Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

New Price: $15.99
Used Price: $0.25

Mentioned in:

Ten Writers to Watch in 2019

This list of 10 writers to watch features the authors of five translated works—from the French, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. Even the American authors’ books have a distinctly international flavor, with a collection riffing on Turkish history, a Cold War intrigue, and a sweeping novel about a historically black community in Nova Scotia.
1. Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Turkish Delights
“As a creative writing teacher, I read so many short stories,” says Ayşe Papatya Bucak, a professor at Florida Atlantic University. “Nothing seems original to me unless it’s pretty out-there, so I was trying at least to do stories I hadn’t seen before.”

The result is Bucak’s debut collection, The Trojan War Museum (Norton, Aug.), which spins sly, inventive stories from Turkish history. “Her work is historical and contemporary, real and imagined, a blend of myth and fact,” says her agent, Julie Barer.
Alane Mason, Bucak’s editor, praises the “freshness and power of the prose—never a word wasted or a risk shied away from.”
The title story imagines a series of museums dedicated the Trojan War, some curated by the Greek gods and some of which are horrifyingly immersive. “I wanted to write a story that had multiple stories in it, like the layers of Troy, and where the setting performed the narrative structure,” Bucak, 48, explains.
Other stories animate colorful 19th-century figures—wrestler Yusuf Ismail, diplomat and art collector Khalil Bey—and grapple with their Orientalist depictions in the West.
Bucak, whose father is Turkish and whose mother is American, attended Princeton University and studied with novelist Russell Banks before working in publishing for several years. “I learned pivotal lessons as an undergrad, but then it took me a really long time to execute them,” she says. “Writing is like a lot of things—you have to learn over and over.”
Though Bucak was initially cautious, writing about her father’s homeland opened up new possibilities. “The only Turk I knew for most of my life was my dad, so I wondered if I was entitled to write about Turkey,” she says. “It really took me until my 30s to realize, ‘Oh, I’m mixed!’ That let me write about Turkey the way I experience it.”

2. Jeffrey Colvin: Sister Cities
“I can still remember segregation in the Alabama education system,” says Jeffrey Colvin, 61, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. A former Marine who holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and now lives in New York City, Colvin was working on series of stories set in and around his racially divided hometown when he learned about Africville, a black community in Halifax, Canada, “that no longer existed, wiped out during a thing called urban renewal.” He thought to incorporate his Alabama stories into a larger narrative about Africville, first settled in the 18th century by freed slaves and exiled Jamaicans. The idea developed into his debut novel, Africaville (Amistad, Dec.).
“I’ve been wrestling with how to write about the South in my own way,” Colvin says. “This allowed me to talk about the South, but also stand apart from it and think about how it connects to the larger world.”
Opening in 1918 during a fever epidemic, the novel relates the ordeals of the Sebolt family. “I was in awe that Jeffrey sustained that balance of a shadow—literal and metaphorical—always looming over the Sebolt family,” says Colvin’s editor, Patrik Bass. “And yet there’s a resilience—rooted in a sense of home—that takes them, and readers, to other places,” he adds.
“Once I started reading, I was instantly drawn in by his story of a family and the town that both defines and confines them,” says Colvin’s agent, Ayesha Pande.
Race is similarly defining and confining for the Sebolts, one of whom passes as white after moving to Alabama. “One of the things I find fascinating is the way in which people cast off their past,” Colvin says.
Colvin cut his novel down significantly, sometimes painfully, over the various revisions. Laughing, he paraphrases James Baldwin: “You don’t get the novel you want, you get the novel you got.”
3. Jean-Baptiste Del Amo: Nostalgie de la Boue
“Mine wasn’t a family of readers, and I never expected to write books,” says Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, who grew up in southwest France. When he completed a draft of what would become his first novel, 2008’s Une Education Libertine, he had no connections to the Parisian publishing world and a miniscule postage budget to work with. “I didn’t have enough money to send the book to more than four publishers,” he says.
Del Amo chose wisely; two weeks later, he received a positive response from the venerable Éditions Gallimard. “My life changed completely,” he recalls.

Animalia (Grove, Sept.), Del Amo’s fourth novel, his first to be translated into English, is a century-spanning, mud-splashed epic about a clan of hardscrabble pig farmers in a small French village. “I wanted to tell a story about family and how violence can be transmitted from one generation to the next,” Del Amo, who is 37 and lives in Paris, explains. “I could use pigs and breeding as a metaphor for the human condition.”
In the book, Del Amo mixes lyrical passages of the French countryside with merciless descriptions of the sights, smells, and barbarism of industrial pig rearing. “The first half of the novel is like a landscape painting and the second half has a more documentary feel,” says his editor, Peter Blackstock.
“I want the reader to be physically involved,” Del Amo says. “Sense is the best way to bring the reader into my universe.”
“Jean-Baptiste’s hypnotic, poetic and sometimes terrifyingly visceral prose shimmers and quivers on the page,” adds his translator, Frank Wynne.
Cruelty, toward humans and animals, is the novel’s central theme. Since writing the book, Del Amo has taken a more activist stance on animal rights. Animalia, though, was not written to be a political statement. “The book led me to the activism, and not the contrary,” he says.


4. Juan José Millás: Domestic Help

Juan José Millás’s From the Shadows (Bellevue, Aug.) features one of the most memorable closets since C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In the book, Damián, a middle-aged, recently unemployed handyman, fashions himself a cubby hole behind the antique wardrobe in a family’s home.
“He is a sort of modern Robinson Crusoe, trapped on an island that turns out to be a closet,” Millás says of his handy, ghostly protagonist. “He in fact controls the movements of the family, which gives him a feeling of power that he had never possessed.”
When the house is empty, Damián leaves his redoubt to tidy it up. Millás, 73, says he shares his protagonist’s Zen-like approach to cleaning: “It’s one of my favorite activities. As I polish the cups and glasses, I enter a special state of consciousness, from which I understand the world and its problems better.”
A strange character, Damián stages an imaginary talk show, of which he is the star, in his head. “The contrast between his reality—the closet—and fantasy—the set—seemed to me to be very symbolic of the isolation in which people live and the hunger for fame to which they aspire,” Millás says.
From the Shadows, translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, is Millás’s first novel to be published in North America. (Two works were pubbed in the U.K., but both are out of print.) Millás lives in Madrid and is a columnist for the newspaper El País, contributing “hybrid pieces” called articuentos: “They are hybrids because they have the appearance of a journalistic column, but they hide a short story inside them,” he explains.
Millás’s editor, Erika Goldman, says she was captivated by his “whimsy and the logic of his imagination” and praises his “lively, mordant social satire that gives us what we look for in the best of international literature: insight into another world that deepens our understanding of our own.”
5. Hiroko Oyamada: Corporate Bestiary

Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory (New Directions, Oct.) is an oneiric satire of corporate life in contemporary Japan. In the novel, three employees—a document shredder, a copy editor, and a scientist who classifies the moss growing on a factory’s massive campus—struggle to make sense of their company’s opaque mission.
“Even the smallest pond has its own ecosystem,” Oyamada says. “The same holds true for any workplace.”
After graduating from Hiroshima University with a degree in Japanese literature, Oyamada worked as a temp at a sprawling car factory with a massive staff. “Just being there in the middle of it all left me feeling anxious,” she says. One day, she started writing on the clock. “At first, it was practically a diary, but soon it became something much closer to a novel.”
Oyamada, 35, explores the unsettling parallel between the employees and the eerie creatures roaming the company’s grounds, each of which has adapted to corporate life and the facilities. This fantastical animal element was inspired by a surreal moment from her factory job. “I looked up and saw a woman by one of the printers, holding a giant black bird by its wings,” she recalls. “When I looked back, what I saw wasn’t a bird at all. It was a part for the printer—maybe a toner cartridge. Still, the image of that bird in the basement stuck with me.”
David Boyd, who translated The Factory, says, “Every time I go back to Oyamada’s writing, I find something new—something major that changes the entire story.”
Oyamada’s tale conveys the economic insecurity felt by a generation of Japanese. “I finished the book in 2010—a time when young people were working as hard as they could in exchange for woefully low wages,” she explains. “These deplorable conditions have become so normal that no one even talks about them anymore. What may have immediately struck some readers a decade ago as comically awful working conditions may now seem less terrible and more tolerable.”
6. Kimberly King Parsons: Lone Stars
Frustrated by her progress on a novel, Kimberly King Parsons says that she started “cheating by writing these really fun, illicit short stories”—a form that has always appealed to her. “There’s something about the compression that does it for me in a way that most novels don’t.”

Those stories coalesced into Black Light (Vintage, Aug.), Parsons’s debut collection. They are set in Texas, where she was born and lived until she attended Columbia’s fiction MFA program. “It’s kind of ridiculous, but it took my agent to tell me that they all took place there,” says Parsons, who is 40 and currently lives in Portland, Ore.
That agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, says she was struck by Parsons’s “Texan-twanging voice” and how “despite shades of sharp-tongued truth-telling, feral desperation, white-hot rage, and often giddy narcotic abandon, the stories also somehow capture the magic, warmth, and enchantment of hope.”
“I think the bed is the place I can write the most comfortably for the longest amount of time,” Parsons says. But despite her Proustian writing habits, the tales hum with a jittery energy.
“Her unique sentence structure makes you want to stop dead in your tracks and listen, the way an unusual guitar hook does,” says Parsons’s editor, Margaux Weisman.
The collection features iridescent characters “trying to get at what’s underneath real life,” Parsons says. “There’s a lot of game playing in these stories, whether it’s children or whether it’s adults behaving badly to get to a place where they can feel that glow.”
One such game takes place when two married colleagues call out sick and spend the day in a seedy motel. “I personally love hotels,” Parsons says. “There’s something magical to me about how it becomes a stage and what happens in that room is potentially performative.”

7. Lara Prescott: Hot off the Cold War Presses

One of Lara Prescott’s prized possessions is a CIA-printed copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, whose publication history is the subject of her debut, The Secrets We Kept (Knopf, Sept.). “It’s a tiny second or third edition printed on Bible stock and small enough to fit in your pocket to conceal,” she says.
Prescott’s novel focuses on the role that women agents played in the CIA’s effort to secure, publish, and distribute the U.S.S.R.-banned novel behind the Iron Curtain in the late 1950s. “It seemed like a novel while I was reading all these declassified documents on CIA.gov,” Prescott says. Her protagonists are a young typist in the CIA typist pool and a glamorous woman skilled at extracting secrets from powerful men.
The story immediately grabbed her agents, Jamie Chambliss and Jeff Kleinman, who describe the novel as “A Gentleman in Moscow meets Hidden Figures.”
While researching the novel, Prescott, 37, realized that she “just couldn’t write from the Western perspective” and decided to chronicle the difficult life of Pasternak’s mistress and muse, Olga, twice sent to the gulag because of her lover’s subversive novel.
Prescott—who lives in Austin, Tex., where she received her MFA in creative writing at the Michener Center—studied political science and international relations at American University. Before turning to fiction, she was a communications writer for various political campaigns. “I didn’t have the fortitude or the underlying passion for being next to power,” she says.
Prescott’s tale also weaves in the Lavender Scare, the government’s Cold War–era persecution of gay and lesbian federal workers. “Though the CIA was promoting freedom through these works of art, at the same time they were persecuting their own employees,” she says. “Censorship and persecution exist on both sides.”
8. Veronica Raimo: Utopia and Its Discontents

Set on the fictional island of Miden, Veronica Raimo’s first novel to appear in English, The Girl at the Door (Black Cat, Oct.), recounts a sexual abuse allegation that upends the lives of a professor and his pregnant girlfriend.
Raimo’s editor, Elisabeth Schmitz, likens the novel to Kristen Roupenian’s “infamous” short story “Cat Person” in that it “considers a narrative other than a clear-cut perpetrator vs. victim one in a story of sexual transgression,” she says.
The professor and his girlfriend narrate in alternating chapters as a citizen committee determines whether they can remain on the utopian island. As she worked on the novel, Raimo became more drawn to the girlfriend’s experience. “I thought it would be more interesting to have this woman, neither the victim nor the perpetrator, forced to live this conflict from an external point of view,” she explains.
For years, Raimo, 41, bounced between her hometown of Rome and Berlin, which she first visited on a graduate scholarship to study East German cinema. “You can feel the tension between a society like Germany, which is richer and works better and is more progressive, and Italy’s,” Raimo says. “I needed the conflict that you experience every day in Rome.”
The darkly ironic tale pokes fun at bureaucratic procedures regulating sexual misconduct and desire, even as it honors “the inner truth of someone feeling that he or she was abused,” says Raimo, who is currently working on Italian translations of Octavia E. Butler and Ray Bradbury. “You can’t really have a protocol for love, even in a society that has a protocol for everything.”
9. Karina Sainz Borgo: Survivor’s Guilt

“Sometimes I think I have been writing this novel my whole life,” says Karina Sainz Borgo, a Venezuelan journalist living in Barcelona. In It Would Be Night in Caracas (HarperVia, Oct.), Adelaida mourns the death of her mother while fighting to survive in a Caracas beset with paramilitary marauders and debilitating inflation.
“I’m trying to explain how one of the most important countries of the region became a very primitive society,” Sainz Borgo says. “Dictatorships create differences between people, and one of those is between those who left and those who stayed.”
Sainz Borgo knows this firsthand, having left Venezuela 13 years ago at age 24. “I wanted to write about why I feel guilty because I’m no longer there.”
Capturing Adelaida’s shifting voice challenged Sainz Borgo’s translator, Elizabeth Bryer. “Sometimes her utterances are staccato in nature, truncated as they are by grief,” she says. “At other times her voice is all energetic resilience, fueled by her determination to survive.”
Adelaida’s mother’s death is emblematic of Venezuela’s collapse, Sainz Borgo explains. “It was supposed to be a mother country for all these people, but it didn’t work.”
Sainz Borgo’s editor, Juan Milà, acquired the novel for the new HarperVia imprint focused on translated fiction. “It had everything,” he says—“a gripping voice and plot as well as a deep emotional intelligence that allows us to connect with the human stories in newspapers and on television.”
Sainz Borgo stresses, though, that the novel is not necessarily a tale specific to Venezuela. “Many have said that this is a topical novel, but I do not say ‘Venezuela’ very much,” she says. “I was trying to maintain the universalist nature.”
10. Lila Savage: Written with Care
Lila Savage didn’t write any fiction until her 30s, when she started a novel based on her experience as a care worker. “I was interested in exploring the intimacy that develops between the caregiver and the family,” says Savage, who grew up in the Twin Cities and now lives in San Francisco. “I became very close with so many people, but I also had to start protecting myself emotionally.”

Savage eventually quit care work to focus on writing her debut novel, Say Say Say (Knopf, July). “The work that I did offered a lot of emotional reward, but it’s also tedious and stressful,” she says. Savage, 38, was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and later secured a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. “For folks from professional backgrounds like mine, it makes such a big difference to have funding to write.”
In Say Say Say, Ella, a young queer woman, cares for a rapidly declining woman—the novel’s title comes from one of her verbal tics—and develops an intense bond with her patient’s dutiful, undemonstrative husband. In portraying his male stoicism, Savage interrogates what she describes as the “cultural expectations for masculinity and the belief that caregiving is women’s work.”
“The novel takes on decline and grief with tremendous courage, honesty, and insight,” says Savage’s editor, Robin Desser. “Lila writes with a delicate restraint that belies how hard this book hits.”
Savage’s agent, Chris Parris-Lamb, hadn’t seen a novel on the subject, despite the fact that caregiving is “one of the most common, and fastest-growing, professions in the country.” He adds, “It felt like the sort of novel Alice Munro might write, if Alice Munro were a queer millennial who wrote novels and had perhaps read some affect theory.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

A Year in Reading: Marie Myung-Ok Lee

When we think of STEM — science, technology, engineering, math — we tend to think of male-dominated worlds of startups and computers: Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs. So then where does Hidden Figures, the story of a group of African-American women mathematicians belong? These women answered a call to work for the government during World War II, doing the essential calculations to build aerodynamic fighter planes, then stayed to work at what became NASA — and eventually did the computations to put John Glenn on the moon. These women, with their human brain power alone, did the number crunching — they were called human “computers” — that today we give over and take for granted as being done by non-human machines.

Equally fascinating to me, and one of the reasons I pulled this book from my precarious towering pile, was that it didn’t haven any blurbs screaming MAJOR MOTION PICTURE COMING SOON! (which I found out later) — it had no blurbs at all. Indeed, in Hidden Figures, true to its quiet presentation, the historical narrative is straightforward, and gets the storytelling job done, much like Dorothy “Dot” Vaughn, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and the other women who spent their days and talents doing such reliably superb work that they were often favored over the male engineers and mathematicians. Math doesn’t care who does it: “In math, you’re either right or you’re wrong,” said Katherine Johnson.

To make good on Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s “Victory Through Airpower!” motto, there were a lot of calculations to be done; the first female computing pool made its debut in 1935 — to much objection from the male engineers. But when the need for human computational experts still far exceeded the number of people employed, Langley began reaching out to qualified African-American women; indeed applications no longer required photos — a mandate from the old Woodrow Wilson administration. A building, “West Computing,” was commissioned at Langley to house these workers sorely needed by a nation at war. But while people like Dorothy Vaughn (who later made it into management) were now working side by side with whites doing the same work, they would still have to face the discriminatory walk through labyrinthine corridors until they found the washroom with the sign COLORED GIRLS.

For hours a day, the human computers set about calculating angles of air resistance and drag, finding the best wing shapes and using equations such the Whitcomb area rule to engineer aircraft shapes able to reach transonic and supersonic speeds, developed and tested at Langley in the 1930s and ’40s. In the postwar period, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) began to look heavenward and became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — i.e., NASA — and many of the Langley computers were transferred there, as the mission in peacetime became to conquer space.

Even though this took place in a different century, this in some ways is a perfect book for our times. A desperate government was willing to override preconceived notions of gender and race for more overarching goals. Not to mention that, coincidentally, women were paid less for the same work, classified as entry-level “computers” rather then mathematicians and engineers, a title and salary that all the men with similar (or even lesser) credentials received automatically.

Today’s “we pick the most qualified people,” is code for keeping white men  in power. Here, when the government literally needed to hire the most talented people — they turned out to be women, not men, and African American, not white (or Asian — as anti-Asian immigration laws from the 1920s kept the Asian-American population low) — the urgencies of war and then the space race with the Russians set these exigencies on a collision course with segregation.

In 1941, to help fulfill the enormous labor needs of the military, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 — “There shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries and in Government, because of race, creed, color, or national origin” — the first Presidential directive on race since Reconstruction. However, Virginia, where Langley was based, was a segregationist state (the Loving v. Virginia miscegenation case would challenge the state two decades later) and the African-American women of the West Computing group had to sit at a cafeteria table designated for COLORED COMPUTERS. One computer, Miriam Mann, started her one-person resistance by disposing of the sign daily, hiding it in her purse. But the next day, a new sign would appear. “They are going to fire you over that sign, Miriam,” her husband said. But she kept on with her quiet fight until finally one day the sign was no longer replaced.

This book comes at a time when a U.S. election has seemingly fractured the populace beyond repair. For the black female computers, FDR’s directive provided an opportunity for these women to become breadwinners (with the social esteem they received from their meaningful work) and pull their families into the middle class. With unequal pay for women, and for African Americans, a job like this for the government was indeed appealing. How these women then navigated this workplace — especially with the space race coinciding with the efflorescence of the civil rights movement pushing against Jim Crow — shows that there are ways to fight injustice while also getting a man on the moon.

The story is engagingly told with a minimum of writerly embellishment, a perfect choice given how the history itself is substantial and full of quiet drama: from the women’s sometimes ambitious, sometimes witty resistance, to the humiliations of so-called “separate but equal,” to astronaut John Glenn’s warmth to his team and his coolness under the unimaginable pressure of attempting a feat no one was even sure was possible — while two Russian cosmonauts had already orbited the Earth multiple times (not to mention Sputnik slowly, unnervingly beeping in American skies), America was attempting to put a human into orbit for the first time.

Hidden Figures also tells a fascinating story of technology, as the first automated computers began to infiltrate the human workplace at this time — it could do in hours what took the most gifted mathematical savant days. For NASA, the stakes couldn’t have been higher: previously, the longest any American had been in space was for 15 minutes, in a sub-orbital flight. But before the launch, John Glenn insisted that the voluminous electronic computations be double-checked by none other than Katherine Vaughn. Human brain versus electronic computer: once she confirmed the numbers matched, Glenn proceeded onto the historic flight of the Friendship 7, which would put an American into deep space for the first time.

On an individual level, these women were part of the “talented tenth” wanting to ensure a solid future for their children — and to change the world. Collectively, the women pushed America forward even at the expense of their own burgeoning careers; Mary Jackson, achieving the coveted level of GS-12 Aeronautical Engineer as a black woman, didn’t do enough to help the advancement of others, she felt. So at age 58, she took a demotion to GS-11 to become the head of the Federal Women’s Program, committed to helping all women advance — a way, she felt, to naturally bridge racial differences.

While there has been scattered acknowledgement of this history — Katherine Johnson was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama last year, this collective story has, until now, indeed been that of “hidden figures.”

I think of how these women’s work touched even our tiny corner of northern Minnesota: my father, a Korean immigrant, helping my brother with his junior high science fair project — a scale recreation of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Apparently the Apollo 11 astronauts had been much less sure that they would succeed in getting to the moon. However one person, Katherine Johnson, had confidence: she knew her numbers putting them there were irrevocably right.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR