Eric Ponce

Whether finding home or building a home or leaving home, fiction frequently centers on belonging—what it means and how it moves us. In Neruda on the Park, the debut novel from Cleyvis Natera, the Guerrero family struggles with belonging not just in their New York City neighborhood but also to each other.

When a decrepit building in Northar Park is torn down to make way for luxury condos, the Guerreros and their neighbors are forced to confront the realities of the price-raising, whitewashing menace that is gentrification. But for Lux, the daughter of Eusebia and Vladimir Guerrero, the changes are both external and internal: After being fired from her cutthroat legal job, Lux realizes that she has transformed along with the neighborhood, and perhaps not for the better.

The novel is split into three parts—titled Demolition, Excavation and Grounding—and unfolds through the perspectives of Lux and her mother, Eusebia, showing not only how the evolution of Northar Park is linked to the evolution of the Guerreros, but also how the discourse of belonging is fraught with generational conflict. Eusebia and Vladimir left the Dominican Republic to give their children a better life, including law school and high-paying corporate jobs. But Luz falls in love with the man who’s developing Northar Park, which causes a divide between where she comes from and where she’s going, and directly links her choices to the destruction of the home that her parents have created.

Natera’s writing style is detailed and intimate but leaves plenty to the imagination. The mother-daughter dynamic propels the novel and creates its dramatic tension, but Natera also includes interludes from the Tongues, the blabbermouth neighborhood chismosas, or gossips, who hear everything and know everything. Through these voices, Natera’s depiction of Northar Park becomes lively and vibrant, which brings the reader back to the novel’s central focus: home. As the Guerreros’ dreams shift—Lux desires an Upper West Side apartment, and Vladimir hopes for a new house in the Dominican Republic—the reader is encouraged to ask what home really is. Is it a place? A peace? Neruda on the Park doesn’t give answers but rather lets the reader and the Guerrero family decide for themselves.

What is home? Is it a place, or a sense of peace? Cleyvis Natera's debut novel explores the nature of home through the changing dreams of a Dominican American family in a gentrifying neighborhood.

The transgender experience in Latin America is a unique, vital part of Latinidad, and in the English translation of her debut novel, Camila Sosa Villada shows us why. Bad GirlsLas malas, as it was originally titled in Spanish—captures the beauty, wonder and danger in the lives of travestis, a Spanish term that has been re-appropriated to empower trans women.

Villada brings us into the found family of a group of travesti sex workers living in Córdoba, Argentina. When Auntie Encarna, the 178-year-old godmother of the group, finds an abandoned child in the bramble of Sarmiento Park, the group is suddenly transformed into a “real” family who will raise the boy together. They name him Twinkle in Her Eye, and as the novel unfolds, each member of the family learns to find their own twinkle in the cruel and magical world Villada so masterfully crafts.

Bad Girls reads like a fairy tale but still connects strongly with corporeal aspects of trans experiences. Villada writes in an arrestingly poetic voice, often leaning on ancient Greek allusions to give her prose a mythic feeling. She introduces each character and their backstory like picking petals from a flower—lovingly and painfully, with dreamy care.

Early in the novel we meet Laura, the only person in the group who was assigned female at birth, and whose pregnancy and poverty lead her to the travestis. When Laura gives birth, Villada writes a scene so visceral that readers are sure to be astounded by the combination of beauty and grossness. Moments like these, in which Villada makes art out of bodies, bolster the novel’s keen and critical gender lens. From headless men to virgin births to immortal souls, Villada wants us to imagine what our bodies and lives could be.

Latin America has a rich trans tradition, in both the art and activism realms, and with Bad Girls, Villada joins the ranks of the greats. With nods to Argentine trans icons such as actor Cris Miró and activist Claudia Pía Baudracco, Villada weaves Bad Girls into the world of Latin American trans life. Just as artists like Venezuelan musician Arca have shown what the Latin American trans community can offer music, Villada shows how much a travesti can offer the field of literature. The promise is great, and on every page, Villada delivers.

In the arresting, mythic novel Bad Girls, Argentine author Camila Sosa Villada challenges readers to imagine what their bodies and lives could be.

Our connections to people have never been stranger. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the internet, people from all walks of life are increasingly isolated in person but willing to reveal more of themselves online. Nigerian author Eloghosa Osunde understands the tension of these tenuous connections, and in her first novel, Vagabonds!, she shows how each person’s life bears the effects of unstoppable forces. From the intimacy of sexuality to the vastness of cityscapes, Osunde gives the reader a clear picture of the messy collision courses that are our lives.

Vagabonds! begins with several dictionary definitions of its own title, prompting the reader to draw some preliminary conclusions about the story before they even read it. Then, over the course of the novel, Osunde allows the reader to become painfully intimate with economically, sexually and culturally marginalized life in Nigeria. She shows people at their best and at their worst, sometimes in conjunction, creating a universal sense of belonging that will resonate with many.

The defining characteristic of Vagabonds! is its large cast. There are tons of characters, but each manages to limn a certain aspect of Osunde’s world. Within this Lagos-set milieu, skeevy politicians and street hawkers selling pirated copies of “How to Get Away With Murder” exist alongside complicated people trying to find love and joy. Some chapters are written as letters, others as numbered or bulleted lists, experiments that call to mind Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and lead to similarly reality-bending results. Characters appear and reappear, such as fashion designer Wura, who tells of her precocious daughter in one chapter, then later in the book turns up in letters from a lost lover. The dramatic effect of these touches is realized at the book’s end, in a time-stamped sequence of events.

Osunde’s devotion to exploring individual human lives is balanced by a notably divine focus in sections about Èkó, a mythical figure and synecdoche for the masses. Through Èkó, the reader is led to understand the relationship between the public and the godly: When people come together, even unconsciously, they create a divine power. In humanizing this power, Osunde shows how each of her characters is part of something much larger than themselves—which is, in both the biblical and laical senses, awesome.

There are several epigraphs at the novel’s opening, a preview of its ambition, but this line from Toni Morrison is the most salient: “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” Osunde reveals people loving and fighting in their bid to design the world together.

Eloghosa Osunde shows how each of her characters in Vagabonds! is part of something much larger than themselves.

In You Are Here (For Now), artist and author Adam J. Kurtz is vulnerable, wise and hilarious as he doles out advice and comfort to anyone who’s really going through it.

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received?
Sometimes the worst advice comes from the people who love us the most. I won’t go into it (oops, bad start to an interview), but someone who loves me was enabling me when what I really needed was a full reset. 

Advice is always going to be highly subjective, even when it comes from the most intuitive and special people in our lives. I make sure to be especially transparent about that when dispensing any myself, including within my books.

What motivates you to motivate others? Is motivation even the right word for it?
I don’t think it’s motivation so much as me continually searching for a way to be OK—yes, me, an infamously (to myself) not OK person—and then wanting to share it with as many people as possible. In the last few years, and particularly as I did more speaking, I realized that my weirdo-brain way of thinking through shit actually sounds a lot like other peoples’ inner monologues, and so I began to think that maybe there’s power in opening up the conversation to others.

Do you remember the first time you reached a “vibe equilibrium” (when good vibes and bad vibes can coexist)? How sustainable is such a state?
“GOOD VIBES ONLY” is tone-deaf at this point because we’re all in the jello now! It’s pandemic year two, and everybody is simultaneously struggling through very real hardships and loss while still experiencing moments of joy and celebrating milestones in spite of everything. That’s the vibe equilibrium I’m talking about. Turns out, it’s pretty sustainable. In fact, it’s the only thing that works, because pure ignorance is dangerous, but focusing solely on the news cycle makes it impossible to feel good at all.

“Pure ignorance is dangerous, but focusing solely on the news cycle makes it impossible to feel good at all.”

When you sit down to write, who do you imagine you’re talking to? What role does the idea of an audience play in your process?
This is literally SO mentally-ill-gay-Jew of me, but at least half the time I’m just talking to myself. I mean, aren’t we all? Even our most objective advice and anecdotes are still rooted in our own lived experiences. I think about a younger version of myself, or a friend sitting across from me on the couch talking through their current mix of stress and insecurity. 

I am totally a secret-keeper and confidant for people, and it’s an honor to be “that friend” for the people I love. I imagine my readers as friends who are going through it right now, and since it’s not always appropriate to instigate a heart-to-heart, I thought about this book as a way for readers to opt-in to talk about all the stuff we don’t usually talk about—like failure, shame, anxiety and death.

What is it about being glib that helps you cope? Is this a way to reach deeper levels of honesty?
I mean, yes, in the way that my favorite deadpan, self-deprecating humor is often incredibly honest. It’s also the kind of deep-level honesty that this poor barista did not ask for. So it’s about finding the funny silver lining for yourself, but also making sure that you have and respect boundaries.

Has the shift in how we talk about self-care changed our lived experience of it? If so, do you think this change is for the better?
Yes yes yes yes yes. I am so grateful for the way this conversation continues to change, and I try to be very intentional about my use of the phrases “self-care,” “mental health” and “mental illness.” It’s so necessary for us to allow ourselves and one another to acknowledge mental well-being in a mainstream, practical, actionable way. 

Seeing Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, two incredible Black women at the top of their games, speak openly about mental health and even deprioritize their passion, pride and income to focus inward is so incredible. It means a lot to me to have a small part in this conversation that continues to unfold around all of us.

“I thought about this book as a way for readers to opt-in to talk about all the stuff we don’t usually talk about—like failure, shame, anxiety and death.”

It often feels like it’s becoming increasingly hard to be a human being. Is there reprieve from this? If so, where do you find it in your own life?
I think we’re simply seeing more ways of being and are subsequently faced with far more comparisons and possibilities than before. It’s hard for me to realize I’m unhappy if I don’t know how happy I could theoretically be! But many of the same tools that hurt us (hi, social media) can also bring us comfort, inspiration and community. I always think of my art as a breadcrumb trail left out in the universe to attract my people. Sharing this process has brought incredible friendships, and my husband, into my life. Not to mention a book deal . . .

What music has helped you stay alive? What’s the soundtrack of your life right now?
Michelle Branch’s “The Spirit Room” meant absolutely everything to me as a teen. It came out around the same time that my family moved from Canada to the USA and I was coming to terms with my sexuality and how it conflicted with our Jewish religion. “Goodbye to you, goodbye to everything that I knew,” sung in such literal terms, meant the world to me as a 13-year-old. It’s that album’s 20-year anniversary this year, and she’s rerecorded it, so I’ve had that in rotation, a fresh take on the words and melodies that are hard-wired into my brain.

Alanis Morissette’s “Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie” also must receive credit for being an incredible, dense, vulnerable look into a young, intelligent and complex mind. Sometimes I think that if Alanis Morissette could find joy and success in her art on a complicated path through teen fame and pain, I can do my thing and have that be enough.

Speaking of musicians, did you mean for the handwritten parts of the book to look like the cover of Drake’s “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late”?
Oh my god, get away from me!!!!!!! I’d been doing this thing for many years, and when that album came out, so many people asked me if I worked on it. That type was actually created by the street artist JIMJOE, and when I first moved to New York, he had tagged the door downstairs “OK OK OK OK NO PROBLEMS.” I wish I had written THAT first, but I’ve saved the photo and still might get it tattooed some day.

Author photo © Michelle Mishina

Meet Adam J. Kurtz, a mental health guru you can actually relate to.

Being a titan in romantic fiction comes with some expectations. People love—or maybe even need—a good cry, and when you’re a master of romance, they expect you to deliver one. It has never been hard for Nicholas Sparks to keep this promise, but when you’ve been writing love stories for 25 years, it can be difficult to meet, let alone surpass, expectations. 

However, as Sparks’ many fans know, his formula for bringing such romances to life is effective because we find ourselves truly caring for his characters, in spite of any reservations or presumptions. The Wish is a typical Sparks drama, familiar in the way that an old friend is: You know what that friend will say and how they’ll say it, but there’s still the possibility that you’ll be surprised by the infinite person they are inside.

Heuristic and dazzling, Nicholas Sparks’ novel convinces its reader to believe, in spite of everything, in love.

The novel follows Maggie Dawes throughout 2013, the last year of her life. She is a famous photographer diagnosed with terminal cancer, and when a young man named Mark comes to her gallery in search of a job, Maggie finds a confidante in him. She begins to reflect upon and tell her story before it’s too late. 

In 1996, at the age of 16, Maggie’s family sends her away to avoid the scandal of her pregnancy, and she’s taken in by an aunt who’s a former nun living on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Maggie spends her days feeling helpless and isolated until she meets Bryce, the only other person her age on the island of Ocracoke. When Bryce begins to tutor her, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that despite Maggie’s pregnancy and Bryce’s military dreams, the two are destined to be together.

This far into his career, each of Sparks’ novels feels like a high school science experiment: Change the variables, add this, subtract this and see what happens. And though The Wish may seem obvious at times, when put into the larger picture of Sparks’ tragically tuned arch, the reader can see how such exaggerated emotion provides life, breath and blood to these near-perfect characters. The reader may wonder how much of Sparks’ writing process is spent trying out plot options and disregarding the failures—surely a lot, as the result is faultlessly executed. 

Sparks knows how to pull your heartstrings, and as The Wish progresses, you know when to expect the punches. This doesn’t mean, however, that you want to dodge them. And just because you’re expecting a twist doesn’t mean that one won’t still form in your stomach. It’s comforting to know that there’s still a place you can go—besides your own intricate, messy life—for a reliable cry.

With The Wish, Sparks reminds us that love, as predictable as it can be, will always move you in ways you can’t comprehend. Yes, it is idyllic, it is comforting, it is sentimental, but at the end of the day, you have to suspend logic and smile. It’s how we love.

Heuristic and dazzling, Nicholas Sparks’ novel convinces its reader to believe, in spite of everything, in love.

Nowadays, it’s easy to find out where you came from. Just pluck out some hair follicles or scrape your cheek for some cells, send them to a lab far away, and they’ll determine your genetic makeup. Even when science reveals these secrets about our bodies, however, ancestry and heritage are still complex elements of our personal identities. In her debut novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, celebrated poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story, showing that where any one person comes from is much more complicated than charts and graphs.

Ailey Pearl Garfield, a young Black girl with a big family, takes center stage, and the history and intricacies of her ancestry drive the novel’s plot. We jump, sometimes dizzyingly, across space and time to trace her family line, and the result is a dazzling tale of love and loss. The story begins with a formerly enslaved man and his acceptance into a Native tribe, the first fateful moment of a vast history. Centuries later, Ailey is visited in her dreams by a “long-haired lady” who helps her to uncover their shared story.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: To write her debut novel, celebrated poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers learned to claim her rural Southern roots.

From slavery to freedom, discrimination to justice, tradition to unorthodoxy, this story covers large parts of not just of Ailey’s heritage but also America’s. It’s the kind of familial epic that many Americans, particularly African Americans, can relate to, as Jeffers limns this family’s story with the trauma, faults and passions that we all harbor. Her masterful treatment of the characters and their relationships, paired with the thorough and engaging way the narrative is laid out, makes for a book that is easy to invest and get lost in—a feat for such a long, intricate work. Best yet, the novel incorporates the words of W.E.B. Du Bois throughout its 800-plus pages; those words are the story’s spine, its beating heart, its very life force.

Comparisons to Toni Morrison are bound to be made and will be apt in most cases, as this novel feels as important as many of Morrison’s. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois earns its place among such company, as Jeffers engages with and builds upon the legacy of African American literature as carefully and masterfully as she does the narrative of Ailey’s family.

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story, showing that where any one person comes from is much more complicated than genetic makeup.

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