This month, Adam Sockel and Jill Grunenwald, hosts of the “Professional Book Nerds” podcast, snagged a few moments with Colson Whitehead to discuss his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad. Their conversation covered the origins of his book, how Whitehead views his book in relation to the incredible success it has achieved, race relations throughout American history and a dive into the music he listens to while writing.
Whitehead, who won the 2002 Anisfield-Wolf prize for John Henry Days, is coming off one of his most successful years. The Underground Railroad was also selected as the winner of the National Book Award and Carnegie Medal. Oprah named it her book club pick for 2016 and “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins is pursuing an adaptation for Amazon.
The podcast is a production of OverDrive, the leading app for eBooks and audiobooks available through public libraries and schools, headquartered in Cleveland. In the weekly podcast, hosts Sockel and Grunenwald chat about the best books they’ve read, give personalized recommendations, and share about upcoming releases across genres.
Dive in to their 30-minute conversation with Whitehead, here below.
Peter Ho Davies – a gracious, wise and observant British-born fiction writer – welcomed a question about the title of his most recent work, “The Fortunes.” It won both the Chautauqua Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award this year.
Tentatively called “Tell it Slant,” a reference both to Emily Dickenson and a racial slur against Asians, the edgy title pleased both Davies and his editor. But it gave a large book chain pause. And Davies realized its tone fit just one of the four chapters – short stories in a way – that compose his novel.
Davies, clearly attuned to nuance, told an appreciative crowd at the Chautauqua Institute that he understood the booksellers’ reservations. But he is also intrigued by the phenomena of groups reclaiming labels originally meant to denigrate – “queer” in the LGBTQ vernacular, “suffragette” among feminists and sometimes the N-word among African Americans.
And the June U.S. Supreme Court decision greenlighting the use of “The Slants” as the trademark name for an Asian-American band fits into this language-subverting vein, noted the University of Michigan professor.
“The Fortunes,” Davies said, is a good titular fit: “It captures the Chinese interest in luck and it touches on questions of fate. It is plural, which reflects multiple characters, and it gestures at that most Chinese-American of tokens, the fortune cookie.”
Davies, 50, spent a week at Lake Chautauqua with his wife, novelist Lynne Raughley, and son Owen, to celebrate “The Fortunes” as the sixth winner of The Chautauqua Prize. It recognizes a book annually that contributes to literature and is a pleasure to read.
In four linked sections, “The Fortunes” considers a valet in the 1860s California Gold Rush, the actress Anna May Wong during the 1930s, the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin by a disgruntled Detroit autoworker, and the adoption of a Chinese daughter by contemporary American parents. Each protagonist is a fictional version of a historical figure, including the half-Chinese adoptive father, who has a cluster of characteristics in common with Davies himself.
“The book is an immigrant narrative caught up in an obsession of mine: identity,” said the author, whose dentist mother was Malaysian Chinese and father was a Welsh engineer.
“How do we find ways to get beneath the skin of history to tell someone’s story?” he asked. “I was lucky to come across a reference to a Chinese manservant to Charles Crocker, a baron of the Central Pacific Railroad often credited with bringing in Chinese to build the railroads. His servant, a valet I imagine, is Ah Ling, someone I think of as Asian Zero. And Ling becomes the first example of that problematic category: the model minority.”
Ah Ling came to stand for the burden of racial representation, Davies said, which led him to the famously beautiful actress Anna May Wong. The song “These Foolish Things” was written for her by one of her lovers.
“She’s famous for being Chinese but she is limited in the roles she can depict because she can’t kiss on screen. It is against the anti-miscegenation laws,” Davies explained. And once a white man was cast as the lead in film version of Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth,” it meant Anna May Wong could not play the role many considered her destiny: O-lan.
The third section of “The Fortunes” ponders the beating death of Vincent Chin, adopted from Hong Kong and mistaken for Japanese by a drunk Detroit autoworker angry over the 1982 economic downturn. Chin, 27, was buried on what was to have been his wedding day.
“We’ve all done this. I’ve done this. It can have comedic implications,” Davies said of mistaken identity among Asians. A reader once approached Davies to inquire if he was the Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who in turn was once asked if he was Jackie Chan.
In the final story, the act of adoption brings identify formation to the fore. “The book is hybrid in its form and is about people who are hybrid in their identities,” Davies said. Although he didn’t start intending it, form serves content.
Because everyone has multiple identities, people — especially of mixed race — must wrestle with authenticity: “Who am I? How do others seem me?”
Humor, a Davies trademark, helps a reader navigate weighty topics such as race. The interplay, he believes, lets in some light.
Viking, 207 pp, $22
In Zinzi Clemmons’ debut novel, “What We Lose,” grief shadows every page. But like Elizabeth Alexander’s “The Light of the World,” another examination of life amid a death, it is compelling.
A loosely autobiographical story, this book is about the pain of losing a mother. Like her protagonist Thandi, Clemmons, 32, is the child of a South African mother and African-American father, born and raised in Philadelphia with summers and long vacations spent in Johannesburg. And just like Thandi, Clemmons left college to help with her mother’s care in her remaining days.
“What We Lose” explores grief, cultural identity, politics, colorism, and love through stream-of-consciousness vignettes. A creative writing professor at Los Angeles’ Colburn Conservatory of Music and Occidental College, Clemmons conjures Thandi to express complicated emotional terrain:
“Loss is a straightforward equation: 2-1=1. A person is there, then she is not. But a loss is beyond numbers, as well as sadness, and depression, and guilt, and ecstasy, and hope, and nostalgia—all these emotions that experts tell us come along with death. Minus one person equals all of these in unpredictable combinations. It is a sunny day that feels completely gray, and laughter in the midst of sadness. It is utter confusion. It makes no sense.”
At its core, “What We Lose” is a novel about what anchors us. Thandi finds the answer shifts: familial ties sustain her in one period, the love of close friends in another. Once she has lost her mother, however, the greatest anchor of her young life disappeared. Thandi is an intriguing character, at once impulsive and afraid, searching for something to steady her: “Each day I feel less like the person I was the day before, my body hurtling so fast in one direction that my mind cannot keep pace.”
In short, searing sections, Clemmons makes us feel as if we, too, have suffered a loss. She dabbles with visual devices to hit different emotions; in one chapter Thandi draws a graph to mathematically depict her unrelenting grief.
A moving novel with few extraneous passages, “What We Lose” is a stellar read from an author with a strong perspective. She studied at Brown and Columbia, where she was mentored by Paul Beatty and helped found Apogee Journal.
Vogue’s critic Megan O’Grady hailed “What We Lose” as the debut novel of the year, suggesting Clemmons as the “next-generation Claudia Rankine.” Generous praise, but Clemmons’ first book indicates she stands on her own name, and her own merit, just fine.
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp. $24.99
In the midst of the book tour for her second memoir, “Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me,” Janet Mock spoke of the pitfalls of being labeled a transgender activist.
“There’s a burden of responsibility for me to show up correct — in my head, if I don’t do it right, then I’ll get shut out, and then other trans women of color will be shut out,” she told the New York Times. “I’m still grappling with all of that.”
If her second book is any indication, Mock, 34, is working out how to be the face of a movement wider than one lane. The New York City transplant has been near the front of the LGBTQ movement since 2011, when she published a landmark essay for Marie Claire depicting herself as a young, biracial transgender woman growing up in Hawaii. Her first memoir, “Redefining Realness,” came out three years later. In the years since, she addressed transgender topics for The New Yorker, Marie Claire, and The Advocate, and produced an HBO documentary, “The Trans List,” in 2016.
But she has also spoken in arenas that don’t hinge on identity. In 2015 she hosted “So POPular,” a weekly pop culture show for MSNBC and most recently, she became the weekly voice of “Never Before,” a Lena Dunham-produced podcast with guests like Congresswoman Maxine Waters.
If “Redefining Realness” dealt with Mock’s personal journey to finding comfort in her own body, “Surpassing Certainty” acts as a proto blueprint to “show up for that girl who is yearning to be let in, to be accepted,” she writes. “My twenties prepared me to be seen fully—in my own eyes, in the eyes of the people I knew and love, and in the eyes of the public I invited into my life to know me.”
Telling the story of her twenties, Mock shares universal milestones: moving away from home, finding a first job, falling in love. This book, which ends with Mock’s 30th birthday party, is a coming-of-age story in which the lenses are varied. Professionally and socially, Mock was not “out” for a majority of her 20s, a decision she made while trying to develop her boundaries: “I began to see disclosure not so much as an obligation but as a gift. My story was mine, and I felt a person had to earn the privilege of hearing it. Random suitors and passing dalliances were no longer deserving of me or my story.”
She shares her narrative in these pages unflinchingly, her title a nod to an essay from poet Audre Lorde: “And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”
That truth is sometimes messy, as Mock introduces us to her first husband, a figure she omitted from her first memoir. Their four-year marriage, full of separation and estrangement, spans the majority of the new book, ending only as Mock gets serious with a new suitor, her current husband. The love life of transgender women of color has rarely been a mainstream concern, so Mock’s inclusion of this intimacy rings new and progressive.
Her writing is crisp and lyrical, and Mock is clearly influenced by feminist writers such as bell hooks. She knows how to fold historical context into her musings, whether it’s climbing the corporate ladder or dealing with micro-agressions at a predominately white university.
Mock echoes Lorde, addressing the women looking for guidance in her text: “I’ve reached a place where silence is no longer an option for me. My survival depends on my ability to speak truth to power, not just for myself. But for us.”