Novel Ideas: Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl

When I first started The Burning Girl, Claire Messud’s sixth novel, I felt this sense of anticipation that continued through the whole book, as though every part of the story was only there to serve as an explanation or background for the real, important part.

I guess that makes sense in a way. The bulk of the story takes place while the main characters (including Julia, the narrator) are in grades 7-9. Is there any other time in life that just feels like a transition? Kids already too old to be kids, not quite old enough to feel like full-fledged adolescents. It’s a painful transition, one that Messud tackles gracefully. Julia and her best friend Cassie begin to grow apart only at the outset of puberty, as they develop into their own personalities and mature at different rates, toward different courses of action.

One Halloween, when both girls are in the seventh grade, crystalizes their differences. While Julia assumes the two will go trick-or-treating, Cassie informs her she’s been invited to spend the night watching horror movies at another girl’s house, which turns out to be “a boy-girl party, complete with Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle”, where Cassie also begins a relationship with a boy Julia has a crush on. Julia spends the night handing out candy and seeing her own classmates trick-or-treat at her door. It’s such a stark difference, and Messud takes care to show us Julia’s dual perspectives, answering the door with an air of not caring, while of course caring deeply on the inside.

Cover of Claire Messud’s ‘The Burning Girl’

Most authors tend not to see any emotional complexity in pre-teen girls or young teenage girls. I was worried at first that Messud would fall into the common trap with young girls whose friendship falls apart. One girl becomes the cool, popular, already grown-up while the other stays innocent and kind. And we, the ready, are always meant to sympathize more with the latter, to see her as the sweet Madonna to the former Whore. The latter always wants to stay friends, and the evil ex-best friend can’t wait to pull away.

But things are rarely so simple, and Messud doesn’t want us to think they are either. Julia is initially hurt by Cassie pulling away, but never really makes the effort to really come back together. Instead, she tries to forge her own identity, getting into her own life and new friends, and watching from afar as Cassie does the same. Julia half-heartedly tries to defend Cassie every now and then from various accusations from her friends (Cassie’s a slut, Cassie parties too much), while still privately harboring the same thoughts.

And rather than leave us to wonder about Cassie, Messud instead takes the time to dive into Cassie’s home life, and its many stark differences from Julia’s. Julia is solidly upper-middle class. College is an expectation, not a fantasy. She has a supportive relationship with her parents. She tells her mother everything. Julia has no need to rebel, as she has nothing so terrible to rebel against.

Author Claire Messud

On the other hand, Cassie has a strict, religious mother, whose strictness becomes even more pronounced when she begins a relationship with a man called Anders Shute. Messud never levels any explicit accusations at Shute, but he remains the most shadowy character in the book. By Cassie’s word he never does anything specific. But he seems all too interested in how short Cassie’s skirts are, how late she it out, if she is in a relationship with a boy.

Anders, like a few of the adult men in the book, straddle the line just so, between creepy and concerning. In one scene, Cassie is picked up while walking down a highway late at night by a concerned neighbor. While we never know Cassie’s thoughts at the time, Julia wonders how Cassie must have felt. She had no reason to fear him, but every reason to fear him. Both Julia and Cassie, despite their differences, feel the keen awareness of their own vulnerability, of being a young girl out in the world.

If the Burning Girl, for all the brilliance of Messud’s writing, has any faults, it’s that she occasionally writes heavy-handedly about the dangers lurking for young girls, which feels more like exposition from an adult pretending to write as an adolescent than the actual thoughts of the said adolescent. And yet, perhaps we can overlook this. If Messud discussing how terrifying the world is for young girls is meant to feel like some new revelation, it’s because it is for Julia.

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5 Queer Authors Working Now

Like most things, the literary sphere is mostly dominated by straight white cis men, with LGBTQ folks struggling to have their voices heard (so to speak). That’s not to say that there haven’t been to amazing queer literary giants, from Sappho to Oscar Wilde and so on. Still, you might be hoping for some people who are currently working today.

A little while back I told you about 5 queer artists working today. Now, I’m going to tell you about 5 queer authors. 

Mariko Tamaki

First off, if you’d like to hear Mariko Tamakis full life story (and see some baby pictures that look like author photos), I’d highly recommend watching her keynote address at the 2017 Queer & Comics Conference. You can also read this Canadian graphic novelist’s incredible works, Skim and This One Summer (both with her cousin Jillian Tamaki). Both show incredible grace in telling coming-of-age stories, and talking about girlhood, among other issues. Tamaki has a brilliant way of writing about growing up that is honest and authentic without ever coming across as patronizing. You can check out all of her thoughts on her blog.

David Levithan

I first came across David Levithan when I read his 2003 novel Boy Meets Boy. I remember I was about thirteen or fourteen, and it was the first gay book I had ever read. As a queer kid, I was so excited to see myself represented and to see the characters in his book not be outliers or horribly depressed or oppressed but simply being themselves, be they gay, bisexual, trans, or anything. While Levithan has occasionally veered out of the young adult genre with some excellent titles like The Lover’s Dictionary, he is most famous for his young adult works featuring LGBTQ characters including Boy Meets Boy, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and The Realm of Possibility. You can find out more about him on his website. 

Kai Cheng Thom

According to her website, Kai Cheng Thom is a “fiery writer, performer, spoken word artist, and drag dance sensation.” Throughout her career, she’s written countless essays for Everyday Feminism, BuzzFeed and many more on everything from trans identity to race to privilege. She also wrote the novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, and the children’s book, From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea, and has also had some of her poetry published. You can see more of her work and lear about her at her website.

Fiona Zedde

While queer women are underrepresented in literature in general, literature created by and about queer women of color, particularly black queer women, is almost non-existent. That’s part of what makes Fiona Zedde’s work so exciting. Much of her work, from her brilliant short stories to her delightful romance novels, center around queer black women, dealing with relationships, lust, family drama, and, occasionally, some vampires or other supernatural elements, living their most honest lives. Zedde has published twelve novels and two short story collections. You can read more about her work on her website.

Shyam Selvadurai

If you’re looking for an intense yet beautiful coming-of-age story, I would have to recommend Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 novel Funny Boy, which is set in the 1970s and ’80s in Sri Lanka, and is based partly on Selvadurai’s own experiences growing up gay amidst tensions and civil war in the country. Selvadurai has also written several other novels concerning similar themes of sexuality, love, diaspora, and youth, including the books Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, Cinnamon Gardens, and The Hungry Ghosts. Selvadurai’s work is superb, understated, and contains some of the best character writing I’ve ever seen. He’s also written numerous articles for various online publications, and edited an anthology of Sri Lankan fiction and poetry. You can find out more about him at his website.

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Ten Independent Publishing Houses To Check Out

Image by And Other Stories

On the lookout for some interesting reads? Well look no more! Below are ten of my favourite independent publishing houses who curate and publish some of the most daring and experimental works.

Archipelago Books

Seeking to fill a gap in the literary world, founder Jill Schoolman established the press in order to delve into literature outside the Anglosphere. With such a vast literary world beyond the “West”, Archipelago aims to illuminate, as Schoolman says, “other ways of seeing and being”. And it, in its ten years of translation and publication, has done so with the works of Scholastique Mukasonga, Marie Vieux-Chauvet, and Meng Hao-Jan.

And Other Stories

Focusing primarily on contemporary international fiction, And Other Stories is another publisher that values translated fiction. Its titles range from Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home – a novel that meditates on class and families – to SJ Naudé’s The Alphabet of Birds – a short story collection, translated from Afrikaans, that focuses on death, loss, and the subcultures of gay, expat, and artistic communities.

Sundress Publications

A non-profit, woman-run publication, Sundress is a publication group that includes Wicked Alice, Pretty Owl Poetry, and Rogue Agent. Alongside working with its member publications, Sundress publishes chapbooks and full-length books that often defy and challenge concepts of genre, as well as an anthology of the best online literary works.

Dancing Girl Press

Based in Chicago, Dancing Girl Press focuses on writings by women. Its chapbooks have intricately handmade designs and explore the relationship between the visual and the literary. Its titles include Anne Graue’s Fig Tree In Winter, Rebecca Valley’s The Bird Eaters, and Azia Archer’s Atoms and Evers.

Horse Less Press

Publishing chapbooks, pamphlets, and full-length books, as well as running an online literary journal, Horse Less Press focuses on imaginative and innovative poetry collections. My personal favourites include Nikki Wallschlaeger’s Houses and Sara Woods’ Sara or The Existence of Fire, both of which are moving and challenging with exquisitely written imageries.

Fitzcarraldo Editions

Publishing contemporary fiction and long-form essays, this London-based press focuses on works in translation as well as in the English language. Its titles include Alejandro Zamba’s My Documents to Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry. With each publication, Fitzcarraldo aims to introduce ambitious and innovative writing to the literary scene.

Pushkin Press

Established in 1997, Pushkin publishes everything from novels to children’s books, from classics to contemporary. The press is home to writers from around the world, including Antal Szerb, Gaito Gazdanov, and Edith Pearlman, and has easily become home to some of the most acclaimed and compelling writers.

Salt Publishing

Based in the UK, Salt works to discover and publish contemporary British literature. Publishing everything from fiction anthologies and novels to children’s poetry, Salt is best known for Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, Luke Kennard’s The Harbour Beyond the Movie, and Wyl Menmuir’s The Many.

404 Ink

Established by freelancers Laura Jones and Heather McDaid, 404 Ink entered the literary world just last year. Known mostly for its publication of Nasty Women – a collection of essays, interviews, and writings that discuss the lives of women in this politically chaotic and deeply disparate world – 404 Ink aims to bring to light innovative and trailblazing writings.

Portobello Books

We have Portobello Books to thank for 2016’s Man Booker International Prize winning novel The Vegetarian. First established in 2005, Portobello is known for its fiction in translation, working with writers from all six continents. Portobello also has a non-fiction strand, publishing investigative journalism, travel writing, memoir, and reportage. Having received some of the most impressive literary awards, the press is renowned for the originality and individuality it brings to the publishing scene.

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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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