Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Rising Star

When Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi began writing her ambitious novel A Girl Is a Body of Water in 1998, she knew it would center on a young woman’s coming of age in Uganda. What she didn’t anticipate is that she would revise the novel on and off for 20 years, perfecting the sweeping multigenerational tale while working full-time in nursing homes and airport security.
“I was so close to giving up,” says Makumbi, grinning, her yellow knit head wrap matching the cheery yellow walls of her living room in Manchester, England, where she also works as an adjunct professor. Behind her are stacks of books growing up like trees from the floor. That she can’t stop smiling on this Zoom call isn’t surprising: A Girl Is a Body of Water is giving Makumbi her starring moment, with the novel attracting buzz in publishing circles and drawing raves in early reviews.
“When I left Uganda, I sold everything I had,” Makumbi says. She had been teaching at an international school there but moved to Manchester in 2001 to enroll in a graduate program in creative writing. “All of the money I made, I put into my writing. I gave up on being wealthy, but I had to succeed.”

Makumbi continued to work on the novel after her MFA and sent it out to agents in 2003. She was devastated when it was rejected. Even after resubmitting new drafts in 2005 and 2008, multiple agents said no. She put the novel away in 2008 and didn’t pick it up again until eight years later. By then, she’d published her first novel, Kintu, which won her the prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize. Feeling she was a much stronger writer, she began revising A Girl Is a Body of Water once more.
That willful sense of determination is familiar in the pages of A Girl Is a Body of Water. In the book, headstrong and whip-smart Kirabo Nnamiiro, a 12-year-old Ugandan girl living with her loving grandparents in a village, is determined to find her mother, whose identity is unknown to her. (Kirabo’s family won’t speak to her about her mother.) Kirabo’s journey first leads her to visit the local witch, Nsuuta, to ask for help in her quest. But a larger question emerges on the visit: why does Kirabo sometimes fly outside her own body and observe herself? Is it why her mother abandoned her?
The answer frames the beginning of Kirabo’s seven-year trek to empowered womanhood. “Listen,” Nsuuta tells her. “You fly out of your body because our original state is in you…The way women were in the beginning…We were not squeezed inside, we were huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent. But it was too much for the world and they got rid of it.”
Makumbi, 52, has long been fascinated by creation myths—specifically the story of the first woman—and initially she attempted to write the novel around some variation of Eve, whose Ugandan counterpart is called Nnambi. She’d succeeded once on this front: Kintu, which The New York Times called “a sweeping portrait of Ugandan history,” centers on the story of the first man.
Still, Makumbi couldn’t find the right character to focus the first woman on, so instead Nnambi became Kirabo’s stepmother, a secondary character who encapsulates the darker side of the Ugandan version of the myth. Makumbi weaved Ugandan folklore and myth throughout the novel. She used Kirabo’s love of oral storytelling to demonstrate the girl’s changing perspectives as she leaves her sheltered rural existence to live with her father in Kampala and, later, at a private girls’ school. The book opens with her spinning a yarn that will mimic her journey—a clever way to set up the plot.
Many of the stories that Kirabo shares in the novel are stories that Makumbi heard growing up but reinvented on the page with a feminist slant. She says she realized in graduate school that her literary history didn’t lie with Shakespeare or Dante; it was in the oral tradition. “I wanted to take those stories that I’ve inherited from my ancestors into a new form,” she explains. “I want readers to see that oral histories may not have been written, but they can be very sophisticated.”
The author’s retelling of creation myths is in part what drew Maisie Cochran, editorial director at Tin House, to the 546-page manuscript when she read it, over the course of two days, last summer. Cochran highlights the moment when Nsuuta tells Kirabo that women come from the ocean and bring life, just as water does. This, Nsuuta explains, gives them majesty and power; in the telling, one woman is so strong that she’s able to squat and birth the Mayanja River, giving her people the gift of water.
“I immediately thought: I’m reading something I’ll never forget,” Cochran says. “The book is a reckoning with myth, of the very first stories that we have based our cultures on.” She adds that Makumbi’s decision to tackle the origin story from a feminist angle also grabbed her. “I’d never read anything like that.”
A Girl Is a Body of Water went to auction within two weeks of it being shopped in the U.S. last summer. Several large and small houses were competing for the book alongside Tin House. Veronica Goldstein, Makumbi’s American agent at Fletcher & Company, says she quickly began getting calls from editors who were extremely drawn to Kirabo. As different as the young Ugandan girl’s upbringing is—she straddles two worlds: the village and the city—she’s incredibly relatable. “You watch her grow up in the novel, and you can see a bit of yourself in her,” Goldstein says.
Still, A Girl Is a Body of Water is unapologetically African. Dialogue is written in patois—a mix of English and Luganda known as Uglish. At times, the back and forth between characters is so realistic that readers may need to reread lines to get their bearings. Makumbi and Cochran went through every line in the novel together, attempting to strike a balance in the use of authentic Luganda words, after copy editors expressed concern that certain passages might confuse a Western audience.
A Girl Is a Body of Water doesn’t explain Ugandan history or cultural mores to situate a potential Western reader, even though it’s set in the late 1970s, during one of the bloodiest periods in Ugandan history, when the country was ruled by Idi Amin. Makumbi simply invites the reader in. “I don’t think readers want everything explained to them,” she says. “You come into this world, you know it’s a different world, and you may have to work to understand it.” That is what makes reading interesting, she adds, and it’s how she grew up reading British and American novels. “Imagine a girl growing up at the equator, where it’s only hot or wet, reading about the harshness of winter, or snow. In Africa, we read Mark Twain and Austen and Dickens, but we figure it out.”
Makumbi wrote the novel with a Ugandan audience in mind, she says, to free herself from writing within the confines of what the West might expect of a Ugandan writer. She wasn’t going to tackle subjects like colonization or poverty. “I wanted to negate that image of the African childhood seen on Western television,” she says.
Instead, Makumbi tells the story of a child surrounded by love and a family who nurtured her and supported her, even as she hunted for her birth mother and grew into a strong feminist. “That cliché of the poor African child—it’s not how I grew up, and it’s not how most people I knew grew up,” she says.
In the end, Makumbi wanted a Ugandan woman to be able to read the book and relate to it just as much as a Western woman would. “The minute that I realized that I was writing for Ugandans, I didn’t have to be careful of what to say or how to write,” she says. “Everything was on the table.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Ayad Akhtar’s Flesh and Blood

It’s ironic, as well as fitting, that Ayad Akhtar, the Pulitzer-winning playwright and author of 2012’s American Dervish, began writing his new novel in Italy. Homeland Elegies is narrated by a Pakistani American writer and chronicles, through the story of himself and his family, what Akhtar calls the “decay of our country over the last half-century.” It’s a book about America, in other words. But it’s also a story about alienation—about what he calls the “insider-outsider” experience of immigrants and first-generation citizens. And it took being halfway across the world, during a stay at the American Academy in Rome, for Akhtar to gain the perspective his story required.

“Donald Trump has been in office for just under a year,” Akhtar, 49, says of that time. “I got up one morning after reading a poem by Leopardi, which is entitled ‘To Italy.’ He’s addressing the Italian people. I thought to myself, ‘Would it be possible today to just address the American people? Would that even make sense? Could you even do something like that?’ ”
Homeland Elegies is Akhtar’s attempt to do just that. “The weight of politics in our country had coalesced and summoned a response out of me,” he says, speaking via Zoom from his house in a town south of Albany, New York, where he’s been waiting out the Covid-19 pandemic with his fiancée.
The novel, Akhtar’s first since American Dervish, consists of eight long but fast-moving chapters, as well as an overture and a coda. Eschewing linear chronology, the narrator, who shares many biographical details with Akhtar, including his last name, moves between past and present, documenting, among other things, his immigrant parents’ uneasy acclimation to the U.S., his own struggles and eventual success as a writer, and his involvement with a Muslim hedge fund titan whose respectable political objectives are overshadowed by his financial skullduggery.

Linking the chapters are several preoccupying themes: the double consciousness inherent in the minority experience, the contest between allegiances to one’s country and one’s culture, the strictures of identity, and the broken promises of America. The narrator finds himself suspended between his father, who embraces his adopted country with sometimes myopic optimism (and who supports Trump), and his mother, who views the U.S. as hypocritical and racist, and whose animus toward it drives her, at one point, to express something like sympathy for Osama bin Laden.
The narrator finds it impossible to escape fully his sense of his own difference. At one point, on seeing his reflection, he thinks, “My likeness in the mirror was a reminder of something about myself I always chose to forget, something never available to me except when confronted by my appearance: that though I didn’t feel ‘other’ in any meaningful way, I clearly appeared only that way—at least to myself.”
Readers of Akhtar’s previous work will be familiar with these themes. American Dervish focuses on a young boy growing up in suburban Milwaukee who struggles to reconcile his Muslim heritage and his American identity. A subsequent play, Disgraced, which won a Pulitzer in 2013, depicts a dinner party that gives rise to explosive conversations about Islamophobia.
Akhtar’s double identity as a novelist and playwright—he’s also made a film, The War Within, and has spent the past five years developing series for TV—is of a piece with his upbringing. “Hybridity is an important part of my consciousness,” he says. “That may have something to do with growing up Pakistani and being American. I’ve been toggling between various kinds of craft and various ways of thinking about story my whole life. It’s always felt organic to do that.”
Akhtar was born on Staten Island in 1970. In his early childhood, he moved with his parents, both doctors, to Milwaukee, where they lived first in the city and then in two suburbs, Brookfield and Elm Grove. (In Homeland Elegies, the narrator’s hometown is Elm Brook.) Akhtar graduated from Brown in 1993 with a degree in theater and, in 1997, matriculated at Columbia to pursue an MFA in film directing. But he believes pivoting between disciplines has been a boon, not a hindrance, to his artistic development. “Each of them has taught me how to do the other,” he says.
When Akhtar returned to fiction with Homeland Elegies, he did so with a desire to push the novel form. In its liberal use of the author’s own life, in its brazen blurring of the line between fiction and autobiography, the book seems destined to attract the du jour label “autofiction.” But Akhtar bristles at that term. “This, to me, feels much more like a literary attempt at reality serial television,” he says, “where the narrator is staging his own self, in the way that dramatic self-staging has become the dominant mode of discourse.”
By way of explanation, Akhtar invokes Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and the solipsism those platforms enable. He also notes that the America he writes about is presently governed by a former reality TV star given to acts of sensational self-staging. In a way, the book critiques its own mode of discourse. “I might be suggesting that narrative is not a very good way of knowing things,” Akhtar says. “And that part of our philosophical confusion in our crumbling republic may have to do with the fact that everyone has now become a storyteller.”
It also has to do, Akhtar believes, with money. In Homeland Elegies, as in his 2016 play Junk, he takes on greed, capitalism, and the grim fact that much of American life at all levels—corporate, educational, municipal, personal—is fueled by debt. Finance, he says, “is the great untold story. It’s really what drives so much of American life, in ways that people don’t understand.”
For the narrator’s father, the promise of America is inextricable from the promise of wealth. But over the course of the novel, his dreams of enrichment elude him, and he descends into gambling addiction and insolvency. “I knew it was always going to be about money,” Akhtar says of the book. “I knew it was going to be about my father’s relationship to money. I knew it was going to be about America as a kind of casino, where me and my dad are marks.”
By flirting with autobiography in the novel, Akhtar leaves unclear which of the narrator’s and his family’s disgraces are fictional. For Judy Clain, Akhtar’s editor at Little, Brown, this ambiguity is a source of the book’s strength. “I started out wanting to dissect the novel and find out what was truly autobiographical and what was not,” she says. “I concluded that it didn’t actually matter. The essence of the book, the form, the playfulness, the gray area is the reward.”
Akhtar sees his unflinching honesty as part of his artistic, and moral, purpose. “In writing this book,” he says, “I knew I was going to have to use my family, use my personal life, to the end of creating this particular portrait of our country. It had to be a work that really engaged, and also implicated, my own flesh and blood. And if I was going to subject my parents to the kind of portrayal that they end up having, especially my father, I knew I couldn’t spare myself.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Difficult but Essential: On Edward Ball

While reporting his sixth book, Life of a Klansman, Edward Ball put himself in a deeply uncomfortable position. He met three descendants of Black Creole men who were badly beaten at a massacre that killed 200 people in New Orleans in 1866. He says he had to explain to them that one of his ancestors was a member of a white militia in the city at the time and probably took part in the atrocities.
“It was stressful,” Ball says via Skype from his home in New Haven, Conn. “I had to share with this family that my people may have been part of the group that carried out a massacre in which some of their people were affected.”
Ball believes conversations like this are difficult but essential, and he has devoted much of his career to shining daylight on history many would rather forget. For his first book, 1998’s National Book Award–winning Slaves in the Family, he sought out and met the descendants of slaves from his ancestors’ South Carolina plantation.

Ball’s subsequent books, all works of narrative nonfiction, also tackle large historical subjects through the prism of individual actors. In The Inventor and the Tycoon, Ball displays the virtues and vices of the American West through the partnership of the murderer who invented motion pictures and the robber-baron who built the railroads. In Peninsula of Lies, he describes the life of an English writer who in 1967 underwent one of the early gender affirming surgeries.
With Life of a Klansman, Ball turns his attention back to his family history, examining his ancestors’ role in the rise of white supremacy in New Orleans after the Civil War. The book is centered on Constant Lecorgne, Ball’s great-great-grandfather—an unremarkable man who struggled professionally and financially in the shadow of more successful siblings and cousins. He was also a foot solider in the movement for white supremacy that followed Reconstruction and whose members were, up until the mid-1960s, venerated in public ceremonies and monuments.
As a child, Ball heard about Lecorgne, but the stories were swaddled in the gauze of family lore. In Life of a Klansman, he seeks to correct these apocryphal stories. “The kernel of the whole project is claiming white supremacy as mine and ours,” he explains.
Throughout the interview, Ball never refers to Lecorgne by name. Instead, he calls him “our Klansman”; his racist ancestors are “my people.” He clearly wants to claim this shameful legacy.
The son of an Episcopal minister, Ball grew up in the Deep South, moving around as his father took up new church posts every few years. Now, however, he speaks without any trace of a Southern accent. Instead, he has the clipped elocution of a New Englander.
When asked how his family feels about Life of a Klansman, Ball replies, “The poet Czeslaw Milosz has a funny observation that when a writer is born into a family, the family is lost. It’s condemned to exposure, embarrassment, and disclosure.”
And then Ball says, yes, he doubts his people are pleased about Life of a Klansman. “It depends on whom you ask. I don’t think anyone in our family really wants to have the story of our Klansmen aired.”
For much of his life, Ball didn’t care to go there either. For years, he tried to get as far from his roots as he could. At 17, he moved north for the first time to enroll in Brown University; after graduating, he moved to New York City to become a journalist. He didn’t start writing Slaves in the Family until he was in his mid-30s, after a family reunion at the former plantation got him thinking about the descendants of the slaves who worked the land. In 1998, when the book was published, numerous relatives opposed it, though since then many have said they understand why he wrote it.
Lecorgne’s lack of distinction has made him easier to evade. “There’s a kind of a disavowal: ‘We’re the good white people, and this particular man was an extremist,’ ” Ball says. “That’s actually a common response on the subject of the Ku Klux Klan in general for all of the United States. We project our worst antipathies onto the Klan. They are those people over there; those are the real racists.”
The project originated with the journals of Ball’s aunt Maud, Lecorgne’s granddaughter. In 2003, Ball inherited Maud’s notebooks, which told uplifting tales of people who migrated, married, and prospered. To Aunt Maud, Lecorgne was a redeemer who brought Louisiana back under the control of white people and protected family wealth. But there was a lot of silence in the pages—what exactly did his great-great-grandfather do?
Relying on public records and cultural artifacts, Ball builds a circumstantial narrative of Lecorgne’s life, deeds, and psyche in the book. Alexander Star, Ball’s editor at FSG, says that when he first read the manuscript, he was struck by how vividly Ball rendered the inner lives of Reconstruction-era Louisianans. “He has a rare gift for breathing palpable life into his characters—while remaining scrupulously faithful to the documentary record,” Star says.
Ball also keeps the historical narrative in a 21st-century context and makes clear he doesn’t think his family story is unique. By his estimate, 50% of white people have ancestors linked to the Ku Klux Klan, and even those who don’t are the beneficiaries of white supremacy—be it the work of militants in 1866 or police officers in 2020.
“White supremacy is the unacknowledged power wheel of our national life,” Ball says. “As the majority ethnic group, I think we get a lot of personal nourishment from this sense that we belong in command of others with our hands on the levers of power.”
But Ball does see hopeful signs—the many universities undertaking self-study about their relationship to slavery, and the New York Times’ 1619 Project, an unflinching history of slavery in the United States, and the strong and growing support of Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s a paradoxical time,” he says. “On the one hand we have white supremacy that’s reinvigorated, but we also have a vigorous countermovement. It’s undeniable that the countervoice will prevail, but it’s a rough time right now, isn’t it?”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Telling Tales out of School with Jeff Hobbs

It’s early on a Wednesday morning, and Jeff Hobbs, bestselling author and stay-at-home dad, is sitting in the family room of his “old beater” house in Los Angeles, dressed in a gray Oregon Track T-shirt, talking about the art of juggling child-rearing and a writing career.
“I don’t know if Mr. Mom is an offensive term,” Hobbs says via Skype. “I guess it’s archaic, but I kind of am with my kids pretty much all the time.” Most days, he gets up at 4:30 a.m. to write at the family dining table, when, he says, it’s dark and cold and nobody is emailing.
That table is where Hobbs, 40, wrote Show Them You’re Good: A Portrait of Boys in the City of Angels the Year Before College. Out in August from Scribner, it covers about a year in the life of a group of senior boys at two Los Angeles schools as they navigate their social and academic lives and work toward a common goal: getting into college.
“I wanted to write about kids living through their senior year, as they apply to college and deal with that process and its outcomes, and all the nonsense in between,” Hobbs says. As for why he focused on boys: “I felt like the emotional lives of boys are minimized in what’s still a machismo culture.” He takes a beat and adds, “I also thought an adult male probing the emotional lives of teenage girls might not go over well with their parents.”

Hobbs is the author of two previous books: the 2007 novel The Tourists, about a man who seduces both halves of a couple (“I don’t recommend it,” he says of his debut), and the 2014 nonfiction book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League. The latter explores race, class, economic disparity, and maleness—subjects that Hobbs revisits in Show Them You’re Good.
At the heart of Show Them You’re Good are four students, two from Beverly Hills High School and two from Ánimo Pat Brown Charter High School (which is in a neighborhood called Florence-Firestone, north of Compton). From Beverly Hills High, there’s Owen, the well-off son of Christopher Lloyd, co-creator of the TV show Modern Family, and Jon, a Chinese Jewish kid whose immigrant mother moved the family to a small apartment in Beverly Hills so that Jon could have access to a good school. From Ánimo Pat Brown, there’s Carlos, a son of undocumented workers who’s trying to secure Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protection, and Tío, an aspiring engineer whose father is an alcoholic. “They’re all super cool,” Hobbs says of the boys, whom he followed from August 2016 to June 2017 and still stays in contact with.
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Hobbs says his own high school experience was “pretty unremarkable”—he got good grades, he ran track—and that going back to high school to do research was in no way a return to the glory days. “I just felt old,” he says with a smirk.
Developing a rapport with his young subjects took some time. “I’m an awkward guy, so the first couple of meetings were stilted,” says Hobbs, who has a tendency to pause often when he talks, giving his speech a unique halting rhythm. Pretty soon, though, he was immersed in the teens’ daily dramas.
“I spent a lot of time in their homes, I went to family dinners, and to dances and proms,” Hobbs recalls. “I was running around Los Angeles a lot, and it’s weird to tell your kids that you won’t be home for Friday night dinner because you’re going to a Halloween dance at a high school in South L.A., but, you know, my kids know what I do.”
Hobbs’s kids, now ages six and 10, sometimes joined him on his expeditions. They played while he conducted interviews. “It happened frequently that year,” he says. “It worked out. I think it was nice for the boys to get a glimpse into my life, too.”
Show Them You’re Good shows its quartet of high schoolers striving to get good grades, filling out blizzards of college application and financial aid forms, and dealing with family issues, including a sick parent (Owen) and an unstable living situation (Tío). Readers get to root for them as they forge their futures.
“This is a book that crosses over cultures, class, and race, and that’s at the heart of what Jeff Hobbs is looking to bring to the world,” says Hobbs’s agent, David Black at the David Black Literary Agency.
Colin Harrison, Hobbs’s editor and the v-p and editor-in-chief of Scribner, adds, “Line by line, Jeff is just a lovely writer. He’s careful and slow in the making of prose, and it shows. The guy couldn’t write a bad sentence.”
Nonfiction writing didn’t always interest Hobbs. “I stumbled into it when my friend Rob Peace died,” he says. Peace was Hobbs’s roommate at Yale, and after the two graduated in 2002, Peace returned to his hometown in New Jersey and began selling drugs, which led to his 2011 murder by a drug dealer. Hobbs struggled to make sense of the tragedy and, at the suggestion of his wife, began writing a book about Peace. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace became a bestseller. There are currently 250,000 copies in circulation, across print and e-book formats, according to Scribner, and the book is being adapted into a movie. Hobbs’s wife, Rebecca Hobbs, is a film and TV producer and is producing the film with Training Day director Antoine Fuqua.
“I always felt like this story needed to be told to help people walk in someone else’s shoes,” Rebecca says. “It explores this idea that in order to make it in America you have to leave behind what you came from, and how unacceptable that could be.”
Hobbs remains keenly interested in examining people’s lives and understanding their motives. His next book is about kids in juvenile halls and detention centers. “I’m not good at much, but I’m pretty good at asking questions,” he says. “And I’m really good at listening.”
As a bright morning light filters in through his living room window, Hobbs hears his kids rousing in the next room. It’s time to make breakfast and maybe chat with his daughter about the pet rats she wants to buy. (“I’m skeptical,” he says.) Then it’s a full day of dad duty. And the next morning, before the sun comes up, it’s back to writing.
“Talking to someone that no one has heard of, that isn’t famous, and somehow helping their story become part of a reader’s story—that’s pretty neat,” Hobbs says.
Bonus Link:
Jeff Hobbs in His Own Words

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

The Dark Side of Daisy Johnson

British author Daisy Johnson is in her Oxford study on an unseasonably hot day in late May. “Everyone’s kind of piled out into their gardens,” she says, gesturing via Zoom at the glare from the window, which falls on her shoulders and wavy blond hair. She’s kept busy writing during the pandemic, as is evidenced by the gentle sway of Post-it Notes on the wall behind her.
Johnson’s first book was a story collection, Fen, which she wrote while pursuing her masters at Oxford and working in a bookstore. A year later, in 2018, she published a novel, Everything Under. Then the unexpected happened. Johnson was babysitting when her editor called with the news that she’d been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. “The little girl I was looking after was excited, too, and we went to a playground and ran around and around and around,” she recalls.

The recognition has changed Johnson’s life, allowing her to write full-time and reach a larger audience than she’d imagined. Fortunately, she says, she’d already begun her second novel, Sisters, when she found out about the Booker nomination. “It meant that after everything calmed down, I could get back to work.”
Sisters is about July and September, ages 15 and 16, and their depressive mother, Sheela. Like Johnson, they live in Oxford, but after a catastrophic series of incidents that begins with July being cyberbullied, Sheela uproots them.
These events drive the plot, but they are secondary to the psychological horror faced by the family in the isolated seaside cottage, situated at the edge of the moors in northern England, where they move. There, Sheela disappears into her bedroom, leaving the girls to play a grotesque, increasingly dangerous game called September Says, in which July is expected to do anything her sister asks. In one instance, July agrees to eat an entire jar of mayonnaise; in another, she agrees to sacrifice her life in the event that only one of them could survive.
Johnson originally planned to set the book in Wales, but after teaching at the University of York and living with her partner in a converted Ford Transit van—driving around the nearby national park with him and camping—she decided to set it in North Yorkshire. “We were living in quite a small space, both of us trying to work,” she says. Those tight quarters served as inspiration. The region, she adds, is “a very rural, wild area, as much as you can get in the U.K. I wanted nature to surround the characters, which is why there’s a murmuration of birds early on and then a swarm of ants. The idea of the house being kind of inside and outside really interested me.”
Johnson says she’s fascinated by the in-between age before adulthood. “I remember everything feeling very bright and intensified, and the weird superstitions and the nastiness. I went into this book thinking about scary things and monsters. That age in particular is a really good place to explore because you are in this liminal space where it feels like uncanny things could happen.”
At one point, while July and September are messily repainting the walls of the house, a stream of ants comes through a crack in the wall, followed by a noise that sounds like a scream. Then a beak tears through the plaster and a bird emerges, with more ants “digging beneath the down.” The next morning, July wakes and looks for the hole, unsure of whether the episode was a dream, and all she sees are globs of half-dried paint.
Johnson wrote the scene to leave the reader guessing as to whether it was a dream (or hallucination) or it really happened. After hearing that the passage made this reader squirm, she says she’s glad. “I’m pleased you said that because for me, when I was growing up, I really loved reading books where you begin to understand what it means to have a body. There’s a very uncomfortable and slightly squirmy thing about existing as a human with other humans. I didn’t want Sisters to be a horror novel, but I wanted it to take aspects from horror, one of them being this kind of body horror, particularly from a female point of view. They are in a very intense situation, and I wanted it to feel very intense for you, too.”

Johnson was born on Halloween and says her parents gave her lots of horror books. “I immediately loved Stephen King, and grew up feeling very connected to those books. And then when I started thinking about Sisters, I knew I wanted to return to them. I was also reading a lot of Shirley Jackson and some Anne Rivers Siddons.” She has been excited, also, at how the genre has evolved in films over the past decade. “There’s been something really interesting happening, with The Babadook and It Follows exploring feminist issues. I’ve loved that way of looking at something from an angle, at big themes through the lens of horror.”
The subject of cyberbullying came late in the writing, Johnson says, partly because she’s generally interested in maintaining a timeless quality in her work. “The more I wrote the characters, the more I realized that things like social media or the Internet or having a phone were going to be for them a lot bigger than they were for me. This is a book about hauntings in various ways, and I wanted it to feel like the Internet or social media is haunted for them as well, and not necessarily trustworthy.”
Peter, the girls’ father, who died years earlier, and whose sister gave Sheela the cottage so they could leave Oxford, doesn’t literally haunt the characters, but memories and conceptions of him take up a great deal of space in their minds. Sheela remembers her violent fights with Peter and how she’d left him when the girls were babies, seeing him as “a black hole” that would eat them alive. She found fulfillment writing children’s books, using her daughters as subjects. But as the girls grew older, Sheela’s relationship with September soured, taking a heavy toll, especially as Sheela recognized Peter in her. Johnson expresses Sheela’s burden of being a single mother in brutal, lyrical prose: “Her love for them was like carrying shopping bags up a hill and at times she became convinced they wanted the very foundations of her, wanted to break the bricks of her body apart and climb back in.”
Johnson says she worried about writing Sheela, since she is not a mother herself and has a very different relationship with her own mother. The character came from “talking to women and seeing the way women react to grief,” she notes. She wanted to explore what happens when a mother “suffers from heavy depression, which changes her relationship with her children.” She also thought about her own response to “the pressure of having children, and the fight between being a mother and also having a career.”
Everything Under took Johnson four years to write, but Sisters came together more quickly. “I think I trusted and enjoyed my methods, but it changed a lot, and it’s a lot shorter than it was,” she says. Now, rereading it, she’s struck by the difference in the writing compared to her past work. “There’s this breakdown in the language and a different use of space on the page, which I think has come from what the book is about.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Helen Macdonald Gets Political

Helen Macdonald, the nature writer and author of the 2015 memoir H Is for Hawk, is having an enviable Covid-19 lockdown. She Skypes from a sunlit room in her home in the village of Suffolk, in the U.K., which she describes as “ridiculously out of a picture book.” Outside are rolling hills and a field of oats. Nature even makes an occasional appearance indoors, when her parrot, green with ocher tail feathers, materializes on her shoulder or calls to her from off-screen.
Despite the idyllic setting, Macdonald feels, as most of us do, hemmed in. She’s accustomed to exploring nature in a freewheeling fashion. Now, because of the pandemic, her dealings with the outside world have become circumscribed. She’s taken up gardening, which she resisted for years. “I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with spending a lot of time pruning, and digging, and planting,” she says. She invokes the ethologists Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz, who said animals tend to divide themselves into hunters and farmers. “I’m definitely more of a hunter.”

Readers of H Is for Hawk and Macdonald’s forthcoming essay collection, Vesper Flights, will not be surprised to hear that she prefers her nature wild. In H Is for Hawk, she recounts her experience training a goshawk, which she named Mabel, as a means of healing herself after the sudden death of her father. In Vesper Flights, she turns her binoculars on an array of other subjects: mushrooms, glowworms, deer, hares, and, as befits an author with a parrot on her shoulder, numerous varieties of avifauna—orioles, falcons, swans, swifts.
Macdonald also, sometimes, trains her eye on humans. In the essay “In Her Orbit,” which originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine and is included in Vesper Flights, she profiles Nathalie Cabrol, an astrobiologist and planetary geologist who studies Mars. In “A Cuckoo in the House,” Macdonald considers Maxwell Knight, a British spymaster who inspired the James Bond character M and who was, in Macdonald’s words, “an inveterate keeper of animals.” And in “Symptomatic,” she chronicles her lifelong struggle with migraines.
But even when writing about humans, Macdonald makes frequent reference to the natural world, and what unifies the essays in Vesper Flights is her ardor for nature, her extensive knowledge of it, and her fear for its destruction. With a naturalist’s command of technical vocabulary and a poet’s eye for simile, she can sound like a former scholar who’s broken free of the constraints of academe—which is, in essence, what she is.
Macdonald, 49, was born in Surrey. Her father was a staff photographer at the Daily Mirror and her mother worked for local newspapers. She studied English at Cambridge as an undergraduate and returned to the university at 29 to pursue graduate study in the history and philosophy of science; she remained there, working as a research fellow, pursuing (but never completing) a PhD, until 2007. She owes the “analytical elements” in her essays to her time as a scholar, she says, but she decided to leave academia and write for general audiences because she felt that there was “all this really cool stuff that was never leaving the academy.”

Photo Credit: Bill Johnston Jr.
Macdonald began writing H Is for Hawk while still a research fellow at Cambridge and later sold it based on a proposal and first chapter. But she didn’t have much confidence in it. She worried that it was too morose, and that its blend of memoir, nature writing, and biography (the book includes chapters about the author T.H. White, who also wrote of training a goshawk) made it hard to categorize. After she finished the last paragraph, she waited a week before submitting the manuscript to her editor in the U.K., even though it was already late. “I was so scared,” she says. “I thought, This is the weirdest book. It doesn’t fit any genre. It’s really depressing. No one’s going to read it.”
She was wrong. H Is for Hawk went on to become a surprise hit. It won Britain’s Samuel Johnson Prize (now the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and, according to NPD BookScan, has sold more than 300,000 copies in print in the U.S. Dwight Garner, reviewing it in The New York Times, called it a “small, instant classic of nature writing.”
The book has made Macdonald into a literary celebrity, and it’s also brought her into contact with celebrity proper. In 2015, Lena Headey, a star of the HBO series Game of Thrones, acquired the rights to the book and is currently developing it for film. (Before Macdonald met with Headey, her friends gave her a warning inspired by Game of Thrones: “If she offers you wine, don’t drink it!”)
H Is for Hawk’s success has emboldened Macdonald to take on fraught topics in her writing. While that book is attentive to matters of class and gender, Vesper Flights sees her writing more forthrightly about the intersection between nature and politics. The essay collection chronicles a dizzying number of instances of ecological threat and destruction; it also documents the nativism that frequently accompanies nature appreciation. In an essay on swan upping, a centuries-old practice wherein swans in the Thames are rounded up and marked, Macdonald writes that heritage traditions of this kind “have clear conceptual value for nationalists; they promote a sense of seamless historical continuity that works to erase differences between past and present, burnishing an illusion of unchanging Englishness.”
“Some of the more political aspects of Vesper Flights, some of the ways in which I try to talk about class, about privilege, about climate change—I think I would have been too scared to have done that a few years ago,” Macdonald says.
Vesper Flights works to plumb the political dimensions of even our seemingly innocuous ideas about nature. We see “solitary contemplation as simply the correct way to engage with nature,” Macdonald writes in the essay “Eclipse.” “But it is always a political act, bringing freedom from the pressures of other minds, other interpretations, other consciousnesses competing with your own.”
And our idealization of nature as separate from civilization, Macdonald suggests, has ramifications for the environmental movement. In “The Falcon and the Tower,” she describes a falcon perched on an abandoned industrial site as a “feathered rebuke to our commonplace notion that nature exists only in places other than our own, an assumption that seems always one step towards turning our back on the natural world, abandoning it as something disappearing or already lost.”
Macdonald believes that offering these ideas in personal, reflective essays is a “more generous act” for readers than simply telling them what they should or should not do to help the environment. “A lot of environmental literature now is explicitly polemical and campaigning in a way that I find quite off-putting, because I hate to be told what to do,” she says. “I want to sit with someone and talk with them about what’s happening, and how I see it, and how I feel about it, rather than shouting. There’s a place for shouting. But I’m not very good at it.”
Nevertheless, Vesper Flights comes at a time when many of us, with our lives on pause, are thinking more carefully about the ecological consequences of our ordinarily bustling world. Elisabeth Schmitz, Macdonald’s editor at Grove Atlantic, suggests Vesper Flights helps to foster an appreciation for the natural world. “As we emerge from Covid-19, a crisis curable only by science, surely more of us than ever will want to protect this one and only environment that sustains us,” she says.
In the time since H Is for Hawk was published, Macdonald says, she has met people who, after reading the book, began to notice birds or “small changes in the natural world” that they hadn’t noticed before. “That’s occasionally reduced me to tears,” she adds. “There’s this brilliant, glittering world of profusion and life out there. It’s just there for us to take notice of. It’s just really special to think I might have helped some people get there.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Finding Meaning in Death with Akwaeke Emezi

“The world is always ending somewhere,” Akwaeke Emezi says over the phone from their home in New Orleans, where they’ve been quarantined since March. “It just depends on whether it falls in your line of vision or not.”
When the Covid-19 crisis started, the novelist reflected on their childhood in Nigeria in order to keep calm: “You grew up in a military dictatorship,” they told themself. “You dealt with statewide curfew. You dealt with people being burned alive a block down from your house.”
In retrospect, Emezi says, the Nigeria of their childhood sets a low bar against which to compare 2020 New Orleans. “But it did help me remember that the world is ending everywhere for someone or for a community. Those ends still matter even amidst all the noise of this one.”
The Death of Vivek Oji details the circumstances of one such end. It’s Emezi’s second novel for adults after their highly praised 2018 debut, Freshwater, and Pet, a 2019 National Book Award–nominated young adult novel. Vivek Oji unravels the mystery of a young queer person’s demise in Nigeria in the late 1990s. Freshwater and Pet contain fantastical yet emotionally true portrayals of young queer characters, but Vivek Oji is more grounded.
“Vivek is struggling the same way any young person who’s coming of age struggles to figure things out,” Emezi says, “not in the narrative of, if you’re queer you’re repressed and that is therefore the source of all your angst, and once you come out your problems are magically solved.”

The source of Vivek’s struggle, Emezi says, isn’t gender or sexual preference. They take issue with the Western idea that coming out as queer is a panacea. “To me it was so clear that this was a spiritual thing. Other factors of identity play in, but correlation is not the same as causation.” Vivek is much more than a character who just grapples with his queerness.
Emezi is aware that the premise is problematic. “I realized when I was writing it that killing off a queer character is a bad trope,” they say. But understanding Vivek’s death requires the reader to also understand his life and the people in his community who loved him.
The novel’s nonlinear plot structure provided Emezi with a challenge, they say. “How can I write a book that keeps its own secrets until the end? How can I write things that I know but the reader can’t know?” The Death of Vivek Oji may reveal its protagonist’s death in its earlier chapters, but the surrounding circumstances are the great mystery.
“With Vivek, I wanted to write a story about someone who’s queer and living in Nigeria but who is still loved and who still has a community,” Emezi says. They thought particularly of Vivek in the early days of the pandemic, when a social media campaign aimed at stamping out homophobia in Nigeria surfaced in the wake of the murder of a gay man in the region of the country where Emezi grew up.

Akwaeke Emezi
“When the hashtag happened, it hit me that the realities of all the queer babies out there don’t change because of a pandemic,” Emezi says. “If anything it gets worse, because there’s more isolation and more of that feeling that you can’t talk about your own struggles. But at the end of the day a queer kid who’s stuck with a homophobic family is still stuck.” Becoming unstuck is Vivek’s ultimate triumph, even as we watch him inch closer and closer to his untimely end.
Emezi wants readers to struggle with the idea that a book that features a death so prominently is actually one that, more than anything, celebrates life. “In order for us to make a new world we have to be able to imagine it,” they say. “That’s step one. For me, Vivek is something like that: an imagining of a community that loves this boy as he is unconditionally.”
Emezi hopes that in witnessing the community that Vivek’s peers form around him, readers will see what acceptance might look like. They want people to read The Death of Vivek Oji and learn that such treatment is possible. “You have to create that space first,” they say. “From there you can actually start building it. You know what you can say no to because there’s something else to say yes to.”
The book, Emezi says, went through many drafts. “It was important for me to give Vivek a voice, because earlier drafts didn’t include his chapters, and I realized he can’t be the protagonist if we don’t get to hear from him.”
In learning about Vivek as they were writing him, Emezi discovered that he is the only character who is not worried about himself or his fate. Because Vivek is dead for much of the book and only narrates a smattering of chapters, it can be easy for readers to miss the fact that he’s fairly coolheaded. Emezi puts the concerns of Vivek’s family and friends front and center, daring readers to tune out the noise and figure out what it is that Vivek wants.
“Are we forgetting to listen to him because he’s not centered in the way we expected him to be?” Emezi asks. “Are we forgetting to listen to the actual people who are at the center of this? What do we miss by looking at things through everyone else’s lens except Vivek’s own?”
Subverting the typical coming-out narrative is also a question of writing for a specific audience, Emezi says, and not worrying so much about the rest. “I’m writing for black trans people. I’m not trying to raise empathy by showing how bad it is out there and that people are dying.” They chose not to amplify the hatred and the trauma it causes and has caused. “We know very well what’s out there, and we don’t need to see it again. So instead I try to amplify the alternative.”
Emezi believes that oppressed people need to create spaces in which they feel safe. “When most people create bubbles it’s not to hide from reality,” they say. “It’s in order to survive. For people who are oppressed, creating bubbles doesn’t stop you from seeing all of the horrible things that are happening, but it does give you a little space to not die in.”
Stories, Emezi notes, are fantastic vessels in which to start mapping out such bubbles—especially during the heightened isolation of the present. “We have to make sure that the stories get to the people who need them. The supply chain of a story cannot be corrupted because of the pandemic. Because stories matter. If anything they matter more than they did before.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Dissidents, Revolutionaries, and Protestors: On Imbolo Mbue’s ‘How Beautiful We Were’

It wasn’t easy to pin down an interview with Imbolo Mbue, the 39-year-old novelist whose first book, 2016’s Behold the Dreamers—a dissection of capitalism, class, and the American dream set during the Great Recession—went on to become a New York Times bestseller, an Oprah Book Club pick, and the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. But the scheduling challenges weren’t any person’s fault. On March 12, in an attempt to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency for New York City, where Mbue lives with her husband and children. So, instead of meeting in person, she answered questions via Skype from her Midtown apartment, casually dressed in a denim shirt, her hair up in a bun, during a brief break from figuring out what exactly one does during a pandemic.
In a way, there was something appropriate about the timing. Mbue’s latest novel, How Beautiful We Were, publishes in June and follows the residents of Kosawa, a fictional African village that’s been devastated over the course of several generations by a greedy American oil company and the corrupt national government. The village children are dying from contaminated drinking water and the land can no longer produce medicinal herbs. Finally, the villagers determine that no one will help them—they’ll have to fight back. Among them is a child named Thula, who goes on to lead a movement aimed at bringing democracy to her people and a redemption of their ancestral land.

It’s an epic work tackling a number of brutal realities: the question of whether we protect ourselves or the greater community, how anger manifests in those who have been exploited for others’ gain (and further entrenches those determined to stay in power), and how a willful ignorance of the ways we are inextricably tied together threatens to destroy us all.
“We are so connected, and I think that, for better or worse, my novel deals with globalization,” Mbue says. “We are seeing the perils of globalization right now. People pay prices for other people’s actions in other parts of the world.”
Growing up in the coastal town of Limbe, Cameroon, Mbue was always different. “I was a bookish kid, and in the place I’m from, people don’t really read books,” she says. She came to America at 17 to attend Rutgers University; Thula fro How Beautiful We Were comes to the United States at the same age for her studies.
“I also grew up in Africa in a time when people were trying to fight back,” Mbue says. “There were a lot of revolutionaries in my childhood, not in my country but all over Africa. So even as a child, I always had this love and admiration for dissidents and revolutionaries and protestors.”
Though Mbue shares some attributes with her heroine, their lives took very different tracks. While Thula becomes a revolutionary, Mbue earned her bachelor’s in business administration and, later, her master’s from Columbia University’s Teachers College. In 2009, after she’d been laid off from her job in market research, she noticed black drivers waiting at the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle for white executives. That moment sparked Behold the Dreamers.
The novel’s central character, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem who gets a job chauffeuring a Lehman Brothers executive, sold for a rumored seven figures in 2014—the same year Mbue became an American citizen. But before the book sold, she says she faced “years of rejection.” She adds, “It was more like a roller coaster than like smooth sailing, you know?”
Mbue is a private person—so private that when her agent was sending out Behold the Dreamers to publishers, they would Google her name, “and there was nothing, because I just didn’t even exist on the Internet,” she says, laughing. “Then I got a book deal, and then my name appeared on the Internet, and then my picture appeared on the Internet, which was actually funny, because there was no picture of me on the Internet before.”
Mbue says she cares deeply about maintaining space to do what is true to her, supporting the solace of “a cocoon” in which to think and create without getting caught up in what other people want. “You have to know yourself.” So she’s not on social media. A friend manages her Facebook page. She prefers not to talk about her kids or her husband (who reads all of her press “but knows not to say a word to me”). She doesn’t even enjoy talking much about herself, outside of her writing.

But there is one personal anecdote Mbue loves to tell. A few years after moving to America, she visited a library in Falls Church, Va., where she encountered Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, an Oprah Book Club pick. It inspired her to start writing, though at the time she kept her work a secret from her friends and family, considering it just a hobby. Then in 2017, when Mbue’s first novel, Behold the Dreamers, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, Mbue received a call from Oprah Winfrey herself. “I said, ‘You won’t believe it, but you, your Book Club, is what affected me and got me to start writing, actually.’ Oprah responded, ‘Oh my God, why haven’t I heard this story before?’ ”
How Beautiful We Were, which Mbue describes as an incredibly difficult book to write—“a love song to anybody with the strength to overthrow a system”—has been nearly two decades in the making. “I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, you write such timely books,’ ” she says. “I’m like, ‘What do you mean, timely? I’ve been writing something that was on my mind in 2002!’ Nobody was talking about the oil industry when I was writing this book. I was thinking about a story that mattered to me.”
Mbue returned to the novel in 2016, after Behold the Dreamers. “I knew that I had to write the story that had been haunting me,” she says. “And then after Mr. Trump won the election, there was all this hysteria, and I just was like, ‘You guys just continue your noise and hysteria. I’m just going to work on my story.’ It was a wonderful, wonderful sense of solace, having this story.”
How Beautiful We Were went through “a gazillion drafts,” says Mbue, who poured herself into the task, spurred by an innate curiosity and a sense of herself as an observer informed by two very different worlds. “I’ve seen such a range of what it means to be a woman, and what it means to stand up, and what it means to have a voice. I think America really shaped my mind, and Cameroon shaped my character.”
Mbue didn’t hesitate to ask the hard questions, to dive into those stories behind the story: What is it like to be a freedom fighter, or a revolutionary, or a dissident? What are the sacrifices you make? And what sacrifices do your family make? And what price do you pay?
When asked if she’s nervous about preparing to publish a book in the midst of a pandemic, she shakes her head. “I just don’t want to make anything worse. We want it to be over as soon as possible, so we all have to do our part. And hopefully it is over soon.” Then she adds, “I am very much at peace, because it was a story I had to tell, and I told it, and my part is mostly done.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

American Inequality: On Laila Lalami’s ‘Conditional Citizens’

The day after Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, Laila Lalami’s daughter asked her a question: “He doesn’t have to make us leave, right?”
Lalami, a Moroccan American who lives in Los Angeles, has been a citizen for decades; she assured her daughter that it would not happen. In reality, she wasn’t sure.
“Every time I have thought about this conversation––and I have thought about it dozens of times, in my sleepless nights since the election––I have felt less certain,” she writes in her new essay collection, Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America.
Lalami has published four novels—most recently the bestselling The Other Americans—this is her first nonfiction book. The original essays draw on the themes of identity and politics that she has written about for outlets such as The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and The New York Times.
In the book, Lalami tackles what it means to be an immigrant in America––one whose paperwork states that she is a citizen but whose daily life sometimes makes her feel as though she doesn’t belong. With essays like “Assimilation,” “Borders,” and “Inheritance,” the book takes a deep dive into the notion that, despite the ideals of America’s founders and Thomas Jefferson’s promise that “all men are created equal,” all American citizens are not treated equally.

Born in 1968 in Rabat, Morocco, Lalami grew up speaking Moroccan Arabic and later learned standard Arabic and French. She moved to the U.S. 25 years ago to complete a doctoral degree in linguistics, received her citizenship in 2000, and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. Talking via Skype from her home in Los Angeles, her tight dark curls resting on her shoulders, she is animated, gesturing with her hands, surrounded by books in her office.
Lalami notes she has always felt, to a degree, that she’s living in a gray area, culturally. “This gray life of mine is not unique…Most of the time, gray lives go unnoticed,” she writes. It’s only when some kind of political event or violent act erupts that “gray lives become targets.” She adds that her time in the U.S. has been wonderful in many ways, but she’s “never been entirely secure or comfortable” here.
Lalami says she feels that way because she has experienced being treated as what she calls a “conditional citizen.” The term comes up throughout the essays, taking shape in ways big and small: she writes about those who are “policed and punished” more than others, as well as those who “are more likely to be expatriated and denaturalized.”
Being considered a citizen, Lalami says, is something most people take for granted. “The idea of citizenship is below the surface––it’s not something that you ever think about in your everyday life,” she explains. “You have breakfast with your family, you go to work, you do your thing, you come home, you rest and watch TV or read a book or whatever. It is something you become conscious of under specific circumstances.”
For Lalami, the idea of conditional citizenship began crystallizing in recent years, after interactions she’s had with various government officials. “You become conscious of it when you’re crossing the border, because then you’re sorted by nationality––this line for E.U. nationals, this line for U.S. nationals,” she says. A border agent at the Los Angeles International Airport once asked her husband, who traveled with her, “How many camels did you have to trade in for her?”
“That’s when the idea of conditionality emerges––this feeling that you’re not really American if you don’t support what the government is doing,” Lalami explains. “If you don’t support the troops, if you don’t agree with how things are being done. Everything that distinguishes you from others becomes suspicious.”
Being an Arab American after 9/11 has also impacted Lalami’s understanding of her place in this country. “Bush’s message of with-us-or-against-us carried the implication that one could not be Arab and American, or Muslim and American, unless one was on the side of the United States in its military fights,” she writes in “Allegiance.”
In “Faith,” Lalami highlights her discomfort with being regularly burdened with “having to educate white Americans” about topics that they assume she’s an expert on because of the color of her skin, or her religion. As we talk about the essay, she offers an example: when she was employed at the Getty Research Institute in the late ’90s, a colleague who worked on her floor asked her out to lunch. The reason? He said he had questions about the Middle East.
Lalami laughs. “I’m not from the Middle East!” she says. “I’m from North Africa! And even if I was from the Middle East region, what is the question? Is it about politics? Culture? Can you imagine someone approaching you saying they want to have lunch because they have questions about Texas?”
Citizenship, in Lalami’s view, brings with it a responsibility to learn about one’s country and its relationship to others. When people refuse to do this work, she says, they shirk their “responsibilities as citizens.” Being a good citizen is “more of an active thing than just a state of being: it’s a relationship––and like every relationship, it involves effort and it involves nurturing and it involves work.”
Still, Lalami acknowledges the importance of making an effort to learn. “People who ask are at least curious and trying to learn,” she says. “And especially as an educator, that is something that I have a deep love for. I really do think that people can change their minds. I don’t think that they can change their minds based on reading about politics in the newspaper or listening to a politician or any of that. I think that they change their minds––sometimes without realizing it––when they hear another person’s story.”
In the end, Lalami wrote Conditional Citizens for her daughter. “The most important role I have is with my family––my husband and my child,” she says. “When you think about the grand scheme of things, all of this is going to go away. The only thing that’s going to last is the love that you have for one another.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Bill Buford’s Stint in Hell’s Kitchen

Bill Buford is sorry, but he’s running late. This, perhaps, isn’t surprising. He’s supposed to be at lunch at a Midtown Manhattan bistro to discuss his new book, Dirt, which is also behind schedule. In it, he chronicles his epic free-fall into French cuisine, and his family’s experience living in Lyon for five years. There, Buford worked in a fancy restaurant’s very strict kitchen. And he was late to work. A lot. It was a problem.
When he does arrive, he’s wearing a very New York ensemble of dark on black on black on dark. His gray hair and beard are cropped short, and he’s in a good mood. He’s coming from Knopf’s offices down the street, where he’s been going over second-pass pages.
It’s not Buford’s choice to be doing edits in the PRH office; he made a lot of changes to first-pass pages. And, maybe, upon further reflection, a section he rewrote shouldn’t have been rewritten after all. Basically he’s serving a kind of editorial detention, and whatever the book looks like now, well, as he says, “It’s much edited since you last saw it.”
Buford’s longtime editor was publishing legend Sonny Mehta, who died at the end of December. They’d known each other since the early 1980s, when Mehta was at Picador in London and Buford was running the literary journal Granta.
“His direction was more indirect,” Buford says. “When I finally finished the draft, which I thought was pretty good, he said, ‘It’s a good book.’ And I said, ‘Well Sonny, I’m going to do my revisions to make it a great book.’ He said, ‘It’s not a great book, it’s a good book.’ It delayed my finishing the book by a year. And then last summer he phoned me. He wasn’t well and he’d lost his voice again. He said, ‘I don’t know what you did, but it’s great.’”
Buford, 65, has a voice that’s somewhere between gravelly and growly, and he speaks in bursts and pauses, often stopping mid-sentence, during which time his upper lip will turn inward and he’ll work it slightly before resuming. He looks a bit gruff, like someone who might show up at your door if you are late paying some money you owe to a very bad dude. And yet, here he is having a bowl of bouillabaisse and leaning forward when he talks to make sure his voice is heard on the recorder in a loud room. Or maybe he just hunches. In any event, he’s a nice guy (seriously, check out his Twitter), quick to smile.
Buford was born in Baton Rouge, La. His dad was in the Air Force, and a posting took the family to Southern California when Buford was five. He later went to UC Berkeley and then to Cambridge. At Cambridge, in 1979, he founded Granta. His last issue was in 1995, and during his time at the magazine, it became the kind of publication you’d find in the hands of very discerning readers who were serious about their literature. He left Granta to take over the fiction editor post at an obscure little periodical called The New Yorker.

By then Buford had published his well-received Among the Thugs, a horrifying and very funny study of English football violence in the 1980s. (A nod to Buford’s literary cred: early in Thugs he writes about attending his first English football match with two unnamed friends; he says they were Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa.)

Buford’s second book, Heat, was a bestseller. In it, he documented his life as a “kitchen slave” at Babbo, one of Mario Batali’s Manhattan restaurants, and his adventures learning the art of Tuscan butchery from a flamboyant eighth-generation Italian butcher.
Batali was a huge piece of the book, which at the time was quite an asset. But the world we live in now is not the same as the one in which Heat was written. Then, Batali was a gregarious chef and popular food TV personality; now he is a #MeToo pariah facing charges of sexual harassment and assault. Even so, in Heat, Batali’s boorishness is on full display.
“It’s in the book,” Buford says after a long pause when Batali is brought up. “I’ve avoided talking about it, but let’s just say it’s all there.”
Dirt is big, 400-something pages, and the longest thing Buford has written. It started out as a pretty simple idea: go to Paris, work in a kitchen for a few months, bang out a book. This idea was jangling around in Buford’s head well before Obama was elected, right after he wrapped up Heat. Basically, do Heat in France.
One problem: the French really didn’t care about Buford or his book. If he wanted to go, which at that point meant taking his family (he and his wife, Jessica Green, a magazine editor turned wine expert, had preschool-age twin boys at the time), there would be beaucoup paperwork to fill out for their residency permits. So they did, and with a little fraudulent help from a well-placed friend, the Lyonnaise chef Daniel Boulud, they were in. Which was another problem: then they were there. And in Lyon, not Paris.
What follows is a mix of memoir, culinary anthropology, and immersion journalism, all told in Buford’s hallmark erudite and ruthlessly self-effacing way. Early life in Lyon was a parade of difficulties and humiliations: contending with the French fetish for bureaucracy; finding an apartment; failing to find a kitchen to work in; finally getting work, only to be bullied by a 19-year-old kitchen psychopath; coming to realize that strangers thought Buford was a local in a city where, he writes, the men are all “ugly fuckers.”
“It was a wild thing we did. Really, a wild thing,” Buford says. “Because we get there, and everything’s going wrong and I can’t get into a kitchen, and I think, ‘Well, what the fuck? Now what?’ Then I got into a kitchen where any reasonable person would say, ‘Why didn’t you get out of there?’ But of course, as a writer, that’s what you want.”
The job Buford landed at the Michelin-starred restaurant La Mère Brazier required 15-plus-hour days in a kitchen where the culture resembled that of a pirate ship. The labor was so demanding and physical that he wound up losing weight working in a place where the recipes measured butter in kilos.
“I liked it a lot,” Buford says. “I think I enjoy physical activity, but I’ve got kind of a desk brain. So, the pleasure of the situation—La Mère Brazier was different because it was so intense—is you can have a reflecting brain while you’re doing a physical activity. It helps that I know that I’m going to be writing about it.”
There are intellectual pursuits in the book as well as the demented rigors of the kitchen. Not to give anything away, but a turning point Buford discovers in the controversial history of interplay among Italian and French food (if you want to piss off the French, tell them French cuisine is actually Italian in origin, as Buford did repeatedly) will have people who care about such things looking at their ragù differently.
The Bufords ended up staying in Lyon for five years. They sold their Manhattan apartment. The twins went native. And when the family moved back to New York, the boys had trouble with English. Buford, meanwhile, has long given up his desk at The New Yorker and is now set to embark on something new. He can’t say yet what it is, but know this: it’s gotten a cold reception.
“My agent doesn’t like it. My wife doesn’t like it,” he says. “But I kind of like it.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.