I look a little tough in my author’s photo, and I’ve been amazed at how many people—universities, magazines—ask me to send them a different photo, because they say I look aloof, unapproachable, tough, scary, and/or sad. I started asking male authors with tough-looking photos if they had ever gotten any grief about this and they said no, never. When it comes to the author’s photo, women are more likely to hear things like: “You don’t look as pretty as you could in your photo!” or “Why aren’t you smiling?” I, for one, would like to know what it is about an un-smiling woman that makes some people so fucking uncomfortable. Or why anyone would assume a woman’s foremost concern is prettiness.
Maybe you’re like me: a person who’s relationship to their mother is imperfect. Maybe you have a hard time grappling with the Hearts and Stars and Flowers version of the mother/daughter relationship that seems to emerge every year around this time.
If so? This reading list is for you. It recognizes that your mother gave you your first hints about how to be in the world – while also recognizing that maybe the example she set wasn’t the best one. One of the major themes in my debut novel The Daughters is the way that the love between mothers and daughters (and grandmothers, and so on) can be as dangerous as it is beautiful, because both sides rely on that love for some part of their identity.
Here is a reading list that honors the complexity – even the messiness – of the mother/daughter bond – it is my ode to Mother’s Day and the emotional hangover that can come after. The women in these books are not always nice to one another, but they show how fierce a connection between mothers and children can be, even when it’s not at its best.
Olivia’s mother Myla is beautiful, bohemian, and a psychic – basically, she’s a manic pixie dream mom. She and Olivia live in New Jersey seaside town, wrapped up in their own world. But their life is more complicated than it appears from the outside, because Myla isn’t just quirky, she’s actually bipolar, and dangerously unstable. Olivia recounts the story of her mother’s unraveling, interwoven with an account of her own desperate search for her son, and readers are given a unique look into the way that a woman’s fragile relationship with her mother is sometimes a mirror of her relationship with her own mind.
A spunky mother/daughter caper, which has a particular hold on my heart since it’s set in Seattle, where my own complicated mother/daughter caper of a childhood took place. 15-year-old Bee is devastated when her brilliant and mysterious post-architect mother Bernadette disappears. But although most people assume Bee’s mother is dead (or at least, definitely not coming back), Bee embarks on a high-tech and trans-continental voyage of disobedience to track her down. This book is a lot of fun, and a good read for those of us who want to believe the best of someone even when they aren’t making it easy for us.
Parental expectations: they’ll get you every time, won’t they? This haunting family drama shows the lead-up to and fall-out from the death of a teenage girl named Lydia, who disappears from her family home one night and is found, drowned, in a local lake. In Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, Ng wrenchingly portrays a woman of frustrated ambition, who – with the best of intentions but a nonetheless terrible pressure – places her own lost hopes on the head of her eldest daughter. An examination of familial burdens, race, identity, and loss, this book is not to be missed, and it may give you a little new sympathy next time your mother unsubtly implies it’s time for you to go to Harvard and win a Nobel Prize, already.
Tricky, because it’s not a mother/daughter book per se, but the protagonist Lila’s life is thoroughly inscribed by the influence of Doll – the woman who stole her off the porch of a neglectful home and raised her as her own. As impoverished migrant workers, Lila and Doll share a solitude of spirit and a kinship of lack, a shame that pushes them to abandon even the more loving examples of human society. Instead they favor of the freedom to move, and the pride that comes from forming a low opinion of yourself before anyone else has the chance to. A book about love that whittles you away, but which you cannot do without.
Ok, I’m just including this one for fun (though any Anne Carson translation is well worth your time). Though the story of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigeneia during the Trojan war is, unquestionably, tragic, I defy you to tell me that there’s no dark part of your ego that wouldn’t want your mother, like Klytaimestra, to drive herself mad plotting revenge for her daughter’s death. Since that’s what Klytaimestra does, I guess this one is one of my happier picks!
I couldn’t decide whether to pick Morrison’s classic Beloved (which I have read), about the escaped slave Sethe who is haunted by the ghost of her nameless baby, or her highly anticipated new novel God Help the Child (which I haven’t gotten my hands on yet – but come on, it’s Toni Morrison. I can still confidently recommend it), about the lifetime of tension between dark-skinned Bride and her light-skinned mother, Sweetness. But suffice to say that either book will give you a haunting look in to the way that (as Sweetness says) “what you do to children matters,” both to mother and child.
Do you know any more about yourself if you can read other people’s minds? This is a relevant question for Julia Severn, who attends an elite school for psychics and becomes the victim of a jealous teacher named Madame Ackermann, who attacks Julia with her own memories. Principally, Julia is forced to relive her mother’s suicide – an experience that sends her into a deeply wounded psychological tailspin. For the rest of the book, Julavits uses her trademark wit and panache to take Julia down a path of peculiar revelation, as she searches for an artist who may be connected to her mother, and begins to dig into the cobwebby crawlspaces of her own mind, to see how much of what she knows about herself and her past to be true. Excellent for readers who are busy confronting the fact that the seemingly inviolable narratives our childhoods may not be as graven as we believed.
Winterson’s metafictional debut is a great introduction not only to her wry, evocative writerly voice, but also to some of her abiding preoccupations – with the oppressive nature of belief and family, budding lesbian sexuality, and mother figures who are as monstrous as they are vital. The story follows young Jeanette through an early enthusiasm for life in the Church (due to the influence of her adoptive parents – particularly her mother, a powerful and often frightening matriarch) and her eventual apostasy upon realizing that she’s in love with another woman. (In Winterson’s more recent autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? she treads some of the same ground, telling the story of her repressed early life as the adopted child of a vividly Evangelical parent. When she finally meets her birth mother, however, she’s affronted by the woman’s desire to paint Winterson’s adoptive mother as unremittingly terrible. “She was a monster,” Winterson writes. “But she was my monster.”) Although Jeanette abandons the life her mother intended for her, she’s never able to entirely escape the weight of those intentions. And thank god, because they make her work much funnier, more irreverent and complicated.
Most people seem to favor Bechdel’s first memoir, Fun Home, which examines her relationship with her late father (who was gay, and deeply repressed) in the light of her own emerging sexuality. But for my money, Bechdel’s follow-up can’t be beat. Are You My is engagingly self-referential, teasing apart the distance she felt between herself and her mother as a child, as well as the effects her first book had on the family, all in light of Bechdel’s experience with psychoanalysis. As a theory nerd, Bechdel’s use of psychoanalytic theory was like candy for me, giving new insight into the many people, talents, and tools we use as “transitional objects” while creating identities separate from our parents. It’s to Bechdel’s great credit as an artist that this nerdery didn’t diminish the emotional honesty of her story at all, instead making the portrait of her (highly analytical) relationship with her mother into a mirror of the relationship itself.
Although we never actually see Joy (the protagonist)’s mother in Laura van den Berg’s debut novel Find Me, she is the emotional subtext behind everything Joy does. The novel follows Joy through a devastating national epidemic, offering vivid flashbacks into Joy’s upbringing as a foster child. Then, in the second half of the book, the plot’s apocalyptic engine is all but abandoned, and we see that Joy’s true trajectory was not toward safety, but towards whatever possible answers she can find about her mother and her past.
There are certain alluring songs that express a loneliness so aching and stark and beautiful, you want to do nothing but ignore the outside world and lie on your bed and listen to them over and over again. Bon Iver is full of such songs—wintry songs, prehistoric songs, songs out of time. Nick Drake’s Pink Moon is another. You might have a million things to do, but you keep hitting repeat, you keep sending yourself back into that lonely world willingly. The paradox of these loneliness albums is that, if you are of a certain disposition, you feel less lonely and more alive after listening to them, and this is why you’re willing to let them consume you. Rarely does a bleak novel achieve the same alluring strength of sadness. Laura van den Berg’s debut novel Find Me is that rare novel. It has the same potency as the most melancholy music.
Unlike a novel, where you expect a different kind of arc that leaves us with a somber sense of resolution, I think a story in some ways as like a train window: being able to watch the landscape pass for a certain amount of time. And then your stop arrives, and you have to leave. You don’t necessarily ride the train to its final destination. I also think of one of my favorite saying about short stories: that an ending should be more like an open window than a closed door. It should enlarge the world; it should enlarge our sense of complexity.
[Winds shake the leaves and for a moment I smell smoke.] I concentrate on the scent, but it vanishes into the aroma of rain and tree bark, the way one life can collapse into another and different people can stir within the same body, like bats thrashing inside a secret hollow.
Some people dream of being chased by Bigfoot. I found it hard to believe at ﬁrst, but it’s true. I was driving back from Los Angeles in late August, after a summer of waiting tables and failed casting calls, when I saw a huge wooden arrow that pointed down a dirt road, “actors wanted” painted across it in white letters. I was in Northern California and still a long way from Washington—which wasn’t really home, just where I had come from. I followed the sign down the road and parked in front of a silver Airstream trailer. It was dark inside and I felt the breeze of a fan. The fat man behind the desk said he’d never hired a woman before. And then he went on to describe exactly what happens at the Bigfoot Recreation Park. People come here to have an encounter with Bigfoot. Most of their customers have been wanting this moment for years. I would have to lumber and roar with convincing masculinity. I can do that, I said, no problem. And I proved it in my audition. After putting on the costume and staggering around the trailer for a few minutes, bellowing and shaking my arms, I stopped and removed the Bigfoot mask. The fat man was smiling. He said I would always be paid in cash.
Laura van den Berg is the author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, and The Isle of Youth, which won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and was named a “Best Book of 2013” by over a dozen venues, including NPR, The Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Both collections were shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The recipient of an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize, her work has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Laura’s first novel, Find Me, will be published by FSG in February 2015. A native of Florida, she lives in the Boston area.
About the Guest Editor
Now in its thirty-eighth year of publication, Indiana Review is a non-profit literary magazine dedicated to showcasing the talents of emerging and established writers. Our mission is to offer the highest quality writing within a wide aesthetic. As a biannual literary review, IR considers previously unpublished fiction, poetry, essays, and art. IR is edited and managed by Indiana University graduate students and funded mainly by subscriptions, grants, and partial university support. Works by contributors to IR have been awarded the Pushcart Prize and reprinted in The Pushcart Prize Anthology: Best of the Small Presses, as well as in Best American Short Stories, Best American Poetry, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Additionally, we are recognized as one of the top 15 most challenging fiction markets by Duotrope.
“Where We Must Be” from WHAT THE WORLD WILL LOOK LIKE WHEN ALL THE WATER LEAVES US: STORIES (Dzanc, 2009), originally appeared in Indiana Review. Reprinted by permission of Dzanc Books.
Listen to a recording of the author reading an excerpt from “Where We Must Be” here.
There’s a John Gardner quote: “Fiction should be a continuous dream from which the reader never wants to wake.” My interest is in creating that continuous dream. When I research, I’m not thinking about gathering every scrap of information out there. I’m thinking about the information I need to have some hope of creating that continuous dream. When I think of authority, that’s the authority I’m after.
If writing a novel has taught me anything it has taught me this: I will never again say ‘I am finishing a novel’ or 'I’m almost done with my novel’ or 'This is it! The last draft!’ or 'I’m getting really close!’ Every time I have ever said, or even thought, any of those things the endpoint has almost immediately receded before me, mirage-like.
“His hair is glossy and black, his eyelashes long and curved. I can see the teardrop shape of his cheekbones, the green and purple veins in his face. He looks so delicate I almost consider dragging him back to shore, but I know that’s simply not possible now. After we reach the center of the lake, I release his arms. His position in the water doesn’t change, a good sign. I drift backwards and tell him to open his eyes.”
From “Where We Must Be” by Laura van den Berg, recommended by Indiana Review. Read it for free tomorrow in Electric Literature’s weekly fiction magazine, Recommended Reading.
I first met Laura Van Den Berg in Chicago in 2009 during the annual AWP festival where I was manning the Publishing Genius Press table, desperately trying to sell books among thousands of others trying to desperately sell their books. At that moment, the scene was bleak. But when Laura came to the table she was smart, funny, and curious about each book she picked up. She seemed to care and pay attention to my rambling about the books on the table, and watching her move from table to table, she carried this curiosity with her amongst the thousands of shoulder-shruggers and the downright exhausted. She bought three books, including my own novel, from the table. We’ve stayed in contact ever since.
Laura’s curiosity (I imagine her as someone who could find anything, say, linguine, worth dissecting to find the interesting inside it) carries over into her fiction. Her new collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, mines the lives of men and women in revealing and microscopic ways. Her stories are incredibly sleek, intelligent, and well crafted. After a week of re-reading DeLillo and Lydia Davis, I moved right into The Isle of Youth without once being consciously aware that this is an author who is still in the early stages of her career.
I emailed Laura (who was on the train from Boston to New York where she was giving a reading to promote The Isle of Youth) to discuss gender, death, editing, and to find out how her first novel is going.
THE BELIEVER: The summary for The Isle of Youth is only 140 words but I was surprised at how aggressive the sell is that this is a book about women. It “explores the lives of women mired in secrecy and deception,” and, “the reader grows attached to the marginalized young women in these stories.” The stories highlighted in the summary are about “an inscrutable marriage” and a “magician mother.” At the end you’re referred to as a “sorceress.” Do you have any thoughts or reservations about this kind of gender pigeon-holing?
LAURA VAN DEN BERG: I don’t have reservations. All the stories in Isle are narrated by women and are very much about women—in that the male characters, when they appear, tend to be more peripheral, one piece in the puzzle that these women are struggling to assemble. I think I would feel differently if the stories weren’t so women-oriented—like, why would they just focus on this one aspect when I write about other things that have nothing to do with women? But I don’t. So that focus does not feel inaccurate or unfair to me.
My publisher, FSG, actually shied away from overusing the “woman angle” in some ways. An early cover had a woman on it; it was a cool cover but very literal and for sure emphasizing gender more. My editor nixed that one pretty quickly, and we ended up with a much more enigmatic, arguably less conveniently “marketable” cover. Also: it fucking sparkles.
But while we’re on the subject: do you know what’s been driving me crazy lately? People asking why I’m not smiling in my author’s photo, or knocking the photo because I look imposing and unapproachable, as opposed to “warm.” Do people ask you why you’re not smiling in your author’s photo? Or get requests for a different photo because you don’t look friendly enough? I get different versions of this a lot. As a result, I am pretty well determined to never smile in another photo ever again.
BLVR: The story about the cover seems very typical—a designer got the pitch and thought “I’m going with a woman on the cover for this one, done.” I like the cover they decided on. I just didn’t come away from The Isle of Youth thinking “this is a book about women” rather, “this is a book about humans who are all fucked in some sense.” Out in public, or say, on the train right now, do men ever tell you to smile? And no, I’ve never been asked why I’m not smiling or asked to send a different author photo. I’m a thin, white, heterosexual man.
LVDB: It was a cool cover, but we wanted something that would evoke the book in a more comprehensive way. In a funny/nice coincidence, the designer is a friend, so I was unworried because I already knew A. I dug her work and B. if we ran into issues, we could talk it out as needed. Otherwise I might have been a little worried about a palm tree making an appearance, which I really did not want.
And that has happened occasionally: men telling me to smile in public, as though a smile is something that I owe them. But most of the time I’m walking around with my iPod going at full volume, so if anyone is saying anything to me I’m probably missing it.
“Fiction accesses a certain kind of truth through artifice. I love to create worlds that operate on their own terms. The experience of just being in the world can feel so deeply disorienting and so deeply strange. I feel that especially as a Floridian. The wonderful writer Jeff VanderMeer calls life in Florida "the daily contact with the surreal.” I grew up there, and the surrealness shaped my sensibility as a writer. I also love the imaginative travel that comes in fiction, the freedom to go where you can’t go in your actual lived life.“ - Read our interview with Laura van den Berg now
A sketch of the suspect: after getting married, I visited my parents only on holidays. Once I saw an X-ray of a heart and I was alarmed by its smallness, its translucence. A thing we ask entirely too much of. On our way to Patagonia I’d watched the planes in holding patterns at the Buenos Aires airport and thought about how that used to be me. I had landed somewhere, finally, even if I couldn’t point it out on a map. After I had been married for a year, I dreamed about my dead sister. In the dream she was a child, maybe six or seven. She didn’t look anything like me. She had dark shiny hair and was jumping rope on a playground. When she saw me, she put down the rope and said, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ And I said, 'This is all your fault.’ I was married for three years before I told my husband I wasn’t an only child, like him, and that was just because my mother brought my sister up at Thanksgiving. Once I took a long lunch and went to see a tarot card reader on Tasker Street. It was my first week back from Patagonia and whenever I was stopped at a red light, I had fantasies of simply getting out of the car and walking away, leaving the keys in the ignition, the radio on. When the tarot reader drew the Hanged Man, she said that meant I should do the opposite of what I would normally do. Which was fine advice if you understand what it is that you do.
Laura van den Berg, “I Looked for You, I Called Your Name”
Time lists 21 living female authors (in addition to new Pulitzer winner Donna Tartt) that you should read. It’s a good list, including Alice Munro, Rachel Kusher, Claire Messud and many awesome others, but it’s too short. In addition to the names on that Time list, I’d add: Lydia Davis, Marilynne Robinson, Jennifer Egan, Joan Didion, Yiyun Li, Lauren Groff, Jamie Quatro, Laura van den Berg, Ramona Ausubel, Elizabeth McCracken, Ann Patchett, Anne Carson, Marie-Helene Bertino, Danielle Evans, Caitlin Horrocks, Sarah Waters, Lydia Millet, Jenny Offill, Stacey D’Erasmo, Alena Graedon, Molly Antopol, Adelle Waldman, Claire Vaye Watkins, Roxane Gay, Porochista Khakpour, Leslie Jamison, Elif Batuman, Nami Mun, Maggie Nelson, Maggie Shipstead, Jennifer DuBois, Alice Elliott Dark, Karen Joy Fowler, Emily St. John Mandel, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Rebecca Makkai, Dani Shapiro, Meghan Daum…I could go on, but you get the idea.
The point is: There are a lot of amazing writers in the world who happen to be female.