What to Read When You’re Trying to Exist in an After
Six and a half years ago, I walked out on an abusive marriage and burned my life to the ground. Leaving that life was the most difficult decision I’d ever made but learning how to exist in an after—after love, after hope, after violence, after loss—taught me how to access resilience, strength, and tremendous beauty in what was also a before. Finding meaning in my suffering has given me purpose as I’ve embarked on a life that now looks like a life created by me and not for me.
The words of other women have offered me solace during this period of growth. Below are some of the books that have helped me find that beauty in the after.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
“If you are in love with red then you slit or shoot. If you are in love with blue you fill your pouch with stones and head down to the river. Any river will do.” – Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is my favorite book. That’s a bold statement to make, but this long, lyrical essay touched me on such a visceral level that I felt not only emotionally swept up in it, but also a physical kind of sweeping, too. Bluets is a lyrical meditation on Nelson’s obsession with the color blue, but it’s so much more than that—it’s about an obsessive kind of love that both nourishes and destroys. The language hums and vibrates, and in her masterful hands, the reader, too, feels that obsession and subsequent liberation.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
“It is possible to carry life and death in the same sentence. In the same body. It is possible to carry love and pain. In the water, this body I have slides through the wet with a history. What if there is hope in that.” – Lidia Yuknavitch
Another bold statement: Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water is my second favorite book. I read The Chronology of Water in the early stages of my writing life. Before that, I hadn’t seen a book that ignored and destroyed chronology much in the way that trauma ignores and destroys chronology. Yuknavitch uses the metaphor of swimming to explore her growth process through various traumas. The language is visceral, sexual, and angry, and Yuknavitch finds no easy answers to rest on. Instead, she lets the reader sit with the discomfort.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
“Something terrible happened, and I wish I could leave it at that because as a writer who is also a woman, I don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to me.” – Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay’s Hunger is a transcendent, beautiful, meditative account of the brutal rape that Gay endured as a child and her ensuing struggle to deal with its effects on her body. I often teach this book, and I’m continually astounded by how much my students relate to Gay’s story, as well as how much their empathy grows. Fat-shaming is one of the last permissible forms of shaming in our culture. Gay shows us what it’s like to navigate the world as a fat woman. With her quietly compassionate and humane voice, she paints a picture of a world that is wrong—and she is changing that world with every reader.
Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer
“That humans are animals means it is possible that the animal made of inescapable shock explains why humans go to movies, lovers stay with lovers who don’t love them, the poor serve the rich, the soldiers continue to fight, and other, confused, arousing things.” – Anne Boyer
This book of poems—or are they essays?—is a revelation. Boyer writes the lives of women—regular women—who are navigating terror and fear and despair. Domestic life is not ignored here. The quotidian matters of daily life are explored as much as the larger metaphors within, and Boyer’s narrators’ lives are rife with trouble: single parenting; trying to make ends meet; working to function within an oppressive, capitalist system. It’s an emotional but necessary read.
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
“I can’t say when you’ll get love or how you’ll find it or even promise that you will. I can only say you are worthy of it and that it’s never too much to ask for it, and that it’s not crazy to fear you’ll never have it again, even though your fears are probably wrong. Love is our essential nutrient.” – Cheryl Strayed
When I left my abusive ex-husband, my best friend said, “I am going to send your Christmas present a little early.” A couple of days later, I found an autographed copy of this book in the mail. Strayed had signed it, “Always take the balloon.” I sunk to the floor and wept. I had taken the balloon. Sometimes you just need someone to tell you what to do. Sometimes you just need someone to validate your fears. Sometimes you just need the opposite; sometimes you just need to be loved. This book will love you when you need it.
The Trailhead by Kerri Webster
“Here is the skull of the hummingbird on a chain around my neck. Let us pretend it’s fleshed, the chain on a leash. Let us be sad souls who keep bones on silver threads.” – Kerri Webster
Trailhead, a book of poems, is nature writing upended. Webster examines the natural world from a position of interiority. Death in the hills is reflected in the narrator’s perspective. Descriptions of flora and fauna abound, yet a couple masturbates each other in theater. The natural world abuts the urban world, and Webster’s narrators are lost, then found, within them both. It’s a quiet, devastating book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
“Observation is a skill. Observation isn’t easy, and the right eyes can make me feel like a deer, while the wrong ones make me feel like a monster.” – Terese Marie Mailhot
Heart Berries, a slim but packed memoir, is a fiercely unapologetic retelling of life on a reservation, life with a difficult mother, life in love and out of it, and life while navigating the world as a highly sensitive and creative individual. Mailhot’s prose is so beautiful that the reader doesn’t want to put the book down. I read this in almost one sitting, then sat stunned. Mostly I wanted to thank her for her tremendous—and sometimes brutal—honesty. This world needs more honest writers like Mailhot.
Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away by Alice Anderson
“We make chapels of our scars. They cross our skin and soul, a topographic map of the past. Our scars are built on the delicate yet dazzling scaffolding holding our weary, ragtag hearts aloft.” – Alice Anderson
Alice Anderson’s memoir Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away is a dizzying, lyrical account of Anderson’s domestic violence at the hands of a mercurial and ill spouse, and the legal and emotional battles that follow as she fights for the safety of herself and her children. Anderson writes a necessary narrative of the flaws in our nation’s family courts, and she does so beautifully. Anderson is a poet as well as prose writer, and her poet’s attention to language shines through in every passage. This book is a masterpiece.
When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz
“She bites, cleaving away a red wing / The red bird sings. Yes, / she bites the apple and there is music— / a branch breaking, / a ship undone by the shore, / a knife making love to a wound, the sweet scrape / of a match lighting the lamp of her mouth.” – Natalie Diaz
Natalie Diaz’s book, When My Brother Was an Aztec, is powerful and moving collection of poems about life with an addict. Diaz’s eye—her ability to find the power in everyday images—is almost without comparison, and the intensity and ferocity of these poems belie her tenderness and love for the world and people who populate these poems.
The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Megan Stielstra
“At the infant care classes, you take at the hospital, they give you a doll to cuddle and swaddle and practice changing diaper. I accidentally broke off its legs.” – Megan Stielstra
Listen, reader: Megan Stielstra is a great thinker. Every writer listed here is a great thinker, but I’m consistently amazed at the ways in which Stielstra seems to be always thinking, always questioning, and always analyzing. The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, a collection of essays about fear, brings us into her great brain. We get to see the ways in which her brain works, and it is masterful. A gift. These essays are so smart, and necessary, and full of pathos. Stielstra, in addition to being a wonderful writer, is funny. A book of essays about fear that is also funny—that’s what Stielstra has accomplished. I am in awe of her talent and personhood.
Silences by Tillie Olsen
“The power and the need to create, over and beyond reproduction, is native in both women and men. Where the gifted among women (and men) have remained mute, or have never attained full capacity, it is because of circumstances, inner or outer, which oppose the needs of creation.” – Tillie Olsen
Writing in the 60s and 70s, Tillie Olsen was a feminist ahead of her time. In Silences, she examines the worst kinds of silences—the silence from those who cannot create because life conditions prevent them from doing so. Olsen worked and parented full-time while also writing. Famous for the short story, “As I Stand Her Ironing,” Olsen was a pioneer in examining the ways in which domestic labor prevent women from creating, and she is also an astute critic of capitalism and how it oppresses and holds down marginalized populations. Pro tip: First read Silences and then read Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women. You won’t regret it.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Kelly’s debut memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl, just released in paperback earlier this week! – Ed.
Goodbye, Sweet Girl by Kelly Sundberg
Kelly Sundberg’s husband, Caleb, was a funny, warm, supportive man and a wonderful father to their little boy Reed. He was also vengeful and violent. But Sundberg did not know that when she fell in love, and for years told herself he would get better. It took a decade for her to ultimately accept that the partnership she desired could not work with such a broken man. In her remarkable book, she offers an intimate record of the joys and terrors that accompanied her long, difficult awakening, and presents a haunting, heartbreaking glimpse into why women remain too long in dangerous relationships.