Novella’s Fall Book Preview

Novella’s given you, our faithful readers, a preview of upcoming movies and TV shows coming this fall. Now it’s time to shine our spotlight on books!

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (pub date: Sept. 5th)

Tracing the past and the present of Mississippi, Ward’s upcoming novel follows a family – Jojo, his younger sister Kayla, and their mother Leonie – as they move toward the state penitentiary after hearing about the release of the children’s white father from prison. Exploring the love and limitations of family in the face of racism and poverty, Sing, Unburied, Sing parallels the likes of Toni Morrison.

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere (pub date: Sept. 12th) 

Set in an idyllic Cleveland suburb, Ng’s latest novel centers on two mothers and their children: Elena Richardson, who parallels the suburb’s composed order, and Mia Warren, who resists the said order. Soon a divisive custody battle — a result of the Richardson’s family friends’ endeavor to adopt a Chinese-American baby — creates animosity between the two women. Described as witty and wise, Little Fires Everywhere traces the nature of secrets, art, and, above all, motherhood.

Sam Sax’s Madness (pub date: September 12th)

Sax’s debut poetry collection challenges notions of masculinity, sanity, heterosexuality, and normality. Writing about sex, hysteria and lobotomy, and his own experiences with mental health, Sax uses peculiarities in of the language to parallel and contemplate the peculiarities of the human mind.

Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead (pub date: Sept 5th)

Smith’s second poetry collection, like his previous work, discusses race, sexuality, power, and politics. It begins with imagining an afterlife for black men shot by the police and traces desire and mortality in relation to the body. A poet and an activist, Smith’s work has been celebrated for its innovative and political voice.

Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (pub date: October 3rd)

Set in Brooklyn in the 1930’s, Pulitzer-winner Egan’s novel follows an 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan, her father, and a nightclub owner named Dexter Styles, whom Anna learns is critical to her family’s existence. Eight years later, America is in the Second World War and Anna’s father is missing. A chance meeting with Dexter, however, helps Anna trace the complexities and, ultimately, the truth of her father’s disappearance. Egan’s first historical fiction, Manhattan Beach explores the oppositions within and dualities of human existence.

Jermey Dauber’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History (pub date: Oct. 31st)

Divided into what Dauber refers to as the seven strands of Jewish comedy, the book delves into the ways in which Jewish comedy has approached persecution and diaspora. Examining comedic archetypes along with major Jewish comedians (Philip Roth, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart), Dauber’s work has been described as funny and crucial scholarship of Jewish history.

Han Kang’s The White Book (pub date: Nov. 2nd) 

The White Book, described as “the most autobiographical and the most experimental to date” by Portobello Books, is Korean writer Han Kang’s third publication in English. Starting with a list of white things the author saw in Warsaw (where she completed her writer’s residency), the book centers on Kang’s older sister, who’d died two hours after birth. Paralleling and intertwining imagery of the city and a new life cut short, Kang creates a genre-defying piece of literature, reflecting on life and death and survival.

Hallie Lieberman’s Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy (pub date: Nov. 7th) 

Lieberman writes about the history of vibrators, tracing the changes in the ways in which it has been used and perceived. Starting with the lubricant in Ancient Greece all the way up to vibrators in present day, Lieberman discusses sex toys within the context of various attitudes towards sexuality, feminism, and LGBT issues, presenting sex toys in a new, less clandestine light.

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Novel Ideas: Roxane Gay’s Hunger

Author Roxane Gay. (Jay Grabiec)

Bodies are politicized figures. Our physical selves have various forms of oppressions and privileges (depending on our respective intersecting identities) planted on them. Race, gender, and disability — visible on our bodies — inform the ways in which we exist and are perceived in the world. Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, discusses body size — often overlooked and disregarded in discussions of power and politics — as a form of oppression. Gay, the author of Bad Feminist and Difficult Women, writes honestly about her relationship with her body in Hunger; about, and she’s clear on this from the start, not being “Lane Bryant fat” (being able to buy clothes at Lane Bryant, which goes up to size 28), but rather “living in the world when you are three or four hundred pounds overweight”.

Early on in the book, Gay informs her readers of the following:

My life is split in two, cleaved not so neatly. There is the before and the after. Before I gained weight. After I gained weight. Before I was raped. After I was raped.

It was a boy, whom she loved (in the way you do at 12 years old), who went biking with her in the woods and took her inside a cabin, where his friends were waiting. She writes thoughtfully about the violence that followed: “As a sheltered, good Catholic girl, I barely understood” the situation. But, “I did understand the pain…the sharpness and the immediacy of it.” She describes this pain as “inescapable” — so much so that she eventually turned to food to make her body into a “fortress.” Food and eating, Gay explains, became a way to feel “more solid, stronger.” It was a way to veer away attention, particularly the male, sexually predatory attention, from herself. Gay knew, from witnessing hers and others’ reactions to fat people “that too much weight was undesirable.” And to “keep…[the] hurt away” — the hurt that followed the aforementioned male, sexually predatory attention — Gay created “a new body, one that shamed [her] but one that made [her] feel safe.”

Throughout the book, Gay showcases the larger modes of power and patterns that shape her experiences: the patriarchal ways in which we view women’s bodies as open to consumption by men; the immigrant experience, the move from “the Global South” to “the Global North”, which often results in a sense of responsibility and well-to-do-ness in immigrant families, that, to some degree, kept Gay from sharing her trauma with her parents; and the capitalism-fueling fat-phobia porn in popular culture, in particular reality television like The Biggest Loser. Some of Gay’s most forceful cultural critique is in the chapter discussing this televised “anti-obesity propaganda”. Gay explains that The Biggest Loser “offer[s] wish fulfillment for people with unruly, overweight bodies” – for both those watching the show and those participating in it. What is more, these “unruly bodies” become a “spectacle”,  a form of entertainment onto themselves, constantly fat-shamed by the on-screen medical professionals and trainers until they lose their excess weight. Such television testifies to the systematic nature of fat-phobia that can be found everywhere, as Gay points out, from air travel to the medical community to fashion.

Hunger is a candid discussion and exploration of our society’s disregard towards individuals with “unruly bodies”, paving a path to a much needed conversation. It is also Roxane Gay writing her own narrative, taking control of her story, in a way she was unable to with her body (indicated in the book’s subtitle: A Memoir of (My) Body). Gay’s closing words in Hunger are powerful. She declares, “Here I am”. She declares herself taking up space on the page, on bookshelves and bookstores, in a way her body is shamed for doing. There is strength in her voice, in spite of the pain – strength to do the bold and daring, like writing this book. But also the strength to do the seemingly small, like learning to love and appreciate the sensualities of food, after and even while struggling with it as a self-harming tool. Gay writes:

I started watching Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten’s cooking show on the Food Network, every day from four to five p.m. … I love the show. I love everything about Ina. … [She] makes cooking seem easy, accessible. She loves good ingredients – good vanilla, good olive oil, good everything. She is always offering helpful tips – very cold butter makes pastry dough better, and a cook’s best tools are clean hands. She uses an ice cream scoop for the dough when she’s making muffins and reminds the audience of this trick with a conspiratorial grin. … She is ambitious and knows she is excellent at what she does and never apologizes for it. She teaches me that a woman can be plump and pleasant and absolutely in love with food.

There is such joy in her words when she describes watching Ina Garten cooking, such joy when she describes herself doing something seemingly small. And it is this joy — simple and whole and lovely — that sticks with me, that I think of often, days after finishing the book.

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Novel Ideas: Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Twenty years after her first novel, Arundhati Roy returns to fiction with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. In 1997, she published The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize and marked her as an internationally acclaimed author. For the following two decades, Roy worked as a political activist, speaking out against Hindu nationalism in India, advocating for the independence of Kashmir, critiquing capitalism, and protesting against environmental degradations. Indeed, any reader of Roy’s new novel can see the heavy, intermingling threads of activism running through it. It is a demanding book that, thanks to its outspoken political nature, challenges the rigid ways in which we often see and define the novel: as an exclusive genre that adheres to its rules of plot, dialogue, form, and style. But Roy’s novel resists this, integrating political thought with narratives, poetics, and languages.

The reader first meets Anjum (described as a hijra, a Hindu term referring to those who are hermaphrodites, transgendered, or third gendered) living “like a tree in the graveyard”. She is born with both male and female sex organs, and is raised as a boy named Aftab. The reader joins Anjum when she, as Aftab, sees “a slim-hipped woman wearing bright lipstick” and realizes she “want[s] to be her” – and continues with Anjum as she faces the consequences that follow her choice to live as a woman. Anjum’s identity and its complexities are shown within and in relation to the political ongoings of India: for instance, the war surrounding the Line of Control in Kashmir and the murder of Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat, both stemming from the centuries-old conflict between Hindus and Muslims. The novel probes how a hijra is seen, treated, and heard in such situations, working with both the personal and the political. It zooms into the individual and then the collective, introducing a range of characters who are all somehow connected to Anjum, to the tree in the graveyard.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness author Arundhati Roy

Many reviewers have suggested that the novel tries to weave too much of Roy’s activism into one book: the number of characters can be overwhelming, the number of political turmoils explored can be difficult to follow, the plot and dialogue — the supposed holy grails of fiction — can fall behind the political settings. Indeed, all that can be said justly about the novel. But, as Roy herself explains, approaching and writing fiction often involves questions of experiment, of whether you can “make the foreground into the background,” of whether you can center and decenter things. As such, Roy’s decision to center the personal at a given time or the political at another time, irrespective of time and chronology, not only challenges the ways in which themes are explored in novels — integrated and often in the background of a plot – but asks what the ultimate role of a novel is. Can there ever be one set role? Or should we expect it to evolve and change? Expect ourselves, in fact, to critique and evaluate it?

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a difficult, long book, requiring a second read from many. But its nuances and complexities, its poetic language and narratives are remarkable. Because of its exploration of the connection between the personal and the political, it showcases the human faces of the collective — the human faces of not just individuals from a given community, often easily accomplished in novels, but of the mass —, of those whose narratives are often shown simply as political upheavals and disruptions, rather than the human force that exists behind them. As a result, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, with all its merits and flaws, insists on centering on humanity.

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A Conversation with Artist Ambivalently Yours

Illustration: Ambivalently Yours
Illustration: Ambivalently Yours

 

In the age of our ever-growing cyber footprint, anonymity seems almost impossible — undesirable too. But Tumblr artist, Ambivalently Yours, infamous for her unapologetic use of pink and pretty, shows us reasons why internet anonymity can act as a tool.

Having gained a wealth of followers through her Tumblr platform, Ambivalently Yours showcases her feminist artwork, most of which are female portraits, with an almost nostalgic air.

I recently spoke with the artist, as she shared with me her reasons for celebrating traditionally femininity, the colour pink, and remaining anonymous.

Snigdha Koirala: Can you talk about the story behind your name, ‘Ambivalently Yours’?
Ambivalently Yours: Ambivalence means loving and hating simultaneously, which is often confused for an inability to make up one’s mind, or not having a strong opinion. Embracing ambivalence has given me the freedom to resist defining myself too narrowly. Part of being a feminist is about advocating for a woman’s right to choose. This right, however, does not imply there is only one choice. For example, my commitment to feminism could only occur once I gave myself permission to also embrace my love of fashion and the colour pink, two things often associated with the patriarchal domination of women. This refusal to choose between traditional femininity and radical feminism allowed for another space to exist: not a space of indecision but rather a space of undeciding. I call this space: Ambivalently Yours. My commitment to ambivalence is about learning to ask more questions rather than get stuck with incomplete answers.

SK: Where does your decision to remain anonymous come from? How do you think it affects the way you produce your artwork and express your feminism?
AY: My desire to remain anonymous online was initially motivated by fear. The Internet can be a volatile place and my work is always inspired by personal experiences, so I found that the only way I could be honest without making myself too vulnerable was to be anonymous. My anonymity was a form of self-preservation, which in turn gave me the courage I needed to be more daring in my art. Later, I realized that my anonymity allowed for people to find themselves in the lack of specificity of my online persona. With this, Ambivalently Yours becomes less of a reflection of my personal self and more of a representation of the ideas behind the work. With anonymity I am exploring ideas of connection through ambiguity and ambivalence.

SK: The colour pink is celebrated in your work, but it is also a colour with which our society has developed a nuanced and complicated relationship. Can you talk about your own personal relationship with it?
AY: I decided to make all my drawings light pink because people kept telling me not to. The use of pink is actually my rebellion against everyone who told me that pink was not a powerful colour, or that my work was too feminine and not confident or strong enough, or that I should use darker pink or black because they are somehow perceived as stronger colours. I know that girls are brainwashed from a young age to like pink, and maybe part of my affection for it is rooted in that, but I disagree that everything associated with girlhood should be automatically be seen as weak.

Illustration: Ambivalently Yours
Illustration: Ambivalently Yours

SK: Many feminist artists on Tumblr embrace traditional femininity in their work (i.e., pink, glitter, make-up) to subvert the notion that it equates weakness. How do you think this has affected the way girls have begun to perceive and define femininity? And to what extent does it allow for other notions of femininity to be included in the feminist movement taking place on the internet?
AY: I can’t speak for everyone else, but I think that many women, or people of any gender who identify as femme, are just tired of having to apologize or hide their love of all things girly and pink. We are tired of having to follow the rules, be it the rules of patriarchal society or the rules of radical feminism, and we are tired of being defined narrowly. We want to make up our own rules, where things are no longer black or white, but instead are pink and glittery. I think there is a lot of power in redefining the things that were meant to oppress us and using them as tools to fight back.

SK: ‘Tumblr Feminism’ has often been criticized for lacking intersectionality, for focusing mostly on ‘white feminism’. In your experience of creating and, I assume, consuming content on Tumblr, how true do you find this statement to be?
AY: The lack of intersectionality in feminism is not a Tumblr problem, it is a problem that exists in the larger feminist conversation happening today. To group the many varied and complex versions of feminism happening on Tumblr into one thing and call it “Tumblr Feminism” is really problematic, because it oversimplifies what I think is a very dynamic, diverse and important facet of the current feminist movement. I think if we want to address problems with intersectionality, we have to be more specific and more patient, especially with those who mean well, but may not be informed enough to understand the mistakes they are making. We have to learn to hold each other accountable for our mistakes without villainizing each other. It’s too easy to say Tumblr feminism is White feminism, and I’m just not interested in having those kinds of generalized conversations, because they end up being just as exclusive and uninformed as the things they are criticizing. I think we have to learn to make our movements more intersectional, by finding ways for many feminisms to coexist. Feminism is a movement that affects many different types of people, all of which need it and interpret it in different ways. I don’t think it makes sense to try to define feminism as this one thing, and hope that everyone will find a way to fit into it. We have to learn to support each other while being different, which is really tricky. While the Internet connects us, we talk about each other more than we talk to each other and that is a problem.

Illustration: Ambivalently Yours
Illustration: Ambivalently Yours

SK: Your artwork often incorporates some text. To what extent does text play a role in your work?
AY: I think that art is limited because sometimes it can be too abstract and verbal language is limited because sometimes there just aren’t enough words. So I’ve decided to combine both art and text to try to fill in the gaps.

SK: The piece I find most striking of yours is a portrait of a girl with the words ‘feminist bitch’ written under it, mostly because there has been a lot of discourse about embracing the word ‘bitch’: some have argued that it propagates patriarchal ideas of powerful women (that if they are powerful, they are cold-hearted and manipulative), while others have argued that it turns the term around on its head, that it takes something that has been used to insult and degrade, and uses it to empower. What is your stance on the word and why?
AY: My use of the word “Bitch” is the same thing as my use of pink and feminine iconography. I’m taking the things that were meant to oppress me, and I’m making them my weapons to fight back. Not everyone agrees or feels comfortable with this approach, because people have different experiences with oppressive language and iconography. For me, the act is empowering, but I understand and respect that for others it may not be.

SK: And lastly, when people see your artwork, what do you hope resonates the most with them?
AY: I hope that my work helps spark conversations and encourages people to share their emotions. In a way, my drawings are communication tools to say the things we can’t always say out loud.

A Conversation With Poet Meggie Royer

 

Image: Meggie Royer
Image: Meggie Royer

Poetry has often been the language of the pale, male, and stale: from Shakespeare to Blake to Elliot, we have heard and re-heard the male narrative in ‘must-read!’ poems. But the recent surge of internet literature – of writers using online platforms to publish their work – is redefining the type of poems we consume and how we consume it.

Meggie Royer, the author of various poetry collections – the most recent being missed connection – is one of the many behind this re-definition. Through her online literary magazine, Persephone’s Daughters and her Tumblr platform, she is creating a space for the female voice – especially the female abuse survivors voice – to be heard and respected.

I recently spoke with Meggie, as she shared with me her experiences of addressing difficult subjects in her work, her motivations behind Persephone’s Daughters, and where she sees it, along with her own writing, heading in the future.

 

Snigdha Koirala: Your poems are never afraid to veer into the uncomfortable: you’ve explored topics like sexual assault, abortions, and mental health, to name a few. Can you talk a bit about the process of confronting such subjects in your poetry?
Meggie Royer: Nikki Giovanni has this great quote that I often find myself coming back to in my writing. “Writers don’t write from experience. Writers write from empathy.” Before I write about any difficult, controversial, or traumatic topic, I always, always make sure I have empathy for that topic or the people who experience it (even if those people include me). And then I write until it’s done. When I’m writing a difficult poem, I still won’t let myself take breaks. I have to write all the way through without stopping. It’s more raw that way. More real. And that’s the way I like it.

SK: Do you remember the first poem you wrote? What was it about?
MR: Unfortunately, I don’t remember the very first poem I ever wrote, but I do remember one of the first. I remember it was very dark and filled with a great deal of bird imagery, and can vividly recall that the phrase “shudder all your basement sound” was in it somewhere.

SK: I actually first came across your work on Tumblr. What prompted you to use it as a platform to share your work? Does it affect your relationship with your readers in any way?
MR: I had previously used Tumblr as a platform for my photography many years ago, and had only just started writing when I decided to use it as a platform for my poetry. I really just wanted to join a community of artists again (I had used Flickr as such a community years before) and gain inspiration for further writing. Honestly, one of the reasons I chose Tumblr for a platform to share my work was because I had used it before, and because I had never heard, at that point, of any other writing communities like WattPad or Figment.

It does affect my relationship with my readers. It allows me to have a more direct, personal relationship with them by answering questions and messages they send me about my work. I also, interestingly, get to keep tabs on what kinds of topics of mine they’re most interested in, which affects what kinds of works I post. In that way, I’m able to shape and mold my posts based on my readers’ interests and gear my work towards those interests. At the same time, however, it can be too easy to slip into a pattern of writing too much for my readers and not enough for myself, and that’s something I always have to be careful about.

SK: You’ve spoken publicly about your experience with sexual assault. What specifically about poetry prompted you to address it?
MR: My rapist silenced me in more ways than one. I was terrified for a long time of his retaliation and anger and lies if I spoke out. And speaking out about what he did to me in plain terms seemed so traumatic. Imagine sitting in a conference room with three or four strangers as they ask you deeply intimate and personal, invasive questions about how your rapist violated you, and won’t let up until you answer in as much detail as possible. That’s what I had to do at one point in my life, and I could not ever go through that again. So I chose poetry instead, because it allowed me to use metaphor and figurative language for things I was too tired of naming, for terminology I was so tired of hearing misused by people who claimed their best interest was in protecting the students on their campus.

SK: Your online literary magazine Persephone’s Daughters aims to empower female abuse survivors. At what point did you feel like launching a magazine like this was important and why?
MR: Women, especially female abuse survivors, are silenced day in and day out – verbally, physically, sexually, emotionally. And while the landscape of literary magazines are slowly changing, too many of them are still dominated by men. Women are rarely allowed to speak out about the ways they’ve been abused, but art is a powerful and visceral way to change that. I launched Persephone’s Daughters during the very painful time in my life when I was still living with immense fear of potential retaliation from my rapist if I spoke out. I did not want to be silenced anymore, and I didn’t want other women to be silenced either, so I launched my magazine in hopes of providing a voice for women who’d had theirs taken away.

SK: Where do you see Persephone’s Daughters heading in the next few years?
MR: I want us to continue to launch new online and print issues and continue with our regular features and newsletters. I also want us to do things that no one else has ever done before. One of my staff members passed on the idea of a memorial for rape survivors as suggested by another artist – things like that are what I aspire to do with my magazine and its platform. I want to help change the literary magazine landscape as well, by proving that a landscape dominated by men really is not the best landscape.

SK: Are there any pieces published in your magazine that have resonated with you?
MR: Yes, many, many, many pieces from both issues so far. I think the piece that resonated with me the most was Abhipsa Pal’s “Unleash” artwork from the first issue. It’s one of the most powerful artworks I’ve ever seen.

SK: How have you grown as a writer since the publication of your first book?
MR: I’ve tackled topics I never thought I could tackle. I’ve written lines I’ve fallen in love with, written about things I was once too afraid to name. I’ve developed a greater sense of empathy for people going through trauma, and, probably most importantly, I’ve learned how to use writing as a healthy coping tool for my own stress and trauma instead of using other unhealthy tools.

SK: What should readers expect from your next publication? Will you be delving into similar themes or will you be introducing new ones?
MR: In all honesty, I haven’t thought much about my next publication yet. Sometimes I worry I’ve been putting out books too fast – I’ve enjoyed the process of writing them all, but I want to just take some time to relax, maybe focus on writing more submissions for literary magazines. But I definitely want to introduce new themes for my next publication. That’s something I’m always challenging myself to do more and more!