Red Clocks: A Novel

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Brett Kavanaugh and the Witch in the Woods: The Millions Interviews Leni Zumas

 Leni Zumas’s 2018 novel, Red Clocks, which has drawn wide comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, paints a chilling portrait of a near future in which not only is abortion illegal in the United States, a “Personhood Amendment” to the Constitution prohibits the use of IVF fertility treatments. The book, a national bestseller, won the 2019 Oregon Book Award and was named a “Best Book of 2018” by The Atlantic. It was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Washington Post Notable, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, and an Indie Next pick.

A longtime fan of Zumas’s work, I caught up with her at the Brooklyn Book Festival last year during the fraught confirmation proceedings of now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. We discussed Red Clocks, as well as what Kavanaugh’s confirmation could mean for reproductive rights in the U.S.—a struggle even now unfolding in the American South, as states move to pass measures that would effectively ban abortion.

The Millions: Red Clocks is often compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, and rightly so—it’s a near-future sci fi novel, and the major factor that has rearranged the world is government regulation of reproduction, specifically as it applies to the female body. But The Handmaid’s Tale is also about religious fundamentalism, whereas Red Clocks seems as if it’s really more just challenging us to think through legislation—actual legislation that has been developed by actual American politicians—showing us both the intended and perhaps unintended consequences of that kind of legislation and how it could affect so many woman in so many ways.

We’ve got Ro, a single woman trying to get pregnant; Mattie, a high school student who’s unintentionally pregnant; and Gin, who’s being persecuted for offering alternative healthcare services to women. I think this book is such a service in the way that it helps us model those consequences.

Leni Zumas: A lot of the legislation that’s affecting the characters in Red Clocks is influenced by evangelical Christianity…You know, Mike Pence is politician who in every way allows his convictions to tell him, “Oh, I get to legislate what happens to your body, and yours too.” And when I was doing research for this book, his name actually popped up a lot, especially with regard to creating a law in Indiana requiring women who had miscarriages or abortions to have a funeral for or cremate their fetal tissue. So, religion is kind of a shadow presence in the book.

However, you know, an interesting thing about the United States is that Americans have this conception that we have a separation of church and state…when actually, if you look at, say, the Supreme Court, most people on the Supreme Court are Catholic. In the Trump administration, there are some extremely radical Christian men who are in there creating laws—and yet, that’s not really part of the national rhetoric. Whereas we might look at a place like Ireland and say that legislators there are all completely controlled by the Catholic Church, when Ireland is the place that just voted via referendum to make abortion accessible. So, the religion question is interesting to me, though it wasn’t explicit in the book.

What I see as one of the superpowers of fiction is that it can really put the reader inside the experience of a law’s consequences and aftermath, intentional and unintentional, as you say. So rather than, say, having an abstract conversation about reproductive rights…it’s more about, say, what it feels like to be a 15-year-old girl who has plans to become a marine biologist and go to math camp who’s told, “There’s a beginning of a pregnancy in your body and you cannot stop it.”

TM: Yes. And further, in this widespread comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale—it’s not like you haven’t written speculative work (some of the stories in your collection, Farewell Navigator, definitely have a fantastic element). But this book is not that speculative.

LZ: Is it even dystopian? I don’t know. It’s so close to our own society that it could be true next month. After Kavanaugh is confirmed, and certain states begin enacting prohibitively restrictive abortion laws, we really could have a Personhood Amendment on our hands. I really hope to hell that does not happen, and there are a lot of progressive people in this country working really hard to make sure that it doesn’t. But I never thought Trump would be elected. I had finished Red Clocks by then, but I was still revising it, and so that sort of sense of disbelief or horror or fearful dread kind of colored my revision.

TM: I’ll admit, even though I’m a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, I didn’t allow myself to watch the Hulu series based on the novel until I was preparing for this interview.

LZ: I still haven’t seen it.

TM: I think I was maybe trying to protect myself from further horror, just trying to keep it together. But watching it felt like sticking a fork in an electrical outlet. Like, Dear God, what have you been doing? We are under siege here. We are at war. The consequences of ceding control over the reproductive capacity of the female body to men are horrifying. And The Handmaid’s Tale illustrates that horror by going to extremes.

LZ: Right.

TM: But Red Clocks is in many ways just as horrifying, and there’s nothing really extreme about it. It is just one step—one stumble—away from where we are now.

LZ: And that was definitely intentional. I wanted to hew as closely as possible to an ordinary—if we can even say anything is ordinary about this political moment—to an almost a run-of-the-mill version of what would happen, for a few reasons. In general, as a writer I’m interested in tiny strangenesses and discomforts and sort of unnerving experiences in the world that aren’t spectacular and aren’t, sort of, radically unpredictable. They’re almost more the things that escape our notice. So, I think having characters who are sort of going along in their lives—they might be somewhat politically aware, but not that active, then things start to happen to them. And that’s the kind of a horrifying wakeup that I think I’ve been experiencing in the last couple of years, and I know a lot of other people have too.

TM: In my review of Red Clocks for LitReactor, I referenced El Salvador’s abortion ban, which takes place in a context where cities like San Salvador are widely ruled by street gangs—a context where girls cannot refuse sex with gang members without risking their lives. And when you combine that with, not only is there no access to abortion, if you even have a miscarriage—

LZ: You can be locked up.

TM: Right, after being accused of attempting abortion. And this extremely hostile environment for women has of course created a refugee crisis. So, many women are running for their lives. But then—

LZ: The Attorney General says that domestic abuse is not a valid reason to seek asylum.

TM: Right. And then we have Trump’s war on refugees—and again, this is a different situation—

LZ: But they’re connected.

TM: In Red Clocks, you have this “Pink Wall,” where women running from the U.S. to Canada to try to get an abortion will be deported. Right now, we have this refugee wall, where if you’re running to the U.S. from this kind of violence south of the border, you will be returned to that violence. In this way, it seems as if some of the key themes of Red Clocks are unfolding before our eyes in the Americas.

LZ: Yes. And I’m glad you brought up the connection with immigration, because one of the most insidious things about the current administration—and also, you know, past administrations’ policies, I don’t want to put everything at the feet of Trump—is the notion that if a woman is being beaten and raped by her husband, beaten and raped by others, that’s not enough of a reason to grant her asylum. It really reveals a basic disregard for an experience that is coded female. Listening to the Attorney General say, “Well, you know, we can’t let everyone in, and just because some woman’s having some trouble at home…” I connect that in my mind to some other old white man in a small town being like, “Oh, you have another black eye? Well, you probably shouldn’t talk back to your husband…”

And you know, to your earlier point about much of these things already happening in the world—in parts of the United States, it is already virtually impossible for some women to get abortions. They don’t have the money to travel three days, they can’t take off work, they can’t afford childcare for the children they already have, there’s a 72-hour wait at a clinic, and there’s only one clinic in their state and they can’t get there. The sort of abortion ban I wrote about in Red Clocks is already true for them, and of course it disproportionately affects low-income women and women of color.

And so reproductive rights are connected to social inequality, connected to economics, connected to immigration—there’s really no way to separate these things.

TM: You’ve noted in other interviews that when the system stops working for the people who used to have power in it, there’s a tendency to turn to historically marginalized people and their wisdom. This is embodied in Red Clocks in Gin, a character who’s queer in more ways than one—when the women in her community need help with birth control, gynecological services, with abortion, Gin’s the one they turn to, the “witch in the woods.” And you walk a fine line with the speculative element here—you know, maybe she actually has magical powers? Maybe she’s just a little cray? But beyond all that, she absolutely is an herbalist.

LZ: Yes.

TM: As such, you’re clearly echoing European history, in the sense of a witch being, basically, the local midwife, the healer. And I remember my shock, in undergrad, in learning about the sheer scale of this era toward the end of the Middle Ages known as the Burning Times, when anywhere from 50,000 to 1,000,000 women were put to the stake, in a move that is widely agreed to have been a power grab by the male clergy of the Christian church, in order to undermine women’s authority in matters of life and death. But, of course, this was also an act of terrorism. So, I suppose I was wondering, what does that heritage mean to you?

LZ: I love this question, because it’s something I think about a lot. Like, what are those traces and residues and sediments from history that we’re still, sort of, metabolizing? And one of them, I think, is the figure of the witch—which I would say now, or in the past decade or so, has become kind of trendy, in a way that’s both kind of cool and kind of annoying—there’s still that sense of another system of knowledge or power or wisdom that has been subjugated and suppressed, much like any kind of—well, this gets back to the colonial vision, in which a white European power going into other parts of the world, taking power, and subjugating people had to suppress these other systems of knowledge, whether it was medical or spiritual or, you know, ways that people organized themselves. It’s sort of necessary in order for colonizers to keep their hold that those systems are quashed.

It goes to how even today the notion of midwifery or herbalism or alternative medicine is pooh poohed. Like, I’ve heard people refer to acupuncturists as witchdoctors or voodoo doctors…reaching for that kind of language that we already have to delineate who’s really in power and authority and who’s not. Like an old wives’ tale or an old wives’ remedy—as in, those things aren’t true, they don’t work.

And there’s even sort of a way, I see—like…you’re walking down Alberta Street in Portland and you see sort of a naturopath school or a place selling herbs and they’re sort of twee and hipster, but where I go to in my head is that kind of longer history of, who was using these things?

TM: Today, those sorts of wisdom systems are sort of like, that’s nice if you can afford that. That’s extra. They’re sort of the hot yoga of medicine.

LZ: Exactly. And that’s why, with the character of Gin, I didn’t want her just to be someone who thrives in everyday society but also happens, on the side, to have this knowledge. I really wanted her to be outside the system and sort of off the grid and happily so—she’s not this outsider who’s trying to claw her way back into society. She’s sort of said no to that, but in order to survive—and also, I think because she is dedicated to the craft, to her expertise—she still wants to interact with women who need her help. But a lot of the reason they need her help is that they no longer have health insurance, or because certain basic health care procedures are outlawed now.

TM: In Red Clocks, I was struck by the way that the characters of Ro and Susan seem to illustrate sort of a double bind that women face under patriarchy. Ro, in many ways, is a renegade: she’s a feminist high school teacher, she encourages her students to think for themselves—she’s an intellectual, an academic, trying to write a biography of this largely forgotten female polar explorer. And she’s also a single woman doing her damnedest to become a single mom. So, in many ways she’s pushing back on what’s expected of women, and she’s subjected to a great deal of hardship and judgment for it.

And then there’s Susan, who’s pretty much checked off all the boxes, in terms of those expectations: she married a man, she had children with him, she stayed home to take care of those children—and in many ways, put her own ambitions on hold to do so. But she also faces many hardships and judgments. She’s sort of losing her mind in kiddieland, she feels super isolated, and she feels judged both by women who have children and women who don’t. Moreover, she feels trapped in her marriage—because she feels financially beholden to her husband, but also because she’s bought into this lie that children from “broken homes” are going to go on to meet terrible ends, and that if she essentially saves her own life by leaving this marriage, she will have destroyed theirs.

The idea here appears to be that while some women might appear to have power, or enjoy a more protected status, under patriarchy, no woman really wins in this system.

LZ: Yes. And I really think that with the character of Susan, I hope that one sees in the most glaring way that storyline she bought. She’s like, “Okay, I will be happy if I have these things.” Susan was in law school, but she decided that the prospect of becoming a lawyer could not compare to the prospect of becoming a mother. So, she married and became a mother, but she’s still not happy—which, again, is not a surprising story. In fact, it’s a very common story. So, the question for me is about how we relate to those stories and those sort of cultural imperatives.

And I think that Ro, the biographer, has also gotten those same kind of messages, in terms of the idea that children from single parents don’t do as well in school. Which is such a way to cover up more systemic inequities and facts around poverty and race and education—

TM: And the pay gap between men and women (“kids need both parents”).

LZ: Yes. And if people aren’t going to have the conversation about class and race, they’re going to blame individuals. Like, you wrecked your child because you didn’t stay with your husband, or your marriage crumbled, or you chose to be a single mom.

I think for me it was a great gift when my parents got divorced, because they were so clearly better off on their own, with their own lives. And yes, it was hard, but what was really hard was living with both of them in the same house and knowing they didn’t love each other. And how freeing for a person to be like, “Wow, that can happen, and then everyone can move on.” Rather than struggling to meet society’s messages about it, which is more like, “Why don’t you just work a little harder on your marriage?”

TM: The final main character in Red Clocks is Mattie, who’s kind of the classic case in terms of who we think of being on the front lines in the struggle for reproductive rights. She’s young, she’s naive, she’s fertile, she made a mistake, and now the rest of her life is on the line. And this is probably the easiest consequence for people to model, in terms of an abortion ban. Because even if Mattie gives up the kid for adoption, her life has been changed irrevocably.

LZ: Also, pregnancy is one of the most dangerous times in a woman’s life. So many serious health complications can occur as a result of giving birth—including death. People clearly aren’t thinking about that when they say of a woman, “Oh, she can just give it up for adoption.”

TM: Which is a conversation we almost never have. But you know, it occurs to me that—you know, we think of the consequence, and the stakes, of an abortion, being just this one young woman’s life. But my mother had an abortion before she had me, when she was maybe around 20, and she had me when she was 37. And for my whole life, I have always had this sense that she gave me my life by doing that.

LZ: She did.

TM: She gave me the right father, and she gave me the luxury of a mature, wise, laid-back mom who had traveled the world, who had had a career, who had had her wild years—

LZ: Who wasn’t resenting you.

TM: And there’s no way for me to separate the immense gift of my life from that brave act of hers. So, it’s not just the young woman’s life at stake, it is the life of her kids down the road, if she has them.

LZ: That question of interbeing and interdependence was in my head when I was writing Mattie’s character, because there’s a point at which she’s imagining—she’s herself adopted, which is one of the reasons her parents are anti-abortion. And I really wanted to make those characters sympathetic and not just these evil anti-abortion people—but she imagines the biological mother who gave her up, and what if she went on to become a scientist who made some great discovery.

And there’s the question of that too: When a woman chooses not to become a mother, what are her other contributions to the world? And not that everyone—like, I think everyone has a right to do that, whatever their contribution—but within a woman’s life, if she decides, “No, I’m not going to have a kid, I’m going to work for social justice,” this affects a lot of people.

TM: Red Clocks is an important book in the conversation around women’s rights right now. Are there any others you’d recommend?

LZ: Women Talking by Mirian Toews. She’s a Canadian author who grew up Mennonite and her book is based on a real-life Mennonite colony in Bolivia where, between 2005 and 2009, the women in the colony were getting drugged and raped every night by this group of men in the colony. And this is this extremely particular and isolated religious community—it would be easy to think, “Oh, that’s so different from our society, what can we take from it?” But one of the sort of genius moves of the book is that you have all these Mennonite women in the colony talking about what’s happening and what they should do about it, and as I’m reading it, I’m thinking, like, this is all of us talking—

TM: Finally!

LZ: Yes! We’re talking about how to change the patriarchy, and how to look at our own complicity in perpetuating it.

A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

The year began with Mexican beaches and ceviche and morning yoga during a much-needed sanctuary from Chicago winter and the latent anxiety that was plaguing me. This was an ideal setting to engage in the drama of someone else’s fucked-up life and fraught desire—perhaps I was seeking catharsis of some kind? Well, if so Elizabeth Ellen’s auto-fictional novel Person/a, provided it. Person/a is a tale of a once-requited turned unrequited love cum obsession, accompanied by a crumbling marriage (no surprise) and self-imposed isolation. The novel includes emails and chat sessions and text messages and almost like a preface, rejections to Ellen’s manuscript queries. It’s all so wonderfully messy and unnerving, it feels like it shouldn’t hold but it does. In an age where I Love Dick has been subsumed by the mainstream, Person/a still reads as raw and suppurating. Fleur Jaeggy’s I am the Brother of XX didn’t fare as well at the beach. No fault of the book that the sun was too adamant, the breeze too gentle for its dark melancholia, its haute cynicism. It’s better read on a bleak winter day, when the air is already laced with desperation. I am not sure how one writes so beautifully about melancholy, how to make envy so alluring, and yet Jaeggy’s a master.
 

Obsession runs through yet another favorite — Lynne Tillman’s Men and Apparitions is an obsessive’s compendium. The sprawling novel contains anthropological disquisitions on photography and our cultural inundation in images, and ends with the narrator Zeke’s attempt to delineate the new masculinity belonging to the sons of second wave feminists. Zeke’s survey on the “New Man” ends the novel, with questions Tillman had posed to male subjects accompanied by a selection of answers. Tillman’s choice to open the novel to a survey of voices conjures a conversation from Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, where the narrator argues that novels are not very good at conjuring our contemporary reality and that documentary fiction, such as Svetlana Alexeivich’s “novels in voices” seem to do a much better job.
 
Despite my skepticism about any dog-centric story (the dog here being the narrator’s inheritance from the titular dead friend), The Friend became my constant companion for a few short days. Nunez plays with the conceit of the novel in a way that brings the “truth” of the main narrative into question, it’s a wonderfully surprising turn, and that’s as much as I’ll say to avoid spoiling it.
 

Many of the novels that stayed with me hijacked my expectations of what a novel is or can do. Dubravka Ugresic’s novel Fox was sly enough to seemingly shift forms while reading. I knew it was a novel going in, and yet by the time I was in the thick of it I questioned this until I was assured the book was definitively nonfiction. But then there were moments that gave me pause — such as when on a butterfly hunt, Nabokov’s companion’s skirt flies up to reveal a butterfly resting on her pubis. What’s true and what’s not?  Fox is cunning and places this ambiguity at the forefront, for the novel is  concerned with what makes up a narrative and, specifically, how stories come to be written.
 

Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is nothing like Fox in its material — confronting a deep-seated ambivalence and desire about becoming a mother — and yet both books retool the novel’s form. Heti engages with the I Ching as a dialogic partner as she delves into an inquiry about whether Sheila and Miles should have children, and with uncanny results. (Incredibly, Heti notes that the answers from her coin tosses have not been manipulated.) If you aren’t subsumed by the desire to have children, if you’re female and an artist and that window of opportunity is closing, how do you decide? Heti’s commitment to exhausting the question illuminates fears wedged in the crevices of my own mind, such as how can you be both writer and mother without some type of neglect or resentment towards one or both roles? (which I know isn’t true, and yet…)
 

I picked up Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks while visiting family in a small coastal town in Oregon, a town serendipitously much like the one where the book is set. Being there I felt even more subsumed by the lush language and descriptions of the coast and dense forest, and was in awe of the nearly mystical powers possessed by herbalist abortionist whose power is derived from her knowledge the natural surroundings. Also, I was delighted to learn that ‘red clock’ means ‘womb’.
 

Delight is  just the word I’d use to describe reading Sabrina Orah Mark’s story collection Wild Milk, whose tales are surreal and playful and seem deceptively simple despite their profound linguistic and imaginative play. Rita Bullwinkell’s collection Belly Up is just as playful and profound, though her stories delve deeper and darker. They floor me with unexpected turns, slippages into the surreal, and their vast emotional registers.
 

I’m a little late to the party, as everyone’s championing Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel, but I just encountered her Find Me this summer. I read it twice, and became obsessed with its own obsessions with memory and loss and what’s inaccessible, its esoteric theories about immunity to the ongoing epidemic, and the fracturing effects of trauma and absence. On Joy’s ever-meandering bus ride, all seems like a dream: the bus is never heading where she thinks, she keeps getting deterred on her way. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for life, or perhaps she’s she lost her mind? I love that both readings seem plausible.
 

Unlike Joy, Sequoyah in Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking knows where his mother is (she’s incarcerated); though like Joy he’s suffered abuse and has been shuffled through the foster system. He’s so tender and adrift, but finds connection in his relationship to his older foster sister Rosemary, and their shared Native American heritage. They’re all so flawed and awkward and completely alive on the page.
 

The dead do talk in Shelley Jackson’s Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children. It’s an enigma of a novel about a boarding school for stuttering children whose impediment, or rather, gift, allows them to effectively speak the dead’s voices . The novel is a linguistic and imaginative feat, as well as a gorgeous object to behold. Interspersed between chapters is documentation of artifacts, images, and illustrations, which only an imagination as wonderfully freaky as designer Zach Dodson could pull off. Is it a cliche to say it’s enchanting? Though Riddance’s main obsession is with a murder mystery, at its core it’s also a philosophical consideration of translation and writing, and the voices that exist beyond the grave.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Carolyn Quimby

2018 was the year I outgrew my bookshelves. Between my boyfriend and myself, we already had a lot of books but this year our shelves began to burst at the seams. Between reviewing gigs, landing on more publicity lists, and my propensity for buying books, there is just not enough space. Stacks of books have taken up residence on our headboard, next to my desk, on the floor next to the bed, on any flat surface we can find. I was not shocked by the swelling shelves as this was my first full year of reviewing books professionally. Sometimes it still feels weird to say my job (well, one of them) is reviewing books. A blessing with a rather wonderful downside: being assigned reviews means I have less time to read what I want when I want. Despite this, I was able to read some truly incredible books this year.

I kicked off 2018 with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which I read poolside on vacation. The stark difference between the collection’s tone and my physical setting was not lost on me. Everything that needs to be said about the book has already been said. All I’ll add is that it’s one of the best bodies of work (and debuts) I’ve ever read. Upon returning to the snowy tri-state area, I spent the seemingly never-ending winter making my way through a mishmash of books: Rebekah Frumkin’s The Comedown, an ambitious multi-generational epic from a writer to watch; Tayari Jones’ honest and searing An American Marriage; John Lewis’s March trilogy, which left me in tears; Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes (the smart, funny, and Rhimes-narrated audiobook is highly recommended); and Leïla Slimani’s claustrophobic and thrilling The Perfect Nanny.

In the summer, I escaped to the Catskills nearly every other weekend—sans wifi, cell service, and other people—and read. Whether it was on the porch, next to the wood burning stove, or over a cheese plate, I was curled up with a book. Said books included Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks, which was both gripping and timely; Rachel Cusk’s Outline, a sparse triumph ; Samantha Hunt’s genre-bending, achingly-poetic The Seas; Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s heartbreakingly empathetic The Fact of a Body; Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, which I devoured in nearly one sitting; and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a beautiful novel about banality.

Fall fell away in a flurry of pages and a stretch of indelible books. It started with R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, a slim, luminous novel where every sentence felt like a carefully-crafted poem. I mean: “punch-stained red cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals.” Nearly a week’s worth of commuting was spent savoring Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. A few essays made me openly weep on public transportation and I can think of no greater compliment. Essays gave way to post-apocalyptic debut with Ling Ma’s Severance—perhaps my favorite book published in 2018. Ma renders the peril and monotony at the end of the world with humor and heart. After passing its empty place on the library shelves for months, I finally borrowed André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. It left me raw and with a desire to flee to Italy. Reading the novel felt like pressing on a bruise: painful and sweet. Sidelined with a cold, I waded then dove head first into Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a modern retelling of Antigone. And after avoiding it for far too long (and for no good reason), I picked up Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which surpassed all expectations. In the midst of a depressive fog, the novel unlocked something inside me and buoyed me into December.

Looking back, I realize I mostly read women writers—not a conscious choice but a choice nonetheless. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of my best reading years in memory was slanted in such a way, and I suspect next year will look similar. Looking forward, I expect to read all the books I missed this year (there were many), and as 2019 books find their way into my mailbox, I am going to find new homes for some of our misfit books. Maybe even regain a flat surface or two, if we’re lucky.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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A Year in Reading: Lucy Tan

2018 has been—for us all, I think—a year full of fear and alarm. For that reason, it was also a year in which my reading habits changed. I’ve been reading compulsively, not only for curiosity and solace but also for distraction. Overwhelmed by the news, I’ve been reading less nonfiction than I usually do. And because this is the year my first novel came out, I’ve also been keeping a closer watch on contemporary fiction. What I’ve come to realize in 2018, more than any other year, is that books really can provide relief (and in some cases, answers). Here are the ones that—through some combination of truth, beauty, and intrigue—have made my life richer.

In January, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists was released. The first time I encountered it, I read for a few hours straight, standing upright in a stranger’s kitchen. The book is so good I’d forgotten where I was. Soon after, I read Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, which is my favorite feminist read of the year. It was frightening and empowering, and I wanted to talk about with everyone I knew. In the spring, I finished reading the story collection Elegy on Kinderklavier by Arna Bontemps Hemenway, about memory, identity, and war. I read it over a few months because each word is perfectly chosen, the emotional weight in each story perfectly calibrated. I also read The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, which hit me harder than a book has in a very long time. It made me think more deeply, first about what it means to be a writer, and second, about what it means to be a writer working right now.

This summer, something wonderful happened. What seems like a decade’s worth of fiction by Asian-American women was published all at once. Of those I read, I savored each one. The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon is a lyrical feast. If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim introduced me to Haemi, one of my favorite characters in all of literature. A River of Stars, by Vanessa Hua, is a page-turning, heart-filling novel about two immigrant women on the run with their newborn children. In Number One Chinese Restaurant, Lillian Li writes about community and love in a poignant, unforgettable way. What a range of worlds spanning time and space, what a wealth of talent! I am waiting for the opportunity to dive into The Ensemble by Aja Gabel, Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirsten Chen, Severance by Ling Ma, and All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung. The floodgates have opened for Asian-American stories, and I have a feeling they’re going to stay open. Next year, Susie Yang is publishing White Ivy, a novel remarkable in both scope and substance. Ocean Vuong’s highly anticipated debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, also hits shelves in 2019.

In the fall, I read Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man and Tommy Orange’s There There, which were both urgent and moving. That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam is the smartest work of fiction I read in 2018. It’s a gorgeously written, complex, and unsettling book about motherhood and white privilege. I also want to talk about Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, which is the most inventive and inspired book I’ve read this year. I loved it almost as much as Amy Bonnaffons’s hilarious and striking collection The Wrong Heaven, which sent me back to the blank page, wanting to play with form.

The best non-fiction book I read this year was by Beth Macy. Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America is a heart-wrenching and necessary look at the opioid crisis in America. Read this book and you may find yourself starting to understand our country in surprising ways, as I did.

The best mystery/thriller I read this year is a tie between The Perfect Nanny by Leslie Slimani and Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell. The former is a true literary thriller, psychologically disturbing and very well written. The latter is a book about a kidnapped dead girl. I’m generally through with stories about kidnapped dead girls, but I read this book upon recommendation, and I’m glad I did. It had me petrified, not only of the characters, but of my own theories about the novel’s resolution. Elegantly constructed and cleanly written, it’s well worth your time. I’ve also been enjoying 2018’s Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Louise Penny. T.C. Boyle has a story in there called “The Designee,” which is both suspenseful and heartbreaking.

I can’t forget to mention my brief obsession with the Japanese writer Hiromi Kawakami. Strange Weather in Tokyo, translated by Allison Markwell Powell, is a soul book for me. It gets at loneliness in a way I haven’t read in a long time. Xiaolu Guo is another writer I read this year whom I deeply admire. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is a raw and often uncomfortable consideration of language and alienation. It spoke to the part of me that feels at home in neither America nor China.

I’ve been reading, but I’ve been listening, too. This year, I moved to Madison for a fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and became part of a community of emerging writers. We gather to read our work out loud. Hearing these authors’ poems and stories spoken in their own voices has given me life and sent me back to the writing desk with my head bowed and fire in my chest. Read this poem and essayby Natasha Oladokun, this poemby Chekwube Danladi, this book by Natalie Eilbert. I’ve had the rare pleasure of hearing Mary Terrier and Kate Wisel read from their novels-in-progress. These novels are very different from each other but both are devastating and bold, and already so sharp in their manuscript forms that I know they’ll take your heads off as soon as they’re published. Next September, we’ll be treated to Aria Aber’s first book of poetry, titled Nearby Is the Country They Call Life, which cannot arrive soon enough. And Emily Shetler’s fiction is as inviting and layered as the lives of the people in her stories.

Here’s a weird thing: I’ve also been reading me. In 2017, as I was going through my novel draft after draft with a red pen, begging tiny changes from my copyeditor at the very last minute, I thought to myself, In 2018 I’ll never have to read this novel again! That turned out to be the opposite of true. But I’ve come to find that I enjoy giving readings, where I can offer my characters a physical voice and a body to occupy in a specific time and place. It’s become clear to me how powerful it is to hear a human voice behind a narrative. As a person of color, it feels not dissimilar to finally seeing faces like mine on TV and in theaters as we play roles we’ve written or originated—something we’ve gotten to see much more of this year. Suffice it to say, I’ve begun to appreciate reading as an art form. 2018 is also the year in which I’ve embraced audiobooks—though of course, nothing will replace the sight and feel of a physical book in my hands. Currently, I’m listening to A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, which is the only reason I know how to pronounce the name“Ove” (ooh-vuh).

What else have I been reading? Strong undergraduate writing from the students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The empathy and curiosity in my students’ fiction gives me hope not only for the state of literature but also for the state of our nation. In class, they want to discuss: Who has the right to tell this story? What are the implications of writing from first person point of view? What place does fiction have in politics, and politics in fiction? I don’t have all the answers, but together, we’re making study of it. This semester, we’ve been reading work by Danielle Evans, Justin Torres, Lorrie Moore, Jamel Brinkley, and Joann Beard.

Because it’s still November as I’m writing this, and because there’s not much else to do in the winter time in Madison besides drink, and in some cases, drive your car out onto the iced-over lake—neither of which I’m particularly good at—I’m going to end with a list of books I hope to read before the year is over. All come highly recommended: The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling, Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard, America for Beginners by Leah Franqui, and The Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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A Year in Reading: Chelsey Johnson

I launched a debut novel and bought three to five books at every store where I read on tour, so I struggle to even start to encapsulate this year in reading. And year-end lists tend to cycle around the same famous books again and again, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of what everyone else is crowing about. I read and loved many of those books but you don’t need me to tell you about them.

1. Dept. of Extreme Rereading
OK, that said, I have to shout out Alexander Chee’s essay “The Guardians,” in the collection you’ve read about literally (literally!) everywhere. I read this essay on a gray couch in a tiny house in Echo Park. As it unfurled, I felt my heart start to pound with that feeling of oh my god, this essay, this is going to be one of those, like Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” or that part in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son where he describes anger at the lunch counter. “The doll woke up, stretched, looked around, and believed it was me.” I read it, I reread it, I handed it to people I love with you have to read this, they handed it off to other people with the same, it transformed us all.

My other vital reread is the poem “Glitter in My Wounds” by CAConrad: “glitter on a queer is not to dazzle but to / unsettle the foundation of this murderous culture.” I read this in the November issue of Poetry, sitting at a tiny table in a big corporate bookstore while I waited for my dog to be finished at the vet across the street. I read “Glitter in My Wounds” so many times I think I’ve inadvertently committed it to heart. And it led me directly to Conrad’s collections The Book of Frank (2011) and While Standing in Line for Death (2017), half of which I accidentally read sitting on the living room floor between my dogs. I casually started reading and then couldn’t stop gorging myself on Conrad’s feral queer genius. (“You Don’t Have What It Takes to Be My Nemesis”: writer battle cry.)

 

2. Dept. of Chronology
The first book I read this year, traveling to snowy northern Minnesota, was Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks—fierce, lyrical, deeply intelligent both linguistically and emotionally, and the most honest and complicated book about reproduction I’ve ever read. The ending both wrecked me and restored me. The last book I read this year—as in I am reading it right now here in snowy northern Arizona—is The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, and it may be one of the most brain-tinglingly brilliant books I’ve ever read. Tsing takes the rare and undomesticable matsutake mushroom as an entry into the way life regenerates and reassembles in ruined spaces—it’s not just about mushrooms; it’s also about economies, scales, interspecies assemblages, human migration, and, well, as the subtitle says, “On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.” I can feel this book reshaping my lens on the world even as I read.

3. Dept. of Collections
I read Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck in bed, sometimes way too late into the morning when I should have been up and working, and sometimes aloud at night to my companion as they fell asleep. Eisenberg is one of my all-time short-fiction heroes and Your Duck Is My Duck is, as usual, school for me. With each story, you’re just, like, submerged into a full-blown consciousness and set loose. Every time I read her I learn from her. Out of all the famous people in the world the only person I have ever felt legit starstruck by is Deborah Eisenberg. At an Iowa anniversary event, I couldn’t even bear to approach her, even while our mutual friend strolled over to chat.

I read Michelle Tea’s essay collection Against Memoir in a couple of quiet early summer afternoons on a friend’s pool house couch in Los Angeles; I was in a blue moment, and this wide-ranging collection took such good companionable care of me. Michelle writes like she talks—quick and insightful and candid, witty and vulnerable and curious and smart. (Describing her tweenaged hopeless love for Prince: “It was impossible. I didn’t cry. I just sort of exuded trapped melancholia into my environment, like a plant.”)

I read Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s debut Heads of the Colored People all over the place: in galleys in Richmond, Virginia, in hardcover on a friend’s couch in Los Feliz, on audiobook as I wound through the red rock cliffs and cacti on Arizona’s Highway 17. The title story, “Belles Lettres,” and “Fatima, the Biloquist” are so smart, emotionally rich, and necessary they’re going straight to my syllabi.

4. Dept. of Nepotism But Also 100 Percent True Fandom
The book I literally read and listened to more than any other this year, from proofs to press, is Blanket by K Thompson. Even if K were not my life companion and dog co-parent, I would be in love with this beautiful, strange, brilliant mediation on blankets, interwoven with brief glimmering shards about the death of a beloved young brother. When a passage can move you to cry as much on the tenth read as on the first, you know you’ve hit gold.

Abbey Mei Otis knocked me out with her fiction in a workshop I taught years ago at Oberlin, and this summer Small Beer Press published her first collection, Alien Virus Love Disaster. I read it at the coffee shop in the morning when I was supposed to be writing and at home as the August afternoon monsoons rolled in. Taut, freaky, unsettling speculative fiction where actual aliens, viruses, love, and disaster abound. So do great sentences. This book feels like the future. All hail the new writer generation.

5. Dept. of Actual Scandal
Like many of us who are academia-adjacent, I was completely captivated and repulsed by the Avital Ronell scandal that broke this summer: a story of queer mentorship gone terribly awry, brazen power abuse misrepresented as special “queer coding” when it simply bears all the hallmarks of an unchecked personality disorder, and an evidence chain of weird, cringe-inducing, wildly inappropriate emails. I think I read just about everything there was to read about this, and the two pieces that stuck with me most were a predictably witty, scathing article for the Chronicle of Higher Ed by Andrea Long Chu (“Academic celebrity soaks up blood like a pair of Thinx”) and an unexpectedly witty, scathing LARB post by (to my shock) old-school Marjorie Perloff (“Certainly I will make some new enemies, but that’s a chance this octogenarian is willing to take.”)

6. Dept. Of Local Treasures
This summer I moved into a ponderosa pine forest near Flagstaff, Arizona, and fell in love with the place the way you fall in love with a living thing. Flagstaff is a mountain town, a border town, the homelands of several native nations, a volcanic wonderland, a dark-sky city, and home to astonishing biological and geological diversity. Ever since, the book I have picked up more than any other this year—I read it on the couch, I read it in the car, I pull it out on the side of the hiking trail—is Geology Underfoot in Northern Arizona. This information-packed, funny, friendly book has me all hopped up on things like the difference between rhyolite and basalt, why the peaks outside my window are shaped as they are, infant volcanoes, and mining and hydrology crises. The Book of Hopi by Frank Waters and Oswald White Bear Fredericks is a gorgeous gathering of origin stories, Hopi world views, and artwork, as told by 30 Hopi elders. Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy, a book I recently picked up in a bead shop in town, describes the intricate, awe-inspiring astronomy and cosmology of the Navajo; in a place so dark and clear-skied that I can actually see the Milky Way overhead, I’m starting to learn my way around the constellations, and the stories here captivate me far more than the old Greek ones. Finally, two weeks ago I picked up Sherwin Bitsui’s brand-new book Dissolve, a collection of brief, sharp, glimmering pieces that accrue into a single long poem rooted deeply in place. “This plot, now a hotel garden / its fountain gushing forth— / the slashed wrists of the Colorado.”

In 2018 I’ve thought more than ever about the Colorado River. I lived half the year in Los Angeles, the heedless beneficiary of that river’s diversion, a place where people spend that water foolishly like an inheritance they never had to work for, and then I lived half the year here in northern Arizona, where the litigious control of that river has caused relentless ecological and cultural disaster for the people, animals, and plants indigenous to the place. Everything I read this year (both listed here and not) moved me, shaped me, and cracked open new understandings for me, but perhaps nothing has been more influential or important to me than reading books about the place where I now live. When the contemporary world is falling apart, it helps me to turn to geological time and to scientific and indigenous knowledge about the ground beneath my feet and the sky overhead. The more I learn, the more I love it, with awe, with desperation, and with the understanding of how my own settler presence is a threat—yet how in the ruins we can find new and remarkable growth and assemblages. If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that the ground beneath your feet holds the stories of everything.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

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