This is the fifth in a series of features highlighting the Black writers our editors and staff have been reading. To read The Common’s statement in support of the nationwide protests against anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and police brutality, click here.
It’s not as though the military fiction canon ignores social commentary; books like Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 certainly have a lot to say. But while many celebrated works in the genre feature criticisms of war and the armed services, water & power is the first of them I’ve encountered whose critiques discuss the racism, sexism, and homophobia running rampant in military culture. (At least in Navy culture, which the book focuses on.) The most climactic moments are not just battles and bombings—they’re also things like the Tailhook Scandal, a three-day symposium after which eighty-three women and seven men reported sexual misconduct. “A group of up to two hundred men who lined the corridor outside the hospitality suites around 10:30 each night” engaged in behaviors ranging from “consensual pats on the breasts and buttocks to violent grabbing, groping, clothes-stripping, and other assaultive behavior.” Steven Dunn, a Black West Virginia native, experienced Navy culture close up during his ten years of service.
In this month’s Friday Reads, we’re hearing from our volunteer readers, who consider submissions for print and online publication. Their book recommendations range from poetry collections to recent novel debuts and Flannery O’Connor short stories revisited through the lens of anti-racism. Read on for new quarantine entertainment and keep an eye out for a second round of recommendations from our volunteer readers, out later this fall.
Recommendations: Thin Girls by Diana Clarke; Shiner by Maggie Nelson; Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor; Cherry by Nico Walker, Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano.
Chinga la Migra. Fuck ICE. So begins Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s The Undocumented Americans, a book that is equal parts curse words and incantation, burn it all down and bleeding heart, punk rock and very good girl. The literary nonfiction book that unfurls from this epigraph—and that interlaces autobiographical essay and anti-impersonal investigative journalism—is heavy and gorgeous and astoundingly humane.
To write the book, Cornejo Villavicencio spent time with Spanish-speaking immigrants living in cities across the eastern United States. What she created from those interviews is a gut-punching, many-peopled portrait of undocumented Latinx working-class life. Not what it looks like, what it feels like.Don’t come here looking for DREAMers and sweet dreams. The Undocumented Americans is a book sleepless with the knowledge of how racialized divisions of labor are actually lived: as trauma and as slow death, unspooling in real time. If you’re going to tell this story, Cornejo Villavicencio writes, you “can’t be enamored by America, not still.” That “disqualifies you.” So she begins by giving ICE the finger—a brown middle finger with a snake tattoo undulating up to its knuckle and ending with a gold-painted aqua-tipped fingernail.
Review: Dispatches from the Land of White Noise—The Undocumented Americans
Welcome back to Friday Reads! After a brief hiatus, we are returning with books that have educated and entertained our former TC interns during quarantine. To find out what our former editorial assistants have been doing to pass the long days inside, read on.
Recommendations: The Tree and the Vine by Dola de Jong; Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid; Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier
Amir Ahmadi Arian’s Then the Fish Swallowed Himis an unswerving portrayal of an individual’s tormenting journey to self-realization in a totalitarian theocracy. By reproducing the minutiae of one man’s stolen solitude, Arian has created a powerful critique not only of the Mullah-dominated politics of Iran, but also of the very nature of political life in this society. Arian, an Iranian novelist, translator, and journalist who currently lives in New York City, has in the past translated novels by E.L. Doctorow, Paul Aster, P.D. James, and Cormac McCarthy to Farsi, as well as written two novels and a book of nonfiction in his native language. Released in March of 2020 in the U.S., Then the Fish SwallowedHim is Arian’s debut novel in English.
The book begins amidst a raucous union strike near the Jannatabad Bus Terminal in the northwestern part of Tehran, when middle-aged bus driver Yunus Turabi watches Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s plainclothes militia—the Basijis, a zealous bunch of young Revolutionary Armed Guards—violently beat a woman. As the wife of an imprisoned activist is kicked in the ribs and flung on the ground, Yunus’s fellow bus drivers scream and shout. During the ensuing clash with the police, who are shielding the Basijis, Yunus is jolted out of his humdrum existence and is spurred to action by his colleague’s protests. But his punches, ecstatic and involuntary, are warded off with the blows of an electric baton. Numbed, he tears away from the crowd and hides on the roof of an empty bus.
Review: Then the Fish Swallowed Him by Amir Ahmadi Arian
Mark your calendars! For the fifth year, The Common is preparing for LitFest, a weekend of events to recognize and celebrate contemporary literature. In conjunction with the National Book Awards and Amherst College, The Common will celebrate extraordinary voices such as Jesmyn Ward, Susan Choi, Laila Lalami, and Ben Rhodes.
LitFest will be held on the campus of Amherst College from February 27th through March 1st. For more details, visit the LitFest website. But first, read on for recommendations from the participating authors.
Recommendations: Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward; Trust Exercise by Susan Choi; Battle Dress by Karen Skolfield, and The World as It Is by Ben Rhodes.
When I was nineteen and trying my hand at novel-writing for the first time, I found myself struggling with a story that alternated between two protagonists, a mother and a daughter. After reading my newest batch of pages, a beloved mentor observed that only the daughter was coming to life on the page. “There has to be more to this other woman than her role as a mother,” she said. I realize now that she was speaking from her own recent, still-raw experiences. “Try going back in time with the mother character,” she said. “Write a scene where she’s twenty, before she has a child, and see what she does. When you become a mother, your old self doesn’t disappear. All the parts of you that were there before are still there.”
Here it is, the final Friday Reads of the decade! This month, we’re sharing the audiobooks that have entertained and challenged us this year. If you’d like even more listening material, check out The Common Online’s Poetry Recordings here.
Recommendations: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett; The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks; Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt; All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Issue 18 is almost here! Pre-order your copy today to enjoy brand-new fiction, poetry, essays, and artwork arriving on October 28th. If waiting by the mailbox isn’t your thing, countdown to the magazine’s arrival with book recommendations from some of our Issue 18 contributors.
Recommendations: Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard by Cynthia L. Haven; Loves You: Poems by Sarah Gambito; A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa; The Farm by Joanne Ramos; and Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors.