Sunday Lowdown #124

WEEKLY HIGHLIGHTS

I’ve mentioned before that I’m on an e-mail list for author events at the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is how I’ve see writers such as Roddy Doyle, Alison Bechdel, and Tamara Payne. Almost all events are free; some larger-name writers require a ticket — the cost of the book, which is autographed and sent to your house. If you don’t want to buy the book but still want to see authors like Kevin Kwan or Barbara Kingsolver, you can check out their recordings at a later date on YouTube for free.

This week I attended an event for the book Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black. I enjoyed the event very much, drawn to it because the author has a disability (her leg was amputated when she was four) and I wanted to know more about how she connects her body to that of Kahlo’s, another disabled creative person. I got a bit stuck in the conversation. Rapp Black is a disabled woman who writes about disability, teaches about disability, and had a son who died at age three as the result of a genetic disability, about whom she writes. And yet she said she does not want to be known as a “disabled writer.” I understand what she’s saying, but I also thought about readers and book bloggers, who quest to read books by people who aren’t white, or able-bodied, or straight or cis-gendered, who aren’t from a western country. How do we decide what to read if we don’t know how the author identifies him/her/themself?

A couple of years ago I was keeping track of more book stats than I am now, because included if authors were LGBTQ, their race, and nationality. This was harder than I thought and taught me a huge lesson, helped by a talk by Isabel Caste through the Free Library of Philadelphia: firstly, it is in the U.S., not other countries, that we are obsessed with what we call “race” (and Wilkerson calls “caste”). So, imposing a race check box next to an author started to feel both U.S.-centric and possibly offensive. Out of an abundance of caution, I stopped.

Same with people’s nationalities. In many countries, it’s complicated. I’m not sure if it’s more complicated in the U.S., but it feels that way. We are obsessed with where we come from. Thus, an author’s Wikipedia page may say American author whose mother was half-white, half-Native American, and whose father was half-Japanese and half-Filipino. This does not fit into a check box, and I started to realize how small I was thinking. I questioned my desire to have such stats. Would they improve the visibility or appeal of the author? Would they make my blog look more well-rounded in content? Would readers be more interested in the book? Should I include a photo of the author and let readers make their own determinations? (I scrapped that idea quickly, as I hate judging people on how they look and support authors who refuse to include a photo, or an updated photo as they age).

In the end, my decision to get rid of stats that include race, sexuality, and nationality felt iffy at first. But last week, when I wrote Sunday Lowdown #123 and started adding books and authors who are LGBTQ+, I realized I am not unintentionally leaning toward books by straight white women who are able-bodied. I have quite a variety of authors and a whole array of content on Grab the Lapels. I wrote #123 shortly before midnight in a mad scramble and didn’t even really go through my books, just adding ones I’d read recently. I felt pretty good about this.

So, coming back to Emily Rapp Black, who is disabled, writes about disability, had a disabled son who died from his disability and then wrote about his disability and death, who teaches about disability — and does not want to be known as a disabled author? I suddenly get it. The content of her book will tell readers what she cares about, and if her book is good, it will appeal to readers, who may be even more excited by the topic of disabilities if they are interested/it relates to them.

THIS WEEK’S BLOG POSTS

After posting about Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett, I learned that Biscuit has rabbit cake pans and will be making me my very own next time I visit her in Michigan. Woohoo! If you like your satire with helping of dark emotions and are able to suspend disbelief in regards to a character’s age and maturity (think something like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer), then you’ll love Hartnett’s novel.

What if you’re more into sexy novels that have something serious to say? Imagine that through the lens of satire and you’ll get Laura Rider’s Masterpiece by Jane Hamilton. Don’t expect Hamilton’s more serious work, like The Book of Ruth or A Map of the World. She takes on silliness but asks an important question about the work that romance authors do, how their writing was crafted, and if they deserve serious attention if they don’t have a degree in Literature.

If you’re not into satire but want to read about romance and literary authors in conversation about their work, check out Love Literary Style by Karin Gillespie.

NEXT WEEK’S BLOG POSTS

I pair up two audiobooks and review them together on Tuesday. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel appealed with its premise that the world survives post-pandemic — a flu of course — through the lens of a dead actor and a travelling orchestra. Also, I have thoughts on True Story by Kate Reed Petty, a novel constructed in different formats (which still comes across on audio) about a private school girl who is told she was raped while passed out. Reviews Tuesday.

Jackie @ Death By Tsundoku and I were hesitant about #ReadingValdemar in 2021 because all the books follow the same main character and his family, which is not common for author Mercedes Lackey. While the first series was bloated and somewhat repetitive, my step into the first book of the Herald Spy trilogy kept me guessing. Review Thursday.

BOOKS ADDED TO THE TBR PILE

Owned Books on TBR at Beginning of Year: 242
Owned Books on TBR Today: 221

20 comments

  1. Station Eleven is one of my all-time favourite novels, so I look forward to seeing your review!

    I think the US does have a different relationship to nationality and ethnicity from that of other countries – probably every country in the world has its own specific issues on that front. In the speculative fiction world, there’s recently been a pushback against talking about “Asian fantasy”, since this term is so broad that it’s completely meaningless. It seems to include anyone from any country in Asia or any part of their diaspora, writing any kind of story or setting. I wonder if that’s another part of not wanting to be called a “disabled writer” – again, that term is so broad that it’s not particularly helpful! I know that if I was a published author, I wouldn’t want to be called an autistic writer or a neurodivergent writer, because that doesn’t actually tell the reader anything about my work at all. Of course my autism will inform my writing (like everything else about me), but it’s not the One True Identity by which I would want to be known.

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    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lou. I also read recently that some people like to have their identity up front because it cannot be separated from who they are. So, instead of saying person who has a disability, some people prefer disabled person. I guess at the end of the day, just like anything else, it’s best to know what the person is comfortable with.

      Your comment about “Asian fantasy” is interesting. I’ve seen a number of fantasy novels set in Japan, which are completely unlike a fantasy novel set in India. I believe in the U.S. we used to have Asian Heritage Month, but now folks acknowledge Pacific Islanders. Which, I’m not sure includes places like India? It’s a big place, so the term isn’t helpful to me, much like you say — it becomes meaningless.

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  2. I appreciate your thoughts. I dislike the idea that authors are expected to out themselves as, for example LQBGTIA, in order to claim credibility in their work. I’ve also noticed that for many Americans, diverse seems to mean variations of Americans (eg Asian-American, or immigrant American or gay American) rather than authors outside of America.

    Laura Riders Masterpiece sounds interesting

    Wishing you a great reading week

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shelley, thanks for your thoughts! You’re right, it does seem to be quite American to want to label ourselves and figure out who is who. It doesn’t only stem from the desire to know our roots, as we are a country of immigrants, but from out desire to know what’s up with people. We’re terrible about asking, “Where are you from?” because someone isn’t white.

      Laura Rider’s Masterpiece is a total romp. I enjoyed it, and it’s more novella length, too.

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  3. I have similar thoughts about author identity. It’s understandable but still strange that the book community has this obsession with author race/nationality/orientation/etc. We want out books to be diverse and to experience a broad range of experiences, but sometimes it feels more performative than anything else. And I wonder, with all these “I bought books by X, Y, and Z-type authors, so I’m a progressive person!” posts, if the people buying the books then read and learn from them. It’s part of why I don’t track race, sexual orientation, or anything like that in my spreadsheet. Though, I will probably continue noting a writer’s nationality because doing so reminds me to seek out and read books from other parts of the world.

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    • I think the writer who “broke” me when it came to nationality was Jhumpa Lahiri. She’s of Indian descent, was born in London, but then grew up in the U.S. and is described online as an American author. And yet, she also writes in Italian!! I was like, omg, never mind. Instead, if I’m looking to read outside the U.S., I go find a book that says something like “by Nigerian author ______.” I admit I don’t read books from non-U.S. authors very much because I’m working on reading my books that I own, and it turns out me who buys books doesn’t find too many international authors in the used book store I like.

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  4. Station Eleven is also one of my favorite books, as another comment above said. I keep thinking I want to reread it and then I never do. I am going to try to actually do it this fall after 20 Books of Summer. I wonder what it would be like to experience it in audio form. I might try it.

    I see what you mean about identity and the author not wanting to be pigeon-holed by race or disability or whatever. That makes sense. But I think that these things are important for readers (and especially publishing) because how will we be able to change the publishing landscape to be more than just cisgendered white people? I’m so happy how in the past few years there have been more and more breakout books by authors of color. My reading lists from back in say, 2012 and 2013 were so lily white. I missed out on so many good books because I wasn’t paying attention to who I was reading. And they weren’t really being heavily promoted by the publishing industry either. So I’m just not sure how to reconcile that with not taking an author’s race, or nationality into account. And yes, I recognize this is a very U.S.-centric comment. We definitely DON’T do a good job of publishing works in translation in this country. And I’m not good about seeking them out either. But in any case, these are good questions you’ve raised.

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    • Laila, I’m in the same boat as you. It feels like a Catch-22. How do I support authors who are not like me if I don’t know who they are? How do I respect an author’s individuality if I keep labeling them. Basically, I’m stumbling around like an idiot with much of my reading. I loved the book Ultra by Olivia Hill only to later find out she’s a trans woman. Then again, Jen Michalski wrote a beautiful book called The Tide King. She is a lesbian, and I don’t recall any lesbian characters in her novel. I do appreciate the bingo sheets readers use to seek out certain types of books. It makes me do the work instead of the author. There is a part of me that really wants to judge whether to read a book by the synopsis.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps if publishing continues to improve with promoting works by marginalized authors, then the readers won’t HAVE to do as much work in that regard, right? Because we’ll see them in magazines and blogs, etc.

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        • That’s a great point! I also wonder to what extent readers expect a book by a marginalized author has to be about their marginalization (this is heading in a different direction). I wonder this because Zora Neale Hurston was a proud black woman who loved and studied black culture, but who was also raked across the coals for writing about the communities of color she knew, which didn’t reflect the suffering and oppression that other writers, like Richard Wright, were writing about.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Hmm it’s interesting when you mentioned speaking about race, it reminded me that we don’t typically use the word ‘race’ much up here in Canada. And, when I’ve been tempted to talk about race and or use the phrase race in a book review (because this seems to by my main opportunity for discussing these things) I stop myself because I’m reminded of the saying ‘we are all one race, the human race’ so that’s the context I always think of race in. Still, when I want to mention someone’s colour, I basically say ‘black, white, east indian, etc. Or, I seem to be leaning on the BIPOC term quite a bit these days too…

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    • As I’m reading through all these comments, I’m starting to think that this is one of those situations where readers/bloggers have our own motives for tracking certain kinds of stats when maybe we should only be using terms and categories as preferred by the author. If the author lists no preferences, we should leave that alone? I’m not sure! I’m having a great time reading this conversation, though, and learning so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. My concern with identifying the author’s race, gender etc is with the authenticity of their work. If I read an interesting work with a Black, woman protagonist and found that it had been written by an old white guy (like me) I would feel cheated. I know from reading Australian Indigenous Lit that the perspective of minorities is not just different from the white perspective but different from what even progressive white writers might predict.

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    • You make an absolutely great point, Bill. There is a hiccup in my thinking on this, though. When I was in my MFA program, a young, straight, white woman came in the year after me. She had spent a year teaching in Lesotho. Later, she came out with a book, a collection of stories about about the people in Lesotho, all of them black Africans, some male, some gay. I reviewed the book and later interviewed her, asking the question (basically), “What gives you the right to tell these stories?” She asked at what point we limit imagination. Should writers only publish stories that reflect their own lives? And I thought, she’s not wrong. BUuuuuuuuut. I don’t know. For instance, if a straight white person writes a book full of straight, white characters, this is often noted as a flaw, a very white-centric, hetero-normative book. I’m getting all tangled up within this conversation, but am enjoying and learning from all the comments!

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  7. I’m very excited to hear your thoughts on Station Eleven and True Story!

    I keep track of nationality as I read and I’ve pondered the value of it too. I will check off multiple countries if the author lists them so that I don’t feel like anything is being missed. My primary motivation is that I like to keep track of how many Canadian writers I’m reading but I have found in recent years that I am naturally being drawn to a wider variety in authors.

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    • I can see following local authors! I’ve many times nearly been seduced by following authors from the state I’m in, but then I change my mind, typically because I need to read the books I own.

      I love that several Canadian bloggers read their fellow Canadians! I think that supporting local authors and publishing is great.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Canadian books is one of the few media types where I feel like I can still see a clear difference between Canada and the US. We’re almost as similar as two countries can be and yet I see different trends in Canadian writing and I really want to support what keeps our publishing industry unique. I also love reading books set in places where I’ve been and American writers don’t write about Canada very much!

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