Rumpus Blog

What a Fabulous Lie

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At the New York Timeswriter Terry Pratchett discusses what he’s reading, who inspires him, and what makes a good fantasy novel. He also reveals one of his favorite childhood books and what made it so great:

I found a book called “The Wind in the Willows,” by Kenneth Grahame, and I just exploded. There were rats and moles and badgers and they were all acting like humans, and I thought to myself, This is a lie, but what a fabulous lie! After that I scoured the local library and read everything.

Word of the Day: Eidolism

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(n.); belief in ghosts; etymology difficult to trace, but typically attributed to the Greek eidolon (“image, apparition, phantom, ghost”)

There was something else in the house, unmentioned and unlabelled. A sort of shadowy presence that hovered by the back door. No one referred to it, so I kept quiet, but without ever really actually seeing anything I knew it was a boy.

—Novelist Esther Freud, the Guardian 

When the front door bursts open on the most stagnant day in the midst of summer, when Hamlet is haunted by the post-mortem presence of his vengeful father, or when Scrooge is terrified by the ghosts of Christmas Past—we are undeniably delighted and distressed by the possibility of the paranormal. Even those who staunchly renounce such nonsense have at least once lain awake at night, perturbed by an inexplicable scratching at the window or some other nighttime sound. In an essay published this week in the Guardian, novelist Esther Freud reflects on the inspiration for her 2011 novel, Mr Mac And Me, a ghost story unto itself.

Book Hunting

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Future generations may never understand the simply joy of searching a used bookstore for a long-coveted title. While online megastores allow readers access to virtually any book, typing a title into a search box is much less satisfying than sleuthing through shelves of pre-owned books. Amanda Diehl over at BookRiot explains the resulting sense of elation:

And when you find that coveted book, the one that has prompted countless trips to the bookstore, hoping someone cleaning out their collection has dropped off the one thing you’ve been search one, the feeling is joyous. You want to raise it to the heavens, a la Rafiki with baby Simba, letting the clouds part so your discovery can bask in the sunshine.

Notable San Francisco: 8/20–8/26

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Wednesday 8/20: Emeryville Poet Laureate Sarah Kobrinsky has organized a Poetry Happy Hour, fully catered by The Bureau, with drinks and eats beginning at 5:30 p.m. followed by readings from Colleen McKee, Terry Lucas, Luke Warm Water, Janell Moon, and the host, Kobrinsky. Free, 6:30 p.m., 5858 Horton Street, Emeryville. – Wonder Dave

Lyrics & Dirges celebrates their fourth anniversary with readings by Virgie Tovar, Daniel Riddle Rodriguez, Matthew Zapruder, and Aimee Suzara. Light refreshments. Free, 7:30 p.m., Pegasus Books Downtown.

Andrew Dugas reads from his anticipated SF-based novel Sleepwalking in Paradise. Free, 7 p.m., Green Apple Books.

A little bit of everything: music + words + sounds + performance + light … Free, 7:30 p.m., E.M. Wolfman General Interest Bookstore.

Tuesday’s Child on Wednesday features stand-up comedian and writer Trevor Hill, singer-songwriter Jeff Desira, stand-up Johan Miranda, and author Allison Moon. Free, 7:30 p.m., Moonlight Cafe.

Thursday 8/21Sean Wilsey reads from his new collection of stories, More Curious. Free, 7:30 p.m., The Booksmith.

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What Does Anna Karenina Look Like?

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The Paris Review has an excerpt from Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read that questions what we think we know about characters. Mendelsund points out that many of us feel like we know our favorite characters intimately, but when asked about what they look like don’t have specific answers. And maybe, he suggests, authors have something to do with that:

Literary characters are physically vague—they have only a few features, and these features hardly seem to matter—or, rather, these features matter only in that they help to refine a character’s meaning. Character description is a kind of circumscription. A character’s features help to delineate their boundaries—but these features don’t help us truly picture a person.

Author Selling Postcards Written in Blood

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Writing a novel requires plenty of time, and Irish author Julian Gough is hoping to fund that time with a Kickstarter campaign he has dubbed Litcoin. For small amounts of money, Gough will send contributors postcards stained with whiskey, coffee, lipstick, bullet holes, or, for a mere $500, a postcard written in his blood. Litcoin’s genesis originated when Gough learned that James Joyce, who died with an estate of less than £1,000, had written a letter that sold after his death for $445,000. Litcoin then is an investment in the future when Gough is presumably dead.

Tabloids

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey

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If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? is Matthea Harvey at her best – playful, intellectual and imaginative, embracing the mythology of mermaids, Martians, and scientific patents with the same verve and wit. It’s also a beautiful catalog of art work – mermaid cutout silhouettes, photographs of toy hero figurines frozen in ice, stitched diagrams of imagined inventions. As an artifact of poetry and art, as a display of the inventor’s outreaching curiosity and a publisher’s willingness to allow a poetry book to become something more – full color photographs of Harvey’s art, on lovely heavy paper – it’s pretty brilliant.

Readers tend to have one of two reactions when they read Matthea Harvey’s poetry: they either love it, or, in the words of one of my dear friends, “her work just makes me want to throw her book against a wall.” I am solidly in the camp of the former, and have been ever since I read the poems from Modern Life, her third book. You have to embrace a joyful surrealism and lack of narrative structure, a love of sonics, throw yourself into each poem’s intricate little built-up worlds, to get the most out of Harvey’s work. And I think it’s worth the effort.

The work in this book appeared in publications as varied as The New Yorker and Mermaids Magazine, just as some of the work appeared as public projects with sound, art, and interactive elements, including poetry comics and illustrations by Jeffrey Koons. To say that Harvey is pushing against the confines of poetic space would not be an overstatement – her hybrid creations are longing for life outside the page. “The Straightforward Mermaid,” for instance, was made into a short film. Here’s an excerpt, and you can see for yourself how it might lend itself to other forms:

When she is feeling despairing, she goes to eddies at the mouth of the river and tries to comb the water apart with her fingers. The Straightfoward Mermaid has already said to five sailors, “Look, I don’t think this is going to work,” before sinking like a sullen stone. She’s supposed to teach Rock Impersonation to the younger mermaids, but every beach field trip devolves into them trying to find shells to match their tail scales. They really love braiding.

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? starts on a high note – her collection of mermaid poems – followed by a Ray Bradbury erasure, some “tabloid” worthy poems (“Cheap Cloning Process Lets You Have Your Own Little Elvis” – accompanies by photographs of a tiny toy Elvis) darts into animal parables, and illustrations of imagined constellations, and ends with the long poem tackling the rather pitiful story of an unrecognized inventor and his creations, with a background chorus of mermaid laments woven in. The techniques of prose poetry Harvey used in Modern Life, and erasure poetry in Of Lamb, as well as her signature charming use of word play and pun are all visible here.

One thing that makes this book hard to summarize is that many of the “pieces” of this book were commissioned for various public projects—and that makes the book as a whole slightly less coherent. For instance: a poem commissioned for the Poetry Radio Project – “Inside the Glass Factory” – meant to accompany Philip Glass’ “String Quartet No. 5,” next to a commission for an art show (the Bradbury erasure, “M is for Martian,”) next to the long “Telettrofono,” originally conceived as a “soundwalk”…It makes for a bit of a mixed bag, a feeling that this might be a bunch of projects tacked together rather than a thought-through whole piece. I like the carnivalesque concept of the title, which seems to give the book permission to be a looser grouping; I think it works with the strange pack of characters she creates and narrates her way around. I also like the way Harvey ties the mermaid thread from the beginning section back into “Telettrofono” at the end. Does the lack of coherence take away from the enjoyment of the book for the reader? It didn’t bother me at all the first time I read the book through, only as I approached it as a reviewer trying to dissect and discuss it, so I expect not.

Matthea HarveySince this review wouldn’t really be a fair assessment without some discussion of the art inside, I’d like to rave about my favorite pieces of art: Harvey’s meticulous, complicated miniature ice photos, which have a touch of despair in their whimsy: tiny male figures and chairs frozen in ice cubes upside down, suspended, as if in the middle of some important adventure and undignified in their stiff awkward poses.

Though I’ve used the words “whimsical” and “playful” to describe Harvey’s work in this book, it would be a mistake to assume that the book lacks drama, mournfulness, or a sense of depth. Indeed, one of Harvey’s chief strategies is the juxtaposition of the cute with the grotesque, of horror with the unthreatening. From one of the untitled constellation poems, accompanied by a “constellation” drawing of a fox:

…No More Suicide Fox constellation looks astonishingly unadmonishing, His face is sweet and a little sad, as if he was copied from some coloring book from the fifties…We need a dog patrol that sniffs out despair and a horde of someones who will ask every single person every single day, “Are you okay?” before another friend is found dead in the bathtub, on the floor. I don’t want to talk about that fox. He’s pointing at people I love.

It’s Harvey’s obvious love of language and the cavalcade of characters, the lonely Martians, Prom Kings and despairing inventors of telephones alike, that drives the powerful engine of this ambitious and creative work. You can watch Harvey’s mind at work in the way she weaves the art with the poem, how she reflects each character’s particular mirths and misperceptions, and how she obviously identifies with her hybrid creatures, the mermaid unhappy in her birdbath in the backyard. Entering If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? is like unfolding a map to the strange and mystical in our world, unrecognized and uncelebrated until the poet discovers and reveals them.

Novels Are a Long Time Coming

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Contrary to the mission of National Novel Writing Month, most novels take far longer to complete, as stay-at-home dad Ryan McSwain learned when he set out to write his first novel, Monsters All the Way Down. The book, due out next month, took more than three years to write and another year to finalize. He examines where all the time went over on his blog:

I had 11,000 words by June 24, 2010. This was a month after the birth of my son and a couple of months before I left my job for the stay-at-home dad gig. Our baby boy spent most of his time sleeping, and I could write 1,000-2,000 words on a good day. I thought I’d have the novel finished by Christmas.

Then a month passed and I only wrote 3,000 words.

A Puzzling Gender Gap

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When I was twenty, I submitted a puzzle that [Will Shortz] rejected. He cited MALE GAZE among the entries he found unworthy of publication. I don’t doubt that a woman or a younger editor might have deemed that entry an asset as opposed to a demerit.

For The American Reader, Anna Schechtman writes about being a woman in the male-dominated world of crossword puzzles.

The Bookstores Will Survive

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A bright spot in the midst of all the back-and-forth in the Amazon battle—Kate Brittain, at The Morning News, writes about the state of independent bookstores:

I began my search in a nervous mood. But as I entered name after name into the database, wandering virtually into every store I could discover between our shining seas, I ceased, slowly, to worry. A conviction took hold in my heart: that whatever the outcome of this corporate kerfuffle, the bookstores—and so, too, what they support: books and writers and their communities—will survive this perilous moment.

Walking Along Brighton Beach

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As soon as Ashley came down the stairs from the subway, which rattles across a bridge over Brighton Beach Avenue, it all came tumbling out: who he really was and that he was married. Every time a train passed overhead it drowned out what he was saying and he would have start over.

Short, but affecting and a little haunting—on the London Review of Books blog, Peter Pomerantsev recounts a story about a short-lived romance, set on Brighton Beach in 1982.

The Four Words for Home

The Four Words for Home by Angie Chuang

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In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Chinese-American journalist Angie Chuang was charged by her editor with putting “a human face on the country we’re about to bomb.” What began as one of Chuang’s signature human-interest stories, albeit one made more urgent by geopolitical catastrophe, quickly catapulted her into the midst of a family—a tribe really—and then a country that were not her own, and yet, to her surprise, felt intrinsically so. For four years, as her own immigrant family splintered under the rising pressure of her father’s deteriorating mental health, Chuang embedded herself in Afghanistan’s charismatic Shirzai family, seeking a story not only for her newspaper, but for her own life. The result is The Four Words for Home, winner of this year’s Willow Books Grand Prize in Prose.

The Four Words for Home, the “memoir of two families” that grew out of that newspaper profile, is populated by a large, far-flung cast of characters. The portrait of the Afghan family in particular is rich, compassionate, and compelling. Take, for example, this scene in the Shirzais’ compound in Kabul, where with one gesture a young woman reveals much about sex in a country that cuts the steamy scenes out of western movies:

“You’re nervous today,” I said. “And pretty.”

Inginir,” [Rochina] said, using the family’s nickname for her husband—the Pashto word for “engineer” was used to describe an educated man—“is coming home today.”

Then, turning to me so only I could see it, she took her delicate hand, balled into a fist, and bit down on her pinky knuckle. She gasped softly, feigning breathlessness, grinned at me, then returned to stirring the stew.

This was sexier than all of the deleted scenes from the [Afghan version of] Titanic combined.

Almost spontaneously, Chuang finds herself in sisterhood with the women who live behind veil and curtain.

Once Chuang gets to know Shirzais on both sides of the world and across gender and generational lines, there is no settling for one human face to represent Afghanistan. The family includes the bachelor-patriarch Daoud, who brings six teenaged nieces and nephews from the old country to live with him in the U.S., where he raises them with the help of two younger brothers and the crisp English of Peter Jennings. Opposite this first Shirzai to emigrate to the U.S. is the last, Laila, a graduate student struggling to navigate a top-secret relationship with a lapsed Catholic named Tim. Also set in contrast to one another are two male cousins, one raised in the U.S. (an aspiring playboy who makes a move on the author), one raised in Afghanistan (a man with whom protocol requires that a female reporter not make eye contact, and yet they share an electric-for-being-illicit gaze through a camera lens). For the author, who, having long since abandoned journalistic convention, openly longs to be a member of this family, such encounters with eligible Shirzai bachelors are hardly casual. Meanwhile, opposite the living Shirzais is the palpable presence of Mohammed, Daoud’s disappeared brother, whose political role in Afghanistan’s history underscores the point that, while this may be a personal book, interested with interpersonal relationships, it is no less political for it.

Angie Chuang

Angie Chuang

More nebulous than the richly rendered Shirzais are the members of Chuang’s own immigrant family. As Daoud Shirzai did in Afghanistan, the author’s father grew up “can’t-afford-shoes poor” in Fujian, China, and then Taiwan. He so distinguished himself academically that he, like Shirzai, was recruited to the U.S. for graduate school. The author and her brother were subsequently born and raised across cultural lines, from Chinese schools to top American colleges. But the Chuang family’s efforts at living out the American dream are complicated by the pendulous mood swings—likely bipolar disorder—that her father refuses to acknowledge or address. His increasingly erratic behavior, countered by the need to keep up appearances (mental illness, Chuang explains, is taboo in Chinese culture), isolates the family from relatives in both the U.S. and Taiwan and from one another. This sense of estrangement is how Chuang explains her impulse to seek out a new sort of home for herself and her initial infatuation with the Shirzais.

Chuang’s own identity and her unique vantage point as a woman of Asian heritage make her as intriguing as the other characters in The Four Words for Home, and engender a triangulation of perspective as well as privileged access. From the U.S. to Afghanistan to Taiwan, gender and ethnicity afford Chuang access to places another writer simply could not go—namely behind the curtain of Islamic gender protocols and into rural Afghanistan, which at the time of her reporting was becoming increasingly distrustful of outsiders generally and Americans specifically. (Even so, her presence results in threats to the family.) Not only can Chuang empathize through her own cross-cultural experience, she can “pass.”

This notion of passing is crucial to the book: passing, or almost passing, for an Afghan in Afghanistan; for a member of the Shirzai family; her Chinese-American family’s efforts to pass for living out that American dream; her father’s failure to pass as stable; her efforts as a reporter to pass for objective once she feels personally attached to the family; and others. Taiwan as a whole is depicted as a country trying to pass for another, having “borrowed and improved by imitating China, Japan, and most of all, the United States, both a paragon and a foil.”

The Four Words for Home is an immigrant story concerned with assimilation, immersion, affectation, simulation, and, of course, as the title promises, translation. With its large cast it embodies a sense of exclusion from the new country and estrangement from the old, a study in longing and belonging.

“Coming to Afghanistan, I had begun to know the boundaries between seeming and being,” writes Chuang. “I had been grasping for the knowledge of exactly what it was like to lose Mohammed, as if it would finally seal my insider status with the Shirzais. The grapevine could stubbornly cling to the apple tree in the courtyard until the two were nearly indistinguishable, but they would always be two, not one.”

There are many reasons to read this engaging book, not least among them the persistent historical imperative for people in the U.S. to better understand Afghanistan. But I pose this as the most crucial: Angie Chuang’s The Four Words for Home is precisely the sort of book the literary community is referring to when diversity of voices comes into question. This isn’t a book written about the immigrant experience, or about the female condition in post-Taliban Afghanistan, but an empathetic and lived experience of a writer situated uniquely at an intersection of one and another, of here and there, of insider and outsider. There are too few books like it.

Books about Books

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In 2011, Phyllis Rose read every book on the LEQ-LES shelf in the New York Public Library and wrote about the experience in an essay collection called The Shelf. In doing so, Rose joined the long tradition of “bibliomemoirs”—a blend of autobiography and literary criticism. In the Guardian, Rachel Cooke examines this tradition and the value of the genre.

Seeing is Reading

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For those of us who haven’t glanced at e.e. cummings since high school, it’s easy to forget that literature is a visual medium. When we think about reading, our minds often go straight to content. But rockstar cover designer Peter Mendelsund’s masterful work of phenomenology, What We See When We Read (Random House), minces popular conceptions of reading into scattered piles of type. Maddie Crum of HuffPo Books previews it here – aptly, with PDFs.

Distress Calls

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There’s hardly an American who can’t find a helpline, unless that American’s a pedophile in remission. Convinced that the lack of said resource is dire, needed, and far from forthcoming, Luke Malone investigates the grisly alternatives; in an essay at Medium, Malone interviews Adam, a self-admitted 16 year old pedophile:

I spoke with experts and asked around online. I came across a site for self-described pedophiles who acknowledged their attraction and wanted help dealing with it. But the men I met were in their 50s and 60s, and I’d hoped to speak with someone younger, someone still coming to terms with what he was learning about himself. I asked them if they knew anyone like that, and a few weeks later I received an email.

“My name is Adam,” it read. “I’m 18 and non-exclusively attracted to boys and girls of all ages (particularly very young ones). I am the leader of a support group for non-offending pedophiles around my age… I would be very happy to talk with you.”

The Post-Wounded Woman

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Leslie Jamison‘s The Empathy Exams coins the phrase “Post-Wounded Woman,” referring to women who “are wary of melodrama so they stay numb or clever instead. Post-wounded women make jokes about being wounded or get impatient with women who hurt too much.” Catherine Lacey‘s debut novel Nobody Is Ever Missing embodies this ideal, writes Daphne Merkin at the New Yorker.

In this sense, the novel is very contemporary, I suppose, but it is also classical in its delineation of the youthful impulse to define oneself; among other things, I was thrilled to read a book in which the main character doesn’t own a cell phone and no one writes emails. Mostly, though, I was excited by its sustained attunement to the disjunctive universe its protagonist inhabits, and the way the writer nimbly hop-skips around, cutting squibs of arresting dialogue into the meditative sections and gimlet-eyed details (“The front desk sent flowers and a balloon and a stuffed bear—the string noosed around his neck”).

Notable Los Angeles: 8/18–8/24

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Monday 8/18: Richard Bausch discusses and signs Before, During, After. 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore.

DTLAB by Writ Large Press and Ricochet Editions present Harmony Holiday. 8 p.m. at Traxx.

Tuesday 8/19: Jim Ruland presents and signs Forest Of Fortune. 7 p.m. at Book Soup.

Carrie La Seur discusses and signs The Home Place. 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore.

DTLAB by Writ Large Press presents Indie Press Cartel featuring Les Figues Press. 8 p.m. at Traxx.

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(Un)death in Venice

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Do you know what year the word “zombie” first stalked the English lexicon? Do you think you can provide your kids with a “psychologically safe context for contemplating a collapsed world”? Did you read the CDC’s memo on zombie preparedness tips? Neither did we. Allow us to direct you to Clair McLafferty’s very highbrow meditation on YA zombie fiction in the LA Review of Books.

Ferguson, Personally

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Rembert Browne flew to Ferguson last week. Out of interest in the town’s newfound notoriety, the crowds contesting it, and the general ennui surrounding Contemporary Black Youth, the usual-sports writer compiled the meat of his thoughts in an essay for Grantland:

The history of being black in America is the history of nonviolence versus “fight back.” Of wait versus now. Of a turned cheek versus self-defense. Suddenly, this was becoming the latest chapter in black America’s “what next?” history. And on the steps outside of the church, each group had its Martin and its Malcolm. They all wanted the same thing, but the answers provided in the church weren’t enough for a consensus.

Browne also riffs on Eric Garner, his own mother, and the casual anonymity of the African American church.

The Girl in the Road

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

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Let me disclose two things up front. This past year I was an editorial intern at the Frances Goldin Literary Agency, working for, among others, Monica Byrne’s agent. I also, like Byrne, went to Wellesley College, though she graduated seven years before me. While I have yet to meet Byrne through either of these channels, I heard a lot of buzz about her debut novel The Girl in the Road and could not wait to read it as soon as it came out. Just as one of the heroines of The Girl in the Road, Mariama, develops an infatuation with a goddess-like woman named Yemaya, I became obsessed with Byrne from afar before her book was even published. My feelings have only magnified since finishing her novel.

First things first: Byrne can tell a damn good story. Too often it seems contemporary literature becomes caught up in lyrical prose or heady contemplations, while nothing actually happens. In Byrne’s book, plenty happens. Her story captivated me within the first chapter. Luckily, at the time I happened to be waiting for a flight that was delayed four hours, so nothing prevented me from reading the novel straight through.

The Girl in the Road follows two parallel stories. In 2068, Meena, a young woman in her late twenties, decides to run away from her home country of India on the Trans-Arabian Linear Generator, also know as the Trail. A metal path running across the sea from Mumbai to Djibouti, the Trail conducts energy from the waves and is operated by a mega-company called HydraCorp. Mariama, a seven-year-old girl, is also running away, but her story takes place several decades before Meena’s, and she is coming from Western Africa to Ethiopia, riding illegally in a truck that transports oil. In these two stories, Byrne creates a world that feels entirely plausible. This is not the science fiction of faraway galaxies with spaceships and light sabers, but a realistic future 54 years from now, with politics, technology, and environmental issues that seem likely given the current state of the world. Byrne’s book is in the same vein as The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker or 1984 by George Orwell. In Byrne’s version of 2068, America has lost its superpower status to India, and the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is the next urban metropolis. Everyone has a computer chip embedded in their arm to track their location and send and receive information in the cloud, scanners are used to pay for goods, and each person is surrounded by a Facebook-like-profile and unique ID in a visible aura of information called an aadhaar. Glaciers have melted so much that many coastal cities have been wiped out, and people brace themselves for regular typhoons and cyclones. Byrne’s world feels so near that it seems less like she is making things up and simply sending dispatches from the future.

Byrne’s version of the future is fascinating, even if it occasionally overwhelms the plot. The government dynamics and environmental problems of Byrne’s world are enormous and stressful, and sometimes there are too many thoughts crammed into The Girl in the Road. Then again, that is how the world is – too much to take in all at once, already exhausting and overwhelming. I cannot comprehend how much more intense that constant flood of information will be in 54 years.

But it is the internal, emotional plot of the two characters—more so than the politics and technology—that drives the book. I believe in both characters, but I care about them too. Meena has been attacked and wounded in India, and she seeks the Trail in a soul-searching journey to come to terms with the murders of her parents at the time of her birth. Mariama is fleeing a sinister, frightening past and hoping for a better life in Addis Ababa. Though Byrne’s novel is categorized as science fiction, she spins an addictive mystery as the reader begins to understand how the two plot lines connect.

Monica Byrne

Monica Byrne

Beyond its genre categorizations, The Girl in the Road is a feminist manifesto. As Byrne writes, “the real show here is the divine feminine.” In some ways, Byrne’s 2068 has solved many problems for women. There has been another sexual revolution, this time in India, and now people are out as trans*, polyamorous, bisexual, and homosexual without a second thought. Meena has had relationships with men and women – her most current partner was a transwoman named Mohini – and her sexuality is commonplace in the world of the novel. Additionally, by 2068, all STDs are treatable by nanobiotics, and both men and women are automatically given birth control upon reaching puberty, which can be easily deactivated if and when the individual wants to start a family. For many women today, this sounds like a dream world.

What is troubling in The Girl in the Road are not the things that are different in 2068, but the things that have remained the same. Class differences between the poor and the wealthy are still extreme. Terrorist attacks continue to be common, even if the warring groups have changed. Humans are still trafficked into slavery. And, even 54 years from now, women are the regular victims of physical violence and rape.

Before setting out on the Trail, Meena worked at a women’s clinic. Women are still taught to be ashamed, not proud, of their bodies. Women are still beaten and raped and left to die on the side of the road. Women are still sold into sexual slavery. Women are still seen as lesser than men and, as Meena angrily thinks on the Trail, “I fucking hate it when anyone assumes I’m harmless because I am a woman.” Women still excuse the violence they experience as normal: “He just needed to get his frustration out of his system.” I was moved by Byrne’s book because of her willingness to honestly address the horrors that women face – women of all ages, races, and classes, across the globe. Byrne does not shy away from brutal truths. “We’re all children of rape, somewhere in our lineage,” Meena’s girlfriend Mohini tells her at one point. There is one particularly painful scene of child abuse in a hotel room. Byrne talks about that scene on her blog (spoilers there) and about the backlash to it: “I was told several times, by prospective agents and editors, that I needed to ‘dial it back’ or ‘tone it down.’ One of the reasons I chose my agent was that he was the only one to confirm my instinct: that I was telling the truth, and needed to leave it be.” Byrne has been accused of condoning child rape for writing this scene, but like those who think of Vladimir Nabokov as a pervert for creating Lolita, some readers, as Byrne writes, “confuse reportage with advocacy.” Byrne is actually showing how childhood trauma can affect an individual for the rest of her life.

Byrne wrote recently for The Atlantic about the dangers of “writing what you know.” Since privileged, white men have dominated the English literature scene for so many centuries, it is privileged, white, male characters who have been the heroes for as many years. “Despite a liberal upbringing and an education at a women’s college,” Byrne writes, “it didn’t occur to me that my identification with male heroes had damaged me in any way—that is, until I became a writer, and found myself weirdly reluctant to write a woman hero. This wasn’t an accident.” In The Girl in the Road, Byrne has written two woman heroes with brown skin. With my own liberal upbringing and education at the same women’s college, I am wary when a person of privilege decides to speak for someone without, but Byrne is self-aware and has grappled with her decision. She understands that it is not perfect, but she hopes it is a start: “As an American able-bodied, middle-class, mostly straight cis white person, I lack privilege in just one dimension: being a woman,” Byrne writes. “But I can summon experiences of that non-privilege—the daily reminders that I’m a special subset of human, rather than human, full stop—to make me understand who, by omission, literature instructs me to dehumanize.”

And so Byrne has created Meena and Mariama—both female, Indian and African respectively—who are not the stereotypical Strong Female Characters. Both are strong, yes – they could not survive their respective journeys without strength – but both are weak, vulnerable, and jealous too, and much affected and abused by the world around them. In short, they are people: two female characters who are as multifaceted and three-dimensional as the male characters that have populated the English canon for centuries. The Girl in the Road battles a giant and succeeds in inflicting a small wound. I hope Byrne will continue in this direction and other writers will follow her lead. If they do, we will begin to see more Indian and African writers dominating English literature. Until then, writers with privileged need to examine their own biases and motives. “Humanization—the recognition of the ‘other’ as equally valuable as oneself—is foundational to giving and receiving love and compassion,” Byrne has said, and not just literature, but the whole world, needs more of that.

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Worn Stories Book Trailer

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The trailer for the new collection, Worn Stories, a collection of stories about clothing and memory that has been edited by Emily Spivack since 2010. Contributors include Marina Abramovic, Greta Gerwig, Heidi Julavits, John Hodgman, Brandi Chastain, Andrew Tarlow, Piper Kerman, Maira Kalman, Sasha Frere-Jones,and others.

A Rumpus exclusive, after the jump: (more…)