Exterior details lend themselves to the interior landscape of a character or narrator. What one chooses to notice, how one describes an object, says more about the speaker than it does about that thing. A character who spends a whole paragraph noticing someone’s unwashed, unkempt hair tells the reader that hygiene is an obsession. The distant relative who’s quick to point out the stain on a shirt might be hasty to reveal the flaws of others. Daily Details Made Monumental, on the Ploughshares blog, discusses how Joan Didion utilizes detail in her nonfiction.
I nearly closed the issue when I read the first line of the editor’s letter: “One morning Gore Vidal and I drank scotch in his bedroom in the Hollywood Hills.” That’s the type of name-dropping, scotch-drinking, rock-and-roll male bravado from which I shy away, and yet I kept reading. That’s the thing with name dropping: it’s repulsive yet enticing; it tells me this person knows people worth knowing, and I read on to find out how they know the knowing knowers. Editor Dan Stone then extols musician Aimee Mann’s reading habits, specifically how she lets “sound and sense wash over her, rather than engaging with a text from the critical and intellectual distance that directs the reading experience of so many ‘literary’ people.”
Literary in quotation marks? What kind of a lit mag is this? Head over to the Review Review to find out.
I’m honored to be contributing to the Ploughshares blog each month. Check out my first post here.
Emotions, feelings, desires—whatever you choose to call them—are central to writing. e.e. cummings wrote “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” But how do we pay attention to syntax while retaining feeling? Read more at blog.pshares.org.
I mark a flurry of years in holidays. Last year, I was in Maryland with my father’s family, on the outside of a motley crew of friends and neighbors that gather there every year to reconnect. The year before must have been New Hampshire, with my mother’s new companion, or my father’s house in the woods. Year before that, I don’t recall. Wait. I recall. How convenient of me to forget that three years ago I flew to Edinburgh to see a man I liked and soon after left. Four years ago I sat at a long table in Tibet, with four more Americans and fifteen others from a buffet of nations; we each brought a dish to share, dropped sentences of gratitude into a hat, mixed them up, and plucked them out; one by one we vocalized our thanks through other people. Five years ago I waited tables at an Inn in Maine with the promise of time and a half, a promise that was renounced that morning before opening; that night the servers got high and I baked a sweet potato pie with the only measuring cup available, one-third, guesstimating the ingredients, and swearing it was the best dish on earth. Six years ago I ate at an Irish-American pub in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a full plate of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and a side of apple pie, dishes I didn’t know I’d craved for two months. Seven years ago I was in Maryland, my hair cropped close to my head, having shaved it on my way to India three months prior; I hadn’t seen my family since my hair was down past my chest. Eight years ago I flew from my college in California to the place I still considered home, New Hampshire. Nine years ago I was a senior in high school, discovering The Rule of the Bone, The Catcher in the Rye, and Everything is Illuminated; novels that made one feel less alone.
Holidays are momentous because we render them so; the intention is there to turn an ordinary date into something to remember. This is why they become easy for me to mark: one year here another there, places–states and nations–acting like place settings in the dining room. Though I am not very enthusiastic about holidays, disgusted by the excess consumption and the history of colonization, my heart melts faster than vanilla ice cream on hot apple pie each Thanksgiving.
The Macy’s parade, an ostentatious procession, makes me teary-eyed; I remember my elbows bristled by the carpet of my grandmother’s house, where I sat glued to the television, relishing the bulbous floats, basking in the simplicity of life, too young to cook or clean. We awoke early and drove two hours south to Massachusetts, just so we could watch the parade, just so we could see Santa’s first appearance. At least, that’s how it seemed to me, though I’m sure there were more nuanced and practical reasons why my family orchestrated the beginnings of the day before dawn: turkeys to roast, pies to bake, potatoes to mash.
This is the first year I’ll spend Thanksgiving with my husband, in Oregon, a place far-removed from our own families, a place that suits us well for now. Snow fell on our hometown and the power went out, so our parents make do with wood stoves, generators, and barbecues, telling us all about it by phone. Oregon is rainy, fifty degrees, and I can’t complain. There is a roast in the oven, a pumpkin pie cooling by the kitchen window, and a pan of seasoned vegetables awaiting their turn on the stove; none of which I can take even a shred of credit for preparing.
There is much for which to be thankful.
Nowhere is now in its fifth year as an online “journal of literary travel writing,” a genre defined by the magazine as “narrative with a strong sense of place, character or time.” Porter Fox, himself a travel journalist for two decades, is the founder and editor, and created the magazine because he wanted something “more engaging, authentic, and diverse.” The website is specific about not publishing “reviews of spas or shopping centers” (yet conveniently never mentions the advertisements). You won’t find the ten best bars in Cabo here, but you will find travel writing that takes you places—or rather, contemplates place.
Read more on The Review Review, an all-around awesome website:
Recently, the New York Times ran an article about the rise in popularity of books penned by African authors: “New Wave of African Writers With an Internationalist Bent.” I was not surprised, given that I’ve been absorbing the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among others, for the past few months. Now, whenever I pop into my neighborhood Powell’s Books, I find more and more books written about Africa by more and more contemporary African writers. Where ever to begin? You can’t judge these books by their covers, because as one reader points out, the covers look remarkably similar. If you’re looking to take the plunge into Africa’s contemporary fiction (and I highly suggest you do), here are a selection of my current favorites:
From her first novel to her most recent, language has played a crucial role, but nowhere is it more decisive than in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Written with the backdrop of a newly independent 1960s Nigeria, the Biafran War is seen through the eyes of Olanna, a Nigerian woman; Ugwu, a houseboy; and Richard, an Englishman. Two wealthy sisters, who had the privilege of an education in England, return to a nation on the cusp of revolution and choose two different paths. Kainene moves to Port Harcourt to take over their father’s business, while Olanna moves to Nsukku, a university town, to teach and live with her “revolutionary lover,” Odenigbo. Southeastern Nigeria secedes in 1967, a response to ethnic, cultural, economic and religious tensions. A largely Igbo nationality forms the new nation of Biafra, officially the Republic of Biafra. Ugwu, Kainene, Richard, Olanna and Odenigbo are thrown into the crossfire of war, where speaking the wrong language—in this case, Igbo—can get you killed.
A riveting novel that should be at the top of everyone’s “to read” list.
The Thing Around Your Neck is the perfect precursor to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most recent novel, Americanah. While the novel approaches issues of identity, immigration, and relationships through the eyes of one female protagonist, The Thing Around Your Neck is a collection of short stories attacking similar issues with varying narrators and perspectives. It’s as though The Thing Around Your Neck, a dozen stories originally published in a dozen different magazines and journals, was the litmus test for Americanah. Each story is charged, electric. Adichie’s talent for prose is evident in the first line of each piece; take, for instance, the first line of “Imitation”: “Nkem is staring at the bulging, slanted eyes of the Benin mask on the living room mantel as she learns about her husband’s girlfriend.”
Just like that, when your eyes are following the main character’s, taking in the mask on the mantel, Adichie offers a swift punch to the stomach with “her husband’s girlfriend.” This is one of a handful of stories mentioning the phenomenon of husbands taking girlfriends—apparently common in Nigeria, and societally acceptable. Not one to take societal norms or constructs at face value, as evident throughout her four works of fiction (and her newly released e-book We Should All Be Feminists), Adichie attacks this issue of marital infidelity from two sides—that of the wife or girlfriend. In “Imitation,” it’s the perspective of the Nigerian housewife living in the United States while her husband resides in Lagos. The female protagonist in “Jumping Monkey Hill” reflects on her father’s former girlfriend, “Yellow Woman,” and what she herself should do when propositioned to be the girlfriend of a “Big Man;” grappling with all this whilst attending a writing workshop led by a lecherous old man. In both Americanah and The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie’s female characters are encouraged by female friends to take up with a “Big Man,” to ignore the sexual attacks from relatives and friends, to beg their cheating husbands to take them back, to try harder to keep their marriage intact. However, those scenarios never end neatly. Adichie’s feminist agenda is shrouded in intense, heartbreaking stories.
Adichie’s characters search the complexities of relationships and question their context in society, while grappling with identity as they move or transition from one society and culture to the next. These are huge issues, which Adichie conveys in deep, reflective prose, partnered with intriguing plots. The Thing Around Your Neck is a thing of beauty, evidence of an incredibly talented writer.
NoViolet Bulawayo is the latest in a string of contemporary African authors to be published on American shores, and it is hard not to compare her to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (whose four works of fiction straddle two continents, containing narrators navigating new countries and shifting societies). Like Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, Bulawayo’s narrator in We Need New Names takes readers from a childhood in Africa to adolescence and adulthood in the United States. But I would be remiss to lump the two works and authors together so easily, given that Bulawayo’s native Zimbabwe is four thousand miles from Adichie’s home country of Nigeria. Africa is not a country, and the experiences of all African nations are not one in the same. With this in mind, the similarities between We Need New Names and Americanah end with the aforementioned resemblance in plot.
If anything, NoViolet Bulawayo’s fiction debut is actually more similar—in terms of language—to Arundhati Roy’s fiction debut, The God of Small Things, published in 1997. Bulawayo plays with language to a lesser degree than Roy, but the childlike playfulness of Bulawayo’s narrator, Darling, comes through in the author’s prose. Most remarkable is the tightly controlled present-tense voice, starting out as a young, naïve girl’s perspective, and morphing into a young woman, removed from her family and friends in a foreign land. It’s difficult to convey change in consciousness and maturity that comes with age—let alone maintaining present tense throughout—but Bulawayo nails it. We Need New Names secures her a place among the likes of Adichie, Roy, and Lahiri, whilst setting herself thousands of miles apart.
“…a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake.” The New Yorker
That blurb on the inside of Open City summed up the book for me. As I read Teju Cole’s novel I felt like I were following a thread, which, once pulled, shifted the fabric and continued to run throughout the textile until it arrived at another thread and followed that. This is no small feat. The New Yorker is right that it takes a sure hand to ensure this close first-person narrative feels deliberate, rather than flighty or unfocused. Cole’s novel feels so close, so intimate, that it reads like a diary–but one that is much more fully-formed in its ideas. A lesser writer would be a bore to read, but Cole’s seemingly tangential prose is a joy. I found myself flying through the pages, pulled along through the main character’s thoughts as though they were my own.
(If you’ve already devoured Open City, try reading Cole’s most recent publication, Every Day is for the Thief.)
Okey Ndibe joins the ranks of fellow contemporary Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a novel that chronicles the hardship of moving to America, where expectations of newfound social and economic opportunities are dashed. While Adichie’s Americanah follows the arc of her character’s life, ending with a triumphant return to Nigeria, Ndibe’s novel portrays Ike in financial ruin that pushes him to drastic, illegal measures he hopes will result in economic success. Ndibe’s portrayal of Ike’s life is gritty and realistic, even though the plot is far-fetched. Foreign Gods Inc. takes a long look at the status of American society through the eyes of an outsider, desperate to be on the in, and the sacrifices he’ll make to get there.
Chimananda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel is refreshingly complex, chronicling the lives of Kambili and Jaja, sister and brother in Nigeria who grow up with an air of privilege. Their father is a wealthy and respected businessman who donates to churches, and schools, while providing his children with a life of luxury. Kambili and Jaja attend the best schools, adhere to rigorous schedules, and focus wholly on their studies, with no time for chores like cooking or cleaning. They are, by all accounts, sheltered. Through Kambili’s arrestingly aware account of the world around her and those that inhabit it, we see how others view her (shyness mistaken for snobbery), her father (as a gracious, deeply religious man), and their life (endless access to soft drinks–a luxury to most–and things like televisions and stereos that lie unused in their sprawling, gated house). Adichie relies on the first-person accounts of Kambili to portray both the political and domestic situations in Nigeria–how government crackdowns on dissidents affect the community, how a deeply religious man seen by others as generous justifies brutally beating his family. Even through the perspective of a fifteen year-old girl, who some might see as simplistic or immature, Adichie conveys deeply complex issues of family, politics, wealth and privilege. A riveting, heartbreaking book about love, family, and religion.
TRIGGER WARNING: This article and pages it links to contains information about sexual assault and violence which may be triggering to survivors.
This afternoon, I got lost in an internet rabbit hole. Someone “followed” me on WordPress, so I clicked on their name to see what they wrote. I was horrified to read the “About” section of John Castle’s blog, eroticdysfunction.com. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: what did I expect with a name like that? The tricky thing about WordPress is that it tells you who follows you, but not the name of their blog. My horror was increased tenfold when I realized the “About” section was adapted from the “Foreward” of John Castle’s book, Erotic Dysfunction: People’s Most Embarrassing and Absurd Sex Confessions. And I just about threw my laptop out the window when I read Castle’s review of Diary by Chuck Palahniuk, which opens with hate speech pretending not to be hate speech.
I waffle between ignoring people whose viewpoints promote misogyny and hate, and confronting oppression. Half of me hears my mother’s voice saying, “don’t give them the attention, they don’t deserve it.” The other half thinks he deserves a scathing critique—from both a feminist and a writer’s viewpoint—and he deserves to be called out as a misogynist. Continue reading
This is part of a series of Instagram essays, or instaessays; writing exercises where the images are informed or subverted by accompanying long-form captions. Follow me to see more @decleyreandco
I could see him from my desk in the corner, small fingers and a nose pressed against the glass, searching for signs of life. The boy from the apartment beside ours had recently taken a liking to creeping in the porch doorway we left ajar, for fresh air. Each time he did it, he became more adventurous, until his head was in the apartment. I threw a pen at the door, it thwacked the glass, and he jumped. Moments later, I caught his shaggy blonde hair bobbing in the doorway yet again.
I invited him in. He sat on the settee that’s too small for us; it engulfed him. I asked if he wanted water, and he nodded. I asked if he wanted to read. He looked at the sandy carpet and said, “I don’t read very well.” “Here,” I handed him an issue of AFAR, “this is a travel magazine with nice pictures.”
I went back to work. “You sit on a bouncy ball at your desk?” He asked. “It’s more fun,” I said. “You don’t work?” “I’m working now. I work from home.” “My dad rides his bike to work.” “Is he there now?” The kid nodded. I let him play with the other exercise ball, but I drew the line at standing on the bed.
“You have paintbrushes,” he said. “Do you like to paint?” I asked. He nodded. “Do you have any paints?” “Yeah, but at my other house. I have two houses.” “That’s what I had when I wad a kid. Two houses. Mom’s house and Dad’s house.” “Really?” “Yes.” We looked at each other. “Does your Mom live far?” “She lives near my cousins, and my Dad lives next door to you.”
I set him up on the porch with the pocket-sized box of watercolors, despite his protesting that he preferred to paint inside, using the settee as his easel. He picked out a thick round brush, dipped it in the glass of drinking water I had given him.
He said he liked water and tea. “Me too. What kind of tea?” He shrugged. “Black tea?” “I don’t know.” And after a few moments, “can I try some tea?” And, “is it a black color when you drink it?”
I returned with a small clear mug so he could see the tea steeping, turning the hot water sepia and then brown. “Do you ever mix the colors?” He asked. He’d pushed the brush indiscriminately into each neatly arranged cube of color, a habit I can’t stand. The yellows now held a film of green. I showed him how to mix them in the tiny palette lid, and went back inside to work.
“I don’t like the tea. Can I please have milk and sugar?” Before I could oblige, his brother came out to say “we’re going to Lovejoy.” He said it half a dozen times, but the kid kept painting.
When they finally left, I scraped the top layer of mismatched colors from the paint cubes, changed the water, and arranged it beside the porch door, as if he’d never left.
I read a lot—because I enjoy it, because I’m a writer, because I can. I’m the type of person who has to buy books, because I mark them up with pens and pencils and dog-ear the pages. Books, in my opinion, are sexy. I’m humbled by the amount of time, attention and care that went into writing and creating a book, which then rests solely in my hands; a product of one individual’s mind manifested in physical form, relying on my reading it for its very existence. Books can change you. Books are intimate experiences. (And no, I’m not talking about Fifty Shades of Grey.)
Apparently, book lovers are the best people to fall in love with. Well, depending on who you ask. I don’t feel the need to expound on the links below (listed by date), but simply share the most salacious snippets. Does reading make us smarter, nicer, or lovelier? Maybe. Maybe not.
We praise literature in self-evident terms: it is better to read than not to read, for reading civilizes us, makes us less cruel, and brings the imaginations of others into ours and vice versa. We persist in this belief regardless of what we know to the contrary: that the Nazis’ affection for high culture did not prevent their crimes.
“A Reader’s War” by Teju Cole
New Yorker, February 11, 2013
Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence: we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being. That will take a lot of careful and insightful psychological research (try designing an experiment to test the effects of reading “War and Peace,” for example). Meanwhile, most of us will probably soldier on with a positive view of the improving effects of literature, supported by nothing more than an airy bed of sentiment.
“Does Great Literature Make Us Better?” by Gregory Currie
New York Times Opinionator Blog & The Stone, June 1, 2013
The deep reader, protected from distractions and attuned to the nuances of language, enters a state that psychologist Victor Nell, in a study of the psychology of pleasure reading, likens to a hypnotic trance. Nell found that when readers are enjoying the experience the most, the pace of their reading actually slows. The combination of fast, fluent decoding of words and slow, unhurried progress on the page gives deep readers time to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions. It gives them time to establish an intimate relationship with the author, the two of them engaged in an extended and ardent conversation like people falling in love.
“Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer” by Annie Murphy Paul
TIME, June 3, 2013
Readers, like voicemail leavers and card writers, are now a dying breed, their numbers decreasing with every GIF list and online tabloid.
The worst part about this looming extinction is that readers are proven to be nicer and smarter than the average human, and maybe the only people worth falling in love with on this shallow hell on earth.
“Why Readers, Scientifically, Are The Best People To Fall In Love With” by Lauren Martin
Elite Daily, July 9, 2014