Household Words: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

This year was a year of catch-up reading: I found myself busy with books that I really should have read years ago. But without a doubt, when it comes to adventures in gorgeous and transformative literature, better (much better) late than never.

Top of my list is Fools by Joan Silber. Silber’s first novel, Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway in 1980, but I—many of us younger writers, I think—didn’t come to know her work until Ideas of Heaven, her fifth book and a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award. The “ring of stories” form rocked my world back then, and Silber’s ability to inhabit first-person narrators of such widely diverging identities, time periods, and voices was a revelation. With Fools, that same form, now sometimes referred to as a “story cycle,” is intricately crafted, and the stories are arguably even more satisfyingly, thematically linked (When is it wise—or not—to be a fool for something?).

For me though, what caused a Silber-reading marathon (Household Words, The Size of the World, Improvement, Lucky Us) is the wisdom embedded in each story, each character’s journey: These are stories about—simply put—the deep and wide messiness of a life’s arc. People are complicated, and life happens to us and at us more than we ever hope/imagine when we set out as young people. There are no cheap seats in life, and even so, it’s all meaningful, and it matters, and those are the echoes I most want vibrating in me when I put down a book.

Two short novels that seem to me under-read specifically because they were ahead of their time: Ed Lin’s Waylaid and James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. In the department of literature by and about people of color, the challenges and pitfalls are too often framed in terms of the either/or versus both/and conundrum: Is the book primarily “about race/racial identity” or about human beings living whole human lives inside their skin in a specific American setting? Both these novels so clearly do not concern themselves with this artificial question.

Beale Street, published in 1974, is a love story: Tish and Fonny are a young woman and man whose circumstances and racial identities make it extremely difficult for them to live happily ever after, and the journey toward that possibility is entangling and profound, much larger than just the two of them.

Waylaid (2002) takes place in the ’80s and features a 12-year-old Chinese-American, male protagonist who lives in and manages his parents’ seedy motel on the Jersey Shore: His first and ostensible problem is that he desperately needs to get laid, but really he’s figuring out how—as a big-for-his-age, smart, horny kid and the only Asian-American kid around—he’s going to grow into a manhood that is his own and find hope in humanity while surrounded by sad, lonely adults (his immigrant parents included). Both Waylaid and Beale Street render powerfully this truth: For people of color, racism is everyone else’s problem; we are just trying to live the fully human lives we are entitled to. The freedom to write character-driven stories that engage racial experience as essential but not essentializing may seem basic to us now, but as an Asian American writer-friend said to me recently about Waylaid: “No one was writing Asian Americans like that back then.” And the same could be said about Baldwin/Beale Street in the ’70s. (Note: I’m mad excited about Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation, but I also encourage all to read the book first if you can!)

I’ll close with two poetry collections—The Wilderness by Sandra Lim and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker. I tend to read poetry in a more sensory than cerebral way and am not very good at writing “about” poems or poetry collections. So I’ll just say that both these are provocatively and aptly titled and hope you’ll be thus compelled to immerse mind and senses in the work of these fierce, gifted poets.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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Pleasures and Disturbances: Reading Abroad

This guest post comes to us from Joan Silber. Joan Silber’s most recent book is the novel, The Size of the World, described as “magnificent fiction” by Publishers’ Weekly. She is the author of Ideas of Heaven, Finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize, and four other works of fiction, including Household Words, winner of the Hemingway Award. Her work appears in the 2007 O. Henry Prize Stories and in The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, and has been in The New Yorker. You can click here to learn more about The Size of the World.I’m addicted to travel – particularly to Asia – and once I’ve decided where to go, the next question is: what to read? What I look for first is fiction by the country’s writers. A traveler is always gazing at the windows of houses, wondering what’s going on inside – I think of fiction as giving me a way in.Anyone going to Japan, India, and China has lots of novels to choose from – to Thailand and Indonesia, far fewer (Vietnam is somewhere in the middle, and Laos is off the map). This has to do with translators, money, and markets. But something can always be found.Family life unfolds in novels. For Thailand, I loved Letters from Thailand, by Botan (she only uses one name). It’s actually a portrait of a Chinese family in Thailand, but it gives a full sense of how group ties work in Bangkok. For Japan, my longtime favorite is The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki, an Austen-like portrayal of a family’s trouble marrying off a middle sister; the social rules kept surprising me, until I came to see that the family itself (in the 1930s) is unclear about the rules. Japan is quite different now, but the book gave me a different angle on rigidities.In Laos, I was thrilled when I found, in a tiny museum shop in Vientiane, a booklet of Lao Folktales: Tales of Turtles, Tigers and Toads, collected by Steve Epstein. In one of them, three adventurous flies leave home to storm the king’s plate of chicken, only to be chased by fearsome guards with fly swatters – the flies escape with new appreciation for their humble home. The joke about wry resignation in this seemed quite Lao to me later.Often, I can’t help wanting the locals to see I’m hip enough to have a book by one of their writers. On a quiet beach in Lombok, the Indonesian island just east of Bali, I showed a woman vendor I was reading a novel by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a famous writer who was banned for many years. Oh, yes, she knew his work. I was so tickled by her familiarity (on an island with limited schools) that I flashed the book again the next day. Yes, yes, I know you have it, she said. Yesterday I saw.While reading intensifies my sense of place, it also fuses with what’s seen – I can’t always remember what I learned from observing and what I read. (Perhaps I am like that about everything.) During my stay, reading gives me the beautiful sensation that I’m an adept in whatever’s going on around me, just as reading sub-titles in a movie can convince me I know the language.I’m not above reading books by fellow foreigners, but I try to avoid those by travelers who only passed through (what do they know that I don’t?) in favor of writers who’ve spent real time in the place. The fabulous Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk was a great introduction to Kyoto, and Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City cracked open Mumbai in ways I never, never could have gotten to myself.But what I really love is the past. I read composer Colin McPhee’s accounts of Balinese music in the 1930s, in his memoir A House in Bali, while hearing gamelan players rehearse next door to my hotel. Before I went to China, I read letters from a missionary wife in China Journal, 1889-1900, by Eva Jane Price, and began thinking about writing fiction that could draw on them. (This later became the title story in Ideas of Heaven, published by Norton in 2004). In Luoyang, a provincial city in central China, I met an older man in the square who asked if his students could practice English with me. He’d learned his very good English, it turned out, studying with missionaries from Oberlin College, direct descendants of the ones I’d read about. I was astonished – he himself thought everyone had heard of his teachers – and we corresponded for years afterward. It was very gratifying to me to send him the book, with its foil medallion saying Finalist National Book Award and thanks to him in the Acknowledgments.In Malaysia, I read Tales from the South China Seas, oral histories of the British in Malaya and Singapore, edited by Charles Allen, while taking the jungle railway up the spine of the peninsula. And these fed my next fictional project, a long narrative about Americans in southern Thailand in the 1920s. “Paradise,” as the tale came to be called, also relies greatly on a 1923 memoir, Impressions of the Siamese-Malayan Jungle, by a Swiss prospector named Hans Morgenthaler. “Paradise” is now a crucial section of my current novel, The Size of the World, just released by Norton. It’s a novel very much about travel, its pleasures and disturbances, and how history finds us.

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