A Place for Us: A Novel

New Price: $27.00
Used Price: $2.81

Mentioned in:

A Year in Reading: Kamil Ahsan

It’s been a great year for reading! Or, at least, every year is a great year for reading, and I’ve never done as much as I’ve done this year. Strange as it seems, the year in which I’ve worked hardest is also the year I’ve read the most, by every metric. The majority of it was probably to offset the noise around me—but a not-insignificant minority was for inspiration, and for optimism.

But as I look back at my year of reading, I find some odd themes. For one, whenever I’ve been utterly bewitched by a writer, I have gone to the bookstore and bought as much of their oeuvre as possible (I know this because one, and only one, aspect of my expenses has been driven up). For another, when I think of what I’ve read—particularly nonfiction—it’s often not because of what the book is ostensibly for (insofar as books have singular purpose, which they do not), but because of something else entirely. So let’s take a gander:

1. EpistemologyI’ve spent much of this year daydreaming about how people seem to know things with such certainty. Every year is like this, obviously, but this one far more than others. Imagine my frustration at the knottiness of the answer. What is Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies about? For me, it was a demonstration of an idea that simply the act of constructing fictions about oneself (within an act of fiction) makes the fictive more real. So, of course, when Florida came out, I threw myself at it as if it were my last allowed love affair with a book—and found something very similar, because I went looking for it. Many other things satisfied the same itch. Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Camille Bordas’s How to Behave in a Crowd were more like works of philosophy than fiction.

This was probably not altogether helped by the fact that I was simultaneously reading Seneca’s Consolations, Montaigne’s Essays, Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic, and Lucretius’s The Way Things Are, and all manner of skeptical philosophers. I say this not to give myself a pat on the shoulder for being oh-so-academic: I quite literally went back to the source, so to speak, whenever things seemed even the tiniest bit off, both in real life and in literature, only to return far more confused. That, then, let me down a rabbit hole of “post-structuralist” literary theory. What that really means is: I’ve been hearing some names over and over for years now, and finally felt embarrassed enough to actually read them. And so I read Roland Barthes’s S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Jacques Derrida’s Writing & Difference, and although I likely understood the bare minimum, I understood enough to feel deeply suspicious that anything I subsequently read could have some actual import towards understanding the world or myself. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, like the other two books in the Outline trilogy, then furthered the case for literature bearing no relation to reality. I wondered if I’d ever get away with a book fashioned out of a series of transcripts for every one-sided conversation I had with another person.

2. BafflementMy active search for all things baffling probably started after I read Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels, Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, and Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In. I loved them all, and I spent enough time with NDiaye to be somewhat confident about what I was reading, but mostly they made me feel very inadequate, in the way that ‘intelligent’ books often do. Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital made me feel ill, and I’m pretty sure I skipped a doctor’s appointment because I was slightly afraid I’d land up in purgatory. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet induced my first ever existential crisis (or, at least, what I think was an existential crisis), and then Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier made it worse. Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter didn’t really help me be less baffled—though inhabiting their fractured, Brexit-era semi-narratives certainly helped to distract me.

Notably, as reprieve from all this, I read Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, and then sat and thought for a while; soon, I had finished Feel Free as well and was caught between the twin sentiments of annoyance at her seemingly-tepid politics and awe at her ability to make me doubt everything nonetheless. In other words—a reprieve it was not. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel swooped in a bit dramatically; inasmuch as it helped me feel my ambivalence wasn’t necessarily a problem. Also, it made me feel warm and fuzzy by helping with a bit with my imposter syndrome.

All this coincided with the fact that my patience, as with many others nowadays, was at an all-time low this year. I’ve been tired of liberal narratives for quite some time, and narratives set at maximum moral outrage that insist that this age of Trump is, for the first time in human history apparently, some unique assault on truth. So imagine my surprise when—having rolled my eyes through the first story—I found myself admiring the high-wire circus tricks on display in Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, and simultaneously irritated with the far more radical and experimental My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. The stories in Charles Johnson’s Night Hawks felt taut and sparse like Sittenfeld’s, but with fewer surprises, a lot more Buddhism than I could fathom, and fewer bourgeois settings. I liked them. The prose in Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood stories was lyrical and very bourgeois, but less searching than it seemed to think it was. Anyway, my collision course with all things bizarre all came crashing down when I read César Aira’s The Literary Conference. It was more ludicrous than anything I had ever read. So naturally, I bought all the translated books by Aira, apparently one of the most baffling of all living writers. By about book 8, I began to understand his ways, and felt grateful for his unapologetically-leftist bent. Then, for every subsequent book, I started to take notes on details that I found baffling, to see if the writer ever returned to them. I avoided Karl Ove Knausgaard all year, on purpose. The day before I wrote this, I devoured Amparo Dávila’s collection The Houseguest in one sitting. Once, my flat-mate knocked on my door, and what he probably saw was me: bug-eyed, and furiously turning pages which screamed sometimes like newborn children, crushed mice, like bats, like strangled cats.

3. TraditionOne of the other things I did most this year was think about what kind of writer I wanted to be. Having read some avant-garde horror novels (above), I read a little Gothic literature. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and finding in it new things to love, turned to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The latter weaseled its way into a story I wrote which almost scared me to death—and then made me wonder how awful I must be to have written something like that. Still, by the time I had to read Mohammad Hanif’s Red Birds for review, I had read enough stuff to wonder why in the world South Asian writers kept writing such hackneyed stories when so many other possibilities existed, and unleashed a bit of a tirade on some very famous South Asian writers for the Chicago Review. I went back to Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which I hadn’t liked at all the first time, and forced myself to pick out some things I did like. Somewhere in the middle, I read Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us with some amount of glee, because it felt nothing like the reflexively Orientalist prose I’d gone off about. That made me very happy.

4. HistoryIt doesn’t feel right at all to talk about the books that had a major impact on my year without mentioning some of the amazing nonfiction, most of which satisfied historical curiosities whether they were meant to be historical or not. Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland and Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States were expert antidotes for my irritation with tired Trump-era (ugh, even that term) tropes, and expanded my understanding of this very strange country in all sorts of empathic ways (and with O’Gieblyn, some unsettling ways, too). Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock was fascinating—though I knew in her case she had a small, not-insignificant luxury. After all, how far back one can construct one’s own family tree seems to be at least one measure of freedom. I read one very expansive history of the U.S. in Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and one over a far shorter period of time in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies. One is enormous, the other skinny—but both are a little unsatisfying. I suppose These Truths should have satisfied my itch for epistemology too; but as it turns out that—for this American history dilettante—meeting the standards of one Howard Zinn is nigh-impossible.

So: on to kinds of history. I read Henry Gee’s Across the Bridge—about the evolution of vertebrates—and talked about it at work (my laboratory) daily. It proved infectious. Ursula Heise’s Imagining Extinction was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World was fascinating—who knew there was so much to know about the global matsutake mushroom trade!— and on a craft-level, a lesson for academics: see, you don’t have to be boring at all! Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know was utterly convincing in the way things one is already convinced about can be made even more convincing simply by becoming encyclopedic. Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm and Deborah Coen’s Climate in Motion had equal and opposite effects: the first made me progressively more enraged and confused, the second made me progressively calmer and clearer. Essentially, environmental historians still haven’t quite figured out precisely how pessimistic they ought to be about climate change; but I suppose, in the Trump era, we should be happy they’re writing at all.

5. CryingI don’t prepare to cry when I read (who does?) But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the books that made me stop in my tracks and sob. Most times it had very little to do with the book and everything to do with my day or week. But sometimes it was most definitely about the book.

There is one particular moment in my editor Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State where the reader, just like the protagonist Daphne, has to process what has just occurred and cry. Anybody who has read it will probably know which moment this is (I’m not exactly being subtle), but that cry was one of the best cries I’ve ever had all year. Other similar stop-and-cry impulses happened during R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick—both cries were probably more about me than the people I was reading about, but both were beautiful and cathartic and only one happened in public. Again—sometime in the middle of the year—I went to a philosopher to figure out all this crying business. The fact that I chose Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy for this task is pretty stupid when I think about it, because it didn’t make me cry at all, and I had thought it could teach me something about verisimilitude, but it did not. Anyway, that is what I did. Regardless, I read a whole lot after that to make myself cry, but nothing worked. Or at least, nothing worked as well as one particular book did; Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. I have one theory that explains why: I realized that the number of books I had read was directly proportional to how lonely I was. So take that, Barthes! Books may not resemble life, but the act of reading does.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Tommy Orange

What a year this has been. Do I mean it was really good or bad? It can’t just have been one of those. I just mean it was crazy. My novel There There came out and it’s hard to believe how well it’s been received. Because I had a debut come out this year, I met a lot of other debut novelists, and read a lot of debut novels. I want to mention three of these all at once because while they are very different novels, they were all written by authors who live or have lived in the Bay Area. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us, Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart, and Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s Fruit of the Drunken Tree are all beautiful, original and heartbreaking works. Each deal in different ways and to different extents: family, coming of age, and belonging.

There were three standout nonfiction books I read this year. The first is Terese Mailhot’s Heart Berries. It’s a powerful and important book I think everyone should read. Now. The second is Pam Houston’s Deep Creek (forthcoming in January). It’s an expansive meditation on our relationship to this earth through the experience of her owning and maintaining a ranch in the mountains in Colorado. The third is Rigoberto Gonzalez’s What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth, which is about his brother. The prose is plain and stunning and the story powerful and compelling.

I’m fairly new to poetry, and feel pretty mystified by it still, but I love it. Three books I read this year that I loved were Tommy Pico’s Junk, Sherwin Bitsui’s Dissolve, and Ada Limón’s The Carrying.

I very much loved three short story collections this year, two debut, and one a possible very last—if there are no posthumous collections. I’ll mention the last one first, which is Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Denis Johnson is one of my favorite writers, and I had the extreme pleasure—mixed with extreme sadness—of finishing his collection while landing in Memphis; the collection ends with a story about Elvis. The other two are Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, which I reviewed for the New York Times, and Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People—which just blew me away, so smart and funny and poignant.

I also want to mention Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, which is impossibly smart and full of heart (forthcoming February 2019), and finally, two books I’m currently reading I already love and will regret to finish. The first is Tao Lin’s Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change. It’s about Terrence McKenna and psilocybin among other things. I think Terrence McKenna is a forgotten (mostly) genius, and I have a deep respect for psilocybin. Tao Lin does a fantastic job of exploring a subject not explored often enough. Lastly, I’m deliberately taking my time reading Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. He is one of my favorite poets, and I always want poets to write novels, so reading his book is a dream come true. It’s devastatingly beautiful.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Etaf Rum

I am lucky to be part of Instagram’s book community via the account I started a few years ago, @bookandbeans, which gives me early access to many of the most anticipated books of the year. I initially joined Instagram while feeling quite isolated: As a young mother in a new place, it was often hard for me to find a sense of connection with others, especially as an Arab American in a predominantly white southern town. I’m always reading multiple books, juggling different styles and plots, seeking out connection and understanding. I often find myself surprised by how seen I feel in unlikely places. Here are 10 of my favorite books this year, along with quotes I had underlined in them—hopefully you will feel that same sense of belonging when you read them as I did.

“Perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time. If so, she would naturally have no energy left, not just for curiosity or interest but indeed for any meaningful response to all the humdrum minutiae that went on on the surface.” —Han Kang, The Vegetarian

“I’m not from Israel. I’m from before Israel, from beneath the Israeli towns and cities built over my homes and orchards and fields. I am an Arab Palestinian, not an Israeli.” —Moriel Rothman-Zecher, Sadness Is a White Bird

 

“What is a life? A series of yeses and noes, photographs you shove in a drawer somewhere, loves you think will save you but that cannot. Continuing to move, enduring, not stopping even when there is pain. That’s all life is, he wants to tell her. It’s continuing.” —Hala Alyan, Salt Houses

 

“Often, still, my own life story feels fragmented, like beads unstrung. Each time I scoop up my memories, the assortment is slightly different. I worry, at times, that I’ll always be lost inside.” —Clementine Wamariya, The Girl Who Smiled Beads

 

“If you don’t know the tale of where you come from, the words of others can overwhelm and drown out your own. So, you see, you must keep careful track of the borders of your stories, where your voice ends and another’s begins.” —Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, The Map of Salt and Stars

 

“How were they to know the moment that would define them? It will affect his personality for his whole life, someone is saying to her, and whose fault will it be then? Mine, a voice replies, and the voice is hers.” —Fatima Farheen Mirza, A Place for Us

 

“Oh, our private selves—how strange we all are, how full of feelings and essentially alone.” —Curtis Sittenfeld, You Think It, I’ll Say It

 

 

“A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Everyone of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.” —Tayari Jones, An American Marriage

 

“It was that kind of mindfuck: to be too visible and invisible at the same time, in the ways it mattered the most.” —Lisa Ko, The Leavers

“Being a woman is always a performance; only the very old and very young are allowed to bow out of it. Everywhere, you are observed and assessed: walking down the street, riding a bus, driving a car, eating in a café. You must smile, but not too widely. You must be pleasant, but not forward. You must accommodate and ingratiate but never offer too much of yourself, and never for your own pleasure. If you do this, it must be in secret.” —Frances de Pontes Peebles, The Air You Breathe

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

2018 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize Longlist Announced

The Center for Fiction announced their 2018 First Novel Prize longlist this morning. The award is given to the “best debut novel published between January 1 and December 31 of the award year,” and the prize-winning author receives $10,000.

The Millions has a special connection to this list: our editor Lydia Kiesling made the list with her debut novel, The Golden State (out in September)!

Here is the 2018 longlist (featuring many titles from our Great Book Preview) with bonus links when applicable:

 America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
Brass by Xhenet Aliu
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
The Devoted by Blair Hurley
The Distance Home by Paula Saunders
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling (Read more of Lydia’s work here)
If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim
Inappropriation by Lexi Freiman
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li (Our interview with Li)
The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat


The Pisces by Melissa Broder (Our interview with Broder)
A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (Featured in Garth Greenwell’s Year in Reading)
Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin
Restless Souls by Dan Sheehan
Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
Sadness is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon


Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik
There There by Tommy Orange
Trenton Makes by Tadzio Koelb
What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan
Whiskey & Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith
The Wonder That Was Ours by Alice Hatcher

Tuesday New Release Day: Gay; Murata; Mirza; O’Neill; Kadare; Dybek; Millet; Müller

Out this week: A new edition of Ayiti by Roxane Gay; Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata; A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza; Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill; The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare; The Verdun Affair by Nick Dybek; Fight No More by Lydia Millet; and Father’s on the Phone with the Flies by Herta Müller.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

A Year in Reading: Garth Greenwell

Early in the year, an editor’s comment on an essay draft sent me back to Émile Zola, whom I hadn’t read since graduate school. And I think even then I only read one novel, L’Assommoir, which somehow didn’t make an overwhelming impression. It made one now, and I spent the first couple of months of 2017 reading novel after novel, in a state of real amazement. Zola is an uneven writer, sometimes careless, and he’s a deeply uncongenial writer for me in the attitude of knowingness he takes toward his characters, his sense that contemporary theories of human behavior adequately explain human beings, without any remainder of mystery. This sense of knowingness results, often enough, in an impression of authorial contempt. In his determination to show the social rot in France’s Second Empire, his plots follow the same monotonous course from bad to worse to devastated.

And yet. At his best, Zola gets more reality into his books than any other writer I can think of, and this fidelity to the real—to how laundry is washed and beaten and dried, to how a horse is lowered into a mine—his meticulous, obsessive need to get things right, makes the books absolutely thrilling. And even if his theories deny human mystery, his characters, at least at the books’ finest moments, reclaim it. Nana regarding herself in the mirror, purring like a cat; the anarchist Souvarine stroking a rabbit on his lap; la Mouquette mooning the houses of the rich: these are moments of pure literature, I think, that wondrous excess of behavior and feeling that swamps reductive theory. I was pulled away from Zola, after seven or eight novels, to other projects; I’m itching to get back.

Toward the end of the year, a stray reference in Maggie Nelson’s fascinating The Art of Cruelty finally sent me to a book several friends had enthused about over the years: T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death. All of my training in the arts has been musical and literary; I’ve always been (I remain) embarrassed of my ignorance regarding visual art, to which my response is sometimes powerful but never informed. The Sight of Death is a remarkable demonstration of what an exquisitely informed eye can see. Over the course of months, during a residency at the Getty museum in L.A., Clark studies two huge landscapes by Nicolas Poussin—studying them not in his usual scholarly, historically-informed way, but simply by looking. This book is the record of what he sees. The gamble of the project is that something about great art really is inexhaustible: that we can return to a great poem or painting or sonata again and again, always finding ourselves newly challenged. The gamble pays off here, and the gorgeous and generous illustrations allow us to participate in Clark’s looking, to see some shadow of what he sees. Seldom have I been more grateful to a book.

Among new books: Frank Bidart’s Half-Light, which collects 50 years of poetry, is for me the book not just of the year but of the decade. Yiyun Li’s devastating, consoling Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life is among the most profound books I’ve ever read about the relationship between life and reading. And finally, two novels that I read in 2017 but that are coming out in 2018: First, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, out in January, is the best new novel I’ve read in a very long time, a gorgeous and profound interrogation of fidelity of all kinds. And Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us, out in June, is far too wise to be a debut novel; I’m not sure I know another book that measures so exactly and compassionately the lines of resentment and love that stitch together a family.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR