We seem to say this every six months or so, but what a year for books. The second half of 2019 brings new novels from Colson Whitehead, Ben Lerner, Jacqueline Woodson, and Margaret Atwood. It brings hotly anticipated first novels by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Wayne Koestenbaum. It brings Zadie Smith’s very first short story collection. Riveting memoirs. Coming-of-age stories. With more than 100 titles, you’re going to have your hands full this fall. As always, please let us know what we missed in the comments, and look for additional titles in our monthly previews.
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The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: Fresh off a Pulitzer for The Underground Railroad, Whitehead returns to the subject of America’s racist history with this tale of a college-bound black man who runs afoul of the law in Jim Crow Florida and ends up in the hellish Nickel Academy, where boys are beaten and sexually abused by the staff. In an early review, Publishers Weekly calls The Nickel Boys “a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.” (Michael)
The Need by Helen Phillips: This book had me at “existential thriller about motherhood” but when I found out that the mother in the book is also a paleobotanist, I pre-ordered, because I’ve spent a lot of time in the American Museum of Natural History staring at plant fossils. In case you need more convincing, it has garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, is on multiple summer reading lists, and is from the author of The Beautiful Bureaucrat and Some Possible Solutions. Also, the cover is gorgeous. (Hannah)
A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar: In this modern-day Western, Tomar tells the story of a young woman’s search for her missing friend in the harsh desert landscape along the California-Nevada border. A gritty portrait of small-town life and the violence that plagues it, the novel formally experiments with time and narration. Publishers Weekly praises Tomar for “employing authorial sleight-of-hand…intentionally scrambl[ing] the chronology of the chapters, the better to immerse the reader in the disorder and dysfunction that shape her characters’ lives.” (Matt)
Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhanon: Buckhanon’s latest novel, her fourth, takes the reader on a quest to find out why a woman in Harlem disappeared after walking to the roof of her brownstone one day. The missing woman’s sister, Autumn, sets out to solve the case, after learning the police aren’t likely to provide her with answers. Autumn’s life unravels as her grief becomes overwhelming, and she grows steadily more fixated on the plight of missing women. (Thom)
The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks: In what Kirkus describes as “finely written and deeply empathetic, a powerful portrait of artistic commitment and emotional frustration,” Horrocks tells the story of Erik Satie and his siblings, Conrad and Louise. Set in La Belle Époque Paris, The Vexations is a finally wrought, sensitive novel about family and genius, and the toll that genius exacts on family in pursuit of great art. (Adam P.)
The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter: Etter’s first novel, The Book of X, is a “natural extension” of her wild and raucous collection of stories, Tongue Party, which Deb Olin Unferth selected as winner of (the now defunct) Caketrain’s chapbook competition. Told in fragments, The Book of X alternates between the story of the alienated and disfigured Cassie, born with her stomach twisted in the shape of a knot, and her fantasies of an alternate life for herself. Scott McClanahan calls The Book of X “our new Revelation,” while Blake Butler compares Etter’s voice to Angela Carter’s, declaring, “there’s a new boss in the Meat Quarry.” (Anne)
Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky: Emma Straub says Dermanky’s fourth novel is, “her best yet.” If you’ve read Bad Marie and The Red Car, you know the bar is high and that no writer balances on the sharp edge between comedy and tragedy quite like Dermansky. Very Nice weaves several stories together, a wealthy divorcée in Connecticut, her college-age daughter, a famous American novelist, and a poodle, to ask a timely question—how much bad behavior from a bad man can we take? Maria Semple says it best, “so sexy and reads so smooth.” (Claire)
Circus: Or, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes by Wayne Koestenbaum
Poet, literary critic, and all-around cultural polymath Koestenbaum returns with this post-modern, Nabokovian take on creativity, sexuality, classical music, and the circus in his first novel. Drawing on his interests in camp, Queer theory, and the symphony hall, which he’s explored in critical works like The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire and The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, Koestenbaum gives us the evocatively named Theo Mangrove, a polyamorous pianist who fantasizes that the Italian circus performer Moira Orfei will accompany him on his comeback concert in a medieval, walled French city. Koestenbaum’s hallucinatory lyricism lends itself to declaration like “After an intense orgasm we produce voice from our head rather than our chest;” an aphorism every-bit worthy of poet John Shade in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. (Ed)
They Could Have Named Her Anything by Stephanie Jimenez: Fulbright scholar Jimenez returns to her native New York in her first novel They Could Have Called Her Anything. A subway ride from Queens to the Upper East Side will see you take the F train while switching to the 6 or the Q, for an investment of about 45 minutes, but the actual distance between Maria Anis Rosario and her privileged friend Rocky’s life couldn’t be further apart. Jimenez’ debut explores the unexpected friendship between these girls at the elite private school both attend, a world where even though “certain girls at Bell Seminary were intimidated” by Maria, a connection would be made between her and Rocky across the chasms of race and class which define the city. (Ed)
Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch: The first novel from ffitch, the author of the 2014 short story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn, and a longtime environmental activist living in Appalachia, Stay and Fight is both a social protest novel and the moving story of an unusual family. When Lily and Karen’s son is born, they know they’ll have to leave the women-only land trust where they’ve been living. Helen, who homesteads on 20 acres nearby, invites them to join her, and they settle into a new kind of domestic routine. But over the years the outside world edges nearer, threatening both the family and the Appalachian land that supports them. (Kaulie)
Costalegre by Courtney Maum: Maum’s third novel, her follow-up to I Am Having So Much Here Without You and Touch, is a pivot to historical fiction. Set in 1937, Costalegre is about heiress and art collector Leonora Calaway (modeled after Peggy Guggenheim), who bankrolls a group of Surrealist artists to flee Europe for Mexico. The book, narrated by Leonara’s 15-year-old daughter, has received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly; the latter of which called it “a fascinating, lively, and exquisitely crafted novel.” Samantha Hunt says that Maum’s latest is “as heady, delirious and heartbreaking as a young girl just beginning to fall in love with our world.” (Edan)
The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman: Most people probably know Lippman as a bestselling crime novelist, but I was recently introduced to her through Longreads, in her delightfully frank essay “Game of Crones” about being an old mother and staying true to her ambition to write a novel every year. Her latest novel is set in 1960s Baltimore and follows a housewife, Maddy Schwartz, who reinvents herself as a reporter after helping to solve a murder. Maddy becomes involved in another murder case when the body of a young woman is found at the bottom of city park lake. (Hannah)
Knitting the Fog by Claudia D. Hernández: This debut memoir of a young girl’s journey from Guatemala to L.A. weaves together personal essay and bilingual poetry. Described by publisher Feminist Press as “harrowing, candid, complex,” and by Bridgett M. Davis as bringing us “the immigrant experience in a refreshingly new light,” this one promises to be both timely and aesthetically exciting in its hybridity. (Sonya)
Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated by Polly Gannon): With a cast of characters large enough to populate a mid-size village, Ulitksaya delivers an epic, Tolstoyan Russian novel that may just win her some Anglophone fans but surely will impress no one in the Kremlin. For those ready to invest the time (560 pages), her look at the clash of free will and determinism provides a solid enough critique of the tragic, untidy histories of Russia and Ukraine over the last half of the 20th century in a lithe translation by Polly Gannon. (Il’ja)
Turbulence by David Szalay: In the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author’s latest book, 12 people take 12 flights around the world, touching each other’s lives in profound and unpredictable ways. Labeled as a novel but structured as a series of linked stories, Turbulence explores the interconnected nature of human relationships today. In Alex Preston’s review for The Guardian, he describes Szalay as an author “whose curiosity about his fellow humans is boundless.” (Jacqueline)
The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele: A worthy addition to the realm of speculative fiction, this debut novel “imagines what happens after the global economy collapses and the electrical grid goes down.” More than just standard techno-challenged-humanity-rendered-atavistic fare, this is a love story. More accurately, the quest for love and its potential in a world demanding to be rebuilt. (Il’ja)
Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage: Set in 1978 war-torn Beirut, this tragicomic novel follows Pavlov, the son of a recently deceased local undertaker, as he joins the Hellfire Society – a secret group his late father was a member of. Throughout the novel, Hage, the second Canadian to win the prestigious Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, asks what it means to live through war, and what can be preserved in the face of imminent death. In Canada, Beirut Hellfire Society was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction. (Jacqueline)
Say Say Say by Lila Savage: Ella, an artistic grad school dropout turned caretaker, is hired to care for Jill, a woman who’s been left a shell of her old self after a traumatic brain injury leaves her largely nonverbal. But as she watches the dynamic between Jill and her loving husband, Bryn, Ella starts to question her own relationships—and get drawn further into the couple’s. Savage’s debut novel, informed by her own time working as a caretaker, gently digs at the roots of what keeps people together in the face of suffering and loss. (Kaulie)
Shapes of Native Nonfiction edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton: This anthology of essays by Native writers takes the formal art of basket weaving as an organizing theme, so that the authors, who include Deborah A. Miranda, Terese Marie Mailhot, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Kim TallBear, come together to produce something akin to a well-woven basket. Malea Powell writes that the book “offers us nonfiction that reflects, interrogates, critiques, imagines, prays, screams, and complicates simplistic notions about Native peoples and Native lives.” (Jacqueline)
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo: This highly anticipated debut is not about sex but rather about “the heat and sting of female want,” according to author Lisa Taddeo, who spent years criss-crossing the country and conducting thousands of hours of interviews with women about the sources and consequences of their desires. The result is a triptych: a North Dakota woman who is labeled “a freaky slut” for reporting an affair with her high school English teacher; an unfulfilled Indiana wife and mother who reconnects with a high school crush and winds up “a tangle of need and anxiety”; and a Rhode Island restaurateur whose husband picks her partners, then watches them have sex. The book has already been dubbed “an instant feminist classic.” (Bill)
The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger: Ambition, competition, and the fear of behind left out threaten to rip apart the bond between four families who are offered an unexpected chance at getting their kids into an elite school. The Paris Review notes that this satirical takedown of the concept of meritocracy in contemporary America serves as a timely expose of “the hypocrisy of white liberalism” that drives the pursuit of prestige. Caution: sense of humor required. (Il’ja)
The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory: In just two years, Jasmine Guillory has become a New York Times bestselling author and major force (the author of the first romance novel selected for Reese Witherspoon’s coveted book club, for one). Following The Wedding Date and The Proposal, The Wedding Party is one of two novels Guillory has coming out this year—look for Royal Holiday in the fall. (Lydia)
Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno: Kate Zambreno’s Screen Tests is just as ineluctable as the series of short, silent, black-and-white film portraits by Andy Warhol that they’re named after. This too gives a good sense of the book’s structure: a series of short glimpses that look deeply, and often contain autobiographical components or disquisitions. The effect, says Kirkus, is to “spin around like floating objects on an Alexander Calder mobile precariously tied together with ideas and images. Or rather, take Amber Sparks’ assessment: “If Thomas Bernhard’s and Fleur Jaeggy’s work had a charming, slightly misanthropic baby—with Diane Arbus as a nanny— it would be Screen Tests.” (Anne)
A Girl Goes into the Forest by Peg Alford Pursell: Pursell is the founder of the national reading series Why There are Words, as well as the WTAW press, which puts out excellent books each year. Now she publishes a collection of eerie, short (sometimes very short) stories, many of them focusing on themes of mothers and daughters, with themes from folklore and fairytale. Publishers Weekly called the collection “haunting,” “potent,” and “sharp but disturbing.” (Lydia)
What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal by E. Jean Carroll: This is a work of memoir by a woman who was raped by Donald Trump, who is the current President of the United States. A haunting excerpt from the book, with an account of the rape, was published here in The Cut. (Lydia)
Coventry by Rachel Cusk: Cusk’s Outline trilogy—or as I think of it, The Cuskiad—is a masterpiece of modern literature, a formally adventurous exercise in narrative erasure that explores marriage, divorce, family, art, and representation. In her forthcoming essay collection Coventry, Cusk groups these thematic concerns into three sections, broadly: memoir, art, and criticism—although as Publishers Weekly says, the enterprise is bound by “the uses of narrative, particularly for allowing people to make sense of their lives… something Cusk interrogates exceptionally well throughout this well-crafted compilation.” (Adam P.)
The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott: If Scott’s talent didn’t catch your attention with Insurrections, his award-winning debut, he’ll draw even more readers with this second book. Cross River, Maryland, the fictional town of his first book, returns in this new story collection. Scott can shift between irreverent and complex in a single story—a single sentence—as in “David Sherman, the Last Son of God”: “David didn’t believe what his older brother preached and wondered if Delante, who now called himself Jesus Jesuson (everyone, though, referred to him as Jeez), really believed, but he didn’t ask.” Also: all praise to story collections like this one that end with an anchoring novella! (Nick R.)
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino: Tolentino’s essay collection is rangy and deft—nothing is treated superficially here. “I wrote this book because I am always confused,” she says in the introduction, but what follows are ardent and skilled attempts to make sense of the world. She tackles our digital lives (“The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving.”), athleisure and women’s bodies (“These days, it is perhaps even more psychologically seamless than ever for an ordinary woman to spend her life walking toward the idealized mirage of her own self-image”), her evangelical childhood and departure from belief (“Christianity formed my deepest instincts: it gave me a leftist worldview, an obsession with everyday morality, an understanding of having been born in a compromised situation, and a need to continually investigate my own ideas about what it means to be good.”). Also: contemporary scams, her stint on reality TV, and the panoply of nuptials she attends: “My boyfriend maintains a running Google spreadsheet to keep track of the weddings we’ve been invited to together.” (Nick R.)
The Hotel Neversink by Adam O’Fallon Price: The second novel by Adam O’Fallon Price, a staff writer at The Millions, is the rambunctious, ambitious, decades- and generations-jumping tale of the Sikorsky family, who transform an abandoned mansion into the titular jewel of the Borscht Belt. Inspired by Grossinger’s Catskills Resort Hotel, Price uses a revolving cast of narrators to tell a story that is part murder mystery and part ghost story, with a dark secret lurking at its core. The novel asks a chilling question about the children who disappear from the towns and woods around the Hotel Neversink: Are they victims of coincidence, or part of a calculated plot to destroy the Sikorskys? (Bill)
Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat: A collection of eight vigorous, compelling stories provides a storyteller’s insight to how migration to and from the Caribbean affected people’s lives, personalities, and relationships. Lovers, deeply wounded by the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010, strive to reunite; an undocumented construction worker pictures his lover and adopted son in the last minute of his life; the christening of a baby reveals the chasm between the three generation of a family. “No one is immune from pain,” as Kirkus Review puts it, “but Danticat asks her readers to witness the integrity of her subjects as they excavate beauty and hope from uncertainty and loss.” (Jianan Qian)
Doxology by Nell Zink: New York City in the ’90s was not quite the hyper-sanitized playground for the super-rich which parts of it feel like today, with Nell Zink giving us a gritty account of the “worst punk band on the Lower East Side” right at the turn of the millennium. As the halcyon days of the 20th-century’s last decade end, grunge seemingly eclipsed with the falling of the twin towers, Doxology uses the personal and musical travails of bandmates Pam, Daniel, and Joe to investigate our current political and environmental moment. True to the Latin meaning of her title, Zink’s Doxology provides a means of praising God in a world where we’re so often faced with the finality of silence. Doxology, rather, provides the cacophony of punk. (Ed)
Drive Your Plow into the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones): The 2018 International Man Booker prize has done it again, this time with a noir murder mystery that is less whodunnit than it is existential inquiry, namely: what are we here for? The protagonist—Janina Duszejko—is a brilliantly rendered Polish Miss Marple, (sort of) who Tokarczuk has asking the hard questions with art that is subtle and penetrating. And, as it turns out, getting her into a lot of trouble at home, with a hard-right leaning Polish press labeling the book “anti-Christian” and the work of “a traitor.” The film adaptation (Spoor) a couple of years back just about shut the country down. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation from Polish sparkles. (Il’ja)
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom: In 2015, Broom published an essay in The New Yorker about her family’s house in New Orleans that has sat with me since I read it. The piece starts with questions: “In the ten years since Hurricane Katrina, what has plagued me most is the unfinished business of it all. Why is my brother Carl still babysitting ruins, sitting on the empty plot where our childhood home used to be? Why is my seventy-four-year-old mother, Ivory Mae, still unmoored, living in St. Rose, Louisiana, at Grandmother’s house? We call it Grandmother’s even though she died ten years ago. Her house, the only one remaining in our family, is a squat three-bedroom in a subdivision just off the River Road, which snakes seventy miles along the Mississippi, where plantation houses sit alongside grain mills and petrochemical refineries.” The next year, she was a Whiting Fellow, and this year, readers can get their hands on the book, a gorgeous work of memoir and reporting about place and family that feels like the apotheosis of a form. (Lydia)
The Trojan War Museum by Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Apollo wanders through a museum, trying to make sense of war and his own history. A chess-playing automaton falls in love. Dead girls tell the story of a catastrophe and its aftermath. Bucak’s debut story collection is a surrealist wunderkammer in which the lines between history and myth, reality and performance, and the cultural and personal are blurred and redrawn. The result: “narratively precise” stories that “are also beautiful vignettes on human culture, deftly probing the fissures and pressure points of history and bringing up new forms,” writes The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling. (Kaulie)
Inland by Téa Obreht: In 2011, at age 26, Obreht burst onto the literary scene with her first novel The Tiger’s Wife, an inventive, fable-like retelling of the wars that ravaged her native Serbia in the 1990s. Eight years later, Obreht returns with – wait for it – a Western set in the Arizona Territory in 1893. No, we didn’t see that coming, either. Early reviews are rapturous, including one from Booklist that called it “a tornadic novel of stoicism, anguish, and wonder.” Yes, tornadic. (Michael)
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder): Critically acclaimed Japanese writer Ogawa’s new novel takes place in a society where objects disappear and where the terrifying Memory Police pursue citizens who recall the disappeared objects. The protagonist is a young novelist who discovers her editor is in danger and decides to hide him beneath her floorboards. The Memory Police explores trauma, loss, memory, and surveillance, and will astound readers. Chicago Tribune calls it “a masterful work of speculative fiction” and Esquire writes, “Ogawa’s taut novel of surveillance makes for timely, provocative reading.” (Zoë)
The Overthrow by Caleb Crain: A new novel from the author of Necessary Errors, The Overthrow is a romance and a story of relationships set against the backdrop of the Occupy movement, exploring, power, idealism, technology, and the way we forge connections in the dystopian world we’ve created. Keith Gessen calls it “a brilliant, terrifying, and entertaining book…part subtle novel of contemporary manners, part intellectual legal thriller, and part prophetic dystopia: Henry James meets Bonfire of the Vanities.” Sign me up. (Lydia)
The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda: As we read daily of the horrors of detainment camps at the border, poet Brandon Shimoda directs our attention back to a not dissimilar blight in Grave on the Wall. It’s an elegy for Shimoda’s dead grandfather, Midori, who after Pearl Harbor was incarcerated in internment camps despite having lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. Don Mee Choi calls Grave on the Wall “a remarkable exploration of how citizenship is forged by the brutal US imperial forces—through slave labor, forced detention, indiscriminate bombing, historical amnesia and wall.” Shimoda’s remembrance is also for the living, says Karen Tei Yamashita: “we who survive on the margins of graveyards and rituals of our own making.” (Anne)
When I was White by Sarah Valentine: A memoir from the author, translator, and scholar about being raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a white person, only to learn at age 27 that her father was a black man. The memoir explores the painful process of uncovering the past, interrogating the decisions her family made, and reconceiving her own identity. Publishers Weekly calls it “a disturbing and engrossing tale of deep family secrets.” (Lydia)
First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers: Powers’s debut novel is the story of the big lie behind the Soviet space program: They can send manned flights up, they just can’t seem to get them back down. And so they are using twins – one who will touch the face of God and the other who will stay behind on terra firm to make sure there’s an acceptable, Kremlin-approved PR tour afterward if things go badly up in space. Which they inevitably do. Mixing history and fiction, the book isn’t so much about the foibles of geopolitics as it is about one man’s search for truth in a world built on lies. (Il’ja)
White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination by Jess Row: “White flight” typically refers to the movement of white Americans into segregated communities, but in this work of criticism, Row extends the term to literature. Combining memoir as well as literary, filmic, and musical analysis, Row argues for an understanding of writing as reparative, and fiction as a space in which writers might “approach each other again.” Kirkus calls it “wide-ranging, erudite, and impassioned.” (Jacqueline)
The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me by Keah Brown: The cultural narrative surrounding disability has long been overdue for a complete overhaul, and in her debut book, The Pretty One, Keah Brown offers her refreshing, joyful voice to this movement. Brown, a disability rights advocate and creator of the viral #DisabledAndCute campaign, explores aspects of pop culture, music, family, self acceptance, and love in her essays, all the while challenging society’s assumptions of what it means to be black and disabled. (Kate Gavino)
I Heart Oklahoma! by Roy Scranton: Few critics quit understand the implications of our cultural divisions in the warm autumn of the Anthropocene more than University of Notre Dame English professor Roy Scranton. Exploring themes that he’s written about in collections ranging from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization and We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change, Scranton’s second novel returns us to a badly fractured America. A writer named Suzie travels a broken, pre-apocalyptic America that looks very much like our own nation, a place so “highly refined and audacious and dense that nobody care whether it’s bullshit or not.”
When the Plums Are Ripe by Patrice Nganang: The second in Nganang’s trilogy on Cameroon before and during WWII, When the Plums Are Ripe tells the story of the country’s growing involvement in the conflict as the colonized fight to free their colonizer from Axis control. But the book is as much poetry as history, with a structure calling on oral traditions and a poet-narrator who mourns the wounds of war. Publishers Weekly writes that “with lyrical, soaring prose, Nganang… challeng[es] the Euro-written history of colonialism and replac[es] it with a much-needed African one. The result is a challenging but indispensable novel.” (Kaulie)
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons: A story collection rooted in the vastness and contradictions of Texas and composed by an author who refuses to shy away from the strange, ugly, and interesting, Black Light has been described as “Friday Night Lights meets Ottessa Moshfegh.” What more could a reader want, really? (Kaulie)
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi: With racial invective spewed from the Twitterer-in-Chief on down, many white Americans have become increasingly entrenched in their prejudices. Scholar Ibram X. Kendi returns to a subject which he illuminated so well in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,, asking how we avoid both fatalism and despair in imagining what a future, antiracist version of the United States might look like. Kendi’s answers are neither to embrace the myopic obstinacy of “color blindness,” nor the feel-good platitudes of “wokeness,” but rather to acknowledge that the individual responsibility of being antiracist is “an everyday process.” (Ed)
God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America by Lyz Lenz: Lenz—a journalist whose profiles and personal essays are absolute must reads—brings a book that combines memoir and journalism. After the 2016 election, Lenz leaves her Trump-supporting husband and her church—and begins to travel to churches across the Midwest to understand the incomprehensible: faith in today’s America. Publishers Weekly’s starred review called the book a “slim but powerful debut on the faith and politics of Middle America.” (Carolyn)
A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin: This debut novel tells the story of Tunde Akinola’s Nigerian family as they struggle to assimilate in the impossibly foreign world of Utah. As Tunde’s father chases his version of the American Dream and his mother sinks into schizophrenia, Tunde will be forced to spend his childhood and young adulthood seeking elusive connections—through his stepmother and stepbrothers, through evangelical religion, through the black students at his middle school and the fraternity brothers at his historically black college. This is a novel that will force readers to rethink notions of family, belonging, memory, and the act of storytelling. (Bill)
Empty Hearts by Juli Zeh (translated by John Cullen): Set in the near future, this novel, which Kirkus describes as a “thoughtful political thriller with a provocative sense of humor,” tells the story of Britta and Babak, who run an agency that provides suicide bombing candidates to activists/terrorists. In this post-Angela Merkel Germany, their agency provides a needed antidote to both the conservative government takeover and liberals’ passive acceptance of the new order. When two unknown suicide bombers show up in an airport, things get complicated. (Jacqueline)
Hard Mouth by Amanda Goldblatt: NEA Fellow Amanda Goldblatt’s first novel is as bold and unflinching as its title suggests. The book follows suburban Maryland-born and raised Denny as she literally runs away from her grief and inability to confront mortality, that has come in the form of her father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. As she flings herself into the wilderness, Denny is wildly unprepared and accompanied only by her imagination (& her imaginary friend, Gene) in what appears like a slow form of suicide. Goldblatt nails suburban MD ennui, outdoor unpreparedness, gritty sex scenes, and a refutation of sentimentality in what R.O. Kwon calls a “blazing feat of a book.” (Anne)
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates: One of America’s most incisive voices on race and history turns to fiction with a story of a young enslaved man who escapes bondage for the North. Early readers marvel at how Coates manages to interweave a deeply researched portrait of the all-too-real horrors of Southern slavery with sly touches of magical realism. (Michael)
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg: Emma Cline pinpoints Attenberg’s strength, that she writes about death, family, sex, love, with, “a keen sense of what, despite all the sadness and secrets, keeps people connected.” The critically acclaimed and bestselling author’s seventh novel follows the tangled relationship of a family in crisis as they gather together in a sweltering and lush New Orleans. Their father, a power-hungry real estate developer, is dying. Told by alternating narrators, the story is anchored by daughter Alex, who unearths the secrets of who her father is and what he did. This book is, Zachary Lazar says, “another marvel of intelligence, humor, and soul.” (Claire)
Make it Scream Make it Burn by Leslie Jamison: Jamison (The Empathy Exams) credits the poet William Carlos Williams with a sentence that inspired her title: “What the artist does applies to everything, every day, everywhere to quicken and elucidate, to fortify and enlarge the life about him and make it eloquent—to make it scream.” To fortify and enlarge the world through eloquence—apt descriptions of Jamison’s new collection, which begins with the story of 52 blue, “the loneliest whale in the world,” whose existence “suggests not just one single whale as metaphor for loneliness, but the metaphor itself as salve for loneliness”—and ends with “The Quickening,” an essay addressed to her daughter: “Eating was fully permitted now that I was doing it for someone else. I had never eaten like this, as I ate for you.” Another wonderful book from this gifted writer. (Nick R.)
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: At 56, Jacqueline Woodson is moving and shaking in both YA and adult literature realms. Her new adult novel brings together a clash of social classes via an unexpected pregnancy. Another slim, compressed volume à la Another Brooklyn, Red at the Bone moves “forward and backward in time, with the power of poetry and the emotional richness of a narrative ten times its length.” Two words: can’t wait. (Sonya)
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Patchett, who has long straddled the line between literary cred and pop bestsellerdom, follows up her prize-winning 2016 novel Commonwealth with another epic family saga, in this case kicked off by a real estate magnate’s purchase of a lavish suburban estate outside Philadelphia after World War II. Running from the late 1940s to the early 2000s, the novel is billed as “the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness.” (Michael)
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: The much-anticipated follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale, this sequel takes place 15 years after the van door slammed on Offred and we were left wondering what was next—freedom, prison or death? The story is told by three female narrators from Gilead. In a note to readers, Atwood says two things influenced the writing of this novel. First, all the questions she’s been asked by readers about Gilead and, second, she adds ominously, “the world we’ve been living in.” (Claire)
Akin by Emma Donoghue: Donoghue is one of our most versatile writers. She does many things well, including historical fiction, middle grade series, and scripts for screen and stage. Akin, like her international bestseller Room, is positioned as contemporary fiction. It’s about a retired professor who plans to travel to Nice, France to discover more about his mother’s wartime past. Two days before the trip, circumstances mean he must take charge of his potty-mouthed pre-teen nephew. As the pair travel together, they uncover secrets about their family and discover a bond and, as the publisher’s blurb says, “they are more akin than they knew.” (Claire)
Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke: The universe will soon award us with a new Attica Locke novel! Heaven, My Home is the follow-up to Locke’s Edgar Award-winning thriller Bluebird, Bluebird, and it once again centers on black Texas Ranger Daren Matthews. This time, he’s pulled into the case of a missing nine-year-old boy—and the boy’s white supremacist family. The jacket copy declares: “Darren has to battle centuries-old suspicions and prejudices, as well as threats that have been reignited in the current political climate, as he races to find the boy, and to save himself.” Attica Locke is one of the best writers working today, and I cannot wait to read this. (Edan)
Furnace of This World: Or, 36 Observations About Goodness by Ed Simon: Simon, a staff writer at The Millions known for his deep dives into literary and intellectual history, meditates on the nature of goodness across 36 learned, suggestive observations. He calls this project “an artifact of things I’ve lost, things I’ve loved, things I’ve feared, things I’ve prayed for,” and presents it as “the moral equivalent of a Wunderkammer—a ‘Wonder Cabinet’— that is a strange collection of occurrences, theories, philosophies, narratives, and fictions.” This curious object is well worth a look inside. (Matt)
How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together by Dan Kois: A terrible snowstorm can derail a well-planned life, and two feet of snow in one day was “the perfect crucible to reveal how broken our family life was. Our household operated like the nation’s air traffic network: we functioned, but forever on the edge of catastrophe.” Kois is funny and sometimes satirical, but always in service of a great end: the very real lament that family life is “flying past in a blur of petty arguments, overworked days, exhausted nights, an inchoate longing for some kind of existence that made more sense.” Kois and his family actually take the dizzying leap to leave behind their lives for a year—a trek that takes them from New Zealand to Kansas—and the result is a unique book that every overstressed and anxious (meaning = every) parent should read. (Nick R)
The Cheffe by Marie Ndiaye: Goncourt and Femina Prix-winning, French-born and Berlin-based Ndiaye brings us another woman-centered novel, this time about a GFC— Great Female Chef. The story is told from the perspective of a male sous-chef (and unrequited lover), from a perspective years onward. Ndiaye’s work is often described as “hypnotic,” so perhaps add this one to your summer-escape TBR list. (Sonya)
Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker: Award-winning poet Morgan Parker offers a new coming-of-age story featuring a protagonist that just can’t seem to figure it out. From spending her summer crying in bed to being teased about not being “really black” by her mostly white classmates, 17-year-old Morgan can see clearly why she’s in therapy. Parker’s account of teenage anxiety and depression will speak to readers of all ages, and the prose’s mix of heartbreak and hilarity makes it a prime candidate for film adaptation. Are you paying attention, Netflix? (Kate Gavino)
The Divers’ Game by Jesse Ball: In what Publishers Weekly called an “atmospheric, occasionally mesmerizing tale of haves and have-nots,” Ball (Census) returns with a novel about a society that has rejected equality and embraced brutality. Through vignettes, the novel reveals how the world descended into madness. A dystopian tale imbued with empathy, philosophical musings, and questions about compassion, generational trauma, and humanity. (Carolyn)
Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith: Patti Smith started writing this book on the Lunar New Year’s Day in 2016; she carried the project “in cafes, trains and strange motels by the sea, with no particular design, until page by page it became a book,” as she announced in her Instagram. This memoir evolves around the transformations both in her life and the American political landscape. Intriguing, disturbing yet humorous, with the boundary between fiction and nonfiction blurred, Smith’s work is unlikely to disappoint. (Jianan Qian)
Fly Already by Etgar Keret: Keret’s new short story collection offers all the virtues readers have come to expect from the oft-New Yorker-published Keret: intelligence, compassion, frustration with the limits of human communication, and a playfulness that stays on the right side of whimsy. Whether it’s a father’s helpless desire to protect his son, a boy failing to obtain weed to impress a girl, or two people sharing a smoke on the beach, Keret’s deep interest in human connection feels important in our fractured times. As George Saunders says, “I am very happy that Etgar and his work are in the world, making things better.” (Adam P.)
Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Pettina Gappah: A novel of the group of people who carried David Livingstone’s body (along with his papers and effects) 1500 miles so that he could returned to England, narrated by Halima, the expedition’s cook, and a formerly enslaved man named Jacob. Jesmyn Ward writes, “A powerful novel, beautifully told, Out of Darkness, Shining Light reveals as much about the present circumstances as the past that helped create them.” (Lydia)
Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq (translated by Shaun Whiteside): No contemporary French writer has interceded into the current Anglophone imagination quite as completely as Michel Houellebecq. From novels like The Elementary Particles to Submission, the cynical Houellebecq has explored everything from existentialism to sex tourism, through a voice that is simultaneously traditionalist and nihilistic, and critics and readers have argued how seriously we’re to take the reprehensible—racist, mysoginist, Islamophobic, colonialist—positions of the writer or his characters. Serotonin follows Florent-Claude Labrouste, a depressed libertine and former agricultural engineer who eventually rejects psychotropic medication in favor of a sojourn to the cheese-country of Normandy racked by globalization, where he becomes involved in an insurrection which looks very much like the gilets jaunes movement. Even while Houellebecq’s politics can be reprehensible, ranging from embrace of Brexit to denunciations of #MeToo, Serotonin’s observation of a contemporary capitalism where “people disappear one by one, on their plots of land, without ever being noticed” is instrumental in understanding not just France or Europe, but the world. (Ed)
Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting in America by Nefertiti Austin: In her debut memoir, Austin, a single black woman, writes about her journey to adopt a black boy out of foster care. In a recent interview, Austin said, “Ultimately, I wrote Motherhood So White out of necessity. I wanted black mothers who come after me to have multiple perspectives on motherhood, not just the mainstream definition of who gets to be a mom in America. I want white mothers to see black mothers on the page and know that we are all allies in the quest for raising compassionate children.” (Edan)
Doppelgänger by Daša Drndic (translated by S.D. Curtis and Celia Hawkseworth): World Literature Today calls this set of linked stories a “haunting requiem for the soul’s death in the wake of postmodernity.” Translation: Drndic’s trademark absurdist humor and image rich style assure that this slim collection will get the synapses firing. (Il’ja)
Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh: In 2016, Amitav Ghosh published The Great Derangement, which argues that contemporary literary fiction, among other art forms, seems unable to directly confront the scale and impact of climate change. In an article for The Guardian, Ghosh writes, of the extreme weather phenomena caused by climate change, “To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence.” Now, the author of the bestselling Ibis trilogy has written a novel that seeks to make a change in that tradition. Gun Island tells the story of rare books-dealer Deen Datta as he travels from India to Los Angeles to Venice, encountering people who will upend his understanding of himself, the world, and the Bengali legends of his childhood. (Jacqueline)
Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Life changes drastically for 15-year-old Ana, when she is uprooted from the Dominican countryside to New York City’s Washington Heights. An arranged marriage allows her, along with her entire family, to emigrate to America, and Ana is desperate to escape. As she opposes and embraces certain aspects of her new home, she makes difficult decisions between her duty to her family and her own heart. This exciting tale of immigration, love, and independence has been praised by the likes of Sandra Cisneros and Cristina Garcia, making it one of the most anticipated coming-of-age stories of the year. (Kate Gavino)
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie: Quichotte, a middle-aged salesman obsessed with television, falls head over heels for a TV star. Despite the impossible love, he sets off on a roadtrip across the US to prove himself worthy of her hand. Meanwhile, his creator, a middle-aged mediocre thriller writer, has to meet his own crisis in life. Rushdie’s new novel is Don Quixote for our time, a smart satire of every aspect of the contemporary culture. Witty, profound, tender, this love story shows a fiction master at his brilliant best. (Jianan Qian)
The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong: Three women from disparate backgrounds—Ireland, Cincinnati, and Japan—tell the story of one man: Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek author known for his books about Japanese legends and cultures. In this globetrotting, luminous novel, the three narrators offer an honest, contradictory portrait of the man they knew that highlights the social expectations of their gender, race, and class for their time. Like her first novel, The Book of Salt, The Sweetest Fruits leads readers on a sweeping narrative that poses questions about belonging, existence, and storytelling. (Kate Gavino)
Chimerica by Anita Felicelli: A fantastic, fantastical book built around the country of “Chimerica,” wherein a Tamil American trial lawyer is hard at work on a case…which happens to be a defense of a talking lemur come to life. Set in locations ranging from Oakland to Madagascar, Jonathan Lethem calls Chimerica “remarkable…a coolly surrealist legal thriller—in turns sly, absurd, emotionally vivid, and satirically incisive—that shifts the reader into a world just adjacent to our own.” (Read Felicelli’s conversation with Huda al-Marashi at The Millions here.) (Lydia)
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis: In 1977 Uruguay, a military dictatorship crushes dissent and punishes homosexuality, but five queer women manage to find each other and a village on the beach where they’re safe and free, if only for a week at a time. The five call themselves cantoras, women who sing, and for the next three decades their friendships, beach-side refuge, and cantoras identities help the women find the strength to live openly and defiantly, to revolutionary effect. (Kaulie)
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy: The protagonist of Levy’s newest would do well to avoid Abbey Road, where he is hit by a car twice, once in 1998, right before a trip to East Germany to bury his father’s ashes, and once again in 2016. From these two brushes with death, Levy spins one of her typically entrancing narratives, one that, like Hot Milk, explores cross-cultural encounters and the strange, intense, and occasionally monstrous nature of familial ties. (Matt)
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin: The fourth book from Australia’s Tumarkin, whose previous works have been shortlisted for several major literary prizes Down Under, Axiomaticsharply examines how we think about the force of the past on the present in a blend of storytelling, criticism, and meditation. The book spirals out from five axioms—think “Time Heals All Wounds,” “History Repeats Itself,” and “You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice”—to consider stories of struggle, trauma, and the strength of human relationships, creating a new and powerful nonfiction form along the way. (Kaulie)
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste: Mengiste’s debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, chronicled the life of a family during the chaotic last days of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule. The figure of Selassie looms over her second novel, The Shadow King, as well, this time in the 1930s as an orphaned servant Hirut is caught in the clash between the emperor’s troops and Mussolini’s fascist invaders. Mengiste’s work bookends this historic era of Ethiopian life, capturing all the damage and hope of war, with prose Salman Rushdie describes as “brilliant… lyrically lifting history towards myth.” (Adam P.)
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: Emezi’s debut YA novel (following their much-loved Freshwater) sets out to answer a question that plagues every child at some point: Are monsters real, and if they are, do they want to hurt me? The children of the city of Lucille are taught that monsters are imaginary, but when protagonist Jam sees a creature emerge from the previously dead landscape of her mother’s painting, she’s forced to reconsider everything she knows about the world. Soon after, she learns that monsters are targeting her best friend Redemption, which leads her to wonder: How do you stop them if no one believes they exist? (Thom)
The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness by Anne Boyer: I hadn’t thought it possible to write beautifully about chemotherapeutic drugs until I read the excerpt from poet Anne Boyer’s The Undying that was published in The New Yorker. Witness: “Adriamycin, is named for the Adriatic Sea, near where it was discovered. I like to think of this poison as the ruby of the Adriatic, where I have never been but would like to go, but it is also called ‘the red devil,’ and sometimes it is called “‘the red death.’” Boyer’s memoir covers developing breast cancer at 41, her treatment, and her double mastectomy, as well as scrutiny of a capitalist driven medical industry. Boyer’s memoir is a “haunting testimony about death that is filled with life,” according to Kirkus. (Anne)
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry: Fans of the great Irish writer Kevin Barry have reason to rejoice. The prize-winning author of City of Bohane, Dark Lies the Island and Beatlebone is out with a scalding little hotwire of a novel called Night Boat to Tangier. The setup would’ve delighted Beckett. On October 23, 2018, two aged-out Irish drug-runners, Maurice (Moss) Hearne and Charlie Redmon, are sitting in the waiting room of the ferry terminal in the Spanish port of Algeciras. What are they waiting for? Maurice’s estranged daughter. As they wait, the men spin a reverie of past betrayals, violence and romance, with asides on drink, masturbation and the imminence of death. As always with Barry, the writing is slippery, slangy and sinewy, and a pure delight. (Bill)
Rusty Brown by Chris Ware: How long does it take to investigate, narrate, and illustrate an entire consciousness during one half of a typical day? In Chris Ware’s case, almost two decades. Across 350+ pages, Ware’s graphic novel unfolds like a Joycean spin on Grouse County, Iowa, depicting the melancholic, yearning thoughts of Midwestern characters moving through realities shared and cloistered. Doing that at all—let alone in 18 years—is superhuman. (Nick M.)
Find Me by André Aciman: In a most-anticipated list, Aciman’s Find Me may be the most anticipated of all. Set decades after Oliver and Elio first meet in Call Me by Your Name, this novel follows Elio’s father Samuel, who while traveling to Rome to visit his son meets a young woman who changes his life; Elio, a classical pianist who moves to Paris; and Oliver, a New England college professor and family man who yearns to return to Italy. I’m aching to read this and I know I’ll be aching while reading it too. (Carolyn)
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner: The pre-pub blurbs for Lerner’s third novel are ecstatic, with his publisher calling it a breakthrough and Claudia Rankine describing it as “a powerful allegory of our troubled present.” Set in late 1990s Kansas, it centers on a lefty family in a red state. The mother is a famous feminist author; the father, a psychiatrist who specializes in “lost boys.” Their son, Adam Gordon, is a debate champion who unwittingly brings one of his father’s troubled patients into his friend group, to disastrous effect. (Hannah)
Grand Union by Zadie Smith: Grand Union is the first short story collection of Zadie Smith, the award-winning author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man, among others. Ten unpublished new stories will be put alongside with ten of her much-applauded pieces from The New Yorker and elsewhere. Everything, however familiar or small it may seem in daily life, glows in Smith’s brilliant observation. Grand Union is a wonderful meditation on time and place, past and future, identity and the possibility of rebirth. (Jianan Qian)
How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones: A 2014 NBCC finalist for his poetry collection Prelude to Bruise, How We Fight for Our Lives tells Jones’ coming-of-age as a black gay boy and man in the South via prose-poetry vignettes. From the publisher: “Blending poetry and prose, Jones has developed a style that is equal parts sensual, beautiful, and powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze.” (Sonya)
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha: Your House Will Pay is a propulsive and well-plotted novel set in Los Angeles where crime and tension are at an all-time high. In Cha’s narrative that explores race, class, and community in Los Angeles, her characters must confront their histories and truth. Catherine Chung describes Your House Will Pay as “a devastating exploration of grief, shame, and deeply buried truths.” (Zoë)
Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz: In her debut memoir, Jaquira Díaz mines her experiences growing up in Puerto Rico and Miami, grappling with traumas both personal and international, and over time converts them into something approaching hope and self-assurance. For years, Díaz has dazzled in shorter formats—stories, essays, etc.—and her entrée into longer lengths is very welcome. (Nick M.)
The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada (translated by David Boyd): Hiroshima-based fiction writer Hiroko Oyamada has been called one of the most “powerfully strange” new voices to emerge from Japan of late. No surprise then that she cites Franz Kafka and Mario Vargas Llosa as influences. This fall New Directions is publishing The Factory, Oyamada’s first novel to be translated into English, and that was inspired by her experience working as a temp for an auto worker’s subsidiary. The Factory follows three seemingly unrelated characters intently focused on their jobs—studying moss, shredding paper, proofreading documents—though trajectories come together as their margins of reality, and the boundaries between life within and beyond the factory dissolve. (Anne)
Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco: The CDC estimates 1 in 5 women in the U.S. are raped in their lifetimes, but concealed in those conservative, anonymized figures is the mind-bending enormity of 33,000,000 individual women and their stories. In her latest memoir, Jeannie Vanasco shares hers. Remarkably, Vanasco interviews the former friend who raped her 15 years ago, interweaving their discussions with conversations involving her close friends and peers to produce an investigation of trauma, its effects, and the ways they affect us all. “Courageous” is an inadequate word to describe this project, let alone Vanasco herself. (Nick M.)
Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré: le Carré is set to offer his 25th novel since debuting with Call for the Dead back in 1961. And though the territory is familiar—London, a played out spy, a web of political intrigue—there is nothing tired in the author’s indictment of modern life: we are fickle, selfish, dogmatic, narrow minded and too often cruel bastards. The whole lot of us. My advice: if you have been stuck on thought that Le Carré is writing “spy novels” and you don’t like “spy novels”, you need to rethink. There is perhaps no more thrilling chronicler of the human condition working today. His stories are about people with secrets. You know, us. (Il’ja)
False Bingo by Jac Jemc: The unsettling horror that made Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It such an unnerving read has mutated into an uneasiness that infiltrates the everyday lives depicted in False Bingo, Jemc’s second book of short stories. Jemc’s characters are misfits and dislocated, and their encounters often cross the line where fear becomes reality. There’s a father with dementia who develops an online shopping addiction and an outcast mulling over regret as he taxidermies animals. In essence False Bingo is a “collection of realist fables exploring how conflicting moralities can coexist: the good, the bad, the indecipherable.” (Anne)
Reinhardt’s Garden by Mark Haber: Haber, who has been called “one of the most influential yet low-key of tastemakers in the book world,” is about to raise it to up level with the debut of his novel, Reinhardt’s Garden. This absurdist satire follows Jacov Reinhardt and scribe as they travel across continents in search of a legendary philosopher who has “retired” to the jungles of South America. It’s “an enterprise that makes Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo … come off as a levelheaded pragmatist,” says Hernán Díaz. While Rodrigo Fresán calls it “one of those perfect books” on the level of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, or Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. (Anne)
Older Brother by Mahir Guven (translated by Tina Kover): Awarded the Prix Goncourt for debut novel in 2017, Older Brother takes on the Uberization of labor alongside a look at immigration, civil war, and terrorism through the story of two brothers from a French-Syrian family, and their father, a taxi driver whose way of life is utterly at odds with those of his sons. (Lydia)
Last of Her Name by Mimi Lok: In Last of Her Name, the new collection from Chinese author Mimi Lok, the stories’ settings cover a little bit of everything—British suburbia, war-time Hong Kong, modern California—and the diasporic women at the heart of each piece are just as eclectic. The effect is a kaleidoscope of female desire, family, and resilience. “I can’t think of a collection that better speaks to this moment of global movement and collective rupture from homes and history, and the struggle to find meaning despite it all,” writes Dave Eggers. (Kaulie)
The Girl At the Door by Veronica Raimo: Let’s say you fall in love while on vacation. The guy, a professor, seems great. You leave your country and move in with him. You get pregnant. You’re happy. Then: A girl shows up at the door. She’s your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, a former student, with details about a violent, drawn-out affair. What now? That’s the premise of this novel, one that dissects sexual harassment and assault from the point of view of both the professor and his girlfriend. Raimo has published two novels in Italy; this is her English-language debut. (Hannah)
Holding On To Nothing by Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne: This debut novel set in the mountains and hollows of Eastern Tennessee will charm you with its warmth and love for its characters, a cast that includes a dog named Crystal Gale. (Which has to be one of the best pet names in fiction.) The novel centers on Lucy Kilgore, a young woman who was planning to leave small town Tennessee but instead ends up getting shotgun-married to Jeptha Taylor, a bluegrass musician with a drinking problem. With too little money and too much alcohol in their lives, their little family is doomed from the start, but Lucy can’t help trying to hold everyone together. (Hannah)
A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son by Sergio Troncoso: A collection of stories about told from the perspective of a Mexican-American man born to poor parents and making his way through the elite institutions of America. Luis Alberto Urrea calls the book “a world-class collection.” (Lydia)
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Sexton’s first novel, A Kind of Freedom, was on the longlist for the 2017 National Book Award and appeared on a number of year-end best-of lists. The Revisioners, a multigenerational story focusing on black lives in America, begins in 1925, when farm-owner Josephine enters into a reluctant, precarious relationship with her white neighbor, with disastrous results; nearly 100 years later, Josephine’s descendant, Ava, out of desperation, moves in with her unstable white grandmother. The novel explores the things that happen between; the jacket copy promises “a novel about the bonds between a mother and a child, the dangers that upend those bonds.” (Edan)
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: After the runaway and wholly-deserved success of her magnificent short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado returns with a memoir chronicling an abusive relationship. Juxtaposing her personal experience with research and cultural representations of domestic abuse, the book defies all genre and structural expectations. Writer Alex Marzano-Lesnevich writes that Machado “has reimagined the memoir genre, creating a work of art both breathtakingly inventive and urgently true.” (Carolyn)
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: Would you be the nanny to your ex-best-friend’s stepchildren? Yes, really? Okay. What if they were twins? Still with me? What if they exhibited strange behaviors? Still on board? What if they spontaneously caught fire when agitated? Yes? Then you must be the kind of character that only Kevin Wilson can pull off, in this, his third novel that marries the fantastic with the domestic. (Hannah)
Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Chilean writer Nona Fernández is revered as one of the most important contemporary Latin American writers and her novel explores the experience of growing up in a dictatorship and trying to grapple with erasure and truth in adulthood. Daniel Alarcón writes, “Space Invaders is an absolute gem…Within the canon of literature chronicling Pinochet’s Chile, Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders is truly unique.” (Zoë)
The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older: Spanning generations, Older’s latest tells the tale of a family split between New Jersey and Cuba, who grapple with the appearance of their vanished ancestor’s ghost. The ancestor, Marisol, went missing in the tumult of the Revolution, taking with her the family’s knowledge of their painful and complicated past. When Marisol visits her nephew, he starts to learn about her story, which hinges on “lost saints” who helped her while she was in prison. (Thom)
They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears by Johannes Anyuru (translated by Saskia Vogel): Anyuru, a Swedish-Ugandan author, took home the Swedish-language August Prize for Fiction for this tale of authoritarianism and hate in modern Europe. After terrorists bomb a bookstore for hosting a provocative cartoonist, one of the terrorists has a vision of the future she may have brought about. Years later, a psychiatrist goes to visit her in the clinic where she’s been institutionalized, and she informs him she’s a traveler from an awful, dystopian future. As she describes a world in which “anti-Swedish” citizens are forced into a ghetto called The Rabbit’s Yard, the psychiatrist grows convinced that her sci-fi predictions are the truth.
What Burns by Dale Peck: Dale Peck has published a dozen books – novels, an essay collection, a memoir, young-adult and children’s novels – and along the way he has won a Lamda Award, a Pushcart Prize, and two O. Henry Awards. Now Peck is out with something new: What Burns, his first collection of short fiction. Written over the course of a quarter-century, these stories are shot through with two threads that run through all of Peck’s writing: tenderness and violence. In “Not Even Camping Is Like Camping Anymore,” for instance, a teenaged boy must fend off the advances of a five-year-old his mother babysits. And in “Bliss,” a young man befriends the convicted felon who murdered his mother when he was a child. Tenderness and violence, indeed. (Bill)
White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson: Scholar and writer Lauren Michele Jackson, who has written many incisive essays on popular culture and race for Vulture and elsewhere, now publishes her first book, an in-depth exploration of the way white America continues to steal from black people, a practice that, Jackson argues, increases inequality. Eve Ewing says of the book: “We’ve needed this book for years, and yet somehow it’s right on time.” (Lydia)
Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne): A writer and director dubbed the “wild child of French literature” by The Guardian, Despentes has been a fixture on the French, and global, arts scene since her provocative debut, Baise-Moi. Translated by Frank Wynne, this first in a trilogy of novels introduces us to Vernon Subutex, a louche antihero who, after his Parisian record shop closes, goes on an epic couch-surfing, drug-fueled bender. Out of money and on the streets, his one possession is a set of VHS tapes shot by a famous, recently deceased rock star that everyone wants to get their hands on. (Matt)
The Fugitivities by Jesse McCarthy: The debut novel from McCarthy, Harvard professor and author of essays destined to be taught in classrooms for years to come (among them “Notes on Trap”), The Fugitivities takes place in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Brazil, with Parisian interludes. The novel explores the collision of a teacher in crisis with a basketball coach yearning for a lost love, carrying the former on a journey that will change everything. Of The Fugitivities, Namwali Serpell writes “In exquisite, often ecstatic, prose, McCarthy gives us a portrait of the artist as a young black man—or rather, as a set of young black men, brothers and friends and rivals.” (Lydia)
Jakarta by Rodrigo Márquez Tizano (translated by Thomas Bunstead): A man and his lover are trapped in a room while a plague ravages the city in this “portrait of a fallen society that exudes both rage and resignation.” Tizano fashions an original, astonishing, and terrifyingly unhinged dystopia in this, his debut novel. Thomas Bunstead adds to an impressive resumé with a seamlessly literary and peppery translation from the Spanish. (Il’ja)
Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer: Not all writers can make you feel human emotions about ectoplasmic goo, but not all writers are Jeff VanderMeer. In his latest spin-off from Borne and The Strange Bird, VanderMeer again invites us to the hallucinatory ruins of an unnamed City, beshadowed by the all-powerful Company, and rife with all manners of mysterious characters. Fish, foxes, and madmen, Oh my. (Nick M.)
Trees tell time when they cease to live. Concentric bands show up clean and countable, the index of so many wet and dry seasons past, but only when the end has been determined, when no more rings will be added. The tree is always recording, but it takes chopping it down to render the story legible, to make counting count for us. Dendrochronology—the science of studying time by way of trees—is a postmortem practice encircled by beginnings and endings.
We need an end to make sense of what came before. This, according to Frank Kermode’s classic study of literature The Sense of an Ending (1967) is what makes apocalyptic narratives so appealing: An ending provides the frame in which to plot out our concerns. Feeling ourselves on the way to something is infinitely preferable to being simply out here, somewhere. It is partly this “sense of an ending” that makes climate change so difficult to conceptualize and to confront in narrative terms. Climate change, after all, should not be thought of in terms of an end but rather on the order of many ends, ends with varying temporalities and which will unevenly affect life distributed around the globe along different axes of power and privilege. Disaster movies notwithstanding, climate change poses what literary critic Rob Nixon calls a “representational challenge” to narrative. We need new narrative modes, Nixon says, for registering the “slow violence” of environmental collapse, the many endings resistant to—or unavailable to—attention-grabbing denouement. At least one major critic and novelist, Amitav Ghosh, has argued that this task is anathema to literary fiction all together. Climate change, Ghosh argues in The Great Derangement, is beyond the conventional novel form.
Yet the Anthropocene, one of the most important terms to emerge from recent discussions regarding climate change, attempts to overcome this narrative impasse. However one feels about the term—disagreements abound regarding when it started, about what we should really call it instead, and about whether it is a geological epoch at all—the notion of the Anthropocene tries to force in some of the narrative parameters that we so crave. As many have pointed out, the Anthropocene suggests not only a beginning to the human story but also—projecting forward—an end. The qualifications for a geological epoch indicate that a scientist should be able to discern the stratigraphic rock boundaries of the discrete period in question. Because every epoch previous to the current Holocene began and ended long before humans existed—and because the Anthropocene itself is still in formation—we are for the first time tasked with considering an open rather than closed chapter in the book of the earth. As historian of science Robert V. Davis explains, if the Anthropocene is to be accepted, it is only because, in the future, “retrospection will show the present as having been shaped geologically by man.” The many smaller ends of climate change slip past our narrative conventions, but the Anthropocene promises—however bleakly—that the end is foreseeable, at least from some future finality looking back. This despite the fact that, as philosopher Claire Colebrook points out, there may be no humans left to do the looking.
Some of the strongest material evidence for the Anthropocene comes from studies of ice core samples, but at least one instance of dendrochronology helps make sense of the epoch’s strangely anticipatory narrative logic. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) depicts film’s most famous scene of tree ring reading by way of perhaps the world’s most famous species of trees. Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) and Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) travel north from San Francisco to the John Muir forest, where they stand amidst Redwoods. When asked by Scottie what she is thinking, Madeleine responds, “Of all the people who have born and died while the trees went on living.” Scottie responds professorially: “Their true name is Sequoia sempervirens, always green, ever living.” “I don’t like them,” Madeleine says. “Why?” “Knowing I have to die,” she answers. The pair walk from the living trees to a nearby cross section of a tree that is suspended by a sign, a “Redwood round.” The camera pans across the tree cross-section slowly enough for us to read the white flags which mark historical events at various rings: “1215 Magna Carta Signed,” “1776 Declaration of Independence,” etc. At this point a swell of eerie music prepares us for what Madeline says next, as she reaches her hand to the wood. Pointing to one and then another ring just inside the inner edge of the round, she says, “Somewhere in here I was born, and here I died. It was only a moment for you, you don’t notice.”
Madeleine’s seemingly absurd statement works within the complex plot of the film: In short, she is possessed by a long-dead ancestor, and so this idea that she—inhabited by a past personality—can point to rings indicating both her birth and death makes a sort of spooky sense. Hitchcock certainly had other things in mind, but we might consider Madeleine’s words as the pronouncement necessitated by the projective schema of the Anthropocene. Here we humans were born, and here we died. She stands at the vantage of the future which looks back to read the opening and closing of homo sapiens as it is scored into the planet. We have come and gone; the trees and their story of us remain. This, after all, is what Madeleine feels so poignantly: all the people who died as these trees, impassive but watchful, continued to live. The Anthropocene invites us, like Madeleine, to see our existence bounded in a time that trees, the planet—the tellers of the story—surpass. Standing poised over the containing record, we see the story entire. The tree thus acts as a partially satisfying symbol and harbinger of a distant future end, a seeming permanence against which our narratives can unfold.
The cover of Richard Powers’s new novel The Overstory (2018) superimposes rings radiating outward atop what appears to be a Redwood forest. Each ring contains a different time: from day to night to day, and seemingly across years, too, as the small figures on horseback suggest. That The Overstory is about both trees and time is perhaps the simplest thing one could say about this environmental epic. Powers follows close to a dozen distinct storylines across centuries. Trees are characters alongside the people who form these multigenerational sagas—sagas that, by the novel’s conclusion, connect and blend. Forest ecology is an explicit focus of much of the novel—especially as focalized through Patty Westerford, an ecologist whose fictional The Secret Forest is a nod to the real-life The Hidden Life of Trees, by forester Peter Wohlleben. But even when characters aren’t musing over or discussing the life of the forest, the novel reinforces on the level of form the sense that trees offer profound testament to duration and interconnection.
Trees testify to a life both older and stranger than any we commonly perceive, and The Overstory is largely an experiment in scrambling—or splicing, in botanical terms—temporal orders: What happens when trees bend to the whims of human time? Usually, the novel suggests, they break, or are broken, at which point we are able to observe time, and thus ourselves amid the rings. This, the novel insists, is what is happening in the age of environmental catastrophe: Trees and the planet they sustain are forcefully sped up to our pace, a doomsday clock, and we are confronted by the repercussions in the downed wreckage that follows. But how does human life look and feel when put in terms of old growth and legacy trees? More expansive than we can easily imagine, it turns out. Good fodder for Powers, who, as Jeff Karnicky explains in his review of the novel, “Tree Time,” has the uncanny ability to build an entire narrative world around a single prevailing motif.
Powers keeps tree rings always in mind as the novel moves forward, with small images of tree cross-sections adorning chapter and section breaks. Throughout, too, various characters refer to and reflect on tree rings, whether in conducting actual dendrochronological research (as in the case of the ecologist character) or when thinking—as in Vertigo—of all the events that transpired at various points in a given tree’s ring record (a historic flood, a father’s death). Poignant in relation to Madeleine’s words in the Muir Woods is one haunting scene that closes a major section of the novel. Nick, the artist figure of the novel, returns home to a scene of tragedy, of death, which he immediately flees:
Nick blunders through the front door, trips down the porch steps, and falls into the snow. He rolls over in the freezing white, gasping and reviving. When he looks up, it’s into the branches of the sentinel tree, lone, huge, fractal, and bare against the drifts. All its profligate twigs click in the breeze as if this moment, too, so insignificant, so transitory, will be written into its rings and prayed over by the branches that wave their semaphores against the bluest of Midwestern winter skies.
Passive and watchful, the tree—a “sentinel”—is the permanence under which the little human dramas unfold.
This is the way it should be, Powers suggests: Human stories mix, meander, and sputter in the understory of a larger life always proliferating above our heads, rooted sprawling under our feet. It is our poverty of imagination that keeps us dull to this life. A voice seemingly belonging to a tree—or to all trees, perhaps—makes this clear in the opening page: “All the ways you imagine us—bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal—are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.” On the scale of civilization, missing the half of it means we will “lose by winning” the war against nature and necessity, as one characters puts it. Towards the end of the novel, Powers actually uses one character to explain this problem in terms of the novel form itself. Ray Brinkman is in bed, his permanent place since a stroke that laid him low dozens of pages before. He listens to his wife read him books, working through “The Hundred Greatest Novels of all Time.” All of Powers’s characters are cognizant to some degree of the impending direness of environmental collapse, and Ray is no different. These thoughts follow him even into his interaction with books, which he understands to be fundamentally limited and limiting. “To be human,” Ray thinks:
is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.
It is difficult to know where Powers stands in relation to this statement. Is The Overstory a book-length refutation of Ray? Does Powers claim that a novel—this novel—can in fact do what Nixon wants and also accomplish what Ghosh says is beyond the scope of literary fiction? That is, can a novel render legible and compelling “life” as “mobilized on a vastly larger scale”? Or does this moment in The Overstory betray the novelist’s own doubts about his project? Is Ray the puncturing problem that Powers feels is always there, nagging? Whatever the case, the novel asks us to consider whether novels can indeed impress the overstory.
In a recent interview, Powers cited Ursula K. Le Guin as inspiration for his environmental epic. He has in mind her classically environmental fiction—specifically, the novella The Word for World is Forest (1972). This science fiction shares with Powers an interest in confronting human concerns with the sublime expanse of forest ecology. Like The Overstory, Le Guin’s story wends conventional characters together with rooted ecologies more complex, interdependent, and surprising than anything we ambulatory beings can grasp. (Powers may also be thinking of Le Guin’s wonderfully weird “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” which expands on the sublimity of plant power in ways that I will not spoil here.)
It makes sense for Powers to see in The Word for World an important predecessor to The Overstory, but given the centrality of trees, the more important comparison is actually a lesser-known piece of fiction by the late great Le Guin. “The Direction of the Road” (1974) is a “tale” in Le Guin’s preferred fantastical sense of the term. Collected recently in The Unreal and the Real (2012), one of a two-volume set of collected works from Saga Press, the tale spans a mere seven pages, yet it asks the same questions that animate Powers’s 500-plus-page tome. But in asking the same questions, Le Guin’s tale comes to substantially different conclusions.
Much like The Overstory, “The Direction” is an exercise in point of view. While Powers begins with a tour de force opening from the perspective of a tree/trees only to then affix to human concerns, Le Guin’s entire story is narrated by a tree. But Le Guin lets us figure this out on our own through the first few pages. We get to know the tree: proud, dutiful, a bit inflexible and wooden, perhaps. The tree tells of its long life, its watchful stance over a century that sees horses give way to automobiles give way to traffic. Throughout, Le Guin plays a trick with relativity and perception in a way that I will let you explore on your own. (The provocation: How might a tree—a rooted tower—see the world? As she herself explains of her process in David Naimon’s recent Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, this is quintessential Le Guin. Change one rule, one significant parameter, and explore the repercussions all the way down.)
As usual, however, the most important moment of the tale arrives at the end. A car on the bustling road beside the tree smashes into its trunk. We might expect that the tree is done for, is mangled beyond recovery, a minimalist drama of the collision course we’ve set the warming planet on. This may have been the finale in the hands of a lesser writing. But for Le Guin the point is—as usual—almost completely the opposite of the expected. In the moment before the car makes contact, the driver looks up at the tree, and the tree feels itself seen in a wholly new and unwelcome way. “He saw me under the aspect of eternity,” the tree tells us. “He confused me with eternity. And because he died in that moment of false vision, because it can never change, I am caught in it, eternally.” The driver dies, and in his final moment, he makes the tree eternal, an injustice it can hardly bear, a cruelty it objects to passionately. “Eternity is none of my business,” the tree bemoans:
I am an oak, no more, no less. I have my duty; I have my pleasures, and enjoy them, thought they are fewer, since the birds are fewer, and the wind’s foul. But, long-lived though I may be, impermanence is my right. Mortality is my privilege. And it has been taken from me.
The tree is barely scathed. It is left standing, as if a permanent, unshakeable part of the landscape. And this is the tragedy.
The Overstory is about the human inability to comprehend “tree time,” to borrow Karnicky’s phrase, a scale of hundreds if not thousands of years, and about the death of trees that follow in the wake of this continuing and perhaps inevitable misunderstanding. Joining Madeleine in Muir Woods, The Overstory suggests that we see in dead trees the catastrophe in full, written in rings as if having already occurred. Le Guin’s tale, on the other hand, is about a tree that demands the dignity of death. In the Anthropocene, a tree that clings to “impermanence” as a “right” is a reminder that the very idea of permanence is human. Powers makes of trees a would-be permanence felled low by human hubris, but Le Guin suggests exactly the opposite—that it is our misunderstanding that makes of trees a permanent fixture in the first place. Le Guin’s tale is an elegant reminder that the tidiness of the end—as if final and absolute—exists nowhere but in our collective desires.
A problem as overwhelming as climate change would seem to require the complexities of the long-form novel. We need not just characters but generations of characters; not just arcs but intersecting webs. Powers provides all of this and more, and there is much to commend in his remarkably synoptic and sprawling masterpiece. The Overstory is a deftly choreographed weave of human stories overshadowed and branched in extensive canopy. But even with this achievement in mind, Le Guin’s compact fable tugs as a necessary critique. Telling stories about the timelessness of trees risks forgetting that death is, of course, a natural part of life, even in the Anthropocene. There’s something in the comparative simplicity and compactness of Le Guin’s tale that insists on a perspective we hardly stop to accept, a voice lost amidst the din of our clamoring narrative needs. In our eagerness to find the end where there are only ends, the tree is made subordinate to a human story that is thereby circumscribed that much tighter.
The novel form has been pronounced dead by more critics through time than perhaps any other art form, and we will not further challenge its seemingly eternal, vampiric existence here. But even as the novel should continue to play an important (if vexed) role in addressing climate change through narrative, we would do well to hear the still, strange voice of an oak tree that has not yet died but hopes to do so, perhaps one day soon. This tree has something to say:
If they wish to see death visibly in the world, that is their business, not mine. I will not act Eternity for them. Let them not turn to the trees for death. If that is what they want to see, let them look into one another’s eyes and see it there.
For many in my generation, living and breathing amidst the colonial ruins and ebbing pride of Calcutta, Amitav Ghosh was the first writer in English to write about the everyday life that we lived. The first writer to write of the streets we took, the bookstores we shopped in, the distinguished poverty we lived in, in the language in which we weren’t accustomed to reading of these things.
His life and mine began mere miles apart. But he, with his Booker near-misses, his Oxford doctorate, his immersive prose and me with my lying on a bed and staring at the ceiling fan, have had rather parallel lives.
When I first touched his The Shadow Lines, I did not know who he was. I was 15 years old, it was a summer afternoon and I was rummaging in the one room of the attic of our rented home that held all our stuff. The book had no cover and its first 12 pages were missing. It lay open, underneath things that had been moved from house to house as we moved along with them.
It had been hurriedly put down. I imagined an aunt or an uncle reading it and then being called away. I imagined her shoving the book into the last box, assured that she would open it in the new house soon. I imagined the boxes getting comfortable in the rented rooms that grew increasingly smaller, and us losing the need to open those that held non-essential things. In 1945, my young grandparents had walked from what is now Bangladesh to what is now Bengal, as the British prepared to partition India. Since then, till about 2007, our family lived in one rented home after another. In its crowded home in a cardboard box, where it shared space with terra cotta dolls, Bengali translations of The Rig Veda, and the blankets that were meant to cushion blows to the fragile things, The Shadow Lines, with its dog ears and its maddening old smell, was the very Calcutta refugee that it speaks of in its own pages.
I read with the joy of a reader who had so far only read the English literature of the English. Ghosh was not writing the Calcutta of the colonisers, the Calcutta of the north with its lofty crumbling houses belonging to the Queen’s viceroys and their good friends; he was writing the south Calcutta where I lived, the south Calcutta where refugees from Bangladesh—like my grandparents had been and like the narrator’s grandmother had been—landed.
I did not know what a seminal text it had already become in postcolonial literature as I read it, but I remember the first feeling of oneness. Delirious, I wrote to Ghosh through the “Contact” page on his website. “I have been forever changed thanks to your book. My own grandmother is the same woman you have spoken of in Shadow Lines. [And then, in a leap of audacity] I have to ask you if you once had a grandmother who was like this.” Ghosh replied, “Dear Soumashree, thank you for writing to me. I am happy that the book resonated with you.”
The door to the dark underbelly of joy at an author’s acknowledgement had been opened.
As that summer gave way to the next, the newspapers filled with previews of Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, the first in his Ibis trilogy. By then I had read three more books by Ghosh—The Hungry Tide, The Calcutta Chromosome, and Dancing in Cambodia—and he had become one of the writers whom I would regard as a personal literary trainer.
On July 10, 2008, I was browsing a bookstore in a south Calcutta mall when I noticed that Sea of Poppies was to be released on that evening by Ghosh himself. It was mid-afternoon then and the book release was scheduled at 7 p.m. Seven p.m. was also exactly the hour at which my mathematics tutor would arrive at my house. I went home and fell prostrate at my mother’s two feet.
My mother, the staunch disciplinarian, told me that not only was I allowed to cook up a story for my absence at the math class, but that she would come with me to the book release too.
The sun set on the glorious day and my mother and I caught a yellow taxi to go to the mall. On the way, I called my math teacher.
“Miss, I am very sorry, but I will be a little late today.”
“Why, what is the matter?”
“It is my eye, miss, I have had to come to the doctor.”
“What happened to your eye?”
“My left eye has developed a blind patch. I cannot see through the patch, though my vision is okay for the rest of the eye.”
“Oh. Okay. Yes, sure. Absolutely.”
We arrived on time and just as I was paying for the book, Ghosh entered the bookstore with his wife, the writer Deborah Baker. He looked tired, his shoulders drooping, but who cared, this was the first time I was seeing a writer I had loved in the flesh.
There was a short reading from the book, and as the compere read out an exchange from one of the first few pages of the hardcover, Ghosh stared into the distance with a frown on his face.
At last, the crowd was asked to queue for the signings. Ghosh rummaged in his pocket for a second and brought out a metal pen. The stage was set.
I noticed that everyone was saying something to Ghosh to which he was gently nodding and responding to. I briefly mulled over the line, “The character Mangala Bibi from The Calcutta Chromosome still wakes me up at nights,” but decided against it, in what was singularly the only occasion where I have looked before I leapt.
The woman in front of me spelt her name out for him, “J-I-N-I-A.”
“Oh, what a beautiful name, is there a particular reason behind it?” asked Ghosh.
“I don’t know, my father just like the flower I think,” she said.
“Oh, haha,” said Ghosh.
“Can you mention the date, please, sir?” she said.
“Of course, of course.”
Next was I. Before Ghosh even opened to the page, I had said, “Good evening, sir, my name is Soumashree. S-O-U-M-A-S-H-R-E-E” in one breath.
Ghosh looked wearily at me and then said, “S-O-U?”
In two seconds it was over. So I clutched at the only straw available.
“Sir, can you put in the date please, sir?”
He had already closed the book.
“Thank you so much.”
I returned to my mother, standing at a distance, brandishing the book half expecting people in the mall and on the streets to come running up to me to check out the signed copy. Once home, I ambled into my room where my teacher was hunched over the table, asleep.
“How do you feel?” asked miss.
“Much better,” I said and sighed.
I read Sea of Poppies, turning often to the first signed page. It was rich and homely—a Bengali book written in English.
Exactly two years later, on the same day, I would enter my university’s famed English department. Once inside, I read Amitav Ghosh with renewed vigour in classes where The Hungry Tide was taught with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, where passages of In an Antique Land made our professor’s voice quiver, and where The Shadow Lines returned in classes devoted to the larger narrative of nation formation and rupture.
I was deep into the tumult of daily college life when the second part of the Ibis trilogy, River of Smoke, was upon us in 2011. This book, too, was to release in the same bookstore at the same mall. This time, I noticed from the newspaper ads that Ghosh was to speak in at least three other city venues during the concentrated time period in which he was stopping at Calcutta while touring the country with the book.
It had rained heavily on the day, and when I reached the bookstore after a robust fight with my boyfriend, it was entirely full. Ghosh would be in conversation with the maverick Rimi B. Chatterjee—a novelist and my writing professor at university. This time I knew most of the crowd assembled. Classmates, professors, lecturers, friends who studied literature in other colleges, and my boyfriend all milled about in a spirit of great celebration while we waited for Ghosh.
He eventually arrived, looking tired. A classmate whispered, “I almost feel bad that he has to sign so many copies now.” A discussion ensued. A more lively and interactive one than the one in 2008, but a discussion which Chatterjee had to repeatedly maneuver back to the topic of the book, thanks to the garrulous Calcuttan’s natural inclination to begin a long, winding lecture whenever a microphone is handed to him. At the end of a young man’s nervous but long-winded account of how he felt Ghosh should have navigated the boatman’s experience in The Hungry Tide better, the audience had grown agitated and murmured dissent. Ghosh was unperturbed. He had a slight frown but he thanked the man for his opinion and answered him at length.
When the magic hour of the book signings arrived, the bookstore staff handed us small pieces of paper.
“Write your name on it.”
I willingly wrote all 16 letters of my full name on it before realizing that the paper was to act as reference for Ghosh as he signed our names on the books. They would speed the process and eliminate the ordeal of him having to figure out the hurriedly announced spellings of our names over the din.
When my turn came, I handed him the paper and he unquestioningly wrote down my whole name on the book. I remember thinking if he remembers writing the same name down years ago, and then thinking of all the names that he has had to write in the meantime.
“Do you study in college?” he abruptly asked.
“I…yes,” I stammered, looking around wildly for a professor to substantiate this.
“Oh. Where?” Ghosh asked.
“At Jadavpur,” I barely replied.
“Oh. Good,” said Ghosh, looking in Chatterjee’s direction, acknowledging my need to have a professor verify my presence.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Well, thank you,” he replied.
I showed my boyfriend the book. The next morning, we spotted ourselves in photographs of the book release that were published in newspapers.
Time flew, I got two degrees in English literature and moved to Bangalore to work as a journalist for the tabloid pages of an English daily. Tabloid it was, but within its pages, headlined by only the most conventionally beautiful of women, it had detailed theatre reviews, culture pages, and no fewer than a weekly 1,000 words devoted to literature. I did not like my job and its only perk was these book and theatre stories that we got to write. I wrote these with a lot of vigor, but as a new entrant into the city’s tabloid circle, I never quite got into the groove of receiving the first promotional email of any event and was routinely beaten to the juicy book reviews and theatre previews by my colleagues.
One Wednesday in June 2015, my boss suddenly asked, “Do you want to interview Amitav Ghosh day after tomorrow?”
“His Flood of Fire is releasing and I had not noticed the email,” she said. “I will forward it to you. Make sure you read some of his work before going.”
I festered in silence. The email entered my inbox. I called the contact it mentioned at Penguin Random House, Ghosh’s publisher.
“It’s a bit late in the day, isn’t it?” she said.
“I know, but I was just delegated the interview,” I said.
“Take this guy Varun’s number. He’s in charge of the interviews,” she said.
I called this guy Varun.
“Your newspaper’s Chennai office is doing an interview for the national Sunday page review already,” he said.
“I was hoping to speak with him about his particular experience of Bangalore,” I lied.
“Well, that’ll be difficult. Amitav is not doing very well, he is rather ill, so even if I could have squeezed you in under normal circumstances, I don’t think I’ll be able to do that now,” he said.
I almost laughed in relief.
“I understand. Please give him my best.”
“Thanks a lot for being so easy to convince, Soumashree. Please do come at the book launch event.”
“Oh sure, I will.”
The pressure lifted. What questions could I frame for a 10-minute long interview with Ghosh? What questions need one ask the custodian of one’s literary consciousness?
The next day, I went to the boss and told her that we had missed securing a slot in a day’s interactions with Ghosh.
“Do try to go for the evening launch tomorrow, though,” the editor said.
I opened the email again and stared at the location. It was in an atrium at a five-star hotel at the center of the city. Having edited the “Party” pages of the newspaper and attended one too many nightly events where Bangalore’s “it” crowd converged to be photographed, I knew immediately what kind of evening this would be. A staple crowd would turn up to be photographed, they would make small talk and disperse like they dispersed in every other party, no matter what the occasion.
Ghosh had passed from the ambit of mall store book releases into the “entry by invitation only” exclusivity. This was no bookstore. This launch would have no crowd of talkative people so neck-deep in the ethos of Hungry Tide that they forget that there is an audience around them. I was livid. I did not go.
A day later, the lifestyle editor of our newspaper told us that Ghosh was extremely polite and had signed all her books with great courtesy.
“He is a Bengali, like you. Have you read anything by him?”
I raged in silence at a writer climbing the last step of impenetrability and moving out of the reach of the people—his people. How dare the Ghosh of the attic afternoons, the Ghosh whose Burma reflected the one my father spent the best three years of his life, the Ghosh who wrote characters like the softly rebellious Tridib whom we find in every single Bengali home…how dare he betray the shared smallness of our Calcutta to the in-your-face prosperity of Bangalore.
Does the literature that rises from Calcutta belong to the city alone? Yes, I told myself.
I was ashamed even then of feeling this way. But while the likelihood of Ghosh himself announcing that he would like to have a book launch at a hotel instead of a bookstore was pretty slim, I seethed and vowed never to buy this third book.
In 2016, I moved back to Calcutta to work on my own novel. And that year, Ghosh released The Great Derangement. Every publication brought out an interview. I purchased all the magazines that had them. Eventually, I saw a circulating flier on Facebook saying Ghosh would come to a discussion at my university. “All were welcome.”
Events and talks follow a particular tradition at my university. At any given day, somewhere on the campus, a crowd would form around a world-famous academic, leader, writer, or performer visiting then. And the great thing about the crowd was that it was never limited to the students and teachers of the relevant department or even the university. The gates were open to all, all events were open to all.
I reached the hall on a sunny afternoon and could barely open the door enough to slip in. It was entirely full. Ex-students, researchers, professors, ex-professors, organizers, absolute strangers, and current students occupied every inch of the floor and sweated through the air conditioning. Some of the seat handles even had a student on it, crouching low, so as to not obstruct the view of the people behind him or her. The windowsills were occupied. Three people sat on the small bench meant for the sound guy. I sat down on the floor, along with nearly 30 others. Ghosh sat relaxed, and then took out his smartphone and took a photograph of us.
He was in conversation with a professor of comparative literature and one of oceanography. With all the laughter, the effortless discussion, and the way Ghosh referred to how much he had enjoyed an earlier talk at Jadavpur University—a talk in 2008, on the same day when he had gone to the bookstore where I would first see him—he was making amends for releasing Flood of Fire in a swank hotel. The microphone faltered, the room grew hot, but the deep conspiracy of a summer afternoon on Calcutta was at work once again. The writer was ours once again, putting a lid on my jealousy.
Amitav Ghosh would later tweet the photograph of the event. I am there.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
No novel has entranced me this year like the French author Mathias Énard’s Compass, short-listed for the 2017 Booker Prize. Énard, a writer with tremendous empathy for his characters, both as individuals, and also as contextualized individuals embedded within contemporary geopolitical conflicts—the book is dedicated on the last page “to the Syrian people”—writes what ostensibly seems a didactic treatise on the world of orientalist academics. The protagonist, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist whose dreamscape and memories over the course of one sleepless night populate the entirety of the text while taking us through both Eastern and Western lands: Vienna, where Franz lies on a sickbed in the present, to Aleppo, Tehran, Damascus, Paris, and Istanbul, to which Énard pays special attention as the historic “conduit” between Europe and Asia. As Franz dreams restlessly about the woman he loves— another orientalist scholar, Sarah, a historian, whose polyglot prodigiousness on all things worldly and otherworldly pays homage to all forms of scholarship—Compass emerges as both a technical and scholarly feat as well as a love letter to the “Orient” and a rebuke to the fiction of its otherness.
In amusingly familiar academic segues we can see, through Franz, what Sarah might write about: a fanciful article entitled “On the Cosmopolitan Fates of Magical Objects,” Franz imagines (probably accurately) as a title for an article that Sarah would write to show “how these objects are the result of successive shared efforts…that Orient and Occident never appear separately, that they are always intermingled, present in each other, and that these words—Orient, Occident—have no more heuristic value than the unreachable destinations they designate.” Énard’s brilliance is as self-evident as it is comical: Where else but in the idiosyncratic exchanges of academics could we ruminate on such grand ideas through the study of genie lamps and flying carpets? Through Franz’s one-night journey through memory, we meet quirky Egyptologists, composers, writers, archaeologists, philosophers, even charlatans; many of whose stories, whether they physically featured in Franz’s life or not, peter out in a tale of heartbreaking fits and starts. Franz and Sarah’s own story is, predictably, no less sad.
I have been in awe of Énard’s gifts since Street of Thieves, during which I marveled at the empathy with which he treated his Moroccan protagonist, Lakhdar, a young man who travels from Tangier to Tarifa and finally, Barcelona, haunted by an Islamist bombing he had minor involvement in and his excommunication from his family, but assuaged by his love for literature and art: Ibn Battuta and Naguib Mahfouz, the familiar beauties of Tangier and the exotic newness of Barcelona. In Compass, Énard ostensibly faces less of a challenge writing a protagonist with whom he shares at least some cultural sensibilities (although obsessed as Franz is with the appropriation of Oriental music on European composers from Franz Liszt to Hector Berlioz to Ludwig van Beethoven, all of whom get several fascinating pages of description, we shouldn’t minimize the author’s feat: to my knowledge Énard is not an ethnomusicologist), even as the ghost of Edward Said hangs insistently over the orientalist scholars’ cerebral quibbling.
Books like these give me an unerring hope in the human capacity to reach out to an unknown self and try, with meticulous research, observation, erudition, but principally with empathy, to understand a self distinct from one’s own. When I first began to read Compass, I had just begun writing another short story of my own: the first that didn’t include subcontinental Muslim characters. I struggled with the sweep and ambition of the story I wanted to write—one that would have to pass through many generations of an interracial family to plumb the effects of environmental disaster—the Dust Bowl for instance—to demonstrate the ephemeral nature of intergenerational memory. I settled on a four-monologue, play-like structure for the story: one for each generation. I spent months reading first-hand accounts, history texts, longform stories about the impacts and memories of natural disasters. I used my historiographical research in environmental history to think about the people in books as people I could try to know. I read books that described catastrophes: starting off with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I remembered as a ruthless story of tenant farmers trapped in economic hardship and poverty as the Dust Bowl reared its ugly head; as crops failed and harsh drought swept over the prairie.
When I finally had a draft I could consider complete, I gave it to my first reader—my most generous reader. She returned it with the terse comment that I should “write what I know.”
What had I done wrong? Had I failed in my research? The details were all correct, I was confident about that. Had I failed to do justice to the two white characters from whose perspective I wrote the first two monologues? Or to the two mixed-race black characters in the last two monologues? Had I failed to empathize?
I went back to the drawing board, trying to convince myself to jettison the story entirely. But the logic of writing solely what I knew was unconvicing. How can I reconcile myself to writing stories about people solely from my cultural background when the stories I want to write have a different sweep, a distinct subject matter that requires me to understand characters outside of my lived experience? That is what I have always seen as the point of literature: its capacity for universality.
As it turns out, this isn’t unfamiliar ground for writers today. Rachel Cusk, recently profiled in The New Yorker by Judith Thurman, had her first book published at 26. She now deems her early work as inferior. Thurman takes Cusk’s disillusionment as a reflexive turn away from the earliest iterations of herself because she managed “to upend the plot of her own life—to break up her family, then to lose her house and her bearings.” Cusk is now married for the third time; about her book Aftermath, a painterly if perplexing memoir about the dissolution of Cusk’s marriage with Adrian Clarke, Thurman argues that Clarke “haunts the text like a ghost.”
Thurman wonders: Why doesn’t Aftermath explain why the marriage dissolved? “This was partly for the children’s sake,” Cusk says. But Aftermath met with some cruel reviews, after which Cusk seemed to change course. She says of her trajectory: “There seems to be some problem about my identity. But no one can find it, because it’s not there—I have lost all interest in having a self. Being a person has always meant getting blamed for it.”
Profiling writers of fiction, mining their lives for clues to explain the eccentricities and artfulness, or perhaps even artifice inside the work themselves—not just thematically but as a direct analog for a protagonist or an entire plot—has become a bit of a trope. Ever since Lena Dunham burst on to the scene, the justification of using autobiographies as the principal quarry from which to mine stories from the vantage point of the writer (what is essentially primary research for the literary critic) has become increasingly more ubiquitous. But of course, you don’t need to have a degree in literary criticism to know that the tradition is far older than Dunham. One could argue it is steeped in the pursuit of the Great American Novel itself: in the specificities of Philip Roth’s Newark Jewish oeuvre, or Norman Mailer’s racially-charged machismo, or as literary critics rigorously argue, on any work of fiction anywhere and any time.
But a certain timbre of particularity, coincident with the rise of the personal essay, has most certainly become more central and self-aware in literature of late: specific questions about which characters represent the author and whether plots actually occurred in the author’s real life pop up in interviews when they were once considered gauche to ask a novelist. A recent interview between writers Chelsea Martin and Juliet Escoria finds them talking about “self-serving writing,” work inspired by autobiography, as if it represented the pinnacle of truth-telling. Escoria talks intimately about her book Juliet the Maniac, contending that she doesn’t really “understand the difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction.”
There’s more than a whiff of writers being far too hard on themselves. The problem is why contemporary literary trends motivate young writers to believe that their own personal histories are the only histories they can plumb with any believable depth: a belief that visibly flails when confronted with the Enlightenment origins of humanistic “imaginative” capacities that can be traced to at least as far back as Denis Diderot. As Jean le Rond d’Alembert demonstrates in his Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, for Diderot painting, sculpture ,and architecture were deemed at the head of knowledge known as “Imitation,” but it was poetry and music that demonstrated imagination: that the skill demonstrated “by the warmth, the movement, and the life it is capable of giving, it seems rather to create than to portray them.” This creation was rarely conceived merely as reproduction, nor has it been for a very long time. After all, with writers like Leila Guerriero and Joan Didion, as Daniela Serrano so powerfully writes, the compulsion is reversed: it is not looking at yourself that is the most uncomfortable, but at other people.
There can be no doubt, however, that “identity”—with all the limitations and deliverances the word connotes—has become so powerful in popular culture, that the imaginative arts, across different mediums, have found themselves in a bit of a bind. Dunham, when criticized about the whiteness of Girls, claimed that she wanted “to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately.” In Sofia Coppola’s recent remake of the Civil War-set, Don Siegel movie The Beguiled, she shifted the perspective from that of the male interloper’s to the women in the cloistered Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, but crucially she also excised the role of a slave character—one that was present both in Thomas Cullinan’s original book, which served as the source material for both films, and in the first film, where she was played by Mae Mercer.
Coppola received her share of outrage for “whitewashing,” an accusation she deflected the way Dunham did: by essentially arguing that she didn’t wish to take an important subject lightly the way the original source material did; instead, by focusing on what she knew best. But if the dogged discoverers of Elena Ferrante’s true identity are to be believed, Ferrante didn’t know much about the poverty of Lila and Elena’s Neapolitan upbringing either. Has lived experience supplanted all other forms of knowledge as the sole true source of authenticity? As an avid Ferrante fan, I take umbrage with such a reading: I could care less about her true identity—and if she hasn’t truly lived it, then the Neapolitan novels merely display a capacity for virtuosic observation and insight.
But if this is truly an impasse, the contemporary moment in fiction, then it is a problem we must contend with. Arguably we are already contending with it, although perhaps with less success than one would hope. Lionel Shriver told an audience at a writer’s festival last year that, “Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are ‘allowed”’to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.” As Sarah Schulman reported, Viet Thanh Nguyen responded in the L.A. Times by saying: “It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.”
Nguyen makes a compelling point: we can use this schism to our advantage, but only if we understand the baggage that attends literary, cultural, and political history. Personally, I found Coppola’s version of The Beguiled captivating—with a particularly heartbreaking performance by Kirsten Dunst with a depth almost entirely missing from the earlier incarnation—just as I find much to admire in Dunham’s writing on Girls. But both come saddled with a crucial lack of ambition and not, as they had ostensibly hoped, racial sensitivity. Wouldn’t The Beguiled be all the more interesting if Coppola had extended her nuanced portrayals to a black female character? If it weren’t so illustrative of the loaded identitarian schism at the heart of leftist politics, it would make for the perfect right-wing conspiracy: not only have well-meaning liberals become too PC, they are now roundly dismissed as blinkered by the same folks whose ire they hoped to deflect in the first place.
It goes without saying that the problem doesn’t operate solely at the level of the artist herself. Somehow the gambit has been working, arguably with a deep historical legacy, to widen gaps between artists and audiences, with publishers eager to pander to particular readers depending on the artist. It is by now a cliché that many novels written by women are designed to look like romance novels. On the covers of her books being targeted to specifically to female audiences, Margaret Atwood, in an interview in 2015, mentioned that “there were probably some quite disappointed readers.” Atwood’s interviewer Jessica Stites responded that she couldn’t get her friends to start reading the Neapolitan novels because the first book has a wedding dress on it. Meanwhile, author Nnedi Okorafor wrote a book with a female Muslim protagonist, only for her publisher to suggest a cover with a white female figure on it. One wonders: How could publishers be failing so much to adapt? Surely this is not what Nguyen had in mind. Indeed, if writers are to be brave they must truly go there, and like any writer for any story, do meticulous research. But that may not be enough: one hopes writers have the capacity to publish in a world less maladapted to receive their work as well.
How did we find ourselves here in the first place? Surely writers never decided in closed-door meetings that the social scientific and humanistic academic emphasis on Culture with a capital c would bleed into fiction to such a degree that writers would begin to parse identities into little parcels, keeping only those they could hold ground on; seeing the act of storytelling itself as one circumscribed by the belonging of a identitarian category.
Far more likely is that for writers this is a passive process, one driven by our politics (and/or publishers), by reading the expectations of audiences or anticipating outrage, fears, and concerns that are exacerbated by the near-monopoly in fiction of white authors. Surely writers writ large know there is something reductive about using our own lives as not only the canvases for our art, but of art itself. The argument, or perhaps merely a passive trend riding on a form of herd mentality, seems to dictate that the craft itself has become one’s calling card. Which is to say: not only has the liminal space between identity and individuality been overcome, but storytelling has crashed right through its center, obviating the need for anything else. Why should a story need anything more than an identity? Why shouldn’t Kumail Nanjiani plumb the comedic depths of his own lived trajectory the same way Lena Dunham, Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., and countless others do?
There can be no prescriptive answer on this question that is not simultaneously political. But I suspect that there comes a point when the regurgitated version of one person’s life, especially when that person belongs to a minority group, begins to feel tired: a genre as trope; Oriental fiction with veils on the covers.
The ruse being played here is that there is no more a sense of a story without an identity preserved through the complex Venn diagrams one inhabits (or fails to); no universality, no totality: merely a small set of interlocking bricks that hold together the walls of our perception of the world. A place where Plato’s Cave is now color-coded, numbered and charted—hierarchies everywhere, opportunities only to move up or down or sideways like chess pieces. And now that the Cave is so stratified, why feel the need to leave it and see it as it is? How can one tell a story, any story, about any form of universal phenomenon if the response one instinctively pre-empts is: How could you know anything about that? This should have been written by a white gender non-conforming person who grew up without money or the awareness of privilege but nonetheless took advantage of it and grew to believe in less humane economic precepts than she/he/they would have had they not been white. It underlies an inherent paralysis, not too different from the paralysis Amitav Ghosh describes for storytelling which is failing to grapple with climate change in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.
Climate is not identity or racial politics, however, regardless of how closely their consequences are intertwined, but the concept of paralysis, I suspect, prevents talented artists like Sofia Coppola from stretching the bounds of their own ambitions; and more dangerously than for the minority writer it becomes a convenient alibi for the white artist’s conception of believability. But as with most things, it is a double-edged sword. How can we disregard the critique of the white writer who considers himself (often himself) objective enough to take on any character, a critique which has only become more prominent because marginalized writers have pushed it up in discourse after decades of unrewarded work? Today, at least, it is acknowledged in some circles that not only do minority writers deserve a pulpit, but that storytelling in turn requires minority writers (although certainly not a standard held up nearly enough).
Still, it requires a peculiar moment in contemporary culture when certain white male writers can comically (and of course also infuriatingly) decry that their jobs are harder as white men than if they were minorities. In that way, storytelling as with most things bears a truly striking institutional likeness—to the extent that the enterprise of writing and publishing is an institution—to our current politics.
Regardless, the argument of constriction applies to minority writers too—identitarian thought has bled into the wholesome creed of “write what you know.” We have erected walls for ourselves that are both comforting in the way that occupying a niche gives a writer and claustrophobic in the sense of wells running dry, new writers providing old stories that are tired reflections of the works of older writers. Nowhere in my experience is this more true than in fiction from my native South Asia, where the timbre of even the most lauded works by Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid, and Kamila Shamsie has acquired a quality of permanence most subcontinental writers cannot help but emulate in the sprint for awards success. Interestingly, the most incisive critics of Roy have recently pointed out the utter lack of tonal difference between her abundant nonfiction and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: where non-fiction can afford to proselytize, fiction ceases to breathe when crafted in the same mold. Again, however, publishers erect roadblocks in the name of pandering to certain audiences. From a Pakistani perspective, it is all to easy for me to envision publishers who expect me to deal with Islamophobia or terrorism on some level in all my writing, even if apropos of nothing.
And thus: in reifying the fictions of identity (the baseline fact most left-leaning writers can agree on), we have elevated almighty Culture, enforced monopolies of singular identities and mashed them all up. No longer can storytelling be ambitious in the fashion of Doris Lessing (who admittedly dabbled in both very autobiographical and very non-autobiographical work, the height of the latter reached in her sublime Canopus in Argos space fiction).
Instead, every story would serve itself best as another iteration of your own personal diagram, chipping away at your own identity slowly, painstakingly, even dully over the decades like Philip Roth, but surely not like Mathias Énard: there would no imagination, only personal research. No external perception, only introspection.
With this conversation raging in my head as a writer of color, it’s fascinating sometimes to dissect my own responses to my work. Had my first reader got it right—was she letting me off the hook by telling me to write what I knew because the story didn’t hold up to the literary standards she knew I aspired to? Very possibly. I didn’t let the story go, however. I doubled down, and worked even harder at it. But even more intriguing to me than the cases where I double down are those where I have chosen to let go. When my first work of fiction was published, at The Rumpus, my editor told me that the website had commissioned an artist to illustrate my story. I couldn’t wait, both for the story, and for the art it would sit alongside.
When the story was published, I was astonished. The style of the art was sparse and completely appropriate to the story: three drawings in all. But curiously, the second illustration, inspired by a pivotal scene where my male Pakistani protagonist has a brief exchange with a friend’s grandmother, looked suspiciously Western. There was a reference to chai in the text, but scant other details. I remember instinctively thinking: there’s no way the grandmother would look like that. A Pakistani grandmother would be wearing a loose dupatta, along with a shalwar kameez—a long tunic and loose trousers.
I thought about it for a long time. Ultimately, I decided that there was something about that drawing that captured other specificities—the posture of the grandmother, her spirit—that moved me. I concluded that it was great as it was. The artist had read my story and decided to interpret it the best way she could, and despite the initial skepticism it aroused in me, I liked the idea of the illustration reading my work as something transcendent, something neither here nor there but everywhere: maybe, something even universal.
The day after the story came out, I contacted the artist: one of her works hangs on my bedroom wall, a reminder both of my resistance and release and of the artist’s intended or unintended attempt to universalize my work. I don’t wish to ask. Why should I? No matter how much specificity we try to achieve, we will always fall short.
After all, as the (white, male) writer Mark Greif tells us, “your life has to be your own: no one else can live it for you, as you can’t enter anyone else’s life to know it feels.”
Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.