In My Top 8, various members of Team Autostraddle tell you which writers made us who we are today and invite you to like all the same things we like. Today, Senior Editor Rachel talks about James Baldwin and Miranda July and stuff.
Books Read: Another Country (1962), Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), The Fire Next Time (1963), Giovanni’s Room (1956)
Books I Haven’t Read Yet: Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), Going to Meet the Man (1965), Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), No Name in the Street (1972), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), The Devil Finds Work (1976), Just Above My Head (1979), The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), The Price of the Ticket (1985)
Favorite: Another Country
It’s honestly a little difficult to even think about how much I love James Baldwin without tearing up. It’s really hard for me to separate out his fiction, his nonfiction, and his person. About once a year I re-watch the documentary about him, The Price of the Ticket, and cry like a baby. I guess the best way to put it is that Baldwin embodies the kind of writer but also the kind of person I want to be. He’s committed to love, and he’s committed to anger. If you haven’t read Baldwin, and have patience for things that aren’t fiction, I’d recommend starting with The Fire Next Time; I think it talks about his political and historical moment and how he felt about the world the most explicitly. He was enormously angry at the things he and the people he loved were put through by a racist white culture, as well he should have been. As a gay black man, Baldwin had plenty to be angry about. But the final message of TFNT is about how working to love each other is the only hope we have. In Another Country, his characters do some terrible things, things that are genuinely hard to read about. But Baldwin never stops loving them. I don’t mean that he wants you, the reader, to love them; that’s not the point. He loves them, in a very real way, no matter how stupid and selfish and damaging they are. That’s what I’ve aspired to in my writing and also in my life ever since I read him, and it’s all because of him.
There’s an anecdote from his documentary that tells about how when anxious white liberals in the 1960s cornered Baldwin at cocktail parties, they asked him for reassurance that no matter what happened with the civil rights movement, that they were safe; that they were nice people, and had nothing to fear if the social order of America were to radically change. The anecdote says that Baldwin would just smile and say “Baby, they’re gonna burn your house down.”
One thing about James Baldwin, he will just burn your house right down to the ground.
I’m not the first or the last person to like Díaz. Somehow he’s managed to be in like half this year’s issues of the New Yorker, which is an exaggeration but not by much. Also, he like won a Pulitzer or whatever. There are a lot of good things to say about him and his work; it’s smart, it’s funny, it’s dark, it’s political, and it manages to do what fiction should, which is take a very specific human experience and make it universally important. But what I like about Díaz’s work is something sort of beyond that all that, and I have trouble putting my finger on it. As a reader and a writer, I like weirdness; I like weird narrators and weird narratives. Not always, but often, Díaz’s narrator is someone who’s purportedly trying to tell the reader a story about something, but somehow the story often ends up being about the narrator himself; he has these weird preoccupations and predilections that he can’t stop bringing up. I love that so much; it’s exactly how storytelling really is. Whenever we tell stories we’re really talking about ourselves, you know?
Books Read: No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)
Books I Haven’t Read Yet : The Boy from Lam Kien (2005), The Dead Bones (2005), Learning to Love You More (2007), Corpse Tale (2009), It Chooses You (2011)
Favorite: No One Belongs Here More Than You
Miranda July tends to have a polarizing effect; people either really love her or can’t say her name without rolling her eyes. And I get the latter reaction, I really do. She can be very twee, and even I couldn’t get into her latest movie, The Future. (The talking cat just put me over the edge.) But I first started reading her when I was nineteen or so, when I was at a liberal arts college and up to my neck in Old White Dude Books. Obviously July wasn’t the first female author I ever read, or the best, but I think she might have been the first truly weird one. Her characters have motivations that make no sense to anyone else in their worlds or even to themselves. They’re dysfunctional and lonely and you would feel uncomfortable if they sat next to you on the bus. I love weird books so much, but I think until I read July I didn’t know that women could write them, and populate them with women characters. Now that I do know this, I’ve been able to find the weirdness in other women authors – Mary Gaitskill might be a good example. But I’ll always be grateful to July for showing me that the eccentric anti-hero doesn’t have to be a man.
Books Read: Lockpick Pornography (2005), It’s Too Late to Say I’m Sorry (2007), Overqualified (2009)
Books I Haven’t Read Yet : One Bloody Thing After Another (2010), The Girl who Couldn’t Come (2011)
Favorite: It’s Too Late to Say I’m Sorry
Joey Comeau is most famous for being the writer of A Softer World – the person who writes the typewritten text over the soft-focus comic photos. He is also an author though, and I think he might have been the first queer author I ever read. Not the first gay author, I mean specifically queer. His characters live in a world where gender and sexual orientation are slippery, and there are way more interesting things to do than pick and choose particular permanent labels. His stories are set in a queer universe without necessarily being about the queer community; Comeau’s characters get to be queer without having to embody a movement, in the same way that the characters on How I Met Your Mother get to be straight without carrying the burden of embodying the whole straight community. And while queerness is (for some) a highly political subject, and Comeau deals with it very directly, his work is never didactic or slogan-y. His work is bizarre and dark and funny and violent and sexy and sad, and I’m so glad it exists.
I feel a little weird about this because Thisbe has taught creative writing classes that I’ve been in and so I know her as, like, a human as well as a writer. Maybe that’s coloring my opinion a tiny bit, but honestly, not much. I think I read Out of the Girl’s Room and Into the Night at the perfect time in my life – when I was about twenty – but I also feel like any time of my life would have been the perfect time. You’ve maybe read “Apple Pie,” the lesbian summer camp story to beat all lesbian summer camp stories (which, are there other lesbian summer camp stories? If so, please advise). But that’s really only the tip of the iceberg with Thisbe’s story collection; her female characters are raw and immature and smart and do all the wrong things for all the right reasons, and it’s one of the most honest and haunting accounts I’ve eve read of girlhood and womanhood and the spaces in between.
Books Read: A Wrinkle in Time (1962), A Wind in the Door (1973), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), Many Waters (1986), The Arm of the Starfish (1965), An Acceptable Time (1989), A Ring of Endless Light (1980), A Live Coal In The Sea (1996), A Severed Wasp (1982)
Books I Haven’t Read Yet: Dragons in the Waters (1976), A House Like a Lotus (1984), Meet the Austins (1960), The Moon by Night (1963), The Young Unicorns (1968), The Anti-Muffins (1980), The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas (1984), Troubling a Star (1994), A Full House: An Austin Family Christmas (1999), The Small Rain (1945), Prelude (1968), Camilla Dickinson (1951)
Favorite: A Swiftly Tilting Planet
When I was a junior or senior in college, I got out of class to find three new voicemails from my mother, and listened to them all in a row. The first one said “I’m listening to NPR and they’re talking about that writer you loved when you were a kid, Madeleine L’Engle? I think they’re about to have an interview with her or something, I don’t know if you want to tune in.” The next voicemail said “Wait, it’s not an interview. I think they’re just going to talk about her.” The third voicemail said “Oh wait, I’m listening to it now. I guess she just died? So they’re talking about that. Sorry!” I was heartbroken.
A whole generation, and maybe more, love Madeleine L’Engle. I am not alone in this. Her series that starts with A Wrinkle in Time is dearly beloved by a lot of people. It features nerdy, outcast kids who are called upon to deal with cosmic forces, and be a force for good in a universe they don’t really understand. Not to knock Harry Potter, but it was Harry Potter before Harry Potter was Harry Potter. And her heroes didn’t just deal with monsters; they had to face human weakness and cruelty and fallacy too, and battle the less noble parts of their own character. L’Engle has a lot of religious overtones, and she’s not perfect; she wrote one book, A House Like A Lotus, that featured a weirdly predatory lesbian character in an unnecessarily negative light such that I couldn’t even keep reading it because it upset me so much at age thirteen or so. But she managed to make the struggle between good and evil within a single person more real to me than any other author could, and for that I’ll always remember her as sort of magical.
GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ
Books Read: One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), No One Writes to the Colonel (1961), Of Love and Other Demons (1994), Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004), A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (1955)
Books I Haven’t Read Yet : In Evil Hour (1962), The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), The General in His Labyrinth (1989), Leaf Storm (1955), Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), La siesta del martes (1962), Ojos de Perro Azul (Eyes of a Blue Dog) (1974), Innocent Erendira and Other Stories (1978), Strange Pilgrims (1993)
Favorite: Of Love and Other Demons
Márquez is a master of magical realism, and his books are a beautiful example of how Latin American magical realism works to talk about the horrors inflicted on colonized nations in a way that “normal” fiction never could. I first fell in love with One Hundred Years of Solitude for the incredible world it paints and the incomparable journey it takes you on through it; it feels like the best, most vivid, and most fantastic dream you’ve ever had, and you’re so angry with yourself when you finally wake up. Once I got to a place as a writer of thinking more about how writing works, I started to marvel at how Márquez was so good at writing even in the classical, “normal” sense that he earned the right to break all the rules. The world and the people he created were so real and so heartbreaking that you were more than willing to put all your chips on the table for them, and whatever unbelievable things happened to them on the page, you were along for the ride. Márquez taught me that if you want to have a character be supernaturally spirited away into the sky while hanging laundry out to dry, then you had better first have the best, realest character hanging the best, realest laundry in the whole wide world. Then you can do whatever you want.
I think the other reason I feel so indebted to Márquez is his willingness to write about terrible men. I guess not everyone would see it this way, but I feel like many of his male characters (the protagonist of Memories of My Melancholy Whores comes to mind) are misogynistic and awful, and we are meant to read them that way. Which is pretty radical, I think, and I think is something Díaz took a cue from. (Díaz also writes in response to and in honor of women writers of color; see below.) Obviously I think we need as many women writers (and queer writers, and trans* writers, and a lot of other brave radical people) as possible, and more diverse characters and heroines, but I admire the male writers who don’t obscure or excuse the misogyny in their male characters, and in doing so suggest a dialogue around it.
Books Read: The Color Purple (1982), Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992)
Books I Haven’t Read Yet : The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973), Meridian (1976), You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down: Stories (1982), To Hell with Dying (1988), The Temple of My Familiar (1989), Finding the Green Stone (1991), Complete Stories (1994), By the Light of My Father’s Smile (1998), The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart (2000), Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart (2005), Everyday Use (1973)
Favorite: Possessing the Secret of Joy
If Miranda July taught me it was okay to be weird, Alice Walker taught me it was okay to be angry. She’s most well known for The Color Purple, which is of course an utterly amazing text, but the book of hers that really blew my mind is Possessing the Secret of Joy. It’s a weird text, and certainly problematic in many ways, but when I read it it was all I could think about, and I kept writing down lines from the text on scraps of paper and taping them to the walls, which in retrospect sounds 100% crazy but was also appropriate, I think. It’s an outraged but ultimately very validating book about the ways women are hurt and hurt themselves and hurt each other, and why and how we can let ourselves be angry enough to change that.
To me, PTSOJ is a great example of a counternarrative; a story we tell ourselves to replace and heal from the harmful stories we’ve been told all our life. (Henry Louis Gates Jr. has a good explanation of how this works.) Writing fiction isn’t just about creating new stories, but about working with or against the stories that we’ve inherited; choosing to perpetuate or resist them. As far as the title’s implied question about the secret of joy, I’ll give you a spoiler alert: according to Walker, “resistance is the secret of joy.” Walker told me, and tells all of us, that we have the power to resist.