Nonsense. No sense. Nuisance. New sense. Our current world is a vortex of crises, sentiments, and politics. And yet, we still go about our human business. Some of us travel to work in the mornings, encountering the rush of others heading to their respective office-boxes. We eat our polite lunches. At night we scroll through social media while watching reality television (who doesn’t adore “real” “housewives” yelling at each other over some minuscule social indiscretion?), the news, a series about the twisted and salacious interactions between vacationers at a fictional resort chain. Amidst this world, I am looking to devour art that allows me to detox from the hectic and simultaneously stagnant energy that seems to pervade many aspects of one’s day.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been searching for literature that would speak to my spirit instead of my mind, words that would move through my body and my heart, books that would throw off my worldly center and ask me to create a new understanding of planet Earth and beyond. I need (and perhaps you do too, dear reader) new logic and sense in a world which feels illogical and senseless most times. I’m on a serious hunt these days for books that give me balance within so I can find a path towards luminous thinking. As I was writing fox woman get out!, I was drawn to creating an artistic object that would work hard to emotionally charge its readers and perhaps even alter their perceptions of their own selfhood (we’re so much more expansive and idiosyncratic than our Western society allows us to be).
And so, I have crafted a lean list of ten books that challenge the academic notion of “understanding” what you just read. Books that are intuitively it (for me) and are so nuanced, real, and odd that one must take their time in chewing their rambunctious and deeply honest thought patterns. A palate cleanser for the self. An electric shock to the mind. If books create new sense, then perhaps they can help us think, and by extension act, our way to a gentler, all-encompassing world.
The Popol Vuh translated from the K’iche’ by Michael Bazzett
The Mayan Popol Vuh has been a favorite of mine since my high school Spanish-class days, when we were reading scenes from this book and acting them out. Encountering this text again as an adult, with an English translation this time, reminded me of the new logic this book presented me with as an adolescent. I used to think the gaps in my traditional understanding of the story of The Popol Vuh was due to a bad Spanish to English translation on my part, and while that may very well be an aspect of how dream-like this book seemed to me as a teenager, the specifically non-Western logic at play in The Popol Vuh is exactly the medicine a person needs to get outside of clichéd ways of thinking and expressing. This book gives us the seeds of language, it gives us the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, fighting the lords of death; it gives us a vision of humanity and an understanding of how the world came to be.
Cane by Jean Toomer
This book hits the new sense category, and hard. Written by Toomer (a man who identified alternatively as both Black and white on government documents, and cast off conventional racial divisions and identifications), this hybrid book—including poems, fiction, drama, and songs—touches upon the multi-faceted nature of Blackness across America. Everything in Cane seems to be covered in the fog of early morning, adding to the impressionistic and surreal sensibility of Toomer’s writing. This is a book of exploration and self-fragmentation, which leads to a new sort of self-definition. I might say, quite humbly, you don’t know America until you know Cane.
Humaninal: A Project for Future Children by Bhanu Kapil
Written with the utmost care and brilliance about Kamala and Amala, the “Bengali wolf girls” who were found living in the jungle in 1920 and thereafter captured and domesticated by Indian missionary Reverend Joseph Singh, Kapil offers insight into the lives of these two girls, who were thrust into a new world rife with “upright movement, and a moral life.” With her language, Kapil nurtures these two wolf girls who are no longer on this Earth, she mothers them across time and space, and the result is a book so brutal in its sincerity, so utterly humane. As Dodie Bellamy writes on the back cover, “If you stick a girl in a dress, can you eradicate her animal?” May we never lose our feral selves, for after all, such “civilized” efforts can be far more dangerous than any interior or exterior wilderness.
Juice by Renee Gladman
“People tend to have faith that the juice they drink in the morning is the same juice they have always drunk.” Few do wild quite like Renee Gladman, and Juice is no exception. Full of flirtatious mountains, discussions about the rise of the smoothie industry, standing at the edge of a lawn in fascination, and having rice for dinner, this book steadily rests outside of a conventional narrative, yet the writing grips you, moves you along each line. It is the minutia of life that fill the speaker’s mind, and the pages of the book. It is the smallness that becomes big. My hope for us all: “One day I outgrew everything there was to see.”
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
When Terrance Hayes writes that your debut poetry collection shares the bloodline of Lorde’s Sister Outsider, you read Sister Outsider. Just recently I delved into the deep waters of this book and found a very real ancestral home in Lorde’s essays and speeches, often reading her words repeatedly to myself to unpack the heavy meaning behind every thought and line, even reading her words aloud to whoever may be sitting next to me. A leading Black, lesbian poet, Lorde lays bare her thoughts on the page and does so in such a direct manner that she is sure to pierce the minds of her readers. In these pages she leads us through the power of the erotic, poetry as revelation, the freedom of feeling, writing as scrutiny, and so much more. As Nancy K. Bereano’s introduction to the book aptly reads, “[Lorde] is at the cutting edge of consciousness.”
Endgame by Samuel Beckett
Starkly minimalist with a glimpse into the game of life, this one act play by 1969 Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett is a test for any actor, let alone reader. Clov has a limp. Clov serves Hamm. Clov cannot sit. Hamm is relegated to a wheelchair (for he cannot stand) and has no vision. It’s never time for the next painkiller but all of living is a pain, one’s daily routine a mere farce, and all the while Clov’s light is dying. All the characters are trying to get on, to leave, to believe in greenery beyond the dull grey of their lives. Deep within there is compassion, the ask of a kiss goodbye. The sorrow of life becomes quite funny, quite dull, quite available for the reader to confront major questions about what it means to be living.
Fool for Love and Other Plays by Sam Shepard
Existential cowboy Sam Shepard writes plays that nail down the texture of life and are less concerned with building characters and plot in the traditional sense (hell, some characters are described as a particular animal). This is a writer who wants to inexplicably move you. As Jacques Levy, a director for several of Shepard’s plays, once said, “Sam is more interested in doing something to audiences than in saying something to them.” Sam’s writing and characters are rough around the edges, vacillating, wanting, thumping away with heavy desires and feelings. To quote the opening of “Fool for Love,” “This play is to be performed relentlessly without a break.” Indeed.
Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein
Let’s decenter the center. Let’s take cubism and put it on the page to rewrite grammar and the sentence. Using abstraction and experimentation to the nth degree, Stein is building a whole new world, with no reference to a standard rule book. Tender Buttons is an act of pure literary and artistic resistance by an advocate for the avant-garde, a main figure in the Parisian art world, and a mentor to the Lost Generation. We must reacquaint ourselves with language, and the world by extension. “Very strongly may be sincerely fainting. May be strangely flattering. May not be strange in everything. May not be strange to.”
American Indian Myths and Legends selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz
As theosophist and activist Annie Besant once said, “A myth is far truer than a history, for a history only gives you a story of the shadows, whereas a myth gives a story of the substances that cast the shadows.” With this I turn to myths of many different indigenous tribes to understand how we got to such shadow-casting substances. Including 166 legends from the native people of North America, who needs a conventional beginning and ending when you are given kernels of sacred living, stories fruitful with moral lessons and full of creation, of Blood Clot Man and First Mother and Stone Boy.
Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks
The one and only novella by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, this book elevates prose with thirty-four vignettes of Maud Martha’s life as she goes from a girl to a woman in 1940s Black Chicago. With “minimal drama and maximal beauty” as Asali Solomon says so accurately about this stunning work, Brooks gives us an interior life and snapshots of moments that won’t soon leave you: speaking to a semi-corpse (Gramma), domestic sins, the business of sorrow, and the weather bidding you bon voyage. It’s about feeling your way through life more than crafting an eventful story that hits certain plot points. This book shows real emotional underpinnings with such skill and literary aplomb.
And of course, we hope that you’ll check out India González’s collection, fox woman get out!
— The Eds.
Traveling from the corporeal to the cosmic, from life to death and back again, fox woman get out! is a full-throated performance of humanity in search of truth, ancestry, and artistic authenticity. Moving through themes of lineage, twinship, femininity and masculinity, reclamation of Indigeneity, dance, gender roles, and longing, González’s poems are a crescendo on the page. Part ecstatic elegy, part spell, this is a betwixt poetics, a kaleidoscopic, disruptive, and meditative work.