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The author of the new collection ‘Awayland’ discusses how she explores feelings as formPhoto by Ramy Kabalan on Unsplash
Stop. Think. There must be a harder way.” So reads a letterpress sign that hangs in the kitchen of Ramona Ausubel’s mother, which the author recalled at the launch evening for her previous book, The Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty. The message resonates with much of Ausubel’s writing: it’s funny, but it captures something absolutely true about how most of us navigate life—specifically, about the ways women reckon with being lovers, mothers, and artists.
Such reckonings have proven to be Ausubel’s fiction sweet spot. Her 2013 story collection A Guide to Being Born (featuring the story “Tributaries” published in Recommended Reading), is organized by the stages of life but in reverse—in the end, the reader arrives at birth. And now, partnership and memory, pregnancy and motherhood drive the stories in Ausubel’s tapestried new collection, Awayland.
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The author’s fascination with motherhood and all its phases and emotions could be understood as part of a larger exploration: to understand feelings by transforming them into things physical and bodily. The emotion that lends itself best to such transformation is the one with the most complexities: Love.
In Awayland, the 11 stories are grouped into four sections that cover several territories of love and anguish: yearning for a partner, perhaps for a child; allowing for distance in the pursuit of intimacy; waiting as an inevitable phase in every kind of relationship; and lastly, the dream of something that lasts forever. It takes a powerful imagination to realize these sensations as physicalities, but that is something Ausubel has in abundance. Loneliness is cast into a Cyclops creating a dating profile in “You Can Find Love Now”; separation is death at an all-inclusive resort in “Club Zeus,” or the lovers trading hands in “Remedy”; and in the penultimate story, mummified animals in an Egyptian museum manifest Till Death Do Us Part.
Awayland is a collection of many voyages and many lives. The stories take us around the world, and to whatever is beyond. Only a woman endlessly compassionate and curious could produce such fiction. That was exactly who I met when I talked to Ramona Ausubel. Somebody who took her feelings, and stopped, thought, and followed them a different way.
Lucie Shelly: A lot of your writing explores motherhood, but this collection has a particular focus on the precipice: pregnancy. To me, there’s a connection to be drawn between the gestation of a baby and the gestation of a story; I think it suggests something special about the woman as artist, she is a creator in both senses. Can you talk a little about your work’s focus on motherhood and pregnancy?
Ramona Ausubel: My writing does often come back to pregnancy, and I always think to myself, am I done with this topic? It is this fantastical thing that our bodies know how to do. I have two kids and I do not know how to grow a child. It’s not something that I understand, and yet my body knows this thing and can do it. Similarly, being a woman in the world, we’re asked to keep a lot of our lives under the surface. You have to be nice, you have to take care of everybody and do all this surface work, and everything else happens in the dark corners. With many of these stories, I was thinking about the way that art grows out of those dark corners. I have to write about that, I have to sink a bucket down into that dark well and figure out what’s been happening below the surface. There’s so much concealed and tangled and complicated. It’s just not what the world, in my everyday life, wants to hear from me. To me, art is the way that stuff can come up.
LS: Your first collection considers motherhood, too, but I believe you’d written it before your son was born. Writing this collection, having gone through two births and being a mother of two, did that change how you wrote about the experiences of being pregnant, raising a child?
RA: I feel like because I’m looking from the other side, I have a lot more information. These stories cast out beyond the surprise of “What?! You can grow a thing inside you?” With these stories, I knew what it was to then care for that creature, do all of the work to make that human survive and hopefully live happily. They also consider the many transformations that a woman will make in relation to her child, because the child will change, and she is required to change with it. It’s this tumbling wheel of constant change, and deformation and formation again.
LS: To me, there are cycles of deformation for both women and men, in bodies and character, in this collection. There’s a line in “Do Not Save the Ferocious, Save the Tender” that describes, “A body severed from itself.” We see bodies pulled into pieces in several stories, we’ve got the hands removed from the couple in “Remedy,” the fallen uterus of the aging woman in “High Desert,” ankles pop up throughout. I’m wondering what you were trying to explore by looking at the body in pieces rather than an inevitable whole.
RA: I’m fascinated by bodies and what we ask them to do, particularly what we ask them to do in secret — it goes back to that question of what we aren’t saying out loud and what we aren’t able to talk about. Those unsaid experiences, that all wind up in our bodies somewhere. So in my work, I try to turn the volume up on that a little so we can hear it more clearly.
With the couple in that story “Remedy,” the woman thinks she’s dying and it’s just not okay with her that she’s going to leave her beloved. It’s the beginning of their relationship and she knows they’re meant to be together, so she decides that she wants to try, surgically, switching hands so that they can be together forever. I didn’t intend it, but that story is the most autobiographical story in this collection. I remember so clearly when I was first with my husband and feeling that one lifetime was not enough. It was really upsetting to know we had this limited amount of time and one of us was going to die first. As a solution, I was thinking we’ll inhabit each other’s ghosts and that’s how we’ll handle that problem! The point is, that idea of limited time felt absolutely unacceptable to me, so I tried thinking through it in a bigger way: what if I took that real feeling and brought it to its maximum size — how could it physically express itself? And that’s always something that I’m coming back to. What happens if we put this feeling in the body and allow it to be as big physically as it is as a feeling?
It goes back to that question of what we aren’t saying out loud and what we aren’t able to talk about. Those unsaid experiences all wind up in our bodies somewhere.
LS: The couple in “Remedy” also seem totally happy in their own world, and I felt a lot of the couples in this collection exist in a separate realm or a liminal space. In “Mother Land,” the couple leaves California for the man’s far-flung family home in Africa; in “Heaven” we have a man and a spectral woman in some magical or spiritual place. When you write through and explore relationships, do you consider them as bubbles, at a remove from the world, or experiences that bring people closer to humanity?
RA: Totally both. We all have some kinds of relationships, whether that’s family or friendships or romantic relationships. We have these things that are one way on the surface, and a different way in private. There’s the official story, you chat to someone at a cocktail party and say, “Here’s who I’m married to and this is what he does.” But you never talk about the full strata going down the canyon wall of that relationship, and all of the things that relationship is about, has ever been about, and all of the things you hope or worry it will become about. It’s my instinct to move these couples around through space and time and say, “What does it feel like to be very, very far away and with only each other?” It’s another feeling that exists on the inside that I want to try and translate into some kind of physical realm.
LS: Writers often talk about the limitations of language and words. I hear this nugget people drag out, that the Eskimo language has 32 words for love and English only has one. And that is an interesting difference, but I don’t think that if we had more words for love, and even if we didn’t use modifiers like “a mother’s love,” I don’t think we’d stop writing stories to expand that word and explore the feeling. Your interest in realizing feelings as physical experiences, for instance, is a very different method of understanding. But do you feel confined by language, or do you feel freed by it?
RA: I feel much more freed by it. I am a fiction writer, so I get as much invention as I want. And because my work has a lot of weirdness in it, I’ve created a pretty big territory for myself. That means I don’t require language only. I get to use language, but language is also the vehicle that enables a kind of magic trick: to take a small thing and make it big and see what it looks like. The language is my favorite part, it’s the most satisfying thing, and getting a precise image is the most gratifying part of the work. But language is also the outlet into a lot of other tools that I get to use. For the same reason, I don’t write nonfiction, though I’ve tried. There are some short essays that I enjoyed writing. But for me, writing longform nonfiction, language would not feel like enough; I wouldn’t be able to say, “We’re gonna cut our hands off and trade them,” because that’s not something you would do in nonfiction. So I see how language might not be quite enough, but for me it’s the clay that makes everything possible.
LS: I would say one of those other tools you use so well is humor. “Club Zeus” is a funny and poignant story about death, and the mother in it is comical but she’s key to the sense of loss. After sending her son to Turkey for the summer, the son tells us, “What she means is that I am on my own. What she means is that tragedy is also currency. That enlightenment depends on grief. That love grows in soil that has been tilled.” “Template” is also a comical story, but could be read as dark, maybe dystopian, with the idea of baby-making becoming a government directive. I’ve heard you say before that you don’t necessarily try to write funny, but it’s something that comes forth. Can you talk about using humor to access the layers of emotions and relationships?
RA: I love using humor when it’s right. It’s like adding salt to a food, it makes everything else that’s there feel stronger — especially something that’s in opposition to humor, so the darkness and the sadness. If you have something funny, it breaks a reader open and makes all of the sadness and darkness sort of flood into that space. You can get those moments of opening in different ways, but humor is one of them.
The tension between sadness and humor is really beautiful to me. “Template” started because I read an article about a real situation in which a mayor of a small town in Russia created a day off for couples to have sex. That really did happen, but I couldn’t find much follow up about it, so I had to imagine. At first I started writing it set in Russia, but I was like, I don’t know enough about Russia. So the question was, is there a place that’s so bleak that no one is even bothering to have children anymore? That people are really afraid to? So much that a mayor might decide, we’ve got to give them some kind of incentive — and that incentive might be giving them a day off to have sex. That felt like it could happen in any country.
The funny part to me was thinking, what if this mayor was a copycat mayor — taking another mayor’s idea from another bleak place. But it had to be real. It had to be about actual hopelessness and the true feeling that people might have that they’re not sure there’s enough to sustain another life in this place. In the writing of it, the pleasure was in going back and forth between the funniness of the situation and the real hurt underneath, the real fear.
If you have something funny, it breaks a reader open and makes all of the sadness and darkness sort of flood into that space.
LS: From bleak towns to Turkey to Africa, the stories move around a lot, to places real and imagined. I felt, particularly for the real places, that the collection was Eastward facing. Beirut comes up several times — two mothers, in “Freshwater” and in “Mother Land” go to Beirut to die, essentially. What’s the background on your interest in the East?
RA: Well, I started the story, “Club Zeus,” after I got married and we went to Turkey and Greece on our honeymoon. We had a day at this all-inclusive resort and I was like “What?! This is a real place? This is not something from a George Saunders story?” I knew that I wanted to set something there but it took me a long time how to figure out how to make this story something more than just like, “This is weird place.” So, that was the first story that was sort of cast out into the world.
A few years later, my husband and I took a trip that lasted almost a year and a lot of the places we went are in the book. When we were travelling, I thought I was writing a book of nonfiction, I thought that it was a book about the idea of starting a family at this moment on the planet what with all of the terrible things that are happening. And I was thinking about that for myself — is having children even a good idea, is that okay to do? I did a lot of interviews with people all over the world, but about halfway through I realized that I didn’t want to write a nonfiction book. That it wasn’t my book to write at all. If somebody else wrote it, I would absolutely read it but it just didn’t feel like my work to do. Writing a book is such an investment, you have to be willing to hold it in your heart for years and years. I realized I was not willing to do that with that book.
At first I was very despairing and I thought that I’d squandered this opportunity and the little fellowship I’d gotten, that it was all a waste. But when we came home, I started playing around with some stories, and the first one that I wrote after that was “The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following.” And I really liked those animals. I thought, these guys are going to hang out with me and they are going to be pals and they are going to help the next thing happen. Slowly the stories started to emerge, and I realized they were set in all these different places and in fact all of that work I had done, the interviews, were part of a book. It was just a very different book than the one I imagined — instead of thinking about it from the outside as something I thought the world might want, it came from very much inside. I needed to write for my own reasons, and that’s exactly why it’s such a weird collection.
We were only in Beirut for a few days, but there’s just a quality to the city. Buildings are basically bombed out but it’s right on the ocean and everyone’s hanging out, jumping into the water. It felt like there was a very strong feeling of love for the place, and an ever-present fear of what has happened and what could happen. As a total outsider, I imagined loving somewhere like that, how that might be such a strong magnet in a person’s life.
LS: Were many of the destinations seaside countries? I ask because water features really prominently in this collection, and in a way that’s specific to women. A number of women emerge from the sea, and are drawn to the sea. Do you feel very drawn to the ocean, to water? Or do you think there’s a special connection between women and the sea?
RA: I do feel very drawn. Partly because I grew up in the desert. I lived the first half of my life in New Mexico and the second half, up until last year, in California, so all of a sudden, the sea was part of my existence. It’s just so, so vast, such a huge presence and so unknown to us; beautiful but dangerous. We’ve explored something like 10 percent of the world’s oceans, and we really don’t know a lot about what’s down there, which feels like a beguiling mystery but also like a threat. If there’s a storm or if you go out beyond where you are safe, you will be subsumed and completely disappear. I’m interested in what happens in this realm that exists on the edges of our world, and all of the things alive down there.
I needed to write for my own reasons, and that’s exactly why it’s such a weird collection.
LS: There was a real sense in the last section of this book that the stories took place in a realm or a bardo of some sort, or maybe purgatory. Can you tell me the decision to end the collection in a place that is the least defined, in a way?
RA: I played around with the arrangement a lot. I wanted it to be in some recognizable places, like the first story, “You Can Find Love Now,” is about a cyclops but he is very much in Washington State. The funniness of the piece is that he’s this strange otherworldly creature who’s supposed to be in Greece, but he isn’t, here he is in Washington. I wanted it to start with sort of the weirdness, but the rootedness at the same time, and then come back around to these places, to leave this earth, basically.
The last story, “Do Not Save the Ferocious,” sort of takes place in the North Sea and is maybe somewhere in Scandinavia a long time ago, but it isn’t at all defined. It feels like it could be any time and it maybe could be a place on this planet at all after all. The characters have, in their minds, certainly left the planet. It’s clear that they have made some kind of departure, and I wanted to make that story about departure. I also wanted it to be about the way our imaginations and the places we live in in our minds are separate from the world. Our feet are on the ground, but we’re also existing in other places, and maybe some of those places are real, but some are imaginings that don’t exist. There’s another world happening at the same time the regular world is happening. I wanted to go take us all the way outside.
A broad range of perspectives on the drama of becoming an adultArt by Jillian Tamaki from “Skim”
Everyone has a coming-of-age story. We have all been on the cusp of adulthood struggling to find our identity, balancing the societal pressure to conform and fit in with the mainstream with the innate desire to rebel and stand out. Yet the publishing world tends to collapse these multifarious, complex transformations into the same cookie-cutter narratives, leaving out a whole lot of variations on what it means to become an adult.
One place where diverse coming-of-age stories are thriving, though, is graphic novels. (Although we didn’t find any by black authors—so there’s a hole in the market!) These visually beautiful tomes also offer a richer view of life in adolescence. From an Iranian girl rebelling against the oppression of post-revolution Iran to a “tomboy” refusing to conform to gender norms, these 14 graphic bildungsromans blend gorgeous artwork with the written word to create a diverse multiplicity of narratives telling of the confusion, joy, and hardship of growing up.
Bashi left war-torn Iran 2004 for a safe haven in Switzerland, but adapting to a new life in Zurich comes with challenges. She struggles to find a good job, to learn German and English and to make friends. Unable to engage in “real life” in her “new society”, she feels “like a useless asshole.” Her ennui materializes in the form of a 6-year-old girl in her kitchen, her younger self. She is haunted by various incarnations of her past—the teenage political rebel who rants about class oppression, the religious young wife in an abusive marriage, the defeated, grief-stricken mother, the hopeful migrant, and more — who disapprove of her current lifestyle. Her arguments with her adversarial past selves reveals painful episodes from her past, explains the choices that lead to her present, and shows Bashi’s gradual transformation into the person she is in the present day. Bashi’s thought-provoking graphic memoir criticizes not only the abuses and oppressive aftermath of the Revolution, but also denounces the West’s claim to moral superiority, highlighting the racial prejudices and rampant consumerism of the West.
Bruce Bechdel is a third-generation funeral home director and a high school English teacher. He spends his time feverishly restoring the family’s Victorian home and engaging in covert affairs with his male students and the family babysitter. Oh, did I forget to mention he’s also a closeted gay man? Alison craves the affection of her emotionally withholding father who pours all his love into their mausoleum of a home. As Alison comes of age and embraces her sexuality, she struggles to come out as a lesbian as tragedy in the family strikes. Fun Home is a heartbreakingly funny and honest graphic memoir of a daughter longing for closure and piecing together memories of her father through the lens of their shared, but unexpressed homosexuality.
Priyanka “Pri” Das harbors many questions: Why did her mother move to America? Why has she has vowed never to return to India? Where is her father? Why won’t her mother speak of him? Pri’s mother refuses to answer, telling her: “That subject is permanently closed.” Soon, Pri finds a silk shawl hidden in a forgotten suitcase. When wrapped around her shoulders, the pashima transports her from the black-and-white tones of her mundane California life to the India of her dreams, bursting with a kaleidoscope of color. But Pri knows this romanticized India is not real. She journeys to her ancestral homeland to uncover the hidden truths of her past with a little help from Shakti, the Divine Mother Goddess. Pooja Makhijani interviewed the author for Electric Literature about “magical realism, South Asian families, and how Pashmina came to be”.
Divided into two parts, Persepolis recounts the story Satrapi’s childhood in Tehran at the dawn of the Islamic Revolution and her coming of age as an unwanted foreigner in Vienna. The outspoken daughter of loving, liberal parents, Marji turned 9 during the deposing of the Shah and witnesses Iran’s rapid fundamentalist transformation. The oppressive regime makes the veil mandatory for women, abolishes secular co-ed education, imprisons and executes political prisoners (including Marji’s beloved friends and relatives). In an act of rebellion, Marji takes to wearing black-market Nikes as a symbol of freedom. As the Iran-Iraq war worsens, her family reluctantly sends her away to complete her education in safety. Alone in Austria, Marji struggles to fit in and find belonging in a xenophobic country that conflates her with the extremists she escaped from. Persepolis is a raw, heartbreaking, and enthralling graphic memoir of a headstrong, tenacious girl fighting oppression and pursuing independence in post-revolution Iran.
Town Boy is a sequel to the charming and wistful Kampung Boy, a graphic memoir of a Muslim boy growing up in an idyllic village in rural Malaysia in the 1960s. Lat moves to the city to attend boarding school, leaving behind the familiar rubber plantations and tin mines of his hometown for a new life amidst the colorful shophouses and grand colonial buildings of bustling, multicultural Ipoh. He quickly forges a strong friendship with Frankie, a Malaysian Chinese boy, bonding over their shared love of rock-and-roll. Over the next seven years, the teenage duo experience the universal challenges of growing up — falling in love, hiding in the back row of classrooms, discovering new passions, rebelling against parental wishes — depicted through beautifully drawn artwork.
American Born Chinese weaves together three disparate coming-of-age stories that converge with a clever twist. The first chapter reimagines the legendary Chinese fable of the Monkey King attempting to transcend his monkey nature to earn a place in heaven after being kicked out of a dinner party for gods. An action-packed fight scene with creator god Tze-Yo-Tzuh ends with a humbling defeat with the Monkey King realizing that “to find your true identity…that is the highest of all freedoms.” The second narrative features Jin Wang, who moves from San Francisco’s Chinatown to a vanilla white suburb. Jin just wants to be an “all-American Boy” and fit in instead of having to answer dumb questions like “Do you eat cats?” and enduring the racist taunts of schoolyard bullies. In the last story, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Danny turns into the school pariah during an embarrassing visit from his fresh-off-the-boat cousin, Chin-Kee. Chin-Kee, a “chinky”-eyed kung-fu warrior clad in traditional attire with a waist-length braided ponytail and a pidgin accent (“HARRO AMELLICA!”), is a cringe-inducing caricature of prejudiced stereotypes perpetuated by American pop culture (I’m looking at you, Sixteen Candles). American Born Chinese reveals the prejudices of a society that simultaneously pressures Asians into assimilating into whiteness and rejecting their heritage, but refuses to accept us as anything but perpetual foreigners; a necessary read to understand the struggles of being Asian in America.
As a child, Liz wore jeans and a T-shirt and played baseball with the boys while other girls played princess in pink tutus. She hated anything “girly” to the point of chauvinism before realizing she did not want to become a boy, but desired the independence associated with masculinity. As she hits puberty, Liz struggles to fit in and find acceptance in her high school, becoming the target of ridicule and bullying, and crushing on boys who reject her over for “feminine” girls. Spanning early childhood into adulthood, Tomboy is a humorous and heartbreaking account of staying true to yourself in a black and white world that demands conformity to stereotypical gender roles.
Kimberly Keiko Cameron, known as “Skim” because “she’s not slim,” and her best friend Lisa are both chubby and biracial, making them outcasts in their all-girls private Catholic high school. The two teenagers experiment with Wicca and dress in goth attire, reveling in their outsider status until Lisa get a chance to join the popular clique of blonde, peppy white girls. A panicked uproar over the suicide of the (possibly gay) boyfriend of a popular classmate leads to the school treating Skim as a suicide risk (just for being different). Amidst the forced therapy sessions and fake hugs from “concerned” classmates, Skim develops a crush on neo-hippie English teacher, Ms. Archer, who unwisely allows their friendship to bloom into an illicit romance.
The film Blue Is the Warmest Color, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, began as an eponymous graphic novel of tragic love. High school junior Clementine catches the eye of Emma, a confident blue-haired art student on the streets. After a chance encounter at a local gay bar, Clementine and Emma fall in love. Emma is an outspoken activist, seeing her sexual identity as an integral part of her social and political life while Clem hides her homosexuality from the outside world. Their divergent views of coming out leads to cracks in their relationship, culminating in tragedy.
Cartoonist Riad Sattouf spent his childhood in the Middle East under the shadow of three dictators. At the tender age of two, Sattouf and his parents emigrated to Libya where Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was known as the eccentric “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution.” The second was Hafez Assad of Syria (predecessor to the current Syrian megalomaniac), president of 4-year-old Sattouf’s new home. The last tyrant was his father, a Syrian professor who met his French wife in the cafeteria as students at the Sorbonne in Paris and swept his family up in his grandiose dream of ruling as president over a pan-Arab utopia. In Tripoli, the family lived in an unlockable house (courtesy of Gaddafi’s abolishment of private property) and returned from a walk to find squatters residing in their home. The scarcity of food meant the family survived solely on bananas or eggs for weeks. The relocation to his father’s home village in rural Syria proved even harsher. The local kids denounced little blonde Sattouf as a Jew and started beating him up. In the third installment explores the tension between his mother who, fed up with austere village life, wants to return to France and his father who still firmly believes in the promise of a prosperous and modern Arab nation. Sattouf uses cartoonish characters with exaggerated features and pops of color (light blue for France, yellow for Libya, pink for Syria) to show the perspective of a child growing up in the Middle East.
Nicole J. Georges was a sixteen-year-old high school drop out when she adopted Beija, a shar-pei/corgi puppy, from a shelter as a holiday gift for her boyfriend. That boyfriend didn’t last, but Beija, a neurotic “bad dog” who hated men and attacked small children, stayed by Georges’s side for the next fifteen years. As Georges navigated a tumultuous young adulthood, heartbreaking relationships, a changing sexual identity, and a move from the Midwest to Portland, Beija and her “Don’t Pet Me” bandana remained a steadfast companion, who as she describes it, “loved me even when I lapsed in loving myself.”
Snapshots of a Girl is a humorous, heartrending graphic memoir about the author’s coming of age and coming out in both Western and Islamic culture. The daughter of Turkish immigrants in Germany, Sezen explores the conflicts of growing up as a queer person of color in modern Europe. The first part of the book, “The Denial Years,” navigates Sezen’s sexual awakening as she tries to date with men, only to find disappointment. After much self doubt and denial, Sezen gradually embraces her attraction to women and attempts to come out to her conservative parents. Charming and quirky, Snapshots of a Girl is a moving story of a young woman’s pursuit of happiness as she learns to embrace her body and her sexuality.
Asher, a shy newcomer to his high school, becomes the target of his classmates’ ridicule and physical violence because of his androgynous appearance. Drawn to his fragility, Eulalie develops a friendship with Ash after rescuing him from lunchroom bullies. A tough-talking, heavy-metal listening butch girl, Eu understands the intense loneliness that comes with being different. Bonded by a love of drawing, raves, alternatives music, the genderqueer outcasts navigate love, friendship, and sexuality to discover who they really are.
Isaac is an Arab American college student in New York City, battling epilepsy. He pushes himself to play the role of a normal college student, partying hard and studying for midterms until a violent seizures hospitalizes him. Drawn in a Manga-inspired style, Ata depicts the onset of Isaac’s seizures as a pack of floating one-eyed daggers, surrounding him menacingly and then stabbing him into oblivion. Isaac feels increasingly isolated and defeated as his friends and teachers downplay the severity of his diagnosis and medical professionals question the legitimacy of his illness, but he finds a sympathetic new ally in Jo, a friend-of-a-friend. Mis(h)adra provides readers with a vivid and intimate look into the day-to-day life of a young man with epilepsy doing his best to survive in an apathetic world.
The walkout was inspired by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where seventeen students and staff were gunned down one month ago. Since then, Parkland students have been getting attention as anti-gun organizers, following in the footsteps of less-lauded young activists of color. In an inspiring moment at a rally shortly after the shooting, Marjory Stoneman Douglas senior Emma González called BS on all the “adults” in the room, who continued to frustrate or ignore efforts to prevent more school shootings. Instead of waiting on adults to act, she urged young people to get involved. Maintaining his role as Commander in Hope, Barack Obama tweeted: “Young people have helped lead all our great movements. How inspiring to see it again in so many smart, fearless students standing up for their right to be safe; marching and organizing to remake the world as it should be. We’ve been waiting for you. And we’ve got your backs.”
This week, we wanted to honor the young people who are continuing to fight for the doomed world we’ve handed them: the children walking out of class, the Parkland students, and Black Lives Matter and other young activists before them who blazed a trail. We’ve rounded up 8 books — both YA and adult fiction — about and for young people who will save the world.
Starr Carter is sixteen years old and trying to figure out how to balance her life in the suburban, mostly-white, private school where she spends the day, and her neighborhood back home, afflicted with poverty, where her father “Big Mav” works to make the neighborhood a safer place, and her mother wants to move because it isn’t. When Starr is the witness to her best friend Khalil’s shooting by a police officer, everything falls out of balance as Starr recalibrates to a reality where her unarmed friend is transformed by newspaper headlines into a “thug” and “drug dealer.” The walls between her two worlds disintegrate as she is forced into the public spotlight, and becomes a witness for the Grand Jury in Khalil’s murder. Meanwhile, people are protesting in the streets in Khalil’s name. Protesters, local gang members, and police alike want to know what happened on the day Khalil was killed, and the only person who can answer that question is Starr. The characters and richly and intimately drawn, as Starr deals with her first long-term relationship and mean girls at school, all while trying to figure out the implications for standing up for what she believes in — for herself and her communities — and telling the story of what happened the day Khalil was killed.
The president of nine-year-old Georgie Hall’s America is thoughtless, hawkish, obsessed with glitz, and in love with praise, like absolutely nobody we can think of. He’s redesigned the American flag to be covered with sequins, and has announced a contest for children to write him letters in praise of how great it is. Oh, and he’s also building a missile capable of destroying the earth. Georgie and her family and friends — including, as it happens, the president’s grandson — decide to march from Massachusetts to D.C. in protest of the missile, carrying a tattered old non-sequined U.S. flag. Along the way they pick up new adherents, and their march enters the city as a Children’s Crusade. This is a middle-grade book, but charming and refreshing in its optimism about young people’s political power.
In the dystopian future America of Panem, the children of poor communities are forced to fight to the death in a gruesome reality competition, for the entertainment of the rich and the anesthetization of the oppressed. (It’s a fun book for teens!) Protagonist Katniss enters the Games to spare her sister, but when the rules of the game require her to kill her friend instead, she goes off-script — and unwittingly becomes the hero of a political resistance.
It was a challenge to narrow down to just one David Levithan title on this list, because he has written so many vital books that address the power of love and identity in making political change. Based on a true story and written by the beloved author of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, The Lover’s Dictionary. After seventeen-year-olds Harry and Craig call it quits on their relationship, they partner up on a new project to beat a Guinness World Record by kissing for 32 hours straight. They’re spurred on by a Greek chorus of the generation of gay men lost to AIDS, who narrate the novel. While Harry and Craig near the record-breaking hour, they become a personal and political channel for other boys dealing with their own desire on the internet, the consequences of coming-out in public, and what it means to have feelings for another person at all. For more David Levithan on politics, power, and young people make serious change, check out Wide Awake, too. (See, I couldn’t help myself.)
Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Rushdie’s novel, is exactly as old as India’s independence from Britain and partition from Pakistan: he was born at midnight on August 14, 1947. As he grows, he discovers that he and all the other Indian and Pakistani children born between midnight and 1 a.m. on that day have special powers, including the ability to communicate telepathically with each other. Saleem brings these 1,001 gifted children together in a psychic parliament, and their loves and friendships and conflicts both reflect and heal the traumas of Partition. But even with their enormous magical and political potential, are the Midnight’s Children strong enough to save the country from a monstrous prime minister?
In this historical fiction, we meet another seventeen-year-old woman grappling with larger political forces limiting her personal and professional mission to go to art school and become an artist. It’s 1909 and Victoria Darling is willing to do anything to make it happen. But when posing nude for an art class gets her kicked out of boarding school, she finds herself back in London. There, she gets involved in the suffragette movement and falls in love with a working-class boy (her muse), secretly applies to art school, and tries to figure out what she is willing to sacrifice for her dreams before her parents seal her fate as a well-married woman. It’s geared towards young adults, but a compelling read for any woman who’s pissed off and has ever felt compelled to live how she wants to rather than how she is supposed to.
What happens when womanhood suddenly becomes a weapon? Alderman’s novel is a nuanced and gripping exploration of that question. Its premise: teen girls across the world develop the ability to create an electrical charge with their bodies, strong enough to harm or kill a man. They teach this skill to older women, and women as a whole start to fight back in a way they never could before. One troubled teen becomes the kingpin (queenpin?) of a crime family; another becomes the head of a new religious movement made up of powerful girls. Alderman investigates the political, social, and interpersonal ramifications of this new power, both immediately and millennia into the future; it’s both thought-provoking and impossible to put down.
Another critical story about a young woman choosing the life she wants to live, which is its own political act. This one is based on the life of the 1960s Iranian feminist poet Forugh Farrokhzad. In Song of a Captive Bird, young Forugh balks at the command to be a good young Persian woman — modest, quiet, meek — and instead engages in illicit conversations with young boys at cafes, swaps gossip with her sister in the garden, and writes poetry. After running away from a horrible marriage, Forugh falls deeper in love with poetry (and other men), and seeks out an independent artist’s life that creates political inspiration and outrage. It’s an homage to the indelible Iranian feminist poet and filmmaker, whose poetry and life continue to inspire women around the world.
A year after the poet’s death, I’m reckoning with what I know about his life, and how it intersects with mineDerek Walcott. (Photo by Jorge Mejía Peralta)
I n my final year as an undergraduate student I chose to study the poetry of Derek Walcott for my dissertation. Mauritians of my generation often consider Walcott to be the greatest of all island poets; we’ve adopted him as our own. No-one was ever so articulate in expressing the vicissitudes of our postcolonial selves. When I read him for the first time I remember feeling this intense joy, this peace that no matter what I would write or fail to write, at least I had these poems, these essays that paved the way, that taught me to be proud of being from a ‘remote’ island, and of writing from, for and about that island. I loved how I understood his St. Lucian Créole without a dictionary — it was so similar to ours. I got all the jokes. I felt like he was writing for me, for my hybrid people. I wrote the three famous verses from “The Schooner Flight” on paper and blue-tacked it to my wall:
I had a sound colonial education/ I have Dutch, n****r, and English in me,/ and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.
That was me (with some variations in ancestry — African, English, French, Indian).
The same year that I was writing my dissertation, I was sexually harassed by two members of the English department. The first had tried to openly flirt with me before an extra-curricular creative writing class (where he was also a student). I had apologized for any misunderstanding I could have caused and entered the empty classroom; he rushed for me, sat next to me and tried to touch my feet with his without speaking. He was trembling. I thought it was all quite pathetic. I laughed “the event” off the same evening, after having spent an hour locked in a bathroom, making sure he had left the building before I did.
Then there was the professor, who implied one evening that his special interest in me was the reason why I had obtained an incredibly high grade on a paper. He had been my mentor in many ways, an eminence in his field, a confidant, a father-figure far away from home — and roughly the same age as my father, too. It had made me uncomfortable, his way of greeting me by kissing my cheek, but I had dismissed it as an old man’s eccentricity. That evening he told me he would “make sure” I would always be “taken care of.” He offered to drop me home, repeatedly, hoping, presuming sex. I had had the audacity to believe my mind was a gift, one I nurtured by working harder than anyone I knew. He was telling me it meant nothing. He broke me, a little bit.
I went home and cried, and the next day I picked up Omeros — because I still had that dissertation to write, because reading it would bring me back home, because Walcott’s long poem had become the dissertation’s focus. I believed that it encapsulated his best poetry, that it stood as a complete manifesto of his ideas, as it were: the sea and forgetting, the postcolonial nation and its search for identity, the cauterising of History’s wounds. Each verse was song; I’d go read them again and again and each time new meanings, references would emerge, I’d discover the precise music he’d created in the composition of his diction, I’d tap my fingers as he must have done to the rhythm that he seemed to have conjured straight from a Platonic form.
The poem now unravelled and I clung onto the beauty as firmly as I could, since it was the only thing that kept me reading. It was clear now, clear as anything, the lacunae in Walcott’s work. I remembered how the professor was friends with the poet; numerous literary conversations, a trip to St. Lucia. I understood. They were both brilliant. They both looked at women the same way.
Walcott’s women in Omeros are described almost purely in terms of their bodies. The journey to understand one’s identity, to grow, to heal — the Homeric epic of the self belongs to his men alone.
Walcott’s women in Omeros are described almost purely in terms of their bodies. The journey to understand one’s identity, to grow, to heal — the Homeric epic of the self belongs to his men alone. Helen — a panther, St. Lucia, Helen of Troy, Circe — belongs to the text in the same way models are sometimes employed to decorate a room, to be contemplated as an aesthetic object. She is depthless, a fetish. She may be given characteristics— she has a temper, she is a thief, she is a businesswoman — but any attempt at introspection fails. She is always seen from the male gaze, which is why her face is always described as a “mask.” She is mysterious not because men fail to understand her, but because Walcott couldn’t see her beyond her body, beyond symbol.
These Helens are different creatures, / one marble, one ebony […] but each draws an elbow slowly over her face/ and offers the gift of her sculptured nakedness,/ parting her mouth.
I fumbled around, attempted to contextualize the poem in front of me, make it less uncomfortable, more academic, rational. Misogyny may be a recurring pattern in his work, I argued to myself, but that didn’t mean the man was a predator, or even consciously aware of his prejudice. I didn’t know to what extent the man’s writing was a reflection of his person — if anything, in fact, could be deduced from such a comparison.
But there was something there — in my gut, since his work was now intestinal. There was a layer thrumming beneath and through the art, a layer of enormous, toxic, masculine power. One that declares: this is my island, these are my women.
I recalled a particular section of a piece written by Hilton Als, who had visited Walcott in St Lucia.
“Hello, Mr. Walcott,” the waitress said, approaching. She was young and pretty and thin, and was dressed in a skimpy piece of madras cloth. She reminded me of Walcott’s Helen. Walcott turned away from her, mock dismissive.
“I’m not speaking to you, you know,” he said.
“Oh! Mr. Walcott! Why?” She seemed legitimately concerned.
“Dodo!” Sigrid said, chuckling, toying with her camera.
“You’re rude to me, you know,” Walcott said to the young girl, who did not laugh. “You deserve lash! You want lash!”
Walcott pulled the girl over his knee and began to spank her. The girl squealed. Now she was laughing. Her fear had turned to relief.
Walcott let the girl up. “Now you’re rude no more, huh?”
In February this year Als would say, in passing, that Walcott “was a terrible person; awful man.”
Walcott’s toxic misogyny is his great failure as a person, as an artist, in his art, for all three are resolutely bound. His work is lacking. It is flawed. This is a moral and artistic analysis. Both are possible.
That day I Googled “Derek Walcott Sexual Harassment Assault Misconduct.”
Walcott’s toxic misogyny is his great failure as a person, as an artist, in his art, for all three are resolutely bound.
I hadn’t heard of the “Oxford Controversy” before starting my dissertation. There is no mention of Walcott’s behavior in any study of his work, though I think I remember one female critic mentioning how “his” women are almost always caricatures of sex, desire and beauty. It was and probably still is a strict part of English literary criticism, this stark separation of the artist from his art.
Writing this piece feels scandalous, improper, shameful, even: I am fighting four intense years of prestigious English academia, where I was instructed that it would be tasteless to analyze art through the artist’s life. Such a practice would be a return to an obsolete, pre-New-Critical epoch. As a student I was the fiercest proponent of this instruction: reading art through biography requires a certain art, and not everyone is John Berger. Many such readings fail, in spectacular fashion: I had read too many poor essays that analyzed Sylvia Plath and David Foster Wallace solely in terms of their mental health.
If I were to draw anything from the artist’s life it had to be in their own terms: their interviews, their own analysis of how the loss of a lover spawned such-and-such a poem. I was taught to take the artist at their word or not at all. Crossing that line, I assume, would have led to raised eyebrows: “Are you Lacan?” Psychoanalytic criticism, in fact, was taught as part of the Critical Theory module: if you chose to analyze a novel using psychoanalysis, you’d have to make that very clear from the start, and then you’d only use the material in the text to craft your essay. In the end, you’d only be analyzing characters, symbols. Perhaps, as a conclusion, you would allude to the author’s possible understanding of psychoanalysis that would have perhaps informed their work. You wouldn’t connect the dots, as obvious as they were, to the author’s personal life.
Dismissing the biographical seems a little absurd to me, now.
Can you separate the artist from his art? Art, when it is recognized, when it is bequeathed awards and shortlistings — and this recognition alone more often than not involves racial and sexual prejudice — elevates the artist, deifies them even, in this celebrity culture. The artist obtains privileged positions, events, deals, money, tenure. They exert even greater influence and power, as long as they continue to produce, as long as their talent remains intact or grows. This status enables the artist to continue producing art. The work and the person are indissoluble in this respect. The trampling and abuse of others along the way to artistic stardom (or once such stardom is obtained) is also indissoluble from the work of art.
The trampling and abuse of others along the way to artistic stardom (or once such stardom is obtained) is indissoluble from the work of art.
The artist and his art. The academic and his papers. The producer and his films. The writer and his fiction, poems, non-fiction.
When Walcott died on March 17, 2017, the obituaries sometimes contained a little paragraph mentioning his “Oxford scandal.” The “scandal” is a lesson in silencing.
Walcott withdrew from the race to be elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 2009; he had done so on account of a so-called “anonymous letter-writing campaign.” The “campaign” was in fact a dossier, received by approximately 200 academics from a group of concerned students, which sought to bring forward the cases of sexual misconduct he had reaped over the years. Excerpts of The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner (a book published in 1984) were included in the dossier; these detailed the experience of a Harvard student with Walcott, where she recounted that Walcott sexually harassed her. When she declined his advances, he gave her a C grade and ignored her in class. Walcott accepted the facts of the case, but claimed that his teaching style was “deliberately personal and intense.” He also, of course, slut-shamed her: he apparently had “sensed no reluctance [in the student] to pursue the topic of sexual relationships,” since she had confided in him on a few personal matters. This opinion was shared by Harvard’s dean of faculty, Henry Rosovsky. This case did nothing to stymie Walcott’s winning the Nobel Prize in 1992. The dossier also contained the allegation made in 1996 by Nicole Niemi, who was a student at Boston University and a member of his creative writing class. Niemi stated that the poet threatened to stop the production of her play unless she slept with him.
Walcott stifled these emerging artists’ art, blackmailing their art for their bodies, their artist bodies. Meanwhile, he expects to be judged in terms of his art alone. Few are the ones to say that it is lacking. He may have elevated an island — many islands — and he may have given us islanders a voice, but he did it with a hand pressed to women’s mouths.
He may have given us islanders a voice, but he did it with a hand pressed to women’s mouths.
Walcott described the “campaign” as a “low and degrading attempt at character assassination.” Many respected professors — female professors, such as Elleke Boehmer — expressed their dismay at the decision. “How many male professors of poetry of a certain age and generation can safely hold their hands up and say that they are entirely clear of any history of sexual harassment?” Boehmer told a journalist, whose article ran the headline “Smear campaign dogs Derek Walcott’s bid for Oxford professor of poetry.” That he would have had place to roam and continue his predatory behavior was not, it seems, cause for concern: he would “only” be giving grand public lectures, not teaching a course, and hence, it was to be concluded, students (and faculty members) would be generally safe from harm.
Teach the art as separate from the artist, demands the culture, but revere the artist for his art. Say his art has nothing to do with the man, yet invite him in.
Ruth Padel, who was chosen for the post, resigned after nine days. She was the one who had apparently alerted journalists to Walcott’s misconduct and the letter campaign he was “victim” to during the election process. She was criticized for using his misconduct as a means to get her way. Again, Walcott’s sexual harassment wasn’t the focus of many of the think pieces that emerged that year — that honor belonged to Padel’s seemingly ruthless ambition. The journalist behind one of the pieces even felt bad that Walcott withdrew his candidature: “I wasn’t saying Walcott was a bad poet, just that he was a tiny bit creepy,” he said.
When I told a few other members of staff about what happened with the men who harassed me, I was repeatedly told that I had no grounds for complaint, since I hadn’t actually been touched or “clearly violated” in any way.
“I’m also aware that Byron’s life was not stainless, or T.S. Eliot’s for that matter — would we turn them down? There are other aspects to the character than the sexual. These kinds of concerns are raised when you prioritize character over poetry, and if it came down to absolutely blameless characters, then surely no one could stand. This is political correctness on overdrive about something which happened so long ago.” This is Boehmer again, in another article. Hermione Lee, another professor at Oxford who supported Walcott’s nomination, said that Walcott’s “unorthodox life” should have nothing to do with his job. “Should great poets who behave badly be locked away from social interaction? We are acting as purveyors of poetry, not of chastity.”
Professor Boehmer and Dame Lee. There was a time when I would have given almost anything to be taught by them.
Teach the art as separate from the artist, demands the culture, but revere the artist for his art.
Boehmer and Lee’s arguments are ridiculously flawed. Reading Walcott safely away from Walcott is one thing; having a man openly accused of sexual assault around campus is another. It is shocking that sexual assault is willingly conflated with other aspects of “blame” — that a man’s abuse of power, his harassment, his assaults are somehow the same as, say, one man’s moral failure to support his best friend in a crisis. Repeatedly, I see this same kind of resigned historical fatalism, that what these men have done they will continue to do in perpetuum. To evoke history as an argument is a perfect example of bad faith, of being so wilfully blind that one cannot accept progress. Progress will come, in the form of legislation, accountability. It’s already started.
Walcott’s “Oxford controversy” occurred a decade or so ago. Stars of academia lauded across the world, accused of rape, harassment, abuse, are still safe in their magisterial tenure: Harold Bloom, Franco Moretti. I wonder about some of the writers employed in universities, in creative writing programs. I wonder what they’ve done, what they’re doing.
There is no glory in taking care of your university, its students, and other members of faculty by dismissing a predator-professor. There should be. There is the belief that once a member of staff “behaves badly” and is made to leave, the institution will suffer as a result — whether the institution is a university, a magazine or review, a newspaper. The irremediable loss of a prestigious name, perhaps an institution in themselves. Underlying and concomitant to this is the belief that once a so-called genius is castigated, his genius will somehow be inhibited, and that this in turn would be terribly detrimental to arts and letters around the world.
There is no glory in taking care of your university, its students, and other members of faculty by dismissing a predator-professor. There should be.
Support predators, for they are the bastions of culture.
My own experience let me to believe that nothing that I could say mattered, that the men in question couldn’t be touched, and that if I were to aspire to academia, one day, then I would have to have the department on my side the day I applied for a job, which I clearly wouldn’t get if I had angered them in my refusal to be quiet. I’d like to point out that there were supportive voices, immensely helpful professors who I talked to about this: they looked at anonymous complaint procedures for me, thought about ways I could take action, but I was so terrified back then that I did nothing.
What should I make of Walcott’s work, now? I no longer author-worship. I no longer view his poems and essays as quasi-sacred tracts.
In order to write this piece I had to delve back into Omeros, Another Life, his Collected Poems, his essays, some of his plays. If I read him again, after this essay is done, I’ll probably read him as a poet in his time, though I won’t let time excuse him; read what he did with language, with voice, without forgetting all those he silenced, find out if these voices published any creative work, read them, read them alongside him, read them alone. Read him alongside other poets and writers of the Caribbean: he was so predominant in my life partly because he was one of the only Caribbean writers taught in the three or four lectures on postcolonialism at university. Yet the region is abundant with talent: Edwige Danticat, Kamau Brathwaite, Jamaica Kincaid, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Gabrielle Bellot. Maybe just read them alone.
Read him alongside other poets and writers of the Caribbean. Maybe just read them alone.
When I’m able to read Walcott at such a remove, then maybe then I’ll take what I find to be true and useful in his words and in his technique and separate the artist from his art at last, even though that act may seem deeply disingenuous. But not yet.
Perhaps, of course, I won’t touch his books again at all. This may be the last time I ever read Omeros: there it sits as I type, lilac cover with Walcott’s name in lurid yellow, the title in red. Some designer’s nod to the Caribbean sunset, perhaps. I am about to shelve it. This time, for this last reading of mine, my lips were no longer slightly open in wonder, I took no pleasure in his verse. There is no marvel left; disgust has seared every page, disgust like one of Francis Bacon’s grotesque men, screaming.
I write my island into literature, away and separate from him.
‘The House of Impossible Beauties’ pays homage to storied drag queens, and brings their culture to literature’s center stagePhoto by Steven Peice on Unsplash
Today, drag culture has its rightful place in the mainstream, but no so long ago, it existed largely on the fringes. Joseph Cassara’s debut novel is set in the era right before the shift, in the late 1980s and early 1990s At that time, drag queens in New York City formed houses that competed in “walks” at various ballrooms. The events were super-amped up, fabulously elaborate fashion shows But beyond those nights, the members of the participating houses became families for young men and women who had been shunned by the one they were born into. Cassara uses real icons from the city’s ball scenes — namely the House of Xtravaganza members — to create a look into the domestic lives of these characters.
Purchase the novel.
In The House of Impossible Beauties, we follow four main characters as they go from strangers, to cohorts, to family. Angel is based on the real life Angie Xtravaganza; she realizes early on that she doesn’t identify as male, she goes on to form her storied eponymous house. She meets a trans girl looking for a better life named Venus, a fashion obsessed boy named Jaunito, and a butch queen named Daniel.
Cassara’s book explores how these real-life figures — and their struggles — lay the foundations for much of the queer culture we know today. I spoke with the author about blurring the lines of homage, history, and fiction.
Adam Vitcavage: About a year ago, I was on a subreddit called “Suggest Me a Book” and I was looking for books about the history of drag queens. I posed the question as a search for nonfiction and got some biographies of queer activists, but really I didn’t get a lot of feedback. A year later, and The House of Impossible Beauties landed on my doorstep.
So, my first question: what are the books you used to do research, in addition to watching the documentary Paris is Burning?
Joseph Cassara: I read Myra Breckenridge by Gore Vidal but that’s kind of dated now. I read an essay by Michael Cunningham called “A Slap of Love” which is about looking for Angie Xtravaganza in the early ’90s. Other than that there weren’t a lot of books. I had the same problem you had, I couldn’t really find anything.
Instead, I scoured the internet to try to find as much information about the clubs people went to or how people described their memories of the era. I wasn’t so much as interested in historical facts or details as much as how much people remembered that era and what it felt like. I wanted to distill that information to create scenes that had emotion.
AV: What drew you to this specific time period of the late ’80s /early ’90s of New York City?
JC: I grew up in New Jersey in that time period. My family is from the Bronx and Brooklyn, so I spent a lot of time with my extended family in the outer boroughs of the city. Like a lot of writers and artists, feel that all of the things that happen to you before you’re around 12 are formative, they really stay with you, and my art draws from that time.
Obviously, I wasn’t really exposed to queer culture or drag culture when I was that young. But I was exposed to the vitality of the language of Spanglish in New York or Latin music on the radio. What people wore. Especially how dirty the city was. The city is not really the same as it was when I was young. I mean there were peep shows in Times Square but now Times Square feels like Disney World. Back when I was young it was just strippers and prostitutes outside of Port Authority.
I was just young, quiet, and absorbing all of this. When I was in grad school and trying to figure out what I was going to write about, I was very interested in the documentary Paris is Burning and questions of queer identity and racial identity. I feel like with this novel I was able to fuse my interests and my childhood.
AV: You mentioned weren’t really exposed to drag or queer culture. What was your first exposed to drag or trans?
JC: I watched Paris is Burning when I was 17 or 18. That was my first exposure to the film. I don’t definitively recall meeting any drag queens when I was younger, until I was in high school and becoming aware of my identity as a gay man.
I wanted the book to feel like an homage. I wanted it to be viewed through a lens.
AV: Why did you decide to use the real life people that Paris is Burning explores as the basis for your characters?
JC: The decision came slowly. I didn’t set out to do that. When I started writing, I didn’t think I was writing a novel. I was in grad school and just writing scenes to practice craft. I wrote scenes where fictionalized people met people from the documentary. I wanted to see what that would look like. As I continued, it began taking shape into something larger and I realized it might be a novel. Then I wondered if the characters based on real people should also have the real names or if those should be changed. I really wanted the book to feel like an homage. I wanted it to be viewed through a lens.
I wanted this book to be inspired by these people’s lives, but I wanted it refracted through my own style as a writer. I wanted to write what I felt was the emotional truth. Although it’s inspired by real lives, it’s fictionalized in a way that allows me to fill in what happened to them, their hopes and desires, into a larger tradition of queer writing.
That was the goal of the book. When I was trying to sell the book an editor said what if I just changed the names because it would be easier than having to go through the legal department. I thought about it, but then I realized if I changed the names the homage would no longer be there. The book would no longer be about their lives. I wasn’t interested in writing biographies about them, but I wanted it to be inspired by them so readers could be very aware of the direct link between them.
AV: One of my favorite moments is the opening of the chapter “Thomas — 1976.” It reads: “He feared that with that name, he would become the type of man who wore plaid button-downs and tucked them into chinos. With a belt. She would never.” Can you talk about how approached the identities of your characters and being sensitive about your choice of pronouns?
JC: First, there is an interesting kind of problem when you set out to write a book about gay and trans people in a decade that is not the current decade. Discourse has changed. I could not use the language we use today to describe these characters and how they describe themselves. I had to keep that language of the time period or else it would have felt anachronistic.
The second point is that I find the pronoun shifts to be really fascinating on the line level. In the first chapter when Angel gets into a fight with her mother, as soon as she takes off her dress the pronoun shifts back to “he.” It’s almost as if it’s been forced upon Angel to use that pronoun. As soon as she’s alone with her brother, the pronoun shifts back to “she ”because that is what she is more comfortable with.
On the linguistic level, the pronoun shift allows readers to understand what is happening in Angel’s psyche. The narrator doesn’t have to describe that to the reader; it’s described in a pronoun.
Discourse has changed. I couldn’t use the language we use today to describe these characters and how they describe themselves.
AV: Reading how Thomas transforms into Venus was one of my favorite plot threads, which is why her ending was so heartbreaking. But Angel’s death was based off the real death. Did you consider fictionalizing her ending, having her live on?
JC: The last scene, when Angel dies, for me felt like the only way to end. You get a sense of finality. I knew that Angel died in 1993 or 1994 and that Dorian Corey [another drag queen in the book based off of a real queen] had a mummified body and I had to address those things. I had to figure out, do I have a scene where people find a mummified body or do I just tell the reader? Do I show Angel’s death or is it just an implied death?
AV: HIV and AIDS play an important role in the book, but they’re never the central plot. The virus is looming over these characters but it’s never forced on the page. Why did you decide to portray it this way?
JC: I view this book as an American family novel and using those tropes, which feels very different to the tropes of an AIDS novel. This could have been an AIDS novel and it would have dealt with HIV/AIDS in a very different way. I specifically wanted this to feel like a domestic drama of these characters, with the topics of the late 1980s as simply the backdrop.
I knew I had to deal with HIV in a way, but I didn’t want it to feel clinical. I was interested in their day to day lives. How they lived together and interacted together. Their aspirations and their let downs. I wanted the book to go beyond the era’s anxiety about the virus. I was more focused on writing a book about domestic lives and how people would react when their hopes and dreams could not come to fruition because of the impact of AIDS.
Historians have to write with accuracy, but as a fiction writer I can fill in the blanks.
AV: When I first started reading, I assumed the book was going to be heavily into the ball culture, and I was going to see a lot of scenes covering that. Really, there was only one bigger ball scene. Why did you decide not to dedicate more time to that part of their lives?
JC: It goes back to the fact that I wanted this to be a domestic novel. The book is very deceptive that way. You pick of the book and you expect it to be loud and colorful with a lot of balls. What you get is this quiet literary family novel. I thought about adding more ball scenes, but there is a risk where once you have more than two — that they’re all the same. How do you make a ball scene different? With the one scene where Jaunito is making his debut, I felt I wrote about everything I could about the outfits and characters. If I kept doing that the reader would become numb to it and it would lose its dazzle. I wanted that scene to feel alive when it happened. The book was never meant to explore the ball culture, it was always more about the inner lives of these characters.
AV: From the time period when your book takes place to the mid ’90s when RuPaul was on VH1 to now, gay culture has shifted so much. Where do you think it goes from here?
JC: I don’t know. Especially because of current political situation. What’s interesting for me as a writer looking at gay fiction is that even in the past few years there has been a shift. Gay novels before 2005 were really hard to get published. Books we think of as being foundations of queer lit were not well received in their time. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin received terrible reviews. The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal almost destroyed his career.
Really the past few years with the success of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which is interesting because she is a straight woman, and What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell kind of proved to the publishing community that you can publish books about LGBT characters and it can still do well. People are interested in engaging with those stories.
I think there is going to be a further shift where there is more gay fiction being printed by big publishers.
AV: How do you view your literature? Will you always write toward the gay community?
JC: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. When you write your first book you write it for yourself because there is no guarantee it will be published. Now that it has been published and it has gotten wide attention, I am aware there is an audience out there.
I’m working on two different projects, I’m not sure which will come first. One is a collection of short stories about contemporary gay life. Just about friendships and relationships told by different characters. I guess that is for a gay audience.
The next novel is also kind of historical. I’m interested in this character from early 20th century American painting. Not many people know this character was gay. I’ve been reading biographies and different archives and I see the coded language. I see the painting of his “friend.” I am interested in what a novel would look like about his life. That’s another gay novel, but it’s also tapping into American history. While I aim that toward a gay audience, I think straight people would also be interested.
I feel like my goal as a writer is to resurrect stories from the past and revisit them in the present. I’m interested in stories that are at risk of being lost because they haven’t been preserved or they have been erased. I want to put in the work to imagine what fills in the gaps. Historians have to write with accuracy, but as a fiction writer I can fill in the blanks.
The gentle alien doesn’t show up in the film of ‘A Wrinkle in Time,’ but she was crucial to the book—and the misfit girls who loved it
From the moment the Wrinkle in Time movie was announced, my eye was on one thing: Aunt Beast. How would this character — who looks like a furry, grey, tentacled monster, but who is the essence of warmth and love and care — come across on screen? I dissected the trailers for clues, zeroed in on a flash of lumbering grey behemoths, faceless and soft. That’s not the Aunt Beast I know, but it must be her. I begged film critic friends to bring me word of her. When the film’s social media embargo lifted, I tweeted: “SOMEONE TELL ME IS AUNT BEAST OKAY.”
It wasn’t that I needed the adaptation to be faithful. From the first images released, we knew it was not, and frankly, I was relieved. If I ever imprinted on a book, it was this one, but I was intrigued by how different Ava DuVernay’s vision was from my own: the Mrs. Ws not spooky old women but futuristic glamor-witches, with polychrome hair and every color of glittering lipstick; the Happy Medium not a sleepy woman but a man-bunned Zach Galifiniakis; the entire bright, Disney air. The distance meant I could enjoy the movie in isolation. If the movie was different, it wouldn’t ruin the book. It would just be a sister-story to the story I’ve always loved.
But I needed Aunt Beast. It didn’t occur to me that she might be cut — not because she’s crucial to the book’s plot, but because she’s crucial to its heart. The whole book tells us that messy, angry, stubborn girls can save the day. But Aunt Beast tells us that those problem girls can also be loved.
The tagline of the movie is “be a warrior,” but the Meg Murry I remembered from the book isn’t a hero because she’s brave or noble, the warrior that she will presumably rise to be. She’s a hero because of her flaws. She’s an angry, stubborn, frustrated girl, and she doesn’t transcend those failings in order to triumph. In fact, she can’t triumph without them. That’s the whole point.
She’s an angry, stubborn, frustrated girl, and she doesn’t transcend those failings in order to triumph. In fact, she can’t triumph without them.
At the beginning of the book of A Wrinkle in Time, Meg hates herself. She’s got frizzy hair, glasses, braces, and a perpetual sense that she’s wrong — she does poorly in her classes and can’t manage to fit in, unable to squelch her temper with classmates or bullies or the school principal (who calls her “the most belligerent, uncooperative child in school.”) Her mother and her baby brother, Charles Wallace, love her, but Meg says, “I wish I were a different person. I hate myself.”
Then three mysterious, supernatural women — Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Who — show up to take Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s schoolmate Calvin on a quest to rescue the Murrys’ missing father. He disappeared while experimenting with traveling by tesseract, folding (or wrinkling) space to traverse great distances instantaneously. The Mrs. Ws tell the children that there is a darkness in the universe, and that this is what their father is fighting, but he is trapped within it now. Earth is, so far, merely shadowed, but there are entire planets that have lost their battle against the Dark Thing.
When the children come to Camazotz, the dark planet where Meg’s father is imprisoned, the Mrs. Ws cannot go with them, but they send the children on their way with gifts. The gifts are mostly enigmatic: a pair of glasses, a hint in a rhyme. As in the movie, Mrs. Whatsit says to Meg, “I give you your faults.”
“My faults!” Meg cried.
“But I’m always trying to get rid of my faults!”
“Yes,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “However I think you’ll find they’ll come in very handy on Camazotz.”
Meg’s faults are the reason she’s been a beacon for so many generations of girls. She is angry, frustrated, impatient, self-loathing, and most of all stubborn. A decade ago, Lizzie Skurnick wrote an ode to the stubbornness of Meg Murray at Jezebel:
[Meg] discovers that her stubbornness about what she knows is right is her greatest strength. It’s not really her love for her brother that saves him and her father and herself from being taken over by the Dark Thing. It’s her faults (anger, impatience, stubbornness) that keep her from being sucked in by the great throbbing brain telling her to fall in line. … And, as unattractive as those traits are to others, Meg’s faults amount to no less than a belief in herself. And, as Mrs. Who says: Justitae soror vides — faith is the sister of justice.
Those traits, given back to Meg like a benediction by Mrs. Whatsit, allow Meg to save herself and Charles Wallace. But recognizing that your flaws can be leveraged into strength isn’t enough to make you stop hating yourself, enough to let you stop listening to everything that tells you that you’re wrong. Meg has to learn that she is strong because of her faults, but she also has to learn that they make her no less worthy of love.
Meg has to learn that she is strong because of her faults, but she also has to learn that they make her no less worthy of love.
This is where Aunt Beast comes in. In the book, Meg’s father tessers himself, her, and Calvin out of Camazotz to the first non-dark planet he can find, after a failed attempt to save Charles Wallace. (He’s left Charles Wallace behind not out of callousness but because tearing him away from IT, the malign consciousness that controls the planet, might have killed him.) Tessering through the Dark Thing, which envelops Camazotz, is painful and dangerous; Meg, ever the worst at tessering, lands there weakened by her battle with the darkness, on the verge of being lost to it.
She is furious. She is heartbroken. She’s in the grip of the Dark Thing, yes, but these feelings are Meg’s own, too, because she is a furious and heartbroken girl. And Aunt Beast heals her — with food and rest and care, and also with love. Aunt Beast loves Meg even when Meg is raging, and in doing so gives her the strength to go back to Camazotz, to return to the fight. Meg already had stubbornness, but that alone isn’t always enough to keep fighting. Meg learns from Aunt Beast not only that she can keep fighting, but that she should. When she realizes she is the only one who can save Charles Wallace, first she has a tantrum, crying at the unfairness of it all. But then a surprising peace comes over her, and she understands: “It can’t be anyone else. I don’t understand Charles, but he understands me.” She doesn’t understand herself, either. But she understands, thanks to Aunt Beast, that she can be loved at her worst.
Meg learns from Aunt Beast not only that she can keep fighting, but that she should.
I don’t remember what I thought of Aunt Beast the first time I read A Wrinkle in Time, but I know what she’s come to mean to me in the decades and rereads since. When Meg first sees her, she’s repulsed by the monstrous alien as it reaches out to touch her face. “But with the tentacle came the same delicate fragrance that moved across her with the breeze, and she felt a soft, tingling warmth go all through her that momentarily assuaged her pain.” I’m not Christian, so my understanding here is limited, but I think Aunt Beast is the embodiment of grace.
When I was eight and read this book for the first time, when I was twelve and raised my hand too often in class, when I was fifteen and fighting with my mother, when I was every age I’ve ever been and felt in whatever way that I was wrong in the world, when I was stubborn like Meg Murray and all I wanted was for how I was to be okay, Aunt Beast has always been a beacon. No matter how monstrous and wrong we are, there’s another monster out there who may love us, despite and because.
No matter how monstrous and wrong we are, there’s another monster out there who may love us, despite and because.
She was there until the very end. Maybe she’ll show up in the DVD. It was the right thing for the film version. Meg needed to walk into the It’s lair without support. Aunt Beast was a part of the book that provided support, but she also provided the answer. This was a journey we reworked, where no one is gonna give Meg the answer. She has to find it herself.
But Aunt Beast doesn’t provide answers, really. She provides healing. The movie’s tagline is “be a warrior,” but only the book’s Meg is ever really wounded — not physically, but psychically intruded upon by the Dark Thing.
IT, the dark sovereign of Camazotz, is not the origin of the darkness in the book’s world, as he seems to be in the movie; he is only one node of its power. That power pervades Camazotz as a throbbing rhythm, one that seduces your breath and thoughts and hearts to fall in line. And that’s the nature of the darkness on Camazotz: conformity. Submission to sameness. “Nobody suffers here,” Charles Wallace tells Meg under the grip of IT. “Nobody is every unhappy.” The Dark Thing is not vaguely “darkness,” it is a specific evil on Camazotz — one that Meg Murry, full of rage for the ways she has never fit in, is uniquely suited to fight.
The Dark Thing is not vaguely “darkness,” it is a specific evil — one that Meg Murry, full of rage for the ways she has never fit in, is uniquely suited to fight.
It’s Mrs. Who, in the book, who gives Meg the answer, in her spooky whisper: “Yyou hhave ssomethinngg thatt ITT hhass nnott. Thiss ssomethingg iss yyourr onlly wweapponn. Bbutt yyou mmusstt ffinndd itt fforr yyourrssellff.” That something, Meg realizes, is love: Mrs. Whatsit’s and her father’s and and her mother’s and her brothers’ — and Aunt Beast’s.
She realizes, “If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love.” But Meg isn’t able to do it:
But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.
But she could love Charles Wallace.
She does, and she saves him, even as she is weak and foolish and base. These faults don’t have to stand in the way of loving, or of being loved; perhaps Aunt Beast doesn’t teach Meg this, but she reminds her. Anyway, she reminded me. Watching the film, I wasn’t thinking about whether or not anyone gave Meg the answers. I was watching how she was loved. How her mother ached for her suffering, how the Happy Medium gave her patience, how Mrs. Who waited for her when she fell behind. But through it all, Meg had to be strong — good, brave, unfailing. I missed seeing her fall apart. I missed her flailing in a tantrum at Aunt Beast’s implacable body, I missed Aunt Beast standing there “quietly against the assault.” And I missed Aunt Beast standing beside Meg, when she decided she would risk her life, alone for her brother. “This time,” L’Engle writes, “Aunt Beast’s arm went around her.”
In “The Egg,” a private Easter egg hunt becomes one mother’s battle of anarchyFrom Pixabay.Issue №304
Jump to story
AN INTRODUCTION BY KEVIN BROCKMEIER
My first exposure to Dino Buzzati came during my junior year of college, when I happened upon “The Falling Girl” in an anthology of very short stories. Readers who have encountered nothing else by Buzzati might nevertheless recollect this one title, so frequently is it anthologized and so memorably is it devised. I myself, however, did not become a devotee of his work until more than a decade after I read it, when I discovered his out-and-out masterpiece The Tartar Steppe. Take a Stendhal or Tolstoy novel and then strain and clarify it through a Kafka filter and this is the book that might result: a battlefront epic without the battle, about the ease with which a life can be squandered on nothing more than hopes and routines. It’s among the most flawless novels I know, an airtight work of late existentialism, one that never quite violates the bounds of realism yet slowly, drop by drop, assumes an efflorescent dreamlike quality.
Purchase the collection.
Ecco’s reissue of Catastrophe, along with the five new English-language renditions of his stories they commissioned for the collection, is something to be applauded. It is, to my knowledge, the first previously unavailable writing of Buzzati’s to achieve publication in English since Electric Literature reprinted “The Time Machine” in Recommended Reading in 2012, when, in an accompanying note, I urged publishers to lend his work further attention. I hope that the book is merely the first percolation of what will be a river of further Buzzati volumes, since many of Buzzati’s stories, essays, letters, and poems remain to be translated, along with a stage play, an autobiography, and five librettos, plus at least three of what would seem to be his major works: his second novel, an allegorical fantasy called The Secret of the Old Forest; his meditation on mortality and the mysteries of the grave, written following the death of his dog Diabolik, In That Precise Moment; and The Miracles of Val Morel, a book of illustrations and commentaries about 39 votive offerings honoring the miracles of a fictitious nun. (This one is worth buying in an Italian edition for the artwork alone, even if, like me, you can’t read the text.)”
Catastrophe is not a long collection, but there’s nothing fleeting or abrupt about its effect, which is to say that its brevity speaks to its concentration rather than its ephemerality.
Take “The Egg,” published here, a naturalistic, almost anecdotal story about the injustices of poverty and the disappointments of childhood that hatches in an instant, with the most offhand witchery, into a swift and brutal morality play.
Do you know that sudden inversion near the end of certain disturbing tales — “The Lottery,” “Royal Jelly,” “Sandkings” — when you intuit the terrible thing that is just about to take place? In each of Catastrophe’s stories, it’s as if Buzzati has zeroed in on that moment and asked himself, What if there was nothing else? This singular instant of dreadful predictive clarity: what if I distended it over a lifetime? He has taken the split-second between the misstep and the fall, when your foot has slipped from the ledge but gravity is still deciding what to do with you, and heightened it to a sort of cosmology.
Any writer who is capable of such an achievement is, it seems to me, an essential writer.
The International Violet Cross organized a grand egg hunt in the gardens of the Villa Reale for children under twelve years old — tickets were twenty thousand lira each.
The eggs were hidden under bundles of hay, waiting for the starting signal and the children could keep all the eggs they found. There were eggs of every kind and size — chocolate eggs, metal eggs, cardboard eggs, all containing the most wonderful presents.
Gilda Soso, a cleaner who was paid by the hour, heard of the hunt at the Casa Zernatta where she worked. Signora Zernatta was taking all her four children at a total cost of eighty thousand lira.
Gilda Soso, twenty-five years old, not pretty, yet not plain, short, petite, with a lively face full of kindness, but also of repressed desires, had a four-year-old daughter — a pretty little girl — whom she decided to take to the hunt.
When the day arrived she dressed her Antonella in a new coat and a felt hat that made her look like a child of well-to-do parents. Gilda, however, couldn’t make herself look well-off, her clothes were too threadbare. But she did something better: with the aid of some sort of cap she got herself up to look rather like an English nanny, and if you didn’t look too closely you might easily have taken her for one of those expensive nursemaids who hold diplomas from Geneva or Neuchatel.
They set off in good time for the gates of the Villa Reale, and here Gilda paused, looking about her as if she were a nursemaid awaiting her mistress. Presently cars arrived disgorging children who were going on the egg hunt. Signora Zernatta arrived with her four and Gilda turned aside to avoid being seen.
Was all this going to be a waste of time for Gilda? It wasn’t easy to choose the right moment of disorder and confusion to slip in without paying.
The egg hunt was to begin at three. At five minutes to three a presidential type of car drew up: it contained the wife of an important Minister with her children who had just arrived in Rome. At once the President, the Directors and Officials of the International Violet Cross pushed toward the Minister’s wife to welcome her, and this gave, in full measure, the desired confusion.
And so Gilda, the daily cleaner disguised as a nursemaid, entered the garden with her little one, to whom she gave last-minute instructions that she should not let herself be put upon by children bigger and more cunning than she.
You could see spaced irregularly on the lawn hundreds of bundles of hay, some large, some small — one was at least three yards high — who knows what was hidden underneath? Perhaps nothing.
The starting signal was given by a blast on a trumpet, the tape marking the starting point was dropped and the children hurled themselves on the hunt with piercing yells.
But the children of the wealthy were too much for little Antonella. She ran here and there unable to make up her mind, while the others rummaged in the hay, some already running back to their mothers carrying huge chocolate eggs or gaily painted cardboard ones containing goodness-knows-what surprises.
At last even Antonella, thrusting her little hand in the hay, encountered something smooth and compact, judging from the contour it must be a monster egg. Beside herself with joy, she cried out, “I’ve found one! I’ve found one!” and tried to grasp the egg, but a boy dived headlong, as they do in rugby scrums, and then Antonella saw him running off clasping something enormous in his arms: he even pulled a face at her to add to her discomfiture.
Children are very smart. At three o’clock they were given the start, at a quarter past it was all over. And Gilda’s little girl, empty-handed, looked around for her nursemaid mother. She was indeed wretchedly unhappy, but at all costs she wouldn’t cry — that would put her to shame in front of all those children who would see her. But each one had his booty, some a lot, some only a little, only Antonella had nothing at all.
There was a fair-haired little girl of about seven who was having difficulty in carrying off all the good things she had collected. Antonella looked at her in astonishment.
“Didn’t you find anything?” asked the fair-haired little girl kindly.
“If you like you may have one of mine.”
“May I? Which one?”
“One of the small ones.”
“Yes. Take it.”
“Thank you,” said Antonella, already quite consoled. “What is your name?”
“Ignazia,” replied the little girl.
Just then an important-looking lady, who must have been Ignazia’s mother, interrupted with: “Why are you giving that little girl one of your eggs?”
“I didn’t give it to her — she took it away from me,” replied Ignazia instantly, with that inexplicable perfidiousness of children.
“It isn’t true!” cried Antonella, “She gave it to me!”
It was a beautiful egg of shiny cardboard that you could open like a box, perhaps there was a toy inside, or a set of dolls’ dishes, or a needlework case.
Attracted by the dispute, one of the white-clad Violet Cross ladies appeared on the scene. She was about fifty years old.
“What is the matter, my dears?” she asked with a smile, but it wasn’t a pleasant one. “Don’t you like what you’ve got?”
“It’s nothing, nothing,” said Ignazia’s mother. “This brat — I don’t know who she belongs to — has taken one of my child’s eggs. But it doesn’t matter to me, let her have it! Come along, Ignazia,” and off she went with her little girl.
But the Violet Cross lady didn’t consider the matter closed.
“Did you take the egg?” she asked Antonella.
“No, she gave it to me.”
“Indeed! What is your name?”
“And your mother — where is your mother?”
Just then Antonella realized that her mother was standing motionless a short distance away, watching all that was going on.
“She’s there,” said the child, pointing. “But isn’t she your nursemaid?” Then Gilda came forward. “I am her mother.”
The lady looked at her puzzled. “Excuse me, madam, you have your ticket? Would you mind showing it to me?”
“I haven’t got a ticket,” said Gilda, placing herself beside Antonella.
“You’ve lost it?”
“No, I haven’t got one.”
“You entered by fraud, then? Well, that alters the situation. Now, little girl, that egg doesn’t belong to you.”
Firmly she took the egg away.
“It’s disgraceful,” she said, “now, will you please go.”
The child stood as if turned to stone, her little face petrified with such grief that the heavens themselves began to darken.
Then as the Violet Cross lady was going off with the egg, Gilda exploded. All the humiliations, the sufferings, the anger, the suppressed desires of years and years were too much for her and she began to howl.
There were many people there, smart people in the best society and their children, laden with stupendous eggs. Some hurried away horrified. Others stopped and protested. “It’s shameful!” “It’s a scandal!” “And in front of children too!” “Arrest her!”
“Get out of here if you don’t want to be arrested,” said the Violet Cross lady.
But Antonella burst into violent sobs that would have moved a heart of stone. Gilda was now beside herself — rage, shame, hatred, all gave her a great and irresistible power.
“You should be ashamed, taking away my little girl’s egg when she has nothing. Do you know what you are? Scum!”
Two policemen came up and seized Gilda by the hands.
“Get out at once! Get out!” She freed herself.
“Let me go! Let me go!”
They fell on her, caught hold of her everywhere and dragged her toward the exit. “Now you are coming with us to the police station. Once there you will cool down and learn what happens to people who insult the forces of law and order.”
They had difficulty in holding her, small though she was.
“No! No!” she yelled. “My little girl! My little girl! Let me go, you cowards!” The child, clinging to her skirts and flung to and fro in the tumult, was shouting frantically through her sobs.
There were ten of them, men and women, against her.
“Fetch a straitjacket!”
“Take her to the first-aid post!”
The police van had just drawn up, they opened the door and she was lifted off the ground by the impetus of the crowd. The Violet Cross lady seized the child firmly by the hand. “Now, you come with me. They are going to teach your mummy a lesson.”
No one remembered that sometimes an injustice suffered can unleash terrifying power.
“For the last time, let me go!” shouted Gilda while they were trying to lift her into the van. “Let me go before I kill you!”
“That’s enough! Take her away,” ordered the Violet Cross lady, determined to subdue Antonella.
“Well, then, you shall die first, damn you!” cried Gilda, struggling more than ever.
“Oh, God,” groaned the white-clad one, and fell lifeless to the ground.
“And now you who are holding my hands, you too,” said the cleaner.
There was a confused mass of bodies, then one of the policemen fell down dead, a second one fell down immediately after, as soon as Gilda had spoken.
They all retreated in nameless terror. The mother found herself alone, surrounded by a crowd who dared not do anything.
She took Antonella by the hand and stepped out confidently.
“Make way, make way — let me pass.”
They made way, not daring to touch her. They followed her, though at a distance of twenty yards as she walked away.
Meanwhile, through the milling crowd, armored cars arrived amid the wailing of ambulance and fire-engine sirens. A vice commissioner of police took command of the operations.
A voice was heard: “Hoses! Tear gas!”
Gilda turned around angrily.
“Use them if you dare.”
Here was a mother offended and humiliated, an unleashed force of nature.
A circle of police surrounded her. “Hands up, you wretch!” A warning shot was heard.
“My little girl — you want to kill her too?” cried Gilda. “Let me pass.”
She walked on fearlessly. They hadn’t even touched her and six policemen collapsed in a heap on the ground.
So she reached home. It was a large block of flats standing in the fields on the outskirts of the town. The police surrounded the building.
The Chief of Police advanced with a loud megaphone, and all the tenants were given five minutes to get out, and the mother was ordered to hand over her child lest she should come to harm.
Gilda leaned out of the window on the top floor and shouted words they couldn’t understand. The group of police at once fell back as if some invisible force were pushing them.
“What are you doing? Close ranks!” thundered the officials. But even they stumbled back.
There only remained Gilda and her child in the building. Probably she was cooking supper, for a thin wisp of smoke issued from the chimney.
As evening fell, detachments of the Seventh Armored Regiment formed a wide circle around the house. Gilda leaned out of the window and shouted something or other. A heavy armored car began to wobble, then tipped over sideways — then a second, a third, a fourth. Some mysterious force tossed them about here and there like tin toys until they remained immobile in the most grotesque positions, completely smashed.
A state of siege was declared and U.N.O. forces intervened. A wide zone around the city was evacuated. At dawn the bombardment began.
Standing on a balcony, Gilda and the child quietly watched the spectacle. No one knew why none of the grenades succeeded in hitting the house. They all exploded in midair three hundred yards short. Then Gilda went in because Antonella, frightened by the noise of the explosions, had begun to cry.
They meant to get her through hunger and thirst. The water supply was cut. But every morning and every evening the chimney gave out its plume of smoke — a sign that Gilda was cooking.
The generals decided to attack at “X” hours. At the “Xth” hour the ground for miles around trembled, the war machines advanced concentrically with the boom of the apocalypse.
Once more Gilda showed herself.
“Stop it!” she cried, “Leave me alone!”
The ranks of armored cars heaved as though moved by an invisible wave, the steel pachyderms loaded with death twisted up with horrible grating noises, changing into little heaps of scrap iron.
The Secretary General of the U.N.O. advanced holding a white flag. Gilda invited him to enter.
The Secretary General of the U.N.O. asked the cleaner for her peace terms: the country was exhausted, the nerves of the people and of the armed forces could stand no more.
Gilda offered him a cup of coffee and then said, “I want an egg for my little girl.”
Ten trucks stopped before the house. They were loaded with eggs of all sizes and of fantastic beauty for the little girl to choose. There was even one of solid gold studded with precious stones, fourteen inches in diameter.
Antonella chose a small one of colored cardboard, just like the one that the Violet Cross lady had taken from her.
EndAbout the Author
Dino Buzzati(1906–1972) was an Italian editor, novelist, poet, playwright, and short story writer. He has been lauded as one of Europe’s foremost experimental writers of the twentieth century.
About the Recommender
Kevin Brockmeier is the author of the novels The Illumination, The Brief History of the Dead, and The Truth About Celia; the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky and The View from the Seventh Layer; and the children’s novels City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. His work has been translated into seventeen languages. He has published his stories in such venues as The New Yorker, The Georgia Review, McSweeney’s, Zoetrope, Tin House, The Oxford American, The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and New Stories from the South. He has recieved the Borders Original Voices Award, three O. Henry Awards (one, a first prize), the PEN USA Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an NEA Grant. In 2007, he was named one of Granta magazine’s Best Young American Novelists He teaches frequently at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and he lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was raised.
About Recommended Reading
Recommended Reading is the weekly fiction magazine of Electric Literature, publishing here every Wednesday morning. In addition to featuring our own recommendations of original, previously unpublished fiction, we invite established authors, indie presses, and literary magazines to recommend great work from their pages, past and present. Follow Recommended Reading on Medium and never miss the latest issue, or become a member for full access to the archives. Recommended Reading is supported by the Amazon Literary Partnership, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. For other links from Electric Literature, follow us, or sign up for our eNewsletter.
From Dino Buzzati’s Catastrophe. Copyright 2018 by Zelda Buffoni. Excerpted with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Our favorite book and movie characters exemplify tenderness, the antidote to machismo
Media representations of masculinity tend to play in two notes: On the left we have Nice Guys and on the right we have Macho Men. Both play into ideas of toxic masculinity in their own ways. Macho Men are emotionally distant, but it’s okay because they’re buff and men don’t have feelings anyway. Whether it’s an action hero like Die Hard’s John McClane, or a tortured bad boy like The Breakfast Club’s Bender or Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, we are conditioned to see their anger issues as passion and their repressed emotions as something romantic for women to “fix.” Nice Guys are seen as an antidote, but more often than not, their niceness is performative and in direct relation to their feelings towards a crush. Think of Laurie in Little Women, who grows as a character through the help of Jo, but once she turns him down weaponizes all that character growth as leverage to get in her pants. Or Tom from 500 Days of Summer: He’s a charming underdog, but it’s not exactly “nice” of him to resent Summer for not meeting his romantic expectations despite her clear communication of her boundaries. In an era where toxic masculinity is utterly overwhelming, we are all desperate for a healthier and more nuanced role.
Enter Tender Masculinity.
In an era where toxic masculinity is utterly overwhelming, we are all desperate for a healthier and more nuanced role.
While we have mental imagery of Macho Men (buff, distant) and Nice Guys (nerdy, brooding), the characters that embody Tender Masculinity are multi-layered and come from all backgrounds.
Here is a checklist on how to spot a Tender Man:
Is he invested in all of his relationships, not just romantic ones?
Does he express his emotions in a healthy way?
Is self-awareness a concept he’s comfortable with?
Does he commit to personal growth?
Are boundaries something he is aware of and respects?
Is he unafraid of male intimacy — for instance, can he express affection for male friends without making a gay joke?
The best thing about Tender Masculinity is that it’s not only a necessary antidote to our media portrayals of men — it’s also already here. There aren’t a lot of Tender Man characters yet, and we’d love to see more, but a few books and movies are promoting this low-swagger, high-emotion ideal. These are the fully-realized male characters we need to celebrate and see more of.
These are the fully-realized male characters we need to celebrate and see more of.
A dramatic moment between bosom pals Sam (Sean Astin) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) in the movie “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”Samwise Gamgee — Lord of the Rings
There are many heroes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and many are driven by masculine ideals like duty, honor, glory, or a sense of destiny. But Sam is the indisputable — though somewhat reluctant — hero who tops them all, driven by his love for his friend Frodo. Sam is a devoted friend, who does most of the emotional labor throughout the books. He brings us many moments of Tender Masculinity; following Frodo (even when he’s pressured not to) because he won’t let his friend suffer alone, recognizing and validating the burden of the one ring, and being able to give a good dose of tough love when necessary. His emotional vulnerability is what makes him relatable, and it’s what makes him powerful. That ring would have never seen its fiery end without Sam in the picture.
Mahershala Ali, as Juan, emotes in this screenshot from “Moonlight”Juan, Little/Black/Chiron, and Kevin—Moonlight
Moonlight is a breathtaking story for many reasons, one of those being its examination of toxic masculinity and the importance of tenderness. Tender Masculinity is not an identity of perfection; it is true to the human condition in that it is always a work in progress, a journey. The men of Moonlight all have difficult backgrounds, and at times succumb to the pressure of society’s poisonous expectations of men, but the moments of beauty in the film are when they embrace tenderness. Moonlight takes us through the life of our hero in three major periods: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. During these periods, we explore his relationship with Juan, his father figure, and his complex feelings for his friend — and eventual lover — Kevin. When we see Juan teach Little how to swim, we’re shown the power in tenderness between men. We’re shown an important alternative to how the media often portrays masculinity, especially black masculinity. We’re shown the value of male friendships that we too often ignore.
Kyle Valenti knows something you don’t (it’s how to be a Tender Man) in “Roswell”Kyle Valenti — Roswell
Kyle Valenti is a high school jock, a type of character usually portrayed as either a cool Macho Man or a bullying meathead who keeps our misfit Nice Guy hero away from the girl of his dreams. In the pilot of Roswell, we naturally expect that Kyle, our heroine Liz’s sporty main squeeze, will step in with all the fury of the spurned jock when she leaves him behind for the mysterious world surrounding social outcast Max. When we see Max get beat up by Kyle’s fellow football players, we assume Kyle told them to. But in fact, Kyle is livid when he finds out what his bros did. He apologizes to Max, and then approaches Liz and expresses his need for more open communication in their relationship.
Usually, the high school jock exits after the first act, but Kyle’s tenderness and surprising emotional maturity made him a character fascinating enough to keep around all the way through to the series finale. On this journey we get to see Kyle become a trustworthy ally, a good friend, a hard worker, a devoted son, and an occasional Buddhist? Kyle Valenti was a surprising character to see on mainstream TV in the early aughts, which is what made him so compelling.
Jared — Son of a Trickster
Son of a Trickster, the first book in an in-progress trilogy from Eden Robinson, introduces us to Jared, a 16-year-old Indigenous boy on the cusp of discovering who he really is. We get a full picture of Jared’s life; his relationship with his family, a girl next door, friends at school, his neighbors, his dog, and his enemies. Each relationship has its ups and downs throughout Jared’s journey, during which he is forced to reexamine his identity, his culture, and his connection to the past. Robinson’s novel examines teen angst, while also dispelling stereotypes and misconceptions of Indigenous communities (and Indigenous men in particular) through Jared’s story. While Jared sometimes emotionally shuts off, or finds himself in hypermasculine situations, Robinson makes clear that he is still just a child who has a tender side as well. There are many examples of this, but to me the most heartbreaking is how Jared reacts to the death of his dog, which comes at a particularly hectic time in his life. To me, this was the turning point in the novel where Jared allows himself to fully feel, to wallow in his sadness, and this newfound tenderness impacts his actions through the remainder of the story. The end of the book makes clear that diving into his emotions and reevaluating his identity are key to tapping into his magic.
Remus Lupin reunites with Sirius Black in the movie version of “Prisoner of Azkaban”Remus Lupin — Harry Potter
Hogwarts professor and secret werewolf Remus Lupin was the most emotionally mature male in the Harry Potter series, and I will hear no arguments. Though Lupin’s lycanthropy initially makes Harry and his friends suspicious, he is shown to be a father figure, a sincere educator, a good friend, and a public-minded citizen committed to protecting his wider community. His most compelling relationship is with Nymphadora Tonks, his wife and the mother of his son. What makes their relationship refreshing is that it does not fit into a cookie cutter soul-mate narrative; their history together is fraught with trauma and grief, but rather than becoming codependent or distant, Lupin takes time to articulate and work through his complex feelings before marrying Tonks. (We won’t talk about what happens next.) There are a lot of characters in the Harry Potter series who are heroic through a sense of duty, honor, or sometimes even reluctance, but Lupin is heroic through his tender heart.
The guys cheer Richie on in “Magic Mike XXL”Everybody — Magic Mike XXL
Let me tell you, the real magic of this movie isn’t the well-choreographed thrusting, it’s the celebration of male friendship. In a movie that could be completely cliche, this bro squad does not succumb to the macho stereotypes you may expect. These men are here for each other through thick and thin: relationship problems, supporting healthy sexuality, resisting toxic masculinity, encouraging career goals, and fostering overall personal development. In one of the most GIFable scenes in cinematic history, the friends are reexamining their acts for StripCon (and, yes, rolling on ecstasy). Mike is encouraging the gang to leave behind their cliche personas (fireman, etc.) and develop routines that are representative of themselves. His buddy Big Dick Richie is feeling insecure about coming up with something completely new; he’d rather just stick to his comfort zone instead of putting himself out there. The guys stop at a gas station, and as a way to convince Richie that he is talented at what he does, they challenge him to do a spontaneous number for the incredibly bored gas station employee and give her a reason to smile. While Richie does his improvised routine to a fortuitous Backstreet Boys soundtrack, the rest of his friends are outside cheering him on, genuinely excited to see him gain his confidence back. And Richie succeeds: the woman breaks out in laughter and the boys are re-committed to their vision.
While there are more examples we could list here (all of the men and boys of Stranger Things, for example), there is no ignoring that Tender Masculinity is underrepresented in the stories we tell. It is important that we embrace these stories, because while examining toxic male archetypes in media is necessary, condemning them without offering a healthy alternative just leads to more toxic men in media… and in real life. While the idea of tender masculinity is not new, these stories are becoming more mainstream and embraced. But they’re rare in the grand scheme of things. If we don’t celebrate the ones we have, we risk losing these stories to the same old clichés. Celebrating tender men trickles over into our day-to-day, giving the next generation the male role models they deserve. I look forward to the day when the tender men of fiction are just as common as the Macho Men and Nice Guys we know too well.
Fictional visions of androids, AIs, and other ways humans make technology in our own imagePhoto by D.J. Shin
Remember the 1999 Disney Channel Original Movie Smart House? Shortly after his mother dies, Tech wiz kid Ben wins a brand new home with an in-house digital assistant system named PAT. Ben programs PAT to become a surrogate mother to keep his dad from needing to date anyone, until (spoiler alert) PAT takes on a tyrannical parenting philosophy that no one cares for.
Nearly twenty years later, we don’t have PAT, but we do have Alexa, and Siri, and Cortana. Just last week, The New York Times reported that Amazon’s Alexa has been laughing out-of-turn and without permission in conversations she’s not even a part of. Creepy. Is Alexa laughing at us or with us? While we aren’t asking these digital assistants to be our mothers (yet), we do ask them to wake us up, take care of our calendars, sing us lullabies, tell us the meaning of life. So is technology creepy or are we — the creators of technology — the real creeps?
Is Alexa laughing at us or with us? Is technology creepy or are we — the creators of technology — the real creeps?
There’s a lot to unpack here. Like, what’s the deal with naming all these “assistants” after women? And what exactly do we hope these anthropomorphized bots can do for us? While we can’t answer every one of these questions, here are 8 stories about robots — and we’re using the term “robot” pretty broadly here to include robots, artificial intelligence devices, and even one sex doll — that conjure up a history of our hopes and dreams, failures and successes with technology personified.
In the near future, beds are voice-activated and drones inconspicuously hop from place to place. The president has been assassinated, and our protagonist is a programmer who has developed an algorithm that takes the archived recordings of the president to make him come to life again as a video-projection/hologram. His wife, Charlotte, has Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that has left her paralyzed and potentially suicidal. The protagonist copes by talking to the virtual president every night, while Charlotte listens to Nirvana. It’s a heartbreaking, pretty perfectly executed story. What are the parts of life we get to do over?
Originally published in Poland in 1965, The Cyberiad was translated into English in 1974. It’s a collection of hilarious short stories that follow Trurl and Klapaucius, the brilliant “constructors” so named because they can seemingly construct whatever they want—and who are themselves from a race of robots who, the reader eventually learns, evolved to replace humans. The constructors can move around the stars to build advertisements, but also help those in need (for a fee, of course). In this medieval-space universe there are princesses and knights, sword fights and spaceships. Death is a problem that can be fixed, and loads of robots fall in love. The short story collection is a commentary on our endless desire for technology to fix the human condition, even if that means replacing it, and the comical failures on the other side of that desire.
This a seminal collection of stories is framed by Dr. Susan Calvin who tells each story in the collection to a reporter in the 21st century. (Futuristic!) The collection includes Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics,” which would influence his later science fiction and even the “real-world” thinking about the ethics of artificial intelligence. Asimov was interested in troubling the “technophobia” around robots by writing stories about robots that help out humanity rather than war against it. In “Robbie,” he turns the old “the puppy went off to live on a farm” story on its head when a little girl can’t shake the loss of her best friend/robot named Robbie. In “Liar,” a robot named Herbie learns that lying to avoid hurting someone is never the right answer. And in “Evidence,” Stephen Byerley is gravely injured in an accident, but survives and becomes district attorney. His opponent creates a smear campaign claiming he’s actually a humanoid robot because no one ever sees him eat, and he has never prosecuted an innocent man. Is he simply “a really good man” or an unconvincing robot? In order to prove he’s of the flesh, he has to violate one of the three laws of robots by harming a human.
We had to have some morally complicated robots on the list. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) is the novel that loosely set the stage for the 1982 film Blade Runner. It’s set in the year 2021, when most of the world has been destroyed by nuclear war, including most animal species. Humans are being carted off the planet with the promise of personal human-like androids waiting for them on Mars, and the humans that stay behind purchase incredibly lifelike android animals. Convinced that the all-too-lifelike androids on Mars will revolt and take over, the government bans them, employing bounty hunters like our protagonist Rick Deckard to find and “retire” the rogue androids who have escaped and gone into hiding. As with a lot of books on this list, Dick asks us to think about what it means to be human, who (and what) deserves empathy, and who gets to have an identity.
When I started compiling this list of robot stories, I ran into a problem: most of the obvious choices were written by men. Even more disturbing, a lot of the stories were about agency-devoid women femme bots, or real live women being manipulated by technology mastered by men. Praise be for Ancillary Justice, the revenge-quest space opera, which beat out Nail Gaiman for the prestigious Nebula Award for best novel in 2013. Breq, our protagonist, was once a starship that used artificial intelligence to link thousands of corpse bodies living through one central consciousness used by the Radchaai empire to conquer the galaxy. But after an act of treachery leaves Breq separated from the central consciousness, she’s on a quest to revenge herself and kill the Lord of the Radch before anyone realizes what’s happened. It’s a complex story , moving across millennia and back and forth between different perspectives. For all you language lovers out there: Breq’s home language, which doesn’t distinguish between genders, and defaults to “she” until she learns otherwise, creates the effect, as Gretchen McCulloch wrote for Slate, “that the gender of the male characters is paradoxically less important and more visible,” and that the universe by default is understood to be dominated by women. And did I mention it’s part of a trilogy?
Mattie is an automaton stuck in the middle of the ongoing war between the Alchemists and the Mechanics in the city of Ayona. The alchemists, those who can manipulate stone but eventually turn into stone themselves, are the older order. The mechanics are the “innovators,” whose inventions are drastically demolishing the old to build up the new. After being seemingly emancipated by her mechanic master to study the alchemists, Mattie discovers more than she’s meant to. And the mechanic leader who built her still holds the key that literally winds up her heart up to keep her “alive.” The stakes are raised when a series of attacks exposes Mattie to the corruption keeping the city fueled and fed. It’s a melancholic and fantastical rendering of real-world gender, race, and class inequalities.
Rosemary Harper has given up the last of her nest egg on the Mars black market to become someone else — new name, new job, new destination— onboard the “Wayfarer,” with a fitting cast of characters onboard. There’s creepy and commanding Corbin; Sissix a scaly, feather-haired Aandrisk; the navigator Ohan; Kizzy and Jenks the techs; Dr. Chef the cook; Ashby the captain; and Lovelace (or “Lovey”) the AI. Their day-to-day jobs involve punching wormholes in between systems for other ships to travel through until they’re given the opportunity to take on a new job that promises loads of money and of course, loads of crazy risks. Lovey (named after Ada Lovelace the mathematician and first computer programmer), a sentient AI with no physical body, and the tech Jenks are in love. What I love about this story is the way it warps the “femmebot” trope of a female AI constructed for mindless sexual gratification. Instead of being a gleaming hunk of metal with some semblance of sentience, Lovey at one point considers getting a body kit so she can be with Jenks in physical form, but is worried about how this physical body will dull her sensibilities.
Though it’s not exclusively about robots or artificial intelligence, Made for Love is on this list because it is a book that deals with the very real (and often grotesquely hilarious) reality of looking for physical pleasure and genuine connection when technology promises to provide these things more consistently than humans can. After deciding to leave her controlling tech husband, Byron Gogol, our protagonist Hazel shows up at her father’s trailer looking for a little escape, only to find out her dad’s shacked up with a sex doll named Diane. Hazel’s looking for a life change after Byron asks (read: demands) that she have a chip put in her head so they can “share” memories, like a file-sharing incarnate situation. In alternating chapters, we meet Jasper, the con man literally screwing women out of their wealth who, after a strange accident, has been left only attracted to dolphins. Everyone’s interested in sharing more, but touching each other less. When what we crave (i.e. human connection) is unpredictable, gross, and at times scary, we’ll try any substitute to avoid the pain, and create a whole different mess in the process. Hazel’s life is a different kind of wreck, one that we want in on rather than one we can judge with a sick kind of pleasure from afar. As Jia Tolentino writes in her review for The New Yorker: “She is the rare literary heroine in whose company it would be a pleasure to absolutely wreck my life.” Amen to that.
The author of ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ on what your era’s favorite apocalypse tells you about its anxieties
By M.R. Carey
T o say that the apocalypse is a modern obsession is like doing a shock exposé about the Pope’s religion. Just in terms of sheer volume, there has never been a time when apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories have been produced in greater profusion and variety than we’re seeing now. I’m not complaining, being right in line with the zeitgeist here. I’m just stating a point.
Partly, of course, this is a case of taste being informed by fashion. You read a book, enjoy it, and go looking for something in a similar vein. And partly it’s publishers responding to and accommodating that taste. But I’d argue that these are both reactive processes. They kick in after something has already begun to happen. And in this case, the something was writers turning to the end of the world as a theme that needed to be explored.
We’ve been here before, of course. The end of the world holds a perennial fascination for us, and we just can’t keep ourselves from going there, time after time. But the modern era is different in a lot of ways. Until recently those end-of-the-world narratives were mostly the province of religious texts, which having told us how things got going in the first place seemed to feel obliged to wrap up all the plotlines at the end. But after we invented the novel (early eighteenth century) and universal literacy (work in progress, TBC) an inexorable shift began. It was slow at first, but gradually those themes and ideas became the province of popular fictions consumed by large numbers of people.
At that point they were free to evolve. Bibles don’t, very much, except through the vagaries of translation. There are always fundamentalists ready to hand to get outraged if you shift a comma. Novels, on the other hand, because of the way in which they’re produced and consumed, proliferate like rabbits, swap DNA like viruses and change more rapidly and unpredictably than Darwin’s finches.
That’s also true of genres, none more so that the apocalyptic novel. Each wave of doomsday plot devices is different from the one before, and I think those changes tell us something about ourselves. Or at least, something about our nightmares and neuroses, which the apocalyptic novel both plays on and partially assuages.
Each wave of doomsday plot devices is different from the one before, and those changes tell us something about ourselves.
Every generation sees the end of the world through the prism of its own day-to-day reality. And the popularity of apocalyptic fiction seems to rise and fall in line with real-world fears and tensions and insecurities. Taxonomy only takes us so far, though. What’s remarkable about the best post-apocalyptic narratives is what they do with their initial premise — what kind of stories they launch from the springboard of global catastrophe.
Barring a few nineteenth-century outliers (Mary Shelly gets there first, as usual, with The Last Man in 1826) science fiction doesn’t begin to address itself en masse to the end of the world until the 1960s. The pulps flirted with it, but the few doomsday scenarios were far outweighed by the bright, millennarian visions. Most future Earths from the ‘30s to the ‘50s had tidy little galactic empires with well-manicured lawns. The aliens would get a little frisky from time to time, but there was almost always a Buck Rogers or a Kimball Kinnison to put them firmly in their places.
The writers who were coming to the fore in the ‘60s had experienced World War Two firsthand; they had seen how a seemingly stable world order could tear itself apart in a sudden paroxysm. But if their uncertainty about the future was rooted in the past, their main reference point was still a contemporary one. Their biggest nightmare, time after time, was environmental disaster.
It’s easy to see why. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, released in 1962, blew the lid off the pesticides industry and brought the term food chain into everyday use. Revealing how chemicals like DDT built in concentration as they worked their way up from plants to herbivores to predators, Carson changed the way most people looked at the natural world. It would be another decade or so before James Lovelock proposed the Gaia Hypothesis, but the idea of the environment as a system of complex interdependencies whose ability to self-repair might have limits arguably starts with Carson’s passionate wake-up call.
The science fiction writers of the day answered and amplified that call. J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World was the first of many novels of the time to take the theme of eco-catastrophe and run with it. In Ballard’s book, global warming has caused the ice caps to melt, shrinking the habitable land mass of the world and overwhelming entire countries. In the same year, John Christopher’s The World In Winter pushed in the opposite direction to imagine a new ice age, while Ballard went on to make eco-apocalypse a recurring theme with stories like The Wind From Nowhere (super-hurricane), The Crystal World (a mysterious phenomenon that crystallizes living tissue) and The Drought (guess).
Obviously Carson’s work identified the human impact on the natural world as the real problem that needed to be addressed. Sixties sci-fi took that idea on board too, imagining worlds in which overpopulation, pollution, and resource depletion were the catalysts for global meltdown. John Brunner’s work stands out here, particularly Stand On Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up.
Man-made disasters continued to be a dominant theme in the science fiction of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In fact, the cinema of the day, playing catch-up with the previous decade’s prose fiction, was making up for lost time with movies such as Silent Running, Soylent Green, and Zardoz.
But themes like deforestation and global famine were gradually eclipsed by a new sort of end-of-the-world McGuffin, one that depended on the ever-more-plausible scenario of global nuclear war. Nevil Shute had led the way with On the Beach, much earlier, and the nuclear apocalypse had never really gone out of style, but the late ‘70s and ‘80s saw an unprecedented spike in such stories. Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley dates from this time, as do David Graham’s Down To a Sunless Sea, David Brin’s The Postman, and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.
Themes like deforestation and global famine were gradually eclipsed by a new sort of end-of-the-world McGuffin, one that depended on the ever-more-plausible scenario of global nuclear war.
I remember very vividly how ubiquitous that fear was. It became such a dominant cultural meme that it was no longer the province of science fiction. Pop music paid homage to it in songs like “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” “99 Red Balloons,” and “Let’s All Make a Bomb.” Sober, realistic TV dramas like Threads and The Day After brought the idea into the post-watershed mainstream, and Raymond Briggs reduced it to its heartbreaking basics with When the Wind Blows. Whatever medium you worked in, whether it was film, TV, prose, or comics, if you wanted to imagine a future that was dislocated from the present then a nuclear war was the only entry ticket you needed.
This is where the generational model starts to break down a little, for an interesting reason. The sheer volume of texts produced in prose and other media had been climbing exponentially ever since the start of the twentieth century. As a side effect, influences get faster and faster and cycles get shorter. Ideas that were fresh and new become familiar cultural shorthand, then cliché, in the space of a few years.
Human mutation is one of many ideas that suddenly becomes ubiquitous — a universally available trope that needs no explanation. Earlier novels such as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids had for the most part stayed closer to the known scientific facts, portraying mutation as something that was random and for the most part unwelcome. But the super-powered mutant now becomes a staple in popular fiction. The link to atomic radiation as a mutagenic agent is often forgotten, but it persists for example in the perennial tagline for Marvel’s mutant X-Men, “the children of the atom,” and in 2000 AD’s Strontium Dog.
With the end of the Cold War in 1991, the fear that it would suddenly turn hot dissipated too. With no Soviet Union to hang our anxieties on, we invented new ones. It’s around about this time that the zombies come lurching into view.
With no Soviet Union to hang our anxieties on, we invented new ones. It’s around about this time that the zombies come lurching into view.
1980s–2000s: Evil Dead
The zombie apocalypse presents a special case. For one thing, it exists at the contested border between horror and science fiction. And for another, it has proved to be uniquely versatile, splitting into sub-genres of its own and (arguably) becoming more intensely self-referential than any other type of genre text.
The shading from classic horror zombies to the more nuanced zombies of today took place gradually and subtly, and with a minimum of fuss. Where 1978’s Dawn Of the Dead assured us that “when there’s no more room left in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth,” the zombies in 1985’s Re-Animator were created by a serum devised and administered by a scientist, and Joe R. Lansdale’s Cadillac Desert (1989) had zombies spawned by a bacterium — an innovation that changed the whole fictional landscape. 28 Days Later, in 2002, locked in this idea of the zombie plague with its vivid imagery and Wyndham-inspired plot, and most zombie texts that have followed (including my own The Girl With All the Gifts, 2014) have been strongly influenced by this template.
But what do zombie movies tell us about our fears? Surely the zombie apocalypse — unlike eco-collapse or nuclear war — isn’t a rational thing to be afraid of? Well, you’d think that, but a lot of people do seem to be afraid of it just the same. Here in the U.K., the Daily Mail ran a story last January with the headline A ZOMBIE OUTBREAK COULD COME CLOSE TO WIPING OUT HUMANITY IN 100 DAYS. A similar article in the Huffington Post offered tips for survival under the sub-deck quote “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
Surely the zombie apocalypse — unlike eco-collapse or nuclear war — isn’t a rational thing to be afraid of? Well, you’d think that, but a lot of people do seem to be afraid of it just the same.
So zombies work surprisingly well on the literal level, but they’re also a great vehicle for other fears. In the horror milieu, they were often a vehicle for barely-veiled jeremiads against the ills of modern society, confronting us with a distorted mirror of our own instincts and drives. The shopping mall in Day Of the Dead, to go for everyone’s favorite example, continues to dominate the ruined suburban landscape as the world falls apart. It’s a refuge for the living and a weird lure for the undead, who dimly remember that everything they ever wanted was once contained within those walls. Director George Romero followed that dark vision in 2005’s Land Of the Dead with an allegorical fable about the class struggle in modern America and the growing wealth gap.
In science fiction, I think the zombie apocalypse presents differently and carries a different freight of meaning. To make an obvious point, the rationale for the existence of zombies in the first place usually relates not to the lack of available storage space in Hell but to a plague — the work of a bacillus, a virus, a fungus or an alien mind-worm. Modern fears of a pandemic, stoked by near-misses with SARS and H1N1 are obviously very relevant here.
But there’s also an existential aspect to the threat zombies pose. Zombies are people in shape only; they look like us but they don’t have any spark of consciousness. They remind us that our own personhood can be rescinded. To become a zombie is to lose what makes you human — so these apocalypses tear us down from the inside, replacing the heroic property damage of (say) a Roland Emmerich movie with something subtler but much more devastating, the inexorable crumbling of your own selfhood, your soul. Hence the counterpoise in a novel like Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies between the familiar genre furniture of ruined urban landscapes and survivalist enclaves, and the precarious affection that forms between R and Julie. The abyss, here, is wholly internal.
Zombies are people in shape only; they look like us but they don’t have any spark of consciousness. They remind us that our own personhood can be rescinded.
2000s and 2010s: Slouching Towards Bethlehem
That seems to have taken us past the dawn of the new millennium, where apocalypses come in every flavor to suit your pocket and your taste.
The plague-based apocalypse isn’t limited to zombies. Novels such as The Space Between the Stars and Louise Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy both dramatize very vividly the widespread societal collapse that a pandemic might bring.
Eco-catastrophe has returned — but with more teeth, informed by the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming and a shedload of incontrovertible evidence. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi offers us a near future where water scarcity has made the U.S.A. a union in name only, pitting the Western states against each other in vicious legal and paramilitary skirmishes. In The Stone Gods, Jeanette Winterson hauntingly invents a migratory past for the human race, suggesting that this isn’t the first time we’ve devoured an entire planet’s resources out from under ourselves. And let’s not forget Wall-E, whose garbage-choked cityscapes were one of the most haunting visions Pixar’s brilliant animators have ever produced.
Eco-catastrophe has returned — but with more teeth, informed by the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming and a shedload of incontrovertible evidence.
Global war (nuclear or otherwise) is still contending strongly, although these days it seems mostly to express itself through massive franchises like The Hunger Games, Mad Max, and Planet Of the Apes. Actually, in saying that, I’m ignoring Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), one of the most powerful and affecting post-apocalyptic novels ever written. And I guess there was The Book Of Eli, too, however much we might wish there wasn’t. In that movie, in case you don’t remember, the power of God’s guiding hand allows a blind man to fight his way (with ninja warrior skill levels) across a blighted America to bring a copy of the bible to a miraculously intact printing press on the West Coast. The Almighty may have allowed the human race to descend back into barbarism, with incalculable loss of life, but at least He still gets to tell His side of the story. Yay.
We’ve also got a growing trend for stories where humanity is destroyed or superseded by its own technology, with the emergence of artificial intelligence research proving very fertile soil for paranoia. The Terminator movies had already given full vent to these concepts back in the ‘80s, but Robert Cargill’s Sea Of Rust (2017) goes one better by setting its narrative after the human extinction event has already happened. In shifting the never-ending struggle for survival from us to the beings who exterminated and replaced us, Cargill offers some startling insights into the way ecosystems work and our place in Earth’s so fragile yet so resilient biosphere.
What’s the Point of It All?
Looking at this cornucopia of cataclysms, you could be forgiven for thinking that in the modern era we’re afraid of pretty much everything — or at least that our end-of-the-world presentiments are reaching an unprecedented high. I wouldn’t argue against either of those things. In the wake of the financial collapse a decade ago, the prospect of having your life suddenly and spectacularly become non-viable has become a day-to-day reality for many — and the world’s political systems have largely been put into the hands of rogues and fools (I don’t mean either rogues or fools, I mean people who are both), so it’s no surprise if we keep probing the sore place to see how badly it hurts.
But apocalyptic fiction is far more than a sort of psychic immunization program, giving us little disasters so the big one won’t hurt so much when it comes. For one thing, apocalypses are a good place for conducting thought-experiments. By clearing away the inessentials they make room for searching questions about who we are and what we’re for. So much of our behavior and our thinking is dictated by the social roles we play. We move through our days like actors crossing a stage, all our moves blocked and all our words cued up for us in advance. If society breaks down, there’s nobody left to prompt us. We suddenly have to improvise, and in the process we discover ourselves, as the American poet Wallace Stevens put it, “more truly and more strange.”
Apocalypses are a good place for conducting thought-experiments. By clearing away the inessentials they make room for searching questions about who we are and what we’re for.
That’s certainly true of Cormac McCarthy’s masterful The Road, in which a father and son journey through a landscape so depleted by catastrophe that food is almost entirely exhausted. Their humanity and their love for each other is tested beyond every conceivable limit, but it holds. “If he is not the word of God,” the father thinks as he looks down on his sleeping child, “then God never spoke.” In N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth books, by contrast, the focus is on racial tensions and divisions seen through the lens of a society hardened and coarsened by regular apocalypse events. Jemisin brilliantly dissects the way mistrust between groups can be fomented to serve political agendas that have nothing to do with survival and everything to do with power and advantage.
In some stories, the end of the world functions as metaphor. Kurt Vonnegut’s early masterpiece Cat’s Cradle is a darkly hilarious fable about the arms race and its logical end point, but it’s many other things besides and one of them is a meditation on human mortality. The book is full of deaths that are tragic, absurd or both, and though in due course it builds to an end-of-the-world moment (“the great ah-whoom”) it also reminds us poignantly that every death is the end of a world. That’s literally one of the tenets of the novel’s invented religion, Bokononism, which also gives us the novel’s closing lines and humanity’s defiant response to the arbitrariness of the universe.
Post-apocalyptic narratives differ, too, in where they position themselves relative to the end of the world. Many show it happening in the narrative present (which means they’re not post-apocalyptic at all). Most jump forward a generation to show the new world order that’s forming, and make that the central focus. That’s become a staple of YA fiction in recent years, with many writers following the trail that Suzanne Collins blazed in the Hunger Games trilogy.
But some writers go off-piste. Jasper Fforde’s brilliant Shades Of Grey (a title he must regret every day of his life) takes place many centuries after its sundering apocalypse, which is referred to only as “the something that happened.” The new society that has risen up is profoundly ignorant of its own past, and so is the reader. We see the end product, but we don’t see the process, so we’re false-footed again and again by the novel’s brilliant reveals.
And some novels don’t announce themselves as apocalyptic at all, but are still suffused with the elegiac sense of an era, a way of life, a civilization winding to its close. Foremost among these implicit apocalypses is Claire North’s wonderful The End Of the Day, whose point-of-view character, Charlie, acts as the harbinger of death. When death is coming, Charlie is sent before, sometimes as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning. But the deaths he is sent to mark aren’t always the deaths of individuals, and as the book progresses we start to see patterns and correspondences that foreshadow a bigger, more profound death. The personal, the global and the cosmic overlap and interpenetrate, as they do in Cat’s Cradle.
Perhaps, if there’s a common thread running through apocalyptic fiction (and I admit that’s a big if) then it’s novels like Cat’s Cradle and The End Of the Day that give it its clearest expression. There’s a scene in the latter book where Charlie attends a funeral for someone he has got to know in the course of his work.
The Harbinger of Death sits quietly and nods at the words that come… and cries with the rest of the room, not in raging grief that shouts and screams, but at the size of the hollow left behind, which no one now can fill.
And outside the church…
Death waits, but does not enter. Her work is done, for today, and funerals she feels are a ceremony for the living, not the dead. She has no interest in corpses.
That exquisite tension defines apocalyptic fiction for me. It always gives us a split focus, on “the hollow left behind” and on the living who now have to reach a new accommodation with a new reality. That’s a crucial and complicated part of being human, and we need all the help we can get. Perhaps that’s why we turn so often to stories that take us to the edge of the abyss and hold our hands as we look down.
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