A Reading List for Combating Impostor Syndrome
Natasha Young, author of ‘Static Flux,’ on alienation, escapism, and feeling like you don’t belong
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The dark secret of impostor syndrome is the thrill of pulling off the con. I attribute this to an anxiety-fueled increase in craftiness and a proclivity for escapism. The self-perceived impostor — by definition, an overachiever with low self-esteem or inordinate self-doubt, despite external evidence of their accomplishments — is rarely precluded from pursuing their ambitions. On the contrary, those of us with impostor syndrome doggedly pursue our dreams, despite our feelings of unworthiness. We may subconsciously fear that we will be exposed or rejected along the way, but we’re hanging on for the ride as far as it’ll take us.
In my novel Static Flux, 25-year-old Calla, who grew up poor and rural but earned the opportunity to pursue a career as a writer in New York, faces early setbacks and becomes extremely disillusioned. Not only does she suffer impostor syndrome, she suffers the very real conditions of post-Great Recession America, the absurd disparity of wealth in New York, and diminishing opportunities to break into the writing career she’s dreamed of. But from this impostor’s perspective comes wry, self-satirizing observations of her generation (millennials) and. indeed, her own complicity in the system she hates.
Turning to escapism out of desperation and loneliness, Calla impulsively schemes to abandon her life (and her loving boyfriend) and takes off for Los Angeles, where she stays at her best friend’s house and self-medicates with cannabis and LSD. Self-aware yet solipsistic in her self-loathing, she’s oblivious to the impact her actions have on those who love her. Her skewed self-image as a worthless, unlovable impostor becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Before and while I wrote Static Flux, I was inspired by many books by women about alienation, escapism, impostorism — stories that capture the anguish and restlessness of a woman journeying on a path of utter uncertainty.
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
Adept at observing the world as a curious outsider wherever she goes, always with uncanny awareness of historical context, Kushner is really a luminary to me. We both come from poor backgrounds — as do our protagonists — which can be a huge source of impostor syndrome, but also, a gift. Reno’s impostorism comes through in the unexpected facility with which she moves between worlds, hanging on for the ride at the disorienting velocity with which she’s volleyed off of her motorcycle and into the inner circle of 1970s New York’s art elite and, eventually, a devastating turn in Italy amidst violent political upheaval.
In The Balance by M.E. White
This incredible 1968 novel follows Baylor Irish, a hilarious, cynical, reckless nineteen-year-old college freshman with a “talent for insanity,” up and down the coast of California. She’s an impostor and misfit among her friends and classmates, an alcoholic prone to hallucinations and ingenious acts of mischief; but her caustic observational humor casts the world of abusive men, spoiled brats, and aloof adults in harsh relief. It’s an obscure classic that belongs on all our shelves in 2018. Somebody please reissue it.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman
Makina, Yuri Herrera’s shrewd heroine, is actually more of an antidote to impostor syndrome: she moves through worlds she knows she doesn’t belong swiftly, deftly, unapologetically and brutally, in order to get across the U.S.-Mexico border to find her lost brother. From escaping the border guards’ ambush with her coyote, to crossing a desert littered with bloated corpses, to wandering the manicured suburban alternate-universe of the other side of the border, Makina hasn’t the time for self-doubt. She’s an invigorating, galvanizing character. Herrera’s novel is a treasure; Lisa Dillman’s translation, a precious gift.
Adios Cowboy by Olja Savičević
Dada, the narrator-protagonist of this brilliant Croatian novel, has returned to her hometown after several what she calls “lost years” in Zagreb. As a freelance writer, she’s a lot like Static Flux’s narrator Calla in her shameless opportunistic exploitation of her underpaying media employers: a site called “Shit.com” pays her to “write or steal news for their site.” She says her adeptness at plagiarism was “more than they deserved for the pittance they paid me.” Her shrewd depiction of the ugliness and banalities of trashed, shit-strewn town of Split, where “the salt air begins to sweat and everything that moves passes limply through treacle, while the song of a million sounds is transformed into a steady, electric hum that hypnotizes,” is never without an underlying sense of humor and tenderness. She may not fit in anywhere, but she captures delightfully bizarre details with sardonic acuity.
Speedboat by Renata Adler
There’s a fine line between alienation and self-imposed isolation, and Speedboat’s intrepid (albeit heartbroken) reporter likely falls on the side of the latter. Her jaded, wry eye eloquently scrutinizes the subtext, absurdity, and banality of those around her, but these preoccupations become magnified in her distraught mental state as she tries to escape to some remote place and leave her longtime (married) lover. This iconic line resonates with me deeply to this day: “I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same spot for too long, you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump, and pray.”
A Spy in the House of Love by Anaïs Nin
I first read this novel as a teenager, and I’ve always admired Nin for how she seemed to be empowered, not paralyzed, by feelings of being an impostor (and even an adulteress). It was her romantic adventurism, after all, that brought her to live her own double-life in Los Angeles, with two husbands and everything. In A Spy in the House of Love, Sabina sashays her way through affair after affair, a female lothario in a cape and exquisite dress. She isn’t shameless, per se, but she is most certainly an impostor who doesn’t let her conscience — or fear of getting caught by her husband — get in the way of her crafty autonomy.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
Not a novel like the others, but this book is life-changing for anyone grappling with deep interpersonal insecurities in the face of uncertainty. The year before I started writing Static Flux, I was having dinner with my friend Stephan on St. Mark’s Place in New York when he asked me if I had read this book. I said no. He said I had to read it — as if it was required reading for being a human with too-big questions to handle. After dinner, he walked me to The Strand, found the book, put it in my hands, and although I was as broke as Calla is in the start of my novel, I bought it and devoured it. He was right. My thanks to Stephan.