Author Maya Lang: On TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and Ferguson

In light of tonight’s news, I am re-posting this essay, which was originally published on September 15.

To Kill a Mockingbird cover art

Every person has that book she hasn’t yet tackled, the revelation of which causes friends to gasp in horror. For me, it was To Kill a Mockingbird (go ahead—gasp). Despite my intentions (and friends’ entreaties), I somehow never got around to it.

I finally decided to remedy this lapse in August. I’d just read a series of books that proved disappointing. I turned to Harper Lee’s classic knowing I would love it. I turned to it happily.

What I didn’t anticipate was its timeliness. Days after finishing it, the events in Ferguson erupted. All of the elements from the novel seemed to be playing out in real time: lack of due process, blindness to facts because of systemic prejudice, aggressors acting like victims while victims are treated like criminals, and a sickening outcome. One man killed Mike Brown, but many parties (a whole community, institutions of power, decades of history) had their hands on the trigger.

In both the fictional Maycomb and the real Ferguson, a black life is taken as a result of white fear. An encounter occurs between two individuals (one black, one white) that is unknowable, yet endless conjecture about what “must have happened” ensues. The stories that get spun—which seem to defy logic—are meant to stir sympathy for the aggressor. At their root, an unspoken message:You know how those people can be.

The gift of literature is that it can resonate over time. I wish To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t feel uncanny in its relevance. I wish it felt dated, the door to that period of American history closed. It is a testament to the open wound of race in this country and to Harper Lee’s talent that a novel about Alabama from 1960 can speak to us still.

Had I read Mockingbird at any other point in my life, I would have reacted to it differently. In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about Atticus Finch. A well-regarded member of the community, Atticus is appointed to represent a black man accused of raping a white woman—not a role he would have volunteered for, he tells us, but one from which he does not shy away.

Justice never arrives on time. It didn’t for Finch’s client, Tom Robinson. It didn’t for Mike Brown. But Lee’s novel reminded me that how we react to injustice is no small matter. When enough people act like Atticus Finch, speaking up, speaking out, even if it feels futile, especially when it feels futile, then justice eventually lumbers in. Slow, late, vague about how long it will stay, but finally, fleetingly present.

Atticus Finch & Tom Robinson

To Kill a Mockingbird reminded me of my own voice. Some would say that there’s no point in using it. Facebook posts, Twitter shares, blog posts—what can these possibly accomplish? Better to share vacation pics that will get actual “Likes.” Better to write an essay about that other novel you read. No one likes the preachy, the indignant. How much easier to be funny and popular.

But silence means complicity. This, too, is something I wouldn’t have considered had I not read Lee’s novel. Scout Finch, Atticus’ daughter, wishes to visit the house of Calpurnia, their black housekeeper. Scout’s aunt forbids it. “The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only” are conspicuously silent. They give neither Tom Robinson nor the Finch family their support. Within the codes of “proper” Southern life, rigid socioeconomic and racial hierarchies are not to be disrupted, even by an eight-year-old girl.

To Kill a Mockingbird -- Calpurnia

Had I not read Mockingbird, I don’t know that I would have spoken up about Ferguson as much as I have. Perhaps I would have felt too self-conscious, as if it were not my “place.” But such notions of place and propriety are part of the problem. Ultimately, the very worst thing to feel is alone in our suffering. “Your burdens are my burdens.” This is the message behind kindness, behind community, behind literature. Scout’s desire to be Calpurnia’s “‘company,’ to see how she lived, who her friends were” is the same desire that prompts us to read.

Before reading this novel, I’d always wondered about its title. Few titles begin with an infinitive verb, and I contemplated its strange temporality. Not Killed A Mockingbird or The Killing of a Mockingbird, but To Kill, suggesting possibility, being on the cusp.

To kill or not to kill: that is the question. More than fifty years later, it still applies.

We are called upon by events like Ferguson. When we witness violations of basic rights, when we observe the purely wrong, we have a choice, a bird in our hands. There it sits, pulsing, quivering. Is it our future? Our innocence? Perhaps it is our very humanity.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a title as well as a choice: to be silent or to speak, to close our hands to what we hold or to open them to our own possibilities.

Maya Lang is the author of The Sixteenth of June, which has been long listed for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan Prize [my review is here]. She is a recipient of the Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Scholarship in Fiction and finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. Lang graduated from Swarthmore College, earned her MA at NYU, and holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from SUNY Stony Brook.

 

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Author Amina Gautier on Male Verbal Privilege: “Men Don’t Say or Do That!”

WIN A SIGNED COPY OF AMINA GAUTIER’S NOW WE WILL BE HAPPY!

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Amina Gautier on Male Verbal Privilege: Men Don’t Say or Do That via  Win a copy of Now We Will Be Happy 

Amina Gautier

Amina Gautier is the author of At-Risk, which won the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the newly-published collection, Now We Will Be Happy, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize [see my recent review here]. She has published more than 85 stories in some of the country’s most prestigious literary journals. Her fiction has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from Breadloaf Writer’s ConferenceCallaloo Writer’s WorkshopMacDowell ColonyPrairie Center of the ArtsSewanee Writer’s Conference, and Ucross Foundation. Gautier attended Stanford University, where she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English Literature in four years. She then attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in English Literature. She is currently a professor of English at the University of Miami. A scholar of 19th Century American literature, Gautier’s critical work focuses on such nineteenth century American authors as Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Elleanor Eldridge, Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Walt Whitman.

 

By Amina Gautier 

Two years ago, I was invited to a public university in the Midwest to give a reading from my first short story collection At-Risk. Prior to the evening’s reading and book-signing, I was also scheduled to visit an undergraduate course in creative writing where the students had read selected stories from the collection. While visiting this class (whose members were from diverse backgrounds), one male student raised his hand to deliver a criticism of one of the short stories in the collection. Like almost half of the stories in the collection, this one was told from the point of view of a young African American boy. The story was about two brothers who were pulled apart by rumors surrounding the older brother’s sexual orientation. I do not remember what scene exactly the student objected to specifically, but his criticism was, “Boys don’t do that.” When I asked him how he knew that boys did not do or say whatever it was I’d had my male character do or say, his response was, “I’m a guy and I grew up in a household of men. I have three brothers.”

Of course I could have responded with, “Actually, I also grew up in a household of men, and in my experience I have witnessed men and boys do [whatever it was I’d had my male character do],” but I did not. I did not need to justify my writing. It is good and solid and strong and fierce and none of it is written on a whim or without careful research and observation. In any case, I had not written a story that attempted to capture and represent the experience of all boys on the planet Earth from the birth of Cain and Abel to the present day. I had written a story that represented the ways in which one particular African American boy in a particular neighborhood in Brooklyn at a particular time period with a particular family and particular family dynamic and set of circumstances came to do the thing that he did. And I succeeded.

Or I could have responded with, “We are not in the midst of an alien invasion and you have not been chosen as the sole human delegate to represent the species or take the alien to our leader. One man cannot speak for all men, just as one woman cannot speak for all women. As a man, you are joined to other men by your biological similarities. However, you are also set apart from other men by your cultural, racial, national, religious, political and sexual affiliation and by your linguistic and economic background. A rich man may not always make the same decisions or speak in the same fashion as a poor man; an illiterate man may not think in the same fashion as a literate man; a devout man might not see the world in the same fashion that an atheistic or agnostic man would. You do not and cannot speak for all men. You may be able to try and speak for the men in your household, with whom you have conferred and lived and discussed the meaning of life, but even then, you are likely to get some things wrong.”

But I did not say that either.

What I found interesting was his unwavering belief in his ability to speak for the entire male sex and correct the poor female who had gotten it “wrong.” I actually understand the impulse. There have been books I’ve read by male authors where I thought the female characters’ reactions seemed so off—so inappropriate, stereotypical, ditzy or flat to me that it led me to mentally ask What woman in her right mind would ever act that way? Or to say I don’t know any women who act like that. My sentences, however, reflect a different sort of positioning. They do not say No woman would ever do or say that. They privilege the individuality of the character’s experience over mine. No, I do not know any women who would ever do or say the things that I have read certain female characters do or say in novels, stories, plays or poems. But I do not know every woman and if in the context of the story, it is believable that that particular woman would respond that way despite my personal experience which would suggest otherwise, then that’s that (If, however, the context does not make her actions or words believable? Well, that’s a whole other thing.). There are plenty of things that I would not do and plenty of actions taken by other women that personally give me pause, but that does not lead me to deny the diversity of our experiences as women.

This is, of course, not the first time this has ever happened to me. During the process of preparing my second short story collection for publication, one of my short stories had a word changed because the word that I used was not deemed to be a word men use. In this short story, told from the point of view of a younger brother (notice a theme here? Clearly, I like writing about brothers), the two brothers get into an argument and I have my narrator say that his brother screamed at him. The editor told me that I had to change from “screamed” to “shouted,” because men don’t use the word “scream.” The editor is a man, so this is how he knows. This was news to me. Until that moment, I had been ignorant of the fact that there was not a single man on the entire planet, living or dead, who had ever used the word scream.

The two instances I describe are chauvinistic moments of verbal policing representative of the ways in which language gets gendered, where iterations of certain terms and phrases become irrevocably attributed to one sex to the exclusion of the other. This is why women who are emotional are always called “hysterical” and men are merely described as “stressed”; why women who are direct are “aggressive” while men are “assertive”; why women who initiate are “bossy” but men who do so are “leaders.” Language is policed from both the bottom and the top and women are often sandwiched in between.

Few have gone on the record to question Flaubert’s right to write Madame Bovary, Richardson’s audacity to write Clarissa or Pamela, or Henry James’s right to produce Portrait of a Lady all from the points of view of female protagonists, nor tried to police their ability to know or represent what women might do or say, yet when women authors assume a male point of view, there is a frequent backlash. In worst case scenarios, women authors are accused of male-bashing, of hating men to the point where they will deliberately and maliciously use their artwork for the sole purpose of depicting men in negative fashions. In the not so worst case scenario, women are accused of simply getting it wrong, and are seen to be in need of correction. So these women authors are either viewed as malicious or plain old stupid.

When someone says, “Men don’t say that. Or women don’t do that. Children don’t do that. Or Blacks/Latinos/Asians/Native Americans don’t do that,” and justifies it with “I know because I am one, my best friend is one, I have met one, or I have read about one,” instead of acknowledging the limitless nature of humanity and the individuality of every being, the statement erases individuality, categorizes and condenses groups by age, sex, race and other identifying factors and then shrinks individuals even further by then forcing them through the lens of one person’s experience, which is presumed to be normative. If a man utters sentences such as, “Men don’t use that word,” “Men don’t behave in that fashion,” and “A guy would never say that,” he is privileging his own experience as male and as a man, reading it as normative, and conflating an individual experience with a collective one. He is basically saying, “I am a guy and I feel this way. Because I am a guy who feels this way, this feeling must be natural and normal to all guys (in all parts of the world, regardless of education, race, age, citizenship, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, political affiliation, socioeconomic background.) Thus all guys must feel the way I feel. Therefore, because I feel this way, guys feel this way.” When broken down into its implicit parts, it becomes easier to hear how smug, utterly ridiculous, incredibly stupid and reductive such a statement actually is. The statement is not only arrogant, ignorant, and marginalizing, but it is Procrustean. Instead of Procrustes stretching or severing the limbs of unsuspecting travelers in order to force the travelers to fit the dimensions of his iron bed, the utterer of this statement stretches or severs the experiences of everyone else to fit the confines of his world or experiences.

Growing up in a household of men among multiple brothers does not mean that you know masculinity or what men think, say and do. It does not make you an expert. It means that you know what masculinity looks like in your household under the particular set of circumstances in which you and your brothers grew up. Someone who grew up with more or fewer brothers under different religious, economic, social, political, national, ethnic, and racial circumstances will experience a different version of masculinity than you. Both versions will be valid. Your experience gives you access to a community of shared and overlapping experiences; it does not give you a license to authenticate, validate, approve, judge or exclude.

To say that men don’t do or say a certain thing or to say “I don’t know any men who do or say this” and to imply through that statement that men don’t do or say a certain thing asserts either that only experiences which come into your purview are valid or that you are an expert in all things and know everything, so if there is something that you don’t know, it is clearly not worth knowing. There are certainly, on this planet, men who do or say whatever certain thing you just said they do not do or say. Perhaps you need to get out more.

In a world where people have at one time or another legally deemed others to be 3/5 of a person, sanctioned forms of mass extinction of particular ethnic groups, sold men and women into slavery, dropped atomic bombs, sold women and children off for sex trafficking, locked their children in cages, microwaved them in ovens, left them locked in hot cars, attempted to have sex with infants, placed children in overhead bins on airplanes, and dismembered and eaten the bodies of others, I cannot comfortably utter the words “Men don’t do… Women don’t do… People don’t do…” with any sense of authority.

Quite frankly, I can’t think of a single thing I can say that people don’t do.

And that scares me.

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Author Amina Gautier on Male Verbal Privilege: “Men Don’t Say or Do That!”

Amina Gautier

Amina Gautier is the author of At-Risk, which won the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the newly-published collection, Now We Will Be Happy, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize [see my recent review here]. She has published more than 85 stories in some of the country’s most prestigious literary journals. Her fiction has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from Breadloaf Writer’s ConferenceCallaloo Writer’s WorkshopMacDowell ColonyPrairie Center of the ArtsSewanee Writer’s Conference, and Ucross Foundation. Gautier attended Stanford University, where she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English Literature in four years. She then attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in English Literature. She is currently a professor of English at the University of Miami. A scholar of 19th Century American literature, Gautier’s critical work focuses on such nineteenth century American authors as Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Elleanor Eldridge, Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Walt Whitman.

 

By Amina Gautier 

Two years ago, I was invited to a public university in the Midwest to give a reading from my first short story collection At-Risk. Prior to the evening’s reading and book-signing, I was also scheduled to visit an undergraduate course in creative writing where the students had read selected stories from the collection. While visiting this class (whose members were from diverse backgrounds), one male student raised his hand to deliver a criticism of one of the short stories in the collection. Like almost half of the stories in the collection, this one was told from the point of view of a young African American boy. The story was about two brothers who were pulled apart by rumors surrounding the older brother’s sexual orientation. I do not remember what scene exactly the student objected to specifically, but his criticism was, “Boys don’t do that.” When I asked him how he knew that boys did not do or say whatever it was I’d had my male character do or say, his response was, “I’m a guy and I grew up in a household of men. I have three brothers.”

Of course I could have responded with, “Actually, I also grew up in a household of men, and in my experience I have witnessed men and boys do [whatever it was I’d had my male character do],” but I did not. I did not need to justify my writing. It is good and solid and strong and fierce and none of it is written on a whim or without careful research and observation. In any case, I had not written a story that attempted to capture and represent the experience of all boys on the planet Earth from the birth of Cain and Abel to the present day. I had written a story that represented the ways in which one particular African American boy in a particular neighborhood in Brooklyn at a particular time period with a particular family and particular family dynamic and set of circumstances came to do the thing that he did. And I succeeded.

Or I could have responded with, “We are not in the midst of an alien invasion and you have not been chosen as the sole human delegate to represent the species or take the alien to our leader. One man cannot speak for all men, just as one woman cannot speak for all women. As a man, you are joined to other men by your biological similarities. However, you are also set apart from other men by your cultural, racial, national, religious, political and sexual affiliation and by your linguistic and economic background. A rich man may not always make the same decisions or speak in the same fashion as a poor man; an illiterate man may not think in the same fashion as a literate man; a devout man might not see the world in the same fashion that an atheistic or agnostic man would. You do not and cannot speak for all men. You may be able to try and speak for the men in your household, with whom you have conferred and lived and discussed the meaning of life, but even then, you are likely to get some things wrong.”

But I did not say that either.

What I found interesting was his unwavering belief in his ability to speak for the entire male sex and correct the poor female who had gotten it “wrong.” I actually understand the impulse. There have been books I’ve read by male authors where I thought the female characters’ reactions seemed so off—so inappropriate, stereotypical, ditzy or flat to me that it led me to mentally ask What woman in her right mind would ever act that way? Or to say I don’t know any women who act like that. My sentences, however, reflect a different sort of positioning. They do not say No woman would ever do or say that. They privilege the individuality of the character’s experience over mine. No, I do not know any women who would ever do or say the things that I have read certain female characters do or say in novels, stories, plays or poems. But I do not know every woman and if in the context of the story, it is believable that that particular woman would respond that way despite my personal experience which would suggest otherwise, then that’s that (If, however, the context does not make her actions or words believable? Well, that’s a whole other thing.). There are plenty of things that I would not do and plenty of actions taken by other women that personally give me pause, but that does not lead me to deny the diversity of our experiences as women.

This is, of course, not the first time this has ever happened to me. During the process of preparing my second short story collection for publication, one of my short stories had a word changed because the word that I used was not deemed to be a word men use. In this short story, told from the point of view of a younger brother (notice a theme here? Clearly, I like writing about brothers), the two brothers get into an argument and I have my narrator say that his brother screamed at him. The editor told me that I had to change from “screamed” to “shouted,” because men don’t use the word “scream.” The editor is a man, so this is how he knows. This was news to me. Until that moment, I had been ignorant of the fact that there was not a single man on the entire planet, living or dead, who had ever used the word scream.

The two instances I describe are chauvinistic moments of verbal policing representative of the ways in which language gets gendered, where iterations of certain terms and phrases become irrevocably attributed to one sex to the exclusion of the other. This is why women who are emotional are always called “hysterical” and men are merely described as “stressed”; why women who are direct are “aggressive” while men are “assertive”; why women who initiate are “bossy” but men who do so are “leaders.” Language is policed from both the bottom and the top and women are often sandwiched in between.

Few have gone on the record to question Flaubert’s right to write Madame Bovary, Richardson’s audacity to write Clarissa or Pamela, or Henry James’s right to produce Portrait of a Lady all from the points of view of female protagonists, nor tried to police their ability to know or represent what women might do or say, yet when women authors assume a male point of view, there is a frequent backlash. In worst case scenarios, women authors are accused of male-bashing, of hating men to the point where they will deliberately and maliciously use their artwork for the sole purpose of depicting men in negative fashions. In the not so worst case scenario, women are accused of simply getting it wrong, and are seen to be in need of correction. So these women authors are either viewed as malicious or plain old stupid.

When someone says, “Men don’t say that. Or women don’t do that. Children don’t do that. Or Blacks/Latinos/Asians/Native Americans don’t do that,” and justifies it with “I know because I am one, my best friend is one, I have met one, or I have read about one,” instead of acknowledging the limitless nature of humanity and the individuality of every being, the statement erases individuality, categorizes and condenses groups by age, sex, race and other identifying factors and then shrinks individuals even further by then forcing them through the lens of one person’s experience, which is presumed to be normative. If a man utters sentences such as, “Men don’t use that word,” “Men don’t behave in that fashion,” and “A guy would never say that,” he is privileging his own experience as male and as a man, reading it as normative, and conflating an individual experience with a collective one. He is basically saying, “I am a guy and I feel this way. Because I am a guy who feels this way, this feeling must be natural and normal to all guys (in all parts of the world, regardless of education, race, age, citizenship, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, political affiliation, socioeconomic background.) Thus all guys must feel the way I feel. Therefore, because I feel this way, guys feel this way.” When broken down into its implicit parts, it becomes easier to hear how smug, utterly ridiculous, incredibly stupid and reductive such a statement actually is. The statement is not only arrogant, ignorant, and marginalizing, but it is Procrustean. Instead of Procrustes stretching or severing the limbs of unsuspecting travelers in order to force the travelers to fit the dimensions of his iron bed, the utterer of this statement stretches or severs the experiences of everyone else to fit the confines of his world or experiences.

Growing up in a household of men among multiple brothers does not mean that you know masculinity or what men think, say and do. It does not make you an expert. It means that you know what masculinity looks like in your household under the particular set of circumstances in which you and your brothers grew up. Someone who grew up with more or fewer brothers under different religious, economic, social, political, national, ethnic, and racial circumstances will experience a different version of masculinity than you. Both versions will be valid. Your experience gives you access to a community of shared and overlapping experiences; it does not give you a license to authenticate, validate, approve, judge or exclude.

To say that men don’t do or say a certain thing or to say “I don’t know any men who do or say this” and to imply through that statement that men don’t do or say a certain thing asserts either that only experiences which come into your purview are valid or that you are an expert in all things and know everything, so if there is something that you don’t know, it is clearly not worth knowing. There are certainly, on this planet, men who do or say whatever certain thing you just said they do not do or say. Perhaps you need to get out more.

In a world where people have at one time or another legally deemed others to be 3/5 of a person, sanctioned forms of mass extinction of particular ethnic groups, sold men and women into slavery, dropped atomic bombs, sold women and children off for sex trafficking, locked their children in cages, microwaved them in ovens, left them locked in hot cars, attempted to have sex with infants, placed children in overhead bins on airplanes, and dismembered and eaten the bodies of others, I cannot comfortably utter the words “Men don’t do… Women don’t do… People don’t do…” with any sense of authority.

Quite frankly, I can’t think of a single thing I can say that people don’t do.

And that scares me.

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Kirkus Reviews publishes its list of the 100 Best Fiction Books of 2014

An Untamed State   The Blazing World   Euphoria   the paying guests - sarah waters

Kirkus Reviews has published its “100 Best Fiction Books of 2014.” Kirkus’s editors have created both a list of the top 100 books and several categories of “10 Best” books. Some titles fall into more than one category. Here are the 36 books by women writers that fall, however loosely, into my concept of the Literary Fiction category. (I did not include genre fiction like Mystery/Thrillers and Romance.)

You can see the complete Top 100 list and category lists here.

 

Megan Abbott – The Fever

Lauren Beukes — Broken Monsters

Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist

Elizabeth Crook – Monday Monday

Elena Ferrante – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Judith Frank – All I Love and Know

Rivka Galchen – American Innovations: Stories

Jane Gardam — Stories

Roxane Gay — An Untamed State

Alena Graedon – The Word Exchange

Siri Hustvedt – The Blazing World (Kirkus Fiction Prize finalist)

Mira Jacob – The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

Tove Jansson – The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories

Porochista Khakpour – The Last Illusion

Lily King – Euphoria (Kirkus Fiction Prize winner)

Laila Lalami – The Moor’s Account

Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven

Vanessa Manko – The Invention of Exile

Hilary Mantel – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Francesca Marciano – The Other Language

Eimar McBride – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Elizabeth McCracken – Thunderstruck & Other Stories

Randy Susan Meyers – Accidents of Marriage

Lydia Millet – Mermaids in Paradise

Liane Moriarty – Big Little Lies

Alice Munro – Family Furnishings: Stories 1995-2014

Christina Nichol – Waiting for the Electricity

Helen Oyeyemi – Boy Snow Bird

Kathy Page – Alphabet

Francine Prose – Lovers at the Chameleon Club

Marilynne Robinson — Lila

Ali Smith – How to be Both

Miriam Toews – All My Puny Sorrows

Linn Ullmann – The Cold Song

Lee Upton – The Tao of Humiliation

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests (Kirkus Fiction Prize finalist)

 

Literary Fiction

Roxane Gay — An Untamed State

Siri Hustvedt – The Blazing World (Kirkus Fiction Prize finalist)

Lily King – Euphoria (Kirkus Fiction Prize winner)

Eimar McBride – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests (Kirkus Fiction Prize finalist)

Historical Fiction

Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist

Lily King – Euphoria (Kirkus Fiction Prize winner)

Laila Lalami – The Moor’s Account

Francine Prose – Lovers at the Chameleon Club

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests (Kirkus Fiction Prize finalist)

Debut Fiction

Elizabeth Crook – Monday Monday

Roxane Gay — An Untamed State

Alena Graedon – The Word Exchange

Mira Jacob – The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

Vanessa Manko – The Invention of Exile

Eimar McBride – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Christina Nichol – Waiting for the Electricity

Short Stories

Rivka Galchen – American Innovations: Stories

Jane Gardam — Stories

Tove Jansson – The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories

Hilary Mantel – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories

Alice Munro – Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014

Francesca Marciano – The Other Language: Stories

Lee Upton – The Tao of Humiliation

Popular Fiction

Megan Abbott – The Fever

Lauren Beukes — Broken Monsters

Judith Frank — All I Love and Know

Randy Susan Meyers – Accidents of Marriage

Gender Bender

Judith Frank — All I Love and Know

Porochista Khakpour – The Last Illusion

Lily King – Euphoria (Kirkus Fiction Prize winner)

Laila Lalami – The Moor’s Account

Kathy Page – Alphabet

Fiction with a Touch of Magic

Lauren Beukes — Broken Monsters

Rivka Galchen – American Innovations: Stories

Lydia Millet – Mermaids in Paradise

Ali Smith – How to be Both

Get Your Book Club Talking

Megan Abbott – The Fever

Judith Frank – All I Love and Know

Elizabeth Crook – Monday Monday

Siri Hustvedt – The Blazing World (Kirkus Fiction Prize finalist)

Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven

Liane Moriarty – Big Little Lies

Helen Oyeyemi – Boy Snow Bird

Marilynne Robinson — Lila

Miriam Toews – All My Puny Sorrows

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Author Lisa Lenzo on turning real life into stories: Is it fiction or nonfiction?

Lisa Lenzo beach  Strange Love

Raised in Detroit, Lisa Lenzo now lives in southwestern Michigan, where she drives and dispatches for the local bus company and writes. Lenzo’s first story collection, Within the Lighted City, was chosen by Ann Beattie for an Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press. Lenzo’s second story collection, Strange Love, was published by Wayne State University Press through their Made in Michigan Writers Series in May of 2014.

Lenzo’s short fiction and essays have appeared in The Mississippi Review Prize Issue, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Italian-American Reader, Birth: A Literary Guide, Sacred Ground: Stories About Home, and Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes. One of Lenzo’s stories won a Hemingway Days Festival Award and another was chosen for a PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award and read on NPR. She has recently finished a novel, Taking the Blue Star, which made the top twelve for the 2012 James Jones First Novel Award. “Strays,” one of the highlights of Strange Love, was the winner of the 2013 story contest sponsored by The Georgetown Review.

WIN A SIGNED COPY OF STRANGE LOVE! Share Lisa Lenzo’s essay on Facebook or Twitter by using the links at the bottom of this post. Then leave a comment below with your Twitter handle or email so I can contact you if you win. The winner will be chosen randomly on Friday, November 21.

Once I handed a story I’d written to my mom saying, “Don’t worry, Mom, this isn’t about our family.” I’d pared my four brothers down to just one. The family was still wealthy and white and living in the inner city of Detroit, but I’d turned my doctor father into a college professor. My mom gripped the manuscript I’d handed her and began reading it fast. She hadn’t gotten through a full page before she looked up at me and said, “If this isn’t our family, then what are our forsythia bushes doing in here?”

Of course, most readers don’t know the details of my background like my mother does. Yet I’ve had people who’ve just met me say they can tell that my stories are autobiographical.

A lot of writers narrow their eyes, stiffen their shoulders, and take this stance: “It’s fiction.” And then they don’t elaborate. They don’t say another word. But who is going to believe me if I claim, “That’s someone else’s double above-the-knee amputee brother who lost his legs in a cardboard box crusher, not mine?” I mean, there’s just not that many, if any, other brothers out there fitting that description. Sure, I could turn Kris into a paraplegic and put him in a car accident instead, but then I’d have to forfeit a lot of interesting details from real life, such as how a Vietnam vet who happened to be working at the job site saved Kris’s life by winding wires around Kris’s thighs and torquing them with sticks, and how, during the unsuccessful operations to save his legs, Kris’s body was transfused with twenty-two pints of blood. And if I turn Kris into a paraplegic in my fiction, leaving him with his legs intact yet non-functioning, I’d have to give up Kris wheeling down the street toward some kid who blurts out, “What happened to your legs?” and Kris leaning in to the boy’s ear and whispering, “Sharks.”

My new novel-in-stories, Strange Love, is as autobiographical as anything I’ve written. It’s about a mother and her daughter and their relationships with men and boys. Before it was accepted for publication, an editor of the press that wanted to acquire it called me up and said, “I have to ask you a question.”

“Go ahead,” I answered.

“Is it fiction or nonfiction?”

“It’s fiction,” I said. “It’s autobiographical, but it’s fiction.”

“Good,” she said. “That’s what I thought.”

A little later in our conversation, this editor, who is also a playwright, said, “What people really say is better than what you can make up.” We went on to agree, though, that it’s when your imagination riffs on real dialogue that magic happens. We start with odd and inimitable bits of what we say and hear, and then, like jazz musicians, we embellish and improvise, we reach for something higher. This is just as true of other aspects of realistic literature—certain settings, characters, and events are also better when they are transformed.

Yet it seems that readers are so thirsty for the truth that they like to believe that realistic fictional stories occurred just as they are written. When I’ve tried to show readers that I’ve made up more than they thought, when I’ve picked apart a story, telling a class or reading audience, this is true and this is not, they always seem a bit deflated when I’m finished. It’s as if I’ve dissected a living thing before their eyes to show them how it was put together, and sure, now they see how it was made, but the living thing they liked is dead.

My brother Anthony once said about a family scene in which I’d made up every bit of action and all but one sentence of dialogue, “I remember that.”

“You do not!” I protested. “I worked hard on that!”

Of course, it’s also hard work to write solely from the real; it’s both laborious and tricky to choose from among the thousands of possible actual details, to untangle them from the parts you don’t want to include, and to decide how best to arrange and frame them. Before I begin to write a particular piece, I ask myself, Should this be fiction or non-fiction? Do I want to have access to fiction’s greater freedom, or do I want to hold onto that extra weight and power a story manifests if it is strong enough un-re-imagined, because then the reader reads it thinking, This really happened. When I was eighteen, I took off to live in the woods with just my dog, and in the following weeks, three boys were murdered in two separate incidents less than a mile from my campsite. I decided to write that story just as it happened.

On the other hand, sometimes a greater truth can be revealed through fiction than by sticking to the facts. In a story from my first collection, set during the ’67 Detroit riots, a white father is arguing with two white policemen who have stopped a thirteen-year-old black boy who was simply walking down the street where the boy, modeled on a neighbor, and the man, based on my father, both live. In real life, all of the policemen who patrolled our neighborhood during that riot rode with their high-powered rifles sticking out the windows of their cars, but neither of these two cops, while I was watching from our front porch, aimed his rifle at our young black neighbor, which is how I wrote it in my story. Sure, I chose to write it like that partly because it gives the story greater tension. But I also wanted to honor a larger truth. By having the cop point his rifle at David’s back, I bring to life, for a brief moment, the forty-three people who died during those three days of police and National Guard occupation, most of whom were black boys and men who were shot while fleeing. By pointing to this fictional boy with the tip of a policeman’s rifle, I point to all the living boys and men who were gunned down.

My greatest struggle with writing about real people, whether in fiction or nonfiction, is that I am exposing, to varying degrees, people who might not want their lives exposed. I don’t have to worry about this too much with my daughter Cloey, who is something of an exhibitionist when it comes to appearing in my work. For years she said some version of these words to me: “You wrote one story about me when I was a baby. Then you wrote a couple more when I was a little kid. And then you stopped. When are you going to write another story about me?”

When she was in her early twenties, she said, “C’mon, Mom, when are you going to write about my teenage years?”

“When I’ve recovered from them,” I told her.

At the time, I was divorced and in the midst of writing stories about my dating life. I would come home from another strange and disappointing yet humorous date and think: “This is ridiculous. This is hilarious. I’ve got to write this down.” After I’d turned a bunch of journal entries into three stories about a divorced mother, I saw that several more stories would make a collection. I ended up with five long stories, which I showed to my writing group. They asked for “more Marly,” the character based on Cloey, who at that point appeared only in the mother’s stories and only briefly. So I cut the length of each of the mother’s five stories by half and gave Marly–and Cloey–four stories of her own.

I didn’t ask Cloey’s permission about what to include, so when she read the finished stories and told me she liked them, I was relieved. But what about the men in Strange Love? I wasn’t in touch with any of them anymore, and I didn’t want to look them up. Besides, I decided long ago that I have the right to write about my own life, and, of necessity, that pulls in the lives of others, since our lives overlap and intersect. I can’t write woman-meets-men stories without including the men. And the man on whom the title story is based had sat beside me on my couch one night while reading “his” story right after I first wrote it, and, rather than objecting, as I feared he would, he laughed a lot. I had included a lot of personal information about him, yet I hadn’t revealed any secrets.

There’s a whole storehouse in my brain of dark and fragile things various people have told me through the years that I’ve marked off limits and which I haven’t repeated in words, either spoken or written, and never will, without their consent. Still, I feel uneasy at times about the men I have included in my love stories without much camouflage or their permission. On the night I was told that Wayne State University Press was going to send me an advance contract for Strange Love, I went to sleep feeling troubled and sorry for these flawed yet decent men whom I would be, to an extent, exposing. But in the middle of the night I woke up with this thought in my head, spoken in the dialect of the neighborhood where I grew up: Motherfuckers should have known not to mess with a writer. Perhaps something to that effect should be printed on a T-shirt for me to wear, or else tattooed on my neck, just below my smile.

Sometimes the line gets blurred between my fiction and nonfiction, sometimes intentionally. I’ve entered pieces in nonfiction contests at times when there is actually a little fiction in the story. In other words, I’ve lied, although not in any big, James Frey sort of way. I did this with a piece called “Spin,” by setting all of the scenes in Detroit, when one scene actually happened in Chicago. It simply made more sense for the entire story, whether I labeled it fiction or nonfiction, to happen only in Detroit. Ironically, or maybe fittingly, this story is about truth and fiction, exaggeration and lying, the “spin” we put on what we tell, inadvertently and intentionally. (Before the fact police come knocking on my door, let me say that “Spin” is forthcoming, in the Detroit-themed issue of Transmissions, as fiction.)

Sometimes I want to throw my hands up and say, What does it matter what I call it or how I write it? But of course these questions and demarcations are important. Yet to what degree remains unclear, at least for me. So then how should I proceed?

I haven’t arrived at any resounding ethical or creative conclusions. I’ll likely be struggling with how to approach my fiction and nonfiction for the rest of my writing life. And each answer, like each story, novel, memoir or essay, will be individualized, unique. So I continue to stumble along with my pen flowing across the page and my fingers tapping on the keys, and then I try to reshape what I wrote into the truth as I know it. Sometimes the result is fiction; at other times, it’s nonfiction. Either way, I’m trying to say, in the best way I can, what I know and what I think is worth telling.

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Amazon releases most-highlighted excerpts from 2013-14 novels by women

The Interestings   Americanah

Amazon’s Kindle division recently issued a list of the 17 most-highlighted excerpts from books written by women in the past two years. For Amazon, publishers, and authors, the Kindle provides a ton of data about readers’ preferences. For readers, this may seem like an invasion of privacy; certainly, Amazon doesn’t know what you’ve highlighted or flagged on the actual books you’ve purchased from them.

Still, it can make for some interesting reading, like this list, which was covered by Bustle.com earlier this week. Not surprisingly, the most-highlighted authors included bestsellers and award-winners by the likes of Meg Wolitzer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Eleanor Catton, Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Donna Tartt. But you might be surprised by some of the other oft-noted quotes.

http://www.bustle.com/articles/48583-17-of-the-most-highlighted-quotes-from-the-best-fiction-by-women-of-the-past-two-years

 

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LIVING TREASURES explores love against a backdrop of oppression in 1989 China

9780989596053-PerfectLTcover.indd   Yang Huang

Living Treasures

By Yang Huang

Harvard Square Editions: Oct. 23, 2014

$19.95, 327 pages

Yang Huang’s debut novel immerses readers in a time and place with which they may be somewhat familiar: China in 1989, just before and after the massacre of young protesters at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

While it must have been tempting for Yang Huang to write an explicitly political novel about those people and events, she has instead chosen to focus on the love affair of an 18-year-old college student, Gu Bao, and a 22-year-old soldier, Tong, and the ramifications it has for their future. The political unrest serves as a foreboding backdrop for the domestic drama occurring first at Nanjing University and later in the Pingwu region of Sichuan province in mountainous central China.

While Bao’s best friend Lily becomes involved with a young activist and photographer who later participates in the infamous protests, Bao chooses to concentrate on her legal studies and spend time with her first boyfriend, a sardonic young officer from the Nanjing Army Commander College.

Before long, though, Bao and Tong are faced with what will be viewed as their own small rebellion: Bao is pregnant. While this may not strike contemporary readers as a major dilemma, in 1989 China it is a crisis. They are not married, her parents don’t know about Tong and will be furious that she became pregnant before marriage, and they will certainly oppose the idea of Bao marrying a soldier instead of becoming a lawyer.

Add to this scenario China’s one-child policy, and the stakes are raised significantly. If Bao has the baby, she cannot return to the university (she will have violated one of its fundamental rules), so her dream of becoming a lawyer will be shattered. Does she really want the baby under these circumstances? Is she ready to marry Tong? Does he love her enough to marry her? Does he want the baby? What about his career as a soldier? Whatever may happen with their relationship, this will be the only baby Bao will ever be able to have. Her decision will permanently alter her life.

Bao ends up taking a break from college to stay with her grandparents in central China, near the country’s main panda sanctuary. While adapting to a place she loved as a child, Bao stumbles upon a young woman hiding in the mountains. Orchid is pregnant — and she already has a child. She and her husband Candor live in the same village as Bao’s grandparents with their daughter, Daisy.

The local enforcement team for the one-child policy, led by the man with the ominous nickname of Childless Du, will force Orchid to have an abortion if they discover she is pregnant. So she is hiding until the baby arrives because the state won’t take away the baby once it is born. She is willing to suffer other, lesser consequences so long as she can deliver her second child. Before long, Bao, understandably sympathetic to the young mother-to-be, becomes deeply involved in Orchid and Candor’s deception.

The story develops in ways one wouldn’t necessarily expect and turns into something of a thriller in the final chapters. Bao, initially timid despite her academic and career ambitions, develops into a determined and spirited young woman who is willing to take on people and institutions she would have feared to challenge only months earlier.

Yang is equally adept at exploring the political situation, both at the political and personal levels, and capturing the texture of hardscrabble Chinese country life. She avoids heavy-handed polemics by depicting the effects of Chinese government policies on a handful of its citizens. As always, we experience the universal themes of oppression, resistance, and triumph through the particular instances of well-drawn characters, here Bao and Orchid. These are flesh and blood people, not mouthpieces for the author’s political harangues. Yang rightly keeps the plot focused on the human side of the nation-changing events taking place in the background of life-changing situations faced by the characters.

Living Treasures also benefits from the evocative and symbolic presence of a mother panda, which appears first when Bao is five and living with her grandparents and then again in the main plot in 1989.

While the novel’s mood is serious throughout, Yang maintains a charming voice that feels distinctively Chinese. At times this seems a bit too sweet and pleasant for the plot, but I could also see its readability being used to good advantage if her publisher tries to market Living Treasures as a Young Adult novel with serious issues on its mind. With the national, political, and cultural setting involved here, this would be a thought-provoking read for high school students, particularly if they are guided by a knowledgeable teacher.

As a final note, don’t let the childlike cover art deter you from reading this fine first novel. Living Treasures was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize, begun by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000 and awarded biennially “to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.” Living Treasures more than fulfills those criteria.

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