Announcing the Shortlist for Reading Women’s Nonfiction Award
Mira Jacob, T Kira Madden, Jennine Capó Crucet, and More
In this episode Reading Women will be talking about honorable mentions for the Reading Women Award. The co-hosts are Kendra Winchester and Autumn Privett.
From the episode:
Kendra Winchester: So welcome to the second episode in this year’s series of Reading Women Award season. Our first episode was the honorable mentions episode, where our co-hosts talked about a nonfiction and a fiction pick that was their favorite of the year. And they had some really, really great picks.
Autumn Privett: They really did. And I’m so glad that we have so many contributors now who can add their nominations to the hat because, especially this year, I feel like there were a ton of really good books.
KW: Yeah, especially in nonfiction, because I feel like normally we’re reaching around and reading all of the things to find more titles. But this year we had more titles than we could possibly read in a single year.
AP: I know, I know. We definitely had the opposite problem that we had last year, which is super exciting because we have so many great books to talk about.
KW: Yeah, I am so thrilled. This is the fourth year of the Reading Award. And before we get into the first shortlist of the 2019 season, some general guidelines for the award: The title, of course, must be by or about women. The book must be available and published in the United States. And it is written by a single author, so not an anthology. Fiction can be short stories or a novel. And nonfiction can be essays or memoir or biography or whatever. That’s generally how it is. And we do limit it to the United States just because there’s no way we could read all of the English language books written in the entire world in a single year.
AP: That’s so true. We have to narrow it down somehow.
KW: But we do feature international women authors throughout the entire year. This is just our book of the year award. And we basically promote that book for the rest of Reading Women‘s existence and tell everyone to go read it. Forever and always.
AP: So on that note, Kendra, do you want to talk about your first choice?
KW: Yeah. So our first pick is Good Talk by Mira Jacob, and this is up from One World. And we actually have an interview with Mira Jacob coming out next week, as you guys are listening to this. This is a graphic novel—or in this case, a graphic memoir. And this starts with Mira having a conversation with her son, who is biracial. Mira married a white Jewish man. And so the narrative flips back and forth between conversations with her son in the present, which is around the 2016 election, and from Mira’s childhood. The subtitle is “A Memoir in Conversations,” which really encapsulates how the flow of the narrative works because Mira is always having conversations either with her parents, when she is a kid or an adult, or with her son or with her husband. And really looking at what it’s like to raise a brown boy in America, particularly during the 2016 election.
AP: I love that it’s given in conversations because I feel like that’s how much of real life actually pans out. It takes place in conversation forms. And I think especially at the beginning of this memoir, her son is so young. And kids that age have so many questions. And so I think it’s just a natural springboard for the whole story.
KW: And I feel like because he’s, what, six when the memoir starts out?
AP: Yeah, something like that.
KW: It’s sort of like, “Kids say the darndest things,” and how he just asks these very blunt questions about race in America and what that’s like. And what it’s like to have his parents vote for Hillary but his white grandparents vote for Trump. And what does that mean for his family? And just asking these very blunt, honest questions in this way only a kid can. And I feel like that that is definitely really well paralleled with Mira’s own childhood, growing up as the daughter of Indian immigrants.
AP: Yeah. And another thing about this book that was really interesting was the graphic style. So it’s a mix of photographs and the way Mira described it was paper doll. So it’s like she drew the different characters, as it were, in her story and cut them out and then pasted them over top of these images. And so you really get the sense that those characters are really static, which is really interesting, because then you’re not so much paying attention to the characters themselves as the story progresses, but you’re starting to pay more and more attention to their words and what they’re saying. And I thought that that was a really interesting way to craft a story and to draw more attention to the conversations that were happening instead of the hand gestures or whatever the facial expressions were, the people who were having the conversations.
KW: I found the narrative style very engrossing, and I read this when my flight was delayed in an airport. And so I’m just sitting here with this graphic memoir. And I was totally sucked in and riveted by this story because she really just drives the story along with these two narratives going back and forth in time, but also covering a lot of the same issues, but in different points in America’s history. She, you know, also tackles things like colorism because she is a darker-skinned Indian woman. And so, you know, having her aunties tell her that she’s too dark and how is she supposed to get a husband that way and all of these different things. And she tackles so much, but in such a unique and informative way that I think it’s such a beautifully complex book, but also very accessible and readable to basically anyone. I feel like I could hand this to anyone. They’d just be like, oh, okay. Like, go forth and read. And I think, especially considering our climate, that this is even more so in the context of our time a very important book. So that was Good Talk by Mira Jacob. And that is out from One World.
AP: So our next pick is My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education by Jennine Capó Crucet. And this essay collection was published by Picador. I had been wanting to read this book for a really long time, and somehow it never made it to the top of my TBR. But then just a few weeks ago, before the recording of this episode, Jennine was at a book reading at Georgia Southern University. And there was an incident where after the reading, several students at the school burned her book. And so since this was an event that happened in my state, and it’s a book that I was already interested in and tracking, I decided that I needed to bump it up to the very top of my list. And I’m so glad I did because it has ended up being one of my favorite books of the year. Not only does she tackle issues like race and what it’s like to grow up as the child of Cuban immigrants in America and things like that, she also talks about what it’s like to be an academic, which is something that I think is not talked about a lot. And as someone whose spouse is an academic, I think that it’s a topic that has a lot of mystery around it, and people don’t really understand what it is. It’s just really good.
KW: And since she is coming from a very unique perspective, I really appreciated how she talked about what it’s like to be a first person to go to college in your family. And pointing out that there are some basic things that people don’t tell you. So like, for example, her entire family came for the week of college orientation. They booked hotel rooms. They got their passes. And after the first event, everyone is like, Okay, parents, you can leave. And her entire family is like, What? What do you mean we can leave? And so they went to all of the things. When I went, I had no idea about anything, but my parents just randomly dropped me off. And then I, you know, make all the freshmen mistakes. But her entire family is there.
And just she communicates so well how first-generation people who go to college just don’t have that access of legacy of the idea that your parents went to college. They are able to tell you these things. Her parents couldn’t tell her these things. And going to an Ivy League school and having to acclimate—it was just beautifully written and communicated so much. I think oftentimes people who are the children of people who went to this college or whatever college before they did, you know, just don’t remember or don’t have to think about.
AP: Yeah, I think that’s so true. And she really unpacks that in a way that’s accessible. And by accessible, I mean, like she is an academic. But she doesn’t use academic language. It’s not like you’re reading someone’s dissertation. It’s like you’re reading someone who is talking to you. But then she expands it, you know, bigger to like these other cultural things that she dealt with with her family, like growing up in Florida and going to Disney World and things like that. So it’s a wide range of topics, but very timely, very thoughtful. And I really just enjoyed reading these. So that is My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education by Jennine Capó Crucet.
KW: And our next pick is The Collected Schizophrenias is by Esmé Weijun Wang, and it’s out from Graywolf. This was the winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, which is one of my favorite nonfiction prizes, because you have so many amazing writers, like Leslie Jamison, who have won the prize and so on, so forth. So when this was announced, I was so thrilled. And the book has been delayed a little bit because Esmé Weijun Wang has had some health issues. And we talked about this book really in depth with Sachi earlier this year. So I won’t rehash all that here, but I will link that episode down in our show notes. You guys can go check it out. But this is an essay collection about Wang’s life living with schizoaffective disorder and what it’s really like to experience life with this kind of distinctive diagnosis.
And it looks at everything from how when the definition of your disorder changes and what does that mean for you? Does your identity change? And what it’s like to have these kinds of labels. What it’s like to move about the world when people have all these stereotypes. I’ve recently seen discussions of schizoaffective disorder in the context of talking about this book that had those same jokes in it. And it was very disheartening that the thing that she is writing to raise awareness for, there’s still so far to go. And so I greatly admire the fact that she is out here doing the thing and talking about her condition. And also she tweets about it and gives updates as well.
And I admire her greatly. Her essay collection has a wealth of beautiful writing. And she’s just so intelligent and is so clear in her communication. And I just have endless admiration, obviously, for her because I’m just talking in circles and gushing about this book, basically.
AP: And I’m so glad the women are finally speaking up and talking about their struggles with mental illnesses in particular because I think there is still this myth of the madwoman in the attic, you know, when it comes to mental health. So I’m glad that people like Esmé are finally sharing their stories—or that not that they’re sharing their stories, but that publishers are finally publishing their stories so that way more people can read about them and get a better idea of what it’s actually like to live with these kinds of disorders.
KW: Yeah. And she also talks about how as a society, when someone has cancer or gets ill, that people take them covered dishes or they come over and they clean their house or whatever. But when people have mental conditions where they’re also equally incapacitated, people don’t think to do that. And how there’s always the stigma around mental illness. And there’s such a wealth of information and points like that in the essay collection, I cannot recommend it enough. So that was The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang, and that’s out from Graywolf. And we’ll be back with more of from this episode of Reading Women after a word from our sponsor. . . .
So, Autumn, you have our next pick.
AP: So our next pick is Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir by T Kira Madden, and this is published by Bloomsbury. You have heard us gush about this book all year long. It was one of our most anticipated reads of the year, and we had the amazing opportunity to do a live event with Kira at SCAD here in Atlanta in partnership with A Capella Books, a local bookstore here. And it’s a memoir. And I think I probably said this before, but it’s not like, “Once upon a time, I was born. And then I had a life. And now I’m in present day.” It’s very much like. . . . I don’t know. It feels very . . . almost like we’re discovering things with Kira. So she talks about her parents. And her dad was part of the Madden Shoe family. And so she talks a lot about her parents and their struggles with addiction and how that affected her and her growing up. But it’s also a coming out story. So she talks about her discovering that she was queer and kind of navigating that as well. And it’s beautiful and heartbreaking, but also fun because Kira talks a lot about different pop culture things and stuff going on in the late 90s, early 2000s. And it’s a lot of fun.
KW: And the memoir is written like a series of essays, like these little snapshots. And her writing is so incredibly beautiful. I mean, we have read a lot of memoirs, but this one really stands out to me when I think of the writing and the pictures that she paints of what’s going on in her life and how that made her feel. And you feel, like Autumn said, like you’re going on this journey with her, not that she’s recounting this past thing. It’s like you’re there present with her as she experiences these things. And that’s such a unique way to tell a memoir. And I think it’s incredibly successful.
AP: Well, I think especially because she’s still pretty young. She’s our age. So she kind of focuses in this essay form on the most important things that happen to her and how she remembers them. And I think that is very true to how memory works in that like, I don’t remember preschool. I don’t remember 75 percent of my childhood. But, you know, I remember the things that stood out to me. And so it definitely feels true to life in the way that she’s told it.
KW: Yeah. And there are a lot of twists and turns along the way as well. It’s just so good. So good, guys. That’s basically our little tagline for this episode. “It’s so good. Go read it.”
AP: And we actually have an interview that we recorded with Kira. And so if you want to follow the link in our show notes, you can hear us talk to Kira about her memoir. So that is Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden.
KW: And our next book is Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom. And this is out from The New Press. And this is a finalist for the National Book Award. And we interviewed Tressie earlier this year. And so when we saw that she was on the long list, we freaked out. Just so incredibly excited for her. But also, she’s now a finalist, so that’s even better. And this is an essay collection that Tressie looks at what it’s like to be a black woman in the United States. And she often talks about what it’s like to be a fat, black woman in the United States and how society treats her and views her. And she also looks at how our healthcare system really does incredible disservice to black women here in the United States. And just a lot of different topics from like Miley Cyrus and twerking to standards of beauty and just a whole range of things. She does it all within this essay collection. And I felt like each essay was just this little gem and a little insight into her mind. And she is so, so incredibly intelligent. But I never felt well, like we talked about earlier with Jennine Capó Crucet’s book, you never feel like she’s using jargon. Tressie has a Ph.D., but it’s like she’s sitting there just talking to you about these things. And she’s so incredibly easy to talk to. And it’s an incredible book. And I am, I’m so glad that it exists.
I’m so glad that she is writing in this world because we need more Tressies.
AP: Yeah. And her writing, the range of topics that she covers, does remind me of Roxane Gay. I am not saying that they are the same writer, but if you like Roxane Gay’s work, then you’ll definitely like this essay collection as well. And then Tressie and Roxane have a podcast together, which is like all the more the reason to be a fan.
Like Kendra said, every essay is just like a truth bomb, like truth bomb after truth bomb. If I had been underlining in this book, probably the whole thing would have been underlined.
KW: All of the book darts, all of the rainbow tabs. And that was Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom.
AP: So our last pick is I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying by Bassey Ikpi. And this book is published by Harper Perennial. And it is another book about mental health. But unlike as Esmé’s book, which talks about schizoaffective disorder, Bassey talks about her diagnosis of Bipolar II Disorder. The way she unpacks it, I think is really important because we start out at the beginning of the book not knowing that that’s what this is going to be about, then kind of discovering with her as she goes to doctors and as she kind of confronts her different symptoms and things that are happening in her life until she finally gets a diagnosis and then kind of what happens after that. And so I think the thing that stuck with me the most about reading this book is that I think it’s really hard to understand that mental illness is not like a broken arm or skinned knee where it’s like, “Okay, well, you know, I’ve skinned my knee before.” You know, something like that. So I think that it’s really helpful to kind of go on that journey with someone and kind of understand what it’s actually like to live it, which I think a lot of people don’t do.
KW: Like you said, one of the big things about this book is that you feel almost like you’re in Bassey’s head as she’s experiencing these things. And it is so incredibly accurate of what it’s like to live with a mental health condition, particularly, you know, it’s Bipolar II Disorder and bipolar depression. And so how she experiences that, how it affects her relationships, how it affects her professional career, what it’s like to have this diagnosis and be told you’ll probably have to take medication for the rest of your life when that’s something she hasn’t been familiar with up until this point.
AP: Or even like her trying the different medications and what it’s like to like try, try, try. Which is something that I think we hear about, but don’t even necessarily know what it’s like to have to try like a half a dozen medications, knowing that they may or may not work. And just the detail she gets so well. And I’ve had people talk to me about this book who have had Bipolar II or have been caregivers who people who have the condition, and they are like this is so incredibly accurate. And for many people, it’s triggering just because that’s the life that they also experienced. And so this book is so well-written to that degree. And I think if you have this condition, and you want to try to help someone in your life understand it, this would be a great book to hand to someone, just to give a little bit more insight into what it’s like. This book is just so meaningful and incredible. And after I finished it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In fact, I had this entire discussion with Autumn about it and how accurate it was and what it meant to me as a person. And I feel like that was such a great conversation starter. But also it’s Bassey speaking her truth and what it’s like to live with Bipolar II.
AP: Definitely. It hits you on a visceral level. So it’s not . . . Pick it up when you’re ready to read a book like this. But it’s definitely, I think, one of the most helpful books I’ve ever read about what it’s actually like to live with with mental health issues. So definitely pick up I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying by Bassey Ikpi.
KW: So that’s it. That’s our shortlist for the nonfiction category of the 2019 Reading Women Award.
AP: I can’t believe—I say this every year—but I can’t believe it’s already here.
KW: Yeah, and I I love this selection, and I feel like it’s such a great representation of all the quality nonfiction that has been produced by women this year. I have all of them sitting in my library, waiting for me to take a ridiculous number of photos of them. And they’re just all happy sitting there together. And it just brings me so much joy to see them. Makes me very excited.
AP: Indeed. Indeed.
KW: Well, next week we’ll have an interview with Mira Jacob, who is on our shortlist this year for the nonfiction category. So stay tuned for that. And then the week after that is our fiction shortlist. So stay tuned. But that’s it. That’s our show for today. If you haven’t yet, please leave us a review in your podcast app of choice. And thanks to all of you who have already done that. Many thanks to our patrons, whose support makes this podcast possible. To subscribe to our newsletter or to learn more about becoming one of our patrons, visit us at readingwomenpodcast.com.
AP: And be sure, as Kendra said, to join us next time where we will be talking about the fiction shortlist for this year’s Reading Women Award. And in the meantime, you can find Reading Women on Instagram and Twitter (@thereadingwomen). Thank you all so much for listening.