Sheila Heti Transforms Her Diaries Into Autofiction

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At Literary Hub, Walker Kaplan takes a look at Sheila Heti’s new autofictional, alphabetical newsletter, available exclusively to New York Times subscribers. This started out as Heti’s “procrastination project,” which took her decades to create and involved importing her diaries into Excel, sorting sentences in alphabetical order, and searching for patterns and repetitions. “I always enjoy working with writing that I didn’t initially intend to be read,” Heti says, “because writing that is written without an audience in mind has a kind of freshness, an honesty or purity; an unselfconsciousness.” In the first installment of the newsletter, A to C, Heti proves unsparingly honest, with lines like, “All the faith you had in art, you can have in this man”; “All the really great things that have been created in art have been created by adults”; and “Although what if living honestly doesn’t get you where you want to go?”

Image Credit: Publishers Weekly.

Jessamine Chan’s Debut Calls Modern-Day Parenting Into Question

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At Electric Literature, Diane Cooke speaks to Jessamine Chan about The School for Good Mothers, Chan’s incisive debut novel that revolves around how a young mother’s error lands her in a government reform program and at risk of losing custody of her child. They discuss one of Chan’s main inspirations for the book, a Rachel Aviv article in The New Yorker called “Where Is Your Mother?”, the need for more complex and messy Asian American protagonists, the challenges of being an art mom, and the purpose of satire in her novel in spotlighting how Western culture in particular reinforces restrictive ideas about how mothers should behave.

“The satire was my way of processing my thoughts, feelings, and anxiety about a generally upper-middle-class and white American parenting culture and all the pressure. I found, and still find, the sheer number of instructions about any parenting task or decision to be overwhelming, so part of the satire was taking the idea of instruction and making it insane” Chan says. “Through satire and using speculative elements, I wanted to call into question who is making those rules and whether it’s possible to ever have a set of universal standards that’s separate from the influence of race, class, and culture. How can the teaching of parenting ever be truly objective?”

An Examination of the Trauma Plot

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At The New Yorker, Parul Sehgal reflects on the trauma plot and how it has come to dominate stories both on the page and on screen. Sehgal argues that “The trauma plot flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, instructs and insists upon its moral authority. The solace of its simplicity comes at no little cost. It disregards what we know and asks that we forget it, too—forget about the pleasures of not knowing, about the unscripted dimensions of suffering, about the odd angularities of personality, and, above all, about the allure and necessity of a well-placed sea urchin.” She explores how the ways we write about trauma have evolved over time, and poses the question, “In a world infatuated with victimhood, has trauma emerged as a passport to status—our red badge of courage?” 

Raven Leilani on Writing Complex and Contradictory Black Women Protagonists

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At The Guardian, Hephzibah Anderson interviews Raven Leilani, author of the award-winning novel Luster. Now published in paperback, Leilani’s sexy and blisteringly honest debut follows Edie, a 23-year-old black woman and aspiring painter trying to stay afloat in New York City. But after being fired from her publishing job, she finds herself moving in with her married white lover and his family.

Leilani discusses her own connection to painting, books currently on her bedside table, literary characters that played a part in the creation of Edie, and her choice to write a scene in which Edie fantasizes about being hit and permits her older white boyfriend to actually strike her—a moment that incited a lot of reactions from readers. “It’s a deeply tricky thing to write about a black woman who is inviting this kind of violence,” Leilani says. “I wanted her to be a character who has the freedom to find pleasure where she finds it, but it is, too, still quite intertwined with the fact that because she is a black woman, she experiences these loud and soft violences in her public life, and choosing it in her private life is a way to exert that control that she doesn’t have elsewhere.”

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s Dystopian Debut Is a Must-Read for the New Year

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At The Rumpus, Sequioa Nagamatsu discusses How High We Go in the Dark, his much-awaited debut novel told through interconnected first-person narratives about people living in a future beset by the Arctic Plague. Nagamatsu discusses the various media and books that were influential to his conception of the book, what eco-conscious novels can contribute to the environmental movement, and how he went about choosing the particular professions of the characters featured in this prophetic novel. “In thinking about how the world in my novel has been unhinged, I wanted to explore how society’s relationship with death, grief, and climate evolve while still staying close to the everyday movements and concerns of a person trying to hold onto life and move forward,” he says. “The professions I chose nodded at these societal evolutions while also giving me a rich basis for considering how their jobs would elevate or influence personal struggles. And for many of my characters, the pandemic simply highlighted or fast-tracked an existing problem or inner anxiety.”

Rebecca Solnit on the Value of Nonlinear Narratives

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At Literary Hub, Rebecca Solnit discusses her latest work, Orwell’s Roses, a reflection on George Orwell’s life, politics, and passion for gardening and nature.

Solnit examines how depth in meaning can be acquired by meandering, detouring, and lingering in the details, and cites notable works of nonfiction that have non-chronological structures, including her own book, which moves from a range of topics related to the natural world, the meaning and purpose of art, Stalinism, climate, feminism, and slavery.

Its structure, “is akin to taking seven walks from the same starting point…I learned from labyrinths that to get to the center you turn away from it again and again as you follow the windings that will, in the end, take you to the center,” Solnit says. “There are subjects you can better understand through analogy, context, parallels, the view from the distance, rather than via direct and dogged pursuit.” 

Embracing Tackiness with Rax King

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At Electric Literature, Calvin Kasulke speaks with Rax King about her cheeky and deeply personal debut essay collection, Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer, which explores pop culture in the 2000’s and the joys of “bad taste.”

They discuss what tackiness means, who gets to decide what’s tacky, icons of tackiness, sex, go-to Cheesecake Factory orders, shoplifting techniques, and writing advice. Kasulke praises King for her ability to move readers with the most minuscule details, and King responds with insight into her essay writing process “The little stuff is usually where I do start actually,” King says. “Those moments are the ones that stick, I think. Big picture stuff fuzzes out over time, but I’m always going to remember the color of the tracksuit that my dad wore all the time—stuff like that. The stuff that colors in memories is what I think is most important for coloring in a story.”

The Benefits of Bilingualism

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At Literary Hub, Masha Rumer discusses the enduring stigma of speaking a language other than English in America, despite proof of its advantages, such as how it helps with better communication and creative thinking.

Rumer breaks down the correlation between bilingualism and advanced executive function and cites her discussion with Ellen Bialystok, a renowned cognitive neuroscientist at York University in Toronto.

“What bilingualism is really doing is it’s shaping up the attention system to be more selective, more responsive, and to be better at picking up important information in the first year of life,” Bialystok explains. “These executive function skills predict long-term academic success and well-being.” Bialystok also adds that switching between languages stimulates the brain, builds up cognitive reserve, and “can delay the symptoms and diagnosis of dementia.” Bialystok adds, “Although bilingualism doesn’t stop Alzheimer’s in its tracks, it empowers the brain with better coping skills and gives the attention networks more resiliency, protecting against neurodegeneration.”

In Rumer’s forthcoming book, Parenting with an Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths for Their Children, she spotlights various experiences of immigrant families across the country and provides essential insight into the nuances of multicultural parenting.

The Story Behind Penguin Modern Classics’ Iconic Cover Designs

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At The Guardian, Killian Fox takes a closer look at Henry Eliot’s The Penguin Modern Classics Book, which contains everything you need to know about the most acclaimed literature of the past century, the era-defining Penguin series, and the stories behind their book jackets. “Eliot’s new book opens with a section on how the cover design has evolved, and you can see the carefully considered but striking changes that were introduced by successive art directors over the decades,” Fox writes. “Dominant colours (orange, dove grey, eau-de-nil) drop out, only to creep back into later iterations. Typefaces get axed, after much agonising, to be replaced by more modern-looking counterparts. Grid layouts are imposed – many 1960s covers were designed according to the so-called Marber grid, which sectioned off the publisher’s logo, the title, the author’s name and the image—only to drift after a few years or get overhauled completely.” 

The Climate Crisis and the Exclusion of Non-White Voices

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At Literary Hub, Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate discusses her experience as the only non-white advocate at the World Economic Forum and the Associated Press’s decision to crop her out of a major news photo. 

“The AP’s director of photography insisted that cropping me out hadn’t been a deliberate act of erasure but was done on ‘composition grounds’ by a photographer under intense time pressure,” Nakate says, “I’d been cut because the building behind me was distracting. But, aside from the fact that the cropped photo still contained two other buildings, the question is, distracting from what or whom? The Alps in the distance? My four white, European colleagues who were standing in front of the mountains? Or Greta herself?” 

Nakate speaks about her passion for and commitment to raising awareness about the climate crisis and reporting stories from all parts of the world in her memoir-manifesto, A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis.