Transcript: Annalee Newitz and Jesmyn Ward

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 1 Episode 3.

AD READ:

This episode of Recommended is sponsored by Spinning by Tillie Walden. This stunning graphic memoir captures Tillie Walden’s real-life experience training in competitive ice skating for 12 years. Walden is a debut talent with a distinct voice, many short comics, an Eisner Award nomination, and two Ignatz Awards under her belt. More about Spinning by Tillie Walden a little later in the show.

JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’re joined by Annalee Newitz, discussing Carol Emshwiller’s The Mount:

ANNALEE NEWITZ:

I had not read any Emshwiller before and I gobbled up The Mount while I was at WisCon actually, it’s a short book and as soon as I finished it I went and bought a bunch more of her books, because all of her work has … What it has in common is this very spare, poetic prose that pulls you into the minds of its characters …

She just lays out these very complicated psychologies in this super simple way.

JENN:

And Jesmyn Ward, discussing The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist:

JESMYN WARD:

Like, the argument that he’s making about slavery and about the very foundation of American. I think it can be revelatory, especially, for a person like me. You know, I grew up in the south. I grew up in Mississippi, and um, and I didn’t learn any of this in school

JENN:

Annalee Newitz is the Tech Culture Editor at Ars Technica, and the founding editor of io9. Her nonfiction book Scatter, Adapt and Remember, was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. Her first science fiction novel, Autonomous, includes a submarine pirate, a military agent and the robot he’s fallen in love with, and is now available wherever books are sold.

NEWITZ:

My name is Annalee Newitz and The Mount by Carol Emshwiller is my recommended book.

I found the book at WisCon, which is a feminist science fiction convention that happens every year in Madison, Wisconsin. And Small Beer Press, which is a fantastic independent publisher of speculative fiction was there and they had a table with a bunch of their books out there, and the cover of this book was so striking to me that I had to pick it up just to see what it was. And the cover is this beautiful painting, kind of in the style of a Victorian painting of a horse. And it’s supposed to be like that, but it’s a picture of a person who’s wearing a bridle and is posing sort of like a horse would in this very sort of bucolic environment. And I looked at it, I was just like, “What the hell is this? It’s so disturbing.”

And luckily it’s one of those times when the cover of a book perfectly captures the tone of a story. And it’s basically a kind of fairytale about what happens when aliens invade earth, and we don’t really know how it’s happened, it’s generations ago. So this is a very entrenched colonial relationship between these aliens and humans. And the aliens are very small and they fit nicely on human shoulders, and so they’ve turned humans into the equivalent of horses. And they’ve been breeding humans, they have different types of humans. They have the Seattles and the Tennessees and they breed us for strength and coloring and speed. And they have this incredible interesting, well they have this incredibly horrifying relationship with people which is immediately recognizable when you start reading it.

The prose is very simple and fable like, and we hear first from the aliens who are called hoots because of the sound that they make. And they’re sort of talking to the humans and they’re saying like, “You’re free, you’re more free than we are because we have to work and you don’t have any of the cares of the world and we work together and we’re your eyes and you’re our strength.” And it sounds just like sort of the types of things that people throughout history have said to their slaves and have kind of used to justify slavery as a benevolent institution.

And most of the book is from the point of view of one of the mounts, who’s about 11. So he is a child, and he’s looking at this world through the eyes of a child and very innocent. And it just really, it just punched me in the gut because it was so beautiful and spare, and just perfectly cut to the heart of the horror and the psychological mania that allowed people to enslave each other. And just really showed exactly what that mental state is like, and how we justify it.

I had not read any Emshwiller before and I gobbled up The Mount while I was at WisCon actually, it’s a short book and as soon as I finished it I went and bought a bunch more of her books, because all of her work has … What it has in common is this very spare, poetic prose that pulls you into the minds of its characters but in exactly the opposite way of say a classic modernist writer like Faulkner or James Joyce, where they pull you into someones consciousness and it’s incredibly complicated and it’s like wading through goo and it’s beautiful but it’s its own kind of problem, deciphering what it’s like inside someone’s head. And she just lays out these very complicated psychologies in this super simple way, and often she deals with themes of aliens who’ve been either stranded on earth or people who are outsiders in some sense and who are kind of trying to figure out how they connect to humanity, either because they’re not human or because they just don’t feel like they’re part of humanity.

And she evokes nature very beautifully, and sort of how people can be connected to nature, but also how nature kind of doesn’t give a shit about us in a certain sense. Not in an evil way but in a sort of benevolent way, like nature’s got its own thing going on. And that’s partly because Carol Emshwiller has spent a huge part of her adult life living by herself in this remote mountain cabin, and so I think she’s surrounded by that.

For a writer like myself, she’s very inspiring because she really started her greatest work late in her life. I think she really started publishing when she was in her fifties or sixties, and she had been part of the science fiction community for a very long time, and has lots of friends who are in the community, she’s friends with Ursula Le Guin and women of that generation who were kind of pioneers in science fiction, and social science fiction basically.

So she’s had this fantastic career publishing late in her life and I think part of what makes her writing so insightful and luminous is that she’s really got a ton of perspective. She’s not doing … I mean youthful writing is also super awesome, but she’s looking at things from a distance, she’s experienced a ton of situations with humans in her life already, so I feel like she’s kind of got that alien perspective that age gives you where you’re sort of looking at all these people around you who are struggling to do what young people do, make it in the world and figure themselves out. And it starts to feel very remote once you’ve reached a certain age and you’re like, “Look I’ve got my frickin cabin okay? I’m set.” Like, “I know what I’m up to. So now I’m just gonna observe humans and see them as part of nature and like look at the cycle of human life in that way.”

I do think that Emshwiller is in the same tradition as writers like Octavia Butler who also deals with colonial relationships and how complex they are. I also think that, in some ways she’s sort of writing regionalist fiction, early 20th century fiction, but it’s about aliens in the future. But it has this strong sense of place in it, especially a strong sense of American place. So I think that’s just another reason why she’s so intriguing, because she really does combine deep science fiction themes about alien consciousness, with this very American voice that you start to hear early in the 20th century.

I’m frequently recommending this novel. It’s like one of the books that I always recommend to people when they ask about … When they’re first asking about science fiction, when people ask me about feminist science fiction, I often say, “Try this” because it’s not at all what people expect from feminist science fiction.

But a lot of people have taken me up on it, some have loved it, and then I’ve had people respond with horror because the image of … The idea of a person being put into a bridle and turned into a mount.

So you know, I mean it’s creepy. And that’s what I like about it is that it’s this beautiful, simple fable that has this incredibly like dark, fucked up core, which is a harsh condemnation of how we deal with the colonial relationships.

JENN:

Thanks again to Annalee Newitz for joining us and recommending The Mount by Carol Emshwiller. Her new novel Autonomous, published by Tor Books, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at @annaleeN.

AD READ:

Fierce Reads is the exclusive sponsor of this season of Recommended, and they are hosting a huge giveaway for Recommended listeners, so go to FierceReadsRecommended.com to enter for a chance to win a bunch of great books.

Included in that giveaway is the new graphic memoir, Spinning by Tillie Walden. In the vein of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, this book handles LGBTQ themes with tact and compassion as the main character comes of age, comes out, and comes to terms with her identity, all while navigating the world of competitive ice skating.

This book adds an elegant, compelling point of view to the wealth of contemporary graphic novels that address coming of age and LGBTQ themes. Our thanks to Spinning by Tillie Walden and Fierce Reads for making Recommended possible.

JENN:

Jesmyn Ward is a National Book Award winner and author of the novels Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage The Bones and the memoir Men We Reaped. Her newest novel, Sing Unburied Sing, is a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, and it’s now available wherever books are sold. And for her Recommended, she is picking The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist.

WARD:

I like to think that normally in my past when I was younger I would have looked at that, the subtitle and, um, been afraid to read. The reason that I picked it up, and that I wanted to read it was because I decided that I wanted to work on a project, like, or a novel that took place during New Orleans in the height of the domestic slave trade, and as I was attempting to begin writing the first rough … like, the rough draft of the novel, I realized I have … I know nothing about slavery, right? I know nothing, about like what slavery was like, how it was built, how, you know, how that entire sort of system of, um, you know, dehumanizing one group of people and making them into animals. Like, I had no idea how any of that worked.
Unfortunately, my education, my history education is spotty, um, at best. And so, I thought it would be a good idea to read this book, so that I can learn and-and do some research and maybe have a better understanding of the context the world, you know, that I’m writing about. And once I began reading it, um, I couldn’t stop.

Okay, so the book is The Half Has Never Been Told, and it is about slavery and the making of American capitalism.

I may have seen it in my local bookstore. Um. Because sometimes I like to go to my local bookstore when I’m, you know, just want to look around, or waste some time, and browse the shelves. And so, if I saw it anywhere, like, I think that would have been the place My local bookstore is , and so they have a non-fiction section that’s right next to the register at the front. And I think that is probably where I found it.

It-it takes a while to finish, because it’s pretty dense, and of course it’s like chalked full of facts. But it is worth it. And I think that the facts are so striking and his argument … you know, Edward Baptist is the author. Like, the argument that he’s making about slavery and about the very foundation of American. I think it can be revelatory, especially, for a person like me. You know, I grew up in the south. I grew up in Mississippi, and um, and I didn’t learn any of this in school. I didn’t learn about, um, about the history of people of the African , you know. From, you know, de- definitely not before slavery. Not before the Trans Atlantic slave trade, but not during slavery, um, or even much of what happened afterwards. You know, I-I feel like we did segments on like the civil rights movement, maybe. And that might have taken like two days.

So yeah, so my-my education is like, it’s woefully inadequate. And um, and this book taught me so much about you know, about what the country was like.

There were some facts that I was really surprised by. For example, like I said, at one time during the early 1800s, had the highest, the highest concentration of millionaires in the, in the country. Like, in the entire United States. And the reason that there were so many millionaires in , was because of slavery.

Also, during the early 18, you know, early to mid 1800s, that, um, that slavery was sort of like the economic backbone, or slavery and the production of cotton, right? So, th-these, the, these were like the economic- this was the economic backbone for, like a fourth of the industry, (laughs) in the United States. That was totally shocking to me.

One of his larger arguments in the book is that America could not have become America without this institution of slavery.

And-and he proves that, you know, in various different, sort of, ways; where he offers proof for that throughout the book. But-but I had never encountered that idea before that was enough of a of a glue to like, to link the states together, to attract settlers to the-the … I mean, in the past it was called the southwest. But to attract settlers to the southwest, to get them to, to go there, to begin the driving out the Native American population;

What I understood of slavery was further complicated because I grew up in the south, and I encountered people, you know, young people, you know, people that were my age, you know, white kids who would argue with me about slavery, about the Civil War. And they would say things like, the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery.

They would say things like, oh, you know, um, uh, you know, eventually, slavery would have just, you know, crumbled as a system, right. I’m mean, you-you know, it wasn’t … and-and at the time, I didn’t know how. I didn’t have the knowledge that I needed in order to argue against these ideas. And I also didn’t understand that those kinds of arguments are … that they’ve been around for a long time. And that they are a way, you know, for um, for certain people to change the narrative around slavery, and to like absolve them of fault. … they have been used, uh, for like years, you know, decades by white supremacists, as-as a way to, yeah, to-to rewrite the-the history of slavery. Um. So, you know, this book was really revelatory for me, because, you know, all these things that I’d grown up hearing, you know, suddenly, someone, you know, Edward Baptist, like he was arguing against all of those things.

JENN:

Thanks again to Jesmyn Ward for joining us and recommending The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist. Ward’s new novel Sing Unburied Sing, published by Scribner, is now available wherever books are sold. You can hear more from her on Twitter at @jesmimi.

JENN:

Thanks to Fierce Reads for sponsoring the show on behalf of Spinning by Tillie Walden. Be sure to check out the Recommended Season 1 giveaway at FierceReadsRecommended.com.

Next week on Recommended, one of our guests gets rapturous about romance:

UNNAMED AUTHOR:

That is what romance writing is about. It’s about taking those little moments that mean the world and somehow getting that across in prose. And it’s not an easily done task. It takes craft, those little moments between two people that are pivotal or meaningful. You have to tease them out and make the reader feel the intensity of emotion in that small gesture.