The National Book Critics Circle announced their 2017 Award Finalists, and the winners of three awards: the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, John Leonard Prize, and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
The finalists include 30 writers across six different categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Fiction, Poetry, and Criticism. Here are the finalists separated by genre:
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (The Millions’ review)
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Improvement by Joan Silber
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Read our interview with Ward)
Gulf: The Making of An American Sea by Jack Davis
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald
The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Read our 2017 interview with Gessen)
Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon
The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by Howard Markel
Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman
Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times by Kenneth Whyte
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
The Girl From the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China by Xiaolu Guo
Fourth Person Singular by Nuar Alsadir
Earthling by James Longenbach
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Recommended by Contributing Editor Nick Ripatrazone)
The Darkness of Snow by Frank Ormsby
Directions for Use by Ana Ristović
You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages by Carina Chocano
The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat
Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History by Camille Dungy
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli (Review)
Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News by Kevin Young (Read Young’s Year in Reading)
For the three stand along awards, here are the winners: John McPhee won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to letters and book culture, exploration of widely varying topics, and mentorship of young writers and journalists. Author and critic Charles Finch won the Nona Balakin Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. The John Leonard Prize—for a first book in any genre—went to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.
The winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on Thursday, March 15, 2018.
2017. The best I can say for 2017 is that it showed us new and unexpected ways to be punched in the stomach. But there were good things. I’ll focus on the good things. My book came out, for one. My kids grew a few inches. My kids, period. I discovered non-dairy cashew ice cream. I met Eva Longoria. That was cool. I met Mohsin Hamid, whose every book I’ve read, including his latest, Exit West, a spare and sublime fairy tale steeped in the realism of civil war and refugee flight.
2017 was also the year I found two fantastic writing partners. We met almost every Wednesday at a café in Oakland for writing and no talking, followed by lunch and non-stop talking. One of those writers is Nayomi Munaweera, whose first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, I finally got around to reading. You know when your friend writes a play or belts out a song or makes a working beehive out of marzipan and you’re like, “Oh, good God”? I read most of this novel sitting stick-straight, my mouth agape, quietly cursing. Yes, I’d known about the Sri Lankan Civil War, but only vaguely. I knew Tamils were involved, because I’m half Tamil, but that’s where my knowledge ended. This book took my marginal knowledge, fashioned it into a dagger, and drove it straight into my chest. It gives us the stories of both Sinhalese and Tamil families before, after, and during the war. The bloodshed is brutal and perpetrated by both sides, and it spills over family loyalties, inter-community romance, and post-migratory memory.
When it came to reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy’s first novel in 20 years, I thought I was on stronger footing. I know India. I’ve written about India. I know Indian history. But Roy forced me to look at Indian progress in a way that was both uncomfortable and revelatory. She looks past the facades of India’s vast new malls, its gleaming tech centers and hotels; she takes us out the back door to meet the people who’ve been left behind because they don’t fit the contours of shiny new India. Her novel offers up contemporary India on an overladen platter, to be considered not for its particularities, but for its panorama.
While Roy’s novel is about the intentional blindness necessitated by economic development, Chilean author Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red takes on the experience of actually going blind—something that happened to the author herself. What got to me, ironically, was the book’s vision. It’s not often that I read something that provides such pleasure merely through perspective. Lina, the narrator, establishes instant intimacy with her reader, who has no choice but to follow, like someone strapped to a toboggan, hurtling through the viscerality of going blind (suddenly, bloodily) and the interpersonal crises that ensue.
I turned 40 this year. Not much of a surprise there. I pretty much knew it was going to happen. One thing I didn’t expect was a package in the mail with a book in it and no indication of who sent it to me. This wasn’t a galley seeking a blurb. This was an old book, its cover tattered and faded. The edition was printed in 1956. The title was Gift from the Sea: An Answer to the Conflicts in Our Lives, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (wife of Charles). It was a beautiful thing to receive, its mystery compounding its beauty. It’s not often I get to read old books; my reading and writing lives are steeped in the contemporary. Gift from the Sea is a sort of manual on living and seeking contentment. But it doesn’t claim to have any answers. It elegantly, and quite humbly, invites its reader to think quietly alongside it, like two people on a beach.
In February, I picked up a book called The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan, an Irish writer who lives in California now. I have a thing for the Irish generally, and for Irish literature, specifically. Rohan’s book takes on the issue of teenage suicide, a growing epidemic in Ireland. The story itself is less about the decision to die than the decision to live. It’s told through the eyes of Billy Brennan, a morbidly obese man whose son has recently killed himself. We meet Billy as he decides to take control of his body, and to stage a long-distance walk to raise awareness for suicide, a notion that some find inspiring and others—including Billy’s own family—find distasteful. What I love most about this book is the way it grapples with the discomforts of tragedy—the embarrassment that often closes a suffocating fist around family trauma. What results is a novel that embraces possibility, and champions a man burdened by grief, but brave enough to naysay the naysayers.
And then there was the day in July when I went to Pegasus Books in Berkeley. I picked up Winter Journal by Paul Auster. To be honest, I picked it up because I’ve always loved the picture on its cover: black and white, taken sometime in the 60s, Auster with that dark-ringed serial killer gaze, his lower lip thrust out brattishly, brooding and Heathcliffian. I turn back to the book now, and try to find the sentences that first grabbed me, that made it impossible to put that book down. Because that’s what happened. I’d never been much of an Auster fan, but there was something about that book. Looking back, I see that there was no single magical sentence, but a propulsion of sentences, a frank and snowballing narrative that was impossible to put down. Written in the second person, the book is a meditation on aging bodies, aging hearts. I took Winter Journal on vacation with me. I read it mostly in a hammock. I didn’t put it down for six days.
Books on aging, books on childhood. Mostly, I read books for children. Hundreds, maybe, each year. I read to my two sons every night. This was the year I finally threw a Power Rangers book in the recycling bin. I hated that book. My four-year-old loved it. I don’t feel guilty. I couldn’t read that book one more time. Not one more time. The children’s books I did love from this year: The Mysterious Benedict Society, Nicholas and the Gang, Wonder, and Frog and Toad Are Friends. I will always, always, go back to Frog and Toad.
And there were so many other books I haven’t even started to talk about: Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua, The End of My Career by Martha Grover, Get It While You Can by Nick Jaina, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, Broad Strokes by Bridget Quinn, A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi. The year doesn’t sound so bad, if I look only at the books. Maybe this will be how I survive 2018—looking only at the books, hearing and speaking only their words. But books are physical manifestations of vision’s triumph. The writers above have dared to sift through blindness, to look and to report what they see. And isn’t this what books are? Missives from the front lines? But I need a break. I need to not see. This winter, I will hibernate. I’ll watch pointless comedies. I’ll read horoscopes like they’re The Bible. Maybe I’ll read The Bible. And then I’ll return. 2018. I’ll return, ready to see again.
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The Book That Will Make You Believe (Even More) in Magic: I would like to add my voice to the overwhelming chorus that has already lauded Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. This book feels like meeting Angela Carter for a wild night of drinking and dancing. The experimentation with form is simply astonishing, and there is a directness in the treatment of sexuality and identity that is both refreshing and deeply affecting. I assume that I’ll reread this book every year for the rest of my life.
The Book That Was Worth the Wait: Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness would have been a welcome gift in any year, but it felt especially, painfully resonant during this year of dangerous nationalist sentiment and turmoil—worldwide, that is. This book is unflinchingly unconventional in its structure and unapologetically diffuse in certain parts where other books maybe feel a responsibility to adhere to a more rigid form. And there are descriptive passages of physical conflict that feel like a nefarious type of music shivering on the page.
The Book That Felt Like Emotional Armor: I have rarely read a book that more accurately captures the psychosomatic trauma of being queer in a place that is decidedly homophobic than Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy. Written in blunt, unsentimental prose that nevertheless seethes with anger and laments the trauma of a closeted, hunted childhood, this book will open your eyes and slap the sharpest of lenses on them.
The Book That Will Harness Your Terror: I finally read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money at the beginning of this year, and it was easily one of the most important works of nonfiction that I have ever read. It makes horrifyingly clear how corrupt the financial workings of our political system are, and it holds at its core a maddening paradox: How can families that will do anything to preserve their dynastic wealth create a physical world in which future generations of their own relatives will not be able to live?
The other night, at a party, someone asked if I consider my writing to be political. I said no, but also yes, always, what else can it be, since I’m an immigrant, a woman, and a person of color, living in a time and place in which more or less every aspect of who I am has been politicized. Every day, to pull up the news is to see part, or parts, of myself attacked, threatened, and marginalized.
And it’s not just the news. Not long after the 2016 elections, my parents were in a minor car accident. A car drove into the parking space next to theirs; the stranger’s car scraped my mother’s open door—no big deal, you might think, except that the other driver, the one at fault, lost it. He yelled at my parents. He terrified my mother, one of the gentlest women I know. What did he yell? The tired obvious: “Go back to your country,” he shouted, standing in a parking lot, in my hometown, where my parents have lived the past 25 years. My father shouted back. “This is my country,” he said, sure of himself, defying the racist shit spitting in his face.
As I look back at my year in reading, I’m thinking of my parents. A word about methodology: since any list like this leaves out more than it can include, I’ll call out writers of Asian descent whose fictional worlds have been, for me, lifelines. Also, I prize and require short stories and essays and poems and memoirs, but my first love, my lifelong obsession is the novel, so I’ll limit myself to long-form fiction; finally, I’ll restrict this round-up to books by women because it’s 2017, and, my god, what a year it’s been for us. But dear Umma and Abba: fuck that guy in the parking lot. This is your country, and this write-up’s for you.
All hail Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, a tender, brilliant evocation of one woman’s experience of profound loss and gain. I loved, too, Katie Kitamura’s powerful A Separation, about a woman whose husband goes missing on a Greek island. I read it in one hypnotized go. I know you’ve probably already heard you should read Celeste Ng’s thrilling Little Fires Everywhere, but I can’t help adding to the chorus. In addition to its other signal merits, the book includes one of the best portrayals of artistic ambition I’ve read since I don’t know when.
Some of the writing I most crave, these days, is fiction that finds its way into what’s often called unimaginable. Along these lines, I admired A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi and Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, novels that incisively, wisely imagine the lives of people drawn to religious extremism. Jimin Han’s impressive A Small Revolution brings to life a different kind of terrorist, one so much more prevalent in this gun-crazed country of ours: the angry man who goes on a shooting rampage.
I was riveted by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You and Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, both of which feature those most maligned of women, mothers who leave their sons. In the haunting Lucky Boy, Shanthi Sekaran spotlights a different kind of parent-child split, when an undocumented woman loses her child to foster care. Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is centered upon a sister’s loss, and is by turns startling, harrowing, and compassionate.
Chemistry by Weike Wang is a funny and beguiling account of a graduate student uncertain if she wants to keep pursuing a life in chemistry. There’s also Dina Nayeri’s big-hearted Refuge, about the plight of a geographically divided family, as well as Arundhati Roy’s epic, vital The Ministry of Utmost Unhappiness. Finally, especially in these hateful times, I want everyone to read Min Jin Lee’s much-lauded Pachinko, a novel chronicling some of the challenges endured by Korean immigrants in Japan.
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.