My Favorite Love Story is Not a Love Story

At least not in the traditional sense. Otravida, Otravez by Junot Diaz is my favorite love story because it’s the story of love when it’s hard, of love when it’s difficult, or when it seems impossible.

The narrator is a woman in love with Ramón, a man with a wife and son he does not speak to.

Our first months Ramón and I were in the park daily. Just to wind down after work, he said, but I painted my fingernails red every time. I remember the day before we first made love, how I already knew it would happen. He had only just told me about his wife and about his son.

The narrator (and in turn, us, the readers) are haunted by the letters sent to Ramón from his wife.

In a box on the top shelf of the closet he has a stack of Virta’s letters, cinched in a fat brown rubber band. Nearly eight years’ worth. Each envelope s worn and frail and I think he’s forgotten they’re here. I found them a month after he stored his things, right at the start of our relationship, couldn’t resist, and afterward I wished I had.

He claims that he stopped writing to her the year before, but that’s not true. Every month I drop by his apartment with his laundry and read the new letters she has sent, the ones he stashes under his bed. I know Virta’s name, her address, I know she works at a chocolate factory; I know that he hasn’t told her about me.

The letters have grown beautiful over the years and now the handwriting has changed as well – each letter loops down, dropping into the next line like a rudder. Please, please mi querido husband, tell me what it is. How long did it take before your wife stopped mattering?

The narrator writes,

Here there are calamities without end—but sometimes I can clearly see us in the future, and it is good.

Her love for this man is something fraught; described to her best friend like this,

Ana Iris once asked me if I loved him and I told her about the lights in my old house in the capital, how they flickered and you never knew if they would go out or not. You put down your things and you waited and couldn’t do anything really until the lights decided. This, I told her, is how I feel.

But still, the love feels real, or at least, the need to stay is.

I am pregnant when the next letter finally arrives. Sent from Ramón’s old place to our new home. I pull it from the stack of mail and stare at it. My heart is beating like it’s lonely, like there’s nothing else inside of me. I want to open it but I call Ana Iris instead; we haven’t spoken in a long time. I stare out of the bird-filled hedges while the phone rings.

I want to go for a walk, I tell her.

The piece ends just as softly as it begins.

She’s writing again, I say, but Ana Iris interrupts me.

I’ve been calling my children, she says. She points out the man across from the courthouse, who sells her stolen calling-card numbers. They’ve gotten so much older, she tells me, that it’s hard for me to recognize their voices.

We sit down after a while so that I can hold her hand and she can cry. I should say something but I don’t know where a person can start.

It gets cold. We go home. We embrace at the door for what feels like an hour.

That night I give Ramón the letter and I try to smile while he reads it.

It’s Pisces Season

IMG_4384.JPGThis is my desk. Or at least, the calming corner of my desk (the rest of it tends to be mussed with a laptop, stack of books, strewn papers). Every work day of every week for the last four years at least, I’ve woken up early to sit here and write for an hour before I attended one of three jobs, changing over the years, but all involving writing in some way or another. For most of this time, I was working on a novel, occasionally short stories and essays as they came up.

But for the last nearly three weeks, I fell out of this routine. “Fell” isn’t really the right word, I deliberately decided to not write, is more like it. I woke up later, meditated for twenty-ish minutes, made coffee, drank it slowly, watched the news, occasionally turned on my laptop and played around with a short story I wrote this time last year and haven’t yet returned to in order to make the appropriate edits, but this I did without conviction. Some mornings I woke up feeling absolutely directionless, too foggy-headed to make a decision on how to spend the 45-60 minutes before I needed to get myself together and head out the door, and those mornings were almost inevitably spent scrolling through my phone while I ate oatmeal or toast, reading but not absorbing much of what I saw, growing outraged at mere headlines.

It felt right to take a break, but yet strange. We tend to define ourselves by our work, and if not our work, then at least by what we are working towards, who we aspire to be. (Case in point: I spent much of my very early twenties telling anyone who asked that I was “working on becoming a writer” and still, one month shy of 30, having gone to school, been published, with my long labored-on manuscript finally completed and in the hands of a caring agent, I occasionally feel the word “writer” getting stuck in my throat, hear it spoken like it came from someone else.) It’s not that I feel like this label is now false just because I’m taking time off, but it does feel odd to not be in the act of “working towards it” or (as I try to convince myself) “doing it.” What am I if I’m not doing this one thing that I’ve staked plenty of my own time (all of my twenties) and (several) dollars pursuing?

In my day job, I’m a grant writer. A “development professional.” But is this how I define myself? Of course, not. This is something that, at 29, I found that I’m not bad at, that I can live off of, at least for now. But without the writing, the focal point of my days has shifted. My mind has been commandeered by grants, funding streams, the insane but necessary worry that VAWA will be defunded by the current administration and my livelihood will go away. These are not things I tend to like the majority of my time to be spent on.

I know it’s silly, ridiculous even, but three weeks without writing has had me worried about all of these things, labels and definitions, the existential “What am I?” etc. I fear these are my own neuroses, out on the table and in full view.

Another existential battle: in the current world we find ourselves in, where the news is always bad, or at least doing a good job of hiding what we know to be good and decent acts happening somewhere else, what is it to be a writer? More specifically, what is it to write fiction, poetry, meandering essays like this one? I’ve become, like many, incredibly bogged down in what to do, how to do it, where to show up, where not to show up, how best to protest, what to avoid to ensure you don’t suck at protesting, how to be a better white person, where to donate, what link to share, which article to read, which petition to sign. Where is the space for creating stories in all this? What is the need? Is there a need, or are we (writers) merely hoping that there is still a need?

A young woman I spoke to recently confessed in the self-conscious way I’m beginning to feel is consistent with all writers (or at least writers who are also women) that she, too, spends at least part of the many hours of her weeks writing fiction. I felt this kinship strongly, pictured her holing up somewhere like we do, in the glow of a laptop screen, carving out some space to exist solitarily. I was with this woman for several hours over the course of a Saturday, some of which was spent talking about writing and great American writers, but much more discussing politics and our horror at the changing world. (She, a Brit, moved to America just after Brexit, the proverbial “double whammy.”) I asked her, during the course of this long day of occasionally interrupted conversation, if she still felt fiction to be a worthwhile pursuit, given the political climate. She looked at me squarely. “Of course,” she said, in that lovely full-throated London tone I experience almost painful nostalgia for. “It’s needed now more than ever.”

I nodded my head and agreed, and I suppose some part of me does agree, or at least very much wants to, but it still didn’t keep me from feeling strange, almost selfishly ignorant, when I sent an email to the aforementioned lovely agent only a few days after the presidential inauguration with the subject line “Literary Fiction Novel” to say, “I’m pleased to resubmit to you…”

Where am I going with this? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I woke up feeling emotional. I’m a Pisces, it’s nearly our season. I’ll probably go back to writing next week and wonder why I spent so much time ruminating on this. (A yoga teacher, when teaching her students how to meditate, told us the horrifying fact that only 3% of the mind’s thoughts are new. Another thing to worry about: Are all of my thoughts recycled? Slight revisions of previous thoughts?)

And yet, I can’t move past the feeling of being pulled in two. The energy needed to write is equal to (or greater than?) the energy needed to pay attention and act, to get through the day. And yet my days without writing have felt incomplete. I’ve been lingering in the space just before falling asleep at night with the nagging feeling that I left the oven on, or that I’ve forgotten to do something I said I would. As though the deliberate act of not writing has left something unfinished, something vitally important to my sense of self.

I, like many others, spend time daydreaming about the future. (Going directly against the advice of another yoga teacher, “Do not predict the future, do not dwell on the past.”) Selfishly, of course, these predictions are centered around me. The future version of me is always a rosier version of my current self. Contented, balanced, self-aware. She spends more time doing than she does worrying. She has accomplishments, goals, a different living space, an affable, bewildered baby strapped to her chest. This future version of me wears her hair long and wears (casually!) floor-length, flowy dresses. (Why? I tell you this now: my hair refuses to grow more than an inch below my shoulders and I do not, nor have I ever, owned a long, flowy dress.) And yet, this woman exists in my mind clear as day. Who is she? Why does she exist? Is she here to taunt me?

There are different versions of her: a writer (who is somehow not scraping by), a mother (who is somehow not overwhelmed or exhausted), a vegan café owner (a side project that always exists in my head that I lack both the will and skill to actually do), still in nonprofit development (please, no). Overlaying these visions of a future there is the reality of crisis: where will we be in four years? Eight years? Twelve? (“My biggest worry,” says a colleague, “is that we’ll never have a Democrat in office again. That there will be a Republican coup.” To which I could do nothing but shake my head and explain that my mind can’t quite bend to the possibility of that reality.)

The truth is, in this intrepid future, I will probably still be me, just a slightly older version of me, hopefully wiser, but maybe not, still with the same worries, the same fears, the same circular, meandering thoughts.

And the same burning need to write about it.

Mornings. 

  

Pausing the flow of one novel in order to return to another. Six am mornings. Revision. The work rarely feels done.

Orlando: Sitting with the Pain

I woke up this morning still awash the in the weight of the weekend’s news. Yesterday, I cried. I cried in the shower. I cried while emptying the dishwasher. I cried again while trying to distract my mind with a magazine. I fired off angry tweets to senators, infuriated with the same overwrought platitudes of “thoughts and prayers” that they’re so used to saying and we’re so used to accepting. I put my phone away and turned off the news. A friend offered the truth I’ve also been thinking: “It’s getting harder and harder to bounce back.” When my boyfriend came home I held him closely and told him I loved him. I fell asleep early and stayed in bed past my alarm. I didn’t write. I didn’t meditate. My body wanted only to lay in the latent heaviness of feeling, as though stuck in a hangover. I arrived at work and a coworker asked cheerily how my weekend was. I quietly said an “okay” and then cried more at my desk. I shut myself in the bathroom and cried more there. I pushed through a foggy morning of unproductive work. At lunch, I called my boyfriend to tell him that I’m still sad. He told me felt the same; he had to turn off the news and distract himself with his work, music. I sat in the park eating my salad, watching groups of people sitting together eating their lunches, talking and laughing. I wondered how anyone could talk or laugh. I sent an email to my closest friend to tell her how heavy I felt. How incredibly saddened I was. How hard this one hit me. She told me that she understood; that she felt it, too. And then she told me to turn off the news, turn off social media, to tip it over into words.

I know that our capacity to love each other far outweighs the hate we can harbor. I know this. And I have to believe it, or else I’ll cave under the pressure. But in times like this, on days like this, it can be so hard to remember. When the sadness of it permeates everything we know, when the shock and horror is all we can think of, when we face the frustration of having to once again mourn the death of so very many innocent lives at the hands of guns, when all of this leads us to argue in its wake instead of holding onto those we love and telling them how very much we love them, the thin fabric of our connection to each other begins to break down. I believe that our liberation is tied together. It depends on one another. We need each other every day, but now it becomes even more desperate. 

I can’t say why this tragedy is affecting me more than the others. Why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it even for a second. I’m not particularly connected to Florida or Orlando, other than having traveled there several times as a young girl and still viewed it as the magical place it was to me back then. Maybe it’s that I worked in a place similar to Pulse Nightclub in college, and still hold in my heart the incredible community I was introduced to through that experience. Maybe it’s because the number of victims has grown to levels that has made it the largest mass shooting in our history. Maybe because it feels so damn preventable. Maybe it’s picturing the cowering hostages, hearing of the texts to family members expressing fear for their lives. 

A coworker returned from Orlando two days before the massacre. When I asked how she was doing, she expressed to me her sadness, and I told her mine. She reminded me that it’s important to feel it, to sit with the pain of it. It’s important, she said, to not become complacent. To remember that this isn’t normal.  That no matter what, we can’t let ourselves believe that this is normal.

Understand that this was an act of hate on a specifically targeted group. Sit with the fact that these were mostly queer men of color. Know that an absurd holdover from our past severely limits the ability of those who are willing to give blood. The LGBTQI community has experienced so much of the worst of America’s cultural hatred for being who they are and loving who they love. Mourn with them. Feel all of the pain and outrage that they feel. Understand that in America, tragedies of this nature are no longer a matter of “if” but of “when.” 

I know I’m not saying anything new. I’m certainly not the only one to feel this way, and there are so many others, the families of victims, the LGBTQI community, that are feeling deep sadness on a level I cannot comprehend. But this is my process, we all have our own. And we will get through it. We will all get through it. And we’ll move on. But it will happen again. And we’ll again go through this collective grieving process. And we’ll again feel anger, and sadness, and perhaps hopelessness. But we simply cannot allow ourselves to become immune. We cannot fall into the trap that this is America and we can’t change it. We have to be able to change it. This cannot become our every six month existence. We cannot live like sitting ducks, waiting for the next deranged person to become enraged by a slight, or by no slight at all. It is too easy in this country to own a gun, even legally. It is too easy to own a specific type of military-style killing machine that has the sole purpose of taking as many lives as possible very, very quickly. 

Call your senator. Email them. Tweet at them. Demand change. Don’t wait until time has passed and we’ve forgotten this feeling. Hold onto this pain and use it. We have to change it. We have to change it. We have to change it. 

Favorite Females Friday: Gold, Babies, and Why We Can’t Hate Bey

Ughhhhh this rain. #overit

BUT, it’s Friday. Which means Favorite Females Friday. Which is something that I’m starting. Kind of. #favoritefemalesfriday

This week I finished Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold, Fame, Citrus and I was so sad to see it end. It has been such a pleasant journey reading this book. CVW’s language is the type of gorgeous, sharp-eyed poeticism akin to Lauren Groff (who, you know, I also love). Just read this and tell me you’re not having a great time:

She chewed her root and watched his beautiful voice comet across the heaven of their dome. She lifted her hand before her face and made patient, shimmering contrails with her fingers. A little disappointed, for she wanted to give him all things there, in their tiny kaleidoscopic universe fixed in the center of the great big benevolent cartwheeling galaxy all around them. There was nothing she wouldn’t let go–the freedom of that–this was her thought when he asked her for something else.

I was reading a section aloud to my boyfriend when I came across this passage. He gave an admiring “Mmm,” and said, “Wait, read that again?” And I did. And we were both in awe. Amazing.

(I’ll have a full review soon, but let me just say that the last few lines killed me. Killed. Me.)

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This week’s recommended reading on Electric Literature (if you don’t subscribe to Electric Literature, do it now) was a story by Helen Phillips called Dopplegangers. I loved this story. I am not a mother, nor am I around many, but I still felt every tortured, blissful moment of motherhood through Phillips words. The story begins,

The Queen always looked profound when she pooped. Her eyes solemn, as though regarding the void. That was why they had taken to calling her The Queen, even though she was only a month old. Also, the way she sat enthroned in her car seat in the over-packed car as they drove to the new town. And the regal purple stars on her blanket, beneath which her absurdly tiny legs jerked this way and that.

Throughout the story is the ever-present nausea of heat, which for some reason is a weather description I cling to (I think for its inherent added intensity).

The house felt small, small and hot. Mimosa could smell herself more strongly by the minute. Her body odor had intensified since The Queen’s birth. Sam had read somewhere that newborns can recognize only one person in the entire world, and the way they recognize that person is by scent alone. She wondered when her stink would begin to offend The Queen, or if The Queen liked it more as it grew stronger.

And then, there’s the women she sees. The ones who are eerily exactly like her. The ones with the same “hair wilting in the heat,” the same “bodies at the same stage of post-birth flab.”

My favorite passage comes near the middle of the story, when the protagonist, Mimosa, (“My mom’s favorite drink”) finds herself in company with the new mothers, her dopplegangers.

They were lounging on blankets in the park, the doppelgängers and their babies; the mothers were eating grapes, they were tossing grapes, they were laughing, their minds were loose and hazy, their babies had awoken them at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. and 6 a.m., and what could be more hilarious than that? Now the babies were crying, now pooping, now wanting milk, milk, milk, and out came the luminous breasts, and who wouldn’t want to place lips on breasts so full, and the mothers grinned at each other like a bunch of teenagers on the same high, and the heat wave painted an extra shimmer over it all, and the grapes were radiant in the grass and The Queen smiled her wide milky smile and motherhood (the doppelgängers agreed) was underrated, everything so dazzling, Mimosa had diamonds for eyes. A universe away from the grim dinner table in her quiet home, from the version of herself that had sat on a beat-up brown couch with Sam a decade back, both of them stock-still and united in secrecy when his ex-girlfriend entered the room; now it was she and The Queen who froze when he entered the room.

The story’s intensity remains consistent, with a wondering, satisfying end.

 

And, finally. This #FavoriteFemalesFriday (really trying to make it a thing, guys) would not be complete without Miss Queen Bee herself.

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Beyonce’s Lemonade has been the only thing in my ears since it came out last week. It has spurred countless think pieces. Facebook is a buzz. But what really amazes me about the album is the poetry, which was adapted from British poet Warsan Shire.  To hear Beyonce’s haunting voice state the lines that make it impossible for us to not dive into them to seek out facts (let us remember that artists often blend truth and fiction to create their art). The effect is incredibly compelling. Some of my favorite lines:

I tried to make a home out of you / but doors lead to trap doors / a stairway leads to nothing / unknown women wander the halls at night / Where do you go when you go quiet? / You remind me of my father / a magician / able to exist in two places at once / In the tradition of men in my blood / you come home at 3am / and lie to me / What are you hiding? / The past and the future merge / to meet us here / What luck / What a fucking curse.

From “Intuition” we move to “Denial” with Beyonce’s words coming out faster and sharper:

I tried to change / closed my mouth more / tried to be softer / prettier / less awake / fasted for sixty days / wore white / abstained from mirrors / abstained from sex / slowly did not speak another word / in that time my hair I grew past my ankles / I slept on a mat on the floor / I swallowed a sword / I levitated to the basement / confessed my sins and was baptized in a river / got on my knees and said ‘Amen’ / and said I mean / I whipped my own back and asked for dominion at your feet / I threw myself into a volcano / I drank the blood and drank the wine / I sat alone and begged and bent at the waist for God / I crossed myself and thought / I saw the devil / I grew thickened skin on my feet / I bathed in bleach and plugged my menses with pages from the Holy Book / but still inside me coiled / deep was the need to know / Are you cheating on me?

Beyonce’s last line, “Are you cheating on me?” echoes while we see her submerged in water, her hair flowing all around.

Whether or not Beyonce is speaking from her own experience, the experience of all black women, or is just telling a really intense story, the feeling is the same as when I read any great poetry or fiction, or hear a great song, or view great art. It’s transformative. And we don’t need to look into it anymore than that. Thanks, Bey, for the feels.

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Hidden Feminism in Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior

Mary Gaitskill’s 1998 short story collection Bad Behavior was so profound when it hit shelves, even Michiko Kuktani had something nice to say about it:

“She takes us on a meticulously observed documentary tour of [her characters’] inner and outer lives, giving us fierce portraits of individuals rather than a gallery of eccentric types.”

(This, despite after many of the short stories in the book had been rejected by the major literary publications.)

imgresGaitskill spares no expense, with each story feeling more shocking than the one before. To be sure, these are not horror stories, but they can certaintly be difficult to read and make one feel quite squeamish. (The second story, A Romantic Weekend had two characters so awful in their own ways—the woman seeking love and falls into the role of victimization while the man repeatedly dehumanizes her—that I admit it was difficult for me to get through, and if you’re sensitive to trigger warnings, this might be one to avoid.) But the situations and people that repulse us are precisely the ones Gaitskill is determined to humanize. By the end of each section, we do not necessarily empathize with a character who is sleeping with a prostitute but loves his wife, but we do hate him a little less.

I’ve waited a few weeks to write this review, mostly because I wasn’t sure how I felt about the collection. With the exception of the final essay, Heaven, which is gorgeous and elegant yet painful all the same, each story had its own way of making me feel incredibly IMG_2799uncomfortable by its end. There are several themes and situations that are repeated but felt less of a way to carry the stories forward and more like circling back on the same characters and ideas again and again. There are a lot of submissive (straight, white) women and a lot of domineering (straight, white) men. Take the opening essay, Daisy’s Valentine. In it, a man (who also happens to be a functioning drug addict) decides he likes a woman in his office despite still living with his girlfriend, who we learn he repeatedly cheats on. The man’s character is awful, believing he can do and feel as he pleases, and he remains frustratingly unchanged in the end. In A Romantic Weekend, following a weekend away where the man repeatedly abuses and ridicules the woman, we’re left with an image of them cuddling in their car as they drive back to their lives in the city. Something Nice follows a married man who regularly sees the same prostitute. This story holds the sneakily feminist and perfect exchange:

“You shouldn’t come to prostitutes looking for honesty.”

“You’re not a prostitute. Don’t say that about yourself.”

“What do you think I am?”

“You just happen to be a pretty, sexy girl who, uh—”

“I have sex for money.”

“Well, all right.” He slapped her thigh nervously. “You’re right. You’re a prostitute.” It sounded so horrible. “But you’re still a wonderful girl.” He grabbed and snuggled her.

It’s a keen contradictory moment, when the man sees the woman for her humanity versus how he is expected to view her given her powerless position. To be fair, this story ends on a feminist note. By the end, the man sees the woman prostitute out in the day, and she politely ignores him, formalizing a power shift. An Affair, Edited is a brief piece vignette of a man who recalls a horrible affair with a woman after spotting her on the street, then engages in a relationship with a woman he also seems to hate:

“Why was he always attracted to these small, dramatic women?” moans the man.

Connection is where we see the first use of a repetitious female relationship, where the friends “broke up,” leaving one woman to wonder regularly about the other, while the other is viewed as hysterical and crazy, but, to be sure, more successful. In Trying to Be, we return to a prostitute (but now we are from her point of view as a regular woman just trying to make it in New York) and a man who visits her regularly. Secretary was a story of abuse and power and absolutely the most difficult to get through. It is a story of an older man and his sexual mortification and abuse of his young female employee. As we watch this abuse develop from nothing to something, we are reminded just how power inserts itself so easily between two human beings, based solely on status, age, gender, race, and economics. Following the first instance of abuse, there is delicately wrought pain in the lines:

“When I went home that night, everything was the same. My life had not been disarranged by the event except for a slight increase in the distance between me and my family. My behind was not even red when I looked at it in the bathroom mirror.”

Other Factors is our first introduction to a character who isn’t heterosexual, but again, the trope of the more successful friend comes in. The final essay, Heaven, pulls mercifully away from the themes of male and class privilege to spend some time with a family who has lost a child. It is tender and gorgeous and a welcome reprieve by the end of the collection.

On one hand, it was difficult, as a woman, to read story after story of images(white) men with power exercise their privilege over and over again at the expense of powerless women. On the other hand, are these stories written from the framework of a feminist exhausted by men who tramp all over women? Should it not be the case that women should feel brutally honest? Because, despite how painful they can be, the stories Gaitskill is creating are not made of characters and situations that feel false. Quite the contrary, everything feels true to the point of making us want to bury our heads in the sand (or, tear shit up.)

Gaitskill’s writing is sharp. What makes her stories so against the grain for any writer’s workshop (re: Short Story Writing 101) is that her characters, on the whole, remain unchanged by the end of the story. This is a whole new way of examining people and situations. Is it the case that we don’t always change when something happens to us? Is it more honest to say we are rarely confronted with our own privilege enough to make us empathize or stop what we’re doing? Is it true that things might just continue to stay as they are? For this, Gaitskill knows exactly what she’s doing.

Why I’m Taking a Break from White Male Writers

In January of 2015, I set myself a reading challenge. Last year my goal was to read 20 books. I read 14. One of those books was The Goldfinch and another was Purity, and those are each of lengths equal to two books, so that basically ups my count to at least 16 (but who’s counting?). In any case, I set the same goal for myself again this year, and maybe I’ll make it, and maybe I won’t, but I do try, even if my reading time these days is mostly relegated to the half an hour before I fall asleep each night.

This year I’m also setting myself another challenge. I’ve decided that I’m not going to read white male writers. Sure, there’s the occasional Saunders story that may pop up in my world, and of course I’m going to continue reading the work of my white male friends in my writing group, but for the most part, I’m taking a break. Every novel, short story collection, or chapbook that I read in 2016 will be written by a woman or person of color. Here’s why.

It’s easy not to read them.

Despite what popular reviews tell you, there are so many talented writers who are not (heterosexual) white men. Zadie Smith is one of my favorite writers (okay, maybe just my favorite, singular). Jennifer Egan is a close second. My favorite book of 2015 was written by a woman, Lauren Groff. I love Jenny Offill, Mary Miller, Chimamanda Adichie, Donna Tartt, Junot Diaz, Renata Adler, Teju Cole, Justin Torres. I’m so excited to explore more work by Mary Gaitskill, Claudia Rankine, Marlon James, Claire Vaye Watkins, Lorrie Moore, Roxane Gay, Emily Gould, Helen Oyeyemi, and Celeste Ng.

Willingly and unwillingly, I’ve been reading them my entire life.

Many memories from my high school experience are patchy (it was over ten years ago!) but I do recall my English classes. In them, we read Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Arthur Miller, William Golding, J.D. Salinger, Alexandre Dumas. I think we talked about Lord of the Flies for six months. We did read Harper Lee, but that felt like a given. Notably, there was no Jane Austen or a Brontë sister, no Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston. We didn’t read James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison, no Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf.

My undergraduate college experience was mercifully different. In it, I was exposed to writers like Gloria Anzaldúa, Joan Didion, Jo Ann Beard, Jean Rhys, bell hooks, John Edgar Wideman, Alice Walker, and poets Bernadette Mayer and Douglas Kearney. Sure, I still read my fair share of David Foster Wallace and David Sedaris, but there was a balance that I was comfortable with.

I went away to graduate school for writing in Oxford, England. My first semester, I took a class called Narrative. It should have been called White Male Narrative. We received the full semester reading list a few weeks before classes began, and there, one right after the other, was J.D. Salinger, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, and John Irving. When a student emailed the professor (who was a lovely British man and a great teacher, just one with an unfortunately narrow perspective) about this, he hastily swapped out two other male novelists for Marilynne Robinson and Kate Atkinson. (If you’re keeping score here, that’s five white males, two white females.)

And there are some white male writers whose books I love. I will happily read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot again and again. I like David Foster Wallace (nonfiction more than fiction, but I did push myself through Infinite Jest). John Irving is brilliant. I think Ben Lerner is frighteningly good. Up until recently, I loved everything Jonathan Franzen ever did. I even get down with some Leo Tolstoy.

But the truth is, I (and we, as a culture) have been so inundated with the white male (heterosexual) perspective that it can be easy to forget that there are so many other brilliant, worthy voices to be heard. We just need to seek them out, since they are so often not provided to us.

The market is already flooded.

This summer, Elisa Gabbert’s writing advice column, The Blunt Instrument, became suddenly very popular with a question from a white male poet. The question was in earnest, a writer who admitted to being aware of his own privilege both within the larger context of life and the publishing world, wanting to know how to move forward as a writer. Should he write from the white male perspective even though the need for this is, in his words, “just not there anymore”? Should he write from the perspective of others, despite his position being one that inherently bars him from fully understanding that perspective?

Gabbert’s advice was simple: keep writing, keep seeking publishing, but do it less. She writes, “Instead of making things even harder for overworked, underpaid editors, let’s improve the ratios in the submission pool by reducing the number of inappropriate, firebombed submissions from men. You – white men – have all the advantages here, so you should work to solve the problem of imbalance, instead of putting all the burden on women, POC, and LGBTQ to fix it themselves.” In this, Gabbert is referring to editors who claim the imbalances in publishing stems from the face that they receive far less submissions from women and POC than they do from white men. Some claim to have received submissions from white men who send another story immediately after being rejected.

The point here is clear. Each year, VIDA puts out their count of popular publishers and journals, and each year, while some publishers get steadily better, the counts stubbornly remain basically the same: more men are being published in major journals than women, and queer folk and POC are being published even less. Publication in major journals does not guarantee a writing career, but it certainly does help. And then there is the problem of when male writers become male novelists they’re reviewed more often.

They’re not in the best position to tell the stories of women, queer folk, and POC.

Jonathan Franzen may have done the worst representation of a white female millennial that I’ve ever read. In , Hubert Selby, Jr. awkwardly writes in the voice of Bobby, who we learn from the back cover is “young and black” (period.) and his mother, from whose voice we read, “it making no difference if it be day or night there just be screaming and yelling and banging up and down the stairs and no man, no mutha fuckin man to help raise those gauddamn kids, no man there more than a nights flop, and if they be there longer they be wantin to dig into her welfare check.” Colum McCann writes as a black female prostitute. Hemingway’s Maria is a sad, voiceless, worshipping plaything.

Jonathan Franzen may have done the worst representation of a white female millennial that I’ve ever read. In The Willow Tree, Hubert Selby, Jr. awkwardly writes in the voice of Bobby, who we learn from the back cover is “young and black” (period.) and his mother, from whose voice we read, “it making no difference if it be day or night there just be screaming and yelling and banging up and down the stairs and no man, no mutha fuckin man to help raise those gauddamn kids, no man there more than a nights flop, and if they be there longer they be wantin to dig into her welfare check.” Colum McCann writes as a black female prostitute. Hemingway’s Maria is a sad, voiceless, worshipping plaything.

And this one, truthfully, gets controversial. We don’t always read fiction to read a perspective from the author. We do read to be taken to different places, with different people. I’m just saying that maybe there are other voices that would be better positioned to share those journeys than the white men who so often get to write them.

Finally, there are so many books out there, and so many authors waiting to be heard. Read as much as you can, actively seeking out new voices and styles and perspectives, not just the ones being reviewed in The Times. I’ll be right along with you for the journey.

Why Fates and Furies Was the Best Book of 2015 (and What I’m Excited For in 2016)

True statement: the longer the title, the better the post.

But really, I’m excited to have this space to discuss what was in my view the best book of 2015, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Even in the year of Purity, this one shines above for its gorgeous writing and fascinating characters. (And Lauren Groff is super nice, too!)

If you told me that my favorite book of the year would involve one character named Lancelot (Lotto) who is, for better or worse, a white, attractive, privileged male who becomes hugely successful as a playwright, and a tall, model-like pixie wife named imgresMathilde, I would have told you, simply, no. But somehow Lotto as a character becomes interesting and enlivened on the page not in spite of his predispositions, but because of them, and Mathilde is full of secrets and thoughts and personal revelations that endear me to her. I tore through this nearly 400-page book in a week and a half, and it will now become one of those books I read again and again (joining the likes of Zadie Smith’s NW, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter, and Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her).

The story is split into two books, one told from the point of view of Lotto (“Fates”), the latter of Mathilde (“Furies”). Groff admitted that over the course of five years while writing the book, her original intent was to publish two books, one to come out FullSizeRender-2six months after the other. She always saw them as two separate stories. Her publisher nixed the idea (given the state of book publishing, one can understand why), and instead, Groff went back to the stories and wove them together, finding the moments of interconnectedness that would create the story we now read. This, thankfully, does not feel forced. Instead, Groff is able to create an elegant portrait of two married individuals who love and care for one another, but never quite know everything about each other. It breaks down the many nuances of a relationship to this one central idea: we are still separate individuals, with separate thoughts, ideas, and experiences. No matter how much we love our partners, this will always be true. The novel then moves along with this idea, treats it like a given, to create a story that explores the nature of living, the multitude of highs and lows one culminates in a lifetime.

One review from New York Times stood out to me as a particularly important read of this book, “The deepest satisfaction gained by reading ‘Furies’ after ‘Fates’ lies less in admiring how tidily the puzzle pieces snap together – though they do – than in experiencing one’s own kaleidoscope shift of emotions and concerns.” I found the strength of the story came not from the many reveals that gave us a deeper understanding of the characters’ relationship, but the many untidy, sometimes out-of-character story lines that created a sense of chaos, an assurance that life is not ever neat, that we as sentient, complicated beings still do things that don’t always make sense.

Never did this feel more apparent than when spending a long time in a pseudo-depressive state with Lotto while he tries to write an opera at an artist’s residency. There are plot points in this particular section that support other things in the story, IMG_2765but not everything in this section leads to something else. While in that space of the book, I wanted to be out of it. It was miserable, dark, uncomfortable. (It felt similar to the artist residency present in Ben Lerner’s 10:04 – the confusing space of creativity and loneliness that comes from being alone with only your work.) Personally, the payoff doesn’t totally make sense or feel necessary for the events that happen in the rest of the book. And still, it turned out to be one of the scenes that stuck with me the most, for its sloppiness (not on behalf of Groff’s writing, but of human life), its tendency toward self-pity, its accurate representation of the frustration of the human species: we can be perfectly successful in so many areas of our lives, and still constantly fighting the feeling that we’re sinking quickly into a black hole.

A note on the writing: Groff began her writing career intent on being a poet. This comes through in the language, which (especially in “Fates”) is something that a reader needs to work through. It begins with sets of descriptive fragments: A thick drizzle from the sky, like a curtain’s sudden sweeping. The seabirds stopped their turning, the ocean went mute. Houselights over the water dimmed to gray. For those who had difficulty getting into the rhythm (I had members of my book club express that the style of writing prevented them from engaging with the character, which is a shame), the second half, “Furies,” thankfully adjusts and helps fill in any gaps that we missed in the first half. This was a deliberate shift in tone to match the voices of each character: Lotto, choppy and quick-paced, Mathilde, longer sentences, deliberate language. 

There are also odd things: occasional point-of-view shifts and narrative insertions that some may find difficult – for a moment we see things from the angle of a gray cat, once from a stranger walking on the street, and the insertions never reveal anyone’s but the author’s thoughts. But I won’t fault Groff for either of them. For me they made the story strange, interesting, and beautiful.

I won’t say anymore because there are too many things that can be revealed, but just know that if you pick up this book, expect to be taken through an emotionally-charged journey of marriage, loneliness, expectations, and ultimately how all of these things are just fragments of so many events and emotions that make up a lifetime. It’s not an easy, tidy plot, and that’s okay, because neither are we.

Read it. Read it again. Wait for the last lines to tear your heart out. Breathe through it.

Favorite lines:

For a long time, she held him. She felt the heat of him leave. She stood only when she could no longer recognize his body, like a word repeated until it has lost all meaning.

[Mathilde’s prayer: Let me be the wave. And if I cannot be the wave, let me be the rupture at the bottom. Let me be that terrible first rift in the dark.]

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Finally, as the title of this post promised, there are a few books I’m really looking forward to diving into in 2016. First, Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and won the Man Booker Prize, is a sprawling story that begins with an assassination attempt of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976, follows to New York City in 1980s, and back to the changed Jamaica of the 1990s.

Next, Clare Vaye Watkins’ debut Gold Fame Citrus, which begins in a California desiccated by climate change and follows the relationship of Ray and Luz, two twenty-somethings holding out in this barren wasteland.

For poetry, I can’t wait to finally sit down with Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric. Rankine won the National Book Award for this one, which comes ten years after the amazing Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In 150 gorgeous pages, Rankine infuses poetry with prose and visual art to explore how racism pervades American daily life.

I also can’t wait for Patti Smith’s M Train, a meditation that infuses culture and art, a book that is sure to be a beautiful follow-up to 2010’s Just Kids.

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I have so many other books I meant to get to this year and haven’t, and many old books I still want to read, including the short story collections Drown­ by Junot Diaz and Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, and the novels Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Coehen, and A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. Let the new year of reading [and writing] begin!

Renata Adler on Writers

That “writers write” is meant to be self-evident. People like to say it. I find it is hardly ever true. Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep. I have met very few writers who write at all.