Queen Sugar: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

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.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: 2016

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We typically schedule the essays and reviews and lists we run at The Millions a week or two in advance. Before the U.S. election, I looked at what we had in the hopper and tried to arrange the posts for timeliness. This was basically a symbolic gesture since The Millions is a total literary miscellany, and mostly contributor-driven — we don’t have the budget to commission much work (see publisher Max Magee’s call for support here). Max and I conferred about what to run on election day itself; we agreed that a lovely, calm installment of Hannah Gersen’s Proust Diary was the thing. I asked him what we should run if Donald Trump won. “SHUT IT ALL DOWN,” he wrote, sort of joking.

It’s obvious now that our disbelief was a luxury — there were plenty of people who knew it could happen. But the shock was real, and so too was the subsequent urge to shut it down. It was unclear, in the days immediately following the election, how a literary site could possibly matter when Donald Trump was the President of the United States, when it felt that all efforts should henceforth be directed at subverting the new regime. (It’s still unclear.)

But then the Year in Reading entries started coming in, from more than 70 writers. This is the 13th year of the series, and it feels like the most necessary yet. The entries have a measure of fear and grief, yes. They are about reckoning with the past, and preparing for the future. They are also full of beauty, full of sensitivity, full of intelligence, full of curiosity and care. They are about dissolving in someone else’s consciousness. About sharing suffering. About taking a break. About falling in love.

Based on the entries this year, I can confirm that readers are still very into Elena Ferrante. But there are many other names to discover in this series — exciting debuts and forgotten classics and authors whose names were on the tip of your tongue. There are hundreds of books: novels, essays, works of nonfiction, and poems.

As in prior years, the names of our 2016 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run three or four per day. And if you look forward to the Year in Reading every year, please consider supporting the site and ensuring this December tradition continues for years to come.

There are difficult weeks and years ahead, but we hope you’ll be momentarily refreshed and heartened as you hear from an array of prodigious readers and writers. At the very least, you’ll find something good to read.

-Lydia Kiesling

Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Chigozie Obioma, contributing editor at The Millions and author of The Fishermen.
Sofia Samatar, author of A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories.
Claire-Louise Bennett, author of Pond.
Tony Tulathimutte, author of Private Citizens.
Caille Millner, author of The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification.
Edan Lepucki, contributing editor at The Millions and author of California.
Matt Seidel, staff writer at The Millions.
Sonya Chung, contributing editor at The Millions and author of The Loved Ones.
Nick Moran, special projects editor at The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer at The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor at The Millions.
Tana French, author of The Trespasser.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, author of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much.
Esmé Weijun Wang, author of The Border of Paradise.
Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Here Comes the Sun.
Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls.
Annie Proulx, author of Barkskins.
Teddy Wayne, author of Loner.
Brandon Shimoda, author of Evening Oracle.
Basma Abdel Aziz, author of The Queue.
Imbolo Mbue, author of Behold the Dreamers.
Yuri Herrera, author of Signs Preceding the End of the World.
Sally Rooney, author of Conversations with Friends.
Bich Minh Nguyen, author of Pioneer Girl.
Jacqueline Woodson, author of Brown Girl Dreaming.
Megan Abbott, author of You Will Know Me.
Mauro Javier Cardenas, author of The Revolutionaries Try Again.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer at The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Zoë Ruiz, staff writer at The Millions.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer at The Millions.
Kaulie Lewis, staff writer at The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer at The Millions and author of Home Field.
Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer at The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer at The Millions and author of The Last Neanderthal.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer at The Millions.
Kiese Laymon, author of Long Division.
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest.
Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes.
Natashia Deón, author of Grace.
Bridgett M. Davis, author of Into the Go-Slow.
Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
Leila Aboulela, author of The Kindness of Enemies.
Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers.
Dimitry Elias Leger, author of God Loves Haiti.
Chloe Caldwell, author of I’ll Tell You in Person.
Natalie Baszile, author of Queen Sugar.
Danielle Dutton, author of Margaret the First.
Dan Chaon, author of Ill Will.
Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation.
Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
Anuradha Roy, author of Sleeping on Jupiter.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, staff writer for The Millions and author of Somebody’s Daughter.
Janet Potter, staff writer at The Millions.
Ismail Muhammad, staff writer at The Millions.
Lydia Kiesling, editor of The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer at The Millions.
Adam Boretz, web editor of The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor at The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer at The Millions, author of To Be a Machine.
Kevin Nguyen, digital deputy editor for GQ.
Nadja Spiegelman, author of I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This.
Chris Bachelder, author of The Throwback Special.
Álvaro Enrigue, author of Sudden Death.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of Lucky Fish.
Sylvia Whitman, owner of Shakespeare and Company bookstore.
Mensah Demary, editor for Catapult.
Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. the World.
Manuel Gonzales, author of The Regional Office is Under Attack!.
Hamilton Leithauser, rock star.
Lilliam Rivera, author of The Education of Margot Sanchez.
Jane Hu, writer; grad student; Canadian.
Chris McCormick, author of Desert Boys.
Michelle Dean, author of Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having an Opinion.
A Year in Reading: Outro

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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