Rebecca Solnit, Young Jean Lee, and Kwame Dawes are among the winner’s of this year’s Windham-Campbell Prizes, which award writers with $165,000 to support their work.
The prize, for which all English-language writers are eligible, was established in 2013 by Donald Windham in memory of Sandy Campbell, his partner of four decades. Since then, 59 writers from 16 countries have received the prize, which is administered by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Among this year’s winners, Danielle McLaughlin is the first Irish fiction writer to win the prize, and Young Jean Lee is the first Asian-American dramatist to win.
While the judging process is anonymous, Prize director Michael Kelleher told Literary Hub that judges tend to focus on writers that expand their understanding of genre and those for whom the award would have the greatest impact. “This prize is really designed to support writers and give them time to write. That’s why the amount of money is so large. It’s intended to say, ‘Here you go, go write your next book,'” he said.
Writers are not aware they’re being considered for the prize until Kelleher calls to notify them they’ve won. “It’s very intense,” he said. “Some of these calls are going to be life-changing in ways you can’t imagine.”
Read the full list of winners below.
Danielle McLaughlin (Ireland)
David Chariandy (Canada)
Raghu Karnad (India)
Rebecca Solnit (United States)
Ishion Hutchinson (Jamaica)
Kwame Dawes (Ghana/Jamaica/United States)
Young Jean Lee (United States)
Patricia Cornelius (Australia)
I’d already been reporting the story of queer women in baseball during World War II for four months by the time I finally cracked open Lynn Ames’ book, The Bright Lights of Summer. I didn’t really think the historical fiction novel had anything to help my story. It was based on the life of Dot Wilkinson, a softball player from the same era I was reporting on. It was about a different sport and didn’t overlap with the league whose players I was researching at all. But there, in the very first chapter, a single sentence sparked an idea that would lead me to discover a treasure trove of previously unreported information.
A character in the book, Julie, is researching women who played softball in the 1940s after she discovers that her mother had been one of them. Julie knows that in the present day, a lot of women who play softball are gay. But in the 1940s, being gay was still unacceptable and dangerous—not to mention that homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder. Obviously there were no mentions of lesbians in old newspaper write-ups of the American Softball Association teams. But in her research, Julie finds a few present-day items that tell her she’s on the right track: obituaries, including that of Ricki Caito, Wilkinson’s longtime partner, who is mentioned in the obit as such.
I read that and I thought, what if the answers I’m looking for are in the obituaries? I’d been searching for months, coming up on dead ends and still-living All-American Girls Professional Baseball League players who refused to talk to me about the issue, even after I disclosed my own queerness in an attempt to connect. But it turned out the answers were in the obits, hiding in plain sight. The obituaries unlocked a story that had long been hidden—the story of the queer women who played hardball—and provided a glimpse into the lives these women lived when they stepped off the diamond.The answers were in the obits, hiding in plain sight.
“I read obituaries every day to learn what sorts of lives are available to us,” writes Sarah Manguso in her book The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend. Obituaries are an often overlooked source, tiny little tributes that are littered with clues about a person’s life. It’s where we learn who the most important people in someone’s life were, what they were like, what they liked to do.
Sometimes, obits can be something else, too: honest. “The obit as news, the obit as scoop, the obit that tells the stories that couldn’t be told while the subject was still in a litigious state,” Marilyn Johnson writes in her book about obituaries, The Dead Beat.
Obits are also historical documents, which, as researchers, we can interpret through our modern lens. For example, today we know that “loving companion” was often coded language to describe a same-sex partner. In one obituary I found, a player had a dreaded “special friend”; perhaps the only thing more insulting than being given the “special friend” title in your longtime partner’s obituary would be being left out completely. Jude Law’s character in the movie Closer, an obit writer, decoded some of this language: “‘He valued his privacy’—gay. ‘He enjoyed his privacy’—raging queen!”
And yet, despite being able to garner the clues about women who may have spent their lives with other women—who may or may not have identified as gay or a lesbian or queer—choosing to share these findings with the world at-large was another place for me to stop and consider. Yes, obituaries are public documents, so no, I wouldn’t necessarily be outing someone by sharing their name. But there is a good chance that these women were not out in their own lives. It’s possible that these women called their life partners simply a longtime roommate, a close friend, or a cousin. And while the stigma of queerness in 2019 is minimized in many ways from what it was when these women lived , it’s not gone completely; it’s just changed shape. We are still so close to their lifetimes. Their partners may still be alive. Some former players and teammates are still living. Is it disrespectful to write about a relationship that may have been a source of danger or shame or fear for someone?
On the other hand, isn’t it important to tell queer stories, to unearth them so that they are not lost? Isn’t it important for young queer people to see that we have always existed, that we have always been here, and if you know where to look, you can find yourself reflected even in an era that desperately tried to force us underground or completely erase us from existence? There are several books published over the last half a century that use a queer lens to look back at U.S. history in an attempt to center these oft-buried stories: Gay American History by Jonathan Ned Katz, A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski, Queer America by Vicki L. Eaklor. We’ve always been here and we’ve always been queer, and many of us have been hiding in plain sight.For people who didn’t feel comfortable being publicly out during their lives, their obituary may have been a safe place to allow their full truth to live.
And for people who didn’t feel comfortable being publicly out during their lives, their obituary may have been a safe place to allow their full truth to live. Astronaut Sally Ride’s longtime female partner didn’t become known until Ride died, and her partner was listed in her obituary. When former member of the Texas House of Representatives, Barbara Jordan, died in 1996, her obituary named her longtime partner, Nancy Earl (the clues were public earlier than that, though; a 1988 story about Jordan being hospitalized after being rescued from the pool at her home mentions “Nancy Earl, who lives with Jordan.”).
This is true, too, the obituaries of AAGPBL players. As a queer writer and baseball fan, it is with gratitude that I read these obituaries. I am grateful for the women who came before me, who found love with someone even when the world told them their love was wrong. I am grateful to the family members and obit writers who recognized that love and honored those partnerships by including partners’ names in the obits.
It seems that these relationships resonated with a lot of other people, too. When my story was published in Narratively, it went viral and became the most-read piece on their website in 2018. It was covered by The Lily, the women’s vertical at The Washington Post, I was interviewed on sports writer Dave Zirin’s Edge of Sports podcast, and the story has been nominated for a prestigious baseball writing award. It made visible an entire community whose stories have gone untold despite the fact that their history on the baseball diamond has been well-documented, including in the classic movie A League of Their Own.
I know of several AAGPBL players who are still living, well into their 90s now. They’ve been with their female partners for decades, though none were willing to talk to me about it when I was reporting my story. “We didn’t talk about that,” was all they would say. It’s hard to open up about something you’ve had to keep secret as a matter of survival for the better part of a century. But now, living in a world that I believe is ready for their truth, I still hope to record their history while they are living, to hear the story of their lives and relationships straight from their lips.
I would never want to pressure someone into sharing something publicly that they don’t feel ready to reveal. I can only hope that maybe they read my piece—there’s a good chance they did; the AAGPBL’s Twitter account retweeted it and responded to it—and that they know they are seen and accepted for exactly who they are. I hope they know that their stories matter, to me and to a whole lot of other people. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn the full truth before it’s written in the obituary section.
At the end of a lackluster discussion of Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” in a college English class last fall, one of my students raised her hand. “I know that Welty is supposed to be really good,” she said, “but I don’t get it.” She objected to the clichés, the cartoonishness.
But does Eudora feel cliché because she invented certain Southern clichés? She read the extremes of Southerners, of human behavior, and immortalized our foibles in words that would influence the next few generations of writers. As Tony Earley observed, “I have a theory—perhaps unformed and, without question, unsubstantiated—that most bad Southern writing is descended directly from Eudora Welty’s ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’”
I defended Welty’s greatness during that class—I even played them an excerpt of the author reading the story aloud, her mouth rolling fast around the syllables like gumballs—but over the course of the semester I couldn’t help marking a shift in how young Southerners, black and white, read the Southern giants: not in awe, but with a sense of exhaustion.
We moved through Mark Twain—hokey—and Flannery O’Connor—melodramatic—and William Faulkner—impenetrable. Southern whiteness doesn’t age well. But even Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker, however electric their language, felt familiar to these students; yes, those old burdens again. What my students saw was a reflection not of the world they lived in, but the world they inherited. And though we Southerners are unendingly proud of our literary heritage, it bears the marks of a brutality we’re struggling to move past.
The Welty that felt most real to them was “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” In this 1963 story published less than a month after the assassination of Medgar Evers, Welty wormed her way into the addled brain of the white man who murdered him—a man who turned out in actuality to be Byron de la Beckwith, as supernaturally close as a man can get to an invented character. This wasn’t using racism as a setting, but as a problem. It was asking why in the same way my students were.To be a Southern writer is to live with variants of pain.
As the narrator waits for the civil rights leader to appear, he thinks, “Never seen him before, never seen him since, never seen anything of his black face but his pictures, never seen his face alive, any time at all, or anywheres, and didn’t want to, need to, never hope to see that face and never will.” This is not a passage that provides answers; my students know better than to expect answers. Welty instead reckons with the tragic unknowability of the South while showing us exactly how recognizable the ugliness is: it’s the man next door, the man within us.
For one class, my students read excerpts from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (often, reductively, called the black answer to Mitchell’s epic), and Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, which quite intentionally set fire to the myth of Tara; Randall even faced a lawsuit from the Mitchell heirs. As we moved through these pieces in discussion, the students became increasingly animated. Yes, Mitchell was breezy and readable, but ugh, the whiteness. They pointed out how often she referenced the color in the first chapter alone: “magnolia-white skin,” “small white hands,” “solid masses of white blossoms,” “dogwood dappling with white stars,” “the whitewashed brick plantation house,” “a pleasant land of white houses”; what are we to think when Mammy appears, “shining black, pure African”? The disgust of my students wasn’t appeased much by Jubilee, which, though free from the egregious racism of Gone with the Wind, is still stuck in the antebellum South, complete with dialect and black women under the thumb of white women. It was Alice Randall who lit them up, the tongue-in-cheekness of the plantation “Tata” and the character of Scarlett being renamed “Other,” she in all her shining whiteness finally being reduced to the nameless otherness that Mammy and her kin know all too well. Revenge is what they wanted, not realism.
Pulling my students through the 20th-century canon took some effort, but they came alive when handed Mary Miller’s “Big Bad Love,” Kiese Laymon’s “Hey Mama,” excerpts from Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. The rhythms of this language matched their own: personal, progressive, fluid, literate. These were Mississippians writing about a state not dripping with Spanish moss and punctuated by mockingbird song, but of surprising intersections, where violence within the self had become as important as violence across racial lines, where poverty was nuanced rather than made perverse, where families were built from intentional love rather than tied to tortured bloodlines. As Kiese wrote, and all my students still wonder, “How am I supposed to hug myself?”
I asked my students to create a piece of Southern art for their final project: a story or poem or painting or song that expressed their own Southern story, whatever that had come to mean for them. Even with this open-ended assignment, I initially faced resistance. A handful of students, born and raised in Mississippi, refused to identify as Southern. And why should they, when the “South” that had been painted by so many Pulitzer winners and Nobel laureates was mired in bigotry, religiosity, and perversity? A Bible salesman steals a spinster’s prosthetic leg. A half-black man nearly marries his slaveowning sister. A man and a boy raft down the Mississippi on the exaggerated current of dialect. (“I knowed jis’ ‘s well ‘at I ‘uz gwineter be rich ag’in as I’s a-stannin’ heah dis minute!”)
But as we laid bare all the disparate elements that make up Southern writing today, my students began to resituate themselves, to hesitantly accept the label. As one of them realized, “I didn’t need to write about tractors or sweet tea to meet the criteria.” Another student wrote a surreal and philosophical story with a narrator who, in one scene, sits in a tree and says to God, “I’m so tired of this particular self.” In an accompanying statement, she explained that the narrator “believes in transformation and overcoming certain aspects of defining character—a very Southern idea. . . . I fit into [a “southern identity”] because I try to ignore it. I fit into it because like many people, it’s only another thing that, for my own peace of mind, I have to manipulate into fantasy so I can tolerate it.”
To be a Southern writer is to live with variants of pain. Reading Eudora Welty and other Southern classics can strike a nerve for students who want that pain to be buried, who read those depictions of race and violence, of magnolias and uncles in kimonos, as stereotypes that non-Southerners use to keep us in boxes. But out of this early and artful recording of Southern messiness came the writers who spin us further still, who reckon with the realness of the 21st century. So should we still teach our giants, cliché as they may now seem? Of course: to love the buds, we must know the roots. But to honor the roots, teach also the buds.
Like many young people who believe themselves unfit for the demands of real life, I moved to New York after college to become a writer. A guy I sort of knew had a room opening up in his Ridgewood, Queens apartment for $700 per month. I didn’t know where Ridgewood was, and the rent seemed steep—I was coming from St. Louis, where I paid $550 to share, with friends, a two-story suburban house—but I was assured that $700 was a steal. I was also assured that Ridgewood was, if not exactly desirable, then certainly pre-desirable. The place to be, give or take five years. There were rumors that a sitcom set in Ridgewood was in the works at Fox.
The guy and I had met one summer in high school at what can only be described as “poetry camp,” a week of reading and writing verse with other allergy-prone introverts at a Lutheran college in Pennsylvania. I almost didn’t recognize him when he met my bus at Hudson Yards. He was no longer the scrawny, beak-nosed poet I remembered. His shoulders were twice as broad and his biceps were testing the sleeves of his t-shirt. I couldn’t comprehend the transformation. Had he been lifting Norton anthologies?
“Are you still writing poetry?” I asked, dragging one of my duffel bags down the street.
He shouldered my second duffel easily. “Hell no,” he said. “I sell ads for Yelp.”
I was in no position to judge. I had taken my $200,000 undergraduate degree and moved to one of the world’s most expensive cities on the basis of an internship that paid less than the minimum wage—a humiliating if commonplace rite of passage for artsy millennials of privilege.Eventually I found the perfect place—a persistently-empty used bookstore in Bushwick that seemed to operate outside the bounds of capitalism.
The room was much smaller than I’d anticipated. I could extend my arms and touch the walls on either side. The window, which was jammed in place and wouldn’t shut, overlooked a construction site. The tiny men below appeared to be digging a giant hole. Needless to say, there was no room for a writing desk. A squat wicker end table sat by the apartment door, but my roommate was using it to display a glass skull and a tub of creatine.
With no space to write in the apartment, I began the arduous process of finding a suitable café. The kind of place I had in mind would ideally meet three requirements:
1) Walking distance. The goal is to put physical (and mental) distance between you and your apartment while remaining close enough to walk home for lunch.
2) Low rent. By “rent” I mean the drinks and pastries you are obliged to purchase in exchange for taking up space. Some establishments demand, reasonably, that you spend some money if you’re going to hang around, but some will let you live there for the cost of a drip coffee.
3) Ample space. Nothing makes pursuing your unique artistic vision more difficult than being squeezed between a bunch of people all pursuing their unique artistic visions.
There are other factors, to be sure, like the quality of the baked goods or, if you’re finnicky like me, the height of the chairs in relation to the height of the tables. (I like to tower over my laptop, as though my work is subservient to me, and not the other way around.) I auditioned a number of cafés near my apartment, but none satisfied my key requirements. Eventually I found the perfect place—a persistently-empty used bookstore in Bushwick that seemed to operate outside the bounds of capitalism—but the hours of operation were wildly inconsistent, requiring me to add a fourth requirement:
4) Consistent hours of operation.
When I did manage to time out my visits with the bookstore owner’s unpredictable sleep schedule, I worked on a novel. The protagonist was an old woman in a small Massachusetts town beset by coyotes. After six months of writing I showed the manuscript-in-progress to a friend. She winced and said, “A short story, maybe. But a novel?”
It wasn’t a novel. I could see that now. On the plus side, a few weeks after the internship ended I landed myself an office job making $33,500, which was more money than I could conceive of spending. But after taxes, rent, utilities, my MetroCard, and the coffees I was obliged to buy at the used bookstore, I was coming to see how it was possible.
My girlfriend, who was back in St. Louis finishing her degree, visited Ridgewood one weekend in December. She had the flu and soon I did, too, and for some reason we decided to watch The Pianist on my laptop. We huddled together on my twin bed, noses running as a cold wind blew through the crack in the window, watching as Poland was slowly overtaken by the Nazis.
“How do you get any work done here?” she asked.
The Polish army was moving in on Adrien Brody, who, in an effort to keep warm, had donned the heavy green coat of a German soldier.
“I don’t,” I said.
I wasn’t sure if by here she meant the apartment or New York in general. Even in Ridgewood, where the telltale signs of gentrification—small dogs, coworking spaces, people like me—were only just beginning to crop up, the economic and social pressures of the city made luxuries of time and space.Rather than solve my problems for myself, I discovered, I could pass them off to my characters.
My novel wasn’t turning out to be a short story, either. I scrapped it and started work on a new project. The protagonist was a cash-strapped young woman who lived in Ridgewood in an apartment overlooking a giant hole. Rather than solve my problems for myself, I discovered, I could pass them off to my characters. My life seemed funnier, and somehow less pathetic, when refracted through a fictional entity. Still, I was losing valuable writing hours standing in the cold like Adrien Brody, waiting for the bookstore owner to wake up and open the shop. And I didn’t even have a heavy coat! The hole outside my bedroom window was growing larger by the day and had begun to take on metaphorical significance.
I dreamed of a quiet, private room to write in. After weeks of searching, I found one in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The landlord had chopped up a townhouse, slapping padlocks on the doors and renting out the rooms as individual “studio apartments.” The rent was $850, but I would have my privacy. When I showed up with the rent and the realtor’s fee—a realtor had posted the room on Craigslist, and for this, I owed her $425—I was informed that there was nothing to sign.
“I don’t do leases,” the landlord said.
“He doesn’t,” the realtor assured me.
My new apartment resembled a boarding house. It was like something out of Balzac. The other tenants were aspiring artists of one kind or another. There was a set designer, a photographer, and a musician. A line cook lived out of a closet downstairs. The shared bathroom and kitchen were ruthlessly policed by our live-in super. He was a paranoiac, and believed one of the tenants was trying to poison his food. He put padlocks on the cabinets and refrigerator.
The house was continually under construction. Ceiling plaster often fell on my head, and the entryway was regularly blocked by wood beams or spare appliances. There was a leak in my bedroom ceiling and a colony of flying ants lived in the walls. In place of air conditioning I placed my desk fan atop a stack of hardcover books. A friend suggested I sell the books and use the proceeds to buy a window unit, but this seemed like a betrayal—of what, I’m not sure.
But the space! The ceilings were high and there was plenty of room to pace back and forth. I bought a sturdy wooden desk and set it by the bay window, which faced the street and drew in plenty of light. I was still writing about the young woman in Ridgewood, but she was no longer my sole focus. I gave her a brother, a father, and a deceased mother. Each character had his or her own discrete but intersecting storyline. Alongside scenes set in New York, I was writing chapters set in St. Louis, Boston, Paris, and Zimbabwe. The plot now spanned sixty years. The struggle to find work and make rent in Ridgewood was still a part of the manuscript, but it was no longer the whole story. The novel grew in scope and dimension.
I’m not sure where this influx of ambition came from, but it might have had something to do with the high ceilings, the sturdy desk, the windows, and the privacy. The apartment was not luxurious by any stretch—each morning I dusted the dead ants off my laptop—but in my room, at least, there was space for my ideas to stretch out.
At some point I mistakenly ordered a package to my old address in Ridgewood. When I went to pick it up, I was shocked to see just how small my room had been. It had the same dimensions as a coffin. The hole outside my window was no longer a hole, but the parking lot for an AutoZone. I wondered what had happened to that sitcom.
Charles Bukowski has a poem where he roundly dismisses the idea that good writing can only occur under ideal conditions. “Baby,” the final stanza reads, “air and light and time and space / have nothing to do with it / and don’t create anything / except maybe a longer life to find / new excuses / for.” Well, sure. Air and light and time and space are useless on their own. But they don’t hurt—and since when was I taking life advice from Bukowski? I didn’t even like Bukowski.
After eighteen months in the boarding house, I had written a novel. I would not have started it without Ridgewood, but I would not have finished it, and it would not have become The Altruists, without the room in Brooklyn.
I told the paranoid super I was leaving. My girlfriend had moved to New York and we were going to move in together.
“You know, Drew,” he said, “sometimes in life you just got to move on. Is this a special lady?”
“She is,” I said.
“She doesn’t mess around on you?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“I’m pretty sure.”
“I’m happy for you, Drew,” he said. “You’re going to be alright. And if she ever does you wrong, you can always come back here. We’ll have a room waiting for you.”
Reading Women is a weekly podcast where women discuss books by or about women. Each month features two episodes on the same theme—one highlighting a range of titles and one discussing two titles more in depth—and two author interviews with talented women writers.
This week, Autumn and Kendra talk with T Kira Madden about her memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, which is out now from Bloomsbury.
Autumn Privett: The title of the book [Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls] was one of the things that really drew me in. Can you talk about how you landed on that?
T Kira Madden: The title of the book in my heart and my mind was always The Rat’s Mouth, which is the translation of Boca Raton, which is where I’m from, and I just really liked the grit and the teeth of that title, and the irony that this really vain, strange town is called The Rat’s Mouth. That was the idea. My agent hated it from day one, and we brought it to Bloomsbury, and my editor Callie Garnett had a great point: she said that title felt more like a punchline that closes down, and we needed to find something that opens instead of closes. That really resonated with me, so we also worked with the title Tell the Women I’m Lonely, which is the title of the last section, and that’s also a title I really loved for multiple reasons, but my editor felt it skewed a little too sad or too negative.
And everyone kept clinging to Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, their reasoning being that it felt more triumphant and had more spirit to it. I fought it for so long; I said that it was too long, that no one would remember this title. I didn’t think it was going to work, but in the end they won that battle and I’m so glad they did. I emailed my editor and said “you were right.” People were finding the book through that title because they felt part of that tribe, and something about it resonates with people, and people are remembering it. So I’m really grateful to have been wrong about that title, and I can’t imagine it as another book with a different title now. It just feels like it’s always been Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls.
AP: You brought up an interesting point about talking to your brothers and your mom about writing the book. Writing a memoir, especially, you’re taking about your family members. How did you go about getting permission or asking to tell their parts of the story as well?
TKM: It was a complicated process. I’ve been pretty lucky, though, I must say. It’s been a long, scary, complicated process. And I take my job as a writer—and my new job as a nonfiction writer—very seriously, and I’ve tried to really honor each person in my family and really break down what matters to me with each person in the book. Understanding who I want to ask for permission, for example, versus who I just want to show the piece to and ask, what do you think of this? Do you think I’ve done right by you? And asking those questions rather than asking “can I write about this or not?” That’s dangerous territory, if it’s your experience, and it’s something you want to write about, I do think you own that experience and that it’s yours to write.
Early on, I learned not to ask permission if I didn’t mean it. I think it was my therapist who said, “what happens if they say no? Does that mean you’ll stop writing it, or cut it?”
And I thought no, of course not. So I stopped asking, with the exception of my mother and my brothers. If they didn’t want me to include something, I wasn’t going to; they’re too important to me, and it wasn’t worth it. But I was really lucky that they have been very supportive and understanding and patient, especially my mother, who’s read every draft from the very beginning pages to where it is now. She’s read it so many times and even the most difficult parts, I’d ask her very frankly, would you like me to cut this? And she’d think about it and say no, it’s your experience and it needs to be in there and it feels true. So I just feel very fortunate that they’ve been so open-minded. And in many cases, the asking is scarier than the reading of it; I was hoping I could render things through writing that I wouldn’t be able to articulate in the ask, so showing it to them after writing it, and getting their reactions, made it a little better on my part.
By the mid-1800s, Brooklyn was one of the leading manufacturers in the country for a wide range of products, from sugar, to rope, to white lead, to whiskey.
This new industrial waterfront created the conditions that allowed queer lives to flourish in Brooklyn. As America transitioned away from a primarily farming economy, the extended family—once the main economic unit in the country— began to lose importance. New urban jobs allowed (some) people in Brooklyn to carve out separate space for themselves, far from their parents or anyone who knew them. Victorian culture mandated strict separations between men and women, meaning that most of these jobs were either all-male or all-female. Huge numbers of immigrants, mostly unaccompanied men, came to New York to meet this demand for laborers, creating large working-class bachelor subcultures where heterosexual sex (outside of prostitution) could be hard to find. The trading routes that created these jobs didn’t just move goods, however; they also moved people and ideas—meaning that the average Brooklyn laborer had much greater exposure to other cultures (and their sexual mores) than did most other Americans. Many of these new Brooklyn residents were transient, living in the city only seasonally or for a few years at a time, enabling them to settle in these raucous neighborhoods with relative anonymity. Finally, since shipping and manufacturing were dirty endeavors, waterfront neighborhoods were often undesirable, inexpensive, and only lightly policed. One of the few drawbacks to Brooklyn cited by Mayor Hall in 1855 was that its police lacked the “qualifications and fitness for office.” Thus, Brooklyn’s waterfront offered the density, privacy, diversity, and economic possibility that would allow queer people to find one another in ever-increasing numbers (though these freedoms would not be enjoyed equally by all queer people). The waterfront was no monolith, however, and different parts of it offered different opportunities, to different communities, in different eras. But by the time Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass, the areas that offered the most support to the earliest queer communities in Brooklyn were already established neighborhoods drawing new residents from around the world.
A visitor to Brooklyn in 1855 would step of the ferry onto Old Fulton Street, which roughly bisected the city. To the east was low-lying Vinegar Hill, a working-class, dockside neighborhood with a large Irish population. The area was a warren of poorly constructed, tightly packed row houses and dirty businesses, filled with the sharp smells of varnish being manufactured and iron being smelted. Bootlegging was a major business in Vinegar Hill, from small-scale home distilleries making poteen, or Irish moonshine, to industrial-size whiskey and rum operations. These illegal establishments were so prominent that when the federal government tried to clamp down on them for tax purposes in 1870, it had to flood the neighborhood with more than two thousand soldiers, in a series of pitched battles known as the Whiskey Wars.
Vinegar Hill was bordered to the south by Sands Street, an important thoroughfare that connected Old Fulton Street with the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which sat on the western edge of Vinegar Hill. The yard was the city’s most important military base and the largest navy yard in the country, a sprawling complex that was home to innumerable sailors. Inaugurated in 1801 by President John Adams, the yard was a center for early American shipbuilding, military education, and technological innovation. In 1815, the first steam-powered warship, the USS Fulton, was built here, and the Naval Lyceum (the precursor to the US Naval Academy) was founded here in 1833. By Whitman’s time, some six thousand men were employed in the Navy Yard’s nearly two-hundred-acre campus.
If a visitor continued east, a few miles farther out was Weeksville, a small town that was the only majority-black community in Brooklyn. By all accounts, Weeksville was a semirural enclave of “steep hills, deep valleys, and woodlands,” which was about ten minutes from the ferry via the Long Island Rail Road. Founded in 1838, by 1855 Weeksville had over five hundred residents (about 20 percent of the entire black population of Brooklyn at the time). It served as “the center of organized recreational activities for African-Americans from the entire region,” according to Judith Wellman, author of Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York. Weeksville was “one of the two largest independent free Black communities in the United States,” a place where “people generally lived in safety, supported themselves financially, educated their children . . . and set up their own churches.” As one of the few majority-black areas in all of New York City, it served as an incubator for black political and religious organizing and a needed refuge in times of racial unrest and antiblack rioting. After a visitor passed Weeksville, the rest of eastern Brooklyn was lightly settled farmland, still crisscrossed with pastoral streams and woods, until one reached the newly incorporated town of Bushwick (formerly the Dutch town Boswjick).
If, on the other hand, a visitor disembarked from the ferry and followed Old Fulton Street to the south, they would find the land quickly rising beneath them to create high bluffs with panoramic Manhattan views. Just a few blocks into town they would encounter the Rome brothers’ print shop, one of the bustling businesses where the working waterfront edged into the more residential neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. A few blocks farther south, wealthy families were already building the Greek Revival–style town houses that earned the Heights the label “America’s first suburb.” The area on the other side of Old Fulton Street, opposite Brooklyn Heights, would eventually be downtown Brooklyn, the city’s civic center.For as long as these waterfront areas were economically successful (or until about the early 1950s), they enabled working-class people to create enclaves of queer life.
Farther south still, the city gave way to the industrial basin of Red Hook and the Gowanus Creek, an as-of-yet-unimportant inlet of the New York City harbor. Nearby were the gentle hills, streams, and farmland that would one day be the neighborhoods of Park Slope and Sunset Park. Finally, a long carriage ride south from Fulton Ferry would bring you to the oceanfront resorts of Coney Island, which was primarily an escape for the middle class and the wealthy. Here, hotels dotted the sandy ocean shores, giving the impression of a distant seaside holiday just a few miles from the bustle of downtown Brooklyn.
For as long as these waterfront areas were economically successful (or until about the early 1950s), they enabled working-class people to create enclaves of queer life. These groupings were often small, sub rosa, isolated, and temporary, but they formed the nucleus for the later emergence of what we would recognize as gay communities. In the queer history of these areas, five waterfront jobs reoccur again and again: sailor, artist, sex worker, entertainer, and female factory worker. Each of these jobs had particular conditions that made them more available or desirable to queer people. Sailors have always been a symbol of escape from small towns, and their long voyages, marked by single-sex isolation and exposure to different cultures around the world, provided great opportunity for sexual and gender experimentation. Artists were often given leeway to be “eccentric,” and the Brooklyn waterfront drew them with its cheap rents (and—to be honest— with its cheap sailors). Sex workers (male, female, and transgender) had ready clients, and few observers, in the dockside alleys and waterfront brothels of Vinegar Hill and Red Hook. Freaks and entertainers, particularly those who were gender nonconforming, found lucrative (if often exploitative) work in the vaudeville theaters of downtown Brooklyn and the sideshows of Coney Island. Finally, in the lead-up to World War II, female factory workers broke gender stereotypes and provided lesbians with previously unimaginable freedoms.
Given the prevalence of these jobs in mid-nineteenth-century Brooklyn, it’s unlikely that Walt Whitman was the first person to develop a queer community there. However, unlike those in the other jobs listed above, artists are often given a greater level of respect—and place in our cultural memory—than their incomes would otherwise generally afford them. Also, at a time when few people were inclined or encouraged to record their innermost thoughts, artists such as Whitman were pushed to do so. Additionally, your average artist’s behavior was (somewhat) less policed than that of your average businessman, who had both customers and coworkers to worry about. In other words, artists had a slightly better chance of being able to live a queer life, a slightly better chance of recording that life, and a slightly better chance of having that record preserved. For all of these reasons, Whitman provides a good access point to the beginnings of queer life in Brooklyn.
One of the great things about Whitman is the tantalizing hints he left behind pointing to the existence of a subculture of working-class white men who loved other men. Many of these were laborers that he met while walking along the docks, or taking the ferry, or going for a bracing swim in the ocean. In his daybook, Whitman kept lists of these men, mostly single-line entries commenting on their looks, personalities, and family relationships. A typical snippet from one such catalog, written around the time of Leaves of Grass, reads:
Gus White (25) at Ferry with skeleton boat with Walt Baulsir—(5 ft 9 round—well built)
Timothy Meighan (30) Irish, oranges, Fulton & Concord James Dalton (Engine-Williamsburgh)
Charley Fisher (26) 5th av. (hurt, diseased, deprived)
Ike (5th av.) 28—fat, drinks, rode “Fashion” in the great race Jack (4th av) tall slender, had the French pox [syphilis]
This particular list goes on for over fifteen pages, with almost no women included (and those that are mentioned are never physically described). It’s impossible to know how many of these men were receptive to advances Whitman made, but some of the entries certainly suggest they were, such as this one: “David Wilson night of Oct 11, ’62, walking up from Middagh—slept with me— works in a blacksmith shop in Navy Yard.”Foremost among the “new experiences” that Whitman would chaunt and yawp into the American literary canon was the urban life of a man who loved other men.
These were the “young men and the illiterate” whom Whitman was beloved by. They embodied his twin virtues of health and manly comradeship. Leaves of Grass was inspired by them, written for them, and often talked directly about them. Or as Whitman put it in “Song of Myself”:
The young mechanic is closest to me, he knows me well,
The woodman that takes his axe and jug with him shall take me with him all day, The farm-boy ploughing in the field feels good at the sound of my voice,
In vessels that sail my words sail, I go with fishermen and seamen and love them.
That love was not just platonic. Foremost among the “new experiences” that Whitman would chaunt and yawp into the American literary canon was the urban life of a man who loved other men, and who was able to bring together those similarly inclined. Men loving men was not something new, as Whitman was well aware from his studies in ancient Greek. But the idea that these men constituted a specific type of person, that they could define themselves by this love and carve out space to gather together as lovers of other men—what we would today call the idea of “being gay”—didn’t yet exist in Whitman’s world. The word homosexual wouldn’t even be coined until 1868.
Leaves of Grass was written at the height of the Victorian era, which lasted from approximately 1840 to 1900. Socially, this was a relatively conservative time, but one that saw huge advances in industry and urbanization. During his life, Whitman witnessed the invention of everything from the telephone, to the photograph, to the flushing indoor toilet, to ice cream. Advances in farming, manufacturing, communication, and transportation enabled a vast population flux into cities around the country. In 1840, barely 10 percent of Americans lived in urban places; by 1900 that number had skyrocketed to 40 percent.
According to Victorian morality, women and men inhabited complementary but separate worlds. Men were rational, active, and in the public eye; women were emotional, passive, and limited to the domestic sphere of family and home. Proper women were asexual and acted as a limiting force on the “animal instincts” of men. White Victorians saw all black men and women as inherently lesser; although New York State had abolished slavery by 1855, it was still the law of the land in many places. And even in free states such as New York, black people lived under tremendous constraints (legal and extralegal) on whom they could love, what jobs they could have, and where they could live. When Leaves of Grass was first printed, New York City’s entire black population was around twelve thousand people. Few whites—even those who opposed slavery, such as Whitman—believed in true racial equality.
Due to these divisions, New York was “an intensely homosocial city,” according to the epic city history Gotham—a place where white men “clubbed, ate, drank, rioted, whored, paraded, and politicked together, clustered together in boardinghouses and boards of directors, [and] even slept together.” Aside from time with your own family, interactions between men and women were limited (particularly among the middle and upper classes). People of color lived mostly in small, segregated, and remote neighborhoods such as Weeksville, far from the economic and social centers of town. For Whitman, this meant that he lived in rooming houses that were full of white men; worked in print shops and newsrooms that were entirely stafed by white men; ate lunch in cheap oyster houses where the majority of patrons were white men; and in the evenings did his drinking and reveling in saloons that rarely admitted women or people of color.
It almost goes without saying that in a world so divided by sex (the identity), that sex (the act) was treated as a dangerous mystery. Sex education was mostly limited to what a child might observe among livestock or glean from older children (as it still is in many places today). Although Victorians are often remembered solely as prudes, they spent huge amounts of time considering and classifying kinds of sex. Sexual attraction to a person of the same sex was considered a disorder of gender, closer to what we today think of as “being transgender” than “being gay.” Sexual acts between members of the same sex were stigmatized and lumped together with other nonprocreative forms of sex under the name sodomy, which could include anything from masturbation, to bestiality, to hetero or homosexual oral sex. Legally, however, sodomy charges (sometimes called the crime against nature) were primarily used in cases of sexual assault, and not against consensual sex acts. At the time of the 1880 census, only sixty-three people were imprisoned on sodomy charges in the entire country, and only five of those in New York. The idea that people had a fixed, inborn set of sexual desires that were permanent and could be used to classify humanity into groups was only just emerging among theorists in Europe. There was little agreed-upon language to even discuss those feelings.Leaves of Grass was not only a proclamation, it was an invitation: a love letter set afloat in the world to see who understood it and answered its call.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out in his essay, the job of the poet is that of language-maker, the person who documents and names the new experiences of the times. What makes Whitman so memorable isn’t his private desires, but his realization that those desires were shared by others, and his attempt to create or memorialize words, rituals, and experiences that these men shared—something he certainly could not have done in isolation. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman called these men his “comrades” or “camerados.” Their affection for one another he dubbed “adhesiveness.” To symbolize that love, he chose the simple calamus plant, a sturdy river reed with long vertical leaves and a protruding, phallic flower cone. Whitman wrote forty-five “Calamus poems” celebrating the love between men. He explicitly urged others to use the plant as a queer love token in Calamus #4, writing:
And here what I now draw from the water, wading in the pond-side,
(O here I last saw him that tenderly loves me—and returns again, never to separate from me,
And this, O this shall henceforth be the token of comrades—this calamus-root shall,
Interchange it, youths, with each other! Let none render it back!)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But what I drew from the water by the pond-side, that I reserve,
I will give of it—but only to them that love, as I myself am capable of loving.
Why did Whitman choose the calamus as his gift to “them that love, as I myself am capable of loving”? Calamus was wild in Brooklyn, appearing in the very places where Whitman met his camerados. It grew on the banks of the streams where young farmers brought their livestock to drink; it dotted the marshy coast where sailors hunted for duck in between stints at sea; and it lined the secluded watering holes where salt-crusted stevedores went to wash of the day’s labor. Its phallic shape was suggestive, but so were ears of corn, were it just a matter of form. But the calamus had an added bonus: its name was an allusion to the ancient Greek myth of a pair of young male lovers, Kalamos and Karpos, who died during a swimming competition. Whitman’s Calamus poems comprise some of his most sensual and personal poetry. Over the next hundred years, this inclination to find “them that love, as I myself am capable of loving,” was a consistent hallmark of early queer pioneers.
However, cruising the waterfront wasn’t the only way that Whitman met other men. Leaves of Grass was not only a proclamation, it was an invitation: a love letter set afloat in the world to see who understood it and answered its call. The third poem in the book—“In Cabin’d Ships at Sea”—explicitly says this in its last stanza:
Then falter not, O book! Fulfil your destiny! You, not a reminiscence of the land alone,
You too, as a lone bark, cleaving the ether—purpos’d I know not whither—yet ever full of faith,
Consort to every ship that sails—sail you!
Bear forth to them, folded, my love—(Dear mariners! For you I fold it here, in every leaf;)
Speed on, my Book! Spread your white sails, my little bark, athwart the imperious waves!
Chant on—sail on—bear o’er the boundless blue, from me, to every shore, This song for mariners and all their ships.
The ability to gather people to him with his words was one of the other qualities that Emerson enumerated a genius poet would possess, writing that “by truth and by his art . . . [he] will draw all men sooner or later.” This was certainly true for Whitman. In his lifetime, men such as Oscar Wilde and Edward Carpenter (an early English proponent of gay rights) flocked to Whitman’s door, asking questions about the poet’s sexuality, which he was loath to answer. Many later queer artists would be drawn to Brooklyn because of the city’s association with Whitman. Hart Crane, the 1920s poet whose foremost muse was the Brooklyn Bridge, addressed Whitman and his legacy of “adhesiveness” directly in his poem “Cape Hatteras,” writing, “O Walt!—Ascensions of thee hover in me now / Thou bringest tally, and a pact, new bound / Of living brotherhood!”
From When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan. Used with permission of St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2019 by Hugh Ryan.
Odes are songs of praise, to a person or an event or an object—a wedding poem, or epithalmium, is a kind of ode, as are a lot of nature poems. Often, an ode can be a way to meditate on what makes the subject worth praising, so the topic can be less direct than the title implies. For example, the way I read John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” the real subject of praise is how we lose ourselves (briefly, fleetingly) when encountering something truly beautiful. You could say the nightingale is a vehicle for the poet’s praise of that feeling of losing oneself.
The great 20th-century Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote a series of odes in the early 1950s that are some of his most plain-spoken and accessible poems. If you’ve had trouble getting past the lush surrealism of Neruda’s love sonnets or the more epic scope of his Canto General, the odes are a great place to start. Partly motivated by a political desire to speak to (and on behalf of) common people, Neruda wrote odes to mundane things like “Ode to My Socks,” “Ode to Broken Things,” and “Ode to the Tomato,” praising their usefulness and lack of pretention but also elevating their commonness by focusing his lyrical attention on them. The poems are also full of whimsy and joy and often a bit of nostalgia. He expresses regret that we have to “assassinate” the tomato to enjoy its freshness, and wonders at how his clothes “make me what I am” and vice versa. A teacher of mine once remarked that Neruda wanted to eat the world, and there’s something boldly loving in these poems that is only matched in my reading experience by Walt Whitman.
I mention Neruda because he’s clearly one of the presiding spirits for Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, the book from which this poem is drawn, and which contains a number of odes and praise-songs. The impulse to praise the simple and straightforward, even perhaps a socio-political desire to elevate the mundane by focusing poetic attention on it, is similar in both poets. But there are also some interesting points of departure. For one thing, Gay’s odes are mostly about actions rather than things. Neruda’s tomato, clothes, and yellow bird become Gay’s “Ode to Sleeping in My Clothes,” “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” and here, drinking water with his hands. I want to explore this difference, but first here’s the poem:
Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands
which today, in the garden,
I’d known and more
I’d learned and was taught this
by my grandfather
who, in the midst of arranging
the small bouquets
on mostly the freshest graves
saw my thirst
and cranked the rusty red pump
from what sounded like the gravelly throat
of an animal
a frigid torrent
and with his hands made a lagoon
from which he drank
and then I drank
before he cranked again
making of my hands, now,
a fountain in which I can see
the silty bottom
drifting while I drink
and drink and
my grandfather waters the flowers
on the graves
among which are his
and his wife’s
unfinished and patient, glistening
after he rinses the bird shit
from his wife’s
and the pump exhales
and I drink
to the bottom of my fountain
and join him
in his work.
— from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015)
If you’ve perused any of Neruda’s odes, you can see right away that the form here is a direct imitation/homage—the short lines, the straightforward language. The form forces us to slow down, but not in a way that feels pretentious. To me it reads more like the deliberate, present-tense wandering of the imagination as it connects back to memory. The act of drinking from his hands, which the speaker does “today, in the garden,” reminds him of his childhood when he first learned this skill from his grandfather.
A little side note about those first few lines: he’s telling us he’s forgotten these things (drinking from his hands, being taught how) as a way of telling us that he’s now remembered them. Just a neat little reversal as we go along, especially because it’s not only the skill that he’s now remembering.By focusing on an activity that is meaningful in his individual way, Gay’s efforts feel welcoming, open to participation by us as readers.
So back to the question of actions versus things. In this poem, and in the other odes I’ve seen by Gay, the action being praised isn’t significant in and of itself. This is in contrast to Neruda, who seems to want to elevate the subjects of his attention, in part just by virtue of his attention. This is a little unfair to Neruda, but I get a vision when reading his odes of all the little items of the world—marbles, pieces of string, dead mice—waiting outside his study hoping for him to bestow his poetic attention upon them. And that he would make time for them all if he could. Neruda’s vision (like Whitman’s) is all-embracing, and a little self-important.
Gay’s odes, on the other hand, don’t presume any kind of universalism. When he praises “drinking water with my hands,” there’s no presumption that this activity is as meaningful for everyone else as it is for him. (Notice how all of the titles of the Ross Gay odes I mentioned above include the word “my.” They are intended, without apology, to be specific to his own experience.) Drinking water with his hands today, in his own garden, reminds the speaker of his own grandfather watering graves—“mostly the freshest,” but also his own—and it’s that reminder that makes the action worthy of praise. The action calls forth a whole host of feelings of grief and love, not to mention the sensual memories that get brought up with it—the sound of water coming up the pipe “like the gravelly throat / of an animal,” or the “lagoon” that appears in his grandfather’s hands. I love that word “lagoon,” how it evokes the massive size (in the speaker’s childhood memory) of his grandfather’s hands. These memories and feelings are what’s really being praised.
Weirdly, by focusing on an activity that is meaningful in his individual way, Gay’s efforts feel welcoming, open to participation by us as readers. Instead of a line of little items waiting for Neruda’s attention, I get an invitation: “This is how drinking water from my hands is meaningful for me; what simple actions are meaningful in this way for you?” I don’t personally have any strong memories connected to drinking water out of my hands, but reading this poem I’m reminded of cracking my knuckles with my own grandfather, holding up my hand to his to measure its size, and am tempted to write my own “Ode to Cracking My Knuckles,” to participate in a dialogue with Ross Gay. So the poem evokes not just his own memories, but summons similar ones in a total stranger—no small feat for a praise song. What might your memory be?
Excerpted from How A Poem Moves: A Field Guide for Readers of Poetry by Adam Sol. © 2019 by Adam Sol. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press Ltd. “Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands” from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, by Ross Gay, © 2015. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
For fifteen years, my step-grandfather Mr. Bill warned me that if I wanted a husband, I had to learn to cook.
“Learn to cook yet?” he’d goad, jabbing me in the arm and chuckling at every family get-together from my teens through my early 30s. I laughed him off as an old-school southern grandpa and, after college, moved to New York, where no guy I met expected a woman to know her way around a kitchen, if her apartment even had one. As for me, I was entirely comfortable with a rusty half-stove because I never used it. I was raised on Lean Cuisines, WOW chips before we all learned Olestra was killing us, and microwave pancakes. The theme of Adkins family cuisine was expediency with a low-fat subtext, an attitude I happily retained into adulthood. My idea of a homecooked meal was slapping a salmon filet on a skillet and leaving it there until it turned a lighter shade of pink. Seasoning meant salt and pepper. Oil was so things didn’t burn. Until 33, I didn’t know there was difference between “bake” and “broil” on the oven. I once caught fire to my hand trying to use a paper towel as an oven mitt. My dermatologist told me to stop making toast because I kept showing up with burns.
When I did eventually marry, it was a seamless (literally!) transition: We ordered takeout almost every night from the Seamless food delivery app. When we started to feel gross, my husband was the one step up and pull out a pan.
Then I decided to write a novel about a chef because creative impulses don’t always make sense.
While I’d gone through an MFK Fisher obsession in my 20s, it had been years since I’d really read much food writing. I rifled through stacks of $1 books at my local Salvation Army until I came upon a collection of stained, warped copies of The Best Food Writing from the ‘10s, then made my way through them. I pored over forums and discussion board and personal essays online, studying how people in the industry conversed about food. I didn’t learn to cook, but I learned to talk like I did.I educated myself in how coconut flour differs from regular flour at high temperatures, how certain oils and butters can be swapped out to varying effect, and how nut flours behave in the oven.
Five years after I’d begun drafting the novel, my agent called to tell me that a publisher had made an offer. I was standing under an awning on Astoria Boulevard in Queens, soaked, caught in the rain without an umbrella. With my phone pressed to my ear I shivered ferociously, unsure if it was from relief, joy, or cold.
“Can you add some recipes?” my editor’s email read several weeks later. I exhaled. I’d created a fictional chef—not just a chef, but Jade Massey, a chef at an award-winning New York restaurant. How was I going to create recipes that Jade would make?
I knew what mattered to Jade, in terms of cooking principles. In the wake of her sister’s early death, she was in an anti-sugar phase, determined to marry delicious cuisine with nutrition. I came up with a couple of theoretical concoctions that might interest her, and then the work began. I educated myself in how coconut flour differs from regular flour at high temperatures, how certain oils and butters can be swapped out to varying effect, and how nut flours behave in the oven. I learned about the astonishing power of egg whites. I read up on the disparate effects of muffin tins, popover pans, and mini-popover pans. Armed with my tentative recipes, I collected my supplies one Thursday afternoon and donned, for the first time ever, the apron I’d been given at my bachelorette party on which my sister had written, “I wear this when I apply heat to food.” I was ready to face that heat.
A PSA: tapioca flour only appears to be a normal, cohesive kind of powder that can be scooped and dumped like other flours. No—the moment it makes contact with any matter, it poofs into a cloud and settles on every surface within a five-foot radius. By my third hour in the kitchen, the walls, floor, and countertop were coated white. I’d also by that point learned that one’s oven is a unique, special snowflake; it doesn’t dare conform to generalizations about oven behavior on the Internet. By the ninth hour, I’d figured out that I did not need to make an entire batch of Brazilian cheese popovers to test a single recipe change; rather, I could make only a couple. That was an eighty-dollar lesson.
For three days, I worked. On the seventeenth round of popovers, I opened my maverick of an oven to find that I—or the culinary gods—had successfully popped over a popover. It was breathtaking. It was gorgeous. I took a picture to send to my husband, then changed the angle and lighting and took a few more, like it was a child, not a ball of cheese and egg. Moments later he wrote back, “How does it taste?”
I didn’t respond.The next batch was always going to be the last. If I added one more egg white, or took away ¼ a cup of flour, success was imminent.
I went back to work. I was obsessive. Hours passed. I stopped thinking about meals, and stopped having them—I’d tasted so many thick, glue-like lumps of cheesy dough that I couldn’t stomach the idea of eating. I also felt like I’d lose momentum. I was so close. The next batch was always going to be the last. If I added one more egg white, or took away ¼ a cup of flour, success was imminent.
When I answered my husband’s phone call, “What?!” I was, without realizing it, embodying some aspect of Jade—the part of her that stood in contrast to Iris, her sister in the novel.
In my novel Jade’s sister Iris bakes because she loves it; there is no urgency, no frantic drive toward an elusive ideal. Iris bakes the way my own sister bakes—there might be humming involved. Iris would not answer the phone “What?!” while filling a water bath for a cheesecake. But Iris was not an haute-cuisine chef. Or writing one.
Because that’s what my three days of recipe invention really led me to discover: not just what Jade might have created, but who Jade was.
In fiction-writing, we draw from what we know, and then we write past it. We invent. Inevitably, there are moments in which I think, “I don’t understand this character’s experience enough. There is more to discover here.” The farther the characters’ experience from my own, the more often this moment occurs.
Before venturing into popover creation, I knew how it felt to be Jade who experienced loss. I knew how it felt to be Jade who missed her sister; Jade who loved a man who was bad for her; Jade who tried to be a good daughter. But I didn’t know how it felt to be Jade who spent hours in the kitchen.
Through round after round of sticky, pasty experimentation, through disappointment and renewed determination, I found that Jade became more real to me, the author, and thus Jade became more real.
It took a couple more weeks of experimentation before I was satisfied with the results. When I sent off the revised draft several months later, I knew that my time in the kitchen had accomplished more than just one recipe.
Mr. Bill hadn’t been right about cooking to land a spouse, but he’d not been wrong about cooking uniquely leading to somewhere important: For Jade, I’d had to learn.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice,” reads the famous first sentence of Gabriel García Márquez’s masterwork, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel has just begun, yet it is already extraordinary. We begin in the present’s future: not simply in the future, but “many years” after a certain point in time, and, once in that future, we are brought all the way back into the “distant” past. And the past we enter afterwards is distant indeed, if not primordial. García Márquez introduces Macondo, the marvelous village Aureliano Buendia is remembering:
At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet.
If the first sentence’s vertiginous whirl of timelines was not enough, it now seems that Macondo may exist in a kind of prehistory: a time in which things had not yet been named, a new Eden, with twenty houses of new Adams and Eves. The language is clear yet dense, almost biblical in its cadence. The ludic reference to “prehistoric eggs” suggests a world as old as the dinosaurs. Yet without missing a beat, we then enter time: there are now years and months, and it becomes clearer that Macondo lives in some kind of concrete time: the era when the magnet was still a novel discovery. Time is fluid and flexible here, a sea that rushes or stands still or swirls into a maelstrom. And reality, too, is protean; its rules can bend, such that the world can at once be recent and fixed in time, and the daughters of this clockless earth can float into the sky and men can be followed by swarms of butterflies and bullets can reach targets no normal gun could hit and the dead are as alive as the living.
It is a marvelous world, like the Caribbean one I grew up in—in interviews, García Márquez often declared himself a Caribbean writer—and to contain this outsized sense of reality, one needs a prose that is similarly larger-than-life, similarly hard yet dream-soft, similarly amorphous at its edges. “The problem,” he famously declared with a grin in a 1981 interview with The Paris Review, “is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”
It was an assertion that made sense to me, as I’ve written before of García Márquez’s particular Caribbeanness. If my island was small, its dreams were not, and we lived with grand farcicalities that we simply came to accept as inextricable patterns of our home’s fabric. The shape-shifting jablesses lived in the trees at night, where you might see their eyes glow like fireflies or the sea’s phosphorescence, and there were things you might not want to throw sticks or stones at in the day, lest they come back, in more terrifyingly humanoid form, in the night. Obeah men and women existed in the shadows, and you could go to them for charms and protections and spiritual attacks, sometimes via pin-stuck dolls, on personages you did not care for. God was real, really real.García Márquez received offers to adapt the novel, but always turned them down because they weren’t quite right.
Yet the unquestionably existent things were just as quietly miraculous. The brown or faintly orange beings we called donkey spiders, large as your hands, leapt incredible distances at you when enraged and moved with a preternatural speed up walls. (They were actually huntsman spiders; name notwithstanding, and despite their relative harmlessness, they made me check my bed each night to make sure none were under my pillow.) The fat geckoes we called mabouyas cackled in the night like delirious witches. Before the great flooding rains, little mothlike insects we called rain flies descended en masse upon our homes, and the world would soon be filled with the calls of mating frogs and the clicks of river crabs as they crossed the slick potholed roads. My father once swept, with a broom, an errant boa constrictor out of our laundry room.
The prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit lived, as he still does, as if he were more the emperor of the island than a mere elected official, in the way that small-island leaders can more easily believe that they truly rule an entire country due to its size, and the ridiculous things he did were just what we came to expect: flying in Dominicans on chartered flights to vote for him on election week, renaming “demonic” mountains to spiritually “cleanse” the island, erecting an obscene lavish government building only describable as a palace near to the abject poverty of zinc-roofed shacks in our capital city, entering restaurants with guards and telling its patrons they had to clear out, yes, I Roosevelt Skerrit am here and this is now my meeting room, all you have to go. If a woman knocked on your door on a rainy night wearing a long dress, you had to check to make sure one of her feet isn’t a goat’s, or you would have let in La Diablesse, a distaff demonic being. My cousins told me they saw her once in the forest, chests huffing from running, both amused and unnerved.
It was an attitude, not of gullibility, but just of ontological pliability. If you believed God could raise the dead and flood the planet at well, you could believe, as was once announced on the radio, that the presence of a “satanic” dancehall artist who was scheduled to perform in Dominica was the cause for missing goats and a car accident, or that two women who infamously passed each other and froze one afternoon were soucouyants, blood-sucking witches unable to continue walking unless one of them ceded power and allowed the other to go. (This latter incident drew a massive crowd and even appeared on the local news.) I retained this flexible attitude, at least while back home, even when I became an atheist—and many so-called magical realists or fabulists, like García Márquez, were similarly nonbelievers, from Salman Rushdie to Italo Calvino to Angela Carter.
As a child, though, I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear our stories. I just assumed my world was lesser than that of the Americans and Europeans I read books by. I didn’t yet know the language, the voice, of my home, even as I spoke it each day.
I discovered One Hundred Years of Solitude in a literature class. When I began it, I was astonished. Here was a book that captured, for the first time in my life, precisely the limber, luminous, ludic sense of reality I had felt growing up. It wasn’t a serious novel attempting to show a world overrun by plagues and dangerous magic; at the same time, it was precisely that, in the particular Caribbean way that we can chuckle at the Brobdingnagian absurdities we grow accustomed to expect as part and parcel of everyday life.
Life, García Márquez taught me, can be described in literature—but we each have to find the way of writing that fits the world we inhabit. There is no one-size-fits-all in writing; instead, some worlds can only be captured in certain ways. I have never forgotten this, and this is why García Márquez will always remain one of the brightest stars in my night sky.
I start with these sentences from the Colombian’s magisterial novel because they work so well precisely as that: sentences, in a book. Translating them to other languages is already trying, beautiful as the English version is; translating them to the screen is another story, one we will see played out when Netflix attempts to do just that in its recently announced adaptation of One Hundred Years of Solitude. This was long in the making. For years, García Márquez received offers to adapt the novel, but always turned them down because they weren’t quite right. (Fortunately, it seems the adaptation will be in Spanish, as García Márquez had hoped when he pondered adapting it, and Netflix has had some praiseworthy success in foreign-language productions for a global market, including Roma and Elite.) His sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo García, will be executive producer.
I can’t help but wonder about the Borgesian labyrinths that lead from books to films; it is never easy to fully capture the sort of magic a book can create on the screen, and vice versa, due largely to the difficulty of conveying the same tone on the screen as on a page.
To be sure, films and television shows can capture the marvelous and the fantastic in ways that recall García Márquez’s oeuvre. Amongst the earliest films ever produced were fantastical journeys, perhaps most notably Georges Méliès’ whimsical A Trip to the Moon (1902), in which men rocket up to a smiling moon and encounter lunar inhabitants called Selenites. The cartoons of the early twentieth century revealed a flexible reality where bodies could morph as easily as the rules of space and time. Even the very idea of projecting moving images onto a screen, in its earliest days, seemed magical. In his youth, my father saw one of his first movies in Dominica, an image projected onto a bedsheet hung across a wall; when a bull charged at the screen, my father got up and ran, thinking the bull would come clear through. Movies themselves are magic, even as too many of us have forgotten this, having grown so accustomed to their presence.I discovered One Hundred Years of Solitude in a literature class. When I began it, I was astonished.
Some of my happiest memories of watching films are the ones that blur ontological lines. Hayao Miyazaki’s movies often do just that, blending the firmly real and the fantastical in striking ways, as in Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, and Princess Mononoke. Federico Fellini’s charmingly peculiar Juliet of the Spirits (1965) moves seamlessly between a woman’s dreamlike imagination and the reality of dealing with a philandering spouse. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) imagines a reality in which the tropes of video games seamlessly exist in this world: bursting into coins, health bars, one-ups.
I’m no fan of horror—I’m the one who covers my face and curls up in my chair before a jump-scare—but I’ve always been impressed by how The Blair Witch Project (1999) attempted to make a seemingly supernatural attack seem real by its choice of filmography: found footage. Netflix’s own recent series, Russian Doll, portrays two characters who keep coming back from their deaths, slightly but disquietingly altering their realities over time, until they seem to irrevocably create separate timelines—a magical, science-fiction-esque idea that occurs squarely in a contemporary version of New York City. In other words, I have little doubt that magic akin to García Márquez’s can work on the screen. And García Márquez himself loved the cinema.
But what makes One Hundred Years of Solitude, like many of his other works, magical, is more than just the levitations, dizzying Faulknerian family tree, and porous timelines. It is his extraordinary style and love of language, which cannot be translated directly to any screen, even if some of the novel’s sentences are read aloud. How does one convey the whimsical disorientation of that opening sentence onscreen? One can try, certainly, and I have little doubt that the adaptation may do wondrous things that make me smile. But the fact is that García Márquez’s masterpiece is untranslatable, at least to other mediums; it can be attempted, but something striking will be lost. At best, something unique to the medium of film or television will try to replace that, but it will be different. And all adaptations are distinct, of course, but this one is special, for it requires attempting to translate an entire language, the baroque maximalist idiolect of García Márquez, rather than mere words arranged on a page. The atmosphere of the novel comes in part from its breathless sentences and colossal paragraphs punctuated by quick snippets of simple but operatic dialogue.
You can put the scenes onto a screen; I just don’t know that you can put the intangible atmospherics there, too, in quite the same way. I wonder how one might adapt a significantly shorter but perhaps even more challenging work by García Márquez, the short story “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship,” which is all one long remarkable sentence that jumps across time and space and life and death from comma to comma; like One Hundred Years of Solitude, it relies, in part, on its maximalist prose to convey something that can’t quite translate to any other medium. Some things come close, to be sure; I think of the exaggerated proportions in the paintings of Henri Rousseau or Fernando Botero, the dreamscapes of Leonora Carrington, or the erotic surrealism of Leonor Fini. But there is nonetheless something special—not better, just different—in García Márquez’s prose that can’t fully be done in any other form.
To be sure, I look forward to the adaptation, even as I’m wary of it. And perhaps my unease is simply because I love the book so much that I can only imagine an adaptation will lessen it, cheapen it, burnish it (and not in the way that burnished objects can hold their own special splendor, as Tanizaki Junichiro knew). I almost feel possessive. It was a book, after all, that taught me how to do my own kind of translation: capturing the baroque marvelousness of Caribbean life on the page. It validated my experience.
Still, it’s spectacular that García Márquez’s novel still has enough power to command an adaptation on such a visible platform. It will be a worthwhile test for Netflix to see if they attempt to be faithful to the novel—whatever that can mean, given the multilayered complexity of the book—or if they will simplify plot points for a global audience. It will be a directorial and visual test, too, of cinematic atmospherics, to see if Netflix can do the seemingly impossible: do on screen what this book does on the page. I have deep doubts, but I’m intrigued. And if this leads new readers to the novel and to his Collected Stories, Collected Novellas, Love in the Time of Cholera, Of Love and Other Demons, The General in His Labyrinth, and/or Strange Pilgrims, that alone will be enough. García Márquez’s world is simply too beautiful and memorable—even in its most funereal, devastating moments—not to share.