A HOUSE WITHOUT WINDOWS offers a view into a wife’s legal struggle in Afghanistan

    

A House Without Windows

By Nadia Hashimi

William Morrow: May 16, 2017 (paperback)

414 pages; $15.99

 

In the crowded world of books, it’s easy to miss good writers. I was unfamiliar with Nadia Hashimi when I attended the Literary Women’s Festival of Authors in Long Beach three months ago. But once I read her biography and a synopsis of each of her three books, I knew she was an author I needed to read. Her intelligence, insight, and charm during her presentation only confirmed that.

So I was pleasantly surprised when Jen Forbus and Trish Collins of TLC Blog Tours asked me if I would be interested in reviewing Hashimi’s latest book to coincide with its paperback release.

A House Without Windows is Hashimi’s third novel and, like the first two, is set in Afghanistan, from which her parents immigrated in the early 1970s. It is the story of a devoted wife, Zeba, who discovers her husband, Kamal, brutally murdered with a hatchet to the head in the courtyard of their home. When she is found next to him, covered in blood, her neighbors and even her children believe she killed him, although no one knows why. Hashimi depicts the scene in such a way that it is unclear whether Zeba actually stumbled upon Kamal or murdered him in an impaired state.

She is arrested and taken to Kabul’s women’s prison, Chil Mahtab. Here she awaits trial, sharing a cell with three other prisoners, all of whom have been charged with violations of Afghanistan’s traditional patriarchal culture. Latifa, “a brazen twenty-five-year-old with a deep voice and wide body [who] looked as if she were snarling even when she was at her most cheerful,” had “kidnapped” her fifteen-year-old sister and fled for their protection. Nafisa, “a sharp-tongued woman in her mid-thirties whose defiant manner had won her no mercy from the judge,” has been imprisoned to protect her from an honor killing in retaliation for having an improper relationship with a widower. Mezhgan, “a doe-eyed nineteen-year-old, half the size of her cellmates and nowhere near as bold,” is an unmarried woman who is pregnant, charged with a “love crime.”

A House Without Windows follows Zeba’s journey through the corrupt and byzantine Afghan justice system, moving forward as she meets her idealistic Afghan-born American lawyer, Yusuf, and backward to fill in the story of her life before Kamal’s murder. Zeba has negotiated compromises with herself in order to create a stable home life in a land of constricted opportunities, but she has inherited a stubbornly independent mind from her mother, Gulnaz, known in her village for her powers of jadu, or witchcraft. These two sides of her character are in conflict throughout the story, generating a tense narrative full of complex relationships and plot twists.

The most compelling aspect of the book is the contrast between Zeba and Yusuf, who has returned to the land of his childhood to work for a legal aid group. Zeba understands the many unspoken customs and expectations of an Afghan woman’s life, while Yusuf believes his knowledge of the law and his early life in Afghanistan have prepared him to help her negotiate the legal maze and save her life.

But as we delve deeper into Zeba’s life, we – like Yusuf – find that there is more to her than we first suspected. Hashimi weaves the various strands of the narrative — including the stories of Zeba’s cellmates — with skill and sensitivity, revealing key pieces of information along the way. The result is an absorbing novel that combines a character study, a mystery, and an exploration of an unfamiliar culture. It is an ideal “summer read,” with intriguing characters caught up in a complex plot, set against the backdrop of a fascinating – and often mystifying – land that is unfamiliar to most American readers.

For more on A House Without Windows, visit https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062449689/a-house-without-windows.

You can visit the other stops on the blog tour at these sites:

Tuesday, May 16th: Book by Book

Wednesday, May 17th: Real Life Reading

Wednesday, May 17th: A Bookish Affair

Thursday, May 18th: Helen’s Book Blog

Friday, May 19th: Tina Says…

Monday, May 22nd: Reading is My Super Power

Tuesday, May 23rd: Girl Who Reads

Wednesday, May 24th: From the TBR Pile

Wednesday, May 24th: BookNAround

Thursday, May 25th: The Book Diva’s Reads

Friday, May 26th: Read Her Like an Open Book

Monday, May 29th: Based on a True Story

Tuesday, May 30th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World

Wednesday, May 31st: A Literary Vacation

Thursday, June 1st: G. Jacks Writes

Friday, June 2nd: Jenn’s Bookshelves

‘ROUND MIDNIGHT: a tapestry of four diverse lives set against 50 years of a changing Las Vegas

’Round Midnight

By Laura McBride

Touchstone/Simon & Schuster: May 2, 2017

374 pages; $25.99

 

In just two novels, Laura McBride has become the unofficial Laureate of Las Vegas, depicting life on and beyond the Strip in vivid, occasionally wrenching detail. Her debut, We Are Called to Rise, made a strong impression with its interwoven narratives of disparate lives coming together in unexpected ways, with profoundly moving results. Her follow-up, ‘Round Midnight, uses a similar structure to probe the the lives of her four characters and the dramatic changes in her hometown since the 1950s.

The novel is told in three parts. The first part introduces the most complex of the characters, June Stein, a 21-year-old unhappily married proto-feminist who flees a life of looming suburban drudgery in 1950s New Jersey to create a life of her own choosing in Las Vegas.

“When she moved to Las Vegas, she was free of her marriage, free of certain expectations (not just those of others, but also her own)—free of a past she had never fully shouldered. And it was Vegas in the fifties, when it was a small town and a big town, when no one she had ever known would be likely to visit, when a young woman who enjoyed men and adventure and the casual breakdown of conventions was something of a community treasure.”

Before long, she is married to Odell (Del) Dibb, with whom she renovates a casino, the El Capitan. With the hiring of a charismatic black singer named Eddie Knox to perform in the Midnight Room, the El Capitan becomes one of the city’s hot spots. McBride perfectly captures the rapidly changing physical and cultural scene in Las Vegas, which is reflected as well in the liberal attitudes of June and Del and their close working relationship with Knox at a time when the city was still segregated. The plot soon becomes somewhat melodramatic, but it sets up one of the other sections of the narrative, which comes into play in the last half of the book.

Part Two of ’Round Midnight, set in 1992-93, tells the story of Honorata, a young woman from the Philippines who is essentially sold by her uncle to a wealthy but socially awkward man from Chicago when Honorata shames her family. He is frequently away on business, stranding Honorata in a world she barely comprehends and intensely despises. Eventually, he takes Honorata, whom he has renamed Rita, with him on a trip to Las Vegas, where she discovers that he is a high-stakes gambler who is well-known to the owners of the El Capitan casino.

As sometimes happens, a few days in Las Vegas changes her life.

Part Two is also the story of a young music teacher named Coral Jackson whose father, Ray, was Del Dibb’s best friend and right-hand man for many years until he died shortly before Coral was born. She had always known that Ray was not her father, for this reason and because she was obviously mixed race, but her mother refused to tell her the identity of her birth father. It didn’t seem important to her mother or her three siblings; as they always said, she was a Jackson through and through. But she always wondered. Through clever but generally plausible plot twists – connected to the El Capitan — Coral and Honorata meet and develop a tentative friendship.

The third part, set in 2010, introduces Engracia, a Mexican immigrant who worked as a maid at the El Capitan until her heartbreaking past caught up with her and set her on a life-altering path. The trajectories of Honorata, Coral, and Engracia intersect, eventually setting up the return to the narrative of an 80-year-old June Stein.

As in We Are Called to Rise, McBride juggles the various narrative strands skillfully, maintaining interest in the current character while holding the other characters in the near distance. At the same time, she seamlessly incorporates the sociocultural issues of each era into the respective characters’ lives: race relations in the 1950s, cultural and geographic displacement in the midst of Vegas’s boomtown years of the 90s, immigration in the last decade, and related racial and ethnic issues that arise out of the characters’ diversity of backgrounds. The real power of ’Round Midnight comes from McBride’s sensitive depiction of a range of internal and external conflicts and in the way these women change each other’s lives. All the while, Las Vegas, like the four protagonists, is steadily transformed.

’Round Midnight combines the best of plot-driven summer fiction with the kind of character studies and social, cultural, and economic context one finds in literary fiction. McBride has suffused this novel with a level of compassion and intelligence that makes the whole greater than the sum of its many parts.

Janet Benton: How keeping a diary changed my life, as a daughter and a writer

  

There are a lifetime’s worth of influences underlying any novel, including my own debut, Lilli de Jong. But one fundamental influence was this: My mother kept a diary. And thus began my understanding of the power of writing to oneself.

I grew up in an old Connecticut town, a semi-rural place with a few remaining farmsteads and a growing population of commuters to job hubs in Connecticut and New York. Our house bordered a swamp, and I met my best friend there most afternoons to explore plants and snails, worms, and a modest creek—a wending, narrow, rock-filled place that we found fascinating.

I loved my mother dearly. In my early years, I loved watching her in action: seated before an easel, silently spreading oil paint across a canvas; standing in the kitchen, cooking from recipes she followed with care; engaging in animated conversation with friends. I watched her freckled, pretty face when she was yelling, crying, laughing, reading. When she read, her face was open and soft.

When I wasn’t watching, she kept a diary.

People may have viewed a housewife’s diary-keeping then as a cute past-time—a way of elevating the purported trivia of her life or, at best, a way of finding company. But diaries are powerful. They offer a place where muffled voices can tell their truths. Diaries are tools for digging up what we know and for laying claim to what we find.

My parents divorced when I was nine. Even before my father moved out, mothering and keeping house were no longer central to my mother’s life. She’d already blasted free of the confinement of being a housewife in suburbia, married to an often silent man. Yet I didn’t want this to be true. I wanted to think that, at least in private, she considered me central. And somehow I figured out that she was keeping a diary. She kept the book in her bedroom; perhaps I came in once when she was writing.

After the divorce, she sometimes stayed out till late at night, doing exciting and important things I didn’t understand. More than once I went into her bedroom, pulled open the door of her night-table cabinet, took out the cloth-covered three-ring binder she wrote in, and scanned its pages. My mother’s scrawl was nearly incomprehensible to me, as she’d been a left-handed person in a school system that made her hold a pen in a bizarre manner to conform. But I managed to find out some of what she thought and felt about her art, her lovers, her nighttime dreams.

These matters were not what I was hungering to find. I was searching for my own name. Now and then I found it in a note about me doing some out-of-the-ordinary activity. “Janet left for camp today.” “Went tonight to Janet’s play.” I don’t remember finding more than a few sentences.

I stopped looking. Because when I read her diaries, there was no denying that she was the central character of her life. This was not what I wanted to believe. Inevitably, such a realization occurs in every relatively healthy mother-child relationship; it is important to understand—for those who were lucky enough to have had the opportunity, to some extent, not to understand—that one’s mother doesn’t exist as the sun to one’s earth. She is her own planet. In some circumstances, at some ages—or perhaps in some secret part of ourselves, always—it hurts to know this.

Still, I must have appreciated the candid way my mother wrote of what concerned her. I must have seen that a diary was a place for truth-telling. Because I decided that a diary was a place I needed to have. At ten, I created my first one, folding blank paper in half, stapling it in the middle, gluing fabric to its front and back. My parents were divorced by then, and divorce was uncommon in our little town. My dad was just about to marry the second love of his life, which shocked me; I didn’t like to know that our family was truly never going to cohere again. I needed a private friend. I wrote my first entry on the evening of that wedding.

My relationship to the page wasn’t immediately confessional. Like someone in the early stages of a courtship, I was coy. Within a year or two, however, I needed the pages of my diaries more than anything. I needed somewhere to be real.

Diaries are subversive by nature; they contain points of view that can’t be expressed publicly. If we want them to, they can hold anything we feel. As such, they are a particularly meaningful tool for anyone who’s not ideally situated in life.

Until I was a mother, I kept a diary for myself, gradually filling two old trunks with notebook after notebook. I carted these trunks from one coast to another, from apartment to apartment to house. They sit in my home office now, growing more fragile by the year. They say, “Open us! Claim us!” But I’m afraid. Do I dare to feel again what I felt back then? One day, I’ve often thought. I’ll see what I can make from all that.

When I became pregnant, I stopped filling notebooks with stories from the life of me. I began writing to my baby-in-progress. After my daughter’s birth, I continued writing to her future self in notebooks. But my own truths about adjusting to my roles as mother and wife became awkward, difficult. They seemed traitorous. I did write them in my own diary, a little, but time was scarce, and I wanted to write the novel that was coming to me. For the next dozen years, I wrote that novel instead.

I’ve long loved well-wrought novels that convince me the narrator is writing to a diary. Their immediacy creates tension, and by nature they allow readers close access to the diarist’s mind—an intimacy that satisfies. The diary novels I’ve counted as favorites include Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin, Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and two by Geraldine Brooks: Caleb’s Crossing and Year of Wonders.

So it’s no surprise, in retrospect, that the first novel I’ve finished of the four I’ve begun—the first one I was willing to put eight or nine thousand hours into—is a diary. Lilli de Jong keeps it during a transformative four months of her life: from the last weeks of her pregnancy through her first months of learning to be a mother.

Women have long kept diaries. The published American women’s diaries I’ve seen from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are telegraphic in nature, describing visitors, work accomplished, the weather, and financial transactions; they rarely contain feelings. In some cases, more intimate sections may have been deleted by grandchildren or other editors who compiled the published versions. But no doubt many diarists didn’t feel that such things should be entrusted to a page.

An artist, though, may be more likely to know that such honesty is transformative. Beginning with her diary, poems, and paintings, my mother, Suzanne Benton, became powerful. She turned 81 last January on the stage of the Women’s March in St. Petersburg, Florida, as a huge crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to her. She was introducing the city’s mayor, Rick Kriseman, because it was she who had conceived of that city’s march, had drawn people together to make it happen, had worked long days and nights to co-create the largest march ever assembled in St. Petersburg, with an estimated twenty-five thousand people.

“We know what we have to do,” she called out. “We know the path ahead is ours. Did the Berlin Wall fall because the government thought it was a good idea?” (The crowd shouted, “No!”) “Did the civil rights movement start because the government thought it was a good idea?” (“No!” again.) “Did the second-wave women’s movement start because the government thought it was a good idea?” (A large and rumbling “No.”) “We were a lot smaller than you, and look at what we did . . . Rights are not given—they’re won. So be brave, have courage, look out for your friends, for your neighbors, for each other . . . We’re going to stand together. We’re going to email, we’re going to call, we’re going to sit in on those legislators who have no moral compass, who go with the wind. Well, we’re a hurricane. Watch out, and hear us roar!”

Amid applause, Mayor Kriseman took the microphone and read a proclamation naming that day, January 21st, as Women’s Rights Day in St. Petersburg.

This large life my mother has claimed was not what others expected of her. She, too, had to win her rights. But that’s another story.

I saw my mother’s genius and her courage up close. By example, she taught me that making art is a process of healing, of inventing oneself, of telling one’s stories. She taught me that we create ourselves continually, and that being true to yourself can connect you with others in meaningful ways. As for those who are uncomfortable with this, one should stay too well occupied to notice. My mother showed me that making art offers a way to face and transform whatever life offers. She taught me that making art is a form of perpetually rescuing oneself.

Rescuing herself is precisely what Lilli de Jong does by keeping a diary in 1883 Philadelphia. She matters in those pages, and this helps her believe that her concerns should matter in the world. Her notebook-writing helps her stay honest with herself—and strengthens her voice. Keeping a diary sustains the dear and courageous unwed mother I invented, a young Quaker named Lilli de Jong.

I hope her story will move its readers, bringing them close to her mind and heart, as diary novels can do this like no others.

bio: Janet Benton is a writers’ mentor through her business, The Word Studio. Her debut novel, Lilli de Jong (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), is the diary of an unwed Quaker mother in 1883 Philadelphia who decides to keep her baby amid fierce prejudice. Visit http://www.janetbentonauthor.com to learn more.

Novey wins Jewish Book Council’s Sami Rohr Prize for debut novel, WAYS TO DISAPPEAR

Poet and translator-turned-novelist Idra Novey has been awarded the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize by the Jewish Book Council for her debut novel, Ways to Disappear. The prize comes with a $100,000 award.

At a ceremony held at the Jewish Museum in New York, Novey was honored, along with the four runners-up: Daniel Torday (The Last Flight of Poxl West), Paul Goldberg (The Yid), Adam Ehrlich Sachs (Inherited Disorders), and Rebecca Schiff (The Bed Moved). Torday received the Choice Award ($18,000), while the other “fellows” received $5,000 each. (Eighteen represents chai, or life, in Judaism, and multiples of 18 are commonly given as gifts and prizes.)

The Sami Rohr Prize alternates between fiction and nonfiction, so this year’s finalists were four novels and one short story collection published in 2015 and 2016.

Ways to Disappear is set in modern Brazil and concerns the disappearance of a legendary female novelist Beatriz Yagoda. A search ensues, involving her two children, her publisher, a ruthless loan shark, and the protagonist — her American translator from Pittsburgh.

Novey’s debut won the 2016 Brooklyn Eagles Literary Prize for Fiction. It was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, an NPR Best Book of 2016, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and a 2016 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection.

In my review last July, I called it “an absorbing exploration of the dichotomy between the perception and reality of a writer’s life . . . Interspersed throughout the narrative are transcripts of reports from Radio Globo, desperate emails from Emma’s fiance back in Pittsburgh, and witty dictionary entries of words and phrases that shed light on Emma’s adventures (including sample sentences referencing Emma’s fraught circumstances). These additional voices add perspective to the careening narrative, as Emma searches for Beatriz, copes with Raquel, falls for Marcus, and negotiates with both [loan shark] Flamenguinho and [publisher] Rocha . . . Ways to Disappear is as complex and enchanting as modern Brazil itself, alternately breezy with fish-out-of-water humor and manic plotting, and humid with portent and mystery.”

You can read the full review here.

 

MONSTERS IN APPALACHIA: a compelling contemporary take on Southern Gothic desire, temptation, and elusive salvation

Monsters in Appalachia: Stories

By Sheryl Monks

Vandalia Press/West Virginia University Press

$16.99, 168 pages

As someone who has lived in California for all but two years of his life and feels a powerful attachment to this place — its weather, light, ocean, mountains, valleys, flora, and fauna – I am fascinated by writing that conveys the power of other places. I feel as though I know some of these locales so intimately, it’s almost as if I’d lived there. As a result, stories and novels with a sense of place so palpable that it’s almost a character remain indelibly etched in my mind.

After reading Sheryl Monks’ impressive debut collection, Monsters in Appalachia, I feel as though I have walked the mountains and valleys of West Virginia and North Carolina with her characters. The fifteen stories here are distinguished by a range of narrative voices that are as undiluted as a bottle of moonshine from the most hidden of hollers. Monks examines the lives of these hard-living and hard-learning people with an unrelenting, knowing stare that sees through the lies they tell each other and themselves.

Monks is concerned with good and evil as it plays out in the lives of the invisible people of Appalachia and similar economically struggling communities. Her stories are rich with biblical allusions from Exodus to Revelation. Desire and temptation are ever present, and salvation is just out of reach. It’s hot, humid, and dusty during the day and dark as coal at night. There is an almost claustrophobic intensity to most of these stories, whether the monsters are real or imagined. This is Southern Gothic storytelling at its finest.

In the opening “Burning Slag,” we meet a mother whose children have been taken away after she kills her abusive husband. She is so infuriated by the loss of her kids to a foster family in the area that she is driven to desperation again. “Robbing Pillars” is less than six pages long, but it’s more than enough to convey the lives – and deaths — of miners doing the dangerous work of pulling out pillars to collapse a nearly empty mine so they can mine the roofs. “That’s money standing there, supporting the roof, and the company wants every square inch.”

“Rasputin’s Remarkable Sleight of Hand” makes us a spectator at the county fair performance of an illusionist running a con that even the audience senses. But they, and we, can’t quite nail down what he’s doing or how. Is it possible he’s the real deal or the devil incarnate? Everything changes when a “fat girl with yellow eyes,” spellbound by Rasputin’s charisma, volunteers to participate in his act, and his show takes an unexpected turn that leaves us flabbergasted.

“Run, Little Girl” finds Brother Harpy, an elderly snake-handler, visiting the home of the minister of Lick Branch, whose wife is a sexy woman who has backslid six times. His young daughter is “his charismatic little angel, reaching into the burlap sack and drawing out copperheads and diamondbacks. Her child’s faith convinced the sinners of Lick Branch that God would protect any who sought Him. She had saved many souls.” She is fascinated with Brother Harpy and soon decides that she has her own powers that only he can appreciate.

“Merope” probes the conflicting impulses surrounding adolescent love and lust, with devastating results. “Crazy Checks” concerns two textile factory workers trying to figure out a way to game the system to qualify for disability payments, the “crazy checks” of the title. As in many of these stories, the unexpected can be counted on to do damage in a dozen different ways.

In “Justice Boys,” a mining strike has forced the men to find other ways to make money. “That’s what started things with the Justice boys. Arjay and Jimbo had been driving up and down hollers looking for pieces of scrap to sell to Luther Linny over in Mile Branch.” They trespass on the boys’ property, setting off a small-time gang war that climaxes on a night when the guys are gone and only Rita and the kids are at home.

According to those who know better than I, Monks accurately depicts the Appalachian dialect, attitudes, and beliefs, and she has created more than a dozen small worlds full of mesmerizing characters and startling conflicts. This is a dark and darkly humorous collection that heralds the arrival of a gifted “new” writer (Monks has been publishing stories for more than a dozen years).

Ron Rash has been the troubadour of the Appalachians for the past decade, but with Monsters in Appalachia, Sheryl Monks has joined him as a teller of twisted stories about a uniquely American place and culture.

MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS a suspenseful study of a fraught mother-daughter relationship

Mothers and Other Strangers

By Gina Sorell

Prospect Park Books: May 2, 2017

$16, 314 pages

It’s not unusual for adult children to become estranged from their parents. Sometimes it’s a psychological and emotional necessity, other times it’s simply the result of unfortunate events or misunderstandings. As the old saying goes, we don’t get to choose our family, and there’s no guarantee we will like each other, particularly as time goes on and we build separate lives.

Gina Sorell’s debut novel, Mothers and Other Strangers, explores this fraught territory with compelling results. It is a complex family drama, a dual (and dueling) character study, and a suspenseful mystery all in 300 pages.

Elsie is 39 and an ex-dancer living in Los Angeles when she learns that her mother, Rachel, has passed away at home in Toronto. More than just physical distance separates them; they have not spoken in two decades. Rachel, it turns out, is what we used to call “a real piece of work.” She is a mean-spirited narcissist concerned with how she appears to others and following her own spiritual muse around the world. She is not interested in being a mother, even though her husband passed away when Elsie was an infant. So, Elsie grows up seeking her mother’s attention and approval, but receiving little of either, and ultimately doing her best to raise herself.

When Elsie returns to Toronto to sort through her mother’s belongings and tie up the loose ends of her life, she finds that little has changed in her apartment in a luxury highrise building, and that her mother did not appear to be the wealthy woman her lifestyle had always suggested she was. What happened in the last 20 years? Did it involve her devoted membership in The Seekers, a “new-agey” spiritual group based in Paris, and her obsession with their charismatic founder, Philippe? When someone breaks into the apartment and turns it upside down looking for something – although it’s clear to Elsie there is nothing of value in the apartment of this elderly woman – she begins to suspect that her mother had led a different life than she’d thought.

Elsie’s return to Toronto forces her to examine a past she’d long quarantined, and the structure of Mothers and Other Strangers moves back and forth in time to reveal Elsie’s life, increasing the mystery and tension as the plot progresses. How did a child born in South Africa end up being raised in Canada? What really happened to her father? Why does she have nightmares involving a house fire and a black caretaker? Why did her mother view the Seekers as her family instead of Elsie? Why couldn’t her mother love her?

As Elsie peels back the layers of her mother’s life, she confronts her own traumas and the resulting demons that continue to follow her. Little is as it seemed to either the younger Elsie or the divorced adult Elsie. Mothers and Other Strangers could have been written as a straight suspense novel or as a close study of an exceptionally difficult mother-daughter relationship. Instead, Sorrel has combined the two to generally good effect, although it occasionally makes for odd pacing. For example, just as the enigma of Rachel’s life becomes particularly intriguing, we are taken back to Elsie’s teenage years as a gifted dancer who steadily establishes her independence from a mother who is absent physically and emotionally. Both aspects of the story are compelling, but one makes you turn the pages faster, and readers can become greedy about a complex, thought-provoking plot. Wait! What happens next?! Why? How? No!

Suffice to say (no spoilers here!), Elsie moves back through her mother’s life, to Paris and on to South Africa, to discover her many secrets, including the one that had proven the most impervious of all: Why was Rachel the person — and mother — she was? By the end, she has changed from a mystifying and heartbreaking stranger into a flawed young woman fleeing her own tragedies and attempting to build a life for her daughter and herself. Elsie learns, as do we all, that who we are is a direct result of our parents’ character and choices, and that they are, like us, deeply imperfect people.

Feminist Fiction: Turning the Tide

  

By Susan DeFreitas

***

December 28, 2016

It’s been nearly two months since my debut novel was published, and I’ve gotten some lovely reviews. Read It Forward noted the authenticity of my details, the economy of my storytelling (“as if Donna Tartt had been edited by Gordon Lish”). Rain Taxi wrote that my novel brings “contemporary environmental activism into the literary vernacular.” Powell’s Books—the largest independent book store in the world, which happens to be my local shop—made it a staff pick, going so far as to call it “a must-read.”

But it’s only today that a reviewer has finally said what has seemed obvious to me from the start, and that reviewer is Megan Burbank, the arts editor of the Portland Mercury.

“Complexity is exactly what’s missing from literary fiction’s current obsession with stories about activist circles. While an author like Jonathan Franzen might make bemusingly unexamined digs at his squatters and freegans . . . DeFreitas strikes a delicate balance, depicting social agitation as, really, what it is: a gradual, infuriating, complex effort performed by smart, dedicated, flawed humans to varying degrees of commitment and success.”

If you are a writer—someone who has labored long over words that no one else will ever read—this is the moment when your hand flies to your heart.

“DeFreitas carries this laidback realism through Hot Season, from seemingly minor details that build her rich universe…to the book’s complicated, relatable women characters. (The men of Hot Season are refreshingly peripheral.) From unhappily coupled Jenna’s fantasy of solo life on a ranch without men, to Rell’s levelheaded attempt to balance her political ideals with the practical demands of her life, to Katie’s dangerous attraction to self-mythologizing, Hot Season is really a book about women.”

Holy shit, I could not help but think, somebody actually got it.

It’s true, as Burbank goes on to note, that in many activist movements, women and other marginalized people are often drowned out by “swaggering white-guy hypocrisy.” True too that in activist narratives, as in activist circles, the voices of women have often been drowned out by those of men.

For me, the case in point is Edward Abbey’s classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey is the grand old man of American eco-fiction, an author who has inspired generations of environmental activists, and a larger-than-life character in the Southwest.

He’s also misogynistic as hell.  

The heroes of The Monkey Wrench Gang are Doc Sarvis, George Heyduke, and Seldom Seen Smith—a retired doctor, ex-Green Beret, and Mormon wilderness guide, respectively. The sole female character is Bonnie Abzug, a New York liberal with an exceptional bust line. Throughout the whole thrilling adventure, which (spoiler alert!) involves blowing things up and running from the cops, she complains incessantly.

As a writer who cares deeply about the West, I could not help but admire Abbey’s style, his gleeful subversion of the status quo (“Dr. Sarvis, with his bald mottled pate, was out on a routine neighborhood beautification project, burning billboards along the highway…”). Abbey held that the moral duty of a writer was to be a “critic of his own country, his own government, his own culture”—a stance I, a child of the 1970s counterculture, embraced. I loved his humor too: “Everything in this book is true, it just hasn’t happened yet.”

And yet I knew that if I was going to tackle similar themes in my fiction, I’d have to flip the script on gender. Moreover, Abbey’s fantasy of ecological retaliation—setting fire to billboards, blowing up bridges, and destroying construction equipment—while fun, struck me as fundamentally flawed. Real change, in my experience (as my protagonist Rell notes) is “nothing but long, slow, pissy work.”

But therein lay a challenge that I believe goes to the heart of the way that the novel, a male-dominated art form for most of its history, has been defined. Because if you don’t have the “money shot” of a dam blowing up, the climax in which your renegade heroes have a showdown with the bad guys—well, where’s the story?

Long, slow, pissy work may be the true work of civilization, but it’s also damn hard to write about.

I also knew that if I was going to push back against Ed Abbey, I couldn’t just make my female characters smart and capable at every turn (the foil of annoying Ms. Abzug). That would be falling into the trap of the “strong female protagonist”—which, to my mind, is no more than the sort of male hero we’ve grown sick of, but with boobs.

My approach was to write a novel with a multiplicity of female points of view. A novel in which, as Burbank pointed out, the male characters were “refreshingly peripheral.”

All of the main characters in Hot Season are female, and all of them are involved in the fight to save a local river—but their stances, ideologically speaking, range from timid to militant, starry-eyed to pragmatic, representing a whole range of personality types and developmental stages.

This was a college novel, after all. It was important to me that the young women in it were free to be both serious and silly, engaged with philosophy and politics but also preoccupied by romantic dramas (not to mention whether or not they would be able to find a job after graduation).

My overall goal with the novel, in terms of both the characters and their politics, was complexity—and here, at last, someone got it.

It does not surprise me that the reviewer who did is a graduate of Smith College, whose alumnae include Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. A place, Burbank has noted elsewhere, “where women don’t have to apologize for being smart, where feminist ideals move from theory into practice.”

In fiction, as far as I’m concerned, moving from theory into practice means more than replacing male heroes with female ones. It means rethinking the way such narratives are structured.

Ursula K. Le Guin, perhaps my favorite living author, noted in an interview with David Naimon that not only must a female author overcome a literary establishment that seeks to silence her at the time of publication, she must gain champions in order to cement her legacy, in order to keep it from being silenced in the years to come.

Though Hot Season is a work of realist fiction, I claim Le Guin’s fantasy novel Voices as a blueprint. Voices is marketed to YA readers, with a cover suggesting no more than fan fiction set in Middle-Earth. But what lies within those covers is one of the most subversive works of feminist fiction ever written—one in which the “money shot” of conventional confrontation, when a subjugated society rises up against its colonial masters, and its attendant bloodshed is, somehow…averted.

The tension between societies, between moral positions, between cultures, which drives the story like a steam engine, is never, in fact, consummated. The war, however righteous, never reaches a flash point, preserving the lives of all concerned. It is speech—both rhetoric and poetry—that turns the tide, at the moment of highest tension.

That, to me, is revolutionary.

The climax of both Voices and Hot Season is the opposite of a “money shot.” It reverberates, again and again, through the lives of many characters, through many perspectives (call it a series of multiple orgasms).

In Voices, as in Hot Season, there’s a nod toward the classical (male-defined) structure of the novel, which mandates direct confrontation at the point of climax, and yet the text subverts it, in favor of the truth: civilization, our greatest achievement as a species, is not defined by violent confrontations.

It is defined by the less showy stuff, which is ultimately more real—the long, slow, pissy work that, ultimately, turns the tide.

***

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in the Utne Reader, The Nervous Breakdown, Story Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, and Weber—The Contemporary West, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions, 2016) and the chapbook Pyrophitic (ELJ Publications, 2014). In 2014, her work was nominated for a Best of the Net award.

A graduate of Prescott College, DeFreitas has a background in marketing and publicity for green businesses, and from 2009 to 2012, she covered green technology for Earthtechling. Her creative work reflects on and incorporates themes related to the environment, sustainability, and the natural world. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband.