Transformation is a thunderclap within a finger snap, a quick transition into something startling and expected. Or it is the slow process of a seed muscling into new forms under the earth, inevitable, but still cautious and deliberate in its movement. Stories of transformation—whether they involve a god donning human skin to seduce or destroy (or both); a beautiful girl in a fairy tale finding her real power by assuming a tiger’s lithe and feral form; or a woman cycling through violence and rage until she finds her hope, and her redemption in art—carry a natural sense of awe to them, a kind of holiness in spinning one form, one way of being, into another.
Below are some tales of transformation, books that guide us from the shores of the known world to the frothing water of the unknown and tell us to wade in.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
This collection has been described as a feminist reimagining of old fairy tales so often that we’ve forgotten the power and magnitude of what, exactly, Carter does. Sure, it’s radical to show beauties becoming beasts, pretty little victims becoming killers, country girls becoming masters of their own fates. But the real transformative power here, the real change, is when the women centered in these stories own their anger and their lust, embrace their appetites, and surrender to their wit and instincts—only then can they sleep between the wolf’s paws, or channel the force of fang and claw.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
Lidia Yuknavitch’s cracked diamond of a memoir—a book that draws blood with the sharpness of its insights and reflects a prismatic lightshow of glittering hope—remains transformative for most of the writers I know. The way Yuknavitch plays with form—vacillating from the searing intimacy of memories to discursive riffs on language and art that feel like a bridge in the shape of a conch shell spiral, carrying her from a childhood smothered under her father’s thumb to a more liberated life of art-making and found family—radically reshaped our sense of what we could do as storytellers.
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
Transformation is not always an easy process; sometimes it’s a matter of wrestling with ourselves, like Jacob wrestled with the angel, trying to get our hands around some part of ourselves that frightens and confounds us but refuses to be ignored. For John Grimes, the protagonist of the novel that Baldwin said he had to write “if I was ever going to write anything else,” that wrestling match is between the part of him that longs to be the fine, upstanding stepson and heir apparent to a Pentecostal preacher and the part of him that longs for his friend Elisha. Has any piece of writing ever described the wildness that can accompany change better than Baldwin’s depiction of John’s conversion? While writhing in agony on the threshing floor, as “the Holy Ghost was speaking,” John feels “tightening in his loin strings” and “a sudden yearning tenderness for Elisha… desire, sharp and awful.”
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
White Oleander is, on its surface, a coming of age novel, a genre that is driven by a fairly linear concept of transformation. But our heroine’s evolution into adulthood isn’t just defined by first periods and first lovers—it is about differentiating herself from her mother, Ingrid, who is as beautiful and poisonous as the titular flower, and whose worldview, which is a more refined but still brutal version of “kill or be killed,” is darkly seductive. Astrid’s coming of age is more about deciding to become her mother’s daughter or become someone more loving and hopeful.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemison
The very best speculative fiction finds a way to remold the scope of the world, to make it feel grandiose and yet intimate, all at once. Jemison’s story imagines a floating city and a vicious interfamilial power struggle that threatens to upend it—all through the eyes, and the proud, unyielding heart, of a teenage girl who must move through her grief and tap into her deepest reserves of strength.
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates’s American epic is far from another biography of Marilyn Monroe. In this fever dream of a modern day hagiography, Norma Jeane Baker—abandoned child, desperately lonely young woman, and fiercely determined artist—puts her talent through the crucible of her own trauma and the dirty glitter of the Hollywood dream factory and emerges, for better and for worse, as the indelible, immortal force known as Marilyn Monroe.
Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Monstress features some of the most gruesome, viscerally realized physical transformations I’ve seen in any literary format. Protagonist Maika Halfwolf is the host to a large, fierce tentacled being that comes raging out of her at unpredictable moments. But the series is too smart to simply elevate horror movie schlock (though there’s nothing wrong with that!) through visual depictions that manage to feel gritty and lush, wholly singular in vision and execution: Maika’s relationship with her monster evolves over time, as she learns that cooperating with it and not trying to control it, may be the only way to live within any kind of balance.
Sick by Porchista Khakpour
Transformation is not always a matter of our fairy godmother bringing us gowns and glass slippers to make us beautiful for the ball; sometimes, transformation is brutal and unfair, and it requires every ounce of fortitude we can muster to endure it. Khakpour’s memoir of living with Lyme disease—and contending with a medical establishment that often has few answers and even less empathy for her—is about the ways that our realities can change, and, poignantly, about the ways that our creativity and passion can rise up to meet those new realities.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado’s stories are a kaleidoscope of altered bodies—there are the women who slowly, excruciatingly fade into nothingness; the plague victims who burn into sickness and death; and most famously, the woman with the green ribbon (and if you’ve remained unspoiled so far, I certainly won’t be the one to reveal the ending). These tales of transformation have all the dreamy potency and everlasting prescience of classic fairy tales and folklore: They use the fantastical to tell fundamental truths about the human heart and psyche.
Bakkhai by Anne Carson
In her reworking of Euripides’s ancient play about a young god, Carson writes, “Dionysus is god of the beginning before the beginning… think of your first sip of wine from a really good bottle… start of an idea.” The beginning is the place where our desires first come to us, even if we can’t put them into language, it is the start of any transformation. Dionysus is god who brings that desire into being, whether it means walking in the garb of another gender or channeling our innate, untrammeled wildness.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Laura’s debut novel, Don’t You Know I Love You, out now from Dzanc Books! – Ed.
Don’t You Know I Love You by Laura Bogart
The last place Angelina Moltisanti ever wants to go is home. She barely escaped life under the roof, and the thumb, of her violent but charismatic father, Jack. Yet home is exactly where she ends up after an SUV plows into her car just weeks after she graduates from college, fracturing her wrist and her hopes to start a career as an artist. Angelina finds herself smothered in a plaster cast, in Jack’s obsessive urge to get her a giant accident settlement, in her mother Marie’s desperation to have a second chance, and in her own stifled creativity—until she meets Janet, another young artist who inspires her to push herself into making the dynamic, unsettling work that tells the story of her scars, inside and out. But excavating this damage, as relations with her father become increasingly tense, will push Angelina into making a hard choice: will she embrace her father’s all-consuming and empowering rage, or find another kind of strength?