On Body Horror and the Monstrosity of Women

In Sharlene Teo’s wise, tenderly grotesque novel Ponti, the introduction of teenaged protagonist Szu is effected in a cloud of body odor. “When I was eleven,” Szu grumbles, sitting in a classroom that smells of Impulse body spray and soiled sanitary towels, “I used to hope that puberty would morph me, that one day I’d uncurl from my chrysalis, bloom out beautiful. No luck! Acne instead. Disgusting hair. Blood.” Overflowing with monsters and matriarchs, Teo’s novel is at least partially a horror narrative and draws much of its impetus from the backstory of Szu’s mother, Amisa, a former horror actress, who once starred in a movie named Ponti! The film, telling the story of a deformed girl who makes a deal with a bomoh—a shaman—to become beautiful, pins the theme of transformation at the novel’s heart. Her wish is granted, but the transformation is a dual one. She does become beautiful, but she also becomes a bloodthirsty monster who feeds insatiably upon men. Teo’s novel stresses this duality, writing female adolescence as, in effect, synonymous with female monstrosity, with the becoming of something other. Szu is nicknamed “Sadako,” after another classic horror movie monster, and her adolescence is a lank, disquieting thing, at once disappointing and horrendous. She is turning into a woman, she is turning into a monster; the two things are one and the same.
 
 
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“Body Horror” is a term that comes from horror cinema, but its literary origins can be traced back as far as Frankenstein. It is a trope that springs from primal fears—from the knowledge of oneself as a physical object and the consciousness of pain—and its roots wind through the Gothic, to the fin de siècle and the birth of science fiction. As a sub-genre, it broadly encompasses the concept of bodily violation, whether that be via mutilation, zombification, possession, or disease, but arguably one of its most pervasive themes is that of transformation. From Ovid to Cronenberg, transformation occupies an anxious corner in so much of film and literature that it more or less forms a tradition all its own. Folklore and myth are littered with metamorphosis—Daphne twisting into a bay tree, Alice in Wonderland with her Eat Me’s and Drink Me’s—and its impact is frequently an unsettling one. It is a fairy-tale punishment, a warning to naughty children, a reminder of the body’s unreliability.
In talking about Salt Slow, my short story collection, I have found myself returning frequently to the concept of the body, particularly the body as a locus of fear. The majority of stories in the collection are built on body horror and transformation, concerning women and the ways in which their bodies both contain and betray them: a girl whose teenage skin is hiding something terrible, a woman taking on the aspect of a jellyfish, a woman birthing something slippery. I think that writing about women goes hand in hand with horror writing. The female body is a nexus of pain almost by design (that by-now ubiquitous line from Fleabag: “women are born with pain built in, it’s our physical destiny”), but it is also potentially monstrous—an object traditionally subjugated, both for its presumed weakness and its perceived threat. The mutations and transformations of horror writing are uniquely qualified to evoke this: the difficulty and unreliability of the female body, its duality as an object both to be feared for and to fear.


When Daphne transforms into a bay tree, the moment is one of both horror and deliverance. She is no longer what she once was, but the metamorphosis frees her from the unwanted attention of Apollo. This duality of horror and emancipation sits, I think, at the core of female transformation. Within the horror genre (and arguably everywhere else), bodies read as female are always subject to pain, and to the threat of violation. Becoming something else—a tree, a freak, a monster—preempts this pain and reduces the risk of harm. It may even, if the transformation is the right one, allow you to cause harm in return.
 
 
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As made evident in Teo’s Ponti, female adolescence is frequently a site of horror. It is, after all, the “transformation” aspect of the body horror trope made literal. Over and over, in books and in movies, girls are made subject to the bleedings and stretchings of adolescence: that werewolf period where the body becomes an othered version of itself (the horror movie Ginger Snaps comes to mind—the protagonist’s first period coinciding with her transformation into something hairy and ill-tempered). Often, the horror of this alteration is fed by misinformation—the teenaged girls I find myself writing about frequently haven’t been told. Adolescence is frightening enough on its own, but the strange, puritanical sketchiness that consistently surrounds sex and sex education only serves to heighten the panic. In Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, a teenage boy relays to his friends a jumbled impression of the informational “puberty” video he has stolen into a Girls Only class to watch: “When girls hit twelve or so,” he tells them breathlessly, “their tits bleed.” A monster, created by whispers.
In my short story “Mantis,” a Catholic schoolgirl’s troubled teenage skin extends far beyond acne. In between receiving woefully outdated sex education and attempting to navigate a newfound interest in boys, the protagonist loses teeth and hair, watching her skin come away in pieces to reveal something altogether buggier beneath. The transformation is a horror, of sorts, but it is also an emancipation—once freed from her physical strictures, the protagonist can act in a way that is natural to her (can do to a boy what a praying mantis would normally do to her chosen mate). This sense of transformation as a moment of freedom is not new. From certain representations of Lilith to Lucy Westenra, unloosed female power is often linked to a transformation into the monstrous, a shucking of one skin for another. Teenagers shed their younger selves for the relative power of womanhood, women shed their skins to take on fresh, more threatening aspects. In another story from my collection, a girl begins to take on attributes of her newly acquired stepsister, who happens to be a wolf. While it isn’t a transformation, in a physical sense, her newly feral traits allow her to contend far more effectively with the teenage boy who has started following her home. In this case, as in many others, the “transformation” is somewhat an active choice: looking at the possibilities presented to your body—pliancy, weakness, suffering—and choosing another option. Changing into a vampire, a wolf, a praying mantis, and eating people instead.
 
 
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There is another aspect to transformation—or rather, another level. In Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, a mother experiments with cocktails of drugs and hallucinogens to achieve what she perceived as a perfect brood of “mutant” children to display at the family carnival. The extremity of transformation, here, conveys status and happiness, with “normality” considered a failing. “I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy,” notes the protagonist, “Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique.”
In my story “Salt Slow,” a woman gives birth to something that might not be quite human—a tentacled creature which her boyfriend tries, and ultimately fails, to destroy. The transformation here, and in Geek Love, manifests in the child rather than the mother—an inherited transformation, so to speak. Transformation, in this sense, can be not only an active choice but one to pass on—the act of becoming, or of siring, a monster as a means of reclaiming control over the female body. Within the scaffolding of the body horror trope, female bodies are arguably presented with unprecedented choice: They can be at once unstable, vulnerable, suffocating, difficult, frightening, monstrous, and changing right before your eyes.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Marten Newhall

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Strout, Percy, Vapnyar, Hodgman, O’Brien, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Elizabeth Strout, Benjamin Percy, Lara Vapnyar, John Hodgman, Tim O’Brien, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Olive, Again: “As direct, funny, sad, and human as its heroine, Strout’s welcome follow-up to Olive Kitteridge portrays the cantankerous retired math teacher in old age. The novel, set in small-town coastal Crosby, Maine, unfolds like its predecessor through 13 linked stories. ‘Arrested’ begins just after the first novel ends, with 74-year-old widower Jack Kennison wooing 73-year-old Olive. ‘Motherless Child’ follows the family visit when Olive tells her son she plans to marry Jack. In ‘Labor,’ Olive awkwardly admires gifts at a baby shower, then efficiently delivers another guest’s baby. Olive also offers characteristic brusque empathy to a grateful cancer patient in ‘Light,’ and, in ‘Heart,’ to her own two home nurses—one a Trump supporter, one the daughter of a Somali refugee. ‘Helped’ brings pathos to the narrative, ‘The End of the Civil War Days’ humor, ‘The Poet’ self-recognition. Jim Burgess of Strout’s The Burgess Boys comes to Crosby to visit brother Bob (‘Exiles’). Olive, in her 80s, living in assisted care, develops a touching friendship with fellow resident Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle (‘Friend’). Strout’s stories form a cohesive novel, both sequel and culmination, that captures, with humor, compassion, and embarrassing detail, aging, loss, loneliness, and love. Strout again demonstrates her gift for zeroing in on ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people to highlight their extraordinary resilience.”

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Your House Will Pay: “Based on a true case, Cha’s ambitious tale of race, identity, and murder delivers on the promise of her Juniper Song mysteries (Dead Soon Enough, etc.). Racial tensions in Los Angeles are at a boiling point following the police shooting of a black teenager, and 27-year-old Grace Park, who lives with her Korean immigrant parents, shares the sense of outrage felt by many. Her sheltered world is suddenly shattered when her mother, Yvonne, is shot in front of the family pharmacy in a drive-by shooting. Dark family secrets begin to emerge about Yvonne’s involvement in the notorious 1991 shooting of Ava Matthews, an unarmed young black woman, by a Korean shopkeeper. Grace is torn by conflicting emotions of concern for her mother and shame at the implications of her mother’s crime. Meanwhile, Ava’s brother, Shawn Matthews, has tried to put the past behind him. When news of Yvonne’s attempted murder reaches him, it brings up emotions Shawn has long fought to keep down. The tension rises as the authorities circle in on his family as possible suspects in Yvonne’s shooting. This timely, morally complex story could well be Cha’s breakout novel.”

Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Wild Game: “This page-turning memoir about an especially fraught mother-daughter relationship from novelist Brodeur (Man Camp) reads like heady beach fiction. At age 14, Brodeur became enmeshed in her mother Malabar’s affair with Ben—a married lifelong friend of Brodeur’s stepfather Charles—covering for them even after Charles’s death. At 21, Brodeur cheated on a boyfriend with Ben’s son Jack: ‘like our parents before us, we spoke in a language rich in innuendo.’ She later became engaged to Jack, who knew nothing of their parents’ affair, and kept quiet about it until Ben confessed to his family and ended the relationship with Malabar. Brodeur and Jack’s wedding became ‘Malabar’s battleground. She would be radiant… and show Ben what he was missing’; to that end, Malabar brought out a family heirloom promised to Brodeur on her wedding day—a necklace of allegedly priceless gems—and wore it herself. Wealth and social prominence abound against a summertime Cape Cod backdrop: Malabar was a Boston Globe food columnist, Charles founded the Plimoth Plantation living history museum, and Ben was a proud Mayflower descendant. Nine months after Ben’s wife’s died, Ben and Malabar married, and Malabar quickly cut off Brodeur, whose own marriage was crumbling: ‘Now that Malabar finally had Ben… she no longer needed me.’ This layered narrative of deceit, denial, and disillusionment is a surefire bestseller.”

Suicide Woods by Benjamin Percy

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Suicide Woods: “Percy’s haunting, well-crafted prose frequently elevates the mundanity and isolation of being human into something otherworldly in his genre-bending collection (after The Dark Net). The brisk, cleverly written puzzler ‘Suspect Zero’ begins with a body found in a train car and invites readers to follow the clues to the killer’s identity. In the chilling ‘The Cold Boy,’ a man finds his young nephew trapped beneath the ice of a frigid lake and fears the worst, but the boy survives, and his relief soon gives way to terror. In the visceral, but strangely affecting ‘Heart of a Bear,’ an injured bear covets a family’s humanity, leading to tragic results. In the title story, a man employs a disturbing experiment meant to induce a fear of death in a group of suicidal people, and an ember of hope burns at the heart of ‘The Balloon,’ which follows two lonely survivors during the dark days of a pandemic. In the exceedingly creepy novella ‘The Uncharted,’ a risk-averse employee of a virtual map making company joins a dangerous rescue mission to retrieve a team that went missing in a part of Alaska dubbed the Bermuda Triangle of the North. This gripping, often unnerving collection showcases Percy’s talent as a skilled, versatile storyteller.”

Divide Me By Zero by Lara Vapnyar

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Divide Me By Zero: “Vapnyar bottles a profound sense of discontent in her tragicomic novel (Still Here), chronicling the life and loves of Katya Geller, an immigrant to Staten Island from Soviet-era Russia. Framed by the death of her beloved but difficult mother, a mathematician, the story unfolds in chapters headed by her mother’s notes for a math textbook for adults, which Katya finds also apply to matters of the heart. Katya is a mess of a daughter, juggling her husband, a couple of lovers, and a couple of kids. She tries to make sense of her life, her marriage, and the writing she discovers she’s good at, mining for guidance her childhood in Russia, her parents’ relationship, even the cowardice of her lover, B. She falls briefly for a very rich Russian named Victor and considers a divorce. Among the many pleasures of the novel is Vapnyar’s portrayal of the intellectual connection Katya has with her children, which is disarmingly lovely. Throughout, Vapnyar expertly exposes selfish desires and quiet discontent. This is a frank, amusing, and melancholy novel.”

Medallion Status by John Hodgman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Medallion Status: “Comedian and actor Hodgman (Vacationland) discusses being in, but mostly out, of the spotlight in a humorous essay collection that addresses topics including his television appearances and his struggles to maintain his elite airline frequent flier status after he stopped flying extensively for work. ‘I enjoy being seen and recognized,’ Hodgman writes, but ‘frankly it doesn’t happen often these days.’ The author casts himself as a used-to-be-somewhat-famous person trying to figure out his place in the world. ‘Secret Family’ relates how he overspent on a fancy Hollywood hotel, then crashed with friends: ‘Home is where they have to take you in,’ he concludes. He talks about failing to get himself invited to a Golden Globes party (‘Career Advice for Children’), scoring free jeans at the Emmy Awards gifting lounge (‘Nude Rider’), and attending his 20-year college reunion (‘Secret Society’) and seeing ‘all my old crumbling friends.’ Hodgman’s best material focuses on the marketing tricks of the airline industry (‘Thank You for Being Gold’), which manipulates passengers, Hodgman included, into competing for perks. ‘The Sky Lounge is not aspirational,’ Hodgman writes. ‘It is desperational.’ This funny, sometimes delightfully absurd book offers sharp meditations on status, relevance, and age, and fame—or at least being fame-adjacent.”

Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Music: A Subversive History: “In this excellent history, music critic Gioia (How to Listen to Jazz) dazzles with tales of how music grew out of violence, sex, and rebellion. Gioia opens with humans fashioning musical instruments from animal bones, such as a Neanderthal flute made with a bear’s femur, and writes, ‘When the instruments didn’t come from the dead animal, they evolved from the weapons used to kill it,’ such as a hunter’s bow, which became the ‘earliest stringed instrument.’ He then explores the roots of eroticism in music in Sumerian songs and myths, and the divide between the sacred and the vulgar in music. Gioia explains how the early Catholic church elevated the human voice as the only instrument above reproach, since other instruments, drums in particular, were tainted by their pagan associations. In the Middle Ages, passionate secular songs were being performed by roaming troubadours whose new way of singing expressed a deep sensitivity to the inner romantic life. Crisply written with surprising insights, Gioia’s history ranges from Beethoven’s outsider status, due to what was considered to be his mysterious and gloomy music, to the execution and murder ballads in 20th-century folk music, and ending with the rise of rock and roll and hip-hop. Gioia’s richly told narrative provides fresh insights into the history of music.”

A Year Without a Name by Cyrus Grace Dunham

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Year Without a Name: “This meditative memoir by 27-year-old writer and activist Dunham, who uses they/them pronouns, provides a diaristic account of their unresolved relationship to gender and their journey to becoming Cyrus (the one boy name their parents had chosen while expecting) via a name change, hormones, and eventual top surgery. Born Grace, Dunham sensed they were different from other children around the age of five. Early on, they engaged in compulsive behavior (such as relying on magical numbers) and heard voices in their head: ‘a secondary, analytical voice that prevented [me] from taking total pleasure in anything’ and ‘the sped-up, echoing voice of Amelia Earhart, my narrative ghost, calling out to me.’ After high school, Dunham lost their virginity to a girl, figuring ‘if I couldn’t be the boy she desired, at least I’d be the girl who understood.’ The book follows the trails of other obsessive relationships— ‘Devotion is the closest thing I’ve known to a stable gender, insofar as our gender is a set of rules we either accept or make for ourselves,’ Dunham writes—and touches on their struggle with mental illness and their difficult feelings after their sister (who along with other family members is never named) became famous. Dunham demonstrates a self-reflective awareness of their own psychology. This memoir will resonate deeply with other young people seeking gender harmony.”

Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dad’s Maybe Book: “This tender memoir begins in 2003, when 58-year-old novelist O’Brien (The Things They Carried) has a one-year-old son and another one on the way. In the format of letters to his sons, he shares the joys of fatherhood, which are muted by the prospect that his children may know him only as an old man—or not know him at all (‘Life is fragile. Hearts go still’). For the next 15 years, with the ashes of his father in an urn on his bookcase, O’Brien writes for his children what he wished his father had left him: ‘Some scraps of paper signed ‘Love Dad’.’ O’Brien covers nights of colic, basketball games, and homework battles, but this is not a compendium of cute witticisms. He taps into the dark corners of his mind, sharing an analysis of, say, the parallels between the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775 and his 1969 tour of duty in Vietnam’s Quang Ngai Province. He then presents a well-reasoned argument for replacing the word ‘war’ with the phrase ‘killing people, including children,’ and war’s impact on culture. O’Brien concludes with a humorous, moving letter of instruction for his 100th birthday. With great candor, O’Brien succeeds in conveying the urgency parents may feel at any age, as they ready their children for life without them.”

One Sentence at a Time: The Millions Interviews Sion Dayson

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

As a River, Sion Dayson’s debut novel, is set in Bannen, a small town in middle Georgia struggling to overcome the legacy of Jim Crow. The narrative begins when Greer Michaels, the town’s prodigal son, returns to care for his ailing mother with whom he has a tense and strained relationship, due to her traumatic past.

The story shifts between 1977, the year of Greer’s return, and the events leading up to his abrupt departure in 1961, at the age of 16. Through a series of flashbacks that incorporates the voices of Greer’s mother, his father, and his teenage lover, As a River unravels the source of Greer’s family’s secrets along with the tensions that simmer beneath the surface of his bifurcated hometown. Greer’s journey is echoed by the sentiments of Ceiley, the teenage daughter of his childhood neighbor, and the two form a bond as outsiders and knowledge-seekers, eager to finally comprehend the place they come from.

The river in As a River is the Sicama, better known as Snake Creek, a dividing line between East and West Bannen and a central meeting point between characters. In a conversation with Ceiley, Greer describes Snake Creek as having “its own directional pull, seemingly against the dictates of physics.” It’s the type of force that breaks across racial, class, and generational lines, and describes both the unlikely attraction between characters and the strong impulse we feel to protect ourselves and the ones we love.

Dayson spoke with The Millions from her book tour about characters, process, and the passions that drive her writing.

The Millions: As a River takes place in 1977 in Bannen, Georgia. Did you base Bannen on a real-life place? How much research went into the time and setting of the book?

Sion Dayson: Bannen, Georgia, is a fictional town that I created, for the most part, out of whole cloth. Because it was an invented place, I felt a freedom to imagine it into being.

When I began the book, I was playing around with the present time of the novel being in the ’80s. But as the multigenerational aspect of the manuscript started coming into focus, mapping out the longer timeline became more crucial, and certain real-world events in the past served as important touchstones that spurred me to shift the narrative a bit further back.

Settling on the right time period relied on a bit of alchemy between investigation and intuition. Once I circled in on the years that made the most sense for the story, I wove appropriate time markers into the text—Brown vs. Board of Education, the Freedom Rides, the most popular songs playing during the era.

As for the setting, I also wove in certain real-world elements—the flora one would find in middle Georgia, the type of soil where crops grow—but for the most part, I built the town from my mind, one sentence at a time.

TM: The novel weaves together the voices of two characters: Greer is a single black man in his 30s who returns to Bannen to care for an ailing family member. Ceiley is the teenage daughter of Esse, a single mother who grew up with Greer in his old neighborhood. Why did you think it was important to include both narrators instead of focusing on just one or the other?

SD: It’s interesting. I don’t necessarily call Greer and Ceiley narrators. There’s a third person narrator that is most often close to Greer, but it’s also close to Ceiley. Then it also flies briefly to other characters and the narrative even breaks out into certain first-person sections from secondary characters. As human beings, we live in relation to each other. One person’s story never exists in isolation. That’s probably why I have this flexible narration that accesses different people in the story, even if it focuses mostly on Greer as the protagonist.

But you’re right that I saw Greer and Ceiley as a narrative pair. Their unlikely friendship heightens each other’s stories, which have many parallels. Ceiley’s mother claims that she was miraculously conceived. And Greer’s conception was shrouded in secrecy by his mother, though for different reasons. So both characters in a way are confronting how their origin stories shaped their lives.

Greer is returning after having tried to flee his history. Ceiley is a smart, curious teen frustrated by her mother’s seemingly illogical tale. She itches to get out, and her desire to see the world is only magnified by hearing about Greer’s travels. But as the two grow closer, Greer is able to teach Ceiley a lesson that he really needed to teach himself: “You leave this town because you’re angry, leave with unsettled business—believe me, you’ll never really escape it.”

That is, of course, one of the major takeaways of the book.

TM: Silence in families and the effects of desire, especially romantic desire, seem to be key themes in the book. Did these themes come to you organically or do you find yourself drawn to them over and over again?

SD: I think writers have obsessions, and both love and desire are some of mine. I’m also struck by what happens in families, these units that are supposed to be the most primal of connections, yet can lead to such estrangement. What happens in our families is so often the root of our issues and what we have to heal. I’m interested in what people do and do not tell each other. And why.

TM: In the novel, moments of joy or connectivity in relationship are often followed by sobering truths. At a pivotal point in the narrative, Greer chooses to leave Bannen rather than confront the consequences of something he has learned as a teenager. He spends much of his adult life in Paris, London, and Ghana. Why was it important for Greer to leave? Do you think, given the narrative of the novel, that it was possible for him to choose differently?

SD: Greer is a sensitive and caring person. A good man afraid that he’s not. The information that he learns as a teenager rocks his entire foundation. And because he wants to be a good man—but what is right is not always so clear-cut—he’s too overwhelmed to stay through the pain of confronting the consequences of the revelation head-on.

Of course, whether you stay or not, what happens in life travels with you. And so, Greer doesn’t really escape. He’s haunted by the information, even as he leaves Bannen far behind. I don’t think the book would exist without his choice to flee. The crux of the book to me is Greer having to come to terms with what’s happened.

There’s that adage that there are only two plot lines: a stranger comes to town or a man goes on a journey. In a way, I feel like Greer encompasses both. The first scenes I wrote centered on Ceiley and Esse. But then Greer came back to town, and I felt a lot of energy as soon as he entered the picture. He, of course, was not a stranger, as Bannen was his hometown. But he was a stranger to Ceiley. His journey is that upon learning devastating information he leaves, only to return years later to face what he had tried to flee.

Just as I’m not someone who really regrets things—we do what we do at the time and then learn from that—the question of whether Greer might have chosen differently doesn’t particularly resonate. His story and the choices he made is what push the narrative.

TM: Ceiley and Greer are united by their love of books and literature. Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass serve as connective points between characters. What are some of the works that inspired you in the writing of As a River?

SD: I think whenever a writer sits down to write, she’s approaching the page with the accumulation of all she’s read coming to bear. I also believe that’s how we move through life in general. Art affects us; each piece adds to our understanding and we absorb it into ourselves.

As a River was written over a pretty long period of time so I can’t single out particular works that inspired the book directly. It may sound sacrilegious to say, but reading doesn’t usually inspire me to write. They are two different occupations to me.

For instance, two of the writers I admire most are James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. But they’re such geniuses that what I often feel after reading their work is the desire to stop writing. What is even the point when there is already such brilliance I cannot hope to aspire to?

But I needed those works to inform my own work, of course. And I needed the complex sentences and interiority of William Faulkner. I needed the deep empathy for outsiders I read in Carson McCullers. I needed Flannery O’Connor and Randall Kenan and many others, too.

TM: What books, films or authors are you interested in right now?

SD: I am eagerly awaiting The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld. The Child Finder left me breathless, and The Butterfly Girl is a follow-up. Rene is a person whom I admire not only for her gorgeous writing, but also her generous way of participating in the world. She’s a fierce social justice advocate and foster care mother, and she’s turned some of the tough experiences of her life into such beautiful, transcendent outputs. She’s a role model to me.

I’m also awaiting Jackie Shannon Hollis’s This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story. I’m 40 and it’s kind of that last intense period of pondering my life as a woman without children or if I would want to take the leap. Again, it must be me searching for models of how others have tackled the big questions of their lives.

As for films, I watch mostly series, if I watch anything at all. The last perfect series I watched was Fleabag. Nothing has been able to match it for me since. Guess it’s my obsession with love and desire again. What a rich, complicated exploration Phoebe Waller-Bridge made of that terrain!

TM: What do you hope for Greer and for Ceiley, after the narrative arc of the novel is over?

SD: Oh, well that I will never say. I very much want readers to have their own experience and opinion on that. But I do love both of these characters very much so I am obviously rooting for each of them.

TM: In a recent episode of Writer’s Bone with Daniel Ford, you mentioned that the publication of As a River took longer than you expected. What advice do you have for emerging writers, especially those who might consider themselves “late bloomers?”

SD: To keep firmly in mind that writing and publishing are two completely different animals. Do your work the best you can. Ignore other people’s timelines; the only one that matters is yours. Know that finding a home for your book might be long and circuitous—and a lot of it is down to luck, too. Keep building and nurturing your network, not because of what opportunities it might lead to, but because connection is what gives meaning to everything we do. Your champions are out there. You just might not know who they are yet. Be the champions for others, too.

It took me as long to find a publisher as it took me to write the book. While it was a difficult road while I was walking it, I am actually delighted that it’s coming out now as opposed to years ago. I feel like I have more tools today to handle the process. I’m also putting much less pressure on the book than I might have before. Because it became clear that I couldn’t depend on the book coming out, I’ve had to find purpose in other things and redefine success for myself. The fact that the novel is available for people to read now already feels like I’ve hit the lottery. Anything else is just a cherry on top.

As to being a late bloomer, you can blossom anew at any age. To bloom is beautiful, no matter at what stage it happens.

Tuesday New Release Day: Smith, Jones, Jemc, Dancyger, Marantz

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Zadie Smith, Saeed Jones, Jac Jemc, Lilly Dancyger, Andrew Marantz, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Grand Union by Zadie Smith

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Grand Union: “In Smith’s smart and bewitching story collection, the novelist’s first (after the essay collection Feel Free), the modern world is refracted in ways that are both playful and rigorous, formally experimental and socially aware. A drag queen struggles with aging in ‘Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets’ as she misses the ‘fabled city of the past’ now that ‘every soul on these streets was a stranger.’ A child’s school worksheet spurs a humorous reassessment of storytelling itself in the postmodern ‘Parents’ Morning Epiphany.’ ‘Two Men Arrive in a Village,’ in which a violent duo invades a settlement, aspires to ‘perfection of parable.’ Some stories, including ‘Just Right,’ about a family in prewar Greenwich Village, and the sci-fi ‘Meet the President!,’ in which a privileged boy meets a lower-class English girl, read more like exercises. But more surprising and rewarding are stories constructed of urban impressions and personal conversations, like ‘For the King,’ in which the narrator meets an old friend for dinner in Paris. And the standout ‘The Canker’ uses speculative tropes to reflect on the current political situation: people live harmoniously in storyteller Esorik’s island society, until the new mainland leader, the Usurper, inspires ‘rage’ and the ‘breaking of all the cycles [Esorik] had ever known.’ Smith exercises her range without losing her wry, slightly cynical humor. Readers of all tastes will find something memorable in this collection.”

How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How We Fight for Our Lives: “Poet Jones (Prelude to Bruise) explores sexual identity, race, and the bond between a mother and child in a powerful memoir filled with devastating moments. As a gay African-American boy growing up in Texas, Jones struggled to find his way. In 1998, at age 12, ‘I thought about being gay all the time,’ he writes, but at home the subject was taboo. Here, Jones candidly discusses his coming of age, his sexual history, and his struggle to love himself. He describes engaging in destructive behavior in college, including repeated relations with a sadistic, racist man, and their encounters graphically illustrate how sex and race can be used as weapons of hate. Jones writes that, at that grim time in his life, he appeared to others to be a happy young man: ‘Standing in front of the mirror, my reflection and I were like rival animals, just moments away from tearing each other limb from limb.’ Jones beautifully records his painful emergence into adulthood and, along the way, he honors his mother, a single parent who struggled to support him financially, sometimes emotionally, but who loved him unconditionally until her death in 2011. Jones is a remarkable, unflinching storyteller, and his book is a rewarding page-turner.”

False Bingo by Jac Jemc

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about False Bingo: “Jemc’s electric, nimble collection (after The Grip of It) plumbs its characters’ most intimate relationships and unearths potent hidden truths. In ‘Delivery,’ a father’s sudden spike in online shopping signifies a troubling development. In ‘Don’t Let’s,’ a woman stays in the Georgia Lowcountry, trying to clear her mind after leaving an abusive relationship, but finds signs of a ghost’s presence in her house. ‘Pastoral,’ about the work of a porn actress who has a husband and two sons, defies convention by having no conflict at all (‘There are no wolves at the door…. There is no obstacle that requires overcoming’). A woman’s stay at a wellness retreat is impinged upon by an overbearing fellow retreater in ‘Maulawiyah.’ In ‘Hunt and Catch,’ a woman named Emily is ominously followed by a man in a garbage truck (‘When he waved, Emily felt like someone had shoved the skin of her face in the direction of his hand’). In ‘Trivial Pursuit,’ an unnamed couple is irritated by the eccentricities of a couple known as the Board Game Couple before dumping them for the Artist Couple, followed by a succession of other couples, each with their own problems. Many of these stories are only a few pages, allowing Jemc to deliver a range of payoffs, some unsettling, some poignant, all evocative. This constantly shifting collection will leave readers beguiled.”

Burn It Down edited by Lily Dancyger

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Burn It Down: “Editor Dancyger collects essays from 22 female writers contemplating (and unleashing) anger, continuing the #MeToo ethos of emotional transparency and righteous indignation, to bracing and powerful effect. The writers are a diverse group and cover a wide range of experiences. Samantha Riedel recalls unlearning a lifetime of aggressive masculine social conditioning after transitioning from male to female, while still harnessing the power of anger to scare off harassers and put TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) in their place. Lisa Marie Basile documents years of suffering from a chronic illness and having her symptoms minimized by doctors and friends alike, declaring her refusal to be dismissed: ‘There is too much beauty in being alive to silence my intuition, to ignore my body, to not sing its needs and demand they be met.’ Evette Dionne writes of the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype, and how it silences women and shapes perceptions of famous African-American women such as Serena Williams. Other rage-inducing topics include intentional misgendering, religious discrimination, sexism in the classroom, and perimenopause. As Dancyger notes in her introduction, women’s anger has long been trivialized and discredited, but this collection allows that anger the space to flourish. It is a cathartic and often inspiring reading experience.”

Ghosts of Berlin by Rudolph Herzog

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Ghosts of Berlin: “Everyday problems are complicated by weird plot thickeners in these seven vivid and intriguing stories from the author of A Short History of Nuclear Folly. A filmmaker as well and the son of director Werner Herzog, Herzog writes relatively lengthy stories told in short cuts; the reader has time to inhabit the world of the protagonist before the plot turns dark, often with a strain of deadpan humor. In ‘Needle and Thread,’ Bjorn is so wrapped up in his corporate dealings that he ignores, at his own peril, the pleas of his daughter, Alena, about a figure lurking in her bedroom. In ‘Key,’ the admittedly neurotic violinist Stiebel struggles to adjust to his new apartment and a move to Berlin. He develops a complicated relationship with a prickly neighbor named Wondrak, who triggers inexplicable emotions in him. In ‘Tandem,’ Greek immigrant and language teacher Dmitri finds himself drawn to his sweet German student Lotte, until she commits a shockingly rapacious act. The common thread in the stories is the city of Berlin and the dark shadows in its history. These links unfold in different ways as each story progresses. That this history is rarely addressed directly adds tension and resonance. The macabre mischief in Herzog’s tales is far from benign and speaks eloquently to the anxiety of modern life.”

The Furies by Katie Lowe

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Furies: “Lowe’s powerful and atmospheric debut features a troubled young woman who becomes entangled in witchcraft and murder at a private British all-girls school. Soon after starting at Elm Hollow Academy, teen Violet Taylor falls in with Alex, Grace, and their chain-smoking, impossibly cool ringleader, Robin, and begins drinking, shoplifting, and taking drugs. She especially bonds with Robin and joins an exclusive study group where the girls explore the ‘great women of art and literature,’ including the rumors that Elm Hollow’s founder was a powerful witch. After Violet is sexually assaulted , she and her friends perform a dark revenge ritual involving animal sacrifice. When the brutalized body of student Emily Frost, who was missing for months, is found in the elm in Elm Hollow’s courtyard, the girls pin her murder on the dean, leading to further shocking violence. Lowe’s sinuous prose weaves a disturbing tale of friendship, obsession, and revenge, and readers must decide whether Violet is a trustworthy narrator. Those who thrill to dark coming-of-age tales with a dash of the uncanny will find much to enjoy.”

Antisocial by Andrew Marantz

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Antisocial: “Marantz, a staff writer at the New Yorker, makes a timely and excellent debut with his chronicle of how a ‘motley cadre of edgelords’ gleefully embraced social media to spread their ‘puerile’ brand of white nationalism. In examining how ‘the unthinkable became thinkable’ in American politics, he narrates that tech entrepreneurs disrupted the old ways of vetting and spreading information—including the traditional media of which Marantz identifies himself as a part—but refused to take up a role as gatekeepers, and the white nationalists seeped in like poison. Marantz profiles alt-right figures and tech titans alike: vlogger Cassandra Fairbanks, Proud Boys leader Gavin McInnes, antifeminist Mike Cernovich, Reddit founder Steve Huffman (who experimented with gatekeeping by deleting the site’s forum dedicated to the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory), The Filter Bubble author and tech entrepreneur Eli Pariser, and clickbait startup CEO Emerson Spartz, who opines, ‘If it gets shared, it’s quality.’ A running theme is how journalists should cover ‘a racist movement full of hypocrites and liars,’ and, indeed, Marantz doesn’t shy away from asking pointed questions or noting his subjects’ inconsistencies. This insightful and well-crafted book is a must-read account of how quickly the ideas of what’s acceptable public discourse can shift.”

Am I a Bad Feminist?

“How could you publish this novel?” That’s what I heard after I chose to write about a girl falsely accusing a man of sexual assault during the #MeToo era. When The Liar was first published in Israel, a male journalist told me I should have delayed the publication. “You are hurting the struggle,” he said. It’s always nice to have a man telling me what a woman should or shouldn’t write about. But in the following weeks, I wondered: Am I a bad feminist?

I consider myself a feminist. Like most women, I have also experienced sexual harassment, which I never reported. One of the things that silenced me was the fear that people would say I’m making it up, as they often do in these cases. And yet, I wrote a story about a girl who’s “making it up.”

When my baby girl was born, I knew for sure that, one day, she’d experience some sort of sexual harassment, like so many women do. It was terrible: There she was, lying in her crib, and though I didn’t know yet what music she’s going to like, or what she will want to do when she grows up, I already knew that she is going to be harassed. One day or another, there will come a man who will say something, or grab something—simply because he can.

I hope she won’t feel ashamed, as I did when it happened to me. I pray she won’t blame herself as women in my generation so often do. I wish she won’t ask herself if it’s because of what she wore or something she said. I hope she’ll be able to talk to me about it. I never talked with my mom about it.

In the rain of thoughts, standing next to my baby girl’s crib, one thing was certain—somewhere along the way, this horror is likely to occur. I cannot protect her from this experience, which is written in the future of almost every woman.

But when #MeToo started, I began to hope that I was wrong. Is there a chance that my little girl won’t have to go through the sexual exploitation that my generation suffered? Is there a chance that my girl will be able go to high school, to summer jobs, to university without any creepy suggestions, or overtures made by bosses, professors, or other men in position of power? If #MeToo will manage to truly change the way women are treated, it will be a real revolution.

A few months after my daughter was born, I began writing a novel about a girl who gets caught in a story about a sexual assault that never happened. I decided to write it after a friend of mine, a public defense attorney, told me about an illegal migrant who was jailed because of what turned out to be a false accusation. My friend was so furious at the false accusation that she called the woman who filed the complaint “a psychopath, a monster.” But as I heard my friend calling the accuser names, I felt sorry for her. As a psychologist, I asked myself what can cause a woman to make up such a lie? It’s too easy to turn this woman into a monster. It’s much harder—and a whole lot more interesting—to try and understand her.

The work of literature—for both reader and author—is to dare and face the human condition, human complexity. Good people do bad things. False accusations of sexual assault are rare, but it doesn’t mean they never happen, or that we can’t talk about them. Sometime we write fiction not about the common case, but about the uncommon one.

And yet, it was very important for me to respect and represent the real statistics of sexual assault: Apart from the protagonist, all the other female characters in the novel have a back story of sexual harassment or assault, and this echoes my observations in reality.

As I wrote the novel, my biggest fear was that it would be read through a chauvinist perspective, one that automatically assumes that all female accusers are liars or attention seekers. After all, that’s one of the things that kept me silent about my own sexually harassment. And we all know that’s one of the favorite defenses of predators: she’s making it up.

Yet, it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to censor a story just because of the fear that someone might twist it and use it for his own misogynistic purposes. Clearly, writing about a girl making up an assault doesn’t mean that most girls make up assaults. Male authors such as Nabokov and Dostoevsky can write about pedophiles in Lolita, or murders in Crime and Punishment, yet no one would say that these novels portray most men as murderers and pedophiles.

And so, there I was, taking care of my baby girl, writing a story about a girl who makes up a sexual assault. Because I won’t let those men who falsely accuse women of lying to limit the variety of stories that a woman can write. Telling a woman what a feminist is allowed to write about is in itself a sort of repression. A Jewish author can portray Jews as complex characters, some of them doing bad deeds, without fearing that anti-Semites might use this in their propaganda.

And this, too, is something that I wish for my daughter when she grows up: to be able to say and write whatever she feels like, so that no one, ever, shuts down her voice.

Image credit: Mario Azzi.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Winterson, Lerner, Díaz, Walbert, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Jeanette Winterson, Ben Lerner, Jaquira Díaz, Kate Walbert, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Frankissstein: “Winterson (The Gap of Time) reimagines literary classic Frankenstein—both the story and the genesis of it—in her magnificent latest. The book shuttles back and forth between 1816, when a challenge leads Mary Shelley to write her indelible character and the monster he creates, and the present day, when a transgender man named Ry Shelley delves deeper into the burgeoning world and industry surrounding robotics and AI. A medical doctor, Ry supplies body parts to the professor Victor Stein, a brilliant if elusive man whose vision of the future is one in which human intelligence can transcend the limitations of needing a physical body. Victor’s interest in Ry is multifold: there is what Ry can procure for him through hospitals, and there is attraction—both romantic and platonic interest in the physical manifestation of Ry’s gender identity, which Victor calls ‘future-early’ and Ry calls ‘doubleness.’ Winterson’s recreation of the story of Mary Shelley’s creative process and later life and work is splendid, but it’s the modern analogue of the famous Lake Geneva party that is truly inspired. There is the hilariously crass sexbot entrepreneur Ron Lord, the evangelical capitalist Claire, and the nosy nuisance of Vanity Fair reporter Polly D, who’s constantly convinced she’s on to something. This vividly imagined and gorgeously constructed novel will have readers laughing out loud—and then pondering their personhood and mortality on the next page.”

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Topeka School: “Lerner made a huge impact on contemporary fiction with his two previous drawn-from-life novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. With his latest, he leaves behind his typically erudite first-person protagonists in favor of a Kansas boyhood in the 1990s. For the time being, high school senior Adam Gordon can only dream of ‘a vaguely imagined East Coast city where his experiences in Topeka could be recounted only with great irony.’ But he is a brilliant member of the debate club and the son of two psychotherapists, Jonathan and Jane, who are tied to the Foundation, an experimental treatment facility where Adam is himself a patient of the eccentric (and possibly psychic) Dr. Kenneth Erwood. Readers delve deeper in the Foundation in evocative chapters narrated by Adam’s parents, who tell the story of their courtship, Jonathan’s extramarital affair with Jane’s best friend Sima, and adventures in academia. Also haunting the novel is the figure of Darren, a teenage outsider whose inclusion in Adam’s clique ends in a disastrous act of violence. Lerner’s greatest strength lies in interstitial period details in the zeitgeist: Bob Dole, Reverend Fred Phelps, and Tupac Shakur. Loosely plotted but riveting, this novel expertly locates the thread of the anxious present in the memory-stippled past.”

Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl: “Vanasco (The Glass Eye) was raped during her sophomore year of college, and in this powerful memoir, she confronts her assailant, a man she calls Mark. Vanasco and Mark became friends at 13, and in 2003, while on break from Northwestern University, Vanasco attended a party at the house where Mark lived. She became drunk and Mark took her to his room in the basement. Vanasco graphically describes what followed: Mark undressed her, penetrated her vaginally with his fingers, masturbated over her while she cried, and told her: ‘It’s just a dream.’ Fourteen years later, Vanasco contacted Mark to discuss the assault and here delves into their uncomfortable email exchanges, phone calls, and meetings. Mark has become a remorseful loner, and reveals to her that he’s still a virgin. Vanasco worries about giving him a voice in her book: ‘But by interviewing him, I also can invert the power dynamic… he’ll probably come across as too defensive. And maybe I want that.’ In unadorned prose, the author interweaves her exchanges with Mark with stories of other predatory men she’s known, including a high school teacher who punished her after she rejected him. This is a painful reminder of the ugly ways some men treat women, and Vanasco’s nuanced story will resonate with those who’ve endured sexual inappropriateness in any form.”

Reinhardt’s Garden by Mark Haber

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Reinhardt’s Garden: “Haber’s debut novel (after the collection Deathbed Conversions) is an exhilarating fever dream about the search for the secret of melancholy. The story opens in 1907, in the forests of Uruguay, as Croatian Jacov Reinhardt searches for Emiliano Gomez Carrasquilla, a reclusive writer who Reinhardt believes holds the key to understanding melancholy—an all-consuming emotion for Reinhardt and the subject of a treatise he’s desperately trying to complete. At the story’s outset, 10 men have already died on the expedition, and it seems to the book’s unnamed narrator, Reinhardt’s longtime factotum, that they’re going in circles. As the doomed expedition plods about, the narrator slips into his memories of Reinhardt: his cataloguing of different nationalities’ melancholic characters (‘A Russian was a downright brilliant melancholic but was in love with his own melancholia so that it was sentimental and embarrassing’), his construction of a weird castle in Stuttgart with fake walls and trap doors, and his relationship with a retired prostitute named Sonja. The true pleasure of Haber’s novel—a single paragraph—is how it swirls and doubles back on itself on both a story level, with memories bleeding into one another, and on a prose level: Reinhardt seeks ‘to unearth the melancholy at the root of joy, or perhaps the joy at the root of melancholy, because the order, he said, has always been immaterial.’ Haber’s dizzying vision dextrously leads readers right into the melancholic heart of darkness.”

Toil & Trouble by Augusten Burroughs

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Toil & Trouble: “In his whimsical but thin latest, Burroughs reveals another odd facet of the famously dysfunctional family life he recalled in his bestselling Running with Scissors: witchcraft. Having received the ‘Gift’ of witchcraft powers from his mother and grandmother, witchery for Burroughs is not about flying broomsticks but rather visions, premonitions, and intense desires, focused by improvised ‘magick’ rituals, that somehow nudge ordinary life in a fortunate direction. (His first try ends in a schoolyard bully getting his comeuppance via a poetically fitting medical condition.) In adulthood, a series of spells enable him and husband Christopher to move from Manhattan to a dream house in rural Connecticut, and the book is at heart an affectionate, gently humorous portrait of their neurotic version of domestic tranquility, told through picaresque anecdotes sometimes tangentially related to magic. A ghostly voice sounds at the 200-year-old manse; a tornado blows through; raucous local eccentrics show up; Christopher soothes Burroughs’ manifold anxieties; Burroughs fusses over Christopher and dramatizes his own obsessions with decor, cleaning chores, landscaping, and dogs. The material is sometimes funny and touching, but too often it’s mundane—’the puppy is so perfectly behaved, not peeing once indoors.’ Burroughs’s fans will love his comic riffs, but others may not fall under the spell of this uninvolving saga.”

Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Ordinary Girls: “Díaz’s strong debut memoir charts her poor, violent childhood in Puerto Rico and Miami and her bumpy transition from girlhood to womanhood. The book opens in 1985 in Puerto Rico, where Díaz’s father, Papi, was a drug dealer and her mother, Mami, was an erratic personality who’d soon be in the grips of schizophrenia. Within a few years the family moved to Miami Beach, in pursuit of better opportunities. Díaz recalls that her parents were constantly fighting and uprooting her and her two siblings: ‘every new apartment would be smaller than the last.’ She writes about being a juvenile delinquent and ‘a closeted queer girl in a homophobic place,’ taking drugs, running away, getting married at 17, and being sexually assaulted. Her most gripping stories concern the women in her life: her angry maternal grandmother, who mocked her appearance; her paternal grandmother, who brought her joy and relief; and her mother, a ‘shattered creature’ whom she watched descend into mental illness and addiction. A turning point for Díaz comes toward the end of the book, when Díaz details how enlisting in the Navy at 18 gave her the stability she needed. Díaz’s empowering book wonderfully portrays the female struggle and the patterns of family dysfunction.”

Solar Perplexus by Dean Young

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Solar Perplexus: “‘I don’t know what people mean/ by reality,’ Young (Shock by Shock) writes in the first lines of his celebratory 15th book of poetry, his first since a heart transplant in 2011. With a transformed attention to life’s shifts and minutiae, Young’s signature unmoored poetics style is filled with quick shifts and leaps as he examines life’s surreal moments and unexpected humor. Indisputably, Young’s poems unfold in ways that are impossible to paraphrase: ‘As in a love affair. As when a trumpet/ hovers in the air. The average cloud/ outweighs a bus. That strewed dust above/ is the universe.’ The first half of the poems collected resist narrative, or even the perspective of an ‘I.’ ‘The ultimate monster is always the self,’ Young notes, and when the self does appear in these poems, it often does through ungrounded observation, such as ‘I myself am a top.’ Throughout, Young reflects on the effects of poetry on language and his own life: ‘Poetry, I love/ you certainly without any irritable/ reaching after fact. Resistance/ makes you shine.’ There lies a particular pleasure in the deeply interior logic of these poems.”

She Was Like That by Kate Walbert

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about She Was Like That: “This collection of 12 stories from Walbert (His Favorites) creates a taut, clever, and disturbing portrait of motherhood. Fathers, living with the family or apart, do not share their wives’ disquiet. In ‘M&M World,’ a mother takes her daughters to the crowded candy-themed Times Square megastore and panics when she loses sight of her youngest girl. ‘Playdate’ is also set in New York City. Two six-year-olds play together while their mothers chat, until one mother reads the other’s list of things that make her nervous: crowds, school, shadows, playdates. ‘Conversation’ and ‘The Blue Hour’ feature women that feel emotionally stranded. ‘Do Something,’ ‘Slow the Heart,’ and ‘A Mother Is Someone Who Tells Jokes’ show women whose children are dead, ill, or impaired. Memories of deceased mothers haunt the protagonists of ‘Paris, 1994’ and ‘To Do.’ In ‘Radical Feminists,’ a mother of two runs into her long-hated sexist former boss. Set from the 1950s to the present, Walbert portrays mothers beset by worry, fear, and dissatisfaction as they try to accentuate joy in their children’s lives. This is a piercing, intimate, and exquisite collection.”

Amazing Grace: Reading Kelly J. Beard’s ‘An Imperfect Rapture’

Absolutism is a rhetoric of political convenience, a flashcard deck of judgments with Old Testament swiftness and certainty. Blue collar, white collar, and the billionaire class. Urban and rural. Red state versus blue state. Fact and fable. Each term generates its own litany of forgivable and unforgivable sins. These absolutes efface our desire to understand—a yearning necessary for true intellectual growth and narrative, as Malcolm Heath notes in the introduction to his translation of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Kelly J. Beard’s memoir, An Imperfect Rapture, speaks across the void between those absolutes. The youngest child to a set of parents devoted to each other and the fundamentalist principles of the Foursquare Church, Beard takes the courageous plunge back into the 1960s and ’70s of her youth. As she explores her past, she slowly shines light onto the events that scaffolded her childhood and adolescence: domestic violence, disability, mental illness, addiction, poverty, shame, and the dissonance between the promises of faith and the family’s dire financial straits.

Neither elegy nor ode, neither dirge nor fanfare, Beard’s memoir carefully attunes the harmonic resonances between her memories, her vulnerability, and her own capacity for forgiveness. The first scene presents these elements with a dynamic swell. The opening paragraph is a single sentence—“My mother saw demons.”—a fierce downbeat that pulls the reader into a tangle of fraught intimacies. In this scene, Beard’s mother is confiding in her Bible study group from Palm Spring’s Desert Chapel. As a member of the church’s telephone prayer chain, she received calls to minister to the ill, or to those showing signs of demonic possession: “My mother told the circle of women about a call she received the night before. A boy. A teenager who came home from youth services to find his mother naked, thrashing in the shallow end of the pool, gurgling like a baby.”

Beard’s parents leave their own children at home to minister to her; they “stayed all night, praying with the woman in the pool.” It’s a harrowing story. Yet, through this scene, Beard telegraphs the issues that vexed her early years. Her parents’ dedication to each other and their faith left their children neglected and abandoned—even if the kids were unaware of it at the time. As Beard’s mother recalls the prayer visit to the woman in the pool for her church group, the events of the previous night pulse for Beard with the discomfort of a dull ache:
I thought about Mama waking me the night before, how I’d listened to Daddy peeing in the tiny turquoise and white tiled bathroom across the hall while she told me they were leaving to pray for a lady. I begged to go along. No, she said, we think she’s demon possessed, we can’t let you get that close. The toilet flushed. She disappeared into the dark.

I lay awake the rest of the night, my cotton gown sticky as I listened to my sister’s rhythmic huffs in the bunk below. She slept through everything.
The moment is an otherworldly snapshot of a night in the Beard household, perfectly compressed. The Palm Spring house is claustrophobic—she can hear her father in the bathroom and she is literally bunked snug above her sister. Here, Beard intimates a few truths about her family. Her parents are on a mission, together. They believe in the power of prayer above all else. And for those two things, they’ll leave their children in the dark of night.

Despite this vague awareness, Beard writes, “I knew I was vulnerable. This knowledge kept me pinned to the floor at her feet, week after week, my cheek pressed against the cream-and-black speckled linoleum, the yellow ties of her apron dangling out of reach.”

It’s not hard to imagine Beard as a child reaching for her mother’s apron strings, in the hope of grasping some tether to genuine affection, with true comfort always out of reach.

Vulnerable and hurt, yet patient and forgiving, Beard’s tone throughout the memoir evades the polemical rage of memoirs like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which wield domestic violence, poverty, and substance abuse as an ideological cudgel. As Flannery O’Connor puts it in her essay collection Mystery and Manners, “Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.”

And the Beard family certainly trembles. The children cower if their father wears a certain belt, because they know the slightest accident or indiscretion—something as simple as spilling milk—can provoke him. They endure his physical lashings, alongside the verbal ones doled out by their mother. (While she does not condone the abuse, Beard’s empathy compels her to grapple with her parents’ specters: her father’s impoverished upbringing, her mother’s loneliness.) Beard contends with eyesight bad enough to render her legally blind, but the blessings of modern optometry pale when a prayer meeting seems to heal her sister’s eye: “For my parents, Barb’s experience seemed to dilute the miracle of the half-inch thick glasses that focused my sight.”

But there are perils beyond the household and the church. When Beard’s father loses his job as a salesman for Farmhand equipment, life in Palm Springs becomes untenable. The family uproots for Colorado, then Montana, as her father chases odd jobs (traveling salesman, newspaper routes, ranch hand, and more) to provide a home for the family—not an easy task, for a man well beyond his middle years. Naturally, to resolve this apparent trial of Job, her parents turn to prayer. “And as happened more times than not,” Beard writes, “the answer to their prayers cost more than they expected.” Beard’s mother finds that her credits in a nursing program won’t transfer, and she has to retake classes in Colorado—amplifying her vindictiveness.

To compensate, Beard cycles through a revolving door of friends and experiments with drugs. For another memoirist, it would be easy to resort to a rhetoric of absolutes, of vindictive condemnation. But Beard’s elegant and direct prose teems with complexity and nuance. Moreover, with the benefit of hindsight, the memoir peels back the rind of anger and finds within a morsel of grace.

A pivotal scene demonstrates how the memoir shucks off the visceral, immediate reactions that might occur in real life, in fiction, or in a spur-of-the-moment telling. Beard’s parents had promised that she, then a teenager, could trick-or-treat with her friend Denise; instead, her parents saddle her with humiliating chores and her father beats her. For revenge, she runs off with Denise, and the two bunk away in a dorm room at the University of Colorado. There’s a hint of sexual awakening when, in the dorm room, “Denise and I glanced at each other like newlyweds.” And their time in the dorm lights in her an epiphany that, in the twilight years of her adolescence, will spark a passion for music and creative writing. “[I]t never occurred to me,” Beard writes, “that college could be exciting or anything other than a means to a job like teaching or nursing.” (Here, Beard’s work resembles such kin as Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland or Tara Westover’s Educated: In all of these memoirs, education equips the author with the desire to understand and the capacity to forgive.)

After a few days spent smoking and lingering together in a twin bed, Denise decides to go home, which triggers intense feelings of abandonment and fear: “In my head, I begged please don’t leave me please don’t leave me please don’t leave me.”

The memoir refuses to rage against Denise. Beard ends the scene and the paragraph, stating, “It will take me more than thirty years to see her decision as grace, to understand her mother’s desperate barter.” She glances toward the future, Halloween of 2004, when her own daughter gathers with friends before trick-or-treating. She sees in them a reflection of her young self: “In that moment, an opaque film will dissolve from my inner eye, and I will see in them what I missed in myself: how delicate their limbs, how fragile their lives. I will see the intricate, mostly inarticulate ties binding mother to daughter. I will glimpse an angel.”

What is truly masterful in An Imperfect Rapture, though, is the texture of Beard’s prose and her capacity to inflect each sentence with urgency, insight, and compassion. Like life, narrative involves so many acts of faith, ones that demand us to accept and revel in the fraught and the complex. That Beard transcends righteous anger through an ethic of forgiveness and tolerance—an ethic that demands that readers abandon the easy ideology of absolutes and assumptions—is an added grace of this vital memoir.

A Game Like Heroin: On Escapism, TwitchCon, and Kicking the ‘Fortnite’ Habit

1.

I couldn’t tell you what time it was when I got the call from The Bosco—the San Francisco based photo service I freelanced for that mainly covered tech events scattered around the city—but I could tell you what I was doing. I was playing video games, specifically Fortnite on Playstation 4, a competitive, cross-platform battle royale game created by Epic Games with more than 250 million players and counting.

This is not an honorable story, merely a common one.

I don’t even know how I saw The Bosco’s call. Out of self-preservation, I’d left my phone face down to prevent me from instinctively doing math on how much sleep I wouldn’t be getting. I didn’t want that information, that guilt. I couldn’t do anything with it. It would only make me stop gaming. And that—late at night and lacking any desire to better myself spiritually, physically, or intellectually—was out of the question. Fortnite was all I had. What was I going to do? Read a book? No, I needed to kill. I needed to win. I needed Victory Royale.

The lights in my living room were dimmed to replicate the conditions of a cave, which heightened the sharpness and overall saturation of the digital desert, forest, and farms on which I was battling. As I worked the paddles of my PS4 controller, dodging, shooting, ducking, and weaving, I reveled in the movements of the miniature me on the 65-inch HDTV 4K TV. The character (or “skin”) I’d chosen was your typical caricature of an ancient Viking: gut juice smeared across his face; hatchet dangling from his side; braided golden yellow beard; tattoos of pagan idols; leather helmet with two giant horns jutting into the sky. I’m half Norwegian, so I figured why not connect my Fortnite addiction to my lineage?

As the phone rang and rang, 100 different players were dropping into the arena at once. As I fumbled to pick up the call, I felt a weird sense of pride as I watched my Viking avatar’s honeysuckle hair flutter behind him like a cape. Luckily, I was able to follow my team to a safe area, where I immediately hid in a bush. I picked up my phone. My boss’s name read big and white on the screen.

Tyler, I thought, Interesting…he never calls.

“What do you want?” I said, never taking my eyes from the game. “I’m in the middle of something.”

“I got some work for you next week,” he told me. “You ever heard of TwitchCon?”

“Of course,” I said. “The videogame streaming app where hordes of nerds watch godly nerds play video games for hours on end.”

I am one of these nerds. Obviously, I’m unable to address this truth. Que sera sera.

“We’re doing a booth there in one of their tents,” he said. “There’s going to be a green screen, something called a glider they are installing, guys coming up from L.A., and all that. It’s in the Fortnite tent. You ever heard of Fortnite?”

2.

Last year Fortnite—a game that grossed $3 billion in 2018 and boasts 200 million registered players—celebrated its first birthday. The CEO of Epic Games is now worth $7 billion. The company came out of nowhere, fusing the old paradigm of third-person shooters like Star Wars Battle Front and Grand Theft Auto with a brand-new mode of competitive gaming: battle royale. So how did Fortnite suddenly become so popular?

Well, it’s addicting. I remember how sweaty and shaky my hands were after my first win, after hours and hours of grinding. I could feel the dopamine and adrenaline surging through me like a swarm of bees. I was literally buzzing. I wanted nothing more than to feel that physiological spike of victory over and over, again and again.

My story isn’t unique. The dominant demographic of players registered with Fortnite is 18- to 24-year-olds (62.7 percent) followed by 25- to 34-year-olds (22.5 percent). It’s no surprise that people ripe for existential crises of one sort or another choose a game that gives them a specific task: kill anyone that gets in your or your team’s way.

That kind of freedom, just given away for free, can’t be found out in the real world

But in the world of Fortnite, it can.

With pop icons like Drake and sport stars like Richard Sherman selling copyrighted dance moves that Epic uses in the game, it’s no surprise that the masses follow suit. In March 2018, Ninja, the most popular streamer of Fortnite on Twitch—recently he moved to Mixer, a Seattle-based video game live-streaming platform owned by Microsoft; he makes roughly $3 million dollars per year in support of the game—played alongside Drake and Travis Scott for a crowd of millions. Like the Avengers and Harry Potter films, Fortnite draws huge crowds not only because of its content but also because of its culture. And, as with any successful online venture, there’s plenty of commercial opportunities: in-game micro transactions; battle passes, and targeted advertising pushing energy drinks, headphones, and specialty game controllers. All this (and much more) is ready to strike like some invisible eel from the coral.

So, what are the repercussions of all this innocent mayhem and electronic carnage? Lorrine Marer, a British behavioral specialist whose clients range from kids to adults, says, “This game is like heroin. Once you are hooked, it’s hard to get unhooked.” That may sound harsh, insensitive, or overly dramatic; nobody’s technically dying from playing Fortnite but some kids are logging 10 to 12 hours per day. There have been reports of Fortnite-obsessed kids disregarding school and homework, butting heads with parents who threaten to disconnect the Internet. And for what? Another level? A new skin? Another victory?

What Fortnite does—along with a slew of other games—is tap into and exploit the universal desire for legacy, fame, and recognition. Fortnite is really a metaphor for and microcosm of Capitalist America.

3.

Arriving at TwitchCon at the giant McEnery Convention Center in San Jose on a blindingly hot Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help but assess the crowd as we walked in: the usual super fans with their hair dyed various shades of puke green, yellow, bubble-gum pink, and purple, their giant cell phones recording anything and everything. Then, there were the normal looking 20-somethings, most likely there to, somewhat ironically, view new games while simultaneously mocking their own (and everyone else’s) nerdiness. But as I scoped out the food tents, I noticed another breed of a gamer: more professional, almost athletic. Their backs were straighter, the muscles in their hands and forearms toned. Their eyes weren’t sluggish or glazed over; there was a kind of sharpness to them. Something told me something very serious was on the line for this group.

I would later learn that these gamers had been practicing for up to 16 hours a day for who knows how long with the hope of winning a cash prize of $1.5 million. That’s a lot of money for playing a video game. Some of these players had jerseys—some glittery aqua blue, others shiny obsidian—with team names like Disquiet, 100 Thieves, and Solary. As they sauntered into the Fortnite tent—many of them with an odd, awful royal bearing—they reminded me of the workers at the tech companies that litter the streets of San Francisco: dull, common, amoeba-like beings with oversized backpacks and Apple Watches, carrying themselves as if they owned the world. It was like The Revenge of the Nerds, but with an extra dose of hubris.

“Hey,” the captain of our crew shouted at me. “You’re laggin’. Let’s go.”

The fruity stink of vape pens and savory smell of overpriced food filled the air. We made our way through security—pat downs and metal detectors, because of a shooting last year at another video game convention, were common now—and then were let loose in the Fortnite tent.

4.

I remember gasping. The ceiling of the tent was at least 100 feet high. It felt like being in the belly of some freakishly giant blue whale, it’s ribs, muscles, and tendons all visible and aglow. On the thick canvas above, yellow, green, and red strobe lights danced. There was a muted beat of some indecipherable EDM in the distance. The setting was hectic and random, a Technicolor playground of cheap merchandise and desperate developers trying to push their wares.

“Quiet past the players area,” one of the guards told me in an annoyed whisper.

“The what?” I asked.

He jerked his head in the direction of a huge wall of translucent orange glass. Behind it, were hundreds of computers set up with gaming headsets, ergonomic chairs, and NASA-grade keyboards. This was where professionals played. I saw a few of these spectral, shadowy untouchables hunched over monitors practicing. Through the barrier, I could hear the furious tip-tap-tapping of their fingers.

The pro player closest to me must have been barely 16. He sat alone, save a pile of twisted Red Bull cans and his gaming set, his face six inches from the screen. His eyes, mirroring the rainbow of lights of the game, were tight and unblinking. And there in the pearly glow of the screen, he was talking himself. One eye would suddenly bulge; a burst of giggles would follow as he landed a shot or made a kill. And when something went wrong, he’d bark at the game. He looked as if he was trying to literally enter the world of Fortnite, tooth and nail, foot and fist.

Entering the main hall, I did a double take: there in the middle of the room was a real-life school bus. Just like the one at the beginning of the game. And just like the bus in Fortnite, this one had a giant balloon attached to the roof. All around the bus, children in oxygen masks were spray-painting its doors and body. No one seemed to mind. A few people clapped, smiling dead-eyed as the mist from the paint coated their cheeks. The energy of Fortnite—that feeling of gleeful chaos you get in the middle of a firefight—was ubiquitous. It was as if the digital world of my gaming addition had suddenly—and terrifyingly—come to life.

Next to the bus were barrels oozing some sort of neon-green goo and plastic palm trees, their leaves brittle and lime-green. At the base of the bus were various bottles: ceramic healing and shield potions. Near that was a bunch of kids—decked out in Fortnite shirts—waving colorful flags. And smack-dab in the middle of this strange excuse for a put-put course, was a giant Durr Burger. If you haven’t seen Fortnite’s Durr Burger, it’s a giant hamburger with googly eyes, a giant pink tongue, and an olive stabbed into the top of his head. I found myself staring directly into its dead eyes, transfixed by its wanton stupidity. All of it begged the simple question: Who the hell puts an olive on a hamburger?

The coup de gras was a vast lawn of fake grass littered with rainbow colored beanbags with a view of the giant IMAX screen. This is where the masses could view the digital Fortnite battles. And the area was already packed with hungry spectators lying about. For anyone unable to score a beanbag, there were rows of metal bleachers, all of them covered in peanuts and popcorn and surrounded by plastic fencing and security guards. I was trying to meditate on this terrible battleground when a short kid with electric blueberry hair tugged at my shirt.

“Hey,” he barked. “Are you excited for the competition?”

“The what?” I pulled his clammy hand off me.

“The Fortnite fight, stupid!” he said, spitting on my pants.

“Sure,” I lied. The game I’d been so addicted to, the game I’d lost countless hours to, was finally showing me its true colors. I was nothing but dejected. “Ecstatic.”

“I don’t know what that words means.” He stuck his tongue out at me, ruffled his blueberry hair, and sprinted into the crowd. I was about to shout something at him—something elderly sounding—but he was gone.

5.

Just as we were about to open the photo booth, a giant explosion echoed across the fake lawn.

“What the hell was that?” shrieked a man dressed as a Viking

I was about to answer when a seven-foot, silver-headed Donkey DJ emerged from a cloud of smoke. The creature had jutting ears, cavernous nostrils, and a massive head no doubt forged from some alien material. I had no words of comfort or explanation for the Viking—let alone for myself. As EDM roared louder, Donkey DJ galloped to a bank of turntables, slapped its hooves down on the records, and started spinning. The crowd was clearly still in shock. Everyone slowly rose from their beanbag chairs and awkwardly bopped their shoulders and indifferently swiveled their hips.

“For today’s main event,” Donkey DJ shouted, “We’ve got a Fortnite competition with a prize of $1.5 million.”

Jesus, I thought. This goddamn donkey can talk.

My awful musings were interrupted as the Fortnite tournament kicked off in earnest. The announcers were clean-cut, business casual, and they narrated every single play, every last shot. When a player’s avatar died, the crowd roared with delight, like Romans watching a gladiator being torn to ribbons. In the face of all that atavistic shouting and madness, I saw clearly how my own pleasure, my need for victory, my addiction to Fortnite was both a product of, and fuel for, the horrors of late-stage capitalism.

Just as I was trying to make sense of this realization, the crowd began to turn. Their malaise, as the matches grew more intense, morphed into violence. Donkey DJ pumped out song after song of trance music, switching the track every 30 seconds. Everywhere was a mass of churning bodies. Everyone was hopped up on sugar and caffeine. And they were starting to lose control.

Three or four spectators climbed onto the stage and interrupted the play-by-play broadcast. Some kid crawled on top of Donkey DJ. People surged closer to the screen, almost as if hypnotized, almost as if they were trying to enter the game. Security was called. It wasn’t enough. A 12 year old ripped one of the beanbags to shreds, sending tiny white balls flying in all directions. And then it dawned on me: This is what these people wanted, maybe even needed, all along—a true escape. They came to TwitchCon to get as close to Fortnite as they possibly could. To enter the game. But what would happen when they couldn’t? What then?

6.

Later, with Fortnite’s spell forever broken, I spotted the kid I’d seen before, the one with the luminescent blueberry hair. He was fussing at the exit, refusing to leave. His parents called to him. I watched him stomp his feet, grip the door, anger evolving into rage as his parents tried to drag him from the building. But he clung to the doorframe, and his parents eventually gave up and walked away in defeat. In that instant, the kid had to make a choice. His gaze shifted from the real world outside—one filled with family, friends, and actual sunlight— to the Fortnite tent.

I watched him as he shifted his little conflicted body around. He saw the beanbags piled up and packed away. He saw his favorite Fortnite players hanging their heads in defeat. He saw the chasm between the game world and the real world for perhaps the first time in his young life. And in the face of this harsh reality, his eyes grew wide with what I could only hope was some kind of epiphany. Then, he seemed to relax. His tensed muscles relaxed. His manic vibe calmed. Was the dreamer finally waking from his dream?

I don’t know. And I never will know. But, in that moment, I felt a ripple of hope as the blue-haired kid turned around, faced the door, and chose to step back into the world.

TwitchCon 2019 takes place at the San Diego Convention Center from Friday Sept. 27 to Sunday Sept. 29. The Fortnite Open kicks off Friday at 11 a.m. in the Twitch Rivals Arena.

Why We Need to Read the Literature of Incarceration

1.
At my university, I once attended a dinner to help support first-generation students. This was a varied, singular group of students, undergraduates and grad students, who had overcome all sorts of challenges in order to land, and thrive, at Columbia.

The next day, I attended a ceremony celebrating a graduating senior in the Directly Impacted Group, a university-wide organization comprised of students who have been incarcerated or who are impacted by incarceration via family members. Many of the bright, shiny, brilliant students I’d met the day before were in this group as well.

My own family has been affected by incarceration, and none of this actually should come as a surprise considering that fact that the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, including China and Russia. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the U.S. holds five percent of the world’s population yet nearly 25 percent of incarcerated people.

Put another way, if the population of people in prison and jail were a city, it would be a city somewhere in size between Phoenix and Houston. If you added people on probation, the number rises to 7.3 million—somewhere in size between Los Angeles and New York City.

Tandem to the rise of “Supermax” prisons that are often for-profit and constructed solely of solitary confinement cells, is the rise of using local jails and private prisons to confine migrants and asylum seekers. New documents have revealed the widespread use of solitary confinement, often with no reason, in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. Given the numbers of people being incarcerated, the outward radiating effects in the community, and that our tax dollars are paying for it (including private prisons, which often merely take the state budgets and rejigger them for profit), the prison problem should be a concern of every American.

2.
Incarceration exists from the very beginning of America’s history. In 1675, just after the start of King Phillip’s war, 500 Native Americans were imprisoned on a barren strip of land off of Boston Harbor called Deer Island. Half died over the winter, the same Native Americans who welcomed the English to America’s shores in 1621. In the 1880s the site became a concentration camp for Irish fleeing the famine, then it became an actual prison, and is now a sewage treatment plant.

The early 19th century saw the rise of more codified systems, specifically the penitentiary system, also known as the Pennsylvania system, which was rooted in an optimistic idea of social rehabilitation (the “penitence” in penitentiary) versus the “Auburn” system that emphasized prisoners laboring together in silence and physical punishment. The Philadelphia penitentiary system in particular relied almost exclusively on solitary confinement, which resulted in catastrophic mental damage to inmates, causing the system to be abandoned.

The U.S. leads the world in its use of prolonged incarceration and solitary confinement despite bleak statistics that show the ineffectiveness of such a system: a Bureau of Justice study showed that five of six state prisoners were rearrested within nine years, a rate of 83 percent.

The 2019 memoir Solitary, by Albert Woodfox, addresses the prison industrial complex and dangerous overuse of solitary confinement—and has just been longlisted for the National Book Award. Woodfox was held in solitary confinement in a six-by-nine foot cell for more than 40 years—longer than any American. He’d entered the prison system as a teen accused of various crimes, culminating in his arrest for robbery. He escaped from jail, and fled to New York, where he became acquainted with the Black Panther Party and their ideas of organizing and education. He was arrested and extradited to the Orleans Parish Prison where he helped organize a strike that eventually forced the prison to improve its conditions. As punishment, he was sent to the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola, named after the slave plantation that formerly occupied its ground (the plantation itself was named for the African country that was the origin of many slaves brought to Louisiana).

In 1972, when a prison guard was found stabbed to death, Woodfox, despite no evidence linking him to the crime (the guard’s widow would eventually testify that she believed he was innocent), was framed for the murder. He was placed in solitary (also euphemistically rebranded as “closed cell restricted,” CCR) for 44 years and 10 months. In his book he describes it:
We were locked down 23 hours a day. There was no outside exercise yard for CCR prisoners. There were prisoners in CCR who hadn’t been outside in years. We couldn’t make or receive phone calls. We weren’t allowed books, magazines, newspapers, or radios. There were no fans on the tier; there was no access to ice, no hot water in the sinks in our cells. There was no hot plate to heat water on the tier. Needless to say, we were not allowed educational, social, vocational, or religious programs; we weren’t allowed to do hobby crafts (leatherwork, painting, woodwork). Rats came up the shower drain at the end of the hall and would run down the tier. We threw things at them to keep them from coming into our cells. Mice came out at night. When the red ants invaded they were everywhere all at once, in clothes, sheets, mail, toiletries, food.
His case (along with two other Black Panthers, collectively known as the Angola Three) attracted the attention of Amnesty International and other activists. Eventually the murder conviction was overturned and Woodfox was released on his birthday in 2016.

I spoke with Mr. Woodfox, now 72, about how he constructed his powerful memoir.

The Millions: Can you tell me how you started writing the book, and also how you got the physical writing materials at all?

Albert Woodfox: I always knew I would tell the story of what happened to me. But when I was in, I didn’t actually write. People smuggled in writing materials to me, just like we got books. There were ways. In my mental space, I had to stay optimistic and not think about what might happen if I stay in here for the rest of my life. In my mind that would be me wondering if I was ever go free. So I didn’t think about things that deeply. I just took notes. I took notes for 27 years and managed to get those notes out to my brother. But then they were stolen out of his car!

But that’s why I am very open that I wrote this book with [journalist] Leslie [George]. She helped me go through my memory and put the things together.

TM: What was the most difficult part of being in solitary?

AW: I couldn’t go to my mother’s funeral. They don’t let people in solitary out even for that. First thing I did when I got out was have my brother drive me to the cemetery, and because of a delay in my processing, it was closed. The next day, we went to a store and bought out all the flowers and I brought them to my mother’s grave.

Many countries have banned solitary confinement as torture, and the work of psychiatrist and former Harvard Medical School faculty member Stuart Grassian suggests that humans are such social beings that being deprived of contact in solitary confinement causes irreversible mental and emotional damage to set in almost immediately.

The Angola Three have filed a civil lawsuit on the grounds that being locked down 23 hours a day violates Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Their case is still pending.

3.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander examines how the carceral system rose from the dregs of slavery to control and exploit labor from the black body: A person could be picked up not just for “loitering” but also for “suspected loitering,” and then taken into a prison and put to work via the convict lease system or “chain gang.” Angola prison is literally on a former plantation that named itself for the African country from which its slaves were stolen; one does not need a huge amount of imagination to draw the lines from slavery to the prison system. The “new” Jim Crow aspect of her book shows how the “War on Drugs” has concentrated on the black community, and how—in ways reminiscent of ICE—law enforcement has been able to operate outside the law, often trampling the Fourth Amendment that protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The myth of the missing black father is born out of this war. When politicians and cultural figures—not just right wing pundits but also former President Barack Obama and comedian Bill Cosby—lament missing black fathers, none of them note (nor does the media) that many of these father-child separations are due to arrests for minor infractions, for example, marijuana possession or selling loose cigarettes, as was the case with Eric Garner.

City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 by Kelly Lytle Hernández is a good complement to The New Jim Crow in its examination of the rise of incarceration in non-slave states. The book looks at how histories of native elimination, immigrant exclusion, and black disappearance are behind the rise of incarceration in Los Angeles, which built one of the largest systems of human caging in the world to remove marginalized groups ranging from itinerant white “tramps and “hobos” to Chinese immigrants, African Americans and Mexican immigrants.

In American Prison, journalist Shane Bauer, who himself was held in solitary confinement in Iran, went undercover as a prison guard at a private prison (also in Louisiana) and wrote a widely praised feature about it for Mother Jones. This book exposes not just the shocking conditions of the prison (for guards and inmates alike) but also charts the rise of the private prison system: At a Republican presidential fundraiser in 1983, an executive of the Magic Stove company daydreamed that privatizing prisons would be “a heck of a venture for a young man to solve the prison problem”—i.e., overcrowding from the flood of new, disproportionately nonwhite inmates via the war on drugs—“and make a lot of money at the same time.” Thus the Corrections Corporation of America was born; its first project: converting a motel into an immigrant detention center in Texas. CCA went public in 1986. Thomas Beasley, one of CCA’s founders, told Inc. “You just sell it like you were selling cars or real estate or hamburgers.”

American Prison takes an in-depth look at the roots of the idea of incarcerating people for profit: how in the 1990s CCA actually built prisons without state contracts, betting (rightly) on a massive increase in the prison population, and how private prisons make for a system deliberately opaque and shielded from public accountability—they are businesses, not government entities. It’s disturbing to think that early investors included Marriott-Sodexho and a venture capitalist who helped create the Hospital Corporation of America. The book’s historical view makes an important point: Using private prisons for immigrant detention is not something new to the Trump administration but dates back to the 1980s and Ronald Reagan.

4.
Another fundamental but surprising fact about incarceration in the U.S. is that 4 percent of the world’s female population lives in the U.S., but the U.S. accounts for more 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women. “Total” prison statistics have often obscured the fact that on a state level, women have become the fastest growing segment of the prison population—even to the point where the growth of their populations is significant enough to counteract reductions in the men’s population, i.e., too often, states have an incomplete commitment to prison reform by ignoring women’s incarceration.

Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room—a novel for which the author went undercover with a group of criminology students—provides an immersive look at life in a women’s prison. The book’s fictional Stanville Prison is a composite of various women’s prisons, including Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the U.S., and the only one in California to house a death row. The novel follows several characters, including a white GED teacher and an incarcerated cop, but is mainly the story of Romy, who is serving a life sentence for murdering a john who was stalking her. She is very much representative of the female prison population, coming in with a history of trauma, abuse, and drug use, and, like the majority of the women in prison, the mother of a young child who will be deeply affected by her incarceration. Further, she spends significant time in and out of solitary confinement, here rebranded as “administrative segregation,” or “ad-seg.”

To be sure, many people are incarcerated because they have committed horrific crimes. But as a shocking video of a woman giving birth in her cell, scared and alone shows, incarcerated persons are some of the most voiceless and forgotten people in our society. Incarcerated or not, they are still human, they have families, and some will return to society, and as our tax dollars pay for their care (one year in prison costs the same as a year in law school), it is our business to understand how they are being treated—and if they should be incarcerated in the first place.

Image credit: Unsplash/Carles Rabada.

Bringing Voices Across Oceans: On Grace Talusan’s ‘The Body Papers’

The term “Asian American” is rooted in 1960s political activism but over the past several years, it has been expanded in use. It is now common to use “Asian American” to describe a literary genre. And although Filipinos are the second largest Asian demographic in the United States, and are the fourth largest immigrant group in the country, the narrative of the Filipino American remains trapped under the broadly stroked term “Asian American.” 

Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers pulls Filipino American memoir to the forefront of Asian American conscience with heartbreaking prose, taking on the impact of immigration, sexual abuse, medical trauma, and the diaspora via the documentation of—and a meditation on—brownness and her body. With conversational lucidity and subtle, direct prose, Talusan unveils an account of suffering—the short-and long-term impacts of unaddressed mental health needs, becoming a citizen, systematic racism, cancer, fertility, and filial piety. Confessional yet unapologetic, The Body Papers shows the lengths to which a writer will go to trace her lineage and find her identity, even if it means crossing oceans to unknown places. She modernizes the Philippine diaspora by peppering Tagalog vernacular in her prose and grounding the essays with medical records, immigration papers, and personal photos. 

With American suburbia and Catholicism as background, Talusan does what many children of immigrants do in adulthood: finally show up for the long awaited reckoning with our childhood memories of acculturation. “Our house was American on the outside, but Filipino on the inside. We left our shoes at the door and wore slippers inside the house. We had a tabo…an electric rice cooker…an altar with statues of the Santo Nino…and we would kneel together as a family…to pray the rosary.” Talusan memorializes the seemingly innocuous details of teenage, pained assimilation: putting hair lightening products in her raven hair, just like her blonde friends, and enduring microaggressions camouflaged as insights from school teachers and counselors who failed to recognize her cultural roots and racialized experience. 

Talusan explores lineage as a survival mechanism. Her documentation status, diaspora, and family dynamics lay groundwork for understanding the egregious sexual abuse she endured from her grandfather who she learns, after telling her family about the abuse, was a “relentless pedophile” whose abuse was protected by generations of silence and secrecy.

“All those years, I thought I was protecting the old man with my silence. I expected my father to beat my grandfather bloody. I thought the old man would be killed. Every day, I thought I’d been saving his life. My parents believed me. They did not seem very surprised to learn of my grandfather’s behavior. And that’s when I realized that he must have done this before. As soon as I told my parents what happened, they warned me to keep it quiet. I can forgive this reaction now—they knew a story could destroy you.”

In a nod to the paradoxes of Filipino American life, The Body Papers oscillates between anecdotes of erasure and hypervisibility—particularly when it comes to racial consciousness. As Talusan ages, she develops a deeper awareness of racial complexity and explores her own complicity and sense of inferiority because of white supremacy. Memories are framed with both leniency and criticism, but Talusan also incriminates herself for not fully grasping how white proximity has padded her anger and has fed her a false illusion of belonging. After she tells her high school counselor she wants her collegiate experience to be a more diverse experience, she uses the term “people of color” for the first time. In response, the white counselor compares his skin to hers, saying his skin, as a white man, is darker. He concludes, “I’m no more a person of color than you are.” 

Talusan investigates her response pattern: first quiet acquiescence that hides her outrage and then, later, self-admonishment for failing to articulate her anger. “I’m still mortified at how I acquiesced. At the time, the development of racial identity was still in the fetal stage. Maybe I wanted him to be right. I also wanted to believe that my life would not be negatively impacted by race. Even now, I wish this were true. As a high school senior, I had no clue how to talk about race to white people. I still have no clue how to navigate that minefield.” And she recognizes the lifelong influence of racial dominance. “Even now, reflexively, I want to protect my relationship with them at the expense of my own feelings. Like them, I’m also steeped in white supremacy.” 

There are multiple forms of trauma and healing processes that take place throughout the memoir. In her mid-30s, Talusan discovers that she has a family history of both breast and ovarian cancers. She opts for a double mastectomy after learning she carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, which marks her as highly vulnerable to a lifetime risk of breast and ovarian cancers. At one point, Talusan’s healing processes overlap: “I felt oddly relieved, I realized, that the part of my body my grandfather had most admired had been severed from me.” And then, after an emotional battle and eventual concession to her husband who does not want children, she decides to have an oophorectomy which ends her dreams of becoming a biological mother.

In this unvarnished, graceful memoir, Grace Talusan delves into the most intimate to tell us unforgettable stories from her body. The Body Papers is a double-ringed narrative where immigration is more than regional displacement, family is both destructive and restorative, and trauma presents and re-presents itself in a number of ways across her lifetime. This astonishingly brave work breathes life into a past that most would hope to forget. Talusan, however, does something different. She offers a meditative tour of immigration, trauma, and family. The Body Papers beats a different drum of triumph and sings a rare song of honesty; the book is an understated marvel that continues to sound even after the story is finished.