Omar El Akkad

Amid the chaos of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a woman named Su Lan gives birth. Her husband is nowhere to be found; perhaps he has been rounded up or killed. She and her newborn daughter are alone. This aloneness, as well as its mutations and consequences, will stalk both mother and daughter for the rest of their lives—a gaping negative space of family, country and history. 

So begins Meng Jin’s spectacular and emotionally polyphonic first novel, Little Gods, which in the first few pages may feel like a story centered on Tiananmen but quickly and in the most satisfying way transforms into a meditation on ambition, love and time. In a particularly brilliant act of alchemy, the novel finds new ways to dissect the geopolitical significance of China’s explosive 1980s through the complicated nature of the story’s relationships.

In alternating points of view, Little Gods’ five central narrators slowly piece together what happened to Su Lan, her husband and the life she left behind when she moved to the United States from China to study physics. For the most part, the story is told by or to Liya, Su Lan’s daughter, who returns to China after her mother’s death to try and unearth the past that Su Lan so successfully kept hidden. The narrative is complex without ever being convoluted, and Jin, a Kundiman Fellow who was born in Shanghai and now lives in San Francisco, holds the various strands together flawlessly.

Su Lan is a difficult and singular character of immense depth. What makes Little Gods extraordinary is the way it examines not only the trajectory of its characters’ lives but also their emotional motivations, the reasons why people do what they do and long for what they long for.

 In mining these motivations, Jin produces many of the book’s most beautiful and resonant passages—such as when Liya, nearing the end of her search for her father, thinks, “So badly I wanted to be untethered, because to be untethered meant to be undefined, to have a body rinsed of meaning. I didn’t want my feet tied up in history.”

That Jin has managed to craft such an intimate, emotionally complex story is an awesome achievement. That she managed to do it in her debut novel, doubly so.

That Meng Jin has managed to craft such an intimate, emotionally complex story is an awesome achievement. That she managed to do it in her debut novel, doubly so.

“It’s possible to write about this without minimizing the horrors, not to airbrush reality, but to create a fully human story.”

In Cantoras, Carolina De Robertis has crafted a masterful novel about the meaning of desire in an age of repression. In a narrative that spans many decades and features five central characters, the author explores trauma, passion, memory and the fragile places where all three intersect. We asked her about some of the decisions that went into the construction of the novel.


Cantoras—both the word itself and its meaning within the story—is a beautiful title. How—and when in the writing process—did it come to you?
Thanks for saying that; I’m so glad it speaks to you. In fact, the title for this book came at the very end. I’d had a long string of other working titles along the way. Cantoras means “female singers” or “women who sing,” and was used by the real-life women who inspired this book as code for lesbians. There are so many layers to this notion of what it means to “sing”—from sexual pleasure to having a voice to the idea that fashioning a queer life might be a kind of artistry. And of course the containing of “female” and “singer” in a single word is untranslatable.

There are some devastating depictions of emotional, physical and psychological abuse in this novel. These depictions are not untethered from the historical record. How difficult was it to write these sections, knowing people have suffered—and in some places, continue to suffer—similar violence?
Two things propelled me through this: first, the knowledge that I was drawing from real histories, and that they deserve to be brought into the light. Writing can be a way of honoring those who’ve suffered real traumas and often surmounted them. And when a story has not yet been fully reflected in formal histories, the telling has a purpose, or so we hope.

Second: My early years as a rape crisis counselor taught me not only about the vast spectrum of human pain but also of our equally vast capacity for resilience. It’s possible to write about this without minimizing the horrors, not to airbrush reality, but to create a fully human story. Toni Morrison said she believes all her novels have not only happy endings, but “splendid endings,” in which the characters in some way arrive at power inside themselves. I had the incredibly good fortune to hear her say this live onstage. Her interviewer was shocked. “Even Beloved?” he said. “Of course Beloved,” she replied. I think about this all the time.

The story of Cantoras spans more than 35 years. Did you know at the beginning of the project exactly what time frame you wanted, or did the chronological boundaries of the story change as you were working on it?
I don’t always know, when I start writing a novel, whether my initial vision for the structure will hold or transform along the way. But the idea of spanning 35 years was present from the beginning, the urge to somehow weave the narrative forward to 2013, when gay marriage became legal in Uruguay. I don’t mean to suggest, at all, that same-sex marriage is the endpoint of queer liberation. But it has been a milestone.

I was living in Uruguay when the law was passed, and attended the wedding of two men who’d been together for 35 years, whose couplehood had traveled through the silences of a dictatorship to this, as had the lives of the women whose stories I’d been listening to for years. I hoped to capture this greater narrative arc of the culture along with the characters’ own inner and outer journeys.

You mention in the acknowledgements section that your first trip to Cabo Polonio—perhaps the central location in which the novel is set—took place in 2001, when you were “a young queer woman from the diaspora seeking my own connection to Uruguay.” If you could go back and give this novel to that young woman, what do you think her reaction to it would be?
I think she’d keel over in shock, and that’s the truth. I think she needed this book. The young woman I was then had been told by her parents that she couldn’t be both Uruguayan and gay, right as they were in the process of disowning her. (And no, they have not “come around.”) It was a raw and vulnerable time for me, but also a time of blasting open and finding my voice. Those things aren’t separate. As Jeanette Winterson puts it, “What we notice in stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift.”

One of the most striking themes of the book is the obliteration of stories—the reality that for every tale of injustice told, there are countless others that are forever forgotten. How did you approach a storytelling challenge such as this, where you’re putting together a narrative anchored to history, but a history whose memory hole is so gaping?
I did a great deal of listening. One of the characters in this book is based on one of my closest friends in Uruguay, and other characters are inspired by friends of hers who generously shared their stories and gave me their blessing to blend them into fiction. That was toward the end; the initial gathering started 18 years ago. I’m also drawing on more formal research, in scholarly and historical text—but you’re right to point out that there are many unrecorded histories, and even the gathering of oral history will only take you so far. At some point, the novelist has to leap head first into the pool of imagination in order to more freely explore the truth.

“At some point, the novelist has to leap head first into the pool of imagination in order to more freely explore the truth.”

Cantoras is one of the most exquisite books I’ve ever read about desire—its many meanings, its subversive power, its capacity to at once imprison and liberate. Did your own feelings about the nature of desire change as you were writing the novel?
That’s very beautiful to hear, thank you. I don’t know that my relationship to the nature of desire changed, exactly, but it certainly deepened and expanded from spending time with these characters, and from striving to bring them to life. That’s one of the incredible things about being a novelist: constant discovery, constant learning. And desire, in particular, is one of the most complex and mysterious phenomena in our human lives—don’t you think?

This book is being published in a moment when totalitarianism appears, on so many fronts, to be resurgent. What do you hope readers take from this novel about the nature of oppression and the ways in which it can infect every facet of life?
While this book is set in a particular place and time, it’s also absolutely my hope that readers will find resonance for our current world. So many of us are grappling with the cost of authoritarianism and various forms of bigotry, from national to intimate spheres. We’re asking ourselves big questions about what it means to resist, to belong in the face of systemic hostility and to shape the culture we long for. If my book can provide a drop of fuel or inspiration even for a single reader, I’d be honored and very glad.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Cantoras.

Author photo by Pamela Denise Harris

“It’s possible to write about this without minimizing the horrors, not to airbrush reality, but to create a fully human story.” In Cantoras, Carolina De Robertis has crafted a masterful novel about the meaning of desire in an age of repression.

Dictatorships cannot abide desire. That visceral human gravitation, the movement of the marrow in the direction of want, is the antithesis of totalitarianism. To express it—and especially to express it in a manner the gatekeepers of mainstream society deem aberrant—is to express a dangerous, powerful kind of freedom. 

Freedom—its presence and absence, the longing for it—colors every page of Carolina De Robertis’ masterful, passionate and at times painful new novel. Cantoras tells the story of five women who must navigate a society in the grips of overwhelming oppression, at a time when being a woman who loves other women carries a sentence of at best ostracization and at worst obliteration.

Cantoras begins in late-1970s Uruguay, a country under the control of a merciless military government. Seeking refuge from the oppressive atmosphere of the capital, five women travel to an isolated coastal village called Cabo Polonio. It soon becomes a haven where the women can live as they wish, to be lovers, friends, confidants—to be free. So liberating is this place that the women decide to pool their money and buy a small home there. 

From that first visit to Cabo Polonio, De Robertis unfurls the stories of each of the women’s lives—their hopes, their secret pasts, the suffering they’ve been made to endure by a society in which living openly is more often than not a dangerous pipe dream. The novel covers some 35 years, frequently changing focus from one character to another and yet at all times retaining a powerful sense of intimacy. Each of De Robertis’ central characters is of incredible emotional depth. 

Cantoras is at its most powerful when dissecting consequences of desire. Several of the central characters are subjected to horrific violence at the hands of the military dictatorship, but they are also sometimes subjected to violence at the hands of their relatives, people who cannot accept them as they are, who want desperately to “fix” them. In this atmosphere of repression, Romina, one of the five women, thinks, “the path into the forbidden was in fact wide open right in front of you . . . stepping onto it could be a kind of rightness, a vitality more powerful than fear.”

The bond the five women form—the way they orbit, attract and repel, take solace and find strength in one another—is the most moving part of Cantoras. By the end of the novel, there is a sense that the reader has done more than simply peer in on the lives of strangers, that instead they have experienced something organic and deeply human—a dangerous, powerful kind of freedom.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Carolina De Robertis on Cantoras.

Dictatorships cannot abide desire. That visceral human gravitation, the movement of the marrow in the direction of want, is the antithesis of totalitarianism. To express it—and especially to express it in a manner the gatekeepers of mainstream society deem aberrant—is to express a dangerous, powerful kind of freedom.  Freedom—its presence and absence, the longing for […]

A Pure Heart grapples with the question of how to be many things at once—a condition that afflicts everyone but requires only some to justify their complexities.

Rajia Hassib’s novel follows the divergent lives of two Egyptian sisters, Rose and Gameela Gubran. Rose, an Egyptologist, falls for an American journalist and moves with him to New York. Gameela remains in Egypt, embraces Islam and marries a much older man. The story begins in the aftermath of Gameela’s death due to a suicide bombing during the chaotic years following Egypt’s failed revolution. Slowly, Hassib charts the events leading up to this conclusion, working her way backward through a series of intertwined lives in both Egypt and America. 

Hassib is especially talented at rendering the small details of daily Egyptian life—not in some exoticized fashion but rather as a foundation on which to lay the wide variety of experiences, ideologies and aspirations of the country’s citizenry. These details, found throughout the book, shine. A description of habitual lateness, for example: “What are a few minutes here or there in a country that’s been around for seven thousand years?” There is some hand-holding—not a single Arabic phrase or idiom goes unexplained for the benefit of the Western reader—but for the most part, it works.

What’s most impressive about A Pure Heart isn’t the central tension—how Gameela’s death comes about—but rather the novel’s meditation on the nature of multiple identities. Both sisters struggle to find their places in the world amid their sometimes-warring allegiances to different nations, different professional and personal aspirations and different views of religion. There is a tenderness and honesty in the way Hassib describes the relationship between the two women, and it is in this relationship that the novel is most nuanced.

Rajia Hassib’s novel follows the divergent lives of two Egyptian sisters, Rose and Gameela Gubran. Rose, an Egyptologist, falls for an American journalist and moves with him to New York. Gameela remains in Egypt, embraces Islam and marries a much older man. The story begins in the aftermath of Gameela’s death due to a suicide bombing during the chaotic years following Egypt’s failed revolution. Slowly, Hassib charts the events leading up to this conclusion, working her way backward through a series of intertwined lives in both Egypt and America. 

For the first quarter of Oscar Cásares’ quiet, deeply human novel, the reader can be forgiven for believing that the story is a thriller of sorts—a cops-and-robbers narrative about smugglers and federal agents along America’s southern border. Instead, Where We Come From does something altogether different. What begins as a story about Nina, a Mexican-American woman who does a “favor” for her housekeeper by letting smugglers house their human cargo on her property, slowly transforms into a story about the meaning of family and home.

Eventually the smugglers are forced to disband, but one person remains: a small boy, stranded many miles away from his father to the north and his mother to the south. The child, Daniel, comes to befriend Nina’s godson, Orly. Even as Daniel is forced to hide away for fear of deportation, the children form a bond, and much of the novel centers on that bond.

There are many moments of quiet power in Cásares’ story. Among them are short asides in which the fates of minor characters are explained—the small fortunes and misfortunes of their lives—even as these characters pass inconspicuously through the narrative. The novel’s depiction of children’s daily lives is particularly well done, especially that of Orly, who is forced to navigate a world full of adults who either seem to trust him but not care for him, or care for him but not trust him.

Where We Come From is not the kinetic, suspenseful novel its opening pages will make many readers believe it is. This is a good thing. It moves instead at a slow, deliberate pace, much more concerned with what it means to make a life in a place where so many systems and institutions are designed to make you feel precarious and, in some way, permanently unrooted.

For the first quarter of Oscar Cásares’ quiet, deeply human novel, the reader can be forgiven for believing that the story is a thriller of sorts—a cops-and-robbers narrative about smugglers and federal agents along America’s southern border. Instead, Where We Come From does something altogether different. What begins as a story about Nina, a Mexican--American woman who does a “favor” for her housekeeper by letting smugglers house their human cargo on her property, slowly transforms into a story about the meaning of family and home.

Early in Namwali Serpell’s brilliant and many-layered debut novel, a turn-of-the-century British colonialist named Percy Clark wanders through the corner of what was then called Northwest Rhodesia (and is now the nation of Zambia) and complains: “I do seem plagued by the unpunishable crimes of others.” It is, in a sense, a fitting slogan for the many ruinous aftereffects of colonialism, except here it is spoken by an agent and beneficiary of the colonizer.

So begins The Old Drift, an expansive yet intricate novel that bends, inverts and at times ignores conventions of time and place. Part historical fiction, part futurism, part fantasy, Serpell’s hundred-year saga of three families and their intertwined fortunes is as unique as it is ambitious. And in just about every way, it succeeds.

The story begins in 1904, when an unlikely incident (Percy accidentally rips a patch of hair off another man’s head) sets off a chain of events that reverberates through the decades. From there, Serpell introduces a cast of characters that ranges from the everyday to the fantastical. The book chronicles the interwoven lives of three families, cast against the creation of Zambia itself.

There is a timeless quality to Serpell’s storytelling—or perhaps a sense that her novel moves almost independent of time. What starts as a story steeped in real colonial history eventually moves into the present and beyond—an invented near-future. In clumsier hands this complex, sprawling, century-spanning book might have easily folded in on itself, a victim of its scale and scope. Instead, The Old Drift holds together, its many strands diverging and converging in strange but undeniable rhythm.

It’s difficult not to pigeonhole the novel into a particular literary school—namely, that of the descendants of Gabriel García Márquez and the magical realists. Less than 100 pages into the story, for example, the reader meets a girl covered head to toe in hair. Another character cries endless tears. There are, throughout the book, myriad moments in which Serpell utilizes the improbable, the impossible, the unreal, to get at something profoundly human. And for all the ways it subverts and reinvents convention, The Old Drift is a very human book, deeply concerned with that most virulent strain of history: the unpunishable crimes of others.

Part historical fiction, part futurism, part fantasy, Namwali Serpell’s hundred-year saga of three families and their intertwined fortunes is as unique as it is ambitious. And in just about every way, it succeeds.

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