The self is singular; the self is communal. What a paradox, especially in this harrowing year, filled with systemic horrors and the threat of more to come. In a cultural moment that seems to insist on the monolithic, the solipsistic, and a begrudging, dangerous littleness, my whole body’s bruised from walking into obduration. I’ve felt anger and, under that, deep sadness, each a reminder that the world is as it always has been. In a valley of shadows, I’ve looked for the light of underground things burst open. I’ve reached for what dispelled my feelings of singularity, of arrested numbness. Short stories and memoir were frequent choices but also the comfort of genre fiction and young adult for the ways they dare to interrogate what’s worst in us while imagining a world at its best. In every case, a scintillating, nervy shiver coursed through me, each book reminding me of Jane Kenyon’s famed luminous particular: They insist on themselves and the unique ordinariness of what they contain.
Book after book, I consumed them like food.
Growing up poor and blue collar in a small town, I was taught a peculiar mix of pride and self-loathing that propelled me out of the community in pursuit of an education and better opportunities but also caused me to resettle in an equally rural place. Many days, I’m convinced there’s no more intractable misunderstanding than the current urban-rural divide, so I reveled in the depictions of rural life in Sarah Stonich’s Laurentian Divide and Silas House’s Southernmost. These contemporary fictions explore small towns in two different parts of the United States—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Tennessee’s Cumberland River Valley—and explode stereotypes in favor of these communities’ whorled particularities. For all that small towns have grown to symbolize what’s problematic, Stonich and House showed me towns like my own: no longer the geographically and socially isolated enclaves they might have been but populated by people who are, like anywhere else, constantly negotiating their differences within the concentric rings of personal, family, regional, and national identity.
In current public discourse, otherness is flagged as divisive, possibly disingenuous, and always inherently suspect. How mystifying (and exhausting) it seems that in the land of fierce individualism, we’re so out of touch with our own otherness that we’re distrustful of another’s and, thus, made blind to our own privilege. Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer’s The Water Diviner and Other Stories and Anita Felicelli’s Love Songs for a Lost Continent are both elegant, assertive short story collections, yet, because they’re written by writers of color who explore cultural and diasporic identities, these authors are expected to explicitly establish the context and perspective they’re writing from in ways white writers should also be expected to, but, largely, still aren’t. In the process, Vilhauer and Felicelli elevate and explode that expectation, leaving no issue on the table from race to class, sexual orientation to mental health, gender to neurodivergence. Equally memorable, Erin O. White’s memoir, Given Up for You, pursues and interrogates her own privilege as a straight-passing lesbian, middle-class white woman, and Roman Catholic convert. White makes a spare poetry out of her grief at letting go of systems that don’t see her as fully human. Whether memoir or short story, these books negotiate ideas of otherness and privilege on a granular level, individualizing, expanding, and widening the concepts. Difference is honored and interrogated, not as performance, but as particular and pedestrian.
In a country that seems dangerously fractured, books about relationships—with the self, with others, with art and nature and culture—fortified me. A treatise on the shared threshold of devastation and beauty, Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love uses Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present to exhibit what’s obscured in the quotidian lives of artist and viewers alike, but Rose’s shattering insight and devastating turns of phrase are what turns life into art and brings art to life. Two memoirs, Nell Painter’s Old in Art School and Tracy Franz’s My Year of Dirt and Water, offer different, distinct voices navigating a season of their lives through art. Painter’s a personality par excellence; forthright, erudite, and perfectly profane, she enthralls. Franz matches restraint with reflexiveness, the precision of her self-awareness countered by her telling omissions. Finally, there’s the power of relating to art itself. Photographer Ryan J. Bush’s The Music of Trees, a book that collects three series of his tree images, positions the natural world as a valance point, its physicality a portal that leads beyond what is fixed.
When I despaired, books that broke conventions, stretched definitions and understanding to the breaking point, helped me relearn the world a little. Kristin Cashore’s Jane, Unlimited retells the same story, bending it through five different genres seamlessly as turning a kaleidoscope, the direction of each story and the person Jane becomes hinging on moments as crucial as William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow. A Rube Goldberg machine of a novel, Elizabeth Tan’s Rubik follows a series of protagonists as they drift through the background and foreground of each others’ lives, rarely suspecting their interconnectedness. Seemingly discreet categories bleed together—fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, creator and created, individual and collective—as experience is co-constructed and made almost pathologically diffuse. Playing with fractures and breaks, these books’ radical narrative structures embrace multiplicity and the riotous, cacophonous selves we carry inside our beings.
Equally necessary were the books situated in familiar terrains, the ones that used genre conventions to demand the world is everything and nothing like we’ve been taught to expect. Told in Dolores Extract No. 1’s own voice, Bethany C. Morrow’s MEM, a story about memory, identity, property, colorism, and class, centers the eschatological and ethical questions underpinning science of the mind in an alternate early 20th century where the wealthy can remove their memories and deposit them into humanoid vessels. Contemporary young adult novels Malcolm McNeill’s The Beginning Woods and Michael Fishwick’s The White Hare wield fairy tales, legends, and the grace notes of their prose to burn through love’s brutality and the pain it frequently leaves in its wake. Lars Petter Sveen’s Children of God, translated by Guy Puzey, revisits the New Testament’s marginal people and tells disconcerting stories of darkness and light that illustrate just how disruptive and disturbing this “good news” should be. Across genres, each one offered stories about the power of stories whether it’s those we’re told about ourselves, the ones we tell ourselves, or the stories we become.
No story confronted me more starkly than family separations at the border and the cruelty exacted on the vulnerable and dependent, especially children. We love stories of children’s resiliency, but I’m sick of them. What do those stories serve more than our own equivocation and shame? Instead, give me NoNieqa Ramos’s The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary. The narrator, Macy Grey, an impoverished high-school girl of color whose anger is palpable, demanding, and so very justified, is as cathartic as the deep love and sorrow she guards. Or look at poet Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s What Runs Over, a memoir in verse, whose language runs red as their childhood. That Candrilli makes beauty out of body horror and the long shadow of suppressing their transness is a radical act of self-reclamation and love that doesn’t occlude the clangor of struggle and violence. Both these books tested my own resiliency and lead me back to another, Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, which codifies the geography of fantasy and all the children who’ve slipped through its countless portals as a way to address the dissonance that can occur between the family or society a person’s born into and the person they truly are. This book’s a balm because of its stubborn belief that a place exists where each person’s totality fits, even if it’s another world. Even if that world hasn’t been found yet. Even if it’s irrevocably lost.
Ricocheting between vibration and enervation, I’ve needed books to restore me, to show me how to live in this moment but also live beyond it. I craved the singular intimacy of an author’s inmost self and mine traveling through those pages together and arriving on the other side, individually and collectively transformed. Yet even after this yearlong feast, I’ll sidle up to another book tomorrow like the dog in Jane Kenyon’s “Biscuit,” asking for bread, expecting bread, even when I might be given a stone.
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In 2014, Huda Al-Marashi and I met at a writers’ meet-up. Afterward, we kept up with each other’s writing on social media. By reading each other’s personal essays, we discovered we shared similar cultural concerns as hyphenated Americans, and we have even more in common now that we’re both writers with three children each—it’s a great solace to know another writer who is a mother. I first heard Huda read from her memoir at Hazel Reading Series in San Francisco, and I was impressed by her skillful weaving together of humor and deep insights about her Iraqi-American family. How did I not know how funny she is? I was excited to get my hands on a galley of her debut memoir First Comes Marriage, published this November, just after my debut short story collection Love Songs for a Lost Continent.
First Comes Marriage is a tender examination of love and virgin sexuality from an Iraqi-American perspective. It shatters the Muslim monolith by painting Huda’s Iraqi Shia family in glorious specificity, while also doing the same for other Muslim families within the scope of her love story. Hadi Ridha is a boy she’s known since she was 6 years old. Huda details their relationship from their first meeting to a difficult prom arranged by their mothers, from the istikharas her family did to determine whether she should marry him to their tumultuous year in Mexico early in their marriage.
The characters in the 13 stories that make up my debut short story collection Love Songs for a Lost Continent are almost congenitally rebellious. Nonetheless, there are a number of overlapping themes between our books. The collection is about the stories we tell ourselves about our identities, the murky quandaries of a grayscale world, and what Huda calls “the fictions of love” in her memoir. Many of my characters are Tamil and Tamil Americans from the Indian subcontinent.
Anita Felicelli: I think you did a beautiful job excavating the complexities of your own love story. In your book, you mention how, as an adolescent, you loved Victorian love stories and then realized, “I would have never been the protagonist of one of these stories. I would have been the Mohammedan, the exotic Oriental or the native savage.” When did you know you wanted to write yourself into literature?
Huda Al-Marashi: Growing up, I read Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series. In Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, the girls venture into Little Syria, and they meet this little girl and her family who should have been the closest I’d ever come to seeing a kid like myself represented in a book. But at the time, I saw myself in the protagonists, Betsy and Tacy, and their encounter of the other. It wasn’t until college when I was researching the first wave of Syrian immigration to the United States that I remembered Betsy and Tacy’s visit to Little Syria, and I realized that my entire life I’d been inserting myself into stories that only had room for me in the margins.
But it never occurred to me that I could actually write my own story until years later when I was sitting in this haze of the post-9/11 years and the Iraq War. I feared that war and global terrorism had taken over our narratives, and while these stories are vital and necessary, they also make it easier to write off a group’s suffering, as if it’s their destiny only to die. And, I felt this pull to tell a story that reflected an Iraqi family in their daily lives, preoccupied with everyday concerns, like love and weddings.
One thing I love about your collection was seeing your characters preoccupied with mundane relationship concerns but also against the backdrop of what one of your characters calls the –isms, colonialism and imperialism. Particularly, I’m thinking about Tarini in “Once Upon the Great Red Island,” and her struggle to see herself in the colonial past she inherited as both the daughter of Tamil immigrants in the U.S., and now, as the girlfriend of a man who descended from colonizers and who has returned to essentially recolonize Madagascar through his new business venture. In what ways, if at all, has that colonial legacy played out for you? And, as a writer, do you think it’s something we can rectify by centering ourselves in our stories?
AF: I’ve had similar thoughts about the Syrian girl in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill. But unlike my upper-caste Hindu character Tarini, I grew up in a multi-caste, interfaith household, and I was hypersensitive to different contexts and perspective shifts early on. The more research I did as an adult, the more I realized colonialism was atrocious, but it impacted castes and regions of India differently. When upper-caste Tamils fought for freedom, they were fighting for absolute power, but it was Brahmins, the highest caste, who also most readily adapted to British Victorian culture. The situation of lower caste people and Dalits fighting for freedom was complicated. The British strengthened and manipulated caste tensions, but their presence also resulted in lower-caste people gaining benefits. My grandmother’s family, for example, converted to Catholicism to escape caste discrimination from fellow Tamils. I intensely love fiction, but I don’t know that we can rectify power imbalances by writing our own stories. Maybe for the world to change, those with power need to read those stories, and make the active, painful decision to truly see us in our equal complexity, beauty, ugliness, and humanity.
On that topic of seeing ourselves with complexity, at one point, you and your husband disagree about whether you should wear a bathing suit and you explain, “I’d assumed we shared such a similar background that our religion and culture were going to be the conflict-free areas of our lives, but here we were, one of us willing to bend the rules, one of us not.” It’s interesting how we might attribute differences we have with our partner to culture, rather than individual personalities.
HA: Culture was such a crutch for me in 20s. It was the easy answer to everything—where I went to college, why I got engaged, and, of course, this bathing suit argument. But writing this memoir after over a decade of marriage, I had insights into my spouse’s character that I didn’t have access to as a newlywed, and it made me look back on my younger self with pity for my own ignorance. Now I know that my husband just doesn’t mess around with rules. He makes a full and complete stop at stop signs every single time. There is no unfastening your seat belt in his car until he is in park. And at the time of that scene, he was a young man, too, and someone had taught him these were the rules for privacy, and he believed in them for himself, too.
But these disagreements came as a shock to me because I was convinced that as long as I married another Iraqi who was born in the U.S., rather than abroad, then we’d share the same “Iraqi-American culture” and we’d agree on everything. I think that’s a fairly common tendency among children of immigrants, to perceive a division between those people in their community that were in raised in diaspora and those who were raised in their country of origin. You captured that tension so brilliantly in several of your stories. We see it between cousins, lovers, and friends. Do you believe there’s an irreconcilability between say, in your case, a Tamil person raised in India, and one raised in the U.S.?
AF: I do think there’s irreconcilability between diasporic Tamils and Tamils in India—migration and geopolitics discombobulate the power in relationships. In “Snow,” the character Devi grew up in India believing she’s entitled to every success as a fair-skinned, middle-class Tamil Brahmin, a privileged status in India, but her top dog entitlement is very painfully, unjustly challenged when she immigrates and is confronted with the harsh realities of race in America. Meanwhile, her cousin, Susannah, grew up understanding herself as polluted, inferior because her father is Dalit. She’s ostracized due to diasporic caste prejudice. She’s an invisible, reviled brown girl who grew up in an underclass in America. Yet, like a lot of Americans, Susannah is obnoxiously, offensively blind about how relatively lucky she’s been in the global scheme of things.
Speaking to that challenge of properly contextualizing your own experience, I really liked your discussion of how, in some instances, you’d conflated religion with rules that were specific to your family. Of your mother, you realize: “I attributed so much to our religion and culture that I rarely allowed her the everyday motivations of instinct and fear.” The memoir is full of deep insights that parse what’s individual, what’s cultural and what’s just human. Has writing this memoir been a process of discovering those sorts of insights, or did you know beforehand your conclusions?
HA: It was a mixture of both. I came to this with the sense that I’d woven this tight knot about culture and religion’s role in my marriage, but I didn’t know where I’d applied that bias too liberally. Writing forced me to unravel which of the many restrictions I grew up with were from my religion and culture and which were my parents trying to keep me safe. And I hadn’t realized just how much of my life was shaped by mom’s anxieties and a traumatic childhood where she had lost her mother and then her stepmother before the age of 15. However, I do think some of that tendency to filter everything through the lens of culture and religion is a consequence of this outsider’s gaze that you can’t help but pick up living in diaspora.
You conveyed that tension so poignantly in the title story where your unnamed narrator is pursuing an academic career studying his own Tamil history and folklore. Would you agree that being raised in the U.S. and educated under the white gaze is what allows him to see the value in the mythology that his own father and other elders dismiss? And do you think there is anything exploitative about your narrator’s interest in his cultural background?
AF: Oh, interesting! That interpretation works, but in my own mind, I was examining a man’s search for something tender and real, in contrast to what his Silicon Valley upbringing offers. His father dismisses the folklore because he’s culturally Tamil Brahmin—Tamil Brahmin culture tilts in favor of Sanskrit, as well as British cultural and educational standards.
In contrast, Komakal’s lower-caste family arises out of indigenous Tamil culture, but like working-class parents worldwide, her parents believe the narrator should be making money in a “real job,” not conducting esoteric research. I don’t find the narrator’s fascination with folklore exploitative since it’s his only maternal inheritance. But I can see how the ethics of his documentary film—that aestheticizes the mythology of poorer, lower-caste people to whom he’s linked by blood, but not really a part of—might be questioned. On the other hand, he’s also alien in Silicon Valley. So where’s his place? Perhaps nowhere.
I love the character of Mrs. Ridha, your mother-in-law! She says at one point, “We did not expect you to listen to everything we said.” It makes you realize you’d been viewing your community’s code of conduct as a matter of life, death and God, but your parents had been trying to protect you, and even understanding you might break rules. I admire your willingness to really reveal yourself, to make yourself real before “likable.”
HA: I’m relieved to hear that because I consistently got feedback that I wasn’t likable in certain parts of the book, and I struggled with how much weight to give those comments. It’s a story of an evolving worldview more than it is about action, and who is likable in their own mind? Who has censored, wonderful thoughts? Our minds are where we are ruthless and cruel to ourselves and those we love. But I didn’t think it was fair to apply that same kind of scrutiny to my loved ones in the book. I made a conscious effort to hold them in my mind’s eye with love and generosity as I was writing about them. And I think being loving doesn’t mean you paint someone glowingly. Rather, you render them alive and fully human.
Which is something I think you’ve mastered in your book. Your characters are so endearing even though they are not always doing the nicest things. They leave lovers without any closure, make promises they don’t keep, and fling cocktail glasses at bartenders. Were there any moments, while writing this, where you struggled with the burden of the representation and the need to paint your community in a positive light?
AF: During revisions in 2016-17, I did worry. I understood America was falling apart, that pluralism as a value might seem quaint. But I didn’t think about social justice concerns while drafting. Fiction should work at a subterranean, not a prescriptive level. Characters should be complicated and even problematic. As humans, we’re always falling short of our ideals; sometimes our ideals are awful, too. Why should white American writers get to corner the market on complex characters? Of course, some readers will believe I’ve taken my penchant for complexity too far in these characters: a little girl whose lie costs someone her job, a casteist cokehead, an affluent folklorist who betrays his lover, a Galatea-like hitchhiker reinvented as a con artist. Still, trouble is vital in fiction.
Any books you’re looking forward to reading in the coming year? So far, I’m especially excited to read Kavita Das’s forthcoming biography Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar; Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias; and Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread.
HA: There are so many! Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable, Devi Laskar’s The Atlas of Red and Blues, Cameron Dezen Hammon’s This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession, and my close writing-friend, Laura Maylene Walter is one to watch. Her book is going on submission soon, and I’m excited to see where it’s going to land.