In the class we took on nonfiction writing at Mills College, Beck Levy sat at the end of the table facing away from the windows, and the sun at her back made her dark curly hair shine at its edges. She wore a look of intensity on her face much of the time during book discussions—her green eyes sharp and wide, sometimes lined with colorful eyeliner; her mouth slightly open, ready to speak, to call out privilege or ignorance where most of us couldn’t see it. It was 2015. I was afraid of her because I sensed she was ten times smarter than I would ever be, and that she had answers to questions I hadn’t even thought to ask. I wasn’t wrong. I sought her out for the conversation below because her penetrating intelligence and political awareness make her an invaluable source of insight into what it means to live as an activist. Long before white people of our generation were activated by the campaign and now the presidency of Donald J. Trump, Beck was protesting the war in Iraq, doing banner drops, and staging die-ins.
Beck is open and warm. Talking with her over the phone in our three interviews, I got the sense that there is little she hasn’t thought about; she had an in-depth answer to most of my questions, with analysis to back up her opinions. She’s a polymath—a musician, public speaker, book artist, mental health activist, writer—but labels don’t stick easily to her because she’s also inclusive, and labels often work to exclude, to simplify. She’s not easily summed up, which is partially why she’s a good source of perspective right now, when everyone seems to be searching for “The Answer.”
She knows things aren’t simple or easy, that to think there are solutions is to be naïve: We will never “solve” the problems of racism and bigotry, sexism and misogyny. But we can think more critically, we can work to be inclusive, to listen, to live at life’s intersections, and hope that these actions will encourage others to take up the fight alongside us.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Julia Fierro writes: “Weakness or, to be more specific, showing or admitting to weakness, seemed both un-Italian and un-American.” Fierro is writing here about the impact of Zoloft on her life, and more specifically, her writing career. Before Zoloft, her anxiety and OCD made it impossible to create. Since, she’s written two books.
She hits on something deeper than her personal experience with that line. Afraid of appearing weak, she hid her struggle. All of us do this. We hide parts of ourselves to protect ourselves from the consequences (anticipated or actual) of not fitting in with the American ideals of strength, individuality, and self-reliance.
This is certainly true for the characters in Fierro’s second novel, TheGypsy Moth Summer, out this month from St. Martins. With this book, Fierro encapsulates the life cycle of Avalon Island’s inhabitants, and shows that every person hides their secret self, their quiet worries, the voices they hear. Rife with thinly-veiled racism and class struggles, the tensions on Avalon come to a head as gypsy moths take over.
Fierro sees the world, she says, “through a very intense filter.” She describes her first book, Cutting Teeth, this way: “Modern parenting in the over-saturated information age.” The adults in this book about family, privilege, and paranoia are intense. They are each the center of a very small world, working to mask their weakness.
Playwright-performer Sarah Jones “plays with the spaces between” questions about self-creation for her one-woman shows, Surface Transit (2000), Tony award-winning Bridge & Tunnel (2004, produced by Meryl Streep), and Sell/Buy/Date (2016). Jones slips seamlessly into character during her shows, donning their props and accents: elderly Jewish Lorraine; soft-spoken Lakota Gary; fast-talking feminist Bella; and many others.
Her most recent play, Sell/Buy/Date, came about in part due to experiences she had performing for audiences that weren’t her “usual well-heeled Broadway” crowd, and which caused her to think about stories she wasn’t hearing.
“Sell/Buy/Date is about human beings eking out an existence any way they can,” Jones told me in our phone interview. “It’s about women’s empowerment, questions of sex and sexuality, and commercialization of sexual exploitation of women.”
Jones is perhaps the first honest realization of Whitman’s boast of containing multitudes. Except she doesn’t contain them. Their existence isn’t contradictory or parenthetical to her own. She’s created these people fully — with individual ticks, accents, mannerisms. They seem to live beside her, entering her life (and our lives) at will.
You think, because she’s so funny, so sharp, so sarcastic and constantly moving, that Jami Attenberg can’t make you sad. But she can floor you. Fiction like Attenberg’s—entertaining, witty, a swirl of happiness, hope, and disaster—is an escape from daily reality and worry. It’s also a way into topics that are rarely approached otherwise, unless by way of sterile academic argument. Precisely because they appeal to emotion, Attenberg’s stories render accessible those things we often can’t, intellectually, persuade people to see.
All Grown Up follows Andrea Bern, the daughter of a heroin addicted, musician father and activist mother. Andrea doesn’t want the things she’s expected to want—babies, marriage—but she doesn’t know what she wants instead. She likes to drink, sleep with men, and, for some time, paint. As with many of Attenberg’s stories, All Grown Up doesn’t feel plotted. Everything is revealed seemingly at random as Andrea thinks back to her past and experiences her present. Because we’re moving around in time, we see the same moments in Andrea’s life through multiple lenses. This has the odd and wonderful effect of creating a multidimensional personal history for her that feels a lot like one’s own past: There is no linear quality to time; at discrete points in our lives, we view memories and experiences differently.
Attenberg’s descriptions are snarky, a bit in-your-face, but on point and always visual. They are much of what enlivens her characters. A “real” Italian man has “chest hair by the fistful.” Another character’s clothes “seem to hover around his body, barely attached.” And my favorite, Deborah: “gray-haired, bespectacled, wearing a witchy black dress with a smattering of black sequins, a delicious bosom, you just want to crawl up inside of it already.”
Sarah Hoenicke talks to the author of All That’s Left to Tell, Daniel Lowe, for Wales Arts Review
We know that stories have lives of their own, independent of their tellers. They wind and shape themselves differently in hearers’ minds, and then come out slightly transformed in retellings. In Daniel Lowe’s fiction debut, All That’s Left to Tell, stories create life, hope, pain, and they bend the mind, as story itself is investigated by the book’s telescoping structure of a story within a story, within a story.
This is the tale of Marc Laurent, a Pepsi executive whose wife has just left him, and who decides to take on a six-month business stay in Karachi, Pakistan. We find out early that he’s been kidnapped, and that on top of his separation from his wife, his daughter, Claire, has been murdered. All of this feels overwhelming because it’s revealed in such quick succession, but then the book saves itself. Lowe’s real talents become apparent very quickly once one understands that the plot of the story is perhaps its least interesting facet.
The conversations between Marc and his interrogator, Josephine, propel the story, as she tries to extract information from him in order to better know to whom to send a ransom note. Rather than torture him as one would expect her to, she tells him the story of his murdered daughter’s future as Josephine imagines it. In doing so, she makes him care about his life again.
“Sometimes just living your life in a way that is completely unapologetic is a rebellion.”
Jade Chang’s debut novel, The Wangs vs. the World, is an extraordinarily balanced first book. Often, debuts lack perfect continuity—containing lapses into portions of the story that the author needed to know, but the reader did not. In this case, there are no lulls or glimpses of the process that led to the finished book. There are only the characters—the individual and complex members of the Wang family.
This is an immigrant novel in that the Wangs’ patriarch, Charles, has immigrated to the United States and spends much of the novel comparing the two cultures he’s known, but his perspective hardly consumes the narrative. We hear from Charles’s three children—artistic and together Saina; Andrew, an aspiring comedian; and Charles’s youngest, Grace, an avid fashion-blogger. These three and Charles make up the bulk of the book, but they’re given a lively supporting cast—even allowing the car they travel in some airtime.
Charles made his stateside fortune in cosmetics, but when he makes a bad deal and his prosperity abruptly collapses, he becomes obsessed with reclaiming family lands in China. Before he can do so, he must pick up his scattered family members and move them to Saina’s home in New York—this means a cross-country car trip with many unforeseen calamities and conflicts bubbling up along the way.
Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, takes place over a single day near the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. The novel’s protagonist, Dinesh, has been pushed, with fellow beleaguered citizens, to the coast. When we meet him, he is living in a camp, helping tend to the wounded and bury the dead, his existence overwhelmed by the needs of those around him. Civil war raged in Sri Lanka from 1983 to 2009, but the novel doesn’t detail the history of the war. Instead, it is driven by Dinesh’s internal life, like this moment during a wave of shelling:
It was a loud, unbearably loud explosion, followed immediately by others, so loud that as soon as the first one came, the rest could no longer be heard. They could be registered only as the pervasive absence of sound, as a series of voids or vacuums in the sound sphere so great that not even the sound of thinking could be heard. The world became mute, like a silent film, and as a result the bombing often brought about in Dinesh a sense of calm.
While keeping us anchored in Dinesh’s body and immediate experience, Arudpragasam is able to talk more broadly about the nature of life in a war zone. Bombing wouldn’t usually be thought of as a calming experience, but for Dinesh it brings mental silence, a break from the constant work of existence within a foundering country. While this isn’t a true story, it reflects behaviors observed near the end of the war. It became common for families to marry their children quickly—especially their daughters—in hopes of saving them from the violence, sexual and otherwise, of the army. Such a marriage gives the book its title, and imparts on Dinesh a renewed sense of his future amid the ever-pressing present.
Sarah: Can you tell me briefly about each of your books?
Roy: Learning to Die in the Anthropoceneis a philosophical meditation, in the tradition of Susan Sontag or Camus, on climate change and how to approach and think about climate change from a humanistic perspective (from someone who’s not a scientist, or necessarily an activist). That book is a nonfiction essay. The argument is basically ‘we’re fucked’ — climate change has probably already passed the tipping point and even if it hasn’t, the political and social and infrastructure technologies we have to address it are not adequate and we’re not going to be able to do so in time. While we should keep working to de-carbonize the energy and infrastructure, and all drive Priuses and whatnot, we should do that in full recognition that it’s not going to save us. We need to come to terms with the end of civilization as we know it.
The way to do that, I argue, is with this idea of learning to die. The reference—this is what the second half of the book is about—is to the Zen tradition, the Buddhist tradition, which recognizes that this life is transient and temporary and just a passing moment. We have to make ethical decisions in that awareness. It’s also part of this long Western philosophical tradition that argues that philosophy itself is learning how to die. When we think about it that way, the end of civilization isn’t a new problem. It’s the same problem as facing our own mortality, just on a different scale.
Sarah: So kind of Heideggerian in that way.
Roy: Yeah. Heidegger is a thinker I struggle with because he’s so decisionistic. Confronting the end is the problem for Heidegger, and we have to make a decision. Yes, confronting the end is the problem, but we don’t have to make a decision about it…
John Freeman’s writing and criticism have appeared in many publications across the world. He served as Editor-in-Chief at Granta and was president of the National Book Critics Circle. His most recent project is Freeman’s, a themed biannual literary anthology-meets-journal. The second issue, Freeman’s: Family, is available now.
Freeman’s main aim is bringing in voices not usually heard. He says we all can help: “The obstacles that are faced in life by writers of color and by women are so big they require massive movements of social change. But we can do a lot of good with very little effort as editors and writers, just by asking questions. If you have a friend who lives somewhere else, ask, ‘Who should I be reading?’”
This interview took place in Berkeley, California on Sunday, June 5th.