre-blending investigation of postcolonialism and migration; Husband of a Fanatic, an autobiographical reflection on Hindu-Muslim relations in India; and A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb—partly an account of two suspected terrorists and partly a study of 9/11’s effect on art and culture.
Kumar’s breakout novel, Immigrant, Montana, published in 2018, laid the groundwork for A Time Outside This Time; it too intersperses its narrative with essayistic digressions. The New Yorker called the book, somewhat perplexingly, a “nonfiction novel” and compared it to the work of autofiction eminences Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti.
Kumar isn’t quite comfortable with the term autofiction. (Novelists charged with writing it tend not to be.) “What is usually presented as autofiction is narrowly a story of the self,” he says. “I wanted to mess with that idea. I’m not someone who is describing getting up from this table, making tea, going into the bathroom, coming out, making a call to my wife.”
Though Satya does provide reports from the interior—about his fitful work on his manuscript, his conversations with his fellow artists in residence, his reading of Orwell’s 1984, and his life with his wife and child—his focus for the most part is on the avalanche of fake news engulfing the U.S. and India. As Covid-19 runs rampant, Trump minimizes the crisis and then touts the benefits of hydroxychloroquine. In India, rumors spread that the virus can be detected by satellites or eradicated by candles, and baseless accusations lead to the lynchings of Muslim men. In an afterword, Kumar cites Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 election “by a lot.” He need not spell out what that lie led to.
Satya’s question is how fiction can counteract fake news. Both, after all, are deviations from the truth. His answer is that fiction seeks to expand the mind while fake news seeks to shrink it. “Unlike literary fiction,” he says, “what we call fake news most deeply conforms to a popular prejudice. It is formulaic, often sentimental, and has about it a quality of sickening repetitiveness.”
Kumar elaborates. “The state is a writer of bad fiction,” he says. Its heroes and villains, he adds, tend to be what E.M. Forster called “flat” rather than “round” characters. “They would be shut down in a fiction workshop. My fiction must be more protean, more imaginative, more accurate than what the state produces.”
Having grown up in India and written about that country extensively, Kumar observed the effects of mass deception and demagoguery before the rise of Trump. “The sun rises earlier in India every day,” he says. “What happens in America is going to follow exactly what happens there.”
While his form is fiction and his subject is fake news, there’s nothing imaginary, for Kumar, about the consequences of misinformation—of mob mentality and media subservience and historical erasures and revisions. At one point during this conversation, he picks up the galley of his book and reads aloud a passage:
“You notice one fine day that all the signs on the road have changed. Your town has a new name. Dogs have grown fat on flesh torn from corpses lining the street where you grew up. The beautiful tree outside your window is dead, has been dead for a long time, and has, in fact, just now burst into flames.”
“None of this, unfortunately,” Kumar says, “comes from my imagination.”
Bonus Links:
Amitava Kumar, Collector of Writerly Advice Distilled Into One Line
Geopolitics and Sex, Geography and Desire: On Amitava Kumar’s ‘Immigrant, Montana’

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Living on the Margins with Ruth Ozeki

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For several months after Ruth Ozeki’s father died in 1998, she began hearing his voice calling her name. She’d be typing or folding the laundry, and she’d turn to look for him. He wasn’t there. “It was startling whenever it happened,” she recalls, “and also comforting.” It was painful, as well.

“I’d remember he was dead and feel a rush of sadness, like I was losing him again,” says Ozeki, 65, speaking over Zoom from her home in Northampton, Mass.

This haunting experience offered the germ of the idea for Ozeki’s fourth novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness—out in late September from Viking. It follows Benny, a mixed-race teenager who begins to hear voices after his Japanese father dies. At first he hears the voice of his dead father. Then he begins to hear the emotions of material objects—a table leg, a pair of scissors. Then he begins hearing from a book, which helps narrate this heartbreaking coming-of-age story.

The novel is told through a captivating conversation in itself. Benny talks to the book in some chapters; in others, the book talks back to him, often offering advice to a young man muddling through his teenage years.

“I can’t think of many other writers who are such magical storytellers,” says Paul Slovak, an executive editor at Viking, who read an early draft of The Book of Form and Emptiness two years ago. (Ozeki sold it on a six-page proposal in 2015.) Slovak, who edited the novel, is particularly impressed by its structure. “I love working with writers who want to find new ways of telling stories,” he says, adding that this book is “somehow playful and deeply serious.”

Playful and serious are two words that also describe Ozeki herself. She often speaks of her work in a lighthearted way. “Books don’t come to me quickly,” she jokes, referring to the eight-year gap since she published her widely beloved third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, another bildungsroman. It was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

According to Slovak, A Tale for the Time Being has sold more than 300,000 copies. It’s also been praised as “exquisite” (the Los Angeles Times), “intellectually provocative” (the Washington Post), and “masterfully woven” (O, the Oprah Magazine). It centers on a 16-year-old Japanese girl who plans to kill herself after being bullied, but before she does so, she begins to document her great grandmother’s life.

“It touched a nerve with young readers,” Slovak says, adding that it’s been chosen by many colleges as suggested reading for freshmen.

The tour for A Tale for the Time Being also inspired aspects of The Book of Form and Emptiness. At an Ann Arbor, Mich., book signing, Ozeki found herself explaining to an audience that her stories often come to her in voices. Characters talk to her in her head, and a book slowly forms. Unexpectedly, a man stood and shared that his son also heard voices but found it distressing rather than welcome. This led Ozeki to consider the intersection between what we identify as madness and creativity. She remembered this man and his son as she began to craft Benny and research the phenomenon of hearing voices.

Ozeki already knew writers often heard people talking in their minds; some authors go so far as reporting entire conversations they have with those they’re writing about. She believes it makes for the magic of dialogue, and it’s something she experiences regularly. “There’s always a whole cast of characters carrying on inside my head,” she says, her cheery meditative spirit evident as she sits in her sunny, sparsely decorated home office. She’s also a Zen Buddhist priest and radiates calm in conversation.

Some discoveries in Ozeki’s research fascinated her. She discovered that, though hearing voices is often pathologized as a form of schizophrenia, it’s also an experience that’s been reported by such historical figures as Joan of Arc, Freud, and Gandhi. “The more I learned about voice hearing,” Ozeki says, “the more I realized how many people hear voices but are never diagnosed with anything.” This, she adds, gave her a desire to “widen our appreciation of neurodiversity.”

But in the novel, Benny doesn’t see anything magical about his situation. He’s deeply disturbed by it, sometimes slamming his palms over his ears to make the voices around him stop. If objects have feelings, Ozeki shows us, they’re not always happy ones.

For Benny, the voices become too much, and at one point in the novel he winds up institutionalized. This painful (yet entertaining) section was inspired by Ozeki’s own experience living in a psychiatric ward after she developed severe anxiety at boarding school as a teenager. “It was like finding myself in a prison,” she says of those years.

After he’s released, Benny takes refuge from the voices by spending hours, sometimes entire days, in the public library. This, also, was inspired by Ozeki’s own biography. She spent hours in the library as a child and then worked in her college library. She recalls time spent deep in the stacks, stringing together book titles into “found poetry” and sketching out characters for future novels. “I don’t think I was a very efficient worker,” she says with a laugh. And yet, libraries have always been a “place of powerful magic” for her.

Carole DeSanti, Ozeki’s longtime editor who left Viking before she finished her draft of The Book of Form and Emptiness, says she’s watched Ozeki grow with each novel she’s published, noting that the biggest leap came with her last one. Still, it’s her originality that continues to draw readers to her work. “Her voice is lively and immediate, funny, global, and radical,” DeSanti says.

Ozeki began her storytelling career as a filmmaker. After working on a string of B movies and Japanese commercials in the 1980s, she maxed out two credit cards to finance her own movies in the ’90s—one of which, the documentary Halving the Bones, went to Sundance.

She credits those years with helping her learn how to keep a plot moving. “It’s like my mind is a camera, and when I write a scene, I’m visualizing the angle of the shot, and the framing, and the movement,” she says. “Is it a wide establishing shot, or an extreme close-up? Is the camera tracking the action, or are the shots locked off and static?”

Feeling overwhelmed with her struggling finances as a filmmaker, Ozeki began writing a novel, hoping the sale of the book would help her pay her way out of credit card debt. It wound up launching a new career. Her debut, My Year of Meats, was published by Viking in 1998; it follows a Japanese American documentary filmmaker hired by the American beef lobby to make promotional TV shows for the Japanese market. In 2003 Viking released All Over Creation, a story about a teenage runaway returning home as an adult to her estranged parents.

When asked her why many of her characters seem to exist on the periphery of society, Ozeki doesn’t hesitate. “It’s directly reflective of my experience growing up,” she says. She’s the daughter of a white father and Japanese mother, and she explains that when she was young, a Japanese girl could be pretty and polite, good at math and music, but not loud or obnoxious or rebellious. When she lived in Japan after college, she realized she was entitled to be all of those things—similar to the way her character, Benny, begins to accept all of the different sides of himself, even the voice hearing.

According to Ozeki, her life has always been lived on the margins. “But the margins can be a wonderful place,” she says. “The view is always better from the outside.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Disinformation Nation: On Francine Prose

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In June 2017, while Americans were furiously debating former FBI director James Comey’s testimony on Capitol Hill, the writer and critic Francine Prose offered a staid, almost schoolteacherly response to the hearing. In the New York Review of Books, she presented a close textual analysis of Comey’s testimony and his exchanges with the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, dissecting word choices and rhetorical tics. What did he mean by the word honest, what did former president Donald Trump mean by the word loyalty, and why exactly did Republican senators repeatedly assert that Trump was “not under investigation”?
At times, Prose wrote, the hearing served as a reminder that politicians could still “speak in complete sentences” and “strive for linguistic and moral clarity.” At other times, it reflected what she described as an “impoverished and debased public discourse: cryptic, incoherent, evasive, designed to prevaricate.”

Prose’s interest in the uses and misuses of language, both political and literary, drives her forthcoming novel, The Vixen. In it, she asks, how can language be used to reveal truth, how can it be used to obfuscate, and how can we—readers, citizens—parse the difference?
Over the course of her nearly 50-year career, Prose has emerged as a kind of guardian angel of the written word. (Like Usain Bolt and Anthony Weiner, she was born with a last name that practically spelled out her professional destiny.) A distinguished writer in residence at Bard, she is also a former president of the PEN American Center, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the author of more than 30 works of fiction, nonfiction, children’s literature, and criticism, including Reading Like a Writer, her now-classic primer on literary analysis.
Speaking via Zoom from her home in Upstate New York, Prose says she wrote The Vixen as a way of thinking through the “horrible polarization of our era, the threats to free speech from everywhere,” and Americans’ sense of being persistently “lied to.”
The Vixen takes place in the 1950s and centers on a recent Harvard graduate named Simon Putnam who, thanks to a well-connected relative, lands a job at a prestigious book publisher called Landry, Landry and Bartlett. Simon, born to a working-class Jewish family on Coney Island, feels out of place at the company, where the people highest on the totem pole tend to be “Protestant and rich.” But, with his Gentile last name and WASP-y good looks, he manages to blend in, and he labors in the hope of one day entering his superiors’ ranks.
Simon’s sense of alienation is also political. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg have just been executed, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy is still conducting his anti-Communist reign of terror. Simon takes umbrage at the treatment of the Rosenbergs—in large part out of sympathy for his mother, who went to school with Ethel and who believes “McCarthy is the devil.” But he understands that, given the paranoid climate, one word of even mild skepticism about the Rosenbergs’ guilt could spell his doom.
Simon’s political loyalties are soon put to the test when his boss, Warren Landry, gives him his first book to edit. The novel, titled The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, is plainly a work of propagandistic trash. Written by a mysterious debut author named Anya Partridge, it depicts Ethel Rosenberg as a scheming, traitorous nymphomaniac. Warren concedes that the book is bad, but he hopes that, given its topicality and sensationalism, it will sell well and shore up the house’s ailing finances. Simon senses that his job, and by extension his career, will hinge on his ability to shepherd the book to readers with its terrible prose polished but its odious politics intact.
Prose has long been in interested in the ways history can be distorted. Her novella collection Guided Tours of Hell, for example, touches on how the Holocaust has been commodified. “Turning historical tragedy into something kitschy—I’ve thought about that a lot,” she says.

In a sense, The Vixen is of a piece with Prose’s time-hopping, peripatetic oeuvre. To review her bibliography is to undergo a kind of geographic, temporal, and perspectival whiplash. She’s written about a rabbi in 17th-century Poland (in Judah the Pious), a creative writing professor navigating contemporary sexual politics (in the National Book Award–finalist Blue Angel), and a female race-car driver who collaborates with the Nazis (in Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932).
In another sense, though, The Vixen is Prose’s most autobiographical novel. Like Simon, she was born in Brooklyn and attended Harvard. And, like Simon’s mother, hers knew Ethel Rosenberg.
“They graduated from Seward Park High School together, so I would hear about her,” Prose explains. “And I’m old enough to remember her execution. It was a big thing in our house. It was always in the back of my mind.”
Given how upset her parents were by the Rosenbergs’ executions, Prose was wary, she says, of centering a novel on the case. “In a way, I had to write about something that was exploiting it to feel that I wasn’t exploiting it,” she adds.
Prose litters The Vixen with passages from the novel Simon is editing, showcasing the exploitation at hand. In one excerpt, Esther—as the Ethel stand-in is called—wraps her arms around the bars of her prison cell “like the serpent in the Garden of Eden” and flaunts her “ample, shapely breasts.” Prose also leaned on her own experiences in publishing to inform Simon’s.
“The most directly drawn-from-life incident in the novel is when Simon goes out with his uncle to lunch and he drinks too much,” Prose says. “That happened to me. My editor, Harry Ford, took me out to a restaurant. I wasn’t a drinker. I ordered a whiskey sour and we split a bottle of wine. And then I fell over.”
As Simon tries to refine the novel—largely by deepening Esther’s character in a bid to do Ethel a kind of justice—complications accumulate. He falls in love with the novel’s erratic author and eventually discovers that Warren’s motives for publishing the book aren’t strictly commercial: Landry, Landry and Bartlett isn’t the only institution that stands to benefit from the release of an anticommunist bodice ripper.
Prose sees resemblances between Simon’s era and our own, with their shared partisan mistrust, divisive misinformation, and scapegoating. Being in a time similar to the McCarthy years is partly what enabled her to write about them. “Here we are, and there we were,” she says. “The fact that the Rosenbergs were being executed and it wasn’t entirely proven what they’d done—that they were just being executed as some example of what could happen to you if you did a certain thing—was horrifying for people. I think that the cascade of horrors wasn’t as fast and intense as it has been in the last few years. Horrors had a kind of resonance that they’ve lost, because now we’re on a kind of 24-hour horror cycle.”
Like Prose’s essay on the Comey hearing for NYRB, The Vixen makes an implicit argument for good writing, and even good editing, as a form of political defiance. As Simon revises Anya’s novel, he begins to see his clandestine editorial effort as “my protest, my low-key revenge, my barely visible act of resistance.”
At the same time, Simon comes to realize that writing, whether it seeks to reveal the truth or distort it, is ultimately a method of persuasion with a single rhetorical toolset. In a climactic moment, one character tells Simon that the most effective political lies are the ones that make use of a memorable “detail”—that shibboleth of the creative writing workshop.
“One of the things you think about when you’re writing fiction is, how do you make things believable?” Prose says. Peddlers of political misinformation ask themselves the same question.
By giving her own novel the same title as the salacious one Simon is editing, Prose forces the reader to consider the fine dividing line between literature and propaganda. She also illuminates the dangers inherent in writing both—in writing, period. After all, the fate-sealing charge against Ethel Rosenberg was that she’d typed up some notes for her brother.
As one character in the novel puts it, “How bizarre, that typing can get you in so much trouble.”
Bonus Link:
Albania the Beautiful: Francine Prose’s ‘My New American Life’

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Found in Translation: On Jhumpa Lahiri and ‘Whereabouts’

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In 2012, after a run of successful story collections and novels, including 1999’s Pulitzer-winning Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri embarked on a daring experiment. Having studied Italian off and on since graduate school, she decided to move with her husband and children to Rome, where she would immerse herself in the language and, eventually, write a book in it.

Many people in Lahiri’s life, understandably, advised against this plan. By jettisoning English, she was effectively laying down the tool of her trade, exchanging it for one that would be far more cumbersome. It was as if a tennis star had opted to compete with a ping-pong paddle.
At first, the going was indeed tough. As Lahiri recalled in her 2016 memoir, In Other Words (written in Italian and translated into English by Ann Goldstein), “In spite of my great enthusiasm for living in Rome, everything seems impossible, indecipherable, impenetrable.” Writing in Italian, she says in the book, made her feel “like a child, like a semiliterate.”
Over time, though, Lahiri made enough progress to speak, think, and compose in her adopted tongue. Besotted by the country and language, she ended up staying in Rome for three years. By the time she returned to the U.S. in 2015, she’d started a novel in Italian. That book was published in Italy in 2018 as Dove mi trovo; Lahiri’s English translation of the work, titled Whereabouts, is being released by Knopf in May.
“When we first moved, I thought, ‘I’d like to live in Rome for a year,’ ” Lahiri says via Zoom from her home in Princeton, N.J. “Instead, it’s had this completely profound, ongoing influence on my personal life, on my family life—on life.”
Lahiri’s experiment has also had an influence on her writing. Fans of her fiction will be glad for Whereabouts, her first novel in eight years, but they may be surprised by the book’s subject matter and style. Traditionally, Lahiri’s fiction has centered on the experience of Indian immigrants in the U.S. and their descendants. Her work has also tended to sport all the accoutrements of realist fiction: named characters, defined settings, glimpses of a larger, outside world.
Whereabouts, by contrast, is about an Italian woman—a person itching to leave her birthplace, rather than one struggling to adjust to an adopted home—and, at just over 150 pages, is unusually brief. The book, divided into 46 chapters, is deeply inward looking, and it contains little in the way of personifying or geographic detail. The reader is not given the narrator’s name, for example, and, were it not for a few telling words, such as piazza, one might not know it is set in Italy. Near the end of the book, when the narrator, a middle-aged writer and professor, tells her mother she’s leaving the country for a fellowship, she describes her destination simply as somewhere “on the other side of the border.”
Lahiri, who directs the creative writing program at Princeton University, has “always been interested in space and place,” she says. That interest has roots in her biography. She was born in London to Indian immigrants and raised in Rhode Island, where she felt the dissonance between her Bengali household and her American environs acutely—a dissonance she would go on to explore in her work.
“Are we in India or are we in New England? That’s always been a preoccupation of mine,” Lahiri says. In Whereabouts, though, she “wanted to look at place differently” and to “render things in a more abstract way.”
That decision may have been informed by the circumstances of the book’s composition. After she returned to the U.S. from Italy, Lahiri embarked on a period of dizzying peregrination. For a while, she commuted regularly from Brooklyn to Princeton, where she’d started teaching. On top of that, she flew back to Rome every six to eight weeks, as if carrying on a long-distance relationship with the city. It was there that she’d work on the jottings that, over time, became Whereabouts. “I think one of the reasons I didn’t want to specify the place was that I, in the writing of this book, was in no specific place,” Lahiri says.
For all its geographic abstraction, Whereabouts does emphasize place on a more local level. The chapters are headed by prepositional phrases (“At the Museum,” “On the Balcony”) that provide concrete backdrops for the narrator’s meandering reflections—about her foredoomed attraction to a married friend, about the trauma of her father’s early death.
Lahiri started out using these titles intuitively. But she observes that, for a language learner, prepositions—those words describing our proximity, our positionality, our place—can pose a special challenge, and thus attain a special meaning. “Unless you’re born with the language, they can escape you,” she says.
After years of studying and writing in Italian, does Lahiri now feel like a native speaker? In In Other Words, she writes, “I can write in Italian, but I can’t become an Italian writer.” Nevertheless, she feels that, at this stage, her “center of gravity” has moved to someplace between English and Italian.
For example, when she was first immersing herself in the language, Lahiri found it “impossible” to write in Italian while in the U.S. But she recently completed another book in Italian while in Princeton, having been grounded stateside by the pandemic. “That feels like a real shift for me,” she says. And, after Whereabouts was published in Italy, she felt she’d come far enough in her linguistic journey to attempt to translate it herself. “Something told me I should try.”
In attempting this feat, Lahiri joins a rarefied group of writers—including Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, and Argentine writer J. Rodolfo Wilcock—who have learned new languages, composed texts in those languages, and then translated them into their principal tongues.
Initially, Lahiri had apprehensions about the task. “I was worried I couldn’t hear the book again in English,” she says. But she found it “pleasantly challenging.” She likens the experience to suiting up for a walk in the snow only to find that the weather is warmer than you’d expected. “I put on all of my layers and braced myself and walked out the door and then—‘Oh, it’s actually a nice day.’”
Still, Lahiri values the difficult, early days of her apprenticeship. If she feels remade as a writer, it’s because learning Italian has forced her to part with some of her certainty and some her authority. “I’m always trying to get back to that place where I really wasn’t sure of anything,” she says. “To make art, you’ve got to be in a very precarious place all the time. You really have to realize that it’s a dangerous thing you’re doing, and the stakes are very high.”
Lahiri doesn’t know when she’ll able to return to Italy. After years of traveling there so frequently, she’s found the pandemic “devastating.” She’s compared learning Italian to falling in love, and even over Zoom her grief at not being to reunite with the country and its language is palpable. When asked, “Why Italy?” she fumbles for words. Who can explain why they fall in love with a certain person?
“It’s very mysterious,” Lahiri says. “All you know is that you have to be with that person. There’s something about them that makes you makes feel safe, and loved, and alive.”
Bonus Links:
Lydia Davis and Jhumpa Lahiri Learn New Languages
Another Mask: On Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words’

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Ayad Akhtar’s Flesh and Blood

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It’s ironic, as well as fitting, that Ayad Akhtar, the Pulitzer-winning playwright and author of 2012’s American Dervish, began writing his new novel in Italy. Homeland Elegies is narrated by a Pakistani American writer and chronicles, through the story of himself and his family, what Akhtar calls the “decay of our country over the last half-century.” It’s a book about America, in other words. But it’s also a story about alienation—about what he calls the “insider-outsider” experience of immigrants and first-generation citizens. And it took being halfway across the world, during a stay at the American Academy in Rome, for Akhtar to gain the perspective his story required.

“Donald Trump has been in office for just under a year,” Akhtar, 49, says of that time. “I got up one morning after reading a poem by Leopardi, which is entitled ‘To Italy.’ He’s addressing the Italian people. I thought to myself, ‘Would it be possible today to just address the American people? Would that even make sense? Could you even do something like that?’ ”
Homeland Elegies is Akhtar’s attempt to do just that. “The weight of politics in our country had coalesced and summoned a response out of me,” he says, speaking via Zoom from his house in a town south of Albany, New York, where he’s been waiting out the Covid-19 pandemic with his fiancée.
The novel, Akhtar’s first since American Dervish, consists of eight long but fast-moving chapters, as well as an overture and a coda. Eschewing linear chronology, the narrator, who shares many biographical details with Akhtar, including his last name, moves between past and present, documenting, among other things, his immigrant parents’ uneasy acclimation to the U.S., his own struggles and eventual success as a writer, and his involvement with a Muslim hedge fund titan whose respectable political objectives are overshadowed by his financial skullduggery.

Linking the chapters are several preoccupying themes: the double consciousness inherent in the minority experience, the contest between allegiances to one’s country and one’s culture, the strictures of identity, and the broken promises of America. The narrator finds himself suspended between his father, who embraces his adopted country with sometimes myopic optimism (and who supports Trump), and his mother, who views the U.S. as hypocritical and racist, and whose animus toward it drives her, at one point, to express something like sympathy for Osama bin Laden.
The narrator finds it impossible to escape fully his sense of his own difference. At one point, on seeing his reflection, he thinks, “My likeness in the mirror was a reminder of something about myself I always chose to forget, something never available to me except when confronted by my appearance: that though I didn’t feel ‘other’ in any meaningful way, I clearly appeared only that way—at least to myself.”
Readers of Akhtar’s previous work will be familiar with these themes. American Dervish focuses on a young boy growing up in suburban Milwaukee who struggles to reconcile his Muslim heritage and his American identity. A subsequent play, Disgraced, which won a Pulitzer in 2013, depicts a dinner party that gives rise to explosive conversations about Islamophobia.
Akhtar’s double identity as a novelist and playwright—he’s also made a film, The War Within, and has spent the past five years developing series for TV—is of a piece with his upbringing. “Hybridity is an important part of my consciousness,” he says. “That may have something to do with growing up Pakistani and being American. I’ve been toggling between various kinds of craft and various ways of thinking about story my whole life. It’s always felt organic to do that.”
Akhtar was born on Staten Island in 1970. In his early childhood, he moved with his parents, both doctors, to Milwaukee, where they lived first in the city and then in two suburbs, Brookfield and Elm Grove. (In Homeland Elegies, the narrator’s hometown is Elm Brook.) Akhtar graduated from Brown in 1993 with a degree in theater and, in 1997, matriculated at Columbia to pursue an MFA in film directing. But he believes pivoting between disciplines has been a boon, not a hindrance, to his artistic development. “Each of them has taught me how to do the other,” he says.
When Akhtar returned to fiction with Homeland Elegies, he did so with a desire to push the novel form. In its liberal use of the author’s own life, in its brazen blurring of the line between fiction and autobiography, the book seems destined to attract the du jour label “autofiction.” But Akhtar bristles at that term. “This, to me, feels much more like a literary attempt at reality serial television,” he says, “where the narrator is staging his own self, in the way that dramatic self-staging has become the dominant mode of discourse.”
By way of explanation, Akhtar invokes Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and the solipsism those platforms enable. He also notes that the America he writes about is presently governed by a former reality TV star given to acts of sensational self-staging. In a way, the book critiques its own mode of discourse. “I might be suggesting that narrative is not a very good way of knowing things,” Akhtar says. “And that part of our philosophical confusion in our crumbling republic may have to do with the fact that everyone has now become a storyteller.”
It also has to do, Akhtar believes, with money. In Homeland Elegies, as in his 2016 play Junk, he takes on greed, capitalism, and the grim fact that much of American life at all levels—corporate, educational, municipal, personal—is fueled by debt. Finance, he says, “is the great untold story. It’s really what drives so much of American life, in ways that people don’t understand.”
For the narrator’s father, the promise of America is inextricable from the promise of wealth. But over the course of the novel, his dreams of enrichment elude him, and he descends into gambling addiction and insolvency. “I knew it was always going to be about money,” Akhtar says of the book. “I knew it was going to be about my father’s relationship to money. I knew it was going to be about America as a kind of casino, where me and my dad are marks.”
By flirting with autobiography in the novel, Akhtar leaves unclear which of the narrator’s and his family’s disgraces are fictional. For Judy Clain, Akhtar’s editor at Little, Brown, this ambiguity is a source of the book’s strength. “I started out wanting to dissect the novel and find out what was truly autobiographical and what was not,” she says. “I concluded that it didn’t actually matter. The essence of the book, the form, the playfulness, the gray area is the reward.”
Akhtar sees his unflinching honesty as part of his artistic, and moral, purpose. “In writing this book,” he says, “I knew I was going to have to use my family, use my personal life, to the end of creating this particular portrait of our country. It had to be a work that really engaged, and also implicated, my own flesh and blood. And if I was going to subject my parents to the kind of portrayal that they end up having, especially my father, I knew I couldn’t spare myself.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Helen Macdonald Gets Political

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Helen Macdonald, the nature writer and author of the 2015 memoir H Is for Hawk, is having an enviable Covid-19 lockdown. She Skypes from a sunlit room in her home in the village of Suffolk, in the U.K., which she describes as “ridiculously out of a picture book.” Outside are rolling hills and a field of oats. Nature even makes an occasional appearance indoors, when her parrot, green with ocher tail feathers, materializes on her shoulder or calls to her from off-screen.
Despite the idyllic setting, Macdonald feels, as most of us do, hemmed in. She’s accustomed to exploring nature in a freewheeling fashion. Now, because of the pandemic, her dealings with the outside world have become circumscribed. She’s taken up gardening, which she resisted for years. “I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with spending a lot of time pruning, and digging, and planting,” she says. She invokes the ethologists Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz, who said animals tend to divide themselves into hunters and farmers. “I’m definitely more of a hunter.”

Readers of H Is for Hawk and Macdonald’s forthcoming essay collection, Vesper Flights, will not be surprised to hear that she prefers her nature wild. In H Is for Hawk, she recounts her experience training a goshawk, which she named Mabel, as a means of healing herself after the sudden death of her father. In Vesper Flights, she turns her binoculars on an array of other subjects: mushrooms, glowworms, deer, hares, and, as befits an author with a parrot on her shoulder, numerous varieties of avifauna—orioles, falcons, swans, swifts.
Macdonald also, sometimes, trains her eye on humans. In the essay “In Her Orbit,” which originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine and is included in Vesper Flights, she profiles Nathalie Cabrol, an astrobiologist and planetary geologist who studies Mars. In “A Cuckoo in the House,” Macdonald considers Maxwell Knight, a British spymaster who inspired the James Bond character M and who was, in Macdonald’s words, “an inveterate keeper of animals.” And in “Symptomatic,” she chronicles her lifelong struggle with migraines.
But even when writing about humans, Macdonald makes frequent reference to the natural world, and what unifies the essays in Vesper Flights is her ardor for nature, her extensive knowledge of it, and her fear for its destruction. With a naturalist’s command of technical vocabulary and a poet’s eye for simile, she can sound like a former scholar who’s broken free of the constraints of academe—which is, in essence, what she is.
Macdonald, 49, was born in Surrey. Her father was a staff photographer at the Daily Mirror and her mother worked for local newspapers. She studied English at Cambridge as an undergraduate and returned to the university at 29 to pursue graduate study in the history and philosophy of science; she remained there, working as a research fellow, pursuing (but never completing) a PhD, until 2007. She owes the “analytical elements” in her essays to her time as a scholar, she says, but she decided to leave academia and write for general audiences because she felt that there was “all this really cool stuff that was never leaving the academy.”

Photo Credit: Bill Johnston Jr.
Macdonald began writing H Is for Hawk while still a research fellow at Cambridge and later sold it based on a proposal and first chapter. But she didn’t have much confidence in it. She worried that it was too morose, and that its blend of memoir, nature writing, and biography (the book includes chapters about the author T.H. White, who also wrote of training a goshawk) made it hard to categorize. After she finished the last paragraph, she waited a week before submitting the manuscript to her editor in the U.K., even though it was already late. “I was so scared,” she says. “I thought, This is the weirdest book. It doesn’t fit any genre. It’s really depressing. No one’s going to read it.”
She was wrong. H Is for Hawk went on to become a surprise hit. It won Britain’s Samuel Johnson Prize (now the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and, according to NPD BookScan, has sold more than 300,000 copies in print in the U.S. Dwight Garner, reviewing it in The New York Times, called it a “small, instant classic of nature writing.”
The book has made Macdonald into a literary celebrity, and it’s also brought her into contact with celebrity proper. In 2015, Lena Headey, a star of the HBO series Game of Thrones, acquired the rights to the book and is currently developing it for film. (Before Macdonald met with Headey, her friends gave her a warning inspired by Game of Thrones: “If she offers you wine, don’t drink it!”)
H Is for Hawk’s success has emboldened Macdonald to take on fraught topics in her writing. While that book is attentive to matters of class and gender, Vesper Flights sees her writing more forthrightly about the intersection between nature and politics. The essay collection chronicles a dizzying number of instances of ecological threat and destruction; it also documents the nativism that frequently accompanies nature appreciation. In an essay on swan upping, a centuries-old practice wherein swans in the Thames are rounded up and marked, Macdonald writes that heritage traditions of this kind “have clear conceptual value for nationalists; they promote a sense of seamless historical continuity that works to erase differences between past and present, burnishing an illusion of unchanging Englishness.”
“Some of the more political aspects of Vesper Flights, some of the ways in which I try to talk about class, about privilege, about climate change—I think I would have been too scared to have done that a few years ago,” Macdonald says.
Vesper Flights works to plumb the political dimensions of even our seemingly innocuous ideas about nature. We see “solitary contemplation as simply the correct way to engage with nature,” Macdonald writes in the essay “Eclipse.” “But it is always a political act, bringing freedom from the pressures of other minds, other interpretations, other consciousnesses competing with your own.”
And our idealization of nature as separate from civilization, Macdonald suggests, has ramifications for the environmental movement. In “The Falcon and the Tower,” she describes a falcon perched on an abandoned industrial site as a “feathered rebuke to our commonplace notion that nature exists only in places other than our own, an assumption that seems always one step towards turning our back on the natural world, abandoning it as something disappearing or already lost.”
Macdonald believes that offering these ideas in personal, reflective essays is a “more generous act” for readers than simply telling them what they should or should not do to help the environment. “A lot of environmental literature now is explicitly polemical and campaigning in a way that I find quite off-putting, because I hate to be told what to do,” she says. “I want to sit with someone and talk with them about what’s happening, and how I see it, and how I feel about it, rather than shouting. There’s a place for shouting. But I’m not very good at it.”
Nevertheless, Vesper Flights comes at a time when many of us, with our lives on pause, are thinking more carefully about the ecological consequences of our ordinarily bustling world. Elisabeth Schmitz, Macdonald’s editor at Grove Atlantic, suggests Vesper Flights helps to foster an appreciation for the natural world. “As we emerge from Covid-19, a crisis curable only by science, surely more of us than ever will want to protect this one and only environment that sustains us,” she says.
In the time since H Is for Hawk was published, Macdonald says, she has met people who, after reading the book, began to notice birds or “small changes in the natural world” that they hadn’t noticed before. “That’s occasionally reduced me to tears,” she adds. “There’s this brilliant, glittering world of profusion and life out there. It’s just there for us to take notice of. It’s just really special to think I might have helped some people get there.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Julia Alvarez and the Female Book of Job

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Julia Alvarez likes to write about sisterhood. She made herself into a household name with two novels about tight kinships: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, published in 1991, about four Dominican sisters adjusting to life in the U.S., and 1994’s In the Time of the Butterflies, about the four Mirabal sisters, who sought to overthrow the former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. While Afterlife, Alvarez’s first work for adults in nearly 15 years, focuses again on four Dominican sisters, it also stretches the definition of family, dramatizing the ways in which the demands of those we hold close sometimes conflict with the demands of the wider world.

Alvarez, 69, says Afterlife is in some ways a product of her age. Put another way, it’s the first novel she’s written as an “elder.”

“I don’t mean ‘elder’ in this poky, airbrushed way—the wise abuelita or anything like that,” Alvarez says. She means it in “the way we used to use the term: the elder of a tribe—having a long view behind me, having come through, being at a stage of life where you’re shedding identities, returning to more of a core self. What is that view? What is family here, at this point in life?”

Alvarez was born in New York City but spent much of her childhood in her family’s native Dominican Republic. They moved back to the U.S. and settled in New York when she was 10. (Her father, a doctor, became a persona non grata in the Dominican Republic when it was discovered that he was involved in a plot to overthrow Trujillo, the same ruler the Mirabal sisters organized against.)
After graduating from Middlebury College in 1971 and receiving a master’s degree in creative writing from Syracuse in 1975, Alvarez held instructor and writer-in-residency positions around the country. In 1988 she returned to Middlebury, where she worked as a professor. Later, after the success of her books enabled her to give up tenure, she became a writer in residence there. She retired from the college in 2016.
Alvarez published most of her oeuvre—in addition to novels, she has written poetry collections, nonfiction, and books for children and young adults—during her time in Vermont. She lives in the small town of Weybridge, near Middlebury, with her husband, Bill Eichner, a retired ophthalmologist. She told a PBS interviewer in 2002 that the region’s “silence and simplicity” allows her to focus. Over time, though, as Afterlife makes clear, the area has become less simple.
“When I first got here, I think, there were 5,400 people of Hispanic descent in all of Vermont,” Alvarez says. “That’s like a city block [in New York City]. It’s been astonishing, in the last 15 or 20 years, to watch this infusion of undocumented workers coming to work on all these little dairy farms that are struggling. Like many places that were once very homogenous, it’s starting to change.”
Afterlife captures this change through the story of Antonia Vega, a writer and retired professor of literature who lives in a small town in Vermont and who has recently lost her husband. Her neighbor Roger is a dairy farmer who employs undocumented workers. “He doesn’t relish breaking the law,” Antonia notes. “But sometimes even law-abiding citizens have to defy the authorities in order to survive. Desperate situations call for desperate moves. Not so different, after all, from the undocumented workers he employs.”
After one of Roger’s workers, Mario, seeks Antonia’s help in securing the passage of his girlfriend, Estela, from Colorado—where she landed after crossing the border—Antonia finds herself, at first reluctantly, drawn into their troubles. Meanwhile, one of her three sisters, an unstable but saintly psychologist named Izzy, has gone missing, and Antonia must work with her other siblings to locate her. At several junctures, Mario and Estela compete with Antonia’s sisters for her attention and loyalty, and the conflict between familial and extrafamilial demands—as well as the demands of the self—give rise to probing observations and unresolvable questions.
“What is the minimum one owes another?” Antonia asks. And is it reckless to neglect one’s health and security to rescue others? “The mantra of the First World,” she notes: “First your own oxygen mask, then everyone else’s.”
Eventually, the borders of Antonia’s responsibilities begin to blur. Mario’s and Estela’s burdens are “theirs, and hers is hers,” Alvarez writes. “But Antonia is having trouble keeping everybody separate.”
Alvarez, who in 2013 was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama, began working on Afterlife as a break of sorts from another novel that she’d been struggling with (and that she plans to return to in some form). In comparison to that novel, Afterlife came relatively quickly, she says, and the book has an immediate, propulsive quality that suggests the urgency of inspiration.
“I thought of it as a contemporary female Book of Job,” Alvarez explains, referring to the Old Testament figure whose faith is tested by a series of calamities. “Everything has fallen apart” for Antonia. Alvarez notes that the character is also anxiety ridden about larger issues, including mass shootings and climate change.
Amy Gash, Alvarez’s editor at Algonquin, says Afterlife was written in response to “some losses in Alvarez’s own life, but also the state of our country and the planet, really.” She adds, “From climate change to the way we are treating immigrants, these are all themes that press against the characters in Afterlife. I suspect that Julia turned to fiction to work through some of this—to try to see how things look from other perspectives, and to find hope. This book, to me, is particularly hopeful.”
One of the novel’s animating questions is how to live in, and negotiate, a world in distress. “I didn’t have an answer,” Alvarez says. “I still don’t have an answer. I don’t think that’s what novels do. But they help us travel the landscape and understand it in an integrated way.”
The novel frequently questions the usefulness of literature as a salve for society’s ills. “Even the beauties of language, of words rightly chosen, are riddled with who we are, class and race, and whatever else will keep us—so we think—safe on the narrow path,” Antonia notes. At another point, she wonders if, as a writer, she is “off the hook by writing her poems” or if that’s simply her way of “outsourcing her compassion.”
What sustains us—language, family, identity—may also be what distances us from others, the novel suggests. How, then, do you “honor those things, which have been important to others before you, and to you?” Alvarez asks.
Resistant to easy answers, she can’t say for sure. “The only way it can work,” she contends, and maybe the way literature works best, “is if you keep the question fresh.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Jenny Offill Exerts Herself

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It’s a Friday afternoon, and Jenny Offill, author of the widely acclaimed 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation, is at her home in the Hudson Valley. She’s speaking via Skype, about to broach the subject of her new novel, Weather (Knopf, Feb.), when her internet goes down. The conversation switches to the telephone, but Offill isn’t flustered. In some ways the interruption seems fitting. Both Dept. of Speculation and Weather, with their fragmented structures, suggest that linearity is suspect, that connection is fragile, and that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our understanding.
Offill’s biography, like her novels, is haphazard. Her parents were boarding school teachers, and throughout her childhood she moved around the country, living in Massachusetts, California, Indiana, and, eventually, North Carolina, where she attended high school and college, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating, she worked a number of odd jobs—waitress, bartender, caterer, cashier, medical transcriber, fact-checker, writer of “things for rich people who have a story to tell,” as she puts it.
She published her first novel, Last Things, in 2000, when she was 30. That book received critical acclaim but failed commercially. In the years that followed, Offill worked as an adjunct writing instructor at various universities and wrote children’s books. Like the writer-narrator of Dept. of Speculation, she struggled for years to produce a second novel.
When she did produce that second novel, it exceeded expectations. “I was hoping other writers would like it,” Offill, 51, says of Dept. of Speculation. “That was just a weird book. I didn’t think a novel that was structured like that would have a big audience.”
For all its unconventionality, Dept. of Speculation is propulsive and absorbing. Critic Elaine Blair, writing in the New York Review of Books, said it can be read “in about two hours.” She’s right. Perhaps this is why it didn’t remain some “weird book,” as Offill assumed it would. To date, Dept. of Speculation has sold about 57,000 print copies in hardcover and paperback, according to NPD BookScan; it has been acquired in 21 territories outside of North America; and it’s been optioned for film.
The novel tells the story of an unnamed woman who once aspired to be an “art monster” but, saddled with family and work commitments (including a gig as a ghostwriter for an egomaniacal “almost astronaut”), has thus far failed to realize her potential. The Wife, as she’s sometimes called, begins to question her devotion to her family when she discovers that her husband has had an affair with a younger woman. Proceeding in a series of frenzied fragments, separated by double paragraph breaks, the novel presents the narrator’s fearsome intellect as well as her changeable demeanor.
In a single brief chapter, the narrator alludes to Einstein, recounts the gruesome death of a Russian cosmonaut, quotes the explorer Frederick Cook, writes an imaginary and self-flagellating Christmas card to loved ones, describes her daughter swimming, and references the Stoics.
Dept. of Speculation’s success may also have been owed, in some small part, to its association with a style of writing, popular in the last decade, known as autofiction. The term has come to stand for a literary approach that does away with the conventions of fiction, such as plot and invented characters, and draws, or appears to draw, on the author’s lived experience.
Offill is often mentioned in the same breath as other practitioners of the form, such as Rachel Cusk and Ben Lerner, but she smarts at the label. “Autofiction has been around for so long,” she says. She also feels it’s gendered, asserting that women who write it are assumed to be pulling from their diaries. “I wouldn’t be a fiction writer if I didn’t believe that you could invent, and conflate, and add to things.” And Weather, while formally similar to Dept. of Speculation, certainly strays from the precepts of autofiction. Its narrator is named, for example, and its preoccupations are less insular.
The book centers on a librarian named Lizzie who is raising a son with her husband and caring for a brother with a history of drug addiction. Over the course of the novel, Lizzie, who begins working for a former mentor who operates a podcast about futurism, becomes increasingly fixated on the climate crisis and the doomsday preparation movement. Her anxieties only accelerate when Donald Trump (who is never named) is elected president.
Jordan Pavlin, Offill’s editor at Knopf, feels that Weather is “more ambitious in its themes” than Dept. of Speculation, and that “one of its most thrilling seductions is the way it uses the anxiety we are all experiencing in relation to the current climate—both literally and figuratively—as a plot engine.”
Offill says that with Weather she was looking to respond to the current moment more directly, to write a book that wasn’t “frozen in amber.” She was inspired to address climate change in part by her conversations with her best friend, novelist Lydia Millet, who has written about environmental issues for the New York Times and who addresses those themes in her fiction. “For years we’ve been talking, and at a certain point I thought, ‘I need to know more about this,’ ” Offill says.
At the same time, Offill worried about the pitfalls of political fiction, which she feels can be boring, didactic, and humorless. “I don’t love the language that’s available to talk about this stuff,” she says. “Do I like to say interconnectedness? No. Do I like to say web of life? Mm, no. If you’re not particularly drawn to earnestness, how do you make yourself be a more engaged person?”
Nonetheless, Offill thinks the central problems of our time—climate change, social justice—can’t be tackled individually. “It’s about getting more people—including people like me, who actually hate all group activities—to sign up for the messiness and frustration and occasional exhilaration of collective action. I’ve been to more marches and more meetings and I’ve written more postcards and called more people than I’ve ever done,” she says. “I don’t like to do any of that stuff.”
Weather, like Dept. of Speculation, is told through frenetic fragments. But where the fragments in Dept. of Speculation were meant to mimic the churning of the narrator’s mind, the fragments here are meant to mimic weather. “People always say, ‘It’s an atmospheric book,’ ” Offill explains. “I wanted to see what it would be like to try to write atmospherically.”
The book, she says, is “meant to swirl” as if its paragraphs were clouds. Its atomized form is intended to congeal into an uneasy whole, mirroring the challenge of political movements, in which individuals must find a way to act in concert.
If Offill arrived at any wisdom by the end of writing Weather, it’s the wisdom captured in a quote the protagonist’s husband posts above his desk: “You are not some disinterested bystander / Exert yourself.” With Weather, Offill hopes to do just that.
This story was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Homosexual Panic: The Millions Interviews James Polchin

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We tend to use the word “homophobia” loosely, as if it were interchangeable with the term “anti-gay.” But the root of the word points something more specific: fear. Were the men who recently attacked a lesbian couple on a London bus simply anti-gay? Or did the women scare them?

In her 1972 essay “Gay Is Good,” queer activist and Gay Liberation Front founding member Martha Shelley writes, “The function of the homosexual is to make you uneasy.” And in the various forms of hatred and abuse against queer people, throughout history and continuing today, one can detect this unease. In Shelley’s view, it’s the unease of recognition. She continues, addressing a heteronormative readership: “We want to reach the homosexuals entombed in you, to liberate our brothers and sisters, locked in the prisons of your skulls.”

Before the Stonewall Uprising 50 years ago, fear of gay people surfaced mainly through subtext, often in reports of crimes and violent encounters. In Indecent Advances, James Polchin, a New York University professor and cultural historian, looks at true crime reports from the early- to mid-20th century, showing how newspapers from that era reflected society’s phobia of LGBTQ people and villainized victims. Here, Polchin talks about his research process and how Stonewall changed representations of queer people in the media.

The Millions: What led you to focus on representations of queer men in true crime?

James Polchin: Years ago I came across these scrapbooks by Carl Van Vechten at the Yale archive. He was a pretty big character of Modernism in the ’20s and ’30s in New York and Paris. He collected all sorts of books and records and ephemera. One of his scrapbooks was homoerotic material—photographs he’d taken, drag ball flyers. Interspersed with all these materials were true crime clippings. It was the first time I’d encountered small articles that were coded in their queer subtext. They were clearly important to Van Vechten as part of this world, and this period, that he wanted to memorialize. That started me thinking about how true crime played a role in, or was important to, queer sensibility.

TM: The title of your book is a term the media used to discussed crimes involving queer men. What did it imply?

JP: It’s one term I talk about in the books—there’s “improper advances” and sometimes just “homosexual advances.” They were employed by journalists and editors to suggest kinds of criminal behaviors that had sexual undertones. By the ’20s and ’30s we see them used more regularly with queer true crime stories. I think they were meant to signal, in a very opaque way, all the threats and fears that the queer victim posed to his assailant. The term “indecent advance” made the victim culpable in the violence or murder he experienced. It had a powerful resonance in the newspapers and also, increasingly, in the courtroom, for defendants who used that language and claimed, “I was protecting myself.”

TM: How, if at all, did Stonewall affect these cultural attitudes?

JP: After Stonewall happens, there’s a change in consciousness about queer criminality from activists. Queer people pushed back against the criminalizing of them in the press and in the courtroom. By the late 1970s, after the killing of Harvey Milk in San Francisco, you have a movement around violence. Violence becomes central to the way queer activism pushes for change—in terms of the way the police handle these crimes, the way the media reports on them, the ways laws are set up either to criminalize queer people or protect them.

TM: True crime reportage from this era says a lot about how society viewed queer men. How did it shape how queer men saw themselves?

JP: If I go back to Van Vechten’s scrapbooks, I think gay men were reading these newspaper articles, and reading between their lines, as a protective measure. They would understand the dangers that were out there. Particularly by the ’40s and postwar period, the ways in which newspapers took these crimes stories and amplified them into fears of homosexuals on the home front—they became something queer people had to push against.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.