Announcing the Shortlist for Reading Women’s Fiction Award
Jacqueline Woodson, Valeria Luiselli, Miriam Toews, and More
In this episode Reading Women digs into the 2019 Reading Women Award Shortlist for Fiction. The co-hosts are Kendra Winchester and Autumn Privett.
From the episode:
Kendra: This is the third episode in this year’s Reading Women Award series. So first, we have the Honorable Mentions from our co-hosts. And then we have our Nonfiction Shortlist, which we announced last time. And so those will be linked in our show notes if you’d like to go check them out.
Autumn: And so now we come to the fiction shortlist, which was hard to narrow down. We say that every year.
Kendra: Yes. There’s such a stellar set of books this year, but I am very happy with our short lists and very excited to share them with you all. Just as a reminder, these books are books that are published in the United States during the time period. So that’s actually November of 2018 through October of this year. And they’re also published in print, obviously by women, etc.. If you’d like to see all the different rules that we have for the Reading Women Award for our Book of the Year, they will be linked in our show notes as well. All of the things will be there. So. A wealth of knowledge.
Autumn: So without further ado, do want to kick off with our first pick?
Kendra: Yes. And I feel like no one will be surprised by this. But our first pick is Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis. It’s out from Knopf. And this is about five queer women’s stories from 1970s and 1980s Uruguay. And we talked to her earlier this year. And she was such a delightful human being to talk to. Oh my goodness. And she shared a lot about what it was like to go and talk to queer women from the time and then write these five amazing, unique individual characters and their stories throughout the years. And, you know, I think one of the first things that Autumn and I talked about when we finished the book was we never read a book like this before.
Autumn: Yeah. I mean, it’s probably the first book I’ve ever read where I felt like the focus was solely on women. It’s not like a main protagonist who’s a woman and then a couple, you know, supporting characters or something like that. This book genuinely has like five female protagonists, and they’re all their own person. And they’re all unique, and they’re all different. And it is just a marvel to behold. Yeah, I mean, I think it is a hard book not to spoil. So we probably won’t go into too many details. But as Kendra said, you know, it starts in 1970s Uruguay and then kind of moves to the present time as they’re kind of navigating not only this dictatorship, but they’re coming to terms with their queerness and finding their own families and—or finding their own, or creating their own, found families—and then kind of reflecting on that later in life. So it’s just. . . . It’s such a human book, and I think it’s such a honest book. And the writing is magical.
Kendra: It is. And I feel like here in America, we’re like, you know, LGBTQ+ history and Stonewall and San Francisco and New York and all of these different things. But in reality, queer history has happened in different spaces all around the world. And I really appreciate looking at this in a dictatorship that was closed. And so they didn’t know about other things that were happening around the world, and they were creating a place for themselves where they were in a way that was unique to them and their circumstance, which was just an interesting thing to see. Carolina talks about this in the interview just so beautifully. But it’s a very unique read. And so we are forever thankful to Lupita for recommending this book to us. We’re forever in her debt. … So that was Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis, and it’s out from Knopf.
Autumn: And our next pick is Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. And this book is published by Riverhead. Basically, Jacqueline Woodson is literally the best in the whole wide world. I actually just recommended Jacqueline Woodson to someone the other day who is like, I don’t know what to read. And I was like, “Well, read Jacqueline Woodson because you can’t go wrong with Jacqueline Woodson.” Oh, my gosh.
Kendra: So true. She has something for everyone, in all age groups.
Autumn: This is a side note. But it’s like, you know, Jacqueline Woodson, when I read Another Brooklyn, the memory I have of that book is sitting on my back porch and just sobbing like a baby. So enough about that. So Red at the Bone is Jacqueline’s newest book. And I don’t know how this woman manages to pack so much into such a short amount of space.
Kendra: It’s a tiny little book, but it does all of the things.
Autumn: I know. Like, yeah. So this book is super short. It’s only, what, like a couple hundred pages? Something like?
Autumn: 200 pages? And it follows Melody, and we meet her at her . . . What would it be? Like . . .
Kendra: Debutante? Coming out kind of party?
Autumn: Yeah, but it’s not quite like a ball. I don’t know. So it takes place in Brooklyn. And we’re kind of learning that Melody has a kind of strained relationship with her mom. Is closer to her dad. And in the next 150 or 200 pages, we kind of unpack Melody’s history. But it’s told from the perspective of her grandmother, her grandfather, her mom, and her dad. And then Melody herself. And it’s just woven together so beautifully. And I think it does such a good job in the sense of like . . . when you’re a teenager, you have such a short perspective on life. And I don’t think you really realize that until you become an adult. And so you have this teenager’s perspective filled in by her parents and then her grandparents. And so it’s just stunning and beautiful. And there’s really no words to describe it.
Kendra: It has that unique prose that is you can tell a poet that is moved to prose, and they have that very concise language. Their word choice is perfection. Every word is there for a reason. So on a prose level, it’s beautiful. But also when you tell the same story—essentially the same story—over and over, just from multiple perspectives, it’s absolutely gorgeous because you’re always gaining new information and never feels repetitive because it’s telling or giving you an additional part of this family’s story. And it’s really such a beautiful, concise look at a family and the psychology behind the characters. I went to a live event here in Greenville and met her and managed not to make an idiot of myself this time like I did last time. Thankfully, she doesn’t remember that. Hopefully. And she talked about how much she rewrote this book and how she thought about the family and how much she thought about how they would interact with each other. And that was such an interesting thing to hear. And I mean, she’s just so cool. And her blazer game is strong. And nothing but admiration for her. Everything she writes is beautiful. We don’t deserve Jacqueline Woodson.
Autumn: No, we don’t. She’s just a brilliant mind and—it’s hard to say like “the best” because there are so many amazing women writers right now—but she is definitely a voice of our generation. And I recommend her to everyone and definitely think you should read this book. So that is Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson.
Kendra: And our next pick is Women Talking by Miriam Toews. And this is out from Bloomsbury. So just a content warning, this book and the discussion of this book does involve discussion of sexual assault. So just FYI. But this novel is a response to real events that happened in a real Mennonite colony where it was discovered that a group of men had been drugging and repeatedly raping women in the community. And so this is Miriam Toews’s fictional response. We did do an interview with her. So if you’d like to hear more about that and the process of her writing this novel, it’ll be linked in our show notes. But this novel picks up with a lot of the women in this hayloft discussing whether they will stay, fight, or leave. And it’s one of the first times really ever they’ve ever had a voice and are making decisions for themselves without the men involved, really. And they are so smart in the discussions of philosophy and theology and just all of this depth to their conversation. And it’s such a beautiful, beautiful novel. And like Miriam says, these women are making decisions within the context of their faith. So even though Toews identifies as a secular Mennonite, she still is very respectful of the faith from which she comes. And it’s a beautiful novel. And I went forth and collected all of her books in matching covers from Canada. So.
Autumn: Yes. Yes, she did.
Kendra: That’s the sign of true love.
Autumn: I hate to make comparisons like this, but I guess I’m going to do it anyway. Talking to Miriam reminded me a lot of what I felt like Tara Westover’s book Educated, like the tone of that book, where it’s acknowledging the hurt that has happened, but also trying to be empathetic as well and not so quick to judge, especially the women in these communities who often don’t have a ton of agency or different situations. And so I really appreciated that because it’s like, you know, I think it’s a very balanced way to look at it. But, yeah, this is another very spare book in a lot of ways, you know, as far as how the dialog goes and the descriptions and things like that. But it’s deep.
Kendra: And it is like, what, under 250 pages. And a lot of it is this dialog. It’s broken up by these sections with August, who is this dude who has come back to the colony, is taking minutes, but it’s quickly shown that he’s kind of irrelevant. He’s just there, sort of like as a little bridge for the reader. And the way that she handles these complexities of the colony, working within the actual constraints of what the colony is like, but also is very respectful, isn’t heavy handed, but it’s still very respectful, very complex. And it’s one of the books that has stayed in my mind this year, thinking about it and thinking about how writers today, women today, write about religion. And I think this is such an excellent example. And Toews is such a beautiful writer, practical but beautifully sparse and simple. I’ve never been one for sparse prose. I’m more of a lyrical person, as you know. I love Jesmyn Ward, but I love her prose. So, yes. So that is Women Talking by Miriam Toews. And Autumn, you have our next pick.
Autumn: So the next pick is not short at all.
Kendra: Other end of the spectrum.
Autumn: Lest you think that we only picked short books with sparse prose this year, the next pick is The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, and it is published by Hogarth. And this is a brick of a book that is 576 pages long. And I loved it. It’s not for everyone. I think I will say that. I’ve encountered a couple of people who thought it was a little bit too verbose, which is a fair opinion. But it is a multigenerational family saga set in Zambia, and it starts all the way back in the 1800s and works its way to future Zambia. And the thing that I love the most about this book is that Namwali writes in such different voices. So we start out in the 1800s, and it’s almost like an 1800s travel journal. As someone who has read a lot of books from the 1800s, I was just shocked by how spot on the voice was. I had to triple check and make sure that she wasn’t quoting somebody. Like that’s how spot on it was. And then it moves forward to the present, follows like grandmothers to mothers, all the way down to a son who is dealing with drone technology. And I actually read in the news this week—like, so the grandson, he’s working with these drones that are the size of mosquitoes—and I read this article this week about how scientists are genetically modifying mosquitoes, and they’re going to release them in the wild soon or something like that. I was like, oh, my goodness. She’s so spot on with this. I’m just in awe of the the breadth and the scope and the flexibility of her writing voice. It’s just. . . . Yeah, it’s just really good.
Kendra: Yeah. And I really love how as time passes that the different characters are written in different genres. So you go from the Italian family, which is written this kind of magical realism style, and you move on to like the science fiction style in the, you know, in future Zambia. And it just runs the gambit of all these different things. And then when the different characters meet and interact. It’s like this whole new thing. And as time goes by, the voices merge and start to compliment each other. And the complexity of that is just incredibly beautiful. And I was overwhelmed by this glorious book. And, you know, Autumn and I love a good, long family saga.
Autumn: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, indeed.
Kendra: This was that one for this year, for sure.
Autumn: And I think also, you know, she definitely draws on a lot of historical tradition, so there’s like a Greek chorus, as it were, between the different sections. And it’s actually like the swarm of mosquitoes. So she knows her stuff. She knows her literary history. And she manages to wrap it all up in this amazing novel. If you want to hear more about her process and kind of how she came up with the idea for this book, we got to talk to Namwali about The Old Drift, and you can find that linked in our show notes. So that is The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell.
Kendra: And our next pick is Frankissstein, not Frankenstein. Frankisstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson. And this is out from Grove. And I am obsessed with this book. I saw it on this like indie bookstore tour, and I didn’t realize it was out already. And it was signed. And I ran over and grabbed it. And there’s like blog footage, photos across the internet. But that is because Jeanette Winterson quickly became a favorite after Autumn and I did the discussion episode of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, followed by the memoir. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? And this novel is so different. It’s so playful and so quirky. So it is part love story (see the subtitle), part love letter to Mary Shelley. So in one timeline, we have Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein. And in another timeline we have Ry Shelley, a trans medical doctor who has gone to this tech exhibit tradeshow thing. It’s sort of like a thematic retelling of Frankenstein. And it really deals with what Frankenstein was dealing with at the time, the 1800s, but in our modern context, which is A.I. and involves like this, you know, Victor Stein trying to have people’s brains uploaded to a cloud, because that’s normal.
Autumn: Yes. So last year was the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein. And I read Frankenstein for the first time last year. And so it’s still pretty fresh in my memory. And I was just mesmerized by this book. Like how she is. . . . It’s not a retelling. Like Kendra said, it’s more of like a thematic retelling in the sense where she takes the big ideas and kind of translates them to a modern context, which is what people have been doing for like 200 years with Frankenstein. And but she does it in such a fresh way that I loved it too. And the sections with Mary Shelley, I think, are really helpful. Just to hear what Mary Shelley might have said about her own work. She’s a master. What can we say?
Kendra: I listened to the audio for this. And there’s this entire section where this guy has developed a wide range of sex-bots, and he’s pitching them to Ry Shelley, at this tech exhibit. And it’s like a one-sided conversation of this dude talking about why he’s developing these sex-bots. It delves into themes of human loneliness, why people might want to buy these, the wide range that he offers. And I wouldn’t typically say that that sounds like something I would necessarily want to read or find hilarious. But the way that it is set up in this one-sided monologue is so funny. And it just works. It just works.
Autumn: And I think, too, part of the reason why it works is that, you know, a lot of things like sex-bots and things like that are things that are happening. It’s coming up in the news. You know, and like at tech conferences, this is like a big discussion that people are having about the line between humanity and technology. And so she just kind of takes it head on with like a “Yeah, I’m going to talk about that” kind of approach, which is I think is actually helpful. Like if we’re going to talk about A.I. technology, you know, we need to talk about, like Kendra was just saying, like loneliness and what it actually does to the people involved and things like that, which is actually at the heart of what Mary Shelley’s talking about and Frankenstein. So it all comes full circle.
Kendra: And I feel like Jeanette Winterson makes it all look very easy. I have only read her first novel and her latest novel, which is this one. And you can tell the growth. But also you can see her playfulness. She’s a very serious writer, but also a playful writer. And she can write so many different kinds of things so well. And I feel like she combines those things together in this novel with the more serious sections of Mary Shelley and writing Frankenstein and her little, you know, fictionalized biography kind of thing there going on. But also the timeline with Ry Shelley and their love affair with Victor Stein. And so I find that so interesting how she’s able to do all of the things in a single book. All right. So that is Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson. And that’s out from Grove.
Autumn: Our last pick for this year’s Reading Women Award Fiction Shortlist is The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and this book was published by Knopf. This is a unique book. Let me just like throw that out there out front. My eye IRL book club read this earlier this year. And it was very polarizing because Valeria is a very unique writer. But this story follows two researchers. One is a documentarist, and one is a documentarian. And so they meet and fall in love. And they each have a kid. And then they decide to go on like this cross-country trip to learn more about Native Americans. I really feel like this is a book that you should listen to the audio, partially because Valeria reads it herself. And I think that there is something about how she narrates it that I think is really important. Yes, there are photos in the book, so definitely have the book to look at the photos as well. But especially as we get further into the narrative, and she starts talking about the crisis at the border and the migrant children who are being detained by ICE and the way that they’re being treated and how she’s relating that to her own children and those kinds of things. . . . It’s just that the end of the audiobook is like one of the most emotionally beautiful, heart-rending things that I’ve ever experienced. And I think that, yes, she just does it so well.
Kendra: Yeah, this book has so much depth and layering of meanings. And one of the things I found fascinating about this novel was that there is this parallel between the husband—all the characters don’t have names—the husband who is interested in going and looking at the history of the Apache and looking at that. But then she’s interested in the lost children, both looking at displaced peoples and the parallels of that and who tells the stories of these peoples. And I think it’s really important, you know, that the white man is doing it in such a weird and awkward way. But then the wife is looking at this in a very different way. And it plays with the idea of who tells whose story. How do we record this? What is this like? And it also looks at orphan trains and other types of displaced people throughout. And she does so much in this book, and I feel like you could reread this several different times and still have more to learn about it.
Autumn: I totally agree with that. And I’ve heard that it’s a good companion read to a nonfiction book that she wrote in 2017 called Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay and 40 Questions. And it’s also about Latin American children facing deportation in the US. And I’ve heard that this is kind of a companion piece to that.
Kendra: That’s interesting.
Autumn: Yeah, I haven’t yet read Tell Me How It Ends. I really need to. But so it’s interesting how fiction and nonfiction kind of overlaps in this. But I think that she’s such an amazing writer. And I think that this book is really important for kind of how it takes something abstract, like displaced people, and makes it very concrete in a very real and tangible sort of way. And I think that that’s important. I think it’s really important to understand what other people are living and what they’re going through. So, it’s so good. So that is The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.
Kendra: So that is our fiction shortlist for this year’s Reading Women Award. So excited. So all twelve have been announced now. Again, if you haven’t already, go check out our other episodes that are linked in our show notes. Next week, we will have an interview, and then the following week will be our announcement of the winners of the 2019 Reading Women Award.