In the Media, November 2016, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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This fortnight’s been dominated by post-election coverage:

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And the woman with the most publicity this fortnight is Zadie Smith. She’s interviewed on Literary Hub, Nylon, Waterstones, Lenny, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate and profiled by Sarah Hughes in The Observer.

Rupi Kaur, author of Milk and Honey

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Photograph by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

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Photograph by Kevin Day

Society and Politics:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media: 25th January & 1st February 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

Thanks to everyone who said such lovely things last week after I lost the In the Media post and to everyone who offered suggestions to stop it happening again. I think I have a solution and it seems to have worked well this week.

The morning after last week’s last minute loss, I realised that all was not entirely lost; all the articles I’d linked to that hadn’t saved were in my laptop history, so I recovered the remainder of last week’s post (apologies if you received an email with a half-done post in it, it posted when I retrieved it) and relinked all the articles, then added this weeks. The result of that is this bumper issue. Enjoy!

This week saw the death of Colleen McCullough, author of The Thorn Birds, as well as 23 other books, and a neuroscientist. Steve Dow remembers her in The Guardian; Alison Flood gave her tribute with ‘Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds helped me get over heartbreak‘ also in The Guardian, and in response to that obituary (I’m not linking to it) Rebecca Shaw wrote ‘We’ll celebrate a woman for anything, as long as it’s not her talent‘ in The Guardian while Liz Kearney responded with ‘You may be a best-selling writer, but never forget that you’re still fat and ugly‘ in The Irish Independent.

It’s been a fortnight filled with awards. Last week, Claudia Rankine became the first person ever to be nominated for two National Critics Circle Awards in the poetry and criticism categories; her editor tells The Washington post why she’s a ‘genius’ and Jonathon Sturgeon tells us why the double nomination is ‘the correct decision’ on Flavorwire;  While Jhumpa Lahiri won the DSC Prize. Here’s ‘Six things you should know about Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland’ on Scroll.in

This week, it’s been the turn of the Costa Awards. Helen Macdonald won the overall award for the fantastic H is for Hawk. Here’s an interview she gave to The Times last week; you can watch her talking about the book here; you can listen to an audio excerpt and read her piece ‘On Ringing Wild Goshawks’ on Vintage Books, and discover the six books that made her in The Guardian. You can also watch the short films made of the other finalists: Emma Healey; Kate Saunders; Ali Smith. Zoe Gilbert won the Short Story Award with Fishskin, Hareskin. With Joanne Meek, Lucy Ribchester, Jane Healey and Paula Cunningham also shortlisted. You can read all the shortlisted stories here (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Other exciting news for female writers is the launch of #ReviewWomen2015, following the success of the #ReadWomen2014 campaign. Hannah Beckerman explains why she wants more books by female writers, especially commercial fiction, to be reviewed in the broadsheets in the Huffington Post. Anne Enright became the first Laureate for Irish Fiction in a unanimous decision and in China came the discovery of a new poet, ‘dubbed China’s Emily Dickinson‘, Want China Times reports on Yu Xihua.

There’s been a wave of feminist articles this fortnight, partly thanks to The Sun newspaper appearing to stop publishing pictures of topless women on p3 and then declaring it a joke by the middle of the week. Sarah Ditum wrote, ‘The “return” of Page 3: the Sun revels in the chance to make women with opinions look stupid‘ in the New Statesman; Marina Hyde responded with, ‘No more t*ts in the Sun – a campaign we can all get behind‘ in The Guardian. Elsewhere, Sophie Heawood wrote, ‘If Björk can’t stop a man stealing the limelight, what hope is there for the rest of us?‘ in The Guardian; Eleanor Catton wrote a statement on her website following a media furore in New Zealand about comments she made about the government; Louise O’Neill related, ‘My journey to feminism‘ in The Guardian; Elisabeth Camp asked ‘Should I let my daughter wear pink?‘ in Aeon; Jami Attenberg recounted her time passing as a man, ‘Track Changes‘ in The New York Times; Bayan Perazzo wrote ‘The Burden of Being Female in Saudi Arabia‘ on Muftah; Rose George declared, ‘My period may hurt: but not talking about menstruation hurts more‘ in The Guardian; Arabelle Sicadi wrote, ‘A Bridge Between Love And Lipstick: Queering the beauty industry‘ on Buzzfeed; Jeanne de Montbaston responded to an Alison Wolf article (link in the piece) with ‘What the Hell kinds of Feminists are you Reading, Alison Wolf‘ on Reading Medieval Books; Lucy Magan says, ‘Let’s Silence the Voice That Tells Us We Can’t‘ in Stylist; Marina Sofia looked at the new Barbie Princess Power on her blog; Rebecca Carroll wrote, ‘I was six when a man first touched me. I didn’t speak up until I was an adult‘ in The Guardian; Jia Tolentino wrote, ‘Rush After ‘A Rape On Campus’: A UVA Alum Goes Back to Rugby Road‘ on Jezebel; Homa Mojtabai listed ‘Reasons You Were Not Promoted That Are Totally Unrelated to Gender‘ on McSweeney’s; C M Meadows-Haworth, ‘Reading Audre Lorde Is Changing My Life‘ on A Room of Our Own; Chika Unigwe wrote, ‘Why Nigeria is failing its citizens over Boko Haram attacks‘ in Litro; Maddie Crum told us ‘Why Virginia Woolf Should Be Your Feminist Role Model‘ on Huffington Post; Brandi Bailey selected ‘The Best Feminist Picture Books‘ on Book Riot, Monique Wilson said, ‘Critics of the Vagina Monologues must acknowledge its transformative powers‘ in The Guardian, Alison Flood told us ‘Why I hate the Little Miss books‘ in The Guardian, Sarah Ditum also told us, ‘I ain’t afraid of no girls: why the all-female Ghostbusters will be good for Hollywood‘ in the New Statesman; Max Cairnduff wrote, ‘Looking back on #readwomen2014 and my favourite reads of the year‘ on his blog; Hannah Renowden shares, ‘2015 – When I got angered by a reading list so read it. Also, crochet.‘ on her blog, and Isabel Rogers read and took down Mike Buchanan’s Justice for Men and Boys (and the women who love them) Party Election Manifesto on her blog.

And a number about class following James Blunt’s open letter to Chris Bryant. Sarah Perry responded with, ‘James Blunt has misunderstood the relationship between privilege and success‘ in The Independent and Suzanne Moore with, ‘What James Blunt doesn’t understand about the politics of envy‘ in The Guardian. Other issues surrounding class were covered by Lisa McKenzie, ‘The estate we’re in: how working class people became the ‘problem’‘ in The Guardian; Lucy Mangan, ‘If you don’t understand how people fall into poverty, you’re probably a sociopath‘ also in The Guardian; Nicola Morgan asked, ‘Why fund libraries when it’s all online?‘ on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure; Harriet Williamson said, ‘Every time I visit the job centre, the staff treat me like a subhuman‘ in the New Statesman; Grace Dent said, ‘When rents are so high that you have to share a bed with a stranger, surely the revolution can’t be far off‘ in The Independent, and Kathryn Hughes wrote, ‘Yes, Kirstie Allsopp, littering’s bad. But then so is self-righteousness‘ in The Guardian

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

Or some non-fiction:

The lists:

and Diane Watt is spending February recommending LGBT reads on her Twitter account using the hashtag #mylgbtbooks

My Second Blogiversary and #TBR20 with a Twist

Today, The Writes of Woman is two years old. Like all anniversaries, it’s made me reflect on what’s gone well over the last two years and what I’d like to do next with the blog.

Before I get to that though, I’d like to say a huge thank you to all of you who’ve read, commented on and shared blog posts. The number of hits on the site quadrupled in 2014, which is huge, and I’m grateful to you all for taking the time to visit.

In 2014, I read 136 books, 97% of which were by women. It wasn’t my intention to only read books by women when I began the blog but they certainly dominated my reading last year!

When I began the blog, I wrote about my reasons for doing so. One of them was that every weekend the writer Linda Grant would tweet the number of reviews of books by women in the broadsheets. It was always significantly fewer than those reviewed that were written by men. I didn’t state it at the time, but I always intended that this blog should be for all women writers.

Over Christmas and the New Year, as people were writing about their year in reading, the writer Nikesh Shukla commented:

While it was nice to see how #readwomen2014 made people reflect on how many books by women they read last year, I did notice that no one was analysing how many books by non-white authors they read. They probably didn’t dare. 

I calculated mine – an appalling 10%.

I then started to wonder about other groups. I’d focused on women in translation, surely that would be better: 11%. LGBTQIA? 6%.

It was then that I started to consider why I was excluding these groups of people. I wasn’t doing it intentionally, I’ve always considered my feminism to be inclusive – I’m a working class woman (yes, you could argue that my education puts me in the middle class category but as Caitlin Moran and Barbara Ellen have argued, I don’t see why the middle class should claim me just because I’m university educated), why would I want to exclude anyone else?

Then I decided to look at the books I read and see how many would be considered working class literature: 25%. And there were my unconscious biases writ large.

Three things happened in quick succession: the first was Nikesh Shukla’s comment; the second was that one of the consequences of losing my last bit of regular paid work was that I realised I couldn’t afford to spend money on books until June, and the third was that Celeste Ng wrote an article for Salon about ‘our female Asian American writer blind spot’.

Losing my book budget meant that I began to consider doing #TBR20. If you haven’t come across this idea, have a read of the post by Eva Stalker which kicked it off. The idea is that you read twenty books from your to be read pile before buying any more. It’s enough to bring a book buying addict out in hives. In that post, Eva confesses that her book buying is a result of existential angst:

Like all anxieties it had mortality at its root. Aside from the instant gratification of buying something new, what I bought had a certain intent. I was buying what I wanted to have read. I was always looking for the next thing, the next great thing that would mean everything.  

A conversation about this on Twitter led me to consider why I buy so many books.

I know how many books I own, I catalogue them, but I’ve refused to work out how many are unread for several years now. Last week, I made an educated estimate based on a sample of one bookcase; at the speed I read last year, it would take me approximately twenty-three years to read all the unread books in the house. That’s insane.

So why do I own so many books? Because I grew up in a working class family and was – still am – the only person in my family to have attended university. At school, where I was in the top set for all subjects that were set by ability, I was continually told that when I applied for university, I would be competing against people who were better educated than me. How do you educate yourself? The only way I knew was to read. So I began to buy (and read some of them, at least) books that were nominated for prizes; books that appeared on university reading lists; books that were recommended by writers in interviews; books that were written about in the likes of the LRB and the TLS. And I still do. I have double width bookcases stacked full of them.

I thought that books would make me more intelligent. And they have, to a point.

But how can I consider myself well read or well-educated if I’m practically ignoring the experiences, thoughts and ideas of the majority of the world’s population?

Then I saw Celeste Ng’s article. In it, she talks about doing an event to promote her novel Everything I Never Told You at an American university.

I asked the professor hosting me how he’d found me.  He admitted he’d needed an Asian American woman fiction writer to balance his speaker lineup. “There aren’t a lot of you out there,” he said, with evident embarrassment.      

Ng goes on to prove that there are a lot of female Asian American writers with a huge list of names at the bottom of the article.

As I read through the list, I realised how many books I owned by the writers named there. Combined with Roxane Gay’s writers of colour list published on The Rumpus in 2012, I was interested to see how many unread books I had in the house written by women of colour: 85. It’s a fraction of the total of unread books I own, but it’s far from insignificant.

So, three things came together, the conclusion of which is this: I’m taking part in #TBR20 but with a twist; the books I read – and review – will be ones written by women of colour. You can see my choices in the photographs below.

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I included review copies I was sent last year in the unread books by women of colour tally. I thought I’d been sent fewer books by women of colour than white women and I had, but it was also apparent that when there were several books due to be published around the same time, I’d chosen to read those by white women over those by women of colour. I’ve already checked the paperback publication dates for these books and they will take precedent over anything else.

I’ve also added two menu tabs to the blog – one for women of colour and one for LGBTQIA women. These menus, like the women in translation one that I added last year, are there to highlight, not segregate; all of the authors also appear on the fiction/non-fiction menus, as appropriate. They are also there to remind me to address my bias and that once I’ve finished my #TBR20 pile, there needs to be another for LGBTQIA women and then another for women in translation until I reach a stage where my unconscious bias is to choose to read books by all women.

2015 then will be about making this blog, and my reading, diverse and inclusive. I will continue to read and review books by white, heterosexual cis women but I will do so alongside those by women of colour, those who identify as LGBTQIA and those by women whose work has been translated into English. Here’s to reading books by all women writers.

In the Media: 11th January 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

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(Photograph by Pedro Koechlin)

As it’s the first In the Media of the year, I’m going to begin by looking back at 2014 for a moment with pieces that appeared between Christmas and New Year. Katherine Angel’s brilliant piece, ‘Gender, blah, blah, blah‘ in The Los Angeles Review of Books; Jessie Burton, ‘Eggshells, Luck, Hope and Thanks‘ on her blog reflects on what a year it’s been for The Miniaturist; Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa ‘A Year of Hidden Friendships‘ on Something Rhymed; Rebecca Solnit, ‘Listen up, women are telling their story now‘ in The Guardian; Jia Tolentino, ‘The Promise in Elena Ferrante‘ on Jezebel; Charles Finch, also on Elena Ferrante for ‘A Year in Reading‘ for The Millions;  Ali Colluccio covers ‘The Best of Women in Comics 2014‘ on Panels, and  Elena Adler on ‘Why #ReadWomen 2014 has changed things, and why #ReadWomen matters‘ on her blog.

Looking forwards, there’s been a spotlight on diversity again this week with Celeste Ng writing about a male professor telling her there were few Asian-American women writers. There’s a fantastic list of writers at the bottom of the article. Nalo Hopkinson wrote ‘To anthology editors‘ on how to go about creating anthologies with a diversity of voices on her website; Alexis Teyie wrote this great piece, ‘Invoking the women in early African writing‘ on This Is Africa, while Lyn Gardner declared ‘Diversity is key to Creativity – and British Theatre’s Challenge for 2015‘ in The Guardian and Stella Duffy wrote, ‘Making Arts for All for ALL‘ on her blog.

While The White Review has kicked off the year with an all translation issue. You can read online pieces by Herta Müller (tr. Philip Boehm); poetry by Alejandra Pizarnik (tr. Yvette Seigert) and Angélica Freitas (tr. Hilary Kaplan); a short story by Tove Jansson (tr.  Thomas Teal); extracts from novels by Minae Mizumuru (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter) and Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith), and an interview with Magdalena Tulli (tr. Bill Johnston).

(Photograph by Kuba Kolinski)

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

And the lists:

In the Media: 7th December 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

This week brought the news that the police involved in the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner would not stand trial. Reaction came from many people. Janee Woods writes, ‘A Different Kind of Justice‘ in Guernica; Roxane Gay, ‘What he St Louis Rams know about Ferguson is a righteous glimpse of the way forward‘ in The Guardian; Mallory Ortberg, ‘Eric Garner’s Killer Won’t Be Indicted‘ on The Toast.

It’s fitting that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was published recently. Here it’s discussed in The New York Times and on PBS.

It’s that time of year; the round-ups started weeks ago but this week they’ve proved impossible to ignore. First up is Joanna Walsh, creator of #ReadWomen2014 on the Shakespeare and Company blog and Sinéad Gleeson in The Irish Times. While The Millions do fantastic ‘A Year in Reading’ round-ups. Here’s Haley Mlotek, Karen Joy Fowler, Emily Gould, Laura van den Berg, Celeste Ng and Lydia Kiesling. Huffington Post has its ‘Best Books of 2014‘; Electric Literature asks ‘Was 2014 the Year of the Debut?‘; ‘Three million voters reveal the books of 2014‘ on Stylist; ‘The 24 Best Fiction Books of 2014‘ on Buzzfeed along with ‘32 of the Most Beautiful Book Covers of 2014‘; The Independent has ‘The best debuts‘ The New York Times has ‘The 10 Best Books of 2014‘; Bustle has ‘10 Female Authors That Ruled 2014‘, while Slate has ‘The 22 Best Lines of 2014‘, ‘27 Books You Shouldn’t Have Overlooked in 2014‘ and an all-female, yes, you read that correctly, an all-female – by choice not design – ‘Best Books of 2014‘.

Ayelet Waldman took to Twitter to comment on her non-inclusion in The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014. You can read about it in The Guardian and Erin Keane responds on Salon. While Laura Miller tells us ‘What I learned from reading two decades worth of NYT notable books lists‘ also on Salon.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

The lists:

And the things I’ve most enjoyed reading this week:

In the Media: 30th November 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

Friday night saw the winner of this year’s The Green Carnation Prize revealed. Congratulations to Anneliese Mackintosh whose book Any Other Mouth came top of a very strong shortlist. You can read about the decision on The Green Carnation Prize blog. Anneliese’s reaction is on her blog. It’s interesting to see Mackintosh’s book described as a fiction, memoir, short story hybrid, particularly as there’s been a focus on women writing memoirs this week.

Susanna Rustin is in The Guardian talking about ‘Why women are the masters of the memoir‘; Ceridwen Dovey writes ‘The Pencil and the Damage Done: The perverse attraction of autobiographical fiction‘ in The monthly; Lydia Kiesling writes ‘Meghan Daum won’t apologise: How she forged a new generation of confessional writing‘ on Salon, while Hannah Gersen writes on Meghan Daum, ‘Her Well-Spent Adulthood‘ on The Millions.

If you want to read some memoir essays, Lucinda Rosenfeld has ‘The Battle Hynm of the Papier-Mâché Mother‘ in The New Yorker; Sunny Singh writes, ‘To Become a Woman and a Writer, One Must Cast Aside Modesty‘ on her blog; Soniah Kamal writes, ‘Girls from Good Families‘ on The Butter; there’s an excerpt from Viv Albertine’s Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys on Vulture, while Sam Baker lists her pick of the best biographies and memoirs of 2014 in Harpers Bazaar.

Sadly, this week saw the death of crime writer, PD James. Ruth Rendall talked about their 40-year friendship in The Guardian. Linda Semple took a different angle on Slate looking at James’ homophobia.

The Scottish Book Trust chose Book Week Scotland to celebrate libraries. Many writers penned love letters to their chosen libraries, you can read letters from A.L Kennedy and Jacqueline Wilson in The Guardian and Alison Irvine, Anne Donovan, Francesca Simon, Helen Grant, Joanne Harris, Kate Tough, Lari Don, Lesley McDowell, Lin Anderson, Maggie Craig, Shari Low and Zoe Venditozzi on the Scottish Book Trust site. Rosie Garland also wrote about her passion for libraries to celebrate The Feminist Library on their blog.

And finally, The Guardian reported on a Goodreads survey in which they discovered that readers prefer authors of their own sex. Before anyone tells me we don’t need #readwomen2014 or this blog anymore, wait until this year’s VIDA statistics are published.

The best of the rest essays/articles:

Photo by Dan Hansson

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

Or some non-fiction:

  • Claire-Louise Bennett reading from her essay ‘I Am Love‘ at the launch of Gorse Journal No. 2

The lists:

And the best pieces I’ve read this week:

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng + Q&A

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.

The ‘they’ in question are Lydia’s parents, Marilyn and James and her siblings, older brother, Nath and younger sister, Hannah.

Their mother steps back into the kitchen, and for one glorious fraction of a second Nath sighs with relief: there she is, Lydia, safe and sound. It happens sometimes – their faces are so alike you’d see one in the corner of your eye and mistake her for the other: the same elfish chin and high cheekbones and left-cheek dimple, the same thin-shouldered build. Only the hair color is different, Lydia’s ink-black instead of their mother’s honey-blond. He and Hannah take after their father – once a woman stopped the two of them in the grocery store and asked, “Chinese?” and when they said yes, not wanting to get into halves and wholes, she’d nodded sagely. “I knew it,’ she said. “By the eyes.” She’d tugged the corner of each eye outward with a fingertip. But Lydia, defying genetics, somehow has her mother’s blue eyes, and they know this is one more reason she is their mother’s favorite. And their father’s too.

In 1977, a mixed heritage family is not a common sight; how James and Marilyn met and how they’ve negotiated life as a couple forms a significant part of the novel. Marilyn had wanted to defy her mother’s expectations. She went to university set on being a doctor; she defied the expectations of the male professors and her male classmates by continually coming top of her class, and then she met James Lee and fulfilled her mother’s expectations by becoming pregnant and getting married.

James Lee’s father had come to California from China under the name of his neighbour’s son. His father got a job doing maintenance at Lloyd Academy, Iowa. James passed the entrance exam and became ‘…the first Oriental boy to attend Lloyd’. There, he learnt that he was different.

Everything I never told you

When Marilyn’s mother meets James on the day before the wedding, she asks ‘You’re sure…that he doesn’t just want a green card?’ On the day itself, she pulls Marilyn aside before the ceremony and says:

“It’s not right, Marilyn. It’s not right.” Leaving it unnamed hanging in the air between them.

Marilyn pretended not to hear and took her lipstick from her purse.

“You’ll change your mind,” her mother said. “You’ll regret it later.”

Marilyn swivelled up the tube and bent close to the mirror, and her mother grabbed her by both shoulders suddenly, desperately. The look in her eyes was fear, as if Marilyn were running along the edge of a cliff.

“Think about your children,” she said. “Where will you live? You won’t fit in anywhere. You’ll be sorry for the rest of your life.”

It’s clear early in the novel that things haven’t gone smoothly for James and Marilyn. A disappearance is alluded to, it seems as though Marilyn left for a period of time some years earlier, and Lydia’s death will test their marriage even further.

The other half of the novel explores Lydia’s character.

Long ago, when Lydia was a baby, Marilyn had once left her in the living room, playing on a quilt, and went into the kitchen for a cup of tea. She had been only eleven months old. Marilyn took the kettle off the stove and turned to find Lydia standing in the doorway…Marilyn didn’t think about missing those first steps, or how grown up her daughter had become. The thought that flashed through her mind wasn’t How did I miss it? but What else have you been hiding?

Lydia, it seems, has been hiding a lot, like what’s her relationship with Jack Wolff, the boy from down the road who since his father left and mother works late shifts at the hospital runs wild? Why don’t any of the girls her father think she’s friends with spend time with her? And why’s she so upset about Nath’s impending move to attend Harvard?

Everything I Never Told You is a very good novel. The structure – moving between Marilyn and James’ past and the investigation into Lydia’s death – makes the narrative compelling. The theme of relationships – marital and familial – feel fresh when seen through a filter of mixed heritage. Ng considers what makes those stories of American families, of the sort that Jonathan Franzen or Meg Wolitzer might write, different if those families aren’t white. And Lydia, well, she’s fascinating. Some of her behaviour places her in the ‘typical teenager’ category and some of it very much does not. Her story, her motivation, her decisions are interesting and ultimately, heart-breaking.

Last week, Amazon declared Everything I Never Told You their Book of the Year. In terms of a book that’s thoughtful, well written, explores familiar themes in new ways and will hold wide appeal, they probably couldn’t have made a better choice.

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Photograph by Kevin Day

I’m delighted to welcome Celeste Ng to the blog to talk more about Everything I Never Told You.

In the first sentence of your book, you reveal that Lydia is dead. Why did you choose to write about a tragedy? And why did you reveal that so early on?

In the early drafts of the novel, neither Lydia’s family nor the readers knew what had happened to her until several chapters in. But that misdirected readers a bit—it put the focus on whether Lydia was alive or dead, whereas the real question driving the novel is “How did this family get to this place?” A writer friend suggested revealing Lydia’s death in the first chapter, and I ultimately decided to put it in the very first sentence, for a few reasons. First, I didn’t want to pull any punches. The first sentence sets the tone of the novel, and in a novel that’s very much about secrets, it felt important to let the reader in on at least the basics, right away. And second, after the first two sentences, you immediately know more than the family does—that’s true throughout the novel, actually—and as a result, you see everything from a different perspective. When the policeman says, “Missing girls almost always come home,” you feel an little extra gut-punch, because you (unlike the family) know that Lydia won’t.

Was the setting, America in the 1970’s, integral to the story, the family, the death?

Absolutely. As I struggled to write the first draft, a well-meaning advisor suggested setting the novel in the 1990s—the era in which was a teenager, and where I wouldn’t have to do as much research. I tried it, but the story lost some of its resonance. Issues of race and gender are still very much with us in the States—as news over the past few months has shown—but all of the issues the Lees were struggling with were particularly highlighted in the 1960s and 1970s. Marilyn’s thwarted desire to become a doctor, for example, was a fairly common experience for many women of her era, but thankfully much less so as time has passed. (A little behind-the-scenes tidbit: all the doctors in the novel are actually named after friends of mine who are women doctors!) Similarly, interracial marriage has become more and more common and accepted over the decades, but James and Marilyn’s marriage would have been quite startling in the 1960s.

I hadn’t thought much about the American-ness of the setting before—perhaps that’s typical of us Americans, assuming the world revolves around us! But actually, yes, I don’t think this story would have happened in quite the same way anywhere else. Race and cultural conflict can and do happen anywhere, of course—but in the States we have such an ingrained image of ourselves as a melting pot that it sometimes blinds us to those tensions. Often it feels like we’d rather deny they exist than confront them, and that’s very much what the Lee family does. That said, though, the experience of being of mixed cultures in other countries is something I’d love to see explored more in literature.

The novel is set in the past and present, between children and parents. What led you to structure the novel in that way?

I’m so glad you asked this, because the structure of the novel was something I labored greatly over. I went through four drafts of this book, and the story itself stayed essentially the same—it was the structure, how to tell that story, that took the most time to figure out. This is a story about how the past reverberates into the present, and how the present is shaped by echoes from the past. It’s also a story about the differences between generations, and how parents and children struggle to understand one another. So the novel always had multiple strands, past and present, parents and children, and ultimately I ended up alternating the two to show how they intertwined and overlapped. I’m most interested in how past and present intersect, the eye of the Venn diagram, and a book told in sections, for example—Part 1: The Past; Part 2: The Present—wouldn’t have shown that as directly.

Did you use your own experience of growing up in a Chinese-American family to write the book?

Somewhat, yes. I grew up in areas where there were very few other Asians, similar to the family in the novel It’s quite a bizarre experience, looking very different from everyone else around you; it can make you very aware of being an outsider. While I was fortunate and had a much more positive experience than the Lee family, I certainly was aware that I and my family didn’t look like—or have the same background as—everyone else. And while it wasn’t the norm, while growing up I certainly had many encounters where people felt the need to comment on how different I was, or to outright harass me. With one exception, every one of the moments of cultural aggression in the novel is based on something that’s happened to me or something I know.

What’s the best piece of advice you received while writing the book?

I have a few pieces of advice that I wrote on sheets of paper and taped above my desk. One is a well-known quote from E. L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Another is something a friend, the novelist Preeta Samarasan, said to me when I bemoaned my lack of progress—“It pretty much feels impossible until you’re done”—which I suppose is another way of saying the same thing: just keep inching along.

And then there was a motivational sign a friend made me, which I still use as my writing mantra: WORRY ABOUT THAT LATER. It’s all too easy, while writing a draft, to get caught up in the details, berating yourself over sketchy characterization or plot holes or awkward sentences. And yes, those are things that need fixing—but you can’t get stuck obsessing over one particular scene or sentence for too long. A novel needs persistence and momentum, and after a certain point the going gets easier, like rolling a stone over a mountain. After that, fixing all those little things seem much less impossible.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Many of my favorite writers happen to be female, actually! This is something I think about a lot. The organization VIDA does an annual count of books reviewed in major publications: how many of the books reviewed are by women vs. men and how many of the reviewers are women vs. men. The results are pretty staggering; the gender gap is even worse than you’d think. As a result, people are starting to pay more attention to the issue—if slowly. The New York Times does a series called “By The Book,” in which they ask prominent figures (often writers) about their favorite books and what they’re currently reading, and surprisingly often, male interviewees will mention 30 or 40 different authors, not one of whom is a woman. I find that astounding, as at least half of my favorite writers are women—do they not like any books by women, or are they simply not reading books by women at all?

Anyway, to answer your actual question: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is one of my favorite books of all time; I re-read it in whole or in part every year. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Beloved are similar favorites. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a book I read for pleasure and for writerly inspiration, and I adore most everything Ann Patchett writes, though Bel Canto and her long essay “The Getaway Car” are standout favorites. Most of the formative books of my childhood were also by women: Laura Ingalls Wilder; Frances Hodgson Burnett; E. Nesbit; Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy). And of course there’s J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—yes, I’m a Potterphile; don’t laugh!—though I was already an adult when they came out.

What’s next for you?

I’m just starting on another novel, which will be set in my hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland and a place I miss. It was a lovely place to grow up—very racially integrated, excellent schools, beautiful houses and trees everywhere—but the flip side is there’s a bit of fixation on perfection and appearance. It’s a whole new challenge writing a book with a real-life setting, but a fun one.

Thanks to Celeste Ng for such great answers and to Blackfriar’s Books/Little Brown for the review copy.

In the Media: 23rd November 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

It’s been Ursula K. Le Guin’s week. Awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards, she gave a widely praised speech about the need for freedom. You can watch it here, or read the transcript here. She’s interviewed on Salon, in The Guardian by Hari Kunzru and there’s a piece on where she gets her ideas from on Brain Pickings

Arundhati Roy and Megham Daum are the women with the second most coverage this week. Roy’s in Prospect, talking about ‘India’s Shame‘ and the caste system and interviewed in The Observer, where there are plenty of unnecessary comments about her looks. While Daum is interviewed on FSG’s website, in The Guardian and on The Cut.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

The lists:

And the best things I’ve read this week: