Sophie Littlefield on Nadine Gordimer

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I’d been planning this post for a while, and had already chosen Nadine Gordimer as my “literary mother” before her death last weekend. I’m not ordinarily a procrastinator, and when I examined my reasons for putting off writing this piece, I realized it was due to a sense of guilt which I have been carrying around for nearly thirty years.

I was encouraged into a “useful” major when I went away to college, despite a childhood spent buried in books. I started writing fiction the day I read my first chapter book (what a revelation, that you could break a story into as many parts as you liked!), but settled for attending lectures by famous authors at the Midwestern university where I majored in Computer Science.

Elliott Holt on Alice Munro

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An Open Letter to Alice Munro

Dear Alice,

It seems impossible that you don’t know me. What I mean is that I know your work so well—intimate, is the only way I can describe my relationship to your stories—that I feel like I know you. I consider you a kindred spirit and a teacher. I’ve reread your stories so many times that I know I’ve learned more from them than I have in any writing class. I once spent an entire day deconstructing “Friend of My Youth,” diagramming its structure, its story within a story within a story, to try to understand how you pulled it off. When you won the Nobel Prize, I actually cried with joy. And all day, after the Nobel committee made the announcement, friends emailed and called and texted: “You must be so happy that Alice Munro won!” My adoration of you is so well documented that people were congratulating me on your win, as if you were a member of my family.

Annie Liontas on Aglaja Veteranyi

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Our story sounds different every time my mother tells it.—Aglaja Veteranyi, Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta

My literary fathers tend to stick around.  The late Gabriel Garcia Marquez lived a long, wild life, even if it ended in unjust and heartbreaking—yet poetic, inevitable—dementia.  My literary mothers die untimely and tragic deaths.

Susan Harlan on Isak Dinesen

 

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A Farm in Africa

(Isak Dinensen hangin’ with Marilyn Monroe and Carson McCullers)

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I read Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa for the first time, but after that initial encounter, I kept coming back to it. Sometimes I just open to a page and read a passage, like some people read the Bible.

Dorothea Lasky on Many Literary Mothers, A Violin Case, And A Woman on the Subway

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I first started writing poems when I was 7 because I couldn’t sleep and needed something to do and poems were the things I could write to, to an unnamed friend in the nighttime (sometimes her name was Molly, sometimes her name was Blue, sometimes she was people I knew). 

But when I was 14 and 15, I gave up on poetry. I don’t think it was that I had lost the word. It was as if I simply closed the door to the voice that spoke to me. I had severe depression and had lost the ability to care if I talked to my unnamed friend in the night anymore. I think she stopped caring about me, too.

Cynthia Cruz on Helene Cixous

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Helene Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing

Let us go to the school of writing, where we’ll spend three school days initiating ourselves in the strange science of writing, which is a science of farewells. Of reunitings.

I will begin with:

This is what writing is. 

I’m not sure how I came across the book. Maybe I saw it displayed in a small bookshop in the city and fell in love with the cover. I’m not sure. It is as if, by magic, or, more probably, as though my own terrible need for guidance, for a mentor, conjured the book into my life. However it appeared, it appeared in my life around ten years ago, perhaps longer. In any case, Cixous’ voice, her words, the power of her intellect fused with her passion drew me in immediately. I began teaching from the book as soon as I found it.

Kip Wilson on Banana Yoshimoto

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Not Alone in This World


Banana Yoshimoto, a Japanese author born in 1964, was integral to my birth as a writer.

When a friend thrust Yoshimoto’s Kitchen in my hands soon after its translation into English, I read the first pages with great interest, intrigued by the crisp, clear writing. At the time, I was pursuing my doctorate in German Literature. I’d spent years studying great works by Rilke, Goethe, and Kafka, and I loved it, especially Rilke. But as I continued to read Kitchen, I saw myself in its main character, Mikage, like no other.


Meghan McCarron on Karen Joy Fowler

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Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, created an almost moral dilemma for reviewers. (And now, me: If you wish to be surprised by the novel, skip this paragraph). Fowler does not reveal the narrator’s sister’s identity until a quarter of the way through the book, when readers learn she is a chimp. The literary move elegantly advances the novel’s central argument: we are only glancingly different from animals we treat as profoundly other. 

I knew what Karen’s novel was about; as I read, I thrilled watching her walk a high wire of suggesting and concealing key information. But when the reveal came, I was still surprised. Not that I should have expected anything different. Everyone who knows and reads her agrees: Karen Joy Fowler is tricky.

Anya Groner on Beth Ann Fennelly

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In Oxford, Mississippi, what matters is story. Fact and fiction blur. Boredom is sin. In a state iconic for American ills lives a gritty legacy of southern letters, a literary family tree made mostly of men.

When I entered Ole Miss’s MFA in fiction, this legacy intimidated more than inspired. To address my fear, I volunteered my very first class for workshop.

“American fiction is over,” my professor announced. Inspired by my prose, he lectured on bad writing.

“Is your story supposed to be ironic?” he asked later. “It’s not.”