Salt Houses, Hala Alyan’s multigenerational first novel about a Palestinian family, is a richly layered story of devastation, rebuilding, and making your way home, when you’re not even sure where that is anymore. As a Jew who believes strongly in the importance of a Jewish homeland, I wanted to read Salt Houses for a different perspective—to hear the stories I might not have heard otherwise. I asked Alyan some questions about the book and our current sociopolitical climate.
Q: You’re Palestinian-American. How much of this story is drawn from your family history and how much is part of the larger cultural story?
A: I borrowed structural elements from my familial history, in terms of the countries that appear in the book and the way the family in Salt Houses is displaced more than once. I wanted to keep the focus on this one particular family’s story, while also nodding to the larger sociopolitical context that housed it. I was inspired by the tradition of storytelling in Arab communities, and how that is a way of reclaiming history and identity. More generally, I was inspired by the resilience of refugees and immigrants I’ve come across in my personal and professional life, and I wanted to honor the story of displacement by unpacking it as honestly as I could. Continue reading
A man wakes up and doesn’t remember the night before. Then he sees photos that show him assaulting a woman. Add the fact that he’s a new father, his job involves experimental surgeries, and his own father has dementia—oh, and he can read minds—and you’ve got Fiona Maazel’s new novel, A Little More Human. Memory, autonomy, and conspiracy theories abound in this complicated, well-crafted book. Maazel has won the Bard Prize for Fiction and was a National Book Award Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. She was recently awarded a Guggenheim.
Jaime Herndon: One thing I loved about A Little More Human was the intersecting storylines, especially Dr. Snyder’s memory loss, juxtaposed with his son’s mindreading ability and blackout. How did you come up with the structure/form of the novel?
Fiona Maazel: Thematically, I knew I wanted to be writing about memory, and memory as a way of constructing identity, juxtaposed against how incredibly hard it is to establish an identity when we know so little of what transpires in our own inner lives. I wanted to get at all that, but there was no way to do it from one perspective. I needed a few characters to allow me to approach the topic from multiple angles. Continue reading
I first read Melissa Febos while in my MFA program. Her memoir Whip Smart was next to the register of my local indie bookstore, and I picked it up while the cashier was helping the person in front of me. This was years ago, but I remember it well, because her memoir of her work as a professional dominatrix was unlike anything I’d ever read before. Her new book, Abandon Me, is a collection of luminescent autobiographical essays—stories about bonds that break, fierce love, and what makes a family, all shot through with art and passion. It defies easy description or categorization, and begs to be reread, to be unpeeled, layer after layer.
Jaime Rochelle Herndon: Abandon Me feels more “bare bones,” somehow, than Whip Smart. More raw or vulnerable. On page 196, you say, about Whip Smart: “By building a story, I could find a beginning, middle, and end.” Does this also apply to Abandon Me? Continue reading
The Art of Waiting is a hybrid memoir from Belle Boggs, author of the 2010 novel Mattaponi Queen. It tells the story of Boggs’s journey through infertility and IVF, but it also examines fertility, motherhood, and assisted reproduction, and how these fit into our society and culture. Drawing from medicine, theater, literature, personal experience, anecdotes, and biology, Boggs writes about motherhood in a smart, unsentimental, incisive way.
I knew from the moment I read about this book on a friend’s Facebook post that I had to read it. As a medical writer with a degree in maternal-child health and a background working in ob/gyn, and as a new mother who used assisted reproductive technology to conceive my son, I can tell you this: The Art of Waiting does not disappoint. Boggs’s prose is quiet but powerful, and she did her research in every way.
Jamie Rochelle Herndon: This is not merely a memoir; it feels to me like a cultural exploration/commentary/criticism, almost a sociological memoir, if that makes sense. What made you decide to write it like that, instead of a straight memoir? Continue reading
No, the girl says, she will not wear the fetal monitoring belt. Her birth plan says no to fetal monitoring.
These girls with their birth plans, thinks Franckline, as if much of anything about a birth can be planned….
And so begins Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens. Lore is a single thirtysomething who shows up at the hospital alone to give birth. She is assigned a nurse, Franckline, who has just entered her second trimester, but is not showing—and hasn’t told her husband yet. Eleven Hours is the story of Lore’s labor and delivery, but her story is also Franckline’s. The two women seem very different, but they have more in common than they will ever (or could ever) know.
photo by Catherine Opie
I can’t remember the first time I heard of Eileen Myles, but I remember singing along to Le Tigre’s feminist anthem “Hot Topic,” in which they list feminist, LGBTQ, and progressive artists. Myles is one of them. When Inferno came out, I saw the reviews on my Facebook feed, and knew I had to read this book, subtitled “a poet’s novel.” The writing felt like Myles was talking right to me.
Myles taught a class in my graduate writing program, and I immediately signed up. We studied all kinds of works, in all genres, and she challenged us to read and write things that pushed up against the boundaries we had set for ourselves—and the boundaries that were set for us. That’s when I first read Chelsea Girls.
Chelsea Girls has recently been reissued, along with a collection of Myles’ old and new poems, I Must be Living Twice. Myles took time out of her book tour to answer a few questions.
I know you’ve been with smaller publishing houses before, but Ecco and HarperCollins are pretty big. What prompted the switch. Do you think this has any bigger implications for poetry? Continue reading