I meet Margo Jefferson for breakfast at her hotel in Boulder, Colorado, where she’s speaking at a literary conference. She’s energetic in both her speech and movement, gesturing, reaching, illustrating with her hands—artifacts, I think, of her years immersed in theatre, where her criticism earned her a Pulitzer.
After our interview, I watched her at various panels during the conference and even in the face of confusing questions, she was smiling, gracious, witty as she discussed her upbringing and Negroland, her 2015 memoir of life in 1950s and 1960s America within upper-class black society.
We spoke about that book, its implications within today’s political context, her advice for young women of color, and what she’s working on now.
The Millions: Negroland is a cultural memoir. I had the feeling in reading it that you’re quite strategic in the places and times that you show us your emotions and motivations versus the times that you present yourself quite objectively, even clinically. How did you go about making these choices?
Margo Jefferson: It was a big breakthrough for me working on it, when I realized that certain ways in which I was brought up—always presenting a certain strategically composed self—and the fact that these things were sometimes competing, and sometimes collaborating. I had to both write about it and embed those contradictions in the writing.
Also, I’d spent my writing life as a critic. My initial feeling was that those kinds of tones and voices had to go; this was memoir. But then, I realized, no, that was as much a fixed part of my identity as other things. I realized I had to include the critic who is diagnosing, who is assessing, who is judging against a kind of backdrop that is aesthetic, cultural, political.
Third, I’d been brought up in the world of Negroland, a world where you might have to switch persona at any moment, depending, for example, on what my mother’s needs were, here’s what Betty Anne down the street needs, here’s what my teacher needs. In this situation, I have to confess to a certain awareness, a certain kind of knowledge. In this [other] situation, I have to play innocent. That’s theatrical, but that’s also psychological and factually accurate, this constant construction of different performing selves. Those were my guidelines.
And there was also a kind of raw emotional drive–I really did find that I couldn’t get at certain of the passages when I was in high school until I put them in the third person and I thought that once I did that, I could rewrite it in first person, but then looking at it on paper, I realized that it could work the way it was because adolescence is such a peculiar and isolated story. It’s almost fantastical, getting through adolescence!
TM: Yes, it seems that you were playing around not only with form, but also with perspective and point of view.
MJ: That was really interesting to me. I thought, if I’m trying a new form, then let me try strategies and devices as a writer that I haven’t before. I wanted dialogue, I wanted scenes, I wanted confessions, I wanted lists. So, it had to be more collaged in terms of form, style, strategy.
TM: You had a habit in your book of stating your intentions. At various points, you write, “let’s unpack this,” “I’m going to change my tone now,” “I’m going to begin in a quiet, clinical way.” What was the reasoning behind this?
MJ: Yes, it was deliberately disruptive, almost like a placard. I believe that began when I wrote the introduction, when I said “I was raised not to do certain things”—essentially, not to write memoir. That was a huge breakthrough for me because I was giving myself license to write, to struggle, with this writing. And those announcements were a kind of externalization of those little “clicks” where I had to re-adapt my persona in real life as the situation changed, as who I was with changed. I liked them as a theatrical device, too—you interrupt the dramatic action with an alienation effect.
TM: You wrote, “white people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They failed just as often. They failed more often.” That’s a really interesting statement in today’s political context. Do you think those competitive urges among white people—for everyone in society to live up to the ideals of whiteness while making sure that non-white people did not outdo whites—played out in the 2016 elections?
MJ: The Obamas embodied the dreams of minorities and everything that was impressive and traditionally thought of as white, but they showed it could also be acquired by black people. When Obama was at his best, he signaled that those ideals were not purely white. The best of Obama came in part from intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois—there were black and “third-world” intellectual and cultural and political traditions informing him. To see how those combined with “Western training”—that was impressive. But many of us knew there would be punishment—“there will be blood,” as the saying goes!
TM: When you appeared in the Still Processing podcast a few days after the 2016 elections, you pointed out that you and Hillary Clinton were born in the same year and that you both had to make yourself into “serious” women. How do you think those processes differed for the two of you?
MJ: For one thing, I became a writer; I got involved with the arts, and that demands in some way—even from a critic—a certain expressivity. Even as a little girl, I wanted to be a pianist, then I wanted to be an actress—I think all of that kicks in. I was fortunate that I didn’t enter politics in that mood of the sixties and seventies—anti-war, Black Power, civil war, feminism, gay rights—because I could act up and act out more. And Hillary has said that she wished that more of the “cracks,” vulnerabilities—or even if they’re not vulnerabilities—she wishes that she’d behaved less… “properly.” You know, it’s inhuman when Donald Trump is moving around behind you, prowling. If you just pretend it’s not inhuman, to people watching, that registers as mechanistic, as not to be believed and that gets converted to not to be trusted.
TM: There’s one part of the book when you’re in college and you object to play a maid in a theatre production, but eventually you gave into your desire to be onstage and eagerness to not appear as touchy. I think a lot of women, especially women of color, struggle with such choices: taking steps to realizing their artistic ambitions combined with the reluctance not to appear to touchy, versus some level of humiliation, whether that’s a stereotypical casting, or tokenism. What have you learned since your college days about making these kinds of choices?
MJ: This is what I remember so gratefully from the early days of the women’s movement—first, feminism and then black feminism—is finding or forming a band of women you trust, who have the same basic principles, beliefs and passions, or at least whose passions overlap. The personal is political and the political manifests itself in the personal. Women need to talk, confide, confess, and strategize. Of course, you’re always going to struggle it out with yourself but you can’t always get it right alone. To know that there’s a community, that you’ve got your constituency—that has been a huge help to me.
TM: You write that “starting in college and in the years following, to become a person of inner consequence,” you had to break the self that existed prior into pieces. What did that process and the end result mean to you?
MJ: By the time I graduated college, I became aware that “inner consequence” meant really living to act out my deepest passion and needs, but it also meant to meet the demands of this broiling, bracketing society we were living in with black people, women of color, gay people. And I would add with anti-war and environmental concerns. You know, I wasn’t suited for that; I wasn’t prepared for it. My parents were honorable and they did care about my sister and I having “good characters,” but that was still within the framework of being ladies and behaving well. And that was where bringing a critical lens in the book was useful—I could openly critique my own acts of snobbery, for example, when I told my friend who’s a working-class girl that she should shave her legs. A person of inner consequence—it’s the alignment of your own desires and needs with what you feel the world demands of you, and should demand of you, as opposed to what it shouldn’t—it’s being able to make that distinction: What’s the world asking of me, what is my job asking of me, what is the person I’m dating asking of me that is wrong, that shouldn’t be asked? How will I find the right ways to respond? Getting to that place is a long process but it does seem to me that many of the young women I meet are much bolder than I was at their age, and that’s heartening.
TM: You take a lot of care in protecting people you mention in this book, including some childhood friends and your parents. The responsibility of essayists and memoirists to those they write about is hotly debated. How did you come up with guidelines for yourself on this?
MJ: I just kept thinking and feeling my way through it. I also have a couple of close friends who’ve written memoir. You also look at your own responses to the memoirs you’ve read—what do you admire about the boldness, the violation of so-called codes of behavior? What are the consequences within your world of people? You think through all that and you weigh it against what you’ve got to say. My father was already dead. My mother died before the book came out—I think she would have had mixed feelings but been proud. My sister was very helpful and I wasn’t worried about her reaction but she also died before the book came out. I had to be more careful with friends and peers I wrote about. My protection was largely by not using their names. I believe I said their stories are mine but their names are theirs. But still, I did get some harsh letters from people that I didn’t expect, and some chilly silences.
TM: Your memoir came out in 2015. Would you have changed or added anything if you’d written it or if it had come out after the 2016 elections?
MJ: Claudia Rankine brought up the same lines you did about white people’s efforts and failures at being white, and she said, “Oh, I wish you’d developed that more!” So that certainly would have deserved to be pushed. And in many ways, performatively, Trump is such a clown, such a type of what would’ve been called “the black minstrel,” the buffoon, the boaster. I think I would’ve done a whole portrait of that. It’s very much a minstrel show—his greedy children, parading—and I would have talked more about the below-the-surface resentments and competitiveness.
I also might have talked more about biracial black people. It was easier for my generation—not necessarily psychologically for mixed-race people—but politics and sociology simply said you were black if you were mixed race. Obama fell into the old world of that by identifying as black, yet he talked about his white parent. But there was never any discourse in journalism or politics that said he is our first biracial president—what does that mean? When I wrote about Meghan Markle for The Guardian, I deliberately called her “black and biracial”—I always kept those phrases together.
TM: In that article for The Guardian about Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding, you wrote that Meghan could be considered as “marrying up,” but so could Harry: He was marrying into “all the possibilities of postmodernity.” Can you speak more about that? What do those possibilities look like?
MJ: On the most superficial level—we start always at the most superficial!—this man is gaining access to glamor, excitement, styles of being in the world. Serena Williams was at the wedding, Oprah was at the wedding! He’s meeting all these fascinating cultural figures. His involvement with Africa is taking on a kind of honorableness as opposed to looking like just a kind of white-boy dabbling. He’s entering new lines of aristocracy as well as political dynasty. He’s saved from being a relic. Choosing Meghan and choosing the world that she has access to takes him out of the museum of the royals. It bestows a kind of daring on him. It’s almost like someone who’s been in a sitcom or a drama comedy playing the same role all their lives and they get a chance to stretch, they get another script, they get to act in ways they haven’t before, they get to show other aspects of their character.
Post-modernity is multiracial (I hate the word diversity; I’m so sick of it!), it’s multicultural—aesthetically, politically, sociologically.
TM: I felt a lot of solidarity in your descriptions of your family as “third race”—not white, not stereotypically black—and I imagine a lot of other non-black women of color felt the same sense of solidarity. Is this something you anticipated when you wrote the book?
MJ: I noticed in England a lot of South Asians would say that to me and in America, a number of East Asians have said that to me. I didn’t anticipate it, but from teaching and from readings I’d assigned, I sensed that this possibility existed. And I was really pleased, it made me really happy to get those reactions. The racial conversation in America at this point is too centered on white and black. That would’ve been another interesting thing to take on if the book were coming out now. If you say today that Trump is a racist, you have to consider at least as much the implications for Mexicans and Muslims as for black people. How does that affect relations—which are sometimes competitive—between people of color? I think that’s fascinating.
TM: It is, very much so. As a last question, what are you working on these days?
MJ: I’m working on a new book; I just signed the contract for it. It’s again going to be a combination of memoir and cultural criticism but more experimental—it won’t a Volume 2 of Negroland. It will explore, for example, my encounters with political, cultural, social situations through an aesthetic text. I’ll be writing more about the female and the black female body as experienced through someone like Ella Fitzgerald, or the Tennessee Tiger Bells who were sort of forbearers of Serena except they were totally genteel and gentrified. There was a tone of anxiety hovering over them that hovers over Caster Semenya, the black South African runner that the Olympic committee found to have “higher estrogen,” that sense of “are they men? Are they women?”
Essentially, the book will be centered on cultural objects, fetishes, passions, obsessions tied to memoir, but also read on their own.
On the first day of 2017 I finished The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. I was in Tokyo, and still believed that Donald Trump would be impeached, that someone (who?) was going to call bullshit, that we would get a second chance. Stone Diaries follows Daisy Goodwill from birth to the end of her life, and infuses even the minute details of her existence—recipes, letters, addresses—with poignancy and grace. Reading it felt like an antidote to the way women had been undermined by the election results. The ending delivered me so fully into the world that the hours I lived after closing the book have the clarity of something written—the watery sunlight, the moment, in a crowd of hundreds at Meiji Shrine, I realized that the policemen were not carrying guns. Months later, on tour in Michigan, I mentioned the novel to a Canadian friend, how much I loved it, how profoundly it made me want to write. I hated that book, he said. I had to read it in school.
My friend is a sensitive reader, and yes I know this reaction isn’t fair, but I remember looking at him and thinking, would you have still hated it, if it were about a man?
In 2017, years of work come to fruition all at once. My first novel came out. Two books I edited, and love and admire deeply—Exes by Max Winter, and Large Animals by Jess Arndt—were published. Catapult’s creative writing program doubled its classes offerings. Something about all of that, or maybe it was the news, or maybe it was getting off Zoloft and going back on it, or maybe trying to keep my head above water at work while promoting a book, or maybe it’s that I got a little obsessed with my Goodreads reviews—I don’t know. Internally, I suffered a small collapse. It’s not a very interesting story—and in the grand scheme of things, it’s a non-problem. I finally got to hold so much of what I’d been fighting for in my hands, and in response, that inner voice, the most sacred part of me, went quiet. All year, I’ve been trying to wake my voice back up. I’m still trying. I throw books at the silence, and it helps. If you’re feeling quiet, too, in the face of the world right now, consider the titles below a prescription.
I’m tired of men, so I won’t talk about what they wrote in 2017, not even the books by them that I loved. Instead, a partial list of books I read by women, most released into the estranging darkness of this year, many of them debuts. The ones that made me laugh (and in a few cases, also cry): Rachel Khong’s glorious Goodbye Vitamin, Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators, Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, Edan Lepucki’s Woman No 17, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Weike Wang’s Chemistry.
The ones that haunt me still: Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose, Angelica Baker’s Our Little Racket, Kristen Radtke’s breathtaking Imagine Wanting Only Wanting This, Josephine Rowe’s A Loving, Faithful Animal, Stephanie Powell Watts’s No One Is Coming to Save Us, Danya Kukafka’s Girl in Snow, Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s Everything Belongs to Us, Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark.
As a writer, I found something to envy in every single one of these books; as a reader, I was simply grateful.
There were others, too. I read Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, in Bruges, after a photoshoot that embarrassed me more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. I developed some kind of aspirational writer crush on Danzy Senna after an event in Martha’s Vineyard and read New People in an exhilarating two-day burst; I’m reading Caucasia now. I had never been to Belgium before, never been to Martha’s Vineyard—how strange to be welcomed to these places thanks to a book I wrote when I was a different person. I spent a lot of this year feeling like a liar. I picked up Sallie Tisdale’s Violation, on a recommendation from Chloe Caldwell, and am shocked that we don’t talk about her more—her essay on abortion, “Fetus Dreams,” should be taught in schools. I didn’t read as much nonfiction as I normally do, but particularly loved The Middlepause by the infinitely wise Marina Benjamin, Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer, Negroland by Margo Jefferson, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. I read What Happened, by Hillary Clinton, on my phone during my commute. Poetry-wise, I was stunned by Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone. I read Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce three times, and returned to Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, a gift from my friend Steph Opitz, again and again—as if both books were lifelines, which, I suppose, they are.
I am forgetting things. Forgetting books I loved—I’ll look at this later and want to shake myself. Just now, I’m remembering that this is the year I had an affair with wry, elegant Anita Brookner, that I read Iris Murdoch because my husband made me and he was right, that I returned to Wuthering Heights because of an assignment and found it maddening and melodramatic and irresistible. I read Jean Rhys—Good Morning, Midnight—for the second time in a hotel bathtub in London, drinking wine. I decided I couldn’t write a prep school novel after reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, because she did it better than any of us ever will. I received my first blurb requests and resisted the urge to write back to the editors, to the authors, asking, are you sure? There are some good, good books coming next year—by writers like Meaghan O’Connell, Lucy Tan, Zulema Summerfield, Jana Casale, Rachel Lyon, Danielle Lazarin.
I’ve spent my entire career employed by bookstores or indie presses or nonprofits devoted to indie presses, and yet I read very little by small presses in 2017, which I hadn’t realized until just this moment. An assignment for the rest of the year. That, and reading the things I bought and never got to—Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle; Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward; American Street by Ibi Zoboi.
So, where to end? When I think of what I read in 2017, the work by women that inspired and motivated and moved me, there’s one book I haven’t mentioned yet. Over and over again, I read Nicole Chung’s forthcoming memoir, All You Can Ever Know, watching it evolve from proposal, to partial, to the honest and vulnerable and vital book it is now—both the chronicle of Nicole’s own adoption, and a larger story about identity and family. It is many things—but above all else, it’s a fierce and urgent story by a woman whose voice we need.
Something to throw at the silence, I think. Something for 2018.
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My dad lives in Greece and this September we took the baby who is no longer a baby there for a visit. I was vaguely dreading the trip, even though I love Greece and miss it dearly when I’m not there, which is most of the time. I didn’t want to be so callous — or to appear to be so callous — as to go on vacation to a country experiencing a refugee crisis with the express intention of avoiding the crisis. “We are visiting family,” I told people preemptively.
When we arrived I was surprised to see that everything looked eerily normal in my old Athenian haunts and on the island where we spent most of the trip. But while we were there, this article came out, and I was reminded that if you are not seeing the bad thing it is because someone doesn’t want you to see it, whether that someone is yourself or a group of politicians and others with whom you willingly or unwillingly collude. So we colluded, and had a nice time, and sat on a beach watching Italian package tourists doing group calisthenics, and the men we saw selling plastic clips and doodads on the beach were not refugees, or not new ones — perhaps they were born elsewhere; now they spoke with one another in perfect Greek. During naptime I read Fates and Furies and Swing Time and Transit, and it felt like a sin to enjoy them all like I did.
Later I read Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s forthcoming novel about the refugee crisis — a novel the surreal elements of which are only as surreal as the things people are facing in Syria and Iraq and Greece and points beyond. It’s a haunting yet spare and somehow efficient book that describes how quickly the conditions of ordinary people can change, and how few reasonable options those people have once events are in motion. I read the novel months after reading this unsparing article about the people who have been preparing for the (increasingly unlikely) day when Bashar al-Assad might be called to account. On Twitter, I see pictures of mortar-blasted infants and bloodied strollers on the ruined streets of Aleppo.
I have been thinking about collusion, and bubbles, and things seen and unseen. After Greece I read Negroland, in which Margo Jefferson describes upper-middle class black families whose class bubble was insufficient defense against the effects of whiteness:
Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largess in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty.
I read about her relatives who took the course of abdicating and living as white people, functionally erasing whole parts of their lives: “When Uncle Lucious stopped being white, my parents invited him to dinner,” Jefferson writes.
After the election I read a series of astute tweets I wish I could find now about how liberal white Americans approach their lives with the same unfortunate tactics as illiberal ones; that is, they create their own enclaves and wall themselves off from elements they find unsavory. My deceased grandparents lived in a California county with a population of two people per square mile, and 71 percent of those people voted for Donald Trump. The last time we drove the hours and hours to get there I saw a huge “Kafir” flag on a lonely homestead, someone’s warning to would-be jihadists who might find themselves in the goddamned middle of nowhere, U.S.A. I try to picture life there now and experience a failure of imagination. I read Where I Was From, Joan Didion’s great California book on the “vexed issue” of “a birthright squandered, a paradise lost,” the illusion of which seems to animate so much of the white American psyche. (Even her investigation stops a few hundred miles short of that high-desert plain.)
Since coming aboard The Millions I feel like I know the titles of more books than ever before, while actually reading fewer books. I hate this. Partly it’s because I no longer have a commute with a daily designated hour for reading, but really it’s because I stare too long at my phone. Nonetheless, sometimes conditions and moods and books coincided to make memorable reading experiences. Before I quit my job I read Grief Is the Thing with Feathers over a single day’s commute and wept into my jacket on the train. Over Thanksgiving, while talking heads brayed horribly from the television in my in-laws’ kitchen, I read a new edition of The Haunting of Hill House with Laura Miller’s introduction. I have the best couch in the world; on it I read Here Comes the Sun and The Last Samurai and Queen Sugar and Housekeeping and Void Star and Gold Fame Citrus over the course of precious, orgiastic pig-in-a-blanket afternoons. My husband found me bawling as I read the final page of the latter — in addition to being a warning for the planet, I can’t think of a novel that better captures the bruising horror of loving small children.
Every year I seem to read about bereaved parents. I read this beautiful essay about a random, preventable disaster, and I read this article about an inevitable one. I’ve fixated cruelly on the family in the second piece. I tell myself Jesus doesn’t want me to politicize the death of a child, but everything is inflected by politics lately, and the rancor of a walled-off elite like myself for my non-elite white brethren is at its zenith. The rancor extends both ways, obviously; I read this heartbreaking article, and subsequently learned there are benighted people who believe it’s part of a vast liberal hoax. After watching Alton Sterling’s son weep next to his mother onscreen I read Citizen — its cover an homage to another dead child — aware that I was showing up late and unprepared, more colluding.
I felt late and unprepared again after the U.S. election, and I read this essay by Uday Jain, his reminder that “there is no single…story where if we just do this, this, and this, things will be fine.” I have been thinking about Jain’s lovely formulation:
When one gives up on being a Rawlsian, absolutely transparent to oneself, perfectly good in one’s own life, autonomous liberal subject — one gains the Platonic, the feminist, the Marxist sense of a self as constituted essentially by interdependence. I am not an individual. I am the voices and affects and legacies and bodies of everyone I’ve ever read, talked to, befriended, and loved; their parents and grandparents; the dead. Solidarity consists in this refusal of individuality — and simultaneously the maintenance of difference that makes interdependence possible.
I have wondered how to reconcile my interest in literature and my sense of it as a fundamentally bourgeois chronicle of individual concerns — my Of Human Bondage, my The Sea, the Sea — with the solidarity Jain describes. I don’t understand exactly how literature works with politics; perhaps the answer for now is simply that literature is one of the most pleasing and enduring ways of capturing those voices and affects and legacies. Currently I’m reading Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life; I dog-eared the page where she writes “Every word one writes, every dream and fear and hope and despair one reveals to others and to oneself — they all end up like chicks refusing to be returned to the eggshell.” (The chicks she mentions are dead, so it’s not super-hopeful, but what a line.)
I can’t stop worrying all these things between my teeth. My mom says I have to log off and tune out and I snarl at her, as though everything is her fault. I feel calm when I reread A Dance to the Music of Time. In volume one I found a torn-out poem from The New Yorker by Adam Zagajewski — “Erinna from Telos.” (I like the Claire Cavanagh translation that ends with “grasshopper” and not the one on Google Books that ends with “cricket.”) The poem is about death and art and history; my mother, Miss Cheer-Up-Charlie, is the one who tore it out of the magazine (she, by the way, exclusively reads morose novels by Eastern-European intellectuals). But I wonder if she has a point when she chastises me: if there is any value in feeling sad, any point wallowing in rancor, if you are not going to be good. If you are going to know about those bloody strollers and continue to go about your business.
Because I am going about my business, in spite of reading all these miserable things. The day after the election, I saw the faintest of faint lines on a pregnancy test; it disappeared within a few days, as though the egg, while trying to settle in, had been warned off by troubled vibes. This was less demoralizing than it might have been if I didn’t have a small child to parent. She just turned two, and she says, “Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommy,” and I answer, “Yes Yes Yes Yes.” She loves our cats, and she pets them and kisses them until they scratch her, and she says “scratchoo” and begs me to put a “benden” on the wound. From her I learned about that thing that Zadie Smith calls “joy” in something else I read this year:
Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily. This is a new problem.
Once you feel joy you can’t unfeel it; I’m fiending helplessly for more. The polar ice is melting, but I want to hold another baby. I feel like the grasshopper who sang all summer.
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Throughout this year, I’ve been writing a proposal for a memoir about my mother. To inspire myself, and to indulge in others’ work before I’m afraid of being influenced by it, I’ve read and reread several memoirs. Of those, I came away from Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World in renewed awe and gratitude for how she shows a shimmering portrait of mutual love. With Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, I marveled at the wit and razor-sharp lens she brought to bear on her own pretensions, born of racist confines. I found Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland, with its daughter raised by a single gay father in 1970s San Francisco, bearing witness in an essential way. I then discovered on my own bookshelf Hilton Als’s searing and astonishing book The Women. I’m almost embarrassed to say I bought this book off a discounted-book table at an indie bookstore years ago and hadn’t yet read it. I devoured it as if to make up for lost time. No one, anywhere, has yet to convey with such unapologetic rigor and compassion the interior life of a black mother, and I haven’t fully recovered from it.
When Feminist Press announced its Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, I again reread my worn copy of her seminal novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, just to remind myself anew how books change lives, how that book changed mine. Also, I’m fortunate enough to direct a writer-in-residence program at the college where I teach, which allows me to invite several writers to campus. It makes for a natural homework assignment, as I always read their work before they arrive. Lucky me that my homework this year included Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel Flood of Fire about the opium trade in 1800s India (read the entire trilogy and be amazed); Monique Truong’s magnificent Bitter in the Mouth, about a Vietnamese-American growing up in the American South; Marilyn Nelson’s poignant memoir, How I Discovered Poetry (which took me back to her Faster Than Light: New And Selected Poems); and Morgan Parker’s smart, sharp poetry collection Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night (stay tuned for her 2017 release, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce).
This year also marks my son’s senior year in high school; he wants to pursue acting. His drama teacher assigned Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist and, as I sometimes do, I read the book alongside him. In light of the election, Deveare Smith acutely reminded me that artists’ activism is everything. Speaking of which, on Sunday following the election, I joined authors Nicole Dennis-Benn and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh on a panel for The Hustle reading series in Brooklyn. It was soothing to come together around literature, and I’m grateful to now have Dennis-Benn’s revelatory novel, Here Comes the Sun, at my bedside to tumble into each night, like a balm. But I’m still reeling from something voiced during that panel. When I noted that a Donald Trump presidency (writing that phrase feels so tawdry and sad) required us all to “do more,” Al-Khatahtbeh said, “I plan to do less.” She said that since 9/11, she and other women Muslim writers and activists had spent untold time and resources and psychic energy trying to convince “them” that they too are Americans, that they too love this country, that they are not the enemy. She said, essentially, that it’s time for others to do that work. Amen.
I went home and read her slim, explosive memoir, Muslim Girl, and was startled by its candor and force, and also by how prescient the book is. In describing her experience of being in Britain this past summer, Al-Khatahtbeh wrote: “As impossible as we were hoping — imagining — the rise of racism to be, it can, in fact, win. The U.K.’s decision (Brexit), was a clear demonstration of that, and, at worst, it was a sign of what was waiting for us come November.”
I’m like most of you, I’m sure, in that I’ve read a lot of essays and op-eds and news stories and manifestos since the election. Nothing shook me like the words of Sarah Kendzior, who has studied authoritarian states for over a decade. “My Fellow Americans, I have a favor to ask you,” she wrote. “I want you to write about who you are…what standards you hold for yourself and for others…Never lose sight of…what you value. If you find yourself doing something that feels questionable or wrong a few months or years from now, find that essay you wrote on who you are and read it. Ask if that version of yourself would have done the same thing.”
Looking back, I see now that the best books I’ve read this year are themselves a prescient compilation, a kind of personalized, serial guidebook for the new world order we now inhabit; it’s an indicator of what I believe in, who I strive to be, what matters to me. I plan to remind myself of this in the dark days ahead, remind myself that it’s important to remain true to my own ideals.
What’s really important, as we enter 2017, is that we validate one another’s humanity. May good books help us do just that.
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It makes little sense to come up with another list of “best” Chicago books. To select a “top” 10 (or 20 or 1,000) has always seemed arbitrary and destined for accusations of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole, even in a city built on a foundation of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole.
Fairly or unfairly, Chicago often serves as a general proxy for American cities. Love or hate this idea of ostensible representativeness (most Chicagoans kind of just roll their eyes), to embrace it can prove helpful in one respect: looking at ambition, failed policies, immigration, founding myths, and contemporary life in Chicago, you find resonance elsewhere in America. When thinking through issues confronted by American cities today (and maybe always) — unequal distribution of resources, violent policing, persistent de facto segregation, administrative corruption, privatization of public services, neoliberal coddling of gentrification, fallout from decades of environmental degradation, and others — Chicago serves as a vital case study.
The local commentariat here works itself into spitting rages whenever any outsider — especially if that outsider bears a New York Times business card — parachutes into the Loop for 36 hours to explain Chi-Town (seriously, stop it: no one here calls it that) to the rest of the world. So, designed as a “Chicago 101” syllabus, these books serve as starting points rather than final judgments. They place Chicago at the center of ideas about city life, in some case pressing back on prevailing narratives about American urbanism. Instead of best Chicago books, this selection focuses on books that use a Chicago-centric perspective to address challenges that other places similarly confront.
And given that I’m leaving town this fall and casting my lot with the outsiders when I transplant to — I cringe, really, it feels like betrayal — Brooklyn, I wanted to get this thing together before the movers arrive. Much is missing: I chose not to focus on novels because so many others have done so, and poetry is almost entirely absent. Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg were not on this list because they are prerequisites for the list. But with the excuses that I don’t intend on completeness and the movers at the gates, I hope it’s acceptable to leave gaps that conversation might fill.
1. “It Really Wasn’t Much of a Place at All.”
Dominic A. Pacyga opens Chicago: A Biography, his sweeping history of the Midwest’s largest city, with Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet. The priest and explorer first came upon a portage between the Chicago and Illinois Rivers in 1673. To build a canal here would be to connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, creating the largest inland waterway in the world and facilitating transportation from New York Harbor to the Mississippi along the entire midsection of the continent.
There’s a lot in between and after, and the last page of Pacyga’s book makes it to Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States. That Pacyga covers so much — from the fire that destroyed one third of Chicago in 1871, to the city’s subsequent explosive growth (Chicago had a 1.7 million residents by 1900), to the Haymarket riot, to the 1968 DNC — should give a sense of the book’s scope. With so much terrain to cover, it comes as little surprise that even major events get relatively little space. Pacyga does, however, provide an especially detailed account of labor upheavals that characterized Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, providing context for understanding the city’s pushback against the rampant capitalism for which it earned its reputation.
Chicago: A Biography represents an essential starting point, primarily because it tracks the evolution of the city from a mucky swamp to a “global city.”
2. “Natural Advantages”
William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Donald Miller’s City of the Century both present meticulously detailed and conceptually riveting pictures of Chicago in the 1800’s — a century of incredible expansion. Chicago’s founding hustlers (to borrow Nelson Algren’s term for his fellow Chicagoans) proclaimed as early as the 1830’s that a marsh named for stinking onions by indigenous people, seated aside gloriously fertile grasslands on the shores of an inland ocean, would one day represent “the most important point in the great west.” By the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the climax of Chicago’s ascendant century, that destiny had been realized.
Cronon and Miller interrogate the stakes of this transformation, asking about the lives it altered and about the enduring epistemic shifts that Chicago’s rise implied for the United States. Chicago transformed America’s relationship with the West and with capital itself, producing not only a vast urban expanse but also structuring what we would come to understand as “rural,” “suburban,” and “hinterland.” Cronon helps us understand how the city transformed goods into abstract commodities, reshaping our relationship to the food we buy and the environment we consume. He shows how rail transit didn’t just connect distant places, but rather restructured our very understanding of space and time. In notable contrast, Miller’s history dives into the enormous cast of characters that built Chicago and chronicled its rise. City of the Century’s meticulous characterization of the “hustlers” that poured concrete into Chicago’s foundations provides singular descriptions of this cast’s influence on the city’s trajectory.
3.“High Strung, Contagious Enthusiasm”
Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City has become standard literary fare for newcomers to Chicago, and one will often find multiple copies in a transplant’s household. Larson dramatizes the planning of the aforementioned World’s Columbian Exposition, which marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. Planning required construction of an enormous classical-inspired city in Jackson Park on the South Side, involving many of the city’s (and nation’s) architectural and economic leaders, and marking Chicago’s global coming-out party.
Lurking in the crowds, H.H. Holmes — the book’s eponymous devil — became one of America’s first serial killers. He committed scores of murders silently throughout the fair, the urban anonymity afforded him by the crowds facilitating his crimes. Larson’s book has become important, not just as a document that depicts this contradiction between glorious spectacle and urban underbelly, but also because his romanticized vision of Chicago squares with how the city still views the fair. Its spectacle (and specter) looms large in Chicago’s self-conception.
Where Larson spends time examining the drama among fair planners, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth presents an imaginative — and sparely, gorgeously rendered — view of the event’s history through a child’s eyes. An emotionally paralyzed man living in present-day Chicago, Jimmy attempts to reconnect with his father. In scenes from the 1800s, the monumental fair casts similar shadows over an inter-generational Corrigan family history. Ware depicts how the tendrils of Chicago’s past reach to its present in a city with a complicated history.
Jane Addams founded Hull-House in 1889, well before the Columbian Exposition’s electric lights flickered on. Her settlement house ultimately comprised an enormous complex of buildings in one of Chicago’s poorest immigrant neighborhoods. In Twenty Years at Hull House, one gets the sense of Addams’s determination to reformulate the way that cities treated the poor and immigrant classes — with dignity and a focus on individuals. She charted a course for services and advocacy for the poor that formed the foundation of social work and emphasized that communities matter in urban development.
Concurrently, Daniel Burnham — architect of the Columbian Exposition — moved on from the fair to create an urban plan that would transform Chicago and cement the city’s status as a global metropolis. Carl Smith’s The Plan of Chicago makes it clear that Burnham’s monumental visions leave a complicated legacy. Despite “sincere” hopes that “City Beautiful” concepts would ennoble the poor, the Plan of Chicago deserves criticism for overlooking conditions of daily life for those to whom Addams ministered. As much as it marks a culmination of optimism in city planning, it lays some of the foundation for abysmal policies that would haunt public housing in Chicago and in many other cities. Moreover, it marks a kind of opening chapter in “public-private partnerships” that govern contemporary efforts to encourage markets to solve urban problems.
5. Bigger Ambitions for Chicago-Born Novels
Native Son and The Adventures of Augie March belong at the heart of any serious conversation about Chicago novels (though I find Augie difficult to get through). The ambitions of Richard Wright and Saul Bellow in these two midcentury novels rise to the level of Chicago’s ambitions for itself. Their alternatingly devastating and ennobling investigations of individual agency and social determination in two unforgettable protagonists — Augie and Bigger Thomas — make them essential to an understanding of American ideas about selfhood, race, and ambition.
It can be easy to forget that these novels take place in Chicago; they belong to us all and not to any one city. “I am an American,” Augie declares right at his beginning. “Chicago born” comes only second, though it acts as validation of his Americanness. Upon reflection, one cannot imagine either novel taking place in any other American city — one of huge immigrant classes fragmented into neighborhoods bitterly segregated along racial and ethnic lines.
Reading these novels together with a spatial understanding of Chicago deepens one’s appreciation for how wide a gulf exists between the lives of their protagonists and the populations they represent. Augie and Bigger find themselves in Hyde Park, for example (which still boasts of its veneer of racial diversity relative to other neighborhoods), but their experiences there are utterly separate. From this smallest of details — the incongruity of lives despite physical proximity — emerges persistent truths about the structure of racial dynamics in American cities.
6. Making the Most of Migration
The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s mammoth history of the Great Migration, won the 2015 Chicago Reader’s poll of “Greatest Chicago Book.” Chicago shares billing with LA and NYC as important destinations for those whose lives Wilkerson traces from the rural south to the urban north and west, but there can be no doubt that the Great Migration wrought indelible changes in the social fabric of every region in the United States from World War I through the 1970s; and in this story, Chicago plays a central role. Unwavering in her depictions of the political and physical violence of Jim Crow and nuanced in both her telling of personal stories and descriptions of broader effects of the migration on cities and people, Wilkerson’s book is the seminal text on the largest internal migration in American history.
Meanwhile, Adam Green’s Selling the Race provides an incisive contribution to conversations about how black Chicagoans carved a place for culture in modern America. Against prevailing narratives that cast black Americans (including many new migrants to Chicago) as victims of modernity, swept up by forces that looked to capitalize on anxieties of belonging, Green argues that they became powerful agents of cultural production. Examples from Mahalia Jackson to Ebony and Jet magazine (product of the Chicago-based Johnson Publications) present a rich picture of how much of black culture was generated and packaged for sale to wide audiences in Chicago.
7. Obsessions with the Ordinary
No city values the “ordinary” so dearly as Chicago. And if Studs Terkel stands as the everyman’s greatest champion, his Division Street America best ties the city’s affection for ordinariness to American identity. It would be a mistake to suggest that Terkel shilled the myth of a “city that works” (a term coined by Richard J. Daley). Rather, his no-nonsense portrayals of everyday Chicagoans — rich, poor, Democrat, Republican, racist, gay, jag-baggy, and others — coalesce to create this affecting hodgepodge. As Alex Kotlowitz (no slouch himself in the department of spotlighting and writing movingly about injustice in Chicago) has observed, there’s always Studs in the background — curious, probing, insisting, and asking questions that prompt often-ignored individuals to tell their stories.
Vivian Maier, whose recently discovered work also transacts in Chicago’s obsession with the ordinary, may outshine Terkel decades from now. She embodies the perfect female flâneur (or, as historian Lauren Elkin has rightly insisted, flâneuse). Maier spent most of her life as a nanny in Chicago, secretly capturing some 100,000 images on the city’s streets. The domestic nature of her work all but guaranteed invisibility, given chauvinistic structures of artistic production and labor valuation. But when John Maloof was researching the Northwest Side neighborhood of Portage Park in 2007, he came upon Maier’s forgotten images. He bought and disseminated them. Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found is a great introduction and Maier now belongs in discussions about great American street photographers. Hers is an utterly Chicago story.
8. Daley’s Siege
Richard J. Daley reigned over much of 20th-century Chicago. He ruled the city from 1955 until 1971, dominated Democratic Machine politics, and earned all of his enemies. Several books on this list describe Daley, and his complicated legacy plays out differently in their assessments. For this reason, I have left out of this list any Daley biographies.
Perhaps no account of Daley proves as brutal as Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. In his run-up to descriptions of protests and Chicago police reprisals, Mailer writes, “Daley was no national politician, but a clansman.” The 1968 DNC, convened by Daley, proved a flashpoint in American political history. The chaos fragmented the Democratic Party nationally, and set the stage for Richard Nixon’s victory in November. In Mailer’s description of Chicago, his clear affection for the city makes it all the more heartbreaking (despite his intimations of inevitability) that the fractures of American society should appear on live television broadcasts from Michigan Avenue.
Algren-esque musings notwithstanding, Mailer remains a Chicago outsider. So it feels appropriate to add Chicagoan Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool to this list of books. Combining documentary footage of the convention protests with a fictional film, Wexler enlivens and deepens Mailer’s account. He depicts the tumult of 1968 like perhaps no other text from that stormy year. As a bonus, Medium Cool echoes experiments happening in documentary at places like Kartemquin films, which would go on to produce the now-canonical Chicago films Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters.
9. Out in Chicago
The most recently published addition to this list is Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Queer Clout. In it, Stewart-Winter troubles the dominant narrative of 20th-century gay rights activism in the United States, which typically treats New York and San Francisco as the two central cities, often to the exclusion of the Midwest. He fills this narrative with a cacophonous history of LGBTQ culture and activism in Chicago, where firings, shakedowns, police bribes, and bar raids were just as much a part of life throughout the city as anywhere else.
Effective action depended ultimately on collaborations between gay rights and black civil rights groups, and the pursuit of delicate coalitions. Queer Clout traces the fits and starts of these collaborations and coalitions. Post-Orlando, Stewart-Winter’s discussion of the importance of gay bars for LGBTQ individuals — historically and presently — seems especially valuable. Bars served ground zero for exploitation by law enforcement, but also as meeting places and (most of the time) safe havens.
Stewart-Winter cautions against readily equating the gay rights movement with the civil rights movement; the layering of race, sexual orientation, and gender identification necessitates a more complicated picture. And his affecting description of unequal access to healthcare among Chicagoans affected by AIDS creates a devastating picture of failed policies. In a city divided between a black south and white north, lack of access to educational resources, preventive care, and treatment becomes a reminder of how segregation produces injustice that communities and policymakers must continue to fight to address.
10. Humboldt Park
To understand gentrification in Chicago, head to the Humboldt Park neighborhood, where protests against rising rents, tax hikes, and teardowns took place recently on the 606. This park, built on a former rail line, echoes efforts in other cities to erase industrial infrastructure from urban landscapes. Having whetted the appetite of developers, The 606 has accelerated the pace at which Humboldt Park is becoming unaffordable for longtime residents.
Sandra Cisneros grew up in Humboldt Park. Her beloved The House on Mango Street takes place in a similar fictional neighborhood. Traditional readings peg the novella as the coming-of-age story of Esperanza, a daughter of Mexican immigrants. Cisneros experiments with form — the book is a series of short vignettes — to explore Esperanza’s struggles with sexuality, national identity, class, and the Spanish language. The poetic language of these depictions alone makes an argument for the work’s importance.
To read Mango Street alongside Chris Ware’s Building Stories widens the lens through which readers can examine the relationship between individual and community identity. Ware’s unnamed protagonist, who loses a leg in a childhood accident, lives in Humboldt Park. Her story unfolds across 14 pamphlets, broadsheets, books, and other objects. Like Cisneros, Ware’s formal cartwheels advance conversations about identity. As with Cisneros, the book’s themes center on self-description — again, a disjointed and chronologically jumbled task (there’s no “right” way to read the book). He’s also interested in the evolving neighborhood, as the heroine moves away and revisits the three-flat in which so much life happens.
11. Whose City?
What does Chicago look like today? Natalie Moore’s The South Side, published last year, combines history and memoir to describe neighborhoods in the city that are too often represented in national news media in one-dimensional stories of gun violence. Her book draws productively from her own biography of a childhood in middle-class and largely black Chatham, and feels less concerned with comprehensiveness than with augmenting and correcting the record. As the current South Side reporter for the local NPR affiliate, Moore brings a great deal of connections and numerous voices to this project.
By contrast, Larry Bennett’s The Third City offers a picture of contemporary Chicago that seems at times too rosy in its assessment of the younger Richard M. Daley’s infrastructure investments (the book was published before the first term of Mayor Rahm “One Percent” Emanuel). Visions of Chicago as a global city — one that attracts entrepreneurs to ride the next wave of innovators was for a time called “Silicon Prairie” — ring with the optimism of the 19th century. It presents a picture of Chicago that has become popular among elected officials looking to attract private money and foreign tourists. This vision of Chicago’s third incarnation (a vision of privatization premised on the notion that a city’s chief ambition should be to attract capital to its core) looks like a new version of Burnham’s century-old Plan. It has fans elsewhere.
How to square this vision with the neighborhoods that sustain Chicago, and other cities, remains an unanswered question.
12. There Are No Two Finer Words…
Among garrulous Chicagoans, most will grudgingly agree: we miss Hot Doug’s. Chicago treasure Doug Sohn’s sausage emporium was not only a celebration of encased meats, but equally a democratizing force on a desolate block on California Avenue in the Avondale neighborhood. One waited in line (often for more than an hour) whether one was Anthony Bourdain, Aziz Ansari, or even Doug’s dad. In Hot Doug’s, the coffee table book that cashed in on Doug’s decision to close the shop not long ago, local voices weigh in on The Line: when they waited, how long they waited for, who got engaged to whom while waiting, who had to rush to the hospital to deliver a baby, etc.
Doug reminded us all (always calling us “my friend”) that in Chicago, one waits in line like civilized people. The snow, cold, heat, wind, and rain be damned.
13. Coda: Next Steps
There’s so much more to read and through-lines to trace from Carl Sandburg to Gwendolyn Brooks to Aleksandar Hemon to Chance the Rapper. Those interested in extensive lists of Chicago novels should consult, all kidding aside, several best-of lists already out there. My favorite was published by the dearly departed local site Gapers Block, and it organizes novels by neighborhood. Chicago magazine published a fun list of new Chicago-centric reads for the summer. I’m excited to read Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland. And Curbside Splendor Publishing (a local house) recently put out The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years of Music / Friendly / Dancing, a history of one of the Northwest Side’s most-loved venues.
But now, it’s time to get to packing.
Image Credit: Pixabay.