Things that Happened: ‘The Female Persuasion’ and #MeToo

In The Female Persuasion (Random House, April 3), Meg Wolitzer writes her protagonist, Greer Kadetsky, into a moment of confusing sexual assault. After Darren Tinzler reaches out and twists Greer’s breast during a conversation at a frat party, Greer recounts: “It wasn’t rape…not even close. Already it was so much less important than what was apparently going on right now at other colleges: the rugby-playing roofie-givers, the police reports, the outrage. But over the next couple of weeks, half a dozen other female Ryland students had their own Darren Tinzler encounters.” There are Darren’s repeat offenses, which are recounted, in detail, as different women compose a whisper network of their stories, much like the publishing industry’s Shitty Media Men list. There’s Zee, Greer’s best friend, who, as a 13-year-old in 2001, years before coming out as queer, listens to her peers append gay jokes to karaoke lyrics at her bat mitzvah (remember the “no homo” fad?). There’s the game a group of high-school boys play called Rate ‘Em, in which they rate their female peers based on their attractiveness. Greer scores a six. It’s a game that resembles today’s popular area-code rating system: a detailed guidebook of the rules resides on Urban Dictionary, but it is a scale in which the first digit is a score of the woman’s face, the second digit—a 0 is no, a 1 is yes, a 2 means “only under the manipulating influence of alcohol”—tells whether you’d have sex with her, and the third digit rates her body. Greer is three years older than I am—by my calculations, she was born in 1988 to my 1991—so Wolitzer’s novel had a way of prompting me to recall the early aughts in America through the age I was during each cultural moment. After hearing the stories of #MeToo, I have what now feels like a whole repertoire of instances that occurred so quickly I could almost convince myself that they didn’t, and I know from personal experience that it is often easier to mask these stories rather than face what happened. As I recently tinkered with my Facebook privacy settings, for example, I found my blocked list. Lined up was a group of boys from my high school. It brought back a story that I tried not to think about because, as I told myself, it was so minor and inconsequential. During my senior year, a boy I’ll call Tyler, who was in my group of friends, started flirting with me over Facebook. After a few weeks of his messages, which were sweet and funny, I was at a small gathering at my friend’s house, watching TV next to Tyler, when his friend stood up, leaving us alone. Tyler then leaned over and kissed me. Everything with Tyler stayed above the waist; I had never done anything else. I had probably had a half a beer and I didn’t know how much Tyler had had. The following week, my younger sister, who was a freshman at our big public high school and must have heard rumors, or was harassed because of them, cried in humiliation, “He was hammered and you were sober!” I had not mentioned anything about Tyler to her. Soon after, boys started writing his name underneath photos of me on Facebook. I began avoiding them—eating lunch with my teachers, not going to social events where I thought they’d be, blocking them on social media—even though I still saw them at track practice each day, where they’d approach me and ask about him or call out his name when I ran by. I recalled this series of events because it shares features with Chessy Prout’s story, which she recounts, in excruciating detail, in her new memoir, I Have the Right To (Simon & Schuster, March 6). Prout’s book exposes the impossibility of navigating the culture Wolitzer writes about as a young person, her story’s horror amplified by the fact that it is nonfiction. The memoir was co-written with Jenn Abelson, a journalist for The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team and Pulitzer-Prize finalist; her past reporting has exposed sexual abuse at New England prep schools. It’s well worth a read. Prout was sexually assaulted by a popular senior named Owen Labrie as a freshman at St. Paul’s, a prestigious boarding school in Concord, N.H. Per custom, each year, senior students, both boys and girls, entered into a competition to “slay” as many underclassmen students as possible before graduation, which, according to court testimonies of the boys who participated, can mean anything from kissing to sex. (Editor's note: graphic descriptions of sexual violence follow.) Sensing an email she received from Labrie was part of the ritual, Prout initially rejected his invitation to climb a hidden staircase on campus leading to a view, in large part due to the fact that her older sister, Lucy, a senior at the school, had dated and broken up with him before Prout arrived. Once Labrie sent a friend of Prout’s to change her mind, she acquiesced. After seeing the view, they moved back inside, through a mechanical room, and he pushed her against a wall, pinning her arms above her head and then pushing her to the ground. As he tried to tug her underwear off, Prout mumbled, “No,” and pulled them back over herself. He then pulled the panel of her underwear to the side and stuck his fingers inside of her. After taking them out, he began to move downward, licking her stomach down to her vagina, trying a second time to pull off her underwear. As Prout again pulled them back over her hips, she laughed nervously and said, “No, no, no, let’s keep it up here.” After her plea, characteristic of many assault survivors, she froze, and she said that she next felt something pushing inside her—it wasn’t his hands, because she saw them on each side of her head. “He thrusted again,” Prout writes. “My whole body jerked backward. He was having trouble getting inside me and I could tell that he was angry. He paused and moved his mouth past my stomach and spit on my vagina.” Next, as she recalls, “I saw Owen’s hand move over my face to reach for something in his shorts pocket. He was back inside me. He moaned.” Semen was found on her underwear, as was Labrie’s DNA. In a Facebook message in the 24 hours after the event, when she asked if he used a condom, he said “yeah,” and then asked her if she was on the pill. When she said she wasn’t, he replied, “praise jesus i put it on like halfway through.” This is where it gets tricky. While Labrie based his defense on the claim that he never had sex with Prout, he told friends that he had. In her memoir, Prout writes that though she told her friends she said no to him, she was still stunned when she went to get Plan B, and, when asked, told the nurse it had been consensual. When she went to get a rape kit performed at the hospital, redness and an abrasion were found inside her vagina. Labrie was found guilty of three charges of misdemeanor sexual assault, another for endangering the welfare of a child, and a felony for using a computer to solicit sex from a minor. As Jeannie Suk Gersen, a professor at Harvard Law School, wrote in The New Yorker, the three convictions of misdemeanor sexual assault “did not require proof of non-consent but were based instead on the fact that the girl was under the age of sixteen.” So, she notes, “Even if the girl had sworn that the sex was fully consensual, Labrie still would have been guilty of these charges.” It is the same situation with the felony for soliciting sex through technology—her consent was not relevant to the ruling. He had to register as a sex offender, and Harvard, where Labrie was planning to attend, rescinded his acceptance. He was sentenced to a year in jail, and while he was appealing his conviction, he was given a curfew, but because he broke his parole more than a dozen times, he was put into jail. Part of what happened in Prout’s ruling has to do with our changing landscape. Of this change, Gersen notes, “We are in the midst of a significant cultural shift in which we are redescribing sex that we vehemently dislike as rape.” Gersen’s statement sounds Cat-Person-esque to me, a sad situation of regret in which sex was not forced but not consented to either. It isn’t what sounds like happened in Prout’s case. Gersen continues on to define this shift in legalistic terms: For centuries, the legal definition of rape was intercourse accomplished by force and without consent. Many states have done away with the force criterion, and no longer require proof that the victim physically resisted the assailant or failed to do so because of reasonable fear of injury. With force absent from rape definitions, there has been increasing pressure on how to define consent. As a 26-year-old, my definition of rape, a definition that has been taught to me by the numerous mandatory training programs I’ve attended in orientations for college and graduate school, is that rape is nonconsensual penetration. It is a definition also provided by the first sites that pop up when I type “rape definition” into my browser—Miriam-Webster,, the Department of Justice, and Wikipedia—imperfect but arguably the four most popular sources for a layperson without a law degree. The ambiguous shift Gerson speaks of is, in large part, what leads to the kind of gaslighting that Prout endured: a case in which she understands that what happened to her was rape but the jury disagrees. As one law-enforcement official involved with the case told a Vanity Fair reporter, “She did say no. She held on to her underpants with both hands. She didn’t know how hard to press. Compliance began to look like consent.” As New Hampshire state-superior-court judge Larry Smukler noted at the sentencing hearing, just because Labrie was acquitted of the forcible-rape charge by the jury “does not mean the victim consented to the sexual penetration, and indeed it is clear from the impact of this crime that she did not.” Such ambiguity is the reason why I struggled over what to call the crime in this article. All nonfiction articles I have found call the crime assault and not rape, unless they say that Labrie was accused of rape, for example. The journalistic reluctance to call what happened rape is, of course, understandable for credibility’s sake because Labrie was acquitted of that charge, but it also demands a consideration of how the language used to frame the case influences both the public’s perception of events and our cultural understanding of what constitutes rape. I also imagine these rhetorical choices influence rape survivors’ decisions to come forward: to trust our judicial system to prosecute violent crimes. If these crimes aren’t prosecuted, it sends the message that consent is still not part of our legal definition of rape, and these crimes, of course, will continue to happen. If a jury in Concord, N.H., didn’t see Prout’s story as reliable, with all of her tags of privilege—her whiteness, her straightness, her family’s wealth and status, her education, her conventional beauty, the fact that there was no alcohol involved: all cultural signifiers of credibility—then what does that mean for survivors who don’t have the innumerable advantages these identifiers afford? To be clear, though I’m not calling what happened to Prout rape throughout this article because Labrie was acquitted of that charge, if the abrasion in her vagina came from him, I do find the fact that he was acquitted of the charge troubling. Based on the nonconsensual penetration definition of rape, Prout resisted, both verbally (“No, no, no”) and physically (by trying to maintain her underwear as a barrier between her and Labrie). Prout herself maintains in her memoir that it was rape. It is also important to note that my perspective comes from researching the case through its news coverage, both on television and on the Internet, reading Prout’s memoir and attending her event, and court documents and video testimonies available online. I have not interviewed Prout nor Labrie—anyone involved in the trial, for that matter—to hear their versions of events. [millions_ad] Critical to understanding a culture in which crimes such as these occur, the case brought details of the Senior Salute out into the open. A deeply engrained ritual, there are lists: Prout’s name had been capitalized, a reason for which, as Prout’s story suggests, was the boys’ desire to get payback after Prout’s sister broke up with Labrie. There are also online messages in which the boys mapped out their strategies. In one Facebook message, for example, Malcolm Salovaara, Labrie’s friend, called Labrie’s techniques, in all caps, “THE LEBREAZEY SLEAZY METHOD.” As Labrie wrote of the method in another message thread, feign intimacy then stab them in the back THROW EM IN THE DUMPSTER i lie in bed with them and pretend like i’m in love After encouraging Labrie to “break the slaying records,” Salovaara, two months before Prout’s assault, asked, “You slayin both Prouts in one night?” Labrie, who, two days after Prout’s assault, at his graduation, would be bestowed St. Paul’s Rector’s Award—given by the headmaster for the student who “enhanced our lives and improved the community”—responded, that’s the plan now that i’m in to schools imma do absolutely whatever And one month before her assault, in a conversation discussing girls as young as 12 years old—“HER PREPUBESCENT BUM,” Salovaara wrote, to which Labrie responded, “LOVE IT”—Salovaara wrote to Labrie: “MCCARTHY AND I ARE GONNA BE BAILIN YOU OUT OF JAIL.” When another girl rejected Labrie, he quoted Bo Burnham, complaining, “another dumb cum-bucket struck from my nut sucking, suck it slut, slut fucking bucket list.” Though after her assault Prout initially stayed at St. Paul’s for her education, she ended up transferring because of the harassment: jokes during school-wide announcements; boys, like those from my high school, who commented on photos of her and her sister with two words: “Owen Labrie.” That Prout’s assault stemmed from a tradition indicates how habitual and institutionalized Labrie’s behavior is. As the memoir continues on, we accompany Prout as, even in the wake of her ostracism, other St. Paul’s students privately reach out to her about Labrie. After she is approached by one student who asks what happened, Prout replies, “I said no but Owen ignored it. His fingers were inside me and then the next thing I know his hands are above my head and I realize something is still inside of me.” The student responds: “Oh my God, Chessy, he did the same thing to me during junior year.” As Prout recalls this student’s story, “It was dark, she couldn’t see, and he was very aggressive. She told Owen she didn’t want to have sex. He had one hand on her thigh and a finger inside her vagina. She was okay with that. But then Briana suddenly felt both of his hands on her thighs and pressure inside her. She sat up and it ended abruptly.” We also learn that Labrie had a tendency to take girls to the noisy mechanical room where he assaulted Prout. Another girl pulls Prout aside and says, “I know I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but Owen did the same thing to two of my friends.” It isn’t clear in this case whether she is referring to assault or rape. Another murky whisper network, but it was too late. Prout, in sharing her story, is breaking even that silence now. When I went to see Prout speak on her book tour, at an intimate event in Naperville, Ill., a member of the audience asked her what we can do to change a culture composed of, as we have been forced to see this year, the dark underbelly of sexual assault. Now 19, Prout, with extraordinary eloquence and wisdom, replied that until we recognize the gravity of the problem—that there is a problem—nothing will change. Once the lawsuit commenced, Prout’s family was promptly shunned from the school community. Besides Prout herself, who endured a level of Internet harassment truly disturbing, which you can still easily find online—filled with assertions like “lying cunt deserves to get raped for what she did to an innocent bro,” and photos of her family and their new house, where they moved after the case, accompanied by their address—Lucy lost her community, and so did their father, himself an alum of the school. St. Paul’s parents raised over $100,000 to hire J.W. Carney, who represented prominent mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, to fund Labrie’s defense, and Labrie is now trying to overturn his conviction, hiring new attorneys to retry his case on the basis of ineffective counsel. As she begins her first year of college, Prout will have to rehash her traumatic story again. What Prout and Wolitzer do in their books is paint a vivid portrait of the impossible contradictions that accompany growing up female in 2010s America. Greer, Prout, and I are within 10 years of each other—we could be sisters. What’s more, because of our positions, we have a level of protection many don’t: all three of us are straight, white, and cisgender, and we either have a college education or, in Prout’s case, will receive one. We aren’t financially reliant on our bullies. Their stories show assault within the subtler, insidious instances of misogyny that constitute our culture: the rankings, the lists, the bullying that ensues after the rejection or acceptance of an advance. These authors illustrate how encountering these cruelties shapes the way their protagonists navigate the world, the people they turn out to be. Wolitzer has said in interviews that she does not want her novel to be tied to one moment. But what is magical about literature is that it often roots itself in historical details of the period it captures while exposing questions—cultural patterns—that are timeless. Of course, the kinds of cruelties Wolitzer and Prout write about have been occurring forever. The difference is that today we have begun to listen to, and believe, these stories. Three different things happened in the stories I discuss here: assault, harassment, and rape. Getting definitions in order—lining up what is in the law and what is taught in school—will help make these distinctions, as will sharing stories like Prout’s and Greer’s in all of their challenging, nuanced honesty. The experience I recounted here is not as distressing as what Greer and Prout endured: it isn’t assault or rape. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t significant or telling or pervasive. Because of Wolitzer and Prout, I recognize now that it happened. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Secondary Mourner

An old family friend died recently, someone I’d known all my life. She was there when I was born, full of stories of my little girlhood when, for a time, I was the only child among them—my parents, their closest friends. They lived two blocks from each other in Brooklyn for a time and, later, when my parents moved to a house with a backyard, they were often there, drinking martinis and grilling food. The husband died years ago—more than 20—and the wife went on, traveling to places he’d never wanted to go, being adventurous, sailing to the Galapagos, riding elephants and camels well into her 80s. They had only one child, a daughter. I found out the family friend was pregnant when she passed on a martini and had milk instead. They—the husband and wife, the daughter—lived in the same apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan they’d moved to around the time my parents bought their first house in Brooklyn: more than 50 years. The apartment was filled with art, a collection of antique salt boxes, photographs of her two grandchildren, her daughter, her son-in-law. Her daughter is the primary mourner, of course. She and her mother were a close mother/daughter pair always. She’s had a lot to handle in the weeks since her mother died, and though she is an only child, she’s had lots of support—from her family, her husband’s family, a large network of friends. The morning it happened she called from her mother’s apartment, waiting for the people from the funeral home to arrive. I went over to be with her—it’s not a time or a situation to be  alone. I’ve been with her at other times too: when arrangements needed to be made. When the ashes needed to be picked up. She’s cried sometimes, not all the time. It comes in waves, she said, and I admire the way she’s been able to ride them, to let the sadness wash over her, then wash away, her certainty that the tears would leave in their own time, the same as the certainty that they would come. Once, after we’d done something together, she texted to thank me. “You’re welcome,” I said. “But you don’t need to thank me. We’re family.” We are. And we’re not. I’ve known her all her life, as her parents knew me, and I loved them deeply. There have been times in my life they—her dad in particular—made a profound difference to me. How do you grieve when your “status” as a mourner is secondary? When you’re family, but not? When you aren’t a primary mourner? I’ve been in this place before. I had just separated from my husband of nine years when he called to tell me his father had died. I went to the funeral, alone. In separating, I’d forfeited rights—rights to the family, rights to primacy, rights to affection. I knew that. I’d given up my place. [millions_ad] Still, I went to the funeral because, despite knowing I’d be the object of gossip, of whispers about why I was there and how I looked, going felt like the right thing to do. I’d known his father for almost 10 years. I had love and affection for him. I sat in the back of the church, not in front, with the family. I greeted my husband, who awkwardly thanked me for coming, but I didn’t speak to his sisters nor they to me. I decided not to go out to the cemetery for the burial but, if I had, I’d have gone in a car with my husband’s sister’s in-laws—other secondary mourners. It was hard to be there, as I’d known it would be. People think you’ve forfeited feelings when a marriage ends, but that’s not true. The feelings I had for my husband and his family didn’t evaporate just because the marriage didn’t last. But I was definitely in a kind of limbo—neither family, nor not. When my mother died, my father received calls and notes from people he hadn’t heard from in a long time—old school friends, people from old neighborhoods. Helene. Helene was the woman before my mother—a previous, brief marriage I’d never heard a word about until my father told me, when I was an adult. There was no trace of her in my father’s life. No children, no talk, no pictures. When, years earlier, I’d helped my mother clear out my grandmother’s apartment I came across photo after photo of my father with the person he’d clearly been standing next to carefully snipped out. And yet now—here she was. Not even a secondary mourner, not even a tertiary one. Someone who’d once loved my father. Who wanted to reach out, to offer condolence, even though she had no status in my father’s life. No place. Still, she was sorry for his loss. Belonging is a human need. It’s why we form ourselves into families and clans. Why we join societies and clubs, churches and temples. If we leave them—the church or the temple, the society or club, even the family, it doesn’t mean we have forgotten what it was like when we belonged. So what does that make us—the former in-laws and spouses? The family friends? We are mourners once removed, like second cousins no one’s ever met. Technically family, practically not. My relationship with my parents’ best friends, and with their daughter was like that as well. It was family-like, but it wasn’t family. Being a secondary mourner means your grief is private because if it’s too public, too loud or visible, you divert attention from the real family. You might not sit in the last row at the funeral, but you don’t sit in the front row either. Your role is to offer support, not receive it. You are necessary to the family, but you are not family. You’re something in the middle. Image Credit: Buckley AFB.

In Praise of the “Starter Book”

Recently, in a networking group I’m part of, a woman posted in a panic. She was about to publish her first book with a small press, and she was lost. She didn’t know which way to turn, what to do next. She couldn’t stop wishing she was on the best-of lists, had the support of a Big 5 publisher behind her. She didn’t know how to market herself. In short, she was crying, “Help!” Reading her post, I went back three years in time. When I published my first book, it was with a small press where I felt that one or two people really understood what I was going for, but the rest were baffled by my weird, not-quite-genre genre-fiction. The editor who had chosen the book for publication got switched off it as my editor at the last minute. In one of the few acts of support I got from my in-house publicist, she promoted my book, an acid western largely concerned with the genocide of Native American people, as a “beach read.” Every bit of press the book got was a hard-won victory that I could trace back to my own work. Sometimes I felt like this publisher was actively working against me, giving me a terrible book cover and refusing to relent when I objected to it, handing the blurbers I found without their assitance the pub date instead of the date the book was being printed as their deadline, leaving my book blurbless. I cried the day I realized I’d “won” a scam book award contest that the press had entered me into, that I’d found out was a scam simply by Googling the name of the contest. At the time, I felt like a failure. I looked at the best-of lists and felt like crying. But three years later, having learned how to market a book with little support, how to look at the issue of getting your book into the world as one with creative solutions, having spun that work into a graduate assistantship and freelance work in marketing, having set up my own reading series, having built connections to other writers and publishers, I look fondly back on my first book as my “starter book.” Maybe you’ve heard of a “starter home,” or a “starter marriage,” the short-lived or what-I-can-do-at-the-moment solutions to building a future. The starter home is often a small, older place that a family is expected to grow out of eventually, but which is where they start learning to care for a home and begin building their family. A starter marriage is a first, short-lived, endeavor that serves as a learning experience for a later marriage that is hoped to last much longer. The “starter book” is really no different. Even when I was just starting out with trying to publish my first book, I knew that it wasn’t going to make me a million dollars. I looked at it as a beginning to something I was invested in for life. And now, after the sting of selling 200 copies in three years has passed a bit, looking back fondly on my little “starter book,” I’m able to say that even though I didn’t write something that changed lives, even though I didn’t hit a home run on the first pitch, I learned lessons that were invaluable to building a career as a writer. I learned how to market your book when it doesn’t seem anyone else cares. I learned to make spreadsheets and contact lists and do outreach. I learned to take every opportunity, no matter how small it may seem at the time. I learned to take interest and care in the careers of other writers who were at early levels, and to cheer them on and support them the way I wished to be supported—and which I now am beginning to be. I learned that the answer when someone offers you a way to promote your book is always “yes,” except when that “yes” would truly not serve you or your project. Even when “yes” has to be creative. Even when “yes” means you’ll be eating peanut butter and jelly for two weeks because of the train ticket you had to buy. Even when “yes” means doing a Skype session because you can’t be there. Even when “yes” means “do I have a couch in the area I can sleep on?” Even when “yes” means renting a car with terrible steering and fearing for your life the whole way to the opportunity. [millions_ad] I learned that I had to get my writing out there in every way possible. I called PR agents I pretended I had the money to hire, just to pick their brains. I implemented everything I learned from them, even when it wasn’t comfortable for me. When I published my “starter book,” I was a total fiction snob, someone who felt they didn’t have time for writing that wouldn’t further that goal. But what good is your fiction if no one can find it? While promoting my starter book, I learned to take every writing opportunity I could. I wrote personal essays and blog posts and articles, I learned how to do storytelling events when the idea of being on stage had previously frozen me with fear. I learned that when people made a connection to me, often though my personal essays and stories, they were much more likely to want to make a connection to my fiction. I learned to have confidence in myself, even when it seemed like the whole world was indifferent. I had always believed my voice should be out there, but now it was, so what was I going to do about it? Lament that it wasn’t with a Big 5 publisher, or a dream press that backed me up every step of the way? No. I was going to push to get it recognized in every way that I could. Even when I stepped into a small, independent bookshop in Queens and had their owner look me up and down and tell me that I’d have to have my publicist contact her if I wished to work with them on book events (crushing! humiliating!), I didn’t lose faith in what I was doing. None of this is to say that my first book was a mistake, or I didn’t love it, or put all my heart into it. I did love it, it meant the world to me. But it didn’t go very far. And that’s okay, too. The way that it crushes you when that marriage that lasts a year ends, I was hurt by this for a while. But as time went on, I was able to look back more and more fondly on the experience I’d had, and all I learned. I was able to treasure every time a random transgender person found my novel and sent me fan-mail telling me that they’d forgotten that trans people could write anything outside the realm of words about gender identity. I was able to look at my first, largely-failed baby as a “starter book.” Not a mistake. Not something I wish I’d never done. But something that built the groundwork for what I was going to go on to do. I have two more books coming out next spring, from an indie press and a mid-sized one. I feel excited and supported, but mostly I feel confident. I’ve been here before. I’m not going in brand new to the experience. I’ve learned so much from having my work out in the world, even in the form of a “starter book,” that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Image Credit: Flickr/Kelly Taylor.

“Tales from Here and There”: On Uganda’s Literary Culture

In March, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi became a 2018 recipient of the $165,000 Windham Campbell Prize, one of the world’s most generous writing awards. Five years ago, when the Ugandan-born author completed her doctoral thesis, the novel Kintu, at the University of Lancaster in the U.K., she was unable to find a publisher in in the UK willing to publish it. Makumbi’s novel makes a fine ambassador for her bookish compatriots in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. Kintu follows one Ugandan family across centuries of Ugandan history. It doesn’t stray into other lands or continents. It skips right over Uganda’s British colonial experience. It doesn’t dwell on the most internationally famous aspects of Ugandan contemporary history. The first book of Kintu opens with the lines: It was odd the relief that Kintu felt as he stepped out of his house. A long and perilous journey lay ahead. A half-century ago, Uganda was an African literary powerhouse. In 1961, a 22-year-old Rajat Neogy established Transition Magazine: An International Review, arguably sub-Saharan Africa’s all-time most influential literary journal, in Kampala. The great Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o  says in his 2016 memoir, Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer's Awakening, that the time he spent from 1959 to 1964 as a student at Makerere University, Uganda’s premiere seat of higher education, made him the writer he is today. Makerere hosted, in 1962, the first major international gathering of writers and critics of African literature in Africa. Held right as many African nations were breaking free from colonialism and attracting participants such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Langston Hughes (although as a non-African Hughes could only be an “observer”), the First African Writers Conference is often said to have cemented the concept of an “African” writer. It’s also where the young Ngũgĩ slipped the manuscript of what would become his first published novel, Weep Not, Child, to Achebe who, duly impressed, passed it along to his editors at Heinemann in London. All of this pioneering activity in Kampala might seem to have laid fertile ground for the emergence already in the 1960s and 1970s of a powerful Ugandan writerly tradition. Certainly, the Ugandan landscape offers rich poetic inspiration and its history a surfeit of dramatic material. But politics can both feed literary output and obstruct it. Before becoming a British protectorate in 1894, modern-day Uganda was split among separate but interrelating kingdoms and chieftaincies; Kintu, which reaches back into the 1750s, offers a vibrant depiction of how this worked. After achieving independence in 1962, these kingdoms struggled to find a peaceable alliance again. For a while, Transition continued to print work by Achebe, James Baldwin, and Julius Nyerere. At Makerere, visiting scholar Paul Theroux and writer-in-residence V.S. Naipaul began the great friendship that would eventually give way to their infamous feud. Under the second president, Milton Obote, however, political strings began tightening. Then came the 1970s and the power grab of Idi Amin, a professional soldier with a sixth-grade education and a profound distrust of intellectuals. During Amin’s eight years from 1971 to 1979 as Ugandan president, the country’s established literati for the most part either fled or went silent. A fractious reappearance by Obote in the early 1980s did nothing to encourage their return. That doesn’t mean storytelling stopped altogether. “What I don’t agree with,” popular Ugandan poet Ngobi Kagayi says, “is the idea that because people stopped producing literature, literature died. Literature doesn’t belong to the writers.” Uganda’s oral tradition persisted, something that plays an integral part in Kintu. It also informs Kagayi’s poetry. Kagayi’s broad-ranging and consistently clear-voiced debut collection, The Headline That Morning, published under the name Peter Kagayi, contained a CD on its back flap; fittingly, the opening poem in the collection is entitled “Listening to Poetry”: Today we shall listen to poetry While seated comfortably Yesterday we listened to guns coughing And wails of pain as blood was gushing While we hide our heads in our beds. Tomorrow we shall have what to do after the election campaigns But today? Today we shall listen to poetry While seated comfortably. Nayana Kakoma, whose all-Ugandan Sooo Many Stories (tagline: "Tales from Here and There") published The Headline That Morning, recognized a Ugandan audience as accustomed to listening to its literature as to reading it. Kakoma is a member of FEMWRITE, an NGO established in Kampala in 1995 by parliamentarian Mary Karooro Okurut with the goal of helping Ugandan women make gains in literacy, as well as to show them a way in which literacy could be of value to them. Literacy in Uganda has steadily risen over the last two decades, although women still lag behind men. At the time of FEMRITE’s inception, the rate for women was at less than 50 percent. Through workshops and a publishing arm, FEMRITE has encouraged Ugandan women of all levels of education to believe they too can be writers. “I met writers I had read and admired,” Beatrice Lamwaka, the current general secretary of PEN/Uganda, says, “and I noticed that they were not any different from me.”  In 2011, Lamwaka’s short story, “Butterfly Dreams,” inspired by her late brother’s experience as child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army, was shortlisted for the coveted Caine Prize for African Writing. [millions_ad] A marked success, FEMRITE now works with women all over Africa. Members Goretti Kyomuhendo and Beverley Nambozo have gone on to establish, respectively, the African Writers Trust, which facilitates collaboration between writers in Africa and its diaspora, and the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, an annual poetry competition initially for Ugandan women but now open to all Africans of any gender. Kagayi’s introduction both to being a poet and a literary activist began through a different grassroots group, The Lantern Meet for Poets, a collaborative writing workshop begun in a dorm room in Kampala in 2007.  He also belongs to yet another grassroots group, Writivism, an ambitious six-step program dedicated to creating a future generation of writers. “Writivism was established not so much as an infrastructure, because you can’t do everything,” explains its co-founder Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire. “It is a community that is doing activism for these things.” Cultivating a new generation of writers and readers in Uganda, rated the 25th-poorest country in the world by the IMF in 2016, is a complex task. Public primary schools average 43 students to every teacher, and sometimes many more, and with Ugandan women giving birth to an average of 5.7 children, private schools necessitate a financial outlay beyond the reach of many families. Meanwhile, curricula remains rooted in outdated models from British colonialism. In addition, bookstores are few and, in a country where homes typically do not have street addresses, a door-to-door postal delivery system doesn’t exist. Writivism members go into schools, run workshops, and hold contests, encouraging both writing and reading. Turn the Page, a Kampala-based online book club run by Alex Twinokwesiga, has added a distribution wing to tackle the problem of getting books to readers around Uganda. In establishing Sooo Many Stories, Kakoma hoped also to offer Ugandan writers—who rely largely on the Internet (Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress) to share their work—the possibility of seeing their work on paper and maybe to earn money from it without having to join the African literary diaspora. Here too the task has not been simple; with a lack of local resources as basic as suitable paper, Kakoma had to turn to Nairobi to print Kagayi’s collection. In 2017, however, Kakoma managed to print Sooo Many Stories' second offering, an East African edition of Flame and Song, a genre-transcending poetry-and-prose-blending memoir of privileged childhood in Uganda and subsequent exile by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa: I made friends with Silas and Paul, who lived up the road, and Charlie, who lived across the road. We rode bicycles up and down the hill every day. I even learnt to ride without holding my handlebars. I had cropped hair then and was often in shorts or trousers, and I was always with the boys. Once, riding past some ladies, I heard them debate my gender. ‘You see that one, she is a girl.’ ‘No, it’s a boy. What girl would ride a bicycle like that?’ This spring, Writivism put out Odokonyero: A Writivism Anthology of Short Fiction by Emerging Ugandan Writers, showcasing the work of 18 young up-and-coming Ugandan writers, in cooperation with South-African publisher Black Letter Media. Mwesigire and Madhu Krishnan, a senior lecturer in post-colonial writing at the University of Bristol, co-edited. Up in northwestern England, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi has seen good things for her book. An early East African edition of Kintu came out from the Kwani Trust in Kenya in 2014; in 2017 Transit Books published a U.S. edition. Oneworld Publications released a U.K. edition this January. Having won the Windham Campbell Prize should allow Makumbi to concentrate on her writing; her next book, the short story collection Love Made in Manchester, is forthcoming in 2019 from Transit Books. The collection looks at the life of Ugandans in the U.K., which Makumbi pointedly refers to as “expat experiences” rather than “migrant stories.” Makumbi’s success offers evidence that the literary culture envisioned by the likes of Kagayi, Kakoma, and Mwesigire has begun to coalesce not only abroad but, as intended, in Uganda. Like Achebe’s African trilogy, Kintu examines the power of myth without mythologizing its subject. Both it and Kabali-Kagwa’s memoir represent uniquely Ugandan voices, in conversation with their people. It’s not necessary to know anything about Uganda to appreciate either, but their story, world, and language will be specifically familiar and meaningful to readers from Uganda. Both books also have repeatedly sold out at Aristoc, Kampala’s main bookstore. “I feel,” poet Kagayi says, “like the distance between here and New York and here and the person across the street—the person across the street is longer.” Ugandan writers, whether abroad or at home, are making that journey.

On Motherhood, Rumaan Alam, and Sheila Heti

In both Rumaan Alam’s second novel, That Kind of Mother, and Sheila Heti’s third, Motherhood, the functions and symbols associated with mothering—along with the ambivalence that can come with it—are conveyed with an authenticity that feels akin to reading nonfiction. Because Alam’s work delves into racial complexities and blended family dynamics that accompany transracial adoption, he has a bit less wiggle room or freedom to roam than Heti, whose writing gives the impression of a woman loosed, set free from her inhibitions about contemplating (more so than anything, really, actively avoiding) becoming a mother as she nears 40. I read That Kind of Mother slowly, to savor it. I enjoyed Alam’s Rich and Pretty, recommended by a friend who shares my taste in books, but in That Kind of Mother, I saw the honing of a craft. There’s not much work for Alam to do in this arena, but for me, the matter of motherhood hits close to home—I am an adult orphan; my mother died six years ago. Even when she was alive, we had a bit of a challenging relationship; her mental illness required that I nurtured her more than I was nurtured. And this role reversal, which began when I was a young girl, alongside the general angst that women writers are almost conditioned to cultivate, fearing that I might not have the creative energy or time to write if I had children (more on that when we get to Heti) set up a pretty adversarial relationship between me and motherhood as a concept. I like motherhood--outside of the toxic and damaging Mammy figure--as an idea. I love motherhood for other people. But I have never been able to shake having lunch with a Pulitzer Prize-winning author in Berkeley before leaving the Bay Area and asking her what she thought about having a child. “It is,” she said, “a ball and chain. You will be shackled for life.” Alam’s book shows that not everyone feels this way--that for some, having a child is the best way to begin a family, to write one kind of story of self and to continually revise it as you go along. The main character, Rebecca, is a white woman poet, married to a busy, irritable Christopher. Their life is perfectly fine. At the start of the novel, they have one son, Jacob, who is cared for by their black nanny, Priscilla. Priscilla dies in childbirth, and Rebecca adopts her child, Andrew, despite the fact that Priscilla’s daughter, Cheryl, is living and has a respectable job as a nurse. Rebecca decides, pretty much without consulting Cheryl, that she’ll adopt Andrew. This is not the kind of thing that would be without societal friction—the gaze of others, the discomfort of seeing mismatched skin between parents and child as if it were some kind of personal imposition—in 2018, let alone in 1985. “Let strangers think her ovaries had failed her; she didn’t want the baby who would one day be a boy hear his mother discussing him as she might new drapes, an exotic ingredient, fashionable sunglasses: as a thing so lovely that you ad to wonder about its acquisition,” Alam writes. “His story could not be easily summarized but Rebecca didn’t want to say even that.” Rebecca is fascinating, irritating, and important. She epitomizes a very particular kind of white woman in our culture; one who is unnervingly earnest, who wants only recognition for trying to understand, even if she has no intention of believing, the lived experiences of the people she claims to want to understand and help. She does not know what she doesn’t know—like how to care for Andrew’s black skin, which she tells his sister is “just skin,” even though Cheryl rightly pushes back on that well-meaning dismissal. Rebecca believes that the power of her imagination and good will should be enough to triumph over the real world forces of racism that will alter the course of her sons’ lives differently. As readers, we know this is why she doesn’t answer Andrew’s question, “Why are we a family?” as he grows older—because it is more complex a question than she would like it to be. She is trying to solve a problem in society that is beyond her powers, a problem that needs a lexicon she doesn't have. Instead of admitting this, she lands on something that is not a lie, but not fully honest, either. That Kind of Mother is a novel that is also a way of helping contemporary readers with our current silences and fraught dialogues. [millions_ad] In Motherhood, Heti confesses with hilarious, quirky detail, that she basically wants to be anything in the world but a mother. The book is full of wit. I’m a person who dog-ears galleys for quoting, and I found something quotable on nearly every page. Using a faux system of divination in the tradition of I Ching, Heti voices the angst of women everywhere who worry that motherhood will become their central identity at the expense of everything else—though in some ways, women don’t really get to choose. Some of it cuts close to the bone, but I liked the sting and found it kind of delicious. A woman must have children because she must be occupied…There’s something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children. Something about this seems true, but also like she would prefer it to be true. It was, again, hard for me to know, since, like most women readers in particular, I have my own subjective view of motherhood, the lens through which I think about such things. I found this quote most resonant: The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed it. We squeeze ourselves into the moments we allow, or the moments that have been allowed us. We do not stretch out in time, languidly, but allot ourselves the smallest parcels of time in which to exist, miserly. We let everyone crowd us...Having a child solves the impulse to give oneself nothing. It makes that impulse into a virtue. To feed oneself last in self-abnegation, to fit oneself into the smallest spaces in the hopes of being loved—that is entirely feminine. To be virtuously miserly towards oneself in exchange for being loved—having children gets you there fast. Whether one agrees or not with Heti’s assertions or follows her arguments with herself, Motherhood is the most refreshing novel I’ve read in a long time on this topic. It’s made bittersweet by the fact that in the end, she reveals that she actually just wants what many of us want, which is the approval of her mother. She is still her mother’s daughter, awaiting word that even writing these truths is okay. She probably won't have a child of her own to look for her approval.

Who Will Buy Your Book?

1. “Nobody else is here,” the elderly woman said into her phone. “It’s embarrassing!”    She was the first one to arrive at my reading at the Philadelphia Library, a week after the release of my third novel, and two weeks after the pinnacle of my writing life, when that novel was praised in both The New Yorker and The Washington Post, two articles that I had assumed would create something like buzz around me or my writing. It was 6:58, and the reading started at 7:00.   Earlier that day, I had gotten messages from nine different friends, all saying they’d planned on attending but something had come up and they couldn’t make it. Each of their explanations was understandable—sick children, stuck at work, car troubles—but also it seemed cruel that every one of them would have an emergency on the same night. My wife was there, in the second row and I sent her a text from the front of the room: can we just leave? Will anyone notice?  I did not leave. I had promised to do an event, and the library had made space for me, and even if only one person was in the audience, I had a responsibility to deliver. But in those next two minutes—as I kept hoping for, say, a bus full of book critics to break down outside—I was thinking grim thoughts about the creative life. 2. I have been very fortunate as a writer: since 2010, I have had three books picked up by three different publishers. I have gotten coverage in major publications and been invited to do events in many bookstores along the east coast. I made enough money on my first book contract to buy a pretty nice couch.   Before I ever published anything, I’d assumed that if I ever finished a book, there would be so much demand from family and friends alone that we’d have to go into a second printing before the release date. But I am here to tell you: most people in your family will never buy your book. Most of your friends won’t either.   I have a handful of friends and family members—people I consider close to me, people I see regularly—who have never come to any of my dozens of book events. I don’t know if they own any of my books because I haven’t asked, but I have a pretty good guess. After my first book came out, I would peruse friends’ bookshelves, trying to determine their organizational system (if it’s not alphabetical, then where is my book? Maybe they have some special hidden shelf for books they truly cherish?). On a few occasions, I called them out for not having it. This accomplished nothing, besides making both of us feel bad.    The point of this piece is not to shame those people or to complain about not getting enough support. It’s just to say: whatever you think it’s like after you publish a book, it’s actually harder than that.   3. During the entire process of producing a book, the writer becomes a swirling vortex of neediness. First you’re begging for time to write, then you’re asking people to read and edit, then you’re querying agents, then you’re asking (oh god) for blurbs, then you’re contacting reviewers, then you’re emailing everyone you’ve ever met, then you’re posting on Facebook (again and again), and then you’re asking people to show up to some bookstore on a Wednesday night to listen to you read words at them. Later, you’ll ask them to write reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Every day, you are making demands on people’s time and money. It’s terrible. For most of these people, the only appealing aspect of the book is that your name is on the cover. Maybe they’re not readers. Maybe they like gritty mysteries and you’re writing literary fiction about a divorced Brooklyn couple. Maybe they like reading but don’t have time, due to career, kids, community activism, or something else. Relative to the amount of time and anxiety you devote to the project, you’re really not asking for much. But it’s important to remember: nobody in the world will ever care about your book as much as you do. Very few will ever understand exactly what it means to you.  People will like your Facebook statuses and retweet your tweets and they’ll even leave very nice comments. These likes and comments do not translate to sales. It’s the most passive way for anyone to show support. Over time, the novelty wears off. It’s exciting for non-writers to say they know an author, or for writer friends to remember back when you were starting out and working on your first, bad stories. Very little can sustain that enthusiasm over the six (or more) months during which you’re posting about the book.   I admit to having felt betrayed by my friends’ indifference, especially after the first book, but I remind myself that I do the same thing all the time. I have friends in bands that I haven’t seen live in years. I’ve never been to any friends’ improv shows. I skip a lot of readings, even when I know the readers. I have friends with books I haven’t bought or read. I have explicitly lied to colleagues about having read and enjoyed their books. The book industry is partly kept afloat by a shadow economy in which the main currency is bullshit.   4. At a family party recently, a cousin asked why I didn’t bring copies of my newest book to sell. I don’t like the idea of showing up to family parties like a cotton candy vendor wandering from table to table looking for handouts. I’ve done this before (at my mom’s wedding, I sold two books, including one to the pastor), and it has always felt cheap and more than a little passive-aggressive. I’ve decided that the misery of haggling over prices with a cousin is not worth the benefit of one more sale. When the cousin said he wasn’t sure where to get the book, I told him he could probably order it with one click on his phone. I did not close the deal. 5. The event I did at the Philly Library started late, as every reading does, as we hoped for that sudden influx of people. For the first time in my life, a (small) busload of people actually did show up. The library partners with a local retirement home, and so about a dozen people filled in the seats. Then a colleague arrived, followed by a writer friend. Then a friend from college, who I only see now at these events. Then a childhood friend, who always shows up even though he works long hours in the suburbs and has four young kids. Two people even bought books. An hour earlier, I’d been drowning myself in self-pity, vowing to never put myself through this again. But then, in front of a modest crowd in the modest basement of a local library, I thought about how lucky I am to have any of these opportunities. I felt incredibly grateful to everyone who showed up, even the woman who made the upsetting phone call (she sat in the front row and listened intently and asked three questions). As always, I felt incredible gratitude to my wife, who has sat through so many more of these events than any person could ever be expected to endure. I felt fortunate to have friends who still keep showing up, sometimes making an hour commute to get there, even when all they’re getting out of it is fifteen minutes of me reading from a book, and maybe my signature. Some people couldn’t make it, but some did. That counts.   The next night I did a reading in my adopted hometown in New Jersey and eight people showed up. I gave them the best performance I could. What other option is there?   6. Most of the writing life is disappointment. Publishing a book, which should be your most triumphant moment, is an anticlimax. There are no fireworks and no awards, no parades down Main Street. Many people close to you will disappoint you. But there are people who will come through, and they will keep coming through, and sometimes you’ll be surprised who falls into which category. I’ve learned to cherish those friends and family members who are always there, or even sometimes there. It takes real sacrifice on their part to support this weird thing I do. It takes money and time for them to seek the book out, to ask their local shops and libraries to carry it, to share it on social media.   People will read your book. Almost certainly not as many people as you wish. But sometimes a friend from high school or a former teacher will surprise you by showing up to a reading, or posting a review online. Sometimes a stranger will email you out of the blue and say they loved it, and in those moments it will feel like you’ve accomplished something impossible. It will feel better than you ever thought it could.   I don’t think there is any way to convince all the people in your life to buy your book, let alone care about it half as much as you do. Though their validation feels great, it’s important to remember that it’s also not the point. As a writer, you need to approach every project with the understanding that you’re doing this work for yourself, and everything that happens once it’s in the world is out of your control. Whatever project you’re working on now doesn’t derive value from your friends’ approval, but rather from the love and energy you pour into it. You can do the work, and you can keep showing up, and that’s all you’ve got. Most of the time, it’s all you need.  

The Burden and Necessity of Genre

When you write a book, there are certain questions you can expect: How long did it take you? Will you write a sequel? And—the inevitable—what is it? What it is: thousands of hours tapping away on a keyboard between swiping student IDs at the Sarah Lawrence gym, months of crippling doubt, dozens of rewrites, maddening rounds of edits, the culmination of years of dreaming and plotting condensed into a 300-page manuscript with which I’ve imbued the emotional vulnerability of a pubescent diary. No, they will persist. What is it? I rehearsed this answer in my query letter, tweaked depending on the interest and need of the agent addressed: Complete at 80,000 words, this— Sometimes it was a literary novel. Sometimes a literary commercial novel. Sometimes a literary novel with commercial appeal. Once, upmarket women’s fiction. It’s adult literary fiction, I tell people. I think of the many times I’ve been prompted to make such unambiguous designations, usually without issue: I am Female. I am White. But something doesn’t feel right about defining my novel, about giving it a genre (a word that has always conjured for me cover images of bursting corsets and rippled abdominals). Something doesn’t feel right about defining novels at all. As a bookseller, I compartmentalize novels everyday. If it’s not Science Fiction, Mystery, or Romance, then it falls under the catch-all umbrella of Literature. I watch our erudite Upper West Side clientele squint warily at the shelves. The other day, a man held up a novel with a beach on the cover—a cartoon woman sunning herself on a striped towel pictured—and sniffed distastefully. As though a thought bubble appeared above his head, he tossed the novel back on its stack of identical copies in a way that said, You call this literature? If prompted, I couldn’t say with any tact what distinguishes literary from commercial fiction. Literary fiction values prose over plot, I might say. Commercial fiction is about the story, whereas literary fiction is about the characters. Like an indie flick verses a Hollywood blockbuster, one novel wears a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and the other mirrored Ray-Ban Aviators. A literary agent I once interned for cut to the chase: “We’re looking for new literary voices,” she told me. “Try to find submissions with a mention of an MFA.” As reluctant as I am to call my novel commercial, to call it “literary” can feel snobbish in its insistence. Who am I to say that I am more Mary Gaitskill than Mary Kay Andrews? Who am I to say what my novel is at all? That’s the thing I’ve learned: once you release a novel into the world, you relinquish your control over how it is defined. What my “adult literary fiction” novel has become: Coming of Age. Contemporary Women. Romance. Suspense. Genre Fiction. My novel is amorphous, ready to be whatever it needs to be given the audience. What I can’t decide is whether this ability to sit on many different shelves is a benefit or a hindrance. Claiming multiple genres feels akin to presenting a business card with the title Artist/Writer/Dancer/Freelance DJ—a worse offense, perhaps, than asserting literary value. But in working in a bookstore, in placing books onto their various shelves and thinking, This doesn’t belong here, I’ve come to appreciate what a misnomer and a crutch a genre can be. When I pressed a copy of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan into a customer’s hand and told her, “It’s a sort of literary science fiction novel,” she stopped me there. “I don’t read science fiction,” she insisted, and I realized not even the modifier of “literary” could combat the negative connotation of genre fiction. Few books are what they initially appear. I almost didn’t pick up Ben Dolick’s The Ghost Notebooks, put off by the word “supernatural” on its back cover and its placement on the Sci-Fi shelf. When a friend gave me the ARC of Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature that the bookstore had received, he said, “You read thrillers, right? This sounds like a thriller,” and I almost felt insulted. I put off reading the copy of Paullina Simons’s The Bronze Horseman that my coworker lent me, its promise of a “historical romance “ enough to raise my skepticism. “I promise, it has literary merit,” she told me. It took me a while to admit what I always knew: that to me, “literary” is synonymous with “well-written.” I grew up a competitive dancer. I did jazz and tap. Tap is explicit enough, but when it comes to jazz, people often respond with splaying and wiggling their fingers, evoking John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Jazz is just the name given to quick, upbeat numbers, I would explain. It’s not necessarily to jazz music. One of my dance routines in high school was to an M.I.A. song. But that’s not jazz, they’ll say. The question is whether genres need to be abandoned, or if our definitions of genres need to be expanded. Few novels fit snuggly into one category, though there are no doubt novels that do: Science Fiction, Mystery, Romance. It was Octavia Butler and Junot Díaz who allowed me to start to question those classifications in college with Kindred and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, respectively. I hadn’t known that literary novels could have time travel and magic and, knowing this, it didn’t seem fair or even possible that Kindred and Keith Roberts’s The Furies could occupy the same shelf. It only occurred to me then that I’d always thought “literary” also meant taking place in the real world. The Furies is science fiction. Kindred is more complicated than that. Besides the interest of the consumers, another thing that cannot be controlled is the age. I struggled to decide the age of my potential audience in the query process, again modifying how I framed the novel depending on the person I was trying to please. This is an adult novel with young adult appeal. This is a young adult/adult crossover novel. Some editors suggested that I needed to decide. My thought: couldn’t it be for both? I’d like to think that by resisting definition, I’ve opened my novel to the possibility of universal appeal. But there is no shelf for YA/Adult coming-of-age literary commercial women’s novels, no reader seeking this niche market. By being perceived by different audiences and consumers as so many different things, I worry that my novel isn’t really anything at all. Categories are needed to an extent. Not all dances at a competition can be entered into the “open” category. Not all novels belong under the literature umbrella. Some designation is needed to direct consumers toward what they like, what they want. But there’s no formula to say what sends a novel to the Romance or the Literature shelf. Who can put a value on prose? Who determines what is plot-driven and what is a character study? Perhaps all booksellers and publishers and marketing teams can do is find the closest fit, categorizing by the predominant quality of the novel, and what consumers need to learn to do is keep an open mind. Not all science fiction involves alien invaders. Not all YA novels are strictly for young adults. When I recommended Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles to a customer at the bookstore, I emphasized its complexity. “It’s a near-future apocalyptic coming-of-age novel,” I told her. “It has sci-fi devices but is distinctly literary, and it has a young narrator but she has an adult disposition.” I expected a “I don’t read science fiction.” Instead I was told, “That sounds interesting.” In any case, let’s stop using Women’s Fiction. The idea that there are books written solely for women is a fiction itself. Image Credit: Blue Diamond Gallery. [millions_ad]

Table Talk in Austenworld

There are two traits in her character which are pleasing; namely, she admires Camilla, and drinks no cream in her tea. —Jane Austen in a letter to Cassandra, January 1796 The company was seated for dinner on the second night of the camp, and as we discussed the villainous General Tinley from Northanger Abbey, the subject turned quite suddenly to torture. “You know, surely,” said the lady in the blue bonnet, “that Jane based the general on a real-life model?” One gentleman at the table made a face to indicate he knew where this was going and had no interest in coming along. Others nodded their heads, and the lady leaned forward, lowering her voice and glancing behind her, as though the general himself might appear at any moment. The tale begins in farce and ends in tragedy, but the short version is that the Austens’ neighbors in Hampshire included one family of straight-up villains who were deep into torture. The scion of this family was a stammering young man named John Wallop, Third Earl of Portsmouth. From childhood, when he boarded with the Austens as one of George’s pupils, the earl showed signs of idiocy and occasional psychosis—one reason his family engaged trustees to oversee his estate, including the solicitor John Hanson, who was also Byron’s lawyer, and who sometimes hosted Byron for hunting parties in the neighborhood. “Of course, the English aristocracy is full of nincompoops,” the lady told the table, “but Wallop was simply a fiend.” As a young man, the earl rejoiced at any chance to inflict pain. He starved his servants, tormented frogs with a fork (here, one woman at the table stopped eating), and would visit slaughterhouses to whip the hogs who were about to die, telling each one in turn: “Serves you right!” Often he beat his oxen about their heads with an axe. His fascination with death was such that he would attend the funerals of strangers and, when there was not a dead stranger at hand, would have his servants stage a mock ceremony so that he could laugh at it. The earl also took to beating his servants. He pursued these pastimes with no appearance of remorse, or understanding of what remorse might mean—a bright-eyed young torture enthusiast. Or, if you join Miss Blue Bonnet’s more sympathetic view, “a silly broken creature without a heart whose father probably broke him in the first place.” (One woman at the table winced at this description of the madman. Another gentleman, who had not been listening, asked me to pass the bread.) When chance provided, the earl would prey on the sick or the convalescing: when one of his coachmen broke his leg in an accident, the earl waited until the doctor had set the leg, then went into the room where the man was recovering and rebroke it. His main erotic pastime involved hiring women-servants of the neighborhood to draw his blood using lancets and then carry it in a basin under their petticoats while he watched; this is also how the earl thought that insemination happened. Even though he was almost certainly impotent, the family wanted to make sure the earl had no legitimate offspring, so, when he was 31, they married him to a 47-year-old woman who did her best to keep him in line while the second brother, Newton, waited to succeed to the title. During this period, Jane Austen and her family went to several dinners and balls at the Wallop family seat, and Austen’s letters show no sign that she knew what the earl got up to; in one instance she notes his wife’s new dress, while after another of his balls, she acknowledges that she got carried away with the wine: “I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand to-day.” But the earl was soon to go from villain to victim. Upon the death of the earl’s first wife, Hanson, the family lawyer, spirited him to London, where the lawyer then insisted on introducing his three daughters to the earl and told him to pick one. The earl chose Laura, who was deemed the prettiest, but somewhere en route to the chapel, the lawyer pulled a switcheroo, and the earl found himself shortly thereafter reciting the marriage vows not to Laura but to her elder, apparently plainer sister Mary Ann. Byron, whom Hanson engaged as a witness at the wedding, recalls that at the rushed ceremony, the earl recited his vows like a schoolboy doing Cicero— “[Portsmouth] responded as if he had got the whole by heart; and, if anything, was rather before the priest.” Byron saw the wedding as just another instance of an idiot nobleman about to enter a joyless marriage and could hardly have known that Mary Ann rivaled her new husband for sadism. She took to beating him, kept a whip under her pillow, and installed her lover in the house, a man named William Alder, who (so the servants said) would sometimes creep into bed with Mary Ann while the earl snored at her side. At one point, Alder began torturing the earl regularly and keeping him under lock and key. Eventually, the earl regained sovereignty over his own house and banished his wife, along with the three children she had produced with no help from him. In a sensational trial after Austen’s death, the earl was accused and then acquitted of madness. He lived to 84, and in his final years became a sort of crazed faux monarch who called himself the King of Hampshire. A few of us had heard the story before, or part of it; the Portsmouth saga appears in Claire Tomalin’s celebrated biography of Austen, but David Nokes’s biography ignores the more lurid aspects, and a lot of Janeites, even if they know about the earl, have little interest—he was just a kook in the neighborhood, of little significance because the families were not close. Others, like the lady in the blue bonnet, think of the tale as a reminder that even in bucolic Hampshire lurked deception, madness, and violence so unimaginable as to verge on comic. The table was silent after the tale was concluded. One gentleman had left his seat, and the lady who had put down her fork at the mention of tormented frogs began, tentatively, to eat once more. “But could Jane have known?” “Jane must certainly have known,” said Miss Blue Bonnet. [millions_ad] “Jane could not—she writes about him in a letter, I forget which, and mentions nothing of—” “But he was at school under Jane’s father! He boarded in their house as a boy—” “Exactly—back when he was just a stammering bedwetter, not the worst villain on the earth.” “So you don’t think General Tilney is drawn from the wicked earl?” “I should think the general would be much more interesting if Jane had based him on the earl. In the book he’s just a coldhearted grasper.” “That’s true, no one mentions him torturing the hogs.” “Or torturing the coachman!” “Though Catherine does imagine him abusing his wife.” I entered the fray. “He does sound like a character who might have appeared in the Juvenilia.” Miss Blue Bonnet looked at me as though I’d just saved her family from debtors’ prison. “My dear, exactly! I’ve said it myself. Where else could Jane have got the inspiration for those bloodthirsty villains?” I demurred. “Well, Swift, for one.” The lady considered. “Yes,” she said, “yes, Swift is there.” She paused to sip her wine. “But you must remember that Cassandra burned a lot of Jane’s letters. It is thoroughly possible”—she turned to the woman who had blanched at the frogs, and repeated—“thoroughly possible that Jane knew of the earl, and wrote all about him.” I gave a half-bow to concede the possibility. I was beginning to learn the secret of mealtimes in Austenworld. In some ways they offer the most gossipy and delicious interactions that world has to offer. The shared passion, the disputed biographical details, the disagreements over recipes and interpretations—these bubble during the lectures and panels but wait until a teatime pause to express themselves in full. Meals are also the most democratic part of these gatherings. At the table, one’s manners are on fullest, clearest display (are you a bad listener? do you chew with your mouth open?), but digesting in company is also democratic, a reminder of equality (we are all animals together at the trough). In Austenworld, then, meals are much more about the rank and file than about the elites. Here, conversation goes to the quick, to the bold, and to those who care the most—not to those with credentials or book deals. It’s anarchy, it’s art, it’s where the most interesting conversations happen, and where judgments are discussed, refined, and rendered without mercy. Excerpted from Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan by Ted Scheinman, published March 6, 2018, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright ©2018 by Ted Scheinman. All rights reserved.

Working from Home (with a Kid)

Afternoons in offices are the longest stretch of the day. They’re hard to make through. After lunch, while all of your brain blood is rushing down to digest your food, you start feeling bored, tired, ready to go home. But it’s only like 2 p.m. You still have a few more hours left. It’s hard to even pretend to be productive at that point. Two p.m. at home with a kid is the same way. If my son hasn’t napped by then, I’m right on the edge of sanity. Disappointment about not being able to do my own work while he’s up is at its peak. I can’t write, I can’t grade, I can’t do anything. The only thing I can do is read. But by that point, I’ve been doing that most of the day already. I’m ready to produce, and I just can’t because if I’m on my laptop, he wants to be right there with me. Even that nap comes and goes so fast. How is this my life—scrambling around for two measly hours of alone time? It’s lucky that I can read around him, though. I wake up and grab my book. I’m making coffee and reading. I’m drinking coffee and reading. I don’t think I’d get through the morning without it. Being in my own head for long is pretty exhausting. Reading reminds me intrinsically that there are other people in this world right now. There’s more than this. It’s the cheapest escape. I go through a book every couple of days or so. My two-year-old, on the other hand, spends his mornings trying to get my attention from my books. Read his books. Play with him. Fight him. I do this stuff in between reading. I try to remember that the nap will come, and I’ll be free. I know I’m privileged to be raising my own kid, even if I’m doing it alone. But it still sucks. The other day I started noticing the time frame of my anger. All morning, I’ll be fine. But I’m always miserable by 2 p.m. Anything beyond that time without a nap, I’m pretty much ready to run out the front door or curl up in a ball. Those early afternoons aren’t just annoying, they’re enraging. The problem is, I’ve been hanging on bitterly to resentment. I’m mad that I’m stuck alone doing everything every day. Every expense, ride, hug, meal, everything—I do everything. And I’m broke as hell on top of that. Sometimes I feel like the only person in the world. So why are these thoughts hitting me at 2 p.m.? It’s not 2 a.m. when the world is spinning, and people are in bed thinking about all of the mistakes they’ve made. At 2 a.m., I might be somewhere (probably my bed) looking at his pictures on my phone like a sucker. When he was a newborn, people told me to nap when he napped. I was like, should I also clean when he cleans? I’m not a baby. I want to be alone for a while. I’m trying to carve time out of the day for myself, cramming a full day’s work in to someone else’s sleeping schedule. I’m desperate for the one to three hours of freedom because I want to work. [millions_ad] It also feels dumb to be finally flipping my laptop open at like 5 p.m. on certain days. Yes, I’m working with what I have, but eight hours straight with a kid is like finishing up work too. Except you can’t just clock out or close the door behind you. The last thing you do is crucial—fight for that nap. Then you get your break. But whether it’s 12, 2, or 5 p.m., when he goes to sleep the productivity can really begin. It’s like the day has just begun. It’s at that point when I can finally step outside to smoke too. And that’s when I get dressed because I don’t go out in house clothes. I throw jeans on at least before going outside. I don’t undress when I get back inside (like I do when I get home from work). I’m sitting immediately to plug into Word. Is it because I’m dressed? Is it because I’m high? Is it because I’m alone? I don’t know. But for a couple hours, I just have to write. I feel I’m in the trenches typing away, listening out for his feet’s little pitter-patter as he comes to find me when he wakes up. A lot of the day’s drama seems self-inflicted once I’ve had some time to work, even if I don’t want to stop. I haven’t been considering that my life would be a completely different story if my son wasn’t here. And he is here. I was avoiding my personal life to write about things I can’t forget. I was literally working against myself. Fantasizing only in other people’s literary realities and in a false version of my life was holding me back. I started paying more attention to the life that my son and I are living together, and things got a little less frustrating. Instead of trying to get away from him to sulk, I pull him in and give him the attention he wants. I give him time, instead of fighting over it, so that when I have my own time, I still have energy. If he wakes up on time, stays busy, and gets read to, he’ll be worn out by early afternoon. And I’m the one who needs to make that happen. I also started reading to him before he goes to sleep for a nap or for the night. I wasn’t doing that because we read so much during the day. And I was thinking that I didn’t want him to think reading was just for sleep. Adding that to the routine at least keeps him in his bed now. Then he’ll fall asleep on his own. I keep reminding myself that babies are people. They also want to escape through books. And they’re tired by 2 p.m. too. Image Credit: Pixabay.

Writing Back to Guy and Harriet Pringle

I met Guy and Harriet Pringle in the winter of 1987. In those days, Turkish public television had a rather ingenious arrangement with public radio; they would show the dubbed series, and the radio would play the original soundtrack. I do not remember who had alerted me to the fact that a new series called Fortunes of War was to go on air that week, but there I was, placing the radio right under the TV set, turning down the volume of the latter, and shushing the whole family who had gathered in the one stove-heated living room for the winter evening. I must have been learning English for a couple of months. Being a diligent student and wanting to get ahead in class—I was at the language prep year of a high school that had most of its curriculum in English—I did all I could to fill my head with English words. British Council Library (now defunct), BBC World, and BBC series on Turkish Television. I was doing this "for school" and so my family indulged me as I watched Guy and Harriet Pringle travel through the Balkans and the Middle East. It was a very strange feeling, traveling with them to places that I had been taught used to "belong to us." What kind of connection could a British couple possibly have to lands where songs began with "aman" and the men played backgammon? This, to me, was the central mystery of the plot, and with its very delicate hands Fortunes of War would lead me through the history of the British and Ottoman Empires, in a language that I was only newly beginning to understand. The characters I got to know through its seven episodes have stayed with me, and I still come across their avatars both in England, and the places where the English like to travel. Guy Pringle, Prince Yakimov, Dubedat, Aidan Sheridan…Watching the series again to write this piece, I am once again struck as to how perfect and lean the production is—the acting, the dialogue. (Also, how sweet Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson playing the young Pringle couple are—I still resent their divorce). Fortunes of War was adapted from a series of novels written by Olivia Manning under the titles The Balkan Trilogy (1960-65) and The Levant Trilogy (1977-80). The books were in many ways fictionalized accounts of her travels with her husband Reggie Smith, who worked in the British Council. The story starts with Guy Pringle, having just been married in London, returning with his wife, Harriet, to his English Literature post at the University of Bucharest in 1939, as Nazis are advancing in Europe. We first see a shot of a train traveling through Mitteleuropa, with a beautiful arrangement of a Romanian song in the background that becomes the series’ theme tune, a tune that has accompanied me on the pilgrimages I have made to the Pringles’ various posts. I don’t remember how much of Fortunes of War I understood back in 1987, but I know I absorbed the whole thing like a sponge, and to this day I have déjà vu moments when a place, a song, a bit of a conversation will take me back to the story of Pringles. This could of course mean two things: that Manning was a brilliant observer of character and situations, and/or I have actively been seeking the company of Pringles’ reincarnations and their milieu. In fact, I have managed to do almost all the legs of Pringles’ journey except for Bucharest, where it all begins. After the shot of the train going through the Balkan countryside, the camera goes inside a compartment where Guy Pringle is sharing a German joke with another, elderly passenger, and Harriet Pringle looks on bemused, setting the tone of their relationship. The atmosphere of camaraderie dissolves when soldiers come into the compartment and ask for the passengers’ papers. The old man claims he has lost his, along with his wallet, and is forcibly removed from the train. Guy gives him all the money in his purse as Harriet looks on incredulously. When Guy explains that the old man is probably Jewish and without papers, Harriet asks what will become of him. Guy’s "What is to become of any of us?" now rings a bit "all lives matter" but I am constitutionally incapable of finding fault with Guy Pringle. Fortunes of War is, at its heart, a story about people trying to find a safe place to live—only, in this story it is Europeans going eastwards, looking for a place where the war has not yet arrived. The Pringles are hounded by the Nazis through Bucharest, to Athens, to Cairo. But of course, they are among the lucky few who can actually leave. There is a scene that I had not thought about much in 1987 but that has come back to me in recent years. Europeans scrambling to get on a ship from Athens to Cairo to face a perilous journey across the Mediterranean, threatened by German submarines. The Nazis almost catch up with the Pringles towards the end, and the ship Harriet is supposed to have been on from Cairo is torpedoed while she is safely sightseeing in Damascus. In Bucharest, the Pringles get a flat in one of those turn-of-the-century apartment buildings that haunt world literature like The Yacoubian Building and The Flea Palace. We are in ex-Ottoman territory after all—a fact that the book, but not the series, fleetingly touches upon—and the aesthetic stretches all the way to Bucharest. Like the Yacoubian Building, this Levantine apartment has a rooftop with a shed, which becomes the hiding place for Guy’s Jewish student Sasha, whom they manage to protect only for so long. It is also in Bucharest that we meet Dobson, head of the British Legation, played by the perfectly cast Charles Kay; the stiff upper and lower lip, forever the face of British Foreign Office for me. Guy spends most of his time with his students and rehearsing for Troilus and Cressida, and when we see the poster hanging from the National Theatre in Bucharest, I learn my first (and hitherto only) Rumanian word, "şi," meaning "and." After the performance, dressed as they are in togas, and in heavy stage makeup ready to party, the British contingent in Bucharest learn that Paris has just fallen to the Germans. The foreigners are leaving Bucharest fast, and one of the more persistent among their number is Prince Yakimov, the embodiment of that class of people that get stranded after the collapse of Empire. A general worldliness of having seen better days, frayed at the edges, almost certainly with an alcohol problem (this will forever link him in my mind with Charles Stringham of A Dance to the Music of time and Geoffrey Firmin of Under the Volcano). It is, however, not quite certain which Empire once claimed Yakimov, rumored as he is to be of Russian and Irish extraction. Yakimov comes to represent "old Europe" and when he hears Paris is fallen looks wistfully and says "Such times we had in Paris,"as if he’s had one of Proust’s madeleines. You want an entire series based on his adventures as a young man. Yakimov, slow on the uptake when it comes to geopolitical awareness, asks all the questions we want to ask and becomes the vehicle for background information. While other Europeans are fleeing, he travels to the countryside to pay a visit to one of his old friends who now works for the Germans, pretending he has information he can sell him. On his way back to Bucharest, a rich lady in a fur coat tells Yakimov "I go to Istanbul. In Bucharest they shoot you.” Yes, I once thought, here is my moment come, they will come to Istanbul, they will have to acknowledge that I live in the centre of the world. "Lush and Dubedat (two disreputable English teachers) have run away to East-anbul" we hear Pringle say, despairing. They've probably done a stint teaching at my high school, I fantasize. Even Yakimov leaves: "We had a letter from Turkey this morning. Yaki says he’s weighed down with loneliness and kebabs." But Pringle will not let go of his castle. "We represent all that is left of western culture and democratic ideal," he says—a remark my 11-year-old self would have taken as par for the course, but watching in 2018 tastes sour. Back then, I am only interested in seeing them come to Istanbul. Instead they flee to Athens, and I am heartbroken. But then Harriet goes to the Acropolis and considers whether she can be unfaithful to Guy, who has repeatedly preferred other people’s company to hers through the first three episodes, and her melancholy communes with the Parthenon’s perfect columns. My 11-year-old self vowed to visit the Acropolis one day. And I do. In 2014, after I pay my respects at the Parthenon I look for the Zonar’s Café, and find it is under renovation. Another "site" that is etched in my memory—which I didn’t try to locate—from the Greece episodes is the villa of Gracey, the head of the British School. The Pringles visit this mysterious man in his villa to ask for a job for Guy. The building is perched on a promontory and seems to be populated by life-sized statues. So much of the furniture in my literary imagination has been laid there by Fortunes of War. This villa was the inalterable décor when I read The Magus many years later. Guy does manage to get the job, but the Germans advance and so the Pringles leave. Surely to Istanbul this time. Or at least to Izmir, which is right across the water. The journey takes forever as Pringle reads John Donne on deck in the inviolable silence as everyone else is terrified about passing German U-boats. The fourth episode finishes. The fifth opens with the sound of the adhan, surely now we’re home, surely now I will see them walk the streets that I walk. But the minarets look wrong. The camera zooms out and we see camels. They have bypassed Istanbul and made straight for Cairo. I feel cheated. People are wearing fezzes, the street vendors are calling out "bordogal" but it gives me no joy. [millions_ad] Then, Rupert Graves appears, in uniform and with long vowels that seem to have several Rs in them. He is playing Simon Boulderstone, a young officer just posted to Cairo. Harriet explains the lie of the land to him when he protests that he is there for something akin to Kurtz’s redeeming idea: Boulderstone: We’ve brought them justice, prosperity… Harriet: Prosperity? Nothing’s changed for them for a thousand years. Boulderstone: But we’re protecting them now Harriet: We’re protecting the Suez Canal. The route to India. Clifford’s oil company. All the discourse you need to know about the Middle East in a nutshell. The liberal position of understanding the political aims of Empire, but remaining blind to any local transformation that might have occurred between the time of the Pharaohs and the British protectorate. But I understand the impact of this much later. In 1987, I only admire the graceful way Harriet climbs the pyramids, making another promise to self to climb them just as she did. By the time I arrive in 2008, tourists are not allowed to climb them at all. It wasn’t all geography, colonialism, and the erasure of the traces of the "receded Ottoman Empire," as Manning puts it in the book, that I learned from Fortunes of War. It also taught me a lot about a certain kind of relationship, a certain kind of man. "When we first met, you made me feel I was the centre of the universe," says Harriet as they are having a conversation about an affair Guy may or may not have had with a Rumanian woman. "And so you are," replies Guy. "But you make everyone feel like that," answers Harriet. This conversation has often come back to me in the intervening years, when I found myself in the company of a Guy. I think often, also, of the conversation between Harriet and one of Guy’s friends from Cambridge in a café in Alexandria, where Guy is teaching Finnegans Wake at the university, to the two remaining students. Finnegans Wake is a title that would’ve meant nothing to me at the time, but now I think, Alexandria is the perfect Levantine port to teach it, as Trieste was the perfect Levantine (okay, Balkan, if you insist) port that inspired it, with their Babel of languages. Aidan: Are you waiting for Guy Pringle? Harriet: Usually, yes. Aidan: My name’s Aidan Pratt. I’m on leave from Damascus. Harriet: Damascus? How do you know Guy? Aidan: Last time I was here somebody told me a story. Two men were shipwrecked on a desert island. Neither knew the other but they both knew Guy Pringle You know who he’s talking about. Yes, him. The one everyone’s besotted about. The one who organizes the parties and is great in a crowd. Also he whose magnanimity gets him or those around him into trouble. The two Palestinian Jews that Guy recruits to teach at the American University of Cairo turn out to be assassins. I wonder if I paid any attention to the identity of the assassins when I was watching in 1986, but now the subplot seems to be that they might have been related to the Irgun. This is how the Pringles discuss the event: Guy: The whole thing’s ludicrous. Dobson: This is the Levant after all. Harriet: You used to say that about the Balkans. Watching now, this conversation seems like the coda to the series, a sentiment that falls in line with my initial reaction to seeing these people that really belonged in a Merchant-Ivory production traipsing about in my lands. From Bucharest to Alexandria, I am or know every "native" they speak to. From the demurely made-up middle class women around the dinner table in a banker’s home in Bucharest (several aunties come to mind), to the wistful man in Damascus trying to explain to Harriet the meaning of hijab…When the latter happens, I am at the edge of my seat, thinking, "He’s botched it," as I often do nowadays, not least when I am the one trying to explain. I was 11 when I watched the scene, and I would have years, a decade to think about it, to work out the perfect explanation, before I would be released upon the English speaking world: Harriet: You can’t make men chaste by keeping women out of sight Damascene Man: You are an unusual lady, you have a mind of your own Harriet: Where I come from it’s not unusual “But I have a mind of my own too,” my 11-year-old self shouts. “Just you give me time and I’ll come to England and talk to you about how it is not unusual where I come from, either.” Everyone has their demons. Watching the series again I realize I have spent my entire life writing back to the Pringles.