5 Emerging Women Authors Intimately Explore Place

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Kristen Radtke illustrates five women writers whose work explores setting in powerful ways

Portraits by Kristen Radtke

While literature has long been prized for its ability to transport us, there are certain narratives that are rooted so firmly in specific places that setting becomes as much a character as the people who inhabit those places. There are the classic examples: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s gilded West Egg, Steinbeck’s depression-era Monterey, and Joyce’s Dublin; and contemporary favorites like Teju Cole’s New York in Open City, Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here (which visually tells the story of a single corner of a room over hundreds of thousands of years), and pretty much anything Joan Didion has ever written. From the contrived paradise of a Jamaican resort to a volatile arctic tundra, here are five new books by emerging women writers who’ve exquisitely captured the intricacies, beauty, and complications of their settings. Most compellingly, they explore the emotional and psychological landscape of the spaces their narrators and characters occupy.

— Kristen Radtke

1. Blair Braverman, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube

Blair Braverman’s compulsively-readable memoir Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube moves between her time spent as a high school exchange student in Norway, bullishly determined to adopt a new language and culture as her own, and the life she builds over the next decade in the north. Braverman draws characters with precision and tenderness, from the stubborn owner of the village general store, whom she slowly befriends, to the ailing man who makes furious and cutting verbal advances while she warms herself by the bonfire. Braverman’s debut beautifully portrays what it’s like to be a woman in an unwelcoming climate.

2. Nicole Dennis-Benn, Here Comes the Sun

Rivaling Walker’s Celie and Tolstoy’s Anna, Nicole Dennis-Benn has created in her debut novel an exquisitely-realized cast of heroines. From Margot, who services white male tourists after-hours at an upscale Jamaican hotel standing fortresslike over the cracked, aging streets of River Bank, to her younger sister Thandi who endures skin-lightening chemical rubs and a body wrapped tightly in plastic wrap beneath the anxiety of an education Margot pays for, Here Comes the Sun is rooted deeply in the sacrifices these women make — or can’t make — for each other.

3. Anna Noyes, Goodnight, Beautiful Women

The central events of Goodnight, Beautiful Women are often catastrophic or extreme, but the real heart of these stories is Anna Noyes’s achingly rendered murky-blue New England landscape. From a suicide to a failing marriage to a confused sexual awakening, her character’s reactions to trauma are deeply internal yet somehow detached, as if they’re watching a world unfold around them that they can’t quite access. It seems Noyes knows everything about these women, and they’re staged within a dreamlike-turned-nightmarish Northeast with tactile precision.

4. Leigh Stein, The Land of Enchantment

Leigh Stein’s third book, The Land of Enchantment, is an intimate and often intensely vulnerable examination of what it means to love, leave, and mourn an abusive person. Stein’s memoir is principally concerned with the struggle to reclaim a sense of self and ownership over a place — in this case, New Mexico, the state she and her now-deceased ex-boyfriend shared, and after which the book is titled. Stein’s narrative is most compelling when it confronts head-on the ambiguity between grief, indifference, and relief, and forsakes redemption for an ultimately more painful exploration.

5. Toni Nealie, The Miles Between Me

“Why do we still call the South Pacific down and Europe up?” Toni Nealie asks early in her essay collection The Miles Between Me, and it’s a question that lends itself to her examination of how desperately one may try to chart a life in limited (or even arbitrary) terms. These essays are concerned not only with place, but also the roles we play within those spaces, and what it means to be defined — or to define oneself — as “an other.”

About the Author

Kristen Radtke is a writer and illustrator based in Brooklyn. Her graphic memoir, Imagine Wanting Only This, is forthcoming from Pantheon Books.She is the managing editor of Sarabande Books and the film & video editor of TriQuarterly magazine. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Find her on Twitter @kristenradtke.

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