When considering the history of what is now known as Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico, there is a saying among Mexican Americans: “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.” It’s a reminder that claims to territory and citizenship rights predate the current boundary between Mexico and the U.S. It’s a rallying cry to tell the true history of American lands and the people who originally belonged on them. With the rise of Indigenous voices in the mainstream, that history is finally beginning to be recognized for its complexity and vitality, its literary power and potential.
Oscar Hokeah’s debut, Calling for a Blanket Dance, tells the story of Ever Geimausaddle through generations of his family. Before the novel even begins, Hokeah provides readers with a family tree, preparing them for the importance of blood ties in the story ahead. Each chapter belongs to a different leaf on the tree, and from these many perspectives, we see Ever grow from an infant into a man, eventually raising his own kids in the strange double bind of Indigeneity. After all, when your heritage and ancestry are the reasons for your oppression, to whom can you turn in order to survive, but to family?
As Ever comes into his full self, we see the impact that his family members have on each other, shaping the ways they live and love. In the opening scene, for example, Ever’s mother, Turtle, takes Ever’s father, Everardo, and their 6-month-old son across Texas and into Mexico in an attempt to rescue her husband from his addiction to alcohol and remind him of his heritage. From the love languages of food and manual labor, to the easy manner in which Everardo tells lies, this scene is the foundation for Ever’s life and his later abilities to parent his own children.
Hokeah’s prose is punchy and descriptive, filled with Native American phrases and words that come naturally to the characters. This blending of languages is still uncommon in contemporary fiction, but the current Indigenous literary and cultural renaissance promises that more and more voices will grow this singularity into a rich multitude. With television shows like “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls” attracting critical and popular attention, it seems that this resurgence is only getting started.
But of course, renaissance and resurgence are the wrong words to use here. Hokeah, who is of Mexican heritage as well as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, shows that this tradition has been here the whole time, evolving and surviving. It’s the lines in the sand—what we call borders—that are new. Why should we act like these lines are valid and the people are not? Calling for a Blanket Dance proves that the people are more real than anything.
When your heritage and ancestry are the reasons for your oppression, to whom can you turn in order to survive, but to family? Oscar Hokeah’s exceptional debut novel follows a Native American man’s life through the many leaves of his family tree.
Writers will tell you that their books are like their children: They nurture them, struggle with them and orient their whole lives around them. Elisa Albert plays with this trite analogy between artistic creation and parenthood in her third novel, Human Blues, the energetic tale of a singer-songwriter who wants to get pregnant but can’t.
Aviva’s infertility leads her and her husband, Sam, to consider the option of assisted reproductive technology. However, even though Aviva wants a child, she is terrified of these alternative methods. Her ambivalence fuels her music, giving her the perfect material for a breakthrough album. As she steps into her new position in the spotlight, she begins to wonder: Does she really want all that she says she wants? And who gets a say in what she really wants?
Spanning nine of Aviva’s menstrual cycles, Human Blues is filled with personality as Albert merges questions of fame and fertility into a thought-provoking exploration of agency and expression. Aviva’s musicianship gives Albert’s prose a distinct rhythm: It’s fast and sweet, with enough attitude to put Sleater-Kinney or even Lizzo to shame. Aviva’s characterization as a young bohemian fosters pop culture references aplenty, and this becomes a central aspect in the plot as her obsession with Amy Winehouse transforms from innocent worship to a near loss of self. As Aviva’s fame grows, she turns to her idol but is confronted with a grisly picture of stardom and womanhood gone sour. Whether she’s watching blockbuster movies or taking a yoga class, Aviva is confronted with the implications of her gender at every turn.
Aviva and Sam are unprepared for their biological processes to become subject to scrutiny, and they’re overwhelmed by philosophical questions about nature and nurture. In this way, the invasiveness of social media mirrors the invasiveness of the fertility industrial complex, and excerpts of Aviva’s online presence provide an all-too-relatable dimension to her physical and mental bombardment. But solace does come, and as the title implies, the result is an emotional, life-affirming howl into a wild world.
A singer-songwriter faces questions of fame and fertility in Elisa Albert’s novel, an emotional, life-affirming howl into a wild world.
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 Girls—Las 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.
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.
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.
Sometimes a story can be told solely through prose, but these two graphics make it clear that some stories need more than just powerful words. Addressing themes of death, grieving, angst and longing, these books find that love can survive loss, and that the world is perfused with wonder.
Tyler Feder confronts loss with a gentle smile in Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir. No stone is left unturned as Feder recounts her mother’s cancer diagnosis and reflects on her own ever-present grieving process. Feder walks us through her journey in hilarious, moving detail, and the illustrations enable us to experience her pain even more deeply.
When Feder and her sisters go to the mall to get “black mourning clothes,” they stumble into Forever 21, where 2000s-era neon dresses are comically lurid against their sullen faces. Feder jokes lovingly about this experience. She also shares insights into the grieving process that recall Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, as when she refuses to let anyone clean out her mother’s closet or when she admits to feeling like her mom is “just on a long trip somewhere far away.”
While Feder’s experience is uniquely Jewish American, including kriah ribbons and a shiva, her memoir looks beyond culturally specific ideas about death to face loss and grief on a personal level. With a mix of sadness, compassion and joy, Feder tells a touching story for anyone who has lost someone—or really, for anyone who loves someone.
Borja González’s A Gift for a Ghost is the ensorcelling, strange yet familiar tale of the intertwined fates of a 19th-century girl who longs to be a horror-poet and a 21st-century high school punk band. The story and images are reminiscent of something Kurt Cobain wrote about the Raincoats, another amateurish band: “Rather than listening to them, I feel like I’m listening in on them. We’re together in the same old house and I have to be completely still, or they will hear my spying from above, and if I get caught, everything will be ruined.” The novel creates a similar effect: The story unfolds slowly and endearingly, and you find yourself drawn in to its air of mystery and magic.
As Teresa prepares for her poetry debut, and as bandmates Gloria, Laura and Cristina try their hands at songwriting, the story builds, with anxiety rising in all of their lives. As the four girls struggle to decide which sides of themselves to embrace, González’s artwork can be both spare and hyperfloral. We begin to wonder who the girls will become and what brought them all together in the first place. Once (some of) these questions are resolved and the story reaches its end, you can’t help but feel that you missed something, but that feeling is actually just a desire to read the book all over again.
Addressing themes of death, grieving, angst and longing, two new graphics find that love can survive loss, and that the world is perfused with wonder.
Horror may be the most unifying genre. Whereas some people don’t care for the sweetness of romance or the harebrained schemes of sci-fi, everyone gets scared, whether they like it or not. Not to mention the universality of horror’s tropes and traditions. The genre is communal, often literally, such as in the case of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Due to a copyright misstep in 1968, the movie became part of the public domain—a mistake that forever altered the horror genre. It meant that anyone can use zombies in their work, and if you’ve consumed any media ever, you’ll know that everyone has.
When you get goosebumps or have to avert your eyes, the horror storyteller has done their job. In these two collections, we see how dynamic the genre really is.
In Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers: 1852–1923, editors Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger collect significant pieces of horror and horror-adjacent (but nonetheless frightening) stories by women. “During the second half of the nineteenth century,” they write in the book’s introduction, “when printing technologies enabled the mass production of cheap newspapers and magazines that needed a steady supply of material, many of the writers supplying that work were women.” Given the historical context of the industrial revolution, the effects of which caused significant fear, it makes sense that this era would produce a deluge of literary fright and strangeness. People needed their discomfort to be validated (and syndicated).
Women throughout history have been the chroniclers and agents of change, and in these stories, presented chronologically, their fears about the world are limned with staggering detail. With stories from Louisa May Alcott, Emma Frances Dawson and Edith Nesbit (under her E Bland pseudonym), this collection shows a societal response to a changing world. It is crucial to recognize the status of these women at the times of these stories’ publication, as most of the authors wrote using fake names or just their initials. Weird Women gives the reader a real glimpse of horror, written by authors who experienced it in their own lives.
Horror has been around for a long time, but innovation in the genre is as alive as ever. In Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Stories of Horror, Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto prepare a healthy serving of fear to inject straight into your head, heart, limbs and viscera. The collection is organized in exactly that way, with each section meant to evoke a response in that particular area—an experiment that works with chilling effects. Each story here is under 1,500 words, and with contributions from the likes of Samantha Hunt, Iván Parra Garcia, Stephen Graham Jones and Kevin Brockmeier, the collection is a fusillade of fear.
The best horror explores issues that plague the real world, and with a wide stylistic range of vignettes, Tiny Nightmares is something like a sophisticated "Scooby-Doo," evincing the human aspect of the horror in our daily lives. The real fear that comes from reading this collection is an emphatic reminder that our society’s horrors are becoming increasingly scarier, such as in Jac Jemc’s story Lone, whichfinds an isolated camper having to face her greatest fear: men.
The brevity of these stories highlights the horror in our everyday lives, and the conclusions drawn by each author are varied, yet all terrifying. By taking a look at the state of horror today, we see the ways that nightmares are pulled from reality.
When you get goosebumps or have to avert your eyes, the horror storyteller has done their job. In these collections, we see how dynamic the genre really is.
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.
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.
As a Latino reader, I like to keep up with the latest in Latinx literature, but you don’t have to be Latinx to appreciate Variations on the Body by Colombian American author María Ospina, translated by Heather Cleary. Latina identity serves as the foundation for Ospina’s powerful debut collection, and its six stories explore what it means to occupy a body bound by that identity. Each tale tackles a different angle, at turns pondering ownership of the body, how a body is tied to history, and why connection between bodies is so important.
Ospina’s characters are all Colombian women struggling with their bodies, though not with body image but rather the actual experience of living in human form. For example, the protagonist in “Occasion” is a young pregnant woman who’s working as a nanny, and between the needs of the child in her womb and the demands of the child she is paid to care for, the woman barely has any autonomy. Throughout the story, Ospina shifts the narrative’s perspective—sometimes the woman speaks, while other times the child she’s caring for does—to illustrate the precariousness of ownership.
This polyvocality repeats and is rearranged several times throughout the collection. In the first story, “Policarpa,” a former guerrilla fighter is silenced by the editor of her memoir, and in the third story, “Saving Young Ladies,” an isolated young woman projects her desire onto those she doesn’t know. In every story Ospina outdoes herself, and each time the message is profound and vital.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing awareness of overlapping systems of oppression, Variations on the Body is undoubtedly timely as a poignant portrait of people on the margins whose bodies are trapped in space and time. While that may sound like science fiction, Ospina shows how real these experiences are, and she challenges everyone to empathize.
María Ospina outdoes herself in every story of this collection, and each time, the message is profound and vital.
If you are an avid reader, you might have been called a nerd growing up. While bookworms rightfully consider this a compliment, bullies who wield the term usually have more malicious intentions. In Mieko Kawakami’s new novel, Heaven, protagonist Eyes experiences much worse than name-calling. He is slapped, punched, kicked, forced to eat chalk and a goldfish, and made to drink toilet water and pond water.
Eyes, who is so named by his peers for his lazy eye, undergoes all of this torment with resignation until the day he receives a note. A girl in his class named Kojima—dubbed “Hazmat” by their cruel classmates—decides that she and Eyes ought to be friends. They form an epistolary bond at first, taking solace in exchanging letters during torturous school days, but eventually they meet and embark on an emotional inquiry into their suffering.
A large part of the narrative is devoted to the excruciating details of Eyes’ and Kojima’s abuse. When Eyes is forced to eat scraps of food from a rabbit cage, readers feel both his anguish and his helplessness at the hands of his classmates. Some readers may categorize these unsparing scenes as trauma porn, but the heart of the book lies in its examination of these events. Why do the two 14-year-olds’ peers treat them with such malice? Where does the dynamic of perpetrator and victim come from? How should one respond to such treatment?
While Kawakami refuses to give us answers, the elegance and care with which she describes her characters’ lives invite the reader to ask such questions of themselves. This is not a cruel story, but rather one that understands hurt and pain for what it is: universal, unjust and material for new life.
Mieko Kawakami’s novel is not a cruel story, but rather one that understands hurt and pain for what it is: universal, unjust and material for new life.
You can’t have a conversation about literary fiction of the past 50 years without mentioning Haruki Murakami, and First Person Singular reminds us why.
As one of the standard-bearers of contemporary magical realism, Murakami has traveled deep into the hearts and minds of both his characters and his readers. In First Person Singular, he offers eight new stories, all told in first person—hence the title—as perhaps memoir, perhaps fiction. For example, “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection” finds a baseball-loving writer named Haruki Murakami musing on his favorite team and the ties that bind us together. Murakami is always blurring lines, and here it’s left up to the reader to decide what’s real. By distorting reality, the author creates a special closeness to his audience, and he acknowledges this relationship with intelligence and grace.
Murakami’s most significant (and perhaps only) shortcoming is his frequent fumbling of sexuality, which renders some of his work, to put it lightly, cringe-y. Sex is present in all of his books, whether it be tragic, as in Norwegian Wood, occult and Oedipal, as in Kafka on the Shore, or even as the basis for an entire collection, as in Men Without Women. But in First Person Singular, sexuality takes on a new meaning. Murakami is surely aware of this frequent criticism of his work, and here he toys with readers’ expectations. The story “Carnaval” is the best example of this. Its opening line, “Of all the women I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest,” introduces a dated, male voice, but Murakami then subverts expectations to tell a story that's deeper than any one person's perspective. At the heart of this story are truly moving observations about friendship and the connection between people and art.
While in the past, Murakami wrote about Watanabe of Norwegian Wood sleeping with random women, and K of Sputnik Sweetheart imposing himself on a lesbian woman, the older Murakami seems more intelligent and compassionate. With this collection, Murakami leverages his position as an aging man in a rapidly changing world to set an example for others: Your perspective should never stay the same, and your writing must grow until it can’t fit its container.
You can’t have a conversation about literary fiction of the past 50 years without mentioning Haruki Murakami, and First Person Singular reminds us why.
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