Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, NY. She edited the award-winning “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY” and the NY Times Bestselling “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.” She is editorial director of TMI Project, a non-profit offering storytelling workshops, and has a column on The Rumpus. She tweets at http://twitter.com/saribotton
The 2017 Whiting Awards honorees have been announced. Among the winners is Pretend I’m Dead, a novel by Jen Beagin, which has been among my favorite titles from Emily Books. Every time a friend or colleague seeks recommendations for a novel that has both humor and heart, I refer them to this book about Mona, a young woman cleaning houses for a living and volunteering at a needle exchange program.
For the next few weeks she mentally projected Mr. Disgusting’s face onto whatever surface she was cleaning, just for the pleasure of scrubbing it off. The procedure worked best on tiled bathroom walls. She lathered the tiles with Ajax, then, covering her mouth with the collar of her T-shirt to guard against bleach throat, she scrubbed out his left eye, obliterated his right with a furious scribbling motion, and then expanded her stroke to remove his mocking eyebrows and long black hair. She scrubbed vigorously, her hands sweating in rubber gloves, her breath moistening her T-shirt. When his face was gone at last, she doused the tiles with water from the tap. Her mind often seemed to clear itself of debris, and in its place, she felt the pleasant but slightly irritating sensation of having a word on the tip of her tongue.
A month later her anger suddenly dissipated and was replaced again by longing. So he’d almost killed her and then told her she looked like a fish — big deal, people made mistakes. She was getting over it. Besides, he’d apologize profusely via voicemail, and on her doorstep he’d left a Japanese dictionary in which he’d circled the words for contrite, shame, repentant, confession, apology, remorse, touch, please, help, and telephone. That certainly counted for something.
She dialed his number but his phone was disconnected. She stopped by the Hawthorne a few times, but he was never in his room. She checked his other haunts — the Owl Diner, the Lowell Public Library, and the Last Safe and Deposit, a bank turned dive bar — all without luck.
Other honorees for the prize, which recognizes “early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come,” include:
At Vice, Eve Peyser has an essay I strongly identify with about belatedly embracing her Jewish identity. Raised by atheist parents in New York City and attending Oberlin, Peyser more comfortably identified as a liberal, and was reluctant to be lumped in with certain kinds of Jews — rich, entitled, Zionist, anti-Palestinian. Recently, though, the rise in antisemitism ushered in by the new administration — plus personal attacks by racist online trolls — have prompted Peyser to analyze how she’s distanced herself from her heritage, re-evaluate what it means to be Jewish, and take pride in owning it.
A recent sunny afternoon, my best friend Beck (a fellow secular New York City Jew, and college classmate) and I went for a walk to a Jewish cemetery near my apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. The grid of tombstones and mausoleums engraved with Jewish names—the sort of place that has been vandalized recently—got us talking about why it took so long for us to feel OK with (or even proud of) our heritage.
Both of us had felt the same shame at times, heard the same things. Beck remembered a time in Oberlin when a leftist activist remarked on her big, Jewish nose—a shockingly casual bit of bigotry given how “woke” our little bubble was. We had both seen a Facebook post from a former classmate of ours who quoted a pamphlet called “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” a 32-page guide for leftist activists on how to incorporate fighting anti-Semitism within their movement. In explaining how anti-Semitism functions and differs from other forms of racism, the zine perfectly addressed the complicated identity of white Jews, like myself:
“Many oppressions rely on keeping a targeted group of people poor, uneducated, designated non-white, or otherwise ‘at the bottom.’ Anti-Jewish oppression doesn’t depend on that. Although at many times it has kept Jews in poverty or designated non-white, these have been ‘optional’ features. Because the point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front, so that Jews, instead of ruling classes, become the target of people’s rage.”
It also notes that part of the reason we’re so willing to dismiss anti-Semitism is because it moves in cycles—in the aftermath of oppression, Jews are often allowed to blend in again—and atrocities like the Holocaust seem like ancient history.
Novelist and memoirist Gary Shteyngart has an essay in The New Yorker about his growing obsession with high-ticket mechanical wristwatches, a fixation that escalated throughout the 2016 Presidential race and peaked around the inauguration. Something about the reliability and precision of German and Swiss ticking timepieces helps quell Shteyngart’s growing anxiety; delving into his expensive new hobby, he’s able to divert his attention away from his growing fears and the residual unrest from his childhood as a Jewish refugee from Russia.
As the election approached, I started going to meetings of the Horological Society of New York. On the streets of Manhattan, I never have any idea which celebrity is which—they all seem to be Matt Damon—but at the Horological Society I could identify all my new heroes, many with full, Portlandian beards, across the vast hall of the library of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, in midtown, while they waited in line for their free coffee and Royal Dansk butter cookies. There was the nattily dressed Kiran Shekar—yes, the Kiran Shekar, noted collector, author, and proprietor of the independent watch purveyor Contrapante. I ran over to introduce myself and a few moments later he gave me his watch to hold, and a few weeks later he arranged for me to attend the secret RedBar, a meeting of the watch elect, at a bar in Koreatown. You need a regular to invite you to a meeting, and the idea that I could be welcomed into this exclusive world kept me from sleeping. I lay in bed practicing what I might say about “perlage,” “three-quarter plates,” and the rare lapis-lazuli dials on some seventies Rolex Datejusts.
This year, once Nowruz announced itself to me, I wanted to forget it. Even in my circle of Iranian friends in New York I hear us beginning to plan but thinking twice in a way we never did before. “Not in the mood,” one friend tells me. “Not in the mood,” I tell another friend. And I think about how my parents and I are barely in contact right now — all of us locked in our own suffering, fear not bringing us together at all.
Naturalized at 23, I think about how my birthplace is still on that passport, in those bold letters: Iran. I think about my father back home in LA with only a green card. I think about all the old traumas (the racial slurs my family and I endured when we first came to this country in the early 1980s) and the usual traumas (all the times I’ve been pulled aside at airports) and the new waves of traumas (daily online harassment, like the time the poet on Facebook, friends with 222 of mine, told me to “go back to whatever Third World shithole you come from”).
I try to imagine skipping Nowruz altogether; I try to imagine giving in to grief as an opportunity to meditate on the horrors of this era. But it’s hard to commit to even a lack of commitment these days, not knowing what will happen next.
Just as I try to let go of Nowruz, it comes for me. It starts when a neighbor’s card appears by my door: “Happy 1396, we are with you,” it says in cursive. Later I find myself scrolling through the Instagram accounts of families in Tehran and I marvel at their haftsin skills, and catch myself dreaming of a last-minute gathering.
At The Establishment, writer Ijeoma Oluo schools well-meaning white people late to the anti-racism party in the hard work of recognizing their privilege, letting go of it, and fighting for racial justice. While on the one hand, she points out that white privilege is a major part of the problem and needs to be absent in spaces shared with people of color, she also sees it as a secret weapon that can be employed in spaces that are predominately white.
Your privilege is the biggest benefit you can bring to the movement.
No, I’m not just talking nonsense now. Racial privilege is like a gun that will auto-focus on POC until you learn to aim it. When utilized properly, it can do real damage to the White Supremacist system — and it’s a weapon that POC do not have. You have access to people and places we don’t. Your actions against racism carry less risk.
You can ask your office why there are no managers of color and while you might get a dirty look and a little resentment, you probably won’t get fired. You can be the “real Americans” that politicians court. You can talk to fellow white people about why the water in Flint and Standing Rock matters, without being dismissed as someone obsessed with playing “the race card.” You can ask cops why they stopped that black man without getting shot. You can ask a school principal why they only teach black history one month a year and why they pretty much never teach the history of any other minority group in the U.S. You can explain to your white friends and neighbors why their focus on “black on black crime” is inherently racist. You can share articles and books written by people of color with your friends who normally only accept education from people who look like them. You can help ensure that the comfortable all-white enclaves that white people can retreat to when they need a break from “identity politics” are not so comfortable. You can actually persuade, guilt, and annoy your friends into caring about what happens to us. You can make a measurable impact in the fight against racism if you are willing to take on the uncomfortable truths of your privilege.
Heidi Julavits profiles memoirist and novelist Rachel Cusk for New York Magazine’s The Cut. Julavits focuses on various aspects of Cusk’s writing, including the ways in which her approach to “autofiction” is somewhat different from that of some compatriots in the land of blurred lines between memoir and fiction. Those include Sheila Heti, Ben Learner and Karl Ove Knausgaard, all of whom tend to infuse their protagonists with recognizable strains of their personalities.
Both Outline, which came out in the U.S. in 2015, and Transit are narrated by a woman named Faye, who, like Cusk, is divorced, has two children, and is a writer. Faye describes, or really more accurately transcribes, her encounters with other people. In Outline, she travels to Greece and meets a man on a plane; she goes to a restaurant with a friend; she teaches a writing workshop. She is less an interlocutor than a recording device or a processing machine. She receives. Faye, in literary terms, is a cipher. She is a zero, a naught, a nothing.
In Transit, Faye becomes slightly more “visible” (and audible) via her involvement in a home-renovation project; she converses with contractors and pacifies angry neighbors. Nothing happens, really, but these books are nonetheless gripping self-portraits of multiple humans. They are like eavesdropping on strangers, or watching a secret video feed of strangers, if those strangers were also casual philosophers. The conversations vacillate between the mundane and the lofty, as if the characters — enabled by Faye’s presence — are always grasping at bigger life questions. Outline and Transit both are welcome breaches of privacy that emphasize the intensely shapeless loneliness of people. They are books about middles.
Faye, while she shares biographical data with Cusk and appears to present and process events from Cusk’s actual life, is quite different from the characters devised by other autofiction writers of late — Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgaard — with whom Cusk is frequently grouped. The books of these writers, though distinct from one another, more centrally feature an authorial self; about Heti, for example, Cusk says, “She uses herself, her Sheila-ness, much, much, much more than I do.” Cusk does not, in these novels, use her Cuskness. And yet she’s filtering through a narrator that does not by accident resemble her.
For the April edition of The Atlantic, Nicholas Dames profiles late author and activist Grace Paley. In particular, Dames focuses on Paley’s persistence in the face of political obstacles, as an activist, and as a writer — often through a stalwart recurring character, Faith Darwin Asbury.
Through Faith, Paley discovered her great subject: the evolving political engagement of the generation of women who came of age in the shadow of World War II. The stories Paley wrote after The Little Disturbances are ever more plotless. They are snapshots of female community—in particular, the group of Greenwich Village women early to the postwar quest for feminist consciousness—or, in Faith’s own words, “a report on … the condition of our lifelong attachments.” Paley borrowed the method of linking characters across a story series from Isaac Babel, one of her lodestars. But unlike Babel’s Odessa stories—–or, for that matter, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—–Paley’s stories about Faith extend the timescale well into adulthood. Faith and her friends age, shedding lovers and children and parents, and finding new objects for their political passions. It turns out that rather than voice, Paley’s true subject was time.
Put another way, her theme was how the ethical aspirations of political life extend over time: how they survive inevitable disappointment; how they steel themselves into endurance.
For Elle, Keziah Weir profiles prolific feminist and activist Rebecca Solnit. Solnit is expert at crystalizing common experiences in such a way that lays bare deeply ingrained patriarchal influences. You can never un-see them again, and suddenly you realize how entrenched they are. Weir herself had this experience reading Solnit.
The title essay of Men Explain Things is based on an encounter Solnit had with an older man at his Aspen house party in 2003; he expounds at great length to her about a recent biography of Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneering stop-motion photographer famous for his image series of a horse galloping—talking over her friend’s efforts to tell him that Solnit herself had written the book. “I like incidents of that sort,” Solnit writes, “when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow.” Peggy Orenstein, the author of last year’s best-seller Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, likens the essay’s reception to the feminist “click moments” of the 1970s, when “something you knew deep in your bones that nobody had ever quite articulated zapped into focus.”
I can relate. Raised on the girl-power feminism of the ’90s—Spice Girls, The Vagina Monologues, Hermione Granger, Daria—my friends and I didn’t think we needed feminism. We thought the battle for women’s rights had already been won. Besides, feminism carried uncomfortable anti-man connotations, amplified by “empowered” female pop-culture icons from Katy Perry to Madonna, who denounced the term as exclusionary. “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist” was a popular refrain. But then, in Men Explain Things, I read about Solnit, six or seven or nine books into her career and still having her own thoughts explained back to her by men. In the same collection, I read her trenchant take on FBI whistle-blower Coleen Rowley, who issued pre-9/11 warnings about Al Qaeda and was ignored by her mostly male colleagues. I read about how an unnamed American university responded to campus rapes by telling young women to stay inside after dark. I started to wonder: Why do I gravitate toward books by male authors? Why hasn’t it bothered me that my academic mentors were exclusively men? Why do I feel competitive with my female classmates (and, later, colleagues) but not male? Without being conscious of it, I’d put the men in a different, more exalted category; my definition of “winning” essentially meant taking home the silver, or the bronze. The guys would land three out of four of the top jobs, and they’d dominate the conversation—whether on literature or abortion, whether at parties or in the serious matte pages of the New Yorker. Click.
Model, television host, and cookbook author Chrissy Teigen wrote a personal essay for Glamour, in which she confesses to having postpartum depression. For many months after giving birth last year to Luna, her daughter with husband John Legend, Teigen was incredibly unhappy despite have what she recognizes to be a great life. She was also nauseated, and had terrible physical pain. She was relieved when her doctor diagnosed her with postpartum depression, but it took her a while to get far enough past the stigma to come out about it and, well, help dispel the stigma.
I remember being so exhausted but happy to know that we could finally get on the path of getting better. John had that same excitement. I started taking an antidepressant, which helped. And I started sharing the news with friends and family—I felt like everyone deserved an explanation, and I didn’t know how else to say it other than the only way I know: just saying it. It got easier and easier to say it aloud every time. (I still don’t really like to say, “I have postpartum depression,” because the word depression scares a lot of people. I often just call it “postpartum.” Maybe I should say it, though. Maybe it will lessen the stigma a bit.)
I wanted to write an open letter to friends and employers to explain why I had been so unhappy. The mental pain of knowing I let so many people down at once was worse than the physical pain. To have people that you respect, who are the best in the business, witness you at your worst is tough. Even though this was something I shouldn’t have to apologize for, I did want to apologize. Because on a set, people depend on you. A lot of people are coming together and all you have to do, Christine, is put on a unicorn head and shoot a money gun. Editors are wondering what the f-ck happened to the girl they gave a book deal to. This shit was flying through my head and I felt horrible.
In December of 2015, on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of “9 to 5,” Rolling Stone ran an interview with Patricia Resnick, who wrote the original screenplay. The 1980 film, featuring Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin as women who kidnap their chauvinist boss and run the business better than he ever could, was Fonda’s brainchild. It was inspired by the 9to5 organization, which advocates for women in the workplace. In the interview, Resnick addresses how little had really changed for women by 2015, and the threat of political forces looking to undo what progress there has been. Who could have predicted that would be an even bigger threat in 2017?
In some ways we’ve definitely moved forward a little bit, but there does seem to be a lot of sentiment in this country, in one of our political parties, that seems to be trying to undo what little we’ve been able to do. The other thing that makes it difficult is that so many people think that this is all been settled. We did a musical of 9 to 5 on Broadway in 2009, and it was really frustrating because a lot of the interviews that I did with male journalists, the first thing they said was, “Well, none of those issues are a problem in contemporary life, so how are women of today going to be able to relate to it?” I thought, yeah, you can’t sexually harass someone as obviously. We don’t call people “secretaries.” Other than that, what has changed? People would kill to work from 9 to 5.