Reading Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination is like reading three books in one. The first book is a memoir of Row’s artistic coming of age. The second book is a scholarly critique of white writing and how work by people of color is excluded, ignored, and otherwise neglected. The third book is a meditation on aesthetics, craft, and ideology in creative writing. All three books are imbricated in a way that the seams are hidden but felt.
I especially was taken with Row’s chapter on American Minimalism and the overarching and lasting (but eroding) influence of Gordon Lish. My interest lay in a compelling argument Row makes about Lish’s influence on minimalist writers like Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Amy Hempel, and Richard Ford. He claims minimalist writers aren’t “able to relax into something larger, even into idiomatic speech: the consecution method doesn’t permit that…What they are performing is a Morse code, a telegraphic effect: this is how we live, this is what the present entails. And: this is all that the present entails.”
Row and I talked recently about minimalism, race, empathy, and White Flights.
The Millions: Is White Flights a project built around empathy?
Jess Row: No, I don’t think so. I’m suspicious of empathy for a lot of the reasons you see coming up in books like Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. There was a great roundtable about empathy published in The Boston Review several years ago. And in it was this psychologist, Paul Bloom. His basic critique of empathy is that it tends to focus our political thinking on objects that we feel an immediate emotional connection with, and it excludes beings and subjects we don’t feel a direct emotional connection with. There are a lot of people in the world of creative writing who put empathy at the center of their thinking about why literature is important and why fiction is important. My thinking about that is always a little more skeptical. Obviously, when you create literary characters, to some degree you’re looking for a connection, a recognition of the fictional consciousness of the character, if you’re in that realm of psychological realism. But I always think that using empathy as a justification is too simple. It requires some clarification about what empathy means.
TM: Because the idea there is empathy is self-directed. It doesn’t come from outside of you.
JR: Yeah, empathy is also circumstantial. To some degree, social media feeds on this quality. If you’re constantly seeing things popping up in your feed about some outrage in the world, it could be they’re designed by the algorithm for other reasons not having to do with creating any narrative or hierarchy of meaning. You could have someone being cruel to kittens and have widespread environmental destruction or homes destroyed in East Jerusalem. In other words, empathy can create a distorted sense of where your attention should be in the world. It’s easy to manipulate in that way.
TM: The question is: Between logos, pathos, and ethos. Which one do you think is being used most? Overwhelmingly, it’s the emotional appeal, pathos. I wonder how much pathos is behind empathy, as opposed to, say, logic or credibility.
JR: One thing I write about in the book (very briefly) is the three definitions of love in Christianity, which come from classical Greek thought. Philia-love, romantic love, and agape-love. This is something that Martin Luther King talked about all the time. When he talked about racism in the United States, he constantly talked about the importance of defining your terms when you talk about love and racism. You’re not just talking about philia-love. You’re obviously not talking about romantic love. He said you always have to be talking about agape. You have to be talking about the largest concept of love. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That’s a great way of summing up agape in the black prophetic Christian tradition.
TM: You write “white American writers are almost never asked to bring their own sadness or their own bodies into play when writing about race or racism; their dreams, their sources of shame, their most nightmarish or unacceptable or crippling fantasies”—but it also seems that fear is to blame, because who wants to have a tin ear or come off sounding hurtful. Though, you also write that, “dealing with shame is meaningful.” Do you see fear playing a role like shame?
JR: What you say is important. They’re definitely connected. I think fear of being exposed as being insensitive or being exposed as being racist or just not thoughtful in your speech or whatever—I would say that fear is absolutely debilitating for white people, writers, teachers.
But I also think there’s a culture that sustains that feeling of paranoia: “No matter what you say, or try to engage in, you’re going to be criticized.” That’s why I say that I think that it’s really important to look at those feelings directly and ask yourself, Where did those feeling come from? Who is it that’s telling you that you can’t win? Who is it that’s encouraging these feeling of paranoia? And: For whom are those feelings politically useful?
In an academic setting, that paranoia around race is extremely useful to the institution because it enables administrators and leaders to essentially treat racial justice and questions around it as an area of diversity that can be farmed out to the vice president of diversity or whatever. And the rest of us don’t have to think about it.
Essentially, you hire people to do the uncomfortable work of raising awareness about these feelings and you yourself are feeling like you’re not—you, the white administration or professor or department chair—are not able to do anything about it because you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. That paranoia is structurally built into the institution.
TM: Do you find that Lish’s minimalist aesthetic, through what you describe as “beautiful shame,” fetishized the poor or the downtrodden?
JR: I think those two things are related. And it’s always what I say about Lish: he pressured Carver to remove the direct reference to his own background. I think that Gordon Lish himself was never interested in fetishizing rural poverty, because I think his aesthetic interests were so different. His interests were late modern, Gertrude Stein, an obsession with the sentence as a self-fulfilling object. He was able to create this artistic aura, this sense of existential inner-poverty that translated easily to American literary culture into a larger way of fetishizing poor white people as the authentic or raw voices.
TM: That reminds me of Sarah Palin talking about the “real America” back in 2008.
JR: The fetishizing of the dirty realists in the 1980s, Tobias Wolff, John Dufresne, Richard Ford. Annie Proulx’s first book Heart Songs is in this category. A lot of things came together at same time: Lish’s approach to realism, the overwhelming popularity of Raymond Carver. But you also had the Reagan era, white American retrenchment, there was a broader cultural interest in white working-class authenticity that you have in Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. If you look at Mellencamps’s hits, “Pink Houses,” “Small Town,” “Jack & Diane”—white t-shirts and blue jeans. That’s part of a wave of fetishization of American rural life that started in the post-war era and really flowered with the baby boomers because so many of them were moved away from that life. As soon as that way of life began to fade, it became a fetish for the up-and-coming suburban bourgeois class.
TM: Who would be an example of an author who goes past the fear and beautiful shame? You mention Dorothy Allison and Allan Gurganus as examples back in the 1980s and 1990s. What about today?
JR: The landscape of American fiction is fractured as compared to how it used to be. You don’t have one aesthetic that’s nearly as dominant as the minimalist aesthetic was in the 1980s. Are you asking about specifically white writers who are going beyond shame?
TM: Yes. I mean, I’m taking your book to be a call to stronger self-reflection, as a challenge. That is, for writers to ask, “In my next story, how will I deal with shame?” I’ve been super self-conscious about who I could write. I’m like a vestigial Platonist, a latent essentialist. I read you claiming that we need to stop thinking there’s an essentialist aspect to writing others.
JR: When you talk about being a vestigial Platonist, you have to think about Plato’s critique of poetry in The Republic. This is a central tension in Western aesthetics. Plato hated the idea of mimesis and mimetic art because of what you’re saying. It is anti-essential. If an essence can be replicated, what is it? Do we need it?
The central challenge in fiction is representing other lives and consciousnesses. That’s always the core artistic challenge. I think that, in some ways, American fiction writers have essentially sort of sat back and avoided the central artistic question that should’ve been discussed in the 1960s and 1970s: Given that the country is becoming so equal and more egalitarian (superficially, anyway) and poly-cultural, how do fiction writers deal with that? That was a big subject of American fiction in the early 20th century. Along with the kinds of cities there were and new immigrants, there was all this discussion of the social novel and naturalism. What happened after 1970 in American fiction is things went radically the other way, especially in the highbrow white aesthetic universe. Nobody wanted to talk about that stuff. No one wanted to talk about the crisis of representation. There were all these postmodern systems novels and the New Minimalists, but even the most ambitious novelists, like Don DeLillo, were flattening, reducing, altering, and manipulating surface difference to create some otherworldly universe.
No one was interested in the basic question about how you write a novel where a Chinese immigrant women falls in love with a black man from Mississippi. No one wrote that novel. That novel should’ve been written in the late ’80s. But that novel didn’t make the front page of The New York Times Book Review. People are writing that now. Atticus Lish’s novel Preparation for the Next Life is a little bit like that, which is ironic. In some ways, the central artistic question hasn’t been discussed because writers are always so weighted down with fear, paranoia, and anger, legitimate anger about the bad attempts at racial representation that have happened in the past.
TM: Do you think the blowback over William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) had something to do with that?
JR: I do. I wrote about this in the book a tiny bit. I’ve written about Styron and Nat Turner before. That was a huge thing for me. When I was 17, in my first writing workshop, my teacher told us, an all-white class, that white writers cannot write about race because Nat Turner proved that we will be punished for doing so. He was expressing the conventional wisdom at the time in his circles. This was 1992. The teacher of the class, Lee Abbott, a wonderful person, who knew Ray Carver and Richard Ford, was a short story writer very much of that time, of the late ’80s and ’90s. He was essentially expressing the literary consensus of the white American creative writing community. Of course, that had a huge effect on me. It basically convinced me that I could not do that. I spent years trying to write in an all-white way.
TM: Whatever “writing in a white way” means, right?
JR: Yeah. In my case, what it meant was relying only on white models. It meant I went through all of 20th-century American fiction and picked out the white prominent writers and tried to read all of them and tried to ignore everyone else. That was what was being taught in creative writing classes. I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan from 1999 to 2001, which is, in the greater scheme of things, not long ago. I don’t believe there was a single text by an African-American author taught in any of my classes. Maybe one in a craft class. One or two; that’s it. Nobody, none of my teachers in fiction workshop, made any but the most sort of marginal reference to a black writer.
TM: Five years later in the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, I definitely had African-American writers and writers of color included in my workshops and courses.
JR: You’re lucky. The way that I teach fiction workshops now couldn’t be more different, self-consciously so. Not just in racial representation but in looking at different aesthetics, which wasn’t really done much in any of my writing workshops. I never had a teacher who encouraged us to work with experimental texts.
TM: You mention how writers “outside of whiteness” use white writing as an anti-metaphysics. Like Colson Whitehead adopting DeLillo’s style in The Intuitionist or Monique Trong’s The Book of Salt. I think about when I first read Toni Morrison and wondered, “How in the hell do I learn to write like her? How can I do what she does?” And after reading your book, I wonder, about the reverse way that writers of color, borrowing rhetorical styles from white writers, can operate backwards, for white writers to work within African-American and non-white rhetorical styles?
JR: I think it’s hugely important for white writers to talk about how influenced they are by writers of color. It doesn’t happen nearly enough. The only way to start talking about American literature as a whole literature is to talk about the interplay among the different voices, and that just doesn’t happen enough. I talk about that issue in the book in many places. For me it came up so vividly when I read James Baldwin and was so intensely captivated by his novel Another Country. I said to my wife, “I want to write a novel exactly like this.”
That is a crucial artistic step forward, acknowledging the influence—and it should be obvious and go without saying, but it isn’t obvious and it doesn’t go without saying. Toni Morrison is held up as a larger-than-life person, an icon (which is all true), but for fiction writers she’s so important because of her technical skill and stylistic, artistic skill. As a humanist voice, yes, she’s important, but for fiction writers, it’s that she’s so good at writing. Her technical abilities and her innovations are hugely influential. When I read Beloved for the first time, which was not until graduate school, I suddenly understood why so many other writers I had seen were doing things or using the chapter beginnings or the kind of voice that they were using. “Oh, it’s because they’re influenced by Toni Morrison!”
This strikes me all the time whenever I hear discussions about American memoir and hybrid texts. “Is a memoir actually fiction?” Someone no one ever talks about is Maxine Hong Kingston. The Woman Warrior is the text that invented the modern American memoir, the text that started the whole movement toward so much of what is happening today. That text only gets acknowledged as quote-unquote multicultural literature. And, of course, it’s vital for Chinese-American culture. But for writers, it has so much to teach us about the overlay between autobiographical narrative and fictional narrative, and she does it so openly and skillfully, weaves in and out so skillfully.
Everybody should be learning from that—that should be the center of the canon.
Do you remember the first fictional character that spoke directly to you and your experiences? For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Anita Felicelli at Bustle asked 13 authors to recount the first time they saw themselves reflected in a work of fiction. The answers range from Bich Minh Nguyen choosing Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior to Soniah Kamal with Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
“As I read her words, I experienced a feeling previously unknown to me: recognition. I had always turned to books for pleasure, as portals to other places. Reading The Woman Warrior, for the first time I saw myself on every page and in every word.” For Catapult, Alexis Cheung writes about representation, being an Asian-American writer, and reading and interviewing Maxine Hong Kingston. From our archives: Kingston’s work was featured in Alexander Chee’s 2015 Year in Reading.
I read a lot, and so do you. We read books, and we read about books. Still, with surprising frequency, a writer comes across your screen, and you’re surprised you’ve never encountered his or her name or work previously.
This was the case for me with Laird Hunt, whose seventh novel, The Evening Road, was published by Little, Brown last month. Having followed the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference last fall (and having commented myself on the process of writing across race and gender in interviews), when I learned that Hunt, who is white and male, has written three novels featuring female first-person protagonists, two of whom are black, I took notice. And wondered why I hadn’t come across consideration of his work in this context earlier. In an interview about his 2012 novel Kind One, a Pen/Faulkner finalist, Hunt had said:
My approach to writing about people who are, in different ways, unlike me…is to speak of not for. In other words I’m not talking about appropriation here, but about acknowledging and actively advocating…a larger, truer, more exciting sense of our shared humanity.
Five of Hunt’s novels were published by the venerable and very indie Coffee House Press in Minneapolis (only recently has he published with a corporate house); this struck me as possibly contributing to his quietish presence in the literary media. In any case, with the release of The Evening Road, Hunt’s work may begin the shift to center stage.
Seven novels. In addition to being specifically interested in the above-mentioned two, I am struck by Hunt’s range — subject matter, setting, form, voice, conceptual and moral interests — over a long career. The earlier novels — The Impossibly, The Exquisite, and Ray of the Star — form a loose group: experimental in form, set in current times and urban environments, engaged in relational and conceptual puzzles. Laird himself suggested such a grouping in a 2006 interview, and included his second novel, Indiana, Indiana, an elegiac, Midwestern family saga:
I think of The Exquisite more as a brother or sister of The Impossibly, rather than as a son or daughter. Looking at it that way, I might suggest that Indiana, Indiana is a cousin of those two texts, a cousin that would have had more fun playing with The Exquisite than The Impossibly…even if The Exquisite wouldn’t, I imagine, be caught dead with it.
The Evening Road and Kind One are set in the periods of Jim Crow and slavery, respectively. In Kind One — inspired, says Hunt, by Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which plumbs the little-known history of black slaveowners in the antebellum south — a white woman named Ginny Lancaster narrates her past story as both abused and abuser; we hear later the first-person voice of Zinnia, one of two slave girls (sisters) whom Ginny tormented, directly and indirectly, and who subsequently revolted, shackling Ginny in a shed without food for long periods. Neverhome features a nontraditional female — a married woman who pretends to be a man in order to soldier for the Union during the Civil War. In The Evening Road, we hear two distinct first-person accounts — by a white woman named Ottie Lee and a 16-year-old black girl named Calla Destry — of events surrounding a lynching in a fictional Indiana town called Marvel.
What I admire, and what is simultaneously difficult, about The Evening Road is its portrayal of the contradictions that riddle human nature and that ultimately fuel systematic acts of violence and injustice. White characters condone, participate in, find “festive” the spectacle of a lynching, while at the same time digress from that sanctioning in moments of more evolved humanness. There is a critical scene in which a group of white characters steals a wagon from a black family, and two of the white characters express their sincere regret:
He had served in the war and seen cornflowers [black men] fresh up out of Africa stand up and fight the kaiser with their bare hands and American cornflowers stand up to fight when no one else would…No one ought to have taken a wagon and left folks trying to get to a prayer vigil to set in the dark by the side of the road.
Yet those characters go along and board the wagon, and their giddiness about the lynching returns soon enough. It’s an affecting portrayal of sincerity and complicity together, disturbing — and too familiar — in its plain accuracy. In addition, these white characters have painful stories of their own: Ottie Lee, the white female narrator, was the strongest voice for stealing the wagon, and we learn shortly after that as a child she was nearly killed by her mentally unstable mother on multiple occasions.
Laird’s recent novels remind us that within the tradition of historical fiction, approaches to telling historical stories are diverse. A review at Vulture of The Evening Road describes the novel, admiringly, as “More bonkers Americana than straight historical fiction.” In a New York Times review, Kaitlyn Greenidge — whose NYT Op-Ed piece about the Lionel Shriver controversy last fall became a lucid and important rallying voice for many writers of color, myself included — criticized The Evening Road for being unrealistic; specifically for “attempt[ing] to prettify the violence” of a lynching, for example inventing terminology — “cornflower” — for racist epithets (Hunt has spoken about this particular choice as both part of his writing process and ultimately an expression of the novel’s “alt world ontology”). Greenidge’s critique implies a belief that a novel concerning true acts of injustice — acts that have been systematically minimized or ignored in order to dehumanize entire groups of people — has a responsibility to the hardest of hard facts. And while Greenidge doesn’t say so explicitly, her critique raises for me the question of whether that responsibility is heightened when the writer is a member of the racial group who committed and has benefited from the acts.
Hunt is a white man more or less from Indiana. His varied, peripatetic background — stints and partial education in Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Indiana, The Hague, London, and Paris as a youth and young adult, then New York, where he worked for the United Nations, and on to Denver for most of his adult life — amounts to an unusually heterogeneous map of influences. For five years, he worked as a press officer for the United Nations. As a translator, French is the non-English language most in his ear, yet a crafted, lyrical 19th-century American dialect(ish) makes the music of four of his novels.
Hunt engaged in this robust exchange with me, in the midst of a busy tour schedule. We talked about inventing literary language, whiteness and complicity, historical surrealism, and the dual challenges of reviewing and being reviewed.
The Millions: Your seven novels cover such a wide range of subject matter and style. I’ve suggested — as have you — that your work might be “grouped” into two phases. When you consider your novelistic journey, what do you see in terms of continuities, kinships, pivots, departures, etc?
Laird Hunt: My split trajectory as a writer is absolutely informed by my split trajectory as a person. I did seventh grade in London and eighth in rural Indiana. Even after I had settled in then, on my grandmother’s farm, I spent my summers in Hong Kong, which is where my stepmother is from and my younger sister grew up. When I set to writing seriously I kept going deeply into the distinct archives my mind had built around these two sets of experience. Still, just as I was keeping my hand in with Indiana during the years I was mostly publishing city novels set in something much like now, I am continuing to draw on my lengthy and varied urban experience in projects that are growing up quietly but insistently as I spelunk in the shallower and deeper pockets of the past of rural America.
At a reading last night in Denver I announced, in a sudden moment of exhaustion, that with the publication of The Evening Road I had finished this exploration I undertook, for better or worse, of crucible moments in individual and national life. Almost as soon as I said it I remembered that the novel on witches I am currently completing, which is told by a female narrator and touches on questions of race, erasure, agency, and rebellion, will make me a liar when/if it is published.
TM: Coffee House Press published your first five books; with Neverhome and The Evening Road, you’re with a larger corporate publisher, Little, Brown. Some might perceive this as a “promotion,” but I wonder if you do. What has this pivot/departure meant for you — professionally, creatively — if anything?
LH: Coffee House is one of the most amazing literary presses on the planet, and I wouldn’t trade my years of having had the honor of appearing on their lists for anything. The move to Little, Brown has been exciting and in all ways quite seamless. I am still writing exactly those books I feel I need to write and am being fully supported as I do so. Support of course means receiving tough edits and essential feedback off the page too. Having friends in Minneapolis AND new ones in New York is an awfully pleasant side benefit.
TM: In response to an interview question about Kind One and writing female characters in a context of racial injustice, you said: “[I]t’s time to do better. It has been time for a good long while now.” Four years on, and in the midst of heated cultural-political polarization — are we doing better? Worse? Both?
LH: We are far, indeed very far away from where we need to be as a country. I believe very deeply that we stand a better chance of getting there, if individually — with care and determination — we do our best to grapple with our past. And to own up to what we inherit from said past and how we perpetuate it. I do these things with fiction. Others do it other ways. Or plough some intriguing middle ground between essay, poetry, history and fiction.
Do I think we will get there? Wherever there is? I am somewhere between “I don’t know” and “I do.”
TM: Whose work in particular would you cite as inspiring?
LH: There is a great deal of passion and brilliance at work out there. See Renee Gladman’s recent Calamities. Or John Keene’s Counternarratives. Or Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K. Cycles. Or a curious little book like The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels.
TM: Given your wide and varied background and work as a translator, tell us about your sense of home, and language, and the voices in your writerly ear.
LH: At just this moment the voice, so to speak, of the pianist Girma Yifrashewa is in my ears and rare is the occasion that I don’t have something equally extraordinary and transporting coming through headphones or earbuds as I write. This has been the case for me almost since my earliest days as a writer, and I’m certain it has impacted on this question. Also, I went through a long period of reading a lot of poetry and even publishing work that wasn’t quite poetry (let’s be very clear), but had some linguistic charge, in poetry magazines, so some residual sonic eddies live on in my ear.
Add to that the fact that I spent years living in places surrounded by people who didn’t speak English the way I do or speak English at all, then went to live with someone who had a very marked Central Indiana accent. My best friends during the five years I spent working as a press officer at the United Nations were from Kenya and Guyana, and just about everyone in the English press service (colleagues from Ghana, Nigeria, the Gambia, the Netherlands, England, New Jersey, the Bronx, Brazil, etc.) had their own way of shaping English. Which is to say the meaningful layers have accumulated as they do for all of us. When I’m digging in on voice it always feels like there is a lot to draw on. And it should be stressed, especially in the case of these three most recent books, that because the voices are composites and constructions, rather than faithful imitations of actual speech patterns from the past, it is useful to have more than just one way of getting things said in my ear.
TM: Is there a sense, then, that you are creating a language/vernacular — not so unlike what, say, Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings? Tell us a bit about that approach, as opposed to actually attempting to imitate speech patterns?
LH: There is a precursor to the voices I am working with in these novels in the character of Opal in Indiana, Indiana. We know her in the novel as the great love of the main character, Noah, and get direct access to her mainly through letters she writes him. These letters are adaptations of prose poems I wrote years ago in the wake of traveling to San Francisco and Paris. Something about their almost giddy, forward-rushing quality and the melancholy hiding in their corners, made them perfect for Opal. Still, you wonder if you have gotten something right.
In this case I had a kind of answer when I visited a museum attached to the Logansport State Hospital, the real-world equivalent of the hospital where Opal is for many years in the book. One of the exhibits was comprised of the letters of a brilliant young woman, an aspiring composer, who found herself at the hospital in the early 20th century. The letters are not Opal’s but, wow, they were awfully close both in tone and content and even in some of their constructions. It wasn’t the same but it felt the same.
All this to say you can get to something that richly evokes the past for the 21st-century eye and ear by going at it otherwise. I have rarely felt more sunk in the past than I have in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and they are extraordinarily unlike the past as we would encounter it by reading diaries and other documents from that time. Then there is an approach like Paul Kingsnorth’s in The Wake. Kingsnorth creates what he calls a “shadow tongue” that is neither modern nor old English and the resultant hybrid brings the world most vividly to life. This is the sort of thing I am going for, trying for, failing better at.
TM: White characters like Ottie and Ginny are compelling in their human dimensionality, and also disturbingly complicit in racial violence. Is your ultimate vision of white conscience a dark one?
LH: In one of the scenes in Kind One, the ghost of a murdered slave returns to the narrator, Ginny Lancaster, as she lies in a misery of her own making. Before Ginny, the ghost dances a terrible dance in which eyes and ears and mouths sprout in frightening profusion from his body. He calls this dance “The Way of the World.” In the wagon-stealing scene in The Evening Road, Ottie Lee makes an awful, self-damning choice that speaks pretty loudly to this “way” and to how unambiguously she is a part of it and is perpetuating it. This doesn’t mean, and it almost never does, that she isn’t capable at other moments of compassion and doing the right thing. Her companions are all stretched along this spectrum and slide back and forth depending on the situation.
I don’t know how we get off this road of whiteness and onto some other. I do know that it’s real and we can’t afford abstractions when we discuss it and think about it and fight it.
TM: In these combative times under this new political regime, some on the progressive left would say that empathizing with oppressors — trying to understand where Trump supporters are coming from — is folly. Tell us about your specific hope/interest in alternating between white and black narrators in these novels about slavery and its legacy.
LH: I think more than “folly,” as you put it, what I have heard or at least understood from the progressive left, of which I am a part (so we’re not all the same) is that it’s best not to undertake this sort of endeavor at all. As in just don’t do it. As soon as I start to hear proscription of this sort, especially around the arts, I want to get in there and see what’s going on. How much great work would be gone if its author had not tried to go into the bad as well as the good?
Think of all the characters in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad who would have to be zapped because they are flawed, complex, and on the wrong side of things. Even some of the worst of the worst in that novel, the relentless slave catcher, say, are allowed a story, a narrative, a past. They aren’t just unexamined caricatures. Their dimensionality doesn’t let them off the hook: to the contrary. It’s just that instead of being told they are bad, we readers get to understand the textures of that badness and draw our own conclusions.
TM: You’ve been writing in the tradition of historical fiction for some time now. How would you describe your fiction’s relationship to historical truth? Is Kaitlyn Greenidge correct that certain situations would have been much more dangerous for black people in 1930s Indiana than is depicted in The Evening Road? Are the benign, sometimes harmonious encounters between black people and white people fantastical creations born of “a sort of reconciliation fantasy?”
LH: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier; Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; and Whitehead’s already mentioned Underground Railroad are just a very, very few of the novels that have effectively used the tools of fantasy, sci-fi, fable, allegory, satire, and humor to look at very serious subject matter. These are the kinds of sources of inspiration I have gone to as I have written or considered the implications of my own recent novels. I would have thought The Evening Road, with its giant pigs; corn-based vocabulary; impossible prayer vigils; flag forests; a town called Marvel at its middle; hallucinations in foul beauty parlors; conversations with angels over breakfast; and bloodhounds wearing neckties, would have made clear its method and its lineage very quickly. Just as, to greater or lesser degree, the previous two novels did.
I do the work I do then put it out there. Others get to critique it. I review more than enough to know how much time and effort goes into writing a thoughtful take on something. That’s an act of generosity. If someone has taken the time to read one of my books, and has issues with it, I’m always ready to listen.
I woke up this year with a fear: what if reading brings me nowhere? What if reading delivers me to nothing? To myself, as a person among people/s, nobody; that all the time I have spent reading and all the things I have read, do not change me, do not improve me, do not deliver me into a greater form?
I draw the fear, the question, out: what if all the reading and all the things to be read (as all the writing) does not change anyone or anything. I mean enough to deliver anyone or anything, the world, into a greater form. The question feels cynical. It feels like squandering. I chastise myself, briefly, then go on; I am being honest: nothing greater than an altar for all the living and the dead so monolithic its memorialization obscures and makes the living and the dead more easily forgotten?
Because (also) I have been thinking, the last few days (weeks, whenever this is being read), about ancestors. I have been mourning my ancestors. I have been mourning some part of their existence, only partially formed at the time of their passing into ancestorhood, which is being translated through my thinking about them now as: mourning. At first, I felt it particularly: I mourned their arrivals, and the consequences that influenced and/or enforced their arrivals, as either settlers or aliens, in some cases, enemies, in this, the settler colonial United States. I mourned the fleeting shadows of their feet first stepping up or down.
How is this related to the fear? I have been having two related thoughts: that (1) ancestors, occupying and BEING the space between the people of whose genealogies we are one form of consequence and what is being translated across time of those people, manifest in moments of awareness and recognition (fleeting consciousness) including those which happen inside reading; and that (2) books, which possess not only stories, histories, thought, and expression, but stories’, histories’, thoughts’, and expressions’ dreams of being and being continued — dreams which they hold, in the interval, for (future) readers — are not only the bearers of ancestors, but, themselves, ANCESTORS.
I think of the ways in which I am and/or am not the incarnation of my ancestors’ dreams, when they were thinking, abstractly, of what they were imagining of, and committing to, the future, in the same ways in which I either succeed (receive, bear, and carry forward) the work of what I am reading, or fail to be the inheritor, the messenger, the book that I am reading might have imagined.
The first book I read this year was Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior(1975), in which she writes, “The reporting is the vengeance — not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words.”
When my great-aunt Joy was four, she was incarcerated, with her family, in the Poston Relocation Center, on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, in Arizona. The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversaw the camp. The Japanese were free labor; they would be used to build the reservation’s infrastructure. Iyko Day, in Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism (2016), writes about how, after the war, the government offered the vacated barracks to the indigenous people as compensation for using their land: “From this vantage point, Poston becomes a space where the dispossessed and the recipients of government ‘welfare’ confront each other as exchangeable figures of colonial management.” Alien Capital does a million things, including mapping out the triangulation of Native, alien, and settler positions in settler colonial capitalism. I entered Alien Capital through Chapter 3: Japanese Internment and the Mutation of Labor (thanks to Kimberly Alidio, who sent me, first, the chapter, then the book; thanks also to Caitie Moore, who introduced me to Day through Day’s essay, “Being or Nothingness: Indigeneity, Antiblackness, and Settler Colonial Critique.”) Joy told me that being incarcerated was not as difficult for her as it was for her parents; she was young, had not yet begun to question the reasons why her country would force her, a young American girl, into confinement in the desert. But she said it was even more difficult when her family was released and returned to Los Angeles, where her mother found work as a maid for a white family in Beverly Hills. She remembers being fed the white family’s scraps.
In An Autobiography (1974), Angela Davis witnesses, one night, from the window of her cell in the Women’s House of Detention (NYC), a demonstration on the street below protesting her solitary confinement. She describes, in that moment, “losing the sensation of captivity,” then, hearing her sister Fania’s voice among the people, being “shocked back into the reality” of the “weight” of her imprisonment. With the voices outside enlivening her cell, she reflects upon the “impenetrability” of her situation, before bringing what she calls “self-pity” to a halt. “I transformed my frustration into raging energy for the fight”, she writes. The range of feeling in that moment of impenetrable confinement is extraordinary, and fast, and through it can be seen a transfiguration. See also the window of Davis’s cell, apprehended from both sides: from the silent side, voices; from the street side, silence: both demanding forms of belief that constitute a large part of the struggle.
An. An Autobiography. Also: Assata Shakur’s Assata: An Autobiography (1987). The number of autobiographies inherent within the lives of these two women suggested by An. Both books are extraordinary self-portraits and portraits of American life. And both are reports from the political, legal, extralegal, especially judiciary and carceral, labyrinth that is the war against black dissent, and black lives, in the United States.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (2016) enunciates how the impending regime of Der Donald was made possible by the collaboration of MANY forces, including, but not limited to, the continuing solidification of neoliberalism and the incorporation of protest movements into the compromise of electoral politics, both legible and encoded functions of white supremacy. It is a masterpiece of synthesizing, and building a tragic narrative out of, the unending cascade of facts and figures by which the United States could be appraised as the slow-boiling terrorist organization that it is. Read Taylor on the consequences of Bill Clinton’s “crime-fighting” legislation of 1994, pp. 100-102, 119-121. Also among the cascade: the 2010 study that revealed the disparity between the median wealth of single white women and single black women: $42,600 for white women, $5 for black women.
Mohamed Bouazizi (1984-2011) was a fruit vendor on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, who, on December 17, 2010, after years of harassment (extortion, confiscation of fruit, humiliation, assault) by the police, set himself on fire on the street outside the governor’s office. Tahar Ben Jelloun’s fictionalization of Bouazizi’s story — included in By Fire: Writings on the Arab Spring (2016), translated from the French by Rita S. Nezami — reminds me of the Daimonji fires on the hills surrounding Kyoto during Obon: five fires, burning in enormous shapes, that guide the dead, following their annual visit to the world of the living, back to the spirit (ancestral) world. The fires form the threshold of the story of the dead, extending their life, trajectory (light projection), while illuminating the reconstitution of the dead in the imaginations of the living. I do not mean to be comparing fire/s, they are very different fire/s, but to see, in Ben Jelloun’s story of Bouazizi’s struggle, a reimagining (illuminating) of desperation and resistance as unending threshold AS memorial.
Among the many revelations in Karen L. Ishizuka’s Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties, an indispensable narrative archive of Asian-American organizing and insurgency, is the revelation of another indispensable archive: Gidra: The Monthly of the Asian American Experience (1969-1974), the inaugural newspaper of the Asian American movement, the entire run of which is available through yet ANOTHER indispensable archive: Densho’s Digital Repository. I spent a long time staring at Robert Nakamura’s photograph of the inaugural Manzanar Pilgrimage, December 1969, which first appeared in the January 1970 issue of Gidra, reproduced on pp. 156-157 of Serve the People. The pilgrimage was the “first public national commemoration of the World War II concentration camps,” and gave rise to annual pilgrimages to many containment sites. I spent a long time staring at the 29 faces framing, surrounding, looking into and through, the desert, in which they and/or their ancestors were incarcerated.
I read Fred Moten’s The Service Porch (2016) in my friend Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s backyard. I was traveling through Arizona back to west Texas from back-to-back family reunions, both on the Japanese (Yamashita, Shimoda) side of my family, in southern California, and was still feeling the discomfort and sadness of having ACTUALLY been surrounded by so many incarnations of my (our) ancestors’ dreams, which I have been trying to articulate, to myself, and also to my therapist, as the discomfort and sadness of observing (feeling) within my Japanese-American family the process of self-erasure with which the United States indoctrinates its people in the name of citizenship and assimilation. The Service Porch was not an antidote, but I did want to counter my feelings with poetry, as occasionally happens. Josh, who published The Service Porch, gave me a stack of paper. I sat in a chair facing a long white wall with my back against the kitchen window and let the stack of paper fall apart in my lap. “It’s not about cutting piercing, or even putting it in its place,” Moten writes, “but bearing radical displacement everywhere.”
One of the most emotional moments in my year of reading took place when I turned to pp. 54-56 of Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (2016), to discover, forming something like a dream map, Choi’s childhood drawings of outfits for her paper dolls she made while her father was in Vietnam, accompanied, as if being observed and encouraged, by cropped photographers of her father, in Vietnam. Or maybe the outfits, awaiting their paper doll bodies, are observing and encouraging and breathing into and wishing well and hurry home, Choi’s father; the outfits really start to move…
I slipped, as if hypnotized, into several passages on the color gray, including in: (1) Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha (1953): “The sobbings, the frustrations, the small hates, the large and ugly hates, the little pushing-through love, the boredom, that came to her from behind those walls (some of them beaverboard) via speech and scream and sigh — all these were gray;” and (2) pp. 70-75 of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event (2011), which I read via PDF on a bunk bed. As Brooks writes, “There was a whole lot of grayness here.”
When I read a novel, it is like living life. Because when I am living life, like when I am reading a novel, I am half in living life and half in conceiving the part of life that realizes itself, like overlapping roof tiles or fish scales, as memory. What I mean is: I read a novel in real time, but the novel often does not continue or complete itself until I am no longer reading the novel, not yet dead, but no longer inside. I do not mean the production, like of history, or interpretation, or the difference between process and knowledge, but experience. A novel is not experienced, and does not experience itself, all at once. Sometimes it does not happen at all, but when it does: not all at once.
Am I just rephrasing the fundamental experience of reading…
In more garbled language?
Novels inscribed on three planes at once: the subterranean, terrestrial, and ethereal. For example, among the novels I read this year, there are four that I feel are still reading both themselves and ME in the guise of no longer being read, which maybe means they might not ever end: Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (1974), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood (1977), Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green (2005; Jordan Stump translation, 2013); and Vi Khi Nao’s Fish in Exile (2016). Yes, it sounds like I am rephrasing the fundamental experience of reading. But there is something particular about these books that makes me believe their authors wove into them some kind of time-release (extended) life, by way of what and how they used of substances, colors, coelenterates, voices, faces, fields at night, nocturnal rites, blood-nearnesses, rerouted traumas, lapses, inborn absences, hallucinations.
The night before entering Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems of Yoshimasu Gozo (2016; translated from the Japanese by many translators, and edited by Forrest Gander), I had a dream about four peaches. In the dream, the four peaches looked like apples, and were rotten. When I woke up, I entered the book, and found peaches. “Poetry is (Soaked is drowning / is a stitch,,,,,,) a way to a (pitch-black) Perpetual World // Peaches, peaches, golden peaches white peaches” [exact formatting more complicated and beautiful]. I was on a train and when the train rose over a river, I entered, through “Peaches, peaches,” back through my dream of peaches, a moment of integration. I had been, until that moment, feeling like I was disintegrating. Something happened above the river. I cannot explain.
I read Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose (1978; translated from the French by Georgina Kleege), a novel about the life and death, by Christian Phalangists, of a young woman and teacher in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, every year. I read it every year for many reasons, one of which is the final chapter, the final paragraph even, which is given to Marie Rose’s deaf-mute students. I have not, even after many readings (years), reached any clarity or resolution. About it or anything. Maybe that is why I return. Maybe that is why I keep returning. I hope you do not mind me sharing the entire paragraph here:
Whether you like it or not, an execution is always a celebration. It is the dance of Signs and their stabilization in Death. It is the swift flight of silence without pardon. It is the explosion of absolute darkness among us. What can one do in this black Feast but dance? The deaf-mutes rise, and moved by the rhythm of falling bombs their bodies receive from the trembling earth, they begin to dance.
More from A Year in Reading 2016
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My year in reading was a strange one for me, like only one year previous in my life thus far: I had finished a novel — The Queen of the Night, due out in Feb. 2016 — and so the year was that peculiar kind of annus horribulis, in which you try to keep a lid on your ego and act casual, all while you wait for your novel to appear in stores with all that implies. You dutifully prepare your events, your website, and your life for a period of time that has no certain borders and that will have little relationship either to what you fear or what you desire. And everyone’s advice never changes: start on finding your next project, so you have at least a relationship to it and aren’t caught out by what eventually happens.
To get through this as a writer is a little like splitting into two: one of you heads off into the woods of your own self while the other becomes some public version of you, making its way like a renegade balloon from the Thanksgiving Day Parade that just keeps inflating.
My reading then was both a little like it always is — a mix of books I’m teaching and books I simply wanted to read — but several ideas for what my next book will be were already underway and auditioning for my attention — a mystery novel, a novel I’ve put off writing for nearly two decades, a space opera, and a collection of essays. In order to think about them and to also get my work done, I planned two new classes: one on autobio, as autobiographical fiction is increasingly called, and one on plot. And it is true that I do have a few more answers now than I started the year with, but I also had a lot of fun.
In the first half of the year, I read autobiographical fiction and some nonfiction work that ran along its edges: Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, for example, which I remember suffered by comparison to The Woman Warrior back when I first read it, but which seems to me now a bravura performance in its own right: her attempt to imagine her way into the silences inside the men in her family’s history. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s first novel, is still as relevant as ever and as immaculately made — line for line, the prose is a wonder. Colette’s puckish first novel, Claudine at School, was like finding a whole other writer after her later novels, which I already knew. Edmund White’s The Married Man paired beautifully with Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, two very different stories of the personal social cost of trying to hold on to and even love your obsessions (and not just be obsessed with them). And I reread Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark alongside Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and thought about how each portrays a way of transcending the first person while also staying firmly in it.
Once summer began, I dove into Charles D’Ambrosio’s fantastic collection of personal essays and criticism, Loitering, which I read alongside Jan Morris’s majestic metafiction, Hav — a plotless novel written as travel writing of the oldest best kind. It describes her trip to an entirely fictional country, and done with a thoroughness of detail that is so convincing, I am still stunned Hav doesn’t exist.
I then prepared for my plot class with some favorites. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was as chilling as ever, a way of thinking about the present — and describing it — by inventing a past instead of a future. I loved Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire the more for knowing at last what life is like now as a professor (I hadn’t read it since undergrad). Likewise Toni Morrison’s Sula, which I now think of as a way to describe America through the lives of two women and a single Ohio town. Reading Justin Torres’s We the Animals for structure meant finding the fretwork is actually a spine.
Throughout, I mixed in the new: Like many, I devoured Hanya Yanagihara’s astonishing A Little Life. And then I also read from the more than new, books you can read next year: Garth Greenwell’s breathtaking What Belongs to You, which is a little like if Marguerite Yourcenar returned to us with Bruce Benderson’s obsessions, and Chris Offutt’s new memoir of the secret estate his father left him (and the secrets in it), coming in March — My Father, the Pornographer.
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When the National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction was released this week with only one woman author out of 10 nominees (and only one person of color), I thought, wow, the jury (two of whom are women) must have completely missed the increasingly vociferous discussions over the past few years about the lack of gender equity in the literary world. Then I read the Slate essay in which Katy Waldman calls nonfiction the “patriarch of the book world.” As the author of a forthcoming nonfiction book, a biography, I have become aware of how male-dominated the field of biography is. But why all of nonfiction?
Last year’s longlist wasn’t much better: only three women out of 10. Prior to last year, the National Book Award announced only shortlists, which look pretty good since 2010 (two or three women out of five) but for much of the 2000s were dismal (mostly one or even no women out of five). A recent study in Mayborn also showed that among all of the major prizes in nonfiction over the past 20 years, only 20 percent were won by women and five percent by people of color. The study also found that these results don’t simply prove jury bias; the percentage of books by women submitted to the major competitions was only 30 percent last year. (The study also found the awards skew towards East Coast writers nurtured by institutions that are predominately white and male.)
Are fewer women writing nonfiction, you might ask. I suppose it depends on what you call “nonfiction.” According to the last few years’ NBA juries, it is mostly history (preferably about war or early America); biography (preferably about men, especially presidents); or reportage (preferably about war, the economy, or non-Western countries). Even within these parameters, there were some notable, well-reviewed books by women that didn’t make this year’s list:
Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited
Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War
Lynn Sherr’s Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space
Joan De Jean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City
Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
Two books in science, a topic which attracts surprisingly little attention from NBA juries, should have been strong contenders this year (along with E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence, which did make the list):
There are other nonfiction genres, however, in which women are prolific—namely memoir and the essay—which get short shrift from the major awards. The only book by a woman on this year’s NBA longlist is a graphic memoir by Roz Chast called Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?. It is also the only memoir on the list. Of the past 50 nominated books, Waldman points out, only four have been memoirs (three of them by women—one of them won, Patti Smith’s Just Kids in 2010). Women’s attraction to memoirs and essays, many of which focus on the issues unique to women’s lives, may in fact have much to do with their low profile. Memoirs and essay collections by women that deserved the judges’ attention this year include:
Leslie Jemison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays
Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation
Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything
Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays
Jessica Hendry Nelson’s If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir
Then there are those nonfiction books that defy genre. In 1976, when Maxine Hong Kingston won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction with The Woman Warrior (her China Men won the NBA in 1981), it seemed as if nonfiction had experienced a seismic shift. Unfortunately, in recent years, the major awards have not reflected much of an interest in works that defy category—whether it be in their play between fiction and nonfiction or simply in their interest in combining elements of subgenres within nonfiction (such as history, biography, literary criticism, and memoir). There are a number of compelling works published this year by women that inject memoir into these more conventionally objective subgenres. I would conjecture, in fact, that women writers are more likely to investigate how their own lives intersect with larger issues—such as great books, our nation’s founding documents, or returning soldier’s PTSD—as they did in these works:
Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch
Danielle Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality
Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism
Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books
This year’s NBA nonfiction longlist is disappointing not simply because of its dearth of women writers but also because of its unwillingness to think beyond the male-dominated forms of nonfiction that have garnered the most gravitas in the past. We can keep hoping, however, that the subtle biases that govern out understanding of literary value—why is a great work, as Ron Charles points out, called “seminal” rather than “ovular”?—will gradually become as quaint as those 1950s videos instructing women in how to become the perfect housewife.