Alexander Chee Recommends 5 Books that Aren’t By Men
The latest in our Read More Women series, with the author of “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”
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You already know that women writers love Alexander Chee—earlier this year, we published a conversation among four Asian American writers, three of them women, about how inspiring they’ve found him. What you may not yet know is that the feeling is mutual. Here, the award-winning and bestselling author of The Queen of the Night and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel introduces some of the five books by non-men that he finds most inspiring.
Chee is involved in the writing world as an editor and an educator—he’s a contributing editor at The New Republic, an editor at large at VQR, and a professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth—which means he gets a chance to be influential in promoting women and non-binary writers. And he is, of course, a celebrated author in his own right; his essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, T Magazine, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, and Best American Essays 2016, and he is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship.
Read More Women is Electric Literature’s series, presented in collaboration with MCD Books, in which we feature prominent authors, of any gender, recommending their favorite books by women and non-binary writers. Twice a month, you’ll hear about the five non-male authors who most delight your favorite writers.
City of Angels, or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf
This was one of the most consummate aesthetic and political experiences I’ve had while reading in years. Wolf’s last novel is based on a character like her, arriving to the U.S. from Germany after the fall of the Wall, on her way to a residency in California. There’s a Weimar Under the Palms feeling to it, as the East German writer wanders the California landscape in conversations with her fellow fellows, and herself, and engaging in a project based on the correspondence she’s found between two women during the East German regime. Highlights include being astonished at the homeless problem, amazement at a former CIA Director winning the presidency, and listening to a young Californian explain to her, an East German, the idea of Basic Income. The novel seems to be the way she undertook writing about the scandal that rocked her career — the discovery that she had been an informant after the release of her Stasi files. It is an investigation of self deception, at the personal and the national level, and with time I love it more and more.
An Autobiography by Janet Frame
Only the wonderful bright spirit that was the late Janet Frame would choose the simple title, An Autobiography, for this three volume wonder, collecting To the Is-Land, Angel At My Table, and The Envoy From Mirror City. It is an arresting, experimental journey into the life of New Zealand’s greatest writer, beginning with her working class family upbringing, her false diagnosis with schizophrenia, her struggle to be treated with respect as a woman writer, and how she made her way in this world. You may know of this from the masterpiece of a film made by Jane Campion, adapted from this book, but the book itself has so much wise and insightful writing advice that did not make it onto the screen.
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
Jones has a piece of writing advice I love — “When there’s two sides to the story and both sides are right, you have a novel.” This novel embodies this, powerfully, in the story of two sisters, each sharing their side of growing up in 1980s Atlanta with a shared father, a bigamist, and how they were each shaped in part by how and when they learned of each other, and became, for a time, something like antagonists. I came to love them both and root for them both, which is part of the novel’s magic trick. For readers new to her looking for more of what they loved in her current bestselling novel, An American Marriage, they should easily turn here next — I also think this is a great place to begin reading her.
I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin
A young woman receives a phone call from an ex-boyfriend eight years after they last saw each other, telling her that their former professor is near death though he is not receiving visitors. She is drawn into memories of how he kept her and their friends inspired as they navigated the tumultuous period of student protests and state violence in South Korea during the 1980s authoritarian rule of South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, in part through the study of European literature. It is both a portrait of their friendships and relationships, their desire to escape the world they are in, and their desire to transform it. “Literature and art are not simply what will carry you; they are also what you must lay down your life for,” the professor tells his students, and the novel is the story of how they try.
Saint Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West
A biography by the woman writer who inspired Woolf’s Orlando, about the famous French Saint. It has been accused of being a little fictionalized, but you may not care. I didn’t. The result is a drama about gender, power, the church, French culture, and the question of whether it is a heresy punishable by being burned at the stake to say a saint can console you in jail by holding you. It is also a powerful and poignant meditation on patriotism, heroism, and martyrdom — and a myth that is a tentpole of Western culture.