Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement, a multi-genre anthology of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that I compiled and edited for McSweeney’s, was released in September and is now headed toward its third printing. Recently, after returning home to Brooklyn from book-event travels on behalf of Indelible, I invited two of the book’s contributors—Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and Diana Spechler—to discuss the current state of the #MeToo movement and their experience writing on this topic.
Shelly Oria: Had you written #MeToo before or was this your first time writing about this topic?
Diana Spechler: The #MeToo movement has given me a new lens through which to see so much of my past, including my past writing. Sometimes the lens makes me wince. For example, years ago I wrote fairly straight journalism about pick-up artists, giving very little thought to how gross “pick-up art” is. Please don’t Google that! Or, if you Google it, please say aloud to yourself, “Well, Diana has certainly matured since 2009!” I now realize how much my experience as a woman in a patriarchal society has impacted my writing, my life, my preoccupations, my fears, my sense of accomplishment, so perhaps it’s fair to say that everything I’ve ever written has been a #MeToo piece; I just often didn’t realize it.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Exactly. I’ve never written about sexual violence expressly in the context of #MeToo, but the movement has absolutely awakened me to themes of sexual harm, power, and vulnerability, both in my work and in the writing I love. I have always known sexuality and power to be important concerns of my work, and of feminist and black feminist literatures, but #MeToo has really brought these themes into a kind of focus in ways that are challenging but crucial. Or crucial because they are challenging. This movement has shown me how true it is that we can’t think about, for example, coming-of-age fiction, or what people call “domestic fiction”—or really any story that wants to deal honestly with the experiences of women and people of marginalized genders—without thinking about vulnerability to sexual violence and sexual power. It’s there in the novels, the stories; we just haven’t all been talking about it.
DS: Shelly, I know that your writing has explored power, gender, identity, and sexuality for a very long time. How did #MeToo (at least as it reemerged a couple years ago, more than a decade after Tarana Burke started it) impact your work?
SO: I had this moment when I was asked in an interview for Indelible if I was also working on my own #MeToo story collection, and I started and restarted my answer a bunch of times—luckily this was over email—because I kept thinking of another story of mine and another that is actually about sexual violence in some way…I started with an answer that could be summed up as “not really,” and ended with some like “I’ve been writing a lot of MeToo fiction.” So I very much relate to what you’re both saying here. I think it’s mostly my thinking about my work that has shifted in the past two years, as the cultural context for everything being written and made has reshaped itself.
This change affects what’s being published, and it affects how readers are receiving these stories. If you’d written about this topic prior to October 2017—pre-Harvey—did the experience feel different in any way? Was the reception of the work different?
DS: So much has shifted since the rise of Trump. We couldn’t have gotten to Harvey had Trump not already begun contaminating the air. And I would say that that contamination has made everything feel different.
I’m not really answering the question, am I? I think that’s because what’s more compelling to me than changing reactions to my own work is how reactions to other writers’ work have changed. For example, in 1998, Joyce Maynard published her memoir At Home in the World, about how J.D. Salinger preyed on her when she was a college student. The response to that publication was ostracism from much of the literary community. I met Joyce a couple years ago at a writers’ conference and gushed about that book to her and then we talked about how different the reception would likely be today, how awful the reaction was back then, and how fascinating it is that a book that once made her a pariah could have 20 years later made her a hero. Since that conversation, I’ve seen a bit of a revival of that book. People are reading it differently now.
An even more fascinating example, though it’s not a literary example, is how the world has begun treating Monica Lewinsky. In the ’90s, she was Public Enemy No. 1. Now that seems totally absurd. Why the hell were we blaming her? Today she’s one of our spokeswomen.
I keep wanting to apologize for going off on tangents instead of answering the question, but that would be ironic since Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump have rested their careers on never apologizing and they are rapists, while I am just a lady with an imperfect attention span.
MJS: But also, it makes sense to resist a linear narrative of time and “attention span,” as Diana puts it so well, in this conversation. I think it’s important to acknowledge how even imagining the public conversations on Weinstein (or Trump) as a kind of catalyzing or originating moment in the #MeToo conversation ends up enacting (or at least permitting) another kind of narrative violence that not only erases the labor of black women and women of color organizers like Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement in 2006, but that also centers these men and their actions, rather than the cultures of power that have allowed these stories and billions of others exist as open secrets—or at least as secreted, as objects of a rigorously selective hearing—for decades or more, and the many women writers around the world who have been telling these stories for just as long, often only to be ignored or punished or both. That’s a harder set of questions to grapple with, and one that a singularly-focused origin story can’t really accommodate.
DS: Shelly, this makes me think of this line from “But We Will Win,” your short story in the anthology: “My point was to bring attention to the larger issue.” In the context of the narrative, the sentence is very funny, but when I read it, it jumped out at me because it also could have been a summary of the activism you did by compiling this anthology. It makes me misty-eyed to think that all of our stories and poems and essays might “bring attention to the larger issue,” might help us to one day “win.” How do you view our responsibility as writers and artists in this critical moment?
SO: Working on Indelible—compiling the book, editing the pieces—felt like an effort to “bring attention to the larger issue” for sure, yes. And that effort presented itself in my life at a time when I was desperate to do something that might “matter.” Having grown up in Israel, I find protesting hard, at times impossible; I grew up believing this type of action mattered, and while my brain still believes that, my body hasn’t in many years. So putting together this book felt like the type of protest I could show up for again and again.
But really—and this may sound…hokey—I think our responsibility as artists is only to truth and vulnerability. When we meet that responsibility in a real way, the rest takes care of itself. So while conceptualizing our writing as activism is generally a bad idea, sometimes some form of activism will happen through the work nonetheless. Honesty is radical. Especially right now.
I see Indelible as part of a wave of books that are coming out now, at the two-year mark of the movement in its current incarnation and the one-year mark of the Kavanaugh hearings, and that’s been making me think a lot about this question, and specifically about the role books like Indelible play, both in readers’ and writers’ lives, in shaping the larger conversation.
Were you already working on the piece you contributed to Indelible when I reached out to you, or did the solicitation from McSweeney’s inspire the work?
DS: When you solicited me, I had a complicated reaction. Reflecting on men who have bulldozed my boundaries generated an elixir of pain, shame, and fury. Simultaneously, I was excited to contribute to such a beautiful project and terrified that I was going to fail. (To be fair, my initial reaction to every assignment I’ve ever gotten in my life is that I’m going to fail.) And then within a week or so, the voice of the piece popped into my head. It was the voice of an interrogator—a man demanding that a woman prove her allegations against her various sexual harassers. It was a silly voice, a caricature, like the collective voice that yells about “due process” these days without having any idea what it is.
That’s how writing works for me: Someone whispers a line into my ear and that’s the seed. It’s planted. Then I have to sit down and…I don’t understand gardening, so please don’t make me continue this metaphor. But eventually there’s a big, published plant?
MJS: That’s really interesting. I had mixed feelings too, actually, though I think for different reasons. I have taken issue with the way #MeToo has often been framed as a kind of spontaneous eruption of voicing catalyzed by famous or well-off white women. So, I thought it was really important to contribute, and I was honored to be invited. At the same time, it was important to me to be able to be clear about this erasure. So when we did our Philly launch event in October, It was important to me to read from Burke’s piece, “MeToo is a Movement, Not a Moment,” instead of sharing only my own writing. I appreciated the chance to center her voice in the conversation.
But your initial email about the anthology got me thinking about my writing (and, again, the literature I love and teach) in a different way. As a fiction writer, I thought at first that I didn’t have a “MeToo story,” proper, to contribute; I’ve only written a few stories that I think of as dealing directly with sexual violence, and they had been published already. But when I thought more about it, I realized that so much of my work is tinged with the specter of sexual vulnerability and sexual harm in complex ways. The story I ended up sending narrates a similar experience. The character, a thick black girl who has fought hard to lose weight, does not see herself as having experienced sexual violence—at least not at first. She doesn’t have language to describe her experience, just as she doesn’t have language to describe her body. We catch her in that search for words and context. It’s a complicated thing to grapple with, and I was glad for the chance to do it.
DS: Have either of you felt emboldened as writers because so much of the misogyny that used to be confined to whisper networks is now out in the open? How so?
MJS: In some ways, I think I have tended to be a little…what…oblivious, or maybe irreverent, when it comes to sex and power and bodily experience in my writing, and how it will be received. For better and for worse. So I don’t know that my writing has changed, but it is interesting and, I think, heartening to imagine that there is a widening readership for candid, direct, work on these subjects. How about you?
SO: I think touring with the anthology has emboldened me: meeting and talking to many people in different parts of the country who shared their stories with me, who came to our events because—whether they feel empowered or not—they are dedicated to speaking up and reading and in many cases writing, too, about this issue. I think it’s necessary. I think that in our lifetime, it will never not be necessary, and never not radical.
I, too, have been focused on the exclusion and erasure that were part of the phenomenon of the past two years, and much of making Indelible has been a response to and a conversation with these big problems. Through the book events, and before that, through planning these events—especially the ones in cities I couldn’t go to myself, where local writers stepped up to celebrate the anthology and what it stands for—I got to feel the true power, and grassroots power, of this movement in this moment in time.
Relatedly, sort of, you’ve both heard me talk about why making Indelible a multi-genre anthology felt important to me from the start. In short: I believe that it’s our responsibility as a society in times of crisis to encourage and receive art in all the forms it takes, and I believe multi-genre is a form of inclusivity we should strive toward. I’m always curious to hear other writers’ thoughts on this issue.
DS: I love that this book is multi-genre because that in itself is a political statement. The feminist movement today, or dare I say one goal of the whole Left today, is to dismantle boundaries—to embrace gender fluidity and racial equality, to open borders. Categorizing a book as one genre or another used to be a dogmatic practice, but ultimately who does that serve (other than people shelving books at bookstores)? I’m not suggesting that it’s okay for a writer to say, “Here’s my true book about surviving a genocide,” if she did not in fact survive a genocide, but I do love writing that might be poetry or might be creative nonfiction or might be a lyric something-or-other. I love that Indelible is an anthology of woman-identifying and non-binary writers writing whatever the hell they want to write. It’s an example of structure reflecting theme.
MJS: Yes. I was so excited to learn that this would be a multi-genre anthology. I think unsettling genre is crucial for literary conversations about power. You know, I nerd out on languages, and I talk with students about this all the time—how in Spanish and French (and, I imagine, other Romance languages), “gender” and “genre” have the same pronunciation and spelling. In French, “Genre” is a polyseme that takes on both meanings. (It also means “type” or “kind”). In Spanish it’s “género.” On one hand, I think that speaks to the Western impulse to divide and categorize, as Diana points out—and how that impacts all of our discussions of gender in ways we may not acknowledge or even see. But, as writers, I think paying attention to literary genre also allows us to undo those categories, and break down the boundaries, as you’ve both said. And when we mess with genre in discussions of gender and/or race, class, ability, embodiment, sexuality, nation, and more, I think we have the chance to pierce those structures as well.
DS: Shelly and I nerd out a lot on language together, too, Mecca! We both speak (and often live in) our second languages, and making comparisons between English and other languages, not to mention between American culture and other cultures, is endlessly fascinating. Comparison is like a black light, illuminating issues of power and privilege that are otherwise hard to see.
And like you said, that impulse to categorize (and organize?) is particularly Western. It’s a method of control, one that art, ideally, acknowledges and messes with or ignores completely.
When I first moved to Mexico, I couldn’t stop noticing how much the dogs were barking. No one was shushing them. Noise regulations in Mexico aren’t enforced the way they are in the States, but beyond that: in Mexico, there’s a respect for nature that struck me as novel. Dogs are allowed to be dogs. I love that. That’s what I want from art. Let it bark all night if it needs to. Let it be what it needs to be.
MJS: I find myself thinking and talking a lot about my students in this conversation we’re having. I wonder what your experiences have been talking about #MeToo with generations other than your/our own.
SO: I love this question, Mecca. I was hyper aware of age in curating the book; it felt crucial to also invite writers who were dealing with this bullshit before I was born, whose perspective was much broader than mine could ever be.
Something that brought me to tears while I was touring with the book was seeing mothers and daughters at our events. It happened often, and it wrecked me. Or even just a young woman asking me to sign the book for her mother, or the other way around, which also happened quite a bit. I felt a very specific kind of pain around these interaction every time—the realization of how this societal illness of ours connects generations of women—alongside a careful, gentle hope that maybe we are beginning to heal.
DS: I like that you’re thinking about age as a determining factor, Mecca. The younger generation seems smart and open and I’m so relieved. I see Greta Thunberg and Malala and Emma González and I think…maybe we’ll be okay?
I guess I find myself thinking less about generational responses to feminism than about how the conversations vary from country to country. In many parts of Latin America, for instance, feminism is exploding. But the strength of the resistance to it is quite powerful, too. Femicide statistics have risen in the wake of the #NiUnaMenos hashtag—a movement to call attention to Latin America’s alarming rates of femicide—so some draw the sloppy conclusion that activism doesn’t work, that feminism is bad for women. Some further conclude that feminists are hypocrites because if feminists hated murder so much, they wouldn’t fight to legalize abortion. And on and on. I don’t mean to single out Latin America, but it’s an interesting microcosm of resistance-to-resistance. I try to trust that things have to get worse before they get better. I also try to trust that the death rattle of harmful and antiquated ideas, institutions, and practices is loud and grotesque.
SO: Indelible features a significant array of voices and backgrounds; this felt not just crucial, as it always does, but urgent, since at the time we were hearing predominantly from white, straight, beautiful actresses. How do you feel about the inclusivity of the #MeToo conversation in 2019? And would you say we’ve successfully shifted the cultural perception that appearance affects whether or not a woman gets harassed or abused?
DS: I don’t take kindly to the implication that I’m not a “beautiful actress.” Jeez.
MJS: I am definitely a beautiful actress.
DS: I peeked at your website. You are!
SO: I apologize and take full responsibility for not realizing you were both beautiful actresses. Someone else ask a question, then.
DS: I’ve seen a lot of cool art in recent years that challenges the notion that the gift of shitty male behavior is bestowed only on certain types of women. A couple off the top of my head are Shrill (both Lindy West’s book and the Hulu series based on it) and Orange Is the New Black. But no, I don’t think we have successfully shifted the cultural perception yet. In June, the president of the United States rejected a sexual assault allegation against him by arguing that she wasn’t his “type.”
MJS: I agree that that perception has not shifted. I think writing by Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison, Gloria Anzaldúa, Janet Mock, June Jordan, Dionne Brand, Jamaica Kincaid, Lenelle Moïse, Suzan-Lori Parks, Cherrie Moraga, Carmen Maria Machado, Nina Sharma, Roxanne Shanté, Roxane Gay, Queen Latifah, Sapphire, Reina Gossett, Bushra Rehman, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Darnell L. Moore, and many others has been doing that work.
There are years in which you are a stranger to yourself. This was one of them. I stopped keeping to-do lists, forgot obligations, hit pause on making sense of my life: why I cried when I should have been happy, why I grew angry or listless, why convictions I’d held no longer convinced even me. It was the last year of my third decade on this earth, and it seems that with every passing year I grow increasingly alien to that earth, or it to me. A fragmented year.
This was the year I moved to San Francisco for the third time, ambivalent. A bizarre place. Nowhere else can the simple act of buying snacks or going to a day job trigger in me the question, How to live?, or perhaps, How to live as a human?, or, What is a human?, or, How is humanity defined in a place of enormous income disparity and mind-boggling callousness as well as beauty? I’m not sure we all share the same definition of human these days. I’m not sure that, were I to rap politely on the skulls of those beside me on Valencia Street or in the backseat of my rideshare, I would hear flesh rather than a more synthetic response. A surreal place. In trying to make sense of it, I found conversational partners in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, Sarah Rose Etter’s The Book of X, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror.
This was the year I got engaged, and though publicly I kept it low-key, privately I gave myself license to obsess over my favorite obsession: the impossible paradox of being a good parent in a very bad world. I found dark and delightful and intelligent company in Louse Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Karen Russell’s Orange World, Alex Ohlin’s Dual Citizens, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, Meng Jin’s forthcoming Little Gods. I sobbed through Mira Jacob’s Good Talk. Though I doubt I want children, I have a perverse desire to marinate in the idea—maybe because children seem to bring with them a sense of anticipatory loss, and so a child might be a tangible thing on which to pin the ache I feel anyway.
This was the year I was so paralyzed by anxiety that only horror could shake me out of it. In the summer, my non-American partner was exiled in Mexico for an unspecified amount of time, awaiting opaque “further processing” on his routine visa run. On my trip back alone, the only book that could distract me was Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone—at least we weren’t being boiled alive or eaten by bears! I read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, Megan Gidding’s forthcoming Lakewood, Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World. Meanwhile, I practiced pacing my apartment while voicing the very worst possibilities: I could quit my job and move to another country! I could sell our needy puppy! I could delete my digital presence and become a hermit! How soothing to twist reality into its most nightmarish shape, and then study it.
This was the year I sought to lose myself in worlds I’d visited before. I reread sagas: Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu from the Earthsea Cycle, Cynthia Voigt’s Elske from the Tales of the Kingdom series, and George R. R. Martin’s entire A Song of Ice and Fire series (as far as it exists; George, please). The escapism is not lost on me. Closer to home, I reread Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth—more than one reread, in the case of certain stories. “As ordinary as it all appears,” Lahiri writes of the immigrant experience of shifting from one world to another, “there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
This was the year I grieved and found solace in books that peered closely at the texture of daily, mundane grief. I read Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days, and Miriam Toews’s strangely hilarious All My Puny Sorrows.
This was the year I looked for joy in the last pure place: in syllables. I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor and Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights in Logar, in which syntax is sheer delight. I reread Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on a solo writing trip to Hiroshima where, alone in my hotel with a sea view and two beds, no one minded if I occasionally threw the book across the room to yell WHAT THE FUCK when metaphors got too good. Intending it as mourning, I reread Toni Morrison’s Beloved the day the news of her death broke. I felt only elation. It is a perfect book. It is new every single time, as if the language is being birthed in radical shapes as you read—you can’t help but celebrate the life in it.
This was the year I stopped assuming I could see how things would turn out and cozied up to ambiguity. I read books that, rather than force a sweeping lesson, do what good friends do: hold space for complexity. I read Brandon Taylor’s forthcoming Real Life and T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, in which endings are not ends. I reread the lyrical puzzle box that is Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero. I read collections whose individual pieces fragmented, overlapped: Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina, Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias. I read Sarah Elaine Smith’s Marilou Is Everywhere and Alexandra Chang’s forthcoming Days of Distraction, their narrators keeping me company in my state of persistent bemusement. Maybe it’s enough, these books say, to live with integrity through a day, a paragraph, a sentence.
This was the year in which I wondered what happens to women’s rage and hurt when it is no longer as fresh as it was in, say, 2016. What happens as time passes, what ferments or crusts or festers. I read Shelly Oria’s Indelible in the Hippocampus and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House and Miriam Toews’s Women Talking. One of the first books I read this year was Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, a real mindfuck of a book, too smart and too cynical and too exacting to give its reader the easy gift of catharsis. It won’t let me forget it. I don’t want to forget.
In 2019, I stopped reading more books than I ever have before; life is too fucking short. The books that held my attention this year—that reached out to me—are capsules of strangeness, of varied extremity; what they don’t do is try to convince me that everything is okay. That was a form of companionship I needed very much.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Akwaeke Emezi, Lucy Ellmann, Ady Barkan, Emma Donoghue, Margaret Atwood, and more—that are publishing this week.
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Pet: “Carnegie Medal–nominee Emezi (Freshwater for adults) makes their young adult debut in this story of a transgender, selectively nonverbal girl named Jam, and the monster that finds its way into their universe. Jam’s hometown, Lucille, is portrayed as a utopia—a world that is post-bigotry and -violence, where ‘angels’ named after those in religious texts have eradicated ‘monsters.’ But after Jam accidentaly bleeds onto her artist mother’s painting, the image—a figure with ram’s horns, metallic feathers, and metal claws—pulls itself out of the canvas. Pet, as it tells Jam to call it, has come to her realm to hunt a human monster––one that threatens peace in the home of Jam’s best friend, Redemption. Together, Jam, Pet, and Redemption embark on a quest to discover the crime and vanquish the monster. Jam’s language is alternatingly voiced and signed, the latter conveyed in italic text, and Igbo phrases pepper the family’s loving interactions. Emezi’s direct but tacit story of injustice, unconditional acceptance, and the evil perpetuated by humankind forms a compelling, nuanced tale that fans of speculative horror will quickly devour.”
Indelible In The Hippocampus edited by Shelly Oria
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Indelible In The Hippocampus: “Editor Oria (New York 1, Tel Aviv 0) compiles fiction, personal essays, and poetry from 21 female writers on the subjects of sexual assault, harassment, and other dehumanizing consequences of patriarchy, in order to bring #MeToo from screen to page and showcase voices less likely to be heard in mainstream media, including those of women of color, queer women, and trans women. The results are bracing and urgent. Kaitlyn Greenidge considers the question of who has the right to hear the story of her assault. Courtney Zoffness explores the implications of a student’s overtly sexualizing behavior, noting, ‘It didn’t matter that I had ten years on Charlie, or more degrees, or the power to fail him. He still felt compelled to exert sexual power.’ In a darkly comical standout piece of fiction, Elissa Schappell imagines an email exchange between a writer submitting the story of her rape for publication and a magazine editor, whose increasingly absurd and offensive notes culminate in a disclosure that, if the writer doesn’t meet the deadline, ‘We’re going to be forced to swap in a photo spread of Woody Allen’s greatest hits.’ The collection is far from an endless parade of suffering; the writers offer a sense of communal feeling, bravery, and triumph. It’s well worth readers’ time.”
Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Gun Island: “Ghosh’s latest (after Flood of Fire) is an intellectual romp that traces Bengali folklore, modern human trafficking, and the devastating effects of climate change across generations and countries. Dinanath Datta, who goes by the more Americanized Deen, is an antiques and rare-books dealer in Brooklyn. While in Calcutta, Deen encounters the tale of the Bonduki Sadagar, or the gun merchant, a localized riff on the familiar Bengali tale of a merchant and Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes and poisonous creatures. Intrigued, Deen pays a visit to the Sundarbans, the borderlands from which the myth originated. At the shrine said to be protected by Manasa Devi, Deen encounters a snake that bites one of the young men with him, with nonfatal but mystical consequences. Shaken, but convinced that it was just a freak coincidence, the rationalist Deen returns to America, where his trip still haunts him. A tumultuous year and a half later, under the patronage of his dear friend Cinta, a glamorous Italian academic, Deen arrives in Venice for the book’s second half, where he befriends the local Bengali community and further uncovers the tale of the Bonduki Sadagar as he is drawn into relief efforts for the refugee crisis. Ghosh writes with deep intelligence and illuminating clarity about complex issues. This ambitious novel memorably draws connections among history, politics, and mythology.”
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Ducks, Newburyport: “This shaggy stream-of-consciousness monologue from Ellmann (Sweet Desserts) confronts the currents of contemporary America. On the surface it’s a story of domestic life, as the unnamed female narrator puts it: ‘my life’s all shopping, chopping, slicing, splicing, spilling.’ Her husband, Leo, is a civil engineer; they have ‘four greedy, grouchy, unmanageable kids’; she bakes and sells pies; and nothing more eventful happens than when she gets a flat tire while making a pie delivery. Yet plot is secondary to this book’s true subject: the narrator’s consciousness. Written in rambling hundred-page sentences, whose clauses each begin with ‘the fact that…,’ readers are privy to intimate facts (‘the fact that I don’t think I really started to live until Leo loved me’), mundane facts (‘the fact that ‘fridge’ has a D in it, but ‘refrigerator’ doesn’t’), facts thought of in the shower (‘the fact that every murderer must have a barber’), and flights of associative thinking (‘Jake’s baby potty, Howard Hughes’s milk bottles of pee, opioid crisis, red tide’). Interspersed throughout is the story of a lion mother, separated from her cubs and ceaselessly searching for them. This jumble of cascading thoughts provides a remarkable portrait of a woman in contemporary America contemplating her own life and society’s storm clouds, such as the Flint water crisis, gun violence, and the Trump presidency. The narrator is a fiercely protective mother trying to raise her children the only way she knows how, in a rapidly changing and hostile environment. Ellmann’s work is challenging but undoubtedly brilliant.”
Unseen Poems by Rumi (translated by Brad Gooch and Maryam Mortaz)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Unseen Poems: “With millions of copies of the 13th-century Sufi mystic poet’s work sold worldwide, this new book containing many first-time translations will find a ready audience. While the love poems resemble the erotic verse popularized by previous editors (‘Again my eyes saw what no eyes have seen./ Again my master returned ecstatic and drunk’), several new poems stand out in their foregrounding of Rumi’s religious descent. ‘Why make a quibla of these questions and answers?/ Ask instead, the lesson of the silent ones, where is it?’ one of the book’s many ghazals proposes, referring to the direction Muslims face in prayer. The Koran figures throughout: ‘Let me swear an oath on Osman’s holy book,/ The pearl of that beloved, gleaming in Damascus,’ reminding contemporary readers of the centrality of Islam to Rumi’s worldview, even if, finally, what Gooch calls a ‘religion of love’ carries the day: ‘Someone is snipped away, and I am sewn to another,/ Stitched together, forever, seamlessly.’ Offering new insight into the poet’s spiritual life, these poems prove a valuable addition to Rumi’s oeuvre.”
Eyes to the Wind by Ady Barkan
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Eyes to the Wind: “Activist Barkan relates in this candid memoir how, after receiving a terminal illness diagnosis at age 32, he had to negotiate his failing body as his political star rose. In 2016, Barkan was diagnosed with ALS and given three to four years to live. Fueled by anger over his ‘outrageous’ situation, he sought to leave a legacy for his baby son and wife. A lawyer at the Center for Popular Democracy, Barkan initially resumed work on Fed Up, a campaign to encourage the Federal Reserve to enact policies beneficial to working-class Americans, but soon pivoted to health care, ‘bird-dogging’ members of Congress in visits to the Capitol. Barkan was wheelchair-bound by spring 2018 yet he embarked on a six-week cross-country tour in support of Democrats in the midterm elections (a sincere conversation with Arizona senator Jeff Flake about how a GOP tax plan would affect Medicare was captured in a video that went viral), ultimately sharing the stage with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. Throughout, Barkan weaves tales of law school and clerkships with insights into community organizing (a national movement led by a single person could ‘never approach the transformative political power that would be unleased by genuine mass movement of organized working-class people’). Barkan’s powerful narrative gives great insight into the nuts and bolts of political activism at work.”
Akin by Emma Donoghue
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Akin: “Donoghue’s underwhelming latest features a troubled doppelgänger of the sweet naïf from her best-known novel, Room, a foul-mouthed 11-year-old named Michael, whose great-uncle Noah takes him to the French Riviera to save him from the foster care system after Michael’s father dies of an apparent overdose and his mother, who is in prison, is unable to care for him. In the present day, Noah, having discovered some photographs taken by his mother during the two years she spent in Vichy France, and wishing to discover their significance, travels to Nice with Michael in tow. Dialogue between the two predominates as they wander about the city, constantly squabbling along predictably generational lines, searching for clues about whether Noah’s mother was a Nazi collaborator or part of the Resistance. The reader is soon exasperated with Noah’s own collaboration with the author, who won’t let him solve the mystery without Michael’s age-appropriate technological savvy. This work seems like a pale redux of Room, with its depiction of the wonder of a sheltered boy supplanted by the cynicism of a damaged one, whose voice doesn’t always ring true. The gap between Michael’s view of the world and the reader’s feels less charged than it should be, though the book makes up for it to some degree with a very satisfying denouement. This is a minor work in Donoghue’s astounding oeuvre.”
Also on shelves this week: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month—for more September titles, check out our Second-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates: One of America’s most incisive voices on race and history turns to fiction with a story of a young enslaved man who escapes bondage for the North. Early readers marvel at how Coates manages to interweave a deeply researched portrait of the all-too-real horrors of Southern slavery with sly touches of magical realism. (Michael)
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg: Emma Cline pinpoints Attenberg’s strength, that she writes about death, family, sex, love, with, “a keen sense of what, despite all the sadness and secrets, keeps people connected.” The critically acclaimed and bestselling author’s seventh novel follows the tangled relationship of a family in crisis as they gather together in a sweltering and lush New Orleans. Their father, a power-hungry real estate developer, is dying. Told by alternating narrators, the story is anchored by daughter Alex, who unearths the secrets of who her father is and what he did. This book is, Zachary Lazar says, “another marvel of intelligence, humor, and soul.” (Claire)
Make it Scream Make it Burn by Leslie Jamison: Jamison (The Empathy Exams) credits the poet William Carlos Williams with a sentence that inspired her title: “What the artist does applies to everything, every day, everywhere to quicken and elucidate, to fortify and enlarge the life about him and make it eloquent—to make it scream.” To fortify and enlarge the world through eloquence—apt descriptions of Jamison’s new collection, which begins with the story of 52 blue, “the loneliest whale in the world,” whose existence “suggests not just one single whale as metaphor for loneliness, but the metaphor itself as salve for loneliness”—and ends with “The Quickening,” an essay addressed to her daughter: “Eating was fully permitted now that I was doing it for someone else. I had never eaten like this, as I ate for you.” Another wonderful book from this gifted writer. (Nick R.)
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Patchett, who has long straddled the line between literary cred and pop bestsellerdom, follows up her prize-winning 2016 novel Commonwealth with another epic family saga, in this case kicked off by a real estate magnate’s purchase of a lavish suburban estate outside Philadelphia after World War II. Running from the late 1940s to the early 2000s, the novel is billed as “the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness.” (Michael)
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: The much-anticipated follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale, this sequel takes place 15 years after the van door slammed on Offred and we were left wondering what was next—freedom, prison or death? The story is told by three female narrators from Gilead. In a note to readers, Atwood says two things influenced the writing of this novel. First, all the questions she’s been asked by readers about Gilead and, second, she adds ominously, “the world we’ve been living in.” (Claire)
Furnace of This World: Or, 36 Observations About Goodness by Ed Simon: Simon, a staff writer at The Millions known for his deep dives into literary and intellectual history, meditates on the nature of goodness across 36 learned, suggestive observations. He calls this project “an artifact of things I’ve lost, things I’ve loved, things I’ve feared, things I’ve prayed for,” and presents it as “the moral equivalent of a Wunderkammer—a ‘Wonder Cabinet’— that is a strange collection of occurrences, theories, philosophies, narratives, and fictions.” This curious object is well worth a look inside. (Matt)
Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Life changes drastically for 15-year-old Ana, when she is uprooted from the Dominican countryside to New York City’s Washington Heights. An arranged marriage allows her, along with her entire family, to emigrate to America, and Ana is desperate to escape. As she opposes and embraces certain aspects of her new home, she makes difficult decisions between her duty to her family and her own heart. This exciting tale of immigration, love, and independence has been praised by the likes of Sandra Cisneros and Cristina Garcia, making it one of the most anticipated coming-of-age stories of the year. (Kate Gavino)
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie: Quichotte, a middle-aged salesman obsessed with television, falls head over heels for a TV star. Despite the impossible love, he sets off on a roadtrip across the US to prove himself worthy of her hand. Meanwhile, his creator, a middle-aged mediocre thriller writer, has to meet his own crisis in life. Rushdie’s new novel is Don Quixote for our time, a smart satire of every aspect of the contemporary culture. Witty, profound, tender, this love story shows a fiction master at his brilliant best. (Jianan Qian)
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis: In 1977 Uruguay, a military dictatorship crushes dissent and punishes homosexuality, but five queer women manage to find each other and a village on the beach where they’re safe and free, if only for a week at a time. The five call themselves cantoras, women who sing, and for the next three decades their friendships, beach-side refuge, and cantoras identities help the women find the strength to live openly and defiantly, to revolutionary effect. (Kaulie)
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste: Mengiste’s debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, chronicled the life of a family during the chaotic last days of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule. The figure of Selassie looms over her second novel, The Shadow King, as well, this time in the 1930s as an orphaned servant Hirut is caught in the clash between the emperor’s troops and Mussolini’s fascist invaders. Mengiste’s work bookends this historic era of Ethiopian life, capturing all the damage and hope of war, with prose Salman Rushdie describes as “brilliant… lyrically lifting history towards myth.” (Adam P.)
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: Emezi’s debut YA novel (following their much-loved Freshwater) sets out to answer a question that plagues every child at some point: Are monsters real, and if they are, do they want to hurt me? The children of the city of Lucille are taught that monsters are imaginary, but when protagonist Jam sees a creature emerge from the previously dead landscape of her mother’s painting, she’s forced to reconsider everything she knows about the world. Soon after, she learns that monsters are targeting her best friend Redemption, which leads her to wonder: How do you stop them if no one believes they exist? (Thom)
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai (translated by Ottilie Mulzet): Winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, Krasznahorkai (The World Goes On) returns with a novel about Baron Béla Wenckheim, who leaves exile in Buenos Aires, to return to his Hungarian hometown where controversy, gossip, and scheming abount. Publishers Weekly starred review writes: “Apocalyptic, visionary, and mad, it flies off the page and stays lodged intractably wherever it lands.” (Carolyn)
Indelible In The Hippocampus edited by Shelly Oria: Featuring poetry, fiction, and essays, Oria’s (New York 1, Tel Aviv 0) intersectional anthology provides personal accounts of sexual assault, harassment, and gendered violence from (mostly) marginalized voices. The collection includes 23 writers including Kaitlyn Greenidge, Melissa Febos, Paisley Rekdal, and Samantha Hunt. Kirkus’s starred review says the anthology includes “not just candid and clear revelations of abuse, but powerful demands for justice. (Carolyn)
The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine: Schine’s latest follows identical redheaded twins, Laurel and Daphne Wolfe, who are obsessed with language and words. As they grow up in 1980s Manhattan, their relationship becomes strained before ultimately coming to a head as they war over a family heirloom: a copy of Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. A starred Kirkus review called it an “impossibly endearing and clever novel” that “sets off a depth charge of emotion and meaning.” (Carolyn)
When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt (translated by Denise Newman): In 2015, Aidt’s son died tragically; this book was born out of that tragedy. Using various genres and forms, Aidt’s slim memoir attempts to explore her grief, which is all-consuming. In a starred review, Kirkus called the memoir “a stirring, inventive masterpiece of heartbreak.” (Carolyn)
The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri: Author Nayeri explores what it means to be a refugee in her first work of nonfiction. Nayeri, who was granted asylum in the United States as a child, juxtaposes her personal experience and the stories of current day refugees and asylum seekers to explore the refugee experience. She dispels myths, addresses well-intentioned yet flawed arguments (like “good” immigrants), and how much refugees give up in exchange for safety. Kirkus’s starred review calls the book “a unique, deeply thought-out refugee saga perfect for our moment.” (Carolyn)
My Time Among the Whites by Jennine Capó Crucet: Award-winning author Crucet makes her nonfiction debut with an essay collection about race, identity, and being a first-generation American through the personal and political. Alexander Chee writes: “Crucet is an essential truth-teller, the whisper in your ear you should listen to, wise and funny as she tries to save your life—and this book is a triumph.” (Carolyn)
The Nobody People by Bob Proehl: Proehl (A Hundred Thousand Worlds) returns with the first of a two-book literary science fiction series. When a group of ordinary people with extraordinary abilities (think the X-Men) emerge, they find themselves at odds with a society unwilling to accept them. After one of their own causes a mass casualty event, they must fight together or risk extinction. Booklist says: “Much like the X-Men comics, Proehl masterfully uses science fiction as a lens to examine social inequality and human evil. (Carolyn)