From my reading of the past year, some favorites—here a memoir-in-essays and three story collections.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee
“Writing is a way of going to the depth of Being,” wrote Marguerite Yourcenar, and in the sixteen essays that make up Alexander Chee’s 2018 memoir, the author dives deep, mining personal and literary history to reveal the self that drives the work. Chee is the author of two novels, as well as the recipient of a Whiting Award, an NEA Fellowship, as well as fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak.
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Taken together, these essays chronicle his Chee’s growing up mixed race, a childhood spent with his father’s family in Korea, his subsequent struggle with the loss of his father, coming of age and coming out, his AIDS activism, and growing into one’s self as a citizen and a writer. True to his role as a teacher (Chee is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College), there is much here to instruct young writers (“You want vivid writing. How do we get vivid writing? Verbs, first. Precise verbs. All of the action on the page, everything that happens, happens in the verbs”), and there is also solace for those who have faced trauma.
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Most people misunderstand the crime of sexual abuse. They think of stolen youth, a child tucked under the arm and spirited away. But it isn’t like someone entering your house and stealing something from you. Instead, someone leaves something with you that grows until it replaces you.
On this point especially, Chee unblinkingly documents how survivors confront memory, to work toward a healed self, and a writing self that is whole.
The UnAmericans: Stories, by Molly Antopol
Don’t be dissuaded by the title, this book is as American as it gets, and a stellar addition to a genre of story collections that chart the generational experience and legacy of immigration (such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, David Bezmozgis’ Natasha, and Mary Yukari Waters’ The Laws of Evening). In this 2014 debut collection (which won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award, the French-American Prize, the Ribalow Prize and a California Book Award Silver Medal), the un-Americanness Antopol examines is the Red Scare and the threat to freedom posed by her characters’ leftist leanings—and yet, the term points too, to the weight of history and sense of being an outsider faced by immigrants to the US. These eight stories move seamlessly from World War Two-era Belarus, to modern-day Jerusalem, 1950s California, to New York and Vermont, and in Antopol’s sharp and wonderfully expansive style, explore how generations are shaped by time, events, and place. Especially moving is the portrayal of the younger generations’ experience of the elders’ stories and history, and the perspective and sense of dual identity such history brings. As here, in “The Quietest Man,” when a young and successful playwright daughter, Daniela, says to her Czech-born, dissident father, “‘I thought you’d think it was stupid that I was writing about something I’d never lived through. That you’d see it onstage and think, She got my life all wrong. I kept trying to imagine what it was like for you.'” Antopol more than gets it right.
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Listen to a talk here, as Molly Antopol discusses the research she conducted in the writing of The UnAmericans.
The Refugees: Stories, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Following Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer (2016), the author’s 2017 story collection charts the authors obsessions—identity, family loyalty, dislocation, memory—drive these nine stories: Memories of Vietnam and the ghost of her brother haunts a young woman who aptly earns her living as a ghostwriter. A boy and his parents, living in 1970s San Jose and running a market, grapple with the change that confronts them when a family friend pressures them to donate funds to fight the Communists in Vietnam. A new arrival in San Francisco is sponsored by a gay couple, and finds his new life has a startling openness and freedom. Each story here shimmers with Nguyen’s emotional and political insights in prose that is precise, vivid, and elegiac.
The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories, by Anthony Marra
I marked so many lines and passages in this collection, I must have stockpiled a year of #SundaySentences. But that’s the kind of writer Anthony Marra is; each line exposes the emotional, political, and cultural realities of his characters and turns the experience of pre-glasnost Russia into stories that dazzle and haunt with rich language and images. Taking its cue from old-school cassette tape sides, the book is divided into A and B sections, with the title story as an intermission. Music, or rather the absence of it, is a primary concern for the characters here—as are paintings, film, and fashion, among the deprivations exacted on Russian citizens by the Communist regime. Running in opposition is, of course, the Soviet machinery of repression—the vast, bleak network of Bureaus, commissars, and propaganda of state (some of which is eerily familiar to the tropes we’re hearing in 2018 from Washington, D.C.) , whose goal is to replace the imagination of these characters. Marra takes a broad view, and links these nine stories by way of place and a cast of central characters whose stories begin in Leningrad of the 1930s, where a failed portrait artist employed by Soviet censors must erase political dissenters from official images and artworks. This painting, it turns out, weaves its way through subsequent stories, touching the central characters in unexpected ways.
Some readers might not gravitate to a book of politically-themed stories, but Marra’s prose is rich and luminous, and transforms even the most austere Soviet detail. As here, in the story “Granddaughters”:
Gorbachev came to power the year Galina began ballet training, and brought with him glasnost, perestroika, and demokratizatsiya. Our mothers whispered a little louder, and, as we passed from early to late adolescence, we found our voices. We started softly and we were wise to be wary; the city party boss was every bit as cruel as the camp director had been, and like new pop songs, political reforms reached us long after they were first broadcast in Moscow
This is a story collection that reads like a novel—sweeping, complex, intertwined with images and characters and multiple points of view. Of the character of Galina, whose life trajectory is random, to say the least, we learn, “She had grown up in a city where history did not exist, where you kept secret what was real to prevent its erasure.” Set deep within these stories, and Marra’s extraordinary prose style, is that sense of erasure, and its opposite, human endurance.