Islands

Hi friends.

First, some housekeeping: A reminder that the Mini 1000 starts one week from today, on August 8, and you can sign up here. I’ll be working on that next week so I won’t be able to write this newsletter, and then the week after that I’ll be traveling. So see y’all back here week of August 23.

Have you been reading something you love lately? Have you been carving time out in your day just for you and a book? Have you been taking the leap to open your mind up to other people’s words and ideas? People who like books often get stereotyped as passive souls sitting quietly by themselves in a room but those of who read know it’s one of the most active ways to spend an afternoon. Especially as we fight against the innumerable distractions of this modern world. You read because you really want to do it.

My relationship with reading has changed as I’ve gotten older and my brain is less spongelike, but also as I’ve become more entrenched with literature in terms of my career. Often, I’m reading now because I feel like I have to: because it’s a peer’s book or I feel like I need to see what someone interesting is doing, or I’ve been asked to give a blurb or I need to research something. But I’ve had a few weeks now (and will have a few weeks more) where I can read just what I want, and it’s been delightful.

In fact I’ve just finished three books that I’ve been reading slowly over the last two weeks, and I’ve been watching them dovetail as books sometimes do when you read them as a group. When this kind of thing happens, when art connects, it can make you think, “I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing with my life right now.”

First, I’ve been reading Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid for my book club, and it’s been a great experience. The book was first published in 1985 but it feels eternal. She’s unapologetic, that Jamaica Kincaid, for the choices she makes, in writing, and in life, it seems, too. The presentation of a story that simply is and does not need to justify its existence.

If you haven’t read it, it’s a collection of stories about a smart, funny, complex girl growing up in Antigua, and it covers her often fraught relationship with her mother, her peers, the world around her. Life on this island. It’s a haunting coming-of-age story, and I read it with the sense that she was telling me exactly what I needed to know about this moment in time, no more, no less. It was as precise a book as they come.

I also finished Michelle Orange’s True Flame, another precisely written book, where the cuts and choices she made seemed really specific. For all the times she dove deep on her mother’s past, she would often just drop just a sentence or two on a dramatic moment from her own life. She gave us just the information she wanted us to have. It’s a brilliant mixture of memoir and criticism centered in her relationship with her mother, and also an investigation into feminism, what it has meant (and hasn’t meant) through different generations, and also what it means to be a woman now.

I had started reading the book months ago when it was sent to me but had paused with it because of time issues but also, I suspect, because I was in the midst of edits on my own memoir. Sometimes as writers we absolutely welcome strong singular voices doing work comparable to our own to add another layer of complexity to the chorus, and sometimes we need complete and utter silence in order to hear the sound of our own voice, so as to tune it correctly. 

But now I could read it. Now I was done with my own work. And imagine my surprise at finding near the end of True Flame a page long riff on the mother-daughter relationship in Annie John.

Books are just little bombs waiting to go off.

The third book I read was called Island, the translation of a Danish novel, which had just shown up in the mail this week. I hadn’t known it was coming, or rather, I didn’t know when it would arrive exactly. I had met the author, Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen, at a literary festival in Pordenone, Italy, in 2018. A dinner for the foreign authors. After, we ditched the others, walked the streets, sat and drank at a bar outside and had a good time and talked about our lives which were different but of course much the same, which is to say we were women and artists and we were living a life that took us to other places all on our own.

Her book, which tells in stories a history of a family in the Faroe Islands through a modern narrator’s eyes, had been translated in a few languages by then, and she hoped someday it would be in English, as I did, too — it sounded wonderful. And now here it was, and it was gorgeous, such a rich and evocative telling of these people and these tiny, extremely alive islands so far away. So full of grace and beauty and dark humor and again, so unapologetic for the way it was framed. It just simply was.

Books show up whenever the fuck they want to. 

There’s a line her book where the narrator’s grandmother says to her, “No island is an island.” And it had stuck in my head, me living on this island of writing as I do, so I wrote to Siri and asked her to explain what she meant by it. Coincidentally she’d been on the Faroe Islands this past week so the book had come alive for me in another way in her Instagram stories, where she’d been posting stunning images. “Greetings from my grandmaternal island,” she said, and then she generously answered the question:

“An island is a very human idea; it reflects a very human feeling of disconnectedness. But nature is not a mirror. Underneath what we can see, all bodies of land are connected as parts of a whole. If you were to ask an island if it felt isolated or adrift, it would find the question silly. It would find the whole concept absurd. To an island there’d be no such thing as an island. Feeling disconnected comes easy to humans, I think. Our brains are wired to define ourselves through what we’re not: to recognize differences and imagine divides, to say I am this because I’m not that. I can’t reach that blob of land out there, so it must be isolated. It’s harder to wrap one’s head around the many ways in which we are parts of each other, parts of each other’s histories, parts of the social and natural systems we move through. Always affecting and being affected - always in that sense belonging not just to our families or groups or nations but in the world.”

A post shared by @siriranva

These three women, expressing their ideas and their singular existences. Did I choose these books or did they choose me? None of these books have anything to do with the book I’m about to write but have a lot to do with the book I just finished. Reading theirs when I was writing mine wouldn’t have changed a word I wrote, but I can appreciate them all more now that I’m done with it. And in fact maybe I needed a little help sealing the closure; maybe these books are little floating islands, coming into view just when I needed them, all of us connected beneath the surface.

I wish for you this week that you love the book you’re reading, and that it gives you comfort or wisdom.

Jami


You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to support Ashe Cultural Arts Center.