A Poem a Day Challenge

Last Friday, Joyce Carol Oates read her poetry at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago.. To be honest, I didn’t know Oates was a poet. I knew her more for her short stories (specifically “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”) and the novel Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (which I took out from the library recently but have not had a chance to begin).

As a writer, I tend to introduce myself as the writer who writes everything but poetry. I write fiction, nonfiction and drama. End of story.

But I’m coming to realize that the end of the story, is really just the beginning. I wound up sitting next to a woman at the reading who said she had spent the last three years writing a poem a day. That struck me as feasible and a simple way to gain comfortability in a genre where I have the least experience.

As I pursue female authors this year, I’m extending my own reach as an author and I encourage you to do the same.

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Books By Women: The New Jim Crow

For anyone interested in racial justice, this nonfiction book is a must read. Michelle Alexander writes an academic and accessible text on how the American prison system is the new form of racial segregation and control, targeting mainly black and brown men. She argues that the prison industrial complex is the new Jim Crow.

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I first read this book last December and with every page I was floored by own ignorance. Of course, I was vaguely aware of NYC’s “stop and frisk” laws and racial profiling, but from my privileged position as a white-passing young woman from suburban Connecticut, the experiences of those convicted as felons (often for petty drug crimes) was an alternate reality. The brutality of dystopian governments and police was happening in the neighborhood bordering mine, not just within the pages of fiction I read. That’s the thing about this book: it puts together the dots in a way that is instantly clear and leaves you wondering, How was I ever so blind? I know there is still so much more for to learn.

The second time I read this book, was in the past few months, reading the text with junior and seniors in high school. This is probably what makes Alexander’s text even more of a game changer in how we talk about race and racial justice: it’s accessible. She breaks down the complexities of the legal system without dumbing them down. She explains the history of SWAT teams, the War on Drugs and how police make their arrests and receive their funding. She digs into the root causes of the imprisonment of young men of color and you learn something with ever page. People who have a greater background in racial justice can still benefit from the clarity and precision of her argument.

I wish this book were written today. It would have been a very different book, or at least a book that included information on the murders of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland to name a few. She might have included information on die-ins and Black Lives Matter. But maybe not. It may have been outside the scope of her research at the time. Hopefully in subsequent editions of the text, she will include a forward or an additional chapter.

One aspect of her work I appreciate the most is her acknowledgment of the areas she does not cover. She tells the reader right from the start that this book focuses on the incarceration of men of color, though she knows women of color are also suffering.

The book is (obviously) heavy material, but I would recommend it. It’s a necessary read for necessary conversations Americans need to start having about race, segregation and incarceration.

Keep reading. Even when it’s hard and even when you’re challenged and floored by ideas, keep reading. Next up The Terrorists of Irustan. 

Books By Women: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Instead of a blurb on the back of my copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle  (originally published in 1962), Penguin Classics instead included the opening lines of the novel:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had […] I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

And because I have a soft spot for female protagonists, especially female protagonists who talk about the weird and the bizarre as if it were normal, I had to buy this book. Yet, it is probably one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read. It is at once a mystery novel (what exactly happened to Mary Katherine’s family?) as well as a study of a town, mob mentality and forgiveness.

It’s a Shirley Jackson novel.

That name didn’t mean anything to me either when I bought the book, but Johnathon Lethem explains in the introduction that most people have read Shirley Jackson and just don’t know it. Shirley Jackson wrote the short story “The Lottery.”

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle has the same fantastic use of a small town setting to create a world and a culture, and the same suspenseful build up, allowed to grow that much larger in a novel, than is possible in a short story.

Yet, I’m not sure if I enjoyed it. I would recommend it for its weirdness without expressly being speculative fiction and because Shirley Jackson is a brilliant writer who can write on similar themes across her work and still have them nuanced and fresh. But I’m not sure I enjoyed the novel. I would have to read it again and see if the characters struck me more intensely the second time, or if the plot holds a greater resonance than on the first read.

It’s definitely worth reading, but I’d be interested to know if you come away with the same odd longing for something more that you’re not quite sure how to describe.

Keep on reading! Up next: The New Jim Crow.

Books By Women: The Poisonwood Bible

There was no way I was going to read The Poisonwood Bible. I wasn’t going to read it. And if I read it, I wasn’t going to enjoy it. My friend who recommended it to me, read it in high school. Why would I read this book after I graduated from college?

I knew all I needed to know about the book from the title and the premise: a white Christian family of missionaries goes to the Congo in the 1960s. It would be a book of searingly blatant themes that THE WEST SHOULDN’T INTERFERE WITH AFRICA, and CONGOLESE TRADITIONS DON’T NEED CHRISTIANITY and LOOK AT THIS SYMPATHETIC WHITE FAMILY BLUNDER IN AFRICA BUT STILL BE SYMPATHETIC.

I was mainly right. The book was blatant about its themes. Yet, I enjoyed it when I promised I wouldn’t. I finished it when I thought I would hand it back to my friend with a shake of my head.

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The novel had its strengths, far more than I wanted to give it credit for. To start, the writing was very poetic and I kept a growing list of lines and quotes in a notebook to remember how Barbara Kingsolver molded language. Her writing is emotionally gripping and her details on Congolese culture and language highlight expertise I had not been expecting when the story appeared so simple and moralistic. The historical details of Patrice Lumumba’s  assassination and the ensuing struggle for Congolese independence under the meddling fist of the United States provides great background for readers unfamiliar with modern African history. Kingsolver even appeased the history major in me by including a works cited page at the back of the book. It also helps that Kingsolver grew up in a missionary family who went to the Congo.

I cared about the characters though I promised I would just read this book to make my friend happy (she had loaned it to me for over a year before I finally picked it up). As it turns out, I am a sucker for a well characterized first person point of view. I am a special sucker for stories with multiple first person point of views (Doctrine of Labyrinths). And The Poisonwood Bible fulfills my need to read books by women, but the story is also narrated by women. Five women to be precise. Orelanna Price and her four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Orelanna brings her four daughters with her when she follows her Minister husband into the Congo to bring Jesus into the lives of the natives. Despite a blatant hit you over the head anti-colonial message which knows no subtlety, this is a novel which does what not many other books think to do: give voice to a whole cast of female characters. 

Thank you Barbara Kingsolver for understanding that women do not need to be likeable but they need to be real and complicated which (for the most part) Kingsolver accomplished.

If it wasn’t readily apparent, I still flip-flop on this book. The writing is strong but overbearing, especially when Kingsolver tries to use extended metaphors. I would recommend the novel to high schoolers as well as readers who have no background in colonial history or African history. It’s not something I would reread, but if nothing else, I’m glad I read it because of the sheer number and expression of plurality of female characters.

Next up: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia.

Keep reading!

Books by Women: Doomsday Book

I’ve taken the challenge to read only books by women (and non cis men) for a year. Though one of my favorite authors is female (Sarah Monette and her Doctrine of Labyrinths series), most of my other favorite authors are male. David Anthony Durham, J.R.R. Tolkien and when I browse in a book store my eye wanders to the titles I’m interested in and most of them are written by men. The covers of the books written by men are typically darker, grittier, and appear more intense and riveting: exactly what I want in a novel or story collection.

But I want to take the time to read female authors. Otherwise, I become part of the culture which ignores the work of female authors as chick lit, fluff or all about emotions. Especially because I blog for Luna Station Quarterly, a spec fic journal dedicated to emerging female writers, I need to support these writers as writers and not just female writers. Ideally, women would not be marked in every profession they enter.

One of my best friends explained to me that she can’t get interested in super hero stories because the stories are nearly all written by and about men. The industry isn’t interested in telling the stories of women because women are considered a niche market. Stories are dominated by men in the movies (take a look at movie trailers for instance–most women in the trailer are taking off their clothes and rarely have any speaking lines in the trailer), books (even books written by women tend to have male main characters) and television (programs meant for both genders have male leads). We are essentially saying that women’s stories and women’s voices have no value.

And so I’ve taken the challenge to read books by women for a year. This is a simple way to show support for female authors and the stories they create. Even if you’re still in school and cannot commit to the challenge for a full year, try it for a summer. Build your summer reading list around female authors.

I’ve started off with Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book (1992) winner of the Nebula and Hugo awards. It’s a blend of both science fiction and historical fiction. The novel is comprised of parallel stories one in the future where historians are sent back in time to conduct research and the other where a female historian Kivrin is sent back to the Middle Ages. I would recommend it for its plotting and pacing though the writing is not always the strongest.

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I’ll be keeping an updated list throughout the year with each new book I read. Keep a look out for future posts. Next up: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

Who are your favorite female authors? What books can you recommend? I’m especially interested in finding female-led comic books.