Dear Tommy, Esmé, Rickey, Brontez, Hansol, Anne, Patty, Weike, Nathan, Antoinette—you have brought into language what only you could bring, and yet we know what you know, that there are countless others in this room, on this page, inside this alphabet and hour—human and not human, alive and dead, traceable and not traceable. The ones out of whom your voice was made. Their endurance flashes inside the language inextricable from your own listening, your own endurance. In English we write the letters from left to right, and they move, like us, in their strange processions between breath and nonbreath. I imagine that this Whiting will be for you a beautiful water, a renewal of courage or resource, along the way. I kiss my hands to that, and give thanks to all of your voices and versions, and especially to the parts of you who are, even now, smallest—whose work is most troubled or invisible. How you open new listening inside our listening. How your work—compass, challenge, companion—shapes our breath. And so the air. And so the history of air.
The above was written by poet Aracelis Girmay in her introduction to the 2018 Whiting Awards chapbook, reprinting here courtesy of the Whiting Foundation. In conjunction with the Whiting Foundation, we will be giving away ten copies of the chapbook, which contains work from each of this year’s phenomenal winners, to the first ten readers who share this What to Read When on social media—be sure to tag @The_Rumpus on Twitter, and @TheRumpusdotNet on Facebook to be included in the giveaway!
Below, eight of the ten winners share books that have inspired them in their journeys as writers and/or have helped to shape the work they do.
Daughter of Earth by Agnes Smedley
“’To die would have been beautiful,’ writes Agnes Smedley, ’but I belong to those who do not die for the sake of beauty.’ This 1929 novel, written by the Missouri-born revolutionary Agnes Smedley, is a searing, life-giving account of crawling through poverty toward political consciousness and the struggle that does not end upon arriving there. Smedley is fearless at the contradictions, including how to be a feminist, a socialist, an anti-imperialist, and a queer, mixed-race, white-passing person inside of a crushing system that hates the poor of any category, but especially the poor of these, and how to stay in the fight, too, through political imprisonment, sexual assault by a comrade, and trauma’s destabilization of mental health.”
Revolutionary Letters by Diane Di Prima
“I’m not saying a book of poetry should be stored on a subdermally implanted microchip that a person can scan under any light in moments of duress to then be read in full, but if I had to choose a book of poetry for that purpose, it should be this one, which is a poetry of total collective use and therefore total beauty. If what you want for the world is anything less than everything for everybody, you are still the enemy. You can have what you want, reminds Di Prima, so ask for everything.”
The End of the Story by Lydia Davis
“I read this perfect novel when I was twenty, thirty, and thirty-six years old,” Cottrell shares. Mislabeled boxes, problems with visiting nurses, confusing notes, an outing to the county fair—such are the obstacles in the way of the unnamed narrator of The End of the Story as she attempts to organize her memories of a love affair into a novel. With compassion, wit, and what appears to be candor, she seeks to determine what she actually knows about herself and her past, but we begin to suspect, along with her, that given the elusiveness of memory and understanding, any tale retrieved from the past must be fiction.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice by Shunryū Suzuki
“A gentle book about mind weeds and delusions,” writes Cottrell. In the forty years since its original publication, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind has become one of the great modern spiritual classics. Suzuki Roshi presents the basics—from the details of posture and breathing in zazen to the perception of nonduality—in a way that is not only remarkably clear, but that also resonates with the joy of insight from the first to the last page.
Playwright Nathan Alan Davis (Nat Turner in Jerusalem; Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea) recommends:
My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass
Ex-slave Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography—written after ten years of reflection following his legal emancipation in 1846 and his break with his mentor William Lloyd Garrison—catapulted Douglass into the international spotlight as the foremost spokesman for American blacks. Written during his celebrated career as a speaker and newspaper editor, My Bondage and My Freedom reveals the author of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) grown more mature, forceful, analytical, and complex with a deepened commitment to the fight for equal rights and liberties.
Collected Poems by Robert Hayden
Robert Hayden was one of the most important American poets of the twentieth century. He left behind an exquisite body of work, collected in this definitive edition, including A Ballad of Remembrance, Words in the Mourning Time, The Night-Blooming Cereus, Angle of Ascent, and American Journal, which was nominated for a National Book Award. Also included is an introduction by American poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, as well as an afterword by Arnold Rampersad that provides a critical and historical context. In Hayden’s work the actualities of history and culture became the launching places for flights of imagination and intelligence. His voice―characterized by musical diction and an exquisite feeling for the formality of pattern―is a seminal one in American life and literature.
Playwright Hansol Jung (Among the Dead, Cardboard Piano) recommends:
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
“[For its] encouragement to create wacky, dream/nightmare worlds,” writes Jung. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World draws readers into a narrative particle accelerator in which a split-brained data processor, a deranged scientist, his shockingly un-demure granddaughter, Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, and various thugs, librarians, and subterranean monsters collide to dazzling effect. What emerges is simultaneously cooler than zero and unaffectedly affecting, a hilariously funny and deeply serious meditation on the nature and uses of the mind.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Jung writes that in Streetcar, Williams offers “inspiration to put deeply flawed humans on stage and make you weep for them, and permission to love the music of language.” The play famously recounts how the faded and promiscuous Blanche DuBois is pushed over the edge by her brutal brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. Streetcar launched the careers of Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, and solidified the position of Tennessee Williams as one of the most important young playwrights of his generation.
Poet Rickey Laurentiis, author of Boy with Thorn, recommends:
Black Gay Man by Robert Reid-Pharr
“This was, really, the first serious book of theory of any kind I read. I found it stalking the basement of Sarah Lawrence’s library, where I had just matriculated, and promptly sat down on the carpet to read. I could say a lot about what this book offered me in this early days, as guide, model, mirror and provocation; really, I just want to underline how the book taught me to sit with initial confusion of language and idea—of identity and self—and to struggle usefully toward l understanding. It’s one of the books that really taught me what reading is.”
Crush by Richard Siken
“That same first year at Sarah Lawrence I overwhelmed myself with poetry books. I read nearly everything in the library. I especially enjoyed a shelf near the front door always stacked with very new, recent publications. One day, Crush was there. I read it and felt during the reading a new way to obsess over the world, and still keep it ugly, painful, but also insist on it’s beauty. There is no compromise.”
Playwright Antoinette Nwandu (Pass Over, Breach) recommends:
Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
“It’s being published April 10, but I got my hands on a copy a few weeks ago. This collection of short stories is a transcendent read especially for a self-conscious California black girl like myself. Thompson-Spires expertly mines the constructs of race and identity for their absurdities while honoring the specific anguish of her characters.“
Novelist Brontez Purnell, author of Since I Laid My Burden Down, recommends:
cotton candy on a rainy day by Nikki Giovanni
Purnell says, “I’m thirty-five and still read this book when I’m super depressed and crying on BART and it’s my hardest day.“ A pivotal work in Nikki Giovanni’s career, Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day is one of the most poignant and introspective of all Giovanni’s collections. Moving from the emotionally fraught political arena to the intimate realm of the personal, the poems in this volume express a conflicted consciousness and the disillusionment shared by so many during the early 1970s, when the dreams of the Civil Rights era seemed to have evaporated.
Painting Their Portraits in Winter: Stories by Myriam Gurba
Specifically, Purnell cited the story “how some abuelitas keep their Chicano granddaughters still while painting their portraits in winter” as being meaningful to his work. In this artfully crafted collection, nothing is as it seems on the surface. A Mexican grandmother tells creepy yet fascinating ghost stories to her granddaughters as a way to make them sit still. A Polish grandfather spends the night in a Mexican graveyard after a Día de Muertos celebration to discover if ghosts really do consume the food that has been left for them. Unforgettable characters inhabit these cross-border tales filled with introspection and longing, as modern sensibilities weave and wind through traditional folktales creating a new kind of magical realism that offers insights into where we come from and where we may be going.
Home by Marilynne Robinson
“I have read [Home] at least thirty times (and it never fails to make me cry),” says Wang. A brilliantly imagined retelling of the prodigal son parable, set at the same moment and in the same Iowa town as Gilead. The Reverend Boughton’s hell-raising son, Jack, has come home after twenty years away. Artful and devious in his youth, now an alcoholic carrying two decades worth of secrets, he is perpetually at odds with his traditionalist father, though he remains his most beloved child. As Jack tries to make peace with his father, he begins to forge an intense bond with his sister Glory, herself returning home with a broken heart and turbulent past. Home is a luminous and healing book about families, family secrets, and faith.
Delicate Edible Birds: And Other Stories by Lauren Groff
“[Delicate Edible Birds] is one of the finest short story collections I’ve read in the last five years, and continues to inspire me to write better short stories with every reading,” shares Wang. In some of these stories, enormous changes happen in an instant. In others, transformations occur across a lifetime—or several lifetimes. Throughout the collection, Groff displays particular and vivid preoccupations. Crime is a motif—sex crimes, a possible murder, crimes of the heart. Love troubles recur; they’re in every story—love in alcoholism, in adultery, in a flood, even in the great flu epidemic of 1918. Some of the love has depths, which are understood too late; some of the love is shallow, and also understood too late. And mastery is a theme—Groff’s women swim and baton twirl, become poets, or try and try again to achieve the inner strength to exercise personal freedom.
Debut novelist Weike Wang, author of Chemistry, recommends:
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez
“This is an inspiring book in its prose, structure, and general perspective of the immigrant experience, the difficult childhood, the confusing coming of age. Nunez is a meditative writer who taught me how to write and how to think on the page,” writes Wang. Sigrid Nunez’s A Feather on the Breath of God is a story about displacement and loss, and about the tangled nature of relationships between parents and children, between language and love.
Tumble Home: A Novella and Short Stories by Amy Hempel
Wang says, “I come back to this book from time to time. There are passages in there I have read maybe hundreds of times. The clarity and humor of her prose is what stunned me and continues to stun me. How she does it, I don’t know. But I will forever be trying to figure it out.” Tumble Home is narrated by people with skewed visions of home. Not exactly crazy, they become obsessed and irrational as their inner logic leads them astray. In the title novella, a woman living in a psychiatric halfway house writes to a man she has met only once. Proceeding in brief vignettes that link and illuminate, she recounts her peculiar life with the other patients. The accretions of anecdote lead deeper and deeper into the psyche and history of the narrator, gradually revealing the reason for her urgent letter.
ARACELIS GIRMAY is the author of three poetry collections, Teeth, Kingdom Animalia, for which she won the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award and which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and The Black Maria, which was named a notable work toward her 2017 Neustadt International Prize for Literature nomination. Girmay is currently a 2017–2018 June Jordan Fellow and serves on the editorial board of the African Poetry Book Fund. She won a Whiting Award in 2015. She lives in New York with her spouse and their two children.