This week, we’re sharing stories from Rebecca Solnit, Robert F. Worth, Margaret Talbot, Porochista Khakpour, and Frank Bures.
In a muscular essay in LitHub, Rebecca Solnit pares away the trappings of power to poke at the needy, grasping, isolated core of Donald Trump, who can’t be satisfied with all the money or sycophants in the world.
Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society. Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble—that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars—and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters. This is about a need for which we hardly have language or at least not a familiar conversation.
The plot of the book came to me as I was falling asleep: two girls share a bedroom, and squabble until they have no choice but to divide their room in half. Only one girl has access to the bedroom door. The other has the closet, which turns out to be an elevator. Suddenly, I was wide awake. I hadn’t thought of this book in years. Thank God for Google; soon, I had a list of results for This Room is Mine by Betty Ren Wright, now out of print. A few clicks later, I learned Wright had died in 2013 at 89 years old. She wrote more than thirty children’s books, including dozens of ghost stories. This Room is Mine isn’t a ghost story (at least not that I remember), but it does feature that archetypal spooky spot, the closet, and a supernatural closet at that. With a touch of fantasy, Wright dispels the girls’ disagreement.
Children’s literature is a conduit for larger questions of identity, fear, joy, and freedom, and the following essays explore these themes.
1. “The Best Children’s Books Appeal to All Ages.” (Gabrielle Bellot, Literary Hub, December 2016)
Sandwiched between Jules Feiffer’s Cousin Joseph and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend on the shelves of the bookstore where I work is a slim but hard children’s book: The Beach At Night, a book Ferrante wrote, ostensibly, for children. I’ve skimmed through it, and I find it terrifying, as I find any book about a sentient doll terrifying. Perhaps I’ve been too quick to judge. At LitHub, Gabrielle Bellot explores The Beach at Night through the lens of Ferrante’s anonymity and compares the work to C.S. Lewis, Chinua Achebe, Arnold Lobel, Gabriel García Márquez, and Hayao Miyazaki’s decidedly mature children’s stories:
Are these indeed stories for children, if children cannot be expected to get all of these references? But, of course, this is partly the point. Children’s stories are often for adults in different ways than they are for children—and, just as books change for us as we do, children’s tales will, at best, take on new shades of meaning, will reveal new hidden rooms and lofts, as we learn to look at them with more attuned eyes.
2. “Why I Came Out as a Gay Children’s Book Author.” (Alexander London, BuzzFeed, April 2016)
To make ends meet, children’s author Alexander London supplements his writing life with hundreds of school visits. After the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 and legalized gay marriage, London wrestled with the decision to be honest with his curious students about his marriage to his husband.
3. “For Children and Sensitive Readers.” (Alex Kalamaroff, Blunderbuss Magazine, March 2014)
Daniil Kharms was co-founder of OBERIU, “the Union of Real Art, an organization of activist absurdists who dismissed realistic writers as purveyors of the drab and demanded a new art that was one-third highbrow language experiment, eight-sevenths freakshow,” He was invited to join the Association of Children’s Literature in 1927, one year before OBERIU was formed.
In 1931, Kharms was arrested and charged with anti-Soviet activities. His children’s books, the police said, were too absurd; they didn’t embrace the new reality. Stalin’s ruffians wanted to live in a world where elephants would not appear out of the blue. They did not approve of extravagant sledding activities. A man screaming poetry from atop an armoire was worse than criminal; it represented a tear in the new reality. In one of Kharms’s children stories, the porcupines shout, “Cock-a-doodle-doo.” In another, Brazil is only a short drive from Leningrad. These impossible occurrences were unacceptable, weird whack-a-moles popping up and poking through the veneer of ordinary life. Who could tolerate such mischief?
4. “Ursula Nordstrom and the Queer History of the Children’s Book.” (Kelly Blewett, Los Angeles Review of Books, August 2016)
You may not know of Ursula Nordstrom, an editor who transformed children’s literature in the mid-20th century. Nordstrom was certain kids would enjoy books that mirrored their complex inner lives instead of dispensing pat morals. She was right. The books she championed, including Harriet the Spy, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte’s Web, and Goodnight Moon, are iconic. Like several of the authors she worked with, Nordstrom was queer. In this essay, Kelly Blewett examines Nordstrom’s own children’s book, The Secret Language, through a queer lens.
There is no grand unified theory of motherhood. Within every paradigm–chosen families, queer families, nuclear families, adoptive and foster families, on and on– mothering may vary a million times over. In this Mother’s Day reading list, I’ve attempted a rough chronology, from pregnancy to mourning, concluding with information about the crucial, joyful National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day.
1. “Dear Daughter, Your Mom.” (Sarah Smarsh, The Morning News, June 2014)
This is an essay about your mom: her Hooters uniform, her Mensa card, her abstinence, and the potency of mother-love:
What would I want for my daughter?
The answer was always correct and its implementation reliably unpleasant. Human intimacy, so she suffered hugs until she became enthusiastic with affection. Honesty, so she said what she meant. Love, so she showed hers.
2. “First I Got Pregnant. Then I Decided to Kill the Mountain Lion.” (Kathleen Hale, Elle, February 2017)
In a haze of maternal-ish instincts, Kathleen Hale hikes obsessively in search of the puma of Griffith Park.
3. “The Price: The Queer Daughter of a Queer Mother.” (Melissa Moorer, Electric Lit, September 2016)
Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, and its film adaptation, Carol, are the rare queer stories with happy endings. Writer Melissa Moorer sees reflections of herself in the story’s cast of characters and analyzes how representation affects the possibilities we see and don’t see for ourselves and our parents.
4. “Mama.” (Jasmine Sanders, Catapult, March 2016)
Is Mama a title to be earned or a biological fact? If it is the latter, does the exaltation, the importance of blood require me to love my mother unquestioningly and unconditionally? Or, if there are conditions, who determines them?
My grandmother, my adoptive mom, raised me. She is the salt and marrow of who I am, and when I hear the word Mama, the hollow, red ache in my chest belongs to her. My mother, between her six children, would have spent almost five years of her life pregnant and swollen. Half a dozen times, she made room in her lovely body to house a person only to have it ripped apart when they left. She split open at the seam and I slid into the world, ribbons of her blood curled under my tongue. I am left wondering, now: Does that mean anything? Should it?
5. “The Perils of Writing About Your Own Family: The Rumpus Interview with George Hodgman.” (Danielle Trussoni, The Rumpus, May 2015)
It’s one thing to cloak your familial angst in the guise of fiction or wait for your relatives to die in order to air your grievances. George Hodgman did neither. Instead, he wrote the New York Times bestselling memoir Bettyville. It’s about his decision to leave New York City and its freedoms for small-town Paris, Missouri, to care for his 90-year-old mother, Betty. Hodgman talks craft, secrecy, and identity in this hilarious and honest interview.
6. “The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life.” (Christopher Frizzelle, Literary Hub, May 2015)
I watched Sally Potter’s Orlando for the first time last week, so I’m giving myself over to the throes of a Virginia Woolf obsession. It’s a long time coming–I’m a queer former English Lit major, for God’s sake. Anyway, Christopher Frizzelle has written a delightful piece of literary criticism, delving into To The Lighthouse’s Big Reveal and the textual variations spearheaded by Woolf herself.
7. “The Unmothered.” (Ruth Margalit, The New Yorker, May 2014)
Mother’s Day after mother-loss:
It’s true that the pain wears off, slightly, around the edge, like a knife in need of whetting. But here’s what they’re missing: It gets harder to explain to myself why I haven’t seen her. A month can make sense. (I took a trip; she was busy with work.) Even six months is excusable. (I moved; she’s on sabbatical.) But how to make sense of more than three years worth of distance?
8. This Mother’s Day, Southerners on New Ground (S.O.N.G.) and other organizations are coordinating National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day.
It’s an initiative to free moms who can’t afford bail in time for this Mother’s Day:
The idea for Mama’s Bail Out Day is about “naming the massive impact cash bail is having on families and on black mamas,” says Mary Hooks, the Atlanta-based co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG). The idea came to her out of the haze of the election last November, she says, a way to enact “abolition in the now.”
It is also a campaign that’s deliberately expansive in its definition of motherhood, “queer and trans, old and young,” Hooks says, “all the many ways in which we are mothered, and have chosen family. We want to honor black mothers who have held us down in a myriad of ways, whether that’s SONG elders or the first lesbian you meet at the bar when you come out, who teach us things, mothered us along the way and helped raise us.”
You can read the rest of Melissa Gira Grant’s coverage of the Mama’s Bail Out at Pacific Standard. WUNC interviewed mother-daughter activists Courtney and Serena Sebring about their work with S.O.N.G. Dani McClain covered the Bail Out at The Nation.
Lit Hub has a compelling essay by The Last Illusion author Porochista Khakpour — an excerpt from Scratch: Writers, Money and the Art of Making a Living, an anthology edited by Manjula Martin — about her struggle to survive early in her career as a novelist. At one point in 2007, while on book tour, she finds her bank account is overdrawn and she barely has enough money to eat. (Full disclosure: I have an essay in the collection as well.)
I call people, but I don’t want to ask for help. I want them to think of it as a humorous anecdote but not that it’s real, that my life is that difficult. After all, certain friends who are not involved in publishing think I am rich and famous. Why burst that bubble?
In the end, I borrow money from a friend of my boyfriend and take that walk of shame to a yellow cab, when I know there are buses and shuttles and subways and all sorts of only semi-impossible ways to get back to Brooklyn.
Later, when my publicist finds out, she is shocked. Why didn’t you call us?!
I give her some gloss-over answer, but I want to say, I don’t know whom to call, when to call, why to call. I am learning everything over again. I have become what the publishing world and media suspect of a debut novelist—suddenly, I am new to the universe, not just to being a novelist. I suddenly don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
Weeks later, I discover during another bad moment—as the value of the dollar plummets and oil is sky-high—that gold is at its peak. I sell what is left of family heirlooms to an old Iranian man in the Diamond District, who listens to a fraction of my story, gives me a decent deal, and tells me, “My boy in medical university; my girl, married and with baby. Your fault for being a starver of an artist, daughter.”
Writing in LitHub, Alana Massey responds to Emily Gould’s essay on publishing’s “niceness” requirement for women to ask: what’s wrong with nice? Shouldn’t we ask men to be more nice, rather than giving women permission to be less so?
The idea that writers are good at writing and little else perpetuates a mythology that we are special creatures whose agility with language renders us more deeply attuned to the human condition than others and therefore exempt from doing the bare minimum: answering questions in full sentences at industry events and talking about our work when we are, indeed, at work. It is the decency of returned emails and speaking to your tablemates at a party thrown to honor you. Such decency is demanded in every other profession on Earth besides being a Real Housewife or playing in the NHL, and I don’t think that just because the men in our industry eschew this in favor of offensive levels of self-regard makes it courageous or authentic in women. This decency need not be the over-indulgence of cookies or new friendships on demand, but a manifestation of that thing we are allegedly so good at: seeing the human condition and responding to it with just enough tenderness to connect but not attach.
In 2016, I published my New Year’s resolutions on Longreads. As 2017 dawns, I thought I’d check in with my old self, dust off 2016’s goals and set some new intentions.
1. Alas, I never did make it to Iceland, but I did a lot of domestic travel in 2016. In Washington State, I touched the Pacific Ocean for the first time and slept on a sailboat. In Asheville, I got a new tattoo and swooned inside Firestorm Books & Cafe. I saw friends and family marry in Richmond and Chautauqua. I saw Deaf West perform Spring Awakening and the one-weekend revival of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in NYC. I even visited Foamhenge! (That’s me in the photo above.) I’m returning to Asheville in 2017; beyond that, I have no concrete travel plans. Feel free to sponsor me on a trip to the ends of the Earth and back! I’ll write about it! For now, I’m seeing the world via the following essays from 2016:
- “Here’s What It’s Like to Travel While Wearing a Hijab.” (Sarah Hagi, Fusion)
- “The Extreme Travelers Who Self-Exile in Siberia.” (Yann Laubscher & Albertine Bourget, Narratively)
- “What I Learned Tindering My Way Across Europe.” (Allison P. Davis, Travel & Leisure)
- “Meet a Man Who Took 14 Cross-Country Flights in 7 Days for the Miles.” (Ester Bloom, The Billfold)
- “Temples for the Literary Pilgrim.” (The New York Times)
I’ve found it hard to think of little else other than our country’s future, by which I mean the futures of my friends of color, my queer friends, my disabled friends—the list goes on. I am grateful for Twitter, where writers and activists I admire remind me that what is happening is not normal, that we must resist as long as it takes. There are stories here about the Native-led protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, folks standing up to Donald Trump and his white supremacist cronies, and prisoners striking against their miserable living conditions in a racist system. As journalist Masha Gessen writes, “The citizens have posted guard.”
1. “Why We Must Protest.” (Masha Gessen, LitHub, November 2016)
Masha Gessen is one of the writers I’m thankful for. Yesterday I read her essay in the New York Review of Books, “Trump: The Choice We Face.” Gessen writes about her great-grandfather, a member of a Nazi-appointed Jewish council in his home ghetto, relating his position to the complicity we Americans may come to understand sooner than we think. I cried as I read. The NYRB essay led me to the one I’ve highlighted here, where Gessen examines and defends protest for the sake of protest. Read more…
Autumn is my favorite time to walk around my city. The swirling skies, the cool weather, the breeze, the crunchy leaves—it’s dynamic, and, best of all, I don’t sweat as much.
In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes, “Walkers are ‘practitioners of the city,’ for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.”
I love this quote. Despite the fear I feel sometimes as a woman walking alone, walking places gives me a sense of control. I’m not at the mercy of someone else’s schedule. I can take a new, weird route or linger by the Canadian geese in a recently renovated lake. In the following essays, Antonia Malachik discusses the cultural implications of our aversion to walking; Garnette Cadogan relates how his walks are coded by his skin color, depending on where in the world he is; Adee Braun praises the New York eat-and-walk—and that’s not all. You can read these on the move. Just don’t trip, okay?
1. “The End of Walking.” (Antonia Malachik, Aeon, August 2015)
We’ve featured Antonia Malachik’s article on Longreads before, but it fits this week’s theme too perfectly to ignore:
“In many parts of the US, pedestrianism is seen as a dubiously counter-culture activity. Gated communities are only the most recent incarnation of the narrow-eyed suspicion with which we view unleashed strangers venturing outside on foot, much less anywhere near our homes. A friend of mine told me recently that a few years ago, when she lived in Mississippi, she was stopped by police constantly simply because she preferred to walk to work. Twice they insisted on driving her home, ‘so I could prove I wasn’t homeless or a prostitute. Because who else would be out walking?’”
2. “A Walking Tour of the Places Where I Hit Rock Bottom.” (Michelle Tea, BuzzFeed News Reader, October 2016)
Author and activist Michelle Tea takes us to four of her old haunts: a clown-themed strip club, a bar, her old apartment, and an on-ramp.
3. “Walking While Black.” (Garnette Cadogan, LitHub, July 2016)
In an essay that remains sadly, horrifically relevant, Garnette Cadogan describes his risk-tainted wanders through Kingston, Jamaica; New York City; and New Orleans:
“Walking while black restricts the experience of walking, renders inaccessible the classic Romantic experience of walking alone. It forces me to be in constant relationship with others, unable to join the New York flaneurs I had read about and hoped to join…Walking as a black man has made me feel simultaneously more removed from the city, in my awareness that I am perceived as suspect, and more closely connected to it, in the full attentiveness demanded by my vigilance.”
4. “Mastering the Art of the New York Eat-and-Walk.” (Adee Braun, Narratively, September 2014)
My friends and I paused on a classic Manhattan street corner so we could purchase hot dogs on our ill-fated attempt to catch our bus back to Maryland. Certain denizens of the Mid-Atlantic are familiar with the Day Trip to New York City: You wake up earlier than is reasonable in order to board a stale, at-capacity charter bus full of crabby Marylanders (or wherever), and a few restless hours later, you’re deposited somewhere outside Times Square or Chinatown or the Javits Center. Then, you see a show (anecdotally, the most common reason for these jaunts), or go to the Strand bookstore (guilty), or something else. After we saw our show of choice (cliche, I know, but it was a one-weekend remount), we partook in that hallowed New York tradition: the eat-and-walk.
At Narratively, Adee Braun has written a love letter to the eat-and-walk, a lesser-known American export and beloved regional pastime.
5. “Ghosts and Empties.” (Lauren Groff, The New Yorker, July 2015)
Lauren Groff’s command of language will entrance you in this short story about an on-edge mom who takes evening walks in her North Florida neighborhood.
Confession: I have never read Proust. Not one word, let alone the 4,300 pages of them in the English translation of his seven-volume masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past).
On the occasion of the French author’s 145th birthday, LitHub invited six authors to sing his praises, and explain why his work remains essential reading. Siri Hustvedt, Edmund White, André Aciman, Francine Prose, Aleksandar Hemon, and Daniel Mendelsohn all weighed in. Mendelsohn had a particularly modern take on the value of reading Proust’s densely written, heavily detailed, slowly unfolding opus:
Recently I was traveling on a train next to a young man—a recent college graduate, I guessed—who was reading a hugely fat Victorian novel. Since I teach literature, this made me happy. But as I watched him I noticed that roughly every 90 seconds he’d fish out his iPhone to check his text messages. After a while this reflexive tic made me so nervous that I moved to another seat. As a writer as well as a teacher, I found it nerve-wracking to think that this is how some people are reading novels these days—which is to say, not really reading them, because you can’t read anything serious in two-minute spurts, or with your mind half on something else, like the messages you may be getting. Multitasking is the great myth of the present era: you cannot, in fact, do two things at the same time.
Especially if one of them requires considerable resources of attentiveness and intellectual commitment. To my mind, a very important reason to have a go at Proust right now—which is to say, to read him with a mind as receptive as his was large—is to exercise one’s powers of commitment.