Announcing the Winners of Reading Women’s 2019 Award!
Autumn Privett: So I guess now it’s time to announce the winners!
Kendra Winchester: Yes! So let’s go through the shortlist of this year’s Reading Women Award for Nonfiction titles. So we have The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang. And this is out from Graywolf.
AP: Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden, published by Bloomsbury.
KW: Thick: and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom. This is out from The New Press.
AP: Good Talk by Mira Jacob, published by One World.
KW: I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying by Bassey Ikpi from Harper Perennial.
AP: And My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education by Jennine Capo Crucet. And this is out from Picador.
KW: This is an amazing group of women writers. So many different essays and memoirs. It’s been a great reading year.
AP: So without further ado, the nonfiction winner for this year’s Reading Women Award is Thick: and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom and published by The New Press.
KW: Oooo! Fanfare!
AP: Let me tell you. So this was one of my favorite interviews of the year to, which you shouldn’t have a favorite child and you shouldn’t have a favorite interview. But her. Us talking to her was just such a delight. She’s a smart woman. Like, I think we hung up the phone and were like, wow, we don’t we don’t know anything. And so, yeah, definitely go back and listen to that interview with her. Just all kinds of truth bombs all over the place. It’s amazing.
KW: And we had our transcript editor go back and do a transcript of this interview because we actually recorded before we were doing transcripts. So we want to make sure that everyone would be able to read this interview or listen to the interview or whatever. Definitely go check that out. That will be linked in the show notes because, yeah, it was a fabulous interview.
AP: So Thick, just to kind of summarize it, Thick is an essay collection and Tressie talks about a whole wide range of things in this essay collection. One of the big themes of the book that we talked about when we talked to her too was, not just about what it’s like to be a black woman moving and living in the world, but in her case, in particular, being academic and trying to find her voice and trying to be heard by people in academia—which is, as we all know, academia is a place that has historically been very, very white, very, very, very male.
KW: Yeah. And I really appreciate how she really set the tone for the collection in her title essay, Thick. And she says that, in the essay, “Being too much of one thing and not enough of another had been a recurring theme in my life. I was, like many young women, expected to be small so that boys could expand and white girls could shine I wanted to create something meaningful that sounded not only like me, but like all of me. It too was thick.” That essay just really put in perspective the rest of the collection and where she was coming from, wanting to be able to include herself—who is a woman, and who is a black woman in particular, and what her experience has been like.
AP: I think that I thought before I read this essay collection that it would. . . . I think I assumed that the scope of the essays would be mostly centered around body image and things like that. And she does talk about that a lot. But how she defines “thick” in this first essay is just, as Kendra just said, like really it sets the tone for everything else.
And she kind of explains all the different ways that she is thick or that her experience is thick or what she means when she says thick. And I think that it’s just . . . It’s the perfect way to start out this collection.
KW: One of the things that I love about this book is how she just is . . . Her range is just so wide, and she writes about all of the things. And again, I’m just blown away by the way that she is so articulate in the way that she talks about these different essays. And sorry if you can hear pages. I have the book here with me. One of the essays that I loved in particular is “In the Name of Beauty,” where she talks about beauty standards in our Western white-dominated culture and how she fits into that as a black woman. And she says that “whiteness is a violent sociocultural regime legitimized by property to always make clear who is black by fastidiously delineating who is officially white. It would stand to reason that beauty’s ultimate function is to exclude blackness.” And when I read these, I’d never heard that concept put into words before. But she’s able to break it down for you and just be very honest and open. And like, “this is an issue” in such an, I don’t know, articulate way. Her writing is just fabulous.
AP: Yeah. And I think for me, too, the thing that I really appreciated about this book—and part of the reason that I think it’s stuck in our minds so much throughout the year, despite the other things that we read—it was just so refreshing for us to read an unapologetically academic, intelligent, thoughtful woman and just to have her articulate things. Her writing style is. It’s so approachable, so it’s not like you’re picking up Ulysses or something like that. It’s such an approachable essay collection. But it’s also like I think we underlined every single line in the book at some point.
KW: Yeah. If I ever meet her—there’s so many tabs—and I always have the awkward moment when I hand an author a book that I’ve tabbed, like, “Yes, I really loved this. Can you tell by the rainbow tabs? Um.” But that’s because I was flipping through this. And I do have underlines almost on like every other page because she has so many important things to say that she says so well and so clearly. And that’s throughout the entire collection. She talks about, at the end of this essay, kind of summarizing her experience of being a thick woman, of being a black woman in a society that holds white women as the ideal beauty standard. And at the end, I just want to read this one section because I feel like it really.
It just hits home. More so, if possible. She says, “When beauty is white and I am dark, it means that I am more likely to be punished in school, to receive higher sentences for crimes, less likely to marry, and less likely to marry someone with equal or higher economic status. Denying these empirical realities is its own kind of violence, even when our intentions are good. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that ugly is as ugly does. Both are lies. Ugly is everything done to you in the name of beauty. Knowing the difference is part of getting free.”
AP: Yeah. I think that’s such a great way to end our discussion of this book because I think that what she says about beauty standards is really important. And some of the things we talked about in the interview, you know, things like, Marilyn Monroe was a size 12 or how she talks about Miley Cyrus as well and things like that. And so she kind of unpacks like these things that we just assume as default. And yeah, it’s so thought provoking. And I still think about things that she said in her essays even now.
KW: And some of her other essays include looking at black women’s experience of the medical industry here in the United States, about how she lost a baby due to lack of care that she received. Also, “Girlhood Interrupted,” which is an essay title, but in that essay, she talks about the early sexualization of young black girls and how patriarchy determines that when these young girls are “ready,” which is a really disgusting kind of concept, but also that being black girls, they’re sexualized earlier than white girls. And she just tackles that head on. And a really eloquent essay. I feel like we keep using these terms like “it is so well-written and clear!” And we cannot emphasize that enough, which is one of the reasons why we chose this as the winner for this year’s nonfiction prize.
AP: The nonfiction winner of this year’s Reading Women Award is Thick: and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom, published by The New Press.
KW: And now it’s time to talk about the winner for the Fiction Reading Women Award.
AP: So first off is Women Talking by Miriam Toews, out by Bloomsbury Publishing.
KW: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, out from Hogarth.
AP: The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, published by Knopf.
KW: Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis, out from Knopf as well.
AP: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, out from Riverhead.
KW: Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson, published by Grove Press. And the winner of this year’s Fiction Reading Women Award is Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis, published by Knopf!
AP: Oh my. This book.
KW: All the people were cheering in my head as we were announcing that because as soon as we read this book, we knew it was special. And we knew that it covered something that we hadn’t seen in a book before, and we were terrified we would give away who the winner was early.
AP: Yeah. And we also got to talk to Carolina about this book as well. So be sure and go back into our archives or wherever you subscribe to your podcasts and find that interview because she really unpacks the story, and there’s no spoilers. So if you want to listen to it before you read, it won’t give anything away. But she really unpacks the story in a way that really deepened our understanding of it. And she’s just a delightful person, and we loved talking to her.
KW: Yeah, and again, we’re not supposed to have favorites. But she was definitely one of my favorites this year to talk too because she’s such a lovely and gracious person. So we want to talk a little bit about this book and why we love this book. And what about it stood out to us. And I think the number one thing is that this book is about women.
AP: Yes. And that might sound weird because this podcast is called Reading Women. And so in the last couple of years, we’ve read a lot of books by and about women. And yet this is one of the first books that I’ve ever read where it was really only women. There’s like no love interest on the side who is a guy or like some powerful man somewhere or whatever. This was truly only about women and the relationships between women. And it was just such an . . . a startling thing to read because as I was reading it, I realized I personally hadn’t read anything like that before.
KW: And it’s also a celebration, not just about women and their difficulties, but also their joys and the things that make life worth living and a celebration of that and all of its different facets, whether it be a relationship, whether be sexual or romantic or just platonic friendship or all of the above. You have these women, these five women, queer women in Uruguay, making a place to themselves. And to be able to see those relationships over the course of time through the 70s, 80s and beyond, was just a beautiful, beautiful thing.
AP: Absolutely. And I think that the way that she weaves together the stories of these women’s lives is just I think the word we kept saying over and over and over again when we talked to her was just beautiful and stunning. And um. Because the way that she kind of builds on these women’s relationships with each other and as they change and as they age. It’s just really something beautiful. Because you’re with them in the high points and in the low points and while they’re making these really hard decisions and while they’re living on the outskirts of society and things like that. And there really aren’t words for it.
KW: And one of the great things about this book as well is the wide range of queer representation. There are queer women across the spectrum of expression and preferences and all these different things. And, you know, it’s so rare to see a queer woman main character. But in this book, there are five. And they’re all different, but they’re all fully fleshed-out characters. And that was just something refreshing to see on the page as opposed to I feel like sometimes when you do see queer women on a page, it’s almost like they’re fighting to be there. But this is more of a celebration and a joy to see them be who they are.
AP: Definitely. And I think this is a book that definitely is . . . It doesn’t feel. . . . It feels so natural in the sense of like, oh yeah, of course, this is how this book goes. Or of course, it would be this way. And it’s also, I think, extra interesting because Carolina mentioned that she actually interviewed some queer women living in Uruguay around that time and kind of got their stories and was able to weave in their stories as well. So I think that that’s something really special as well.
KW: And it was really interesting to hear her describe the title Cantoras, which means “female singer” and how that was the word that they would use. “Oh, is she a cantoras? Does she sing?” And it really just made sense. And it really put that in perspective because I think, living in America, we are very focused on our own history in general. But when it comes to queer history, we’re also focused oftentimes on America.
But this is a queer space in Uruguay during the 70s and 80s during a dictatorship. And what that looked like and how they were still there and how they were still living a life the way that they could and how they made a space for themselves in that kind of situation.
AP: And one of the things we talked about in the interview was about found families and how these women really created their own community and their own families where they would go to all of these important life events with each other and how they really saw each other as family. And I think that that was such a moving and emotional part of the book as well because there’s all kinds of people in all different places in life who are choosing found families or who have developed found families. And just to see that kind of representation on the pages was just really incredible to see.
KW: And I feel like with each of the characters, they made up different parts of that family. And like we mentioned earlier, they’re all very different. But one of the things that Carolina mentioned that she wanted to do was that the different families responded differently to the different women in their families’s queerness. So you have the whole range of spectrum of their born-into biological families, but then you also have these found families and the dynamics between the two and the differences that were there. I really appreciated how she pointed out basically with these five very different women that a queer woman’s experiences are all different, but they’re still queer women. And I feel like there’s been a lot of discussion about what it means to be a good queer woman or how is the right way to do these things. But there isn’t a singular right way, just as illustrated with these five very different women. And that’s something that I definitely appreciated.
AP: Yeah. And I really think that what you just mentioned right there is something that really stood out to me too. I think that this is definitely a narrative where it shows that there isn’t just one way to be something, whatever it happens to be for any of these women. And to see all of that together on the page and for it to not just make sense stylistically, but for it to just keep such a tight plot and still have such a great payoff, I think was just—from a writing and from a structure perspective—just something really amazing to experience.
KW: Yeah. So overall, this is a very, very special book. And we couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s now part of our Reading Women Award family. Both of these books. So that is Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis, and that is out from Knopf. And so that is it for this year’s Reading Women Award winners. You can find seals—Reading Women Award seals—in our Etsy store. And so you can head over there. That will be linked in our show notes. And get seals for your copies of Cantoras or Thick. And we are more than happy to send you those.
KW: Little program note. This is the end of our fourth—wow—fourth season. And we will have one extra episode that I’ve arranged because I wanted to be really nerdy and talk about goals and reading goals and charts and things. But this is the last regular episode of the season. So we will end. Next week will be our last episode. And then we’ll take a break until the middle of January, so we can spend the holidays with our families.
AP: And then also another program note is that this is the last episode of Reading Women I will be on for a while. It has been a wonderful four years. But there are some other things that I’m going to need to focus my attention on right now. But I’m very thankful for all of you for listening and for all of the support that you’ve shown us over the years. And be sure to tune in in January for a brand new season and a lot of great new reads.
KW: So that is our show. 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 and who we are forever grateful for for making our transcripts available. And if you are looking for a transcript of any of our recent episodes, head over to our website. To subscribe to our newsletter or to learn more about becoming one of our patrons, visit us at readingwomenpodcast.com.
AP: Also, be sure to join us next time where Kendra will be interviewing a surprise guest about 2020 reading goals, challenges, and tracking methods. And meanwhile, you can find Reading Women on Instagram and Twitter (@thereadingwomen) and, as Kendra mentioned, at readingwomenpodcast.com. Thank you all so much for listening.