Transcript: Samantha Irby and Robin Sloan

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 1 Episode 1.

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’re joined by essayist and performer Samantha Irby, discussing The Mothers by Brit Bennett:

SAMANTHA IRBY:

This book wasn’t like anything I’ve ever read. I feel like there are lots of books I’m really into, like family dramas where years-long issues sort of bubble up and sisters and brothers are fighting and mothers and fathers are fighting. But I hadn’t read that kind of book about a contemporary black family before, and so a lot of it rang really true for me in my own life and experiences.

JENN:

Novelist Robin Sloan has strong feelings about The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler:

ROBIN SLOAN:

I am convinced that Parable of the Sower is the real great American novel of the 21st century. I will not be satisfied until people are reading it in school and writing about it, because I think it has everything to say about America, its past, its future.

JENN:

Samantha Irby is the hilarious and talented author of essay collections Meaty and We Are Never Meeting In Real Life. A writer and performer, Irby is known for her unflinching honesty, candor, and ability to find the humor in life’s distressing and difficult moments.

IRBY:

My name is Samantha Irby, and “The Mothers” by Brit Bennett is my recommended.

I found the book, I think, in the month before the book came out, it was everywhere. It’s got this really striking beautiful cover. And, you know, I read all of the lists: every like “new spring books” or “fresh fall picks” or “cozy winter stories.” And it was on basically every list that I had seen. It was getting rave reviews.

So I read about it, I pre-ordered it at my local indie bookstore, I went and picked it up the day that it came out. I remember it was in October, and my family were all off camping, which is not a thing I’m ever interested in doing. So I took advantage of having a quiet house for once and I sat down to read, and I read the whole thing in a day.

I have reread the book twice already, and I’m definitely going to read it again.

“The Mothers” is a fiction book set in a black community, it’s contemporary, in southern California. And its main focus is this young woman named Nadia who’s like 17, she just graduated high school, she’s rebellious, she’s beautiful, she’s mysterious, and she is also overwhelmed by grief over the death of her mother. She lives with her father, who’s a formidable military man. He’s kinda stoic and quiet; a pillar in the local church. He doesn’t talk much about her mother, And the book is narrated or book-ended by this sort of Greek chorus of older, black women who have been in this church for a long time who are known collectively as The Mothers.

This kid Luke who’s the preacher’s son gets her pregnant, and she decides to abort the baby. The book is all about her journey in coming to terms both with her mother’s death and with terminating this pregnancy. So the book is essentially the breakdown of her feelings but also his feelings, how he feels. Even though he knows that the two of them having a baby isn’t really the best thing, he’s got these complicated feelings about the abortion.
And also, Nadia makes a friend, young woman named Aubrey, who is the quintessential perfect churchgoing girl. And the three of them — I don’t wanna give too much away, but they end up in a friendship triangle. And the book basically tells you three sides of a complicated story surrounding a controversial and complicated issue.

This book wasn’t like anything I’ve ever read. I feel like there are lots of books I’m really into, like family dramas where years-long issues sort of bubble up and sisters and brothers are fighting and mothers and fathers are fighting. But I hadn’t read that kind of book about a contemporary black family before, and so a lot of it rang really true for me in my own life and experiences.

Both of my parents are dead, and so I really related to the kinda “How do you cope with a parent who is deceased and can’t answer a lot of the questions that you have? And who do you model your life after when your mom is gone?” I mean, I still feel … I’m 37 and I still can remember being a senior in high school and thinking, “What am I gonna do now?”

I was feeling all of my feelings while reading it. And I feel like if I have that visceral of a reaction then it’s gotta be a good book. Not that I’m so tough that it’s hard to impress me. But I definitely was sucked right in and needed to know what happened to these people that day. And that rarely happens for me.

I have forced this book into the hands of basically everyone I know and care about. I’m one of those people who, if I read something and I like it, I will buy 10 copies of it and mail it out to people. I have friends who had babies, and I sent this to them. Friends who were going on vacation, I was like, “Hey, take this. Read this.” I just sent it to a friend of mine in Texas who was going on a family trip and needed some distraction from her parents and siblings. And she texted me the other day and said that she read it, again, in a day and they hadn’t even left for the trip yet.

So all of the feedback I’ve gotten from people that I have recommended it to has been positive. Or, I know a lot of really good liars who haven’t read the book but want me to still like them.

If you like family drama, church drama, sex drama, you should go get “The Mothers” by Brit Bennett right now and then read it today.

JENN:

Thanks again to Samantha Irby for joining us and recommending The Mothers by Brit Bennett. Samantha Irby’s latest collection We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, published by Vintage, is available wherever books are sold. You can hear more from Irby at wordscience on Twitter.

AD READ:
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Included in that giveaway is today’s featured title, Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary by Martha Brockenbrough. It’s a meticulously researched books that will give insight into Hamilton’s rise from humble beginnings to a position of power and respect. It’s a powerful story of personal triumph, against all odds. Maps, infographics, timelines, and spotlights provide additional information on topics ranging from fashion and music, to speech and customs of the era (including best Revolutionary times insults and the etiquette of duels). Did you know Martha Washington named her horny tomcat after Alexander Hamilton? Well, now you do.

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JENN:

Robin Sloan is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, which has been published in more than 20 countries. His new novel Sourdough is a surreal twist on the San Francisco foodie scene.

SLOAN:

My name is Robin Sloan, and Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, is my recommended. I’m actually on a mission to have Parable of the Sower universally recognized, recategorized as the great American novel. I know other novels have kind of contended for that title. I always heard that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was the great American novel, everybody reads it in school and talks about it and writes essays about it. That’s fine, those books all had their chance. I am convinced that Parable of the Sower is the real great American novel of the 21st century. I will not be satisfied until people are reading it in school and writing about it, because I think it has everything to say about America, its past, its future, and … Yeah, it’s fantastic.

I first ran across Parable of the Sower because my partner had been reading it over the course of a few nights, and she was visibly distressed by the experience. I mean, she was a little freaked out by whatever was happening in the story. I remember she was jumpy. There’d be noises outside our apartment, and she’d kind of go like, “What is that?” And I didn’t really understand why at the time. Even though the book was obviously so distressing and she said so, she also said she really loved it and was getting a lot out of it, and she insisted that should read it as well, and I did.

Parable of the Sower takes place in a future America, and at the beginning, it’s not quite clear how deep a dystopia it is, but then pretty quickly things kind of are engulfed in flame, literally, and then it becomes a road trip book. It’s about a kind of exodus; it’s about characters that are fleeing a succession of bad , and it’s about all the things they see along the way.

I think that the great American novel for the 21st century has to be science fiction to some degree, and I think that’s because America is a science fictional country. I think it has been for a long time, and so you have to be able to talk about the future; you have to have a rigorous vision of the future. If you’re just sort of dwelling in the past and turning the same stone over in your hands again and again and again, I think you can do interesting work that way, but it’s not the great American novel. So, Parable of the Sower, because it does talk not only about this more immediate dystopian America, but about a further future and the hope for this further future, and what waits for human beings maybe out in the stars.That’s what makes it really special to me.

People often talk about this book as a really dark dystopia, and it is. I mean, really, really bad things happen to people in this book. It’s just really realistic about the ways that humans can hurt each other. But at the same time, it’s one of the most deeply optimistic books I know of. It has this vision embedded in its core, the vision of the main character. It’s a vision that she’s actually articulating in this fictional world and building a following around this new philosophy that she calls Earthseed, and it is hopeful, and bright, and so deeply appealing. I mean, I joke with one of my friends that we think that maybe Earthseed is our religion, in a very real way. To have the book demonstrate both those things goes so deep and so real on both the darkness and the light. The pessimism and the optimism is just singular, I think, in fiction.

My favorite scene in the book … And I actually can’t remember if this happens in Parable of the Sower or in the follow up book, which kind of continues the story. It’s called Parable of the Talents. They set up camp, and for a minute, things are peaceful. They’ve found refuge, and they’re setting up a little community in this really bleak world, and they’re grinding up acorns. They’re making acorn pancakes and things like that, and this is up on the California coast. Now, whenever I’m driving around up there and you see all these oak trees and you see these cliffs facing the ocean, which is where Octavia Butler describes her characters hanging out, I always think of those people just comfortable for a minute in that dark future, grinding up acorns.

Parable of the Sower does have this science fictional sense for the far future, in common with other books that I count among my great favorites. Often, when I talk about my favorite writers, or my favorite series, I talk about Iain Banks, the great British science fiction writer who wrote this loosely-connected series of books called the Culture novels, that take place in this world tens of thousands of years hence, and I just always imagine writers capable of those feats of future imagination as kind of athletes. It’s like their muscles aren’t these huge, bulging biceps or big, gonzo quads, they’re in their brains, but they’re still really powerful and really impressive, because they’re able to do this thing of imagining this far future, and it does.
It takes not only intellect and rigor, but it does take a kind of hopefulness and faith, I guess, that a future that long is even possible for humans. And that’s what Octavia Butler does in Parable of the Sower. She does it through the voice of her main character and the things that she says about what’s possible in the far future for humanity, but I would say that I love books that do that in any way and do it convincingly. I feel like I kind of need it; I need to hear those stories.

Even if it’s gnarly, dark future, it’s like, bad news, the universe is ruled by robot overlords. Good news? Humans still kicking, still part of the story. You could talk to plenty of people, smart sort of pragmatic people who would say, “I’ve considered the evidence, and no. I don’t think there’s any … No need for a science fiction story set 10,000 years in the future, because that’s not going to be an issue.” Which I don’t believe. I am firmly in the camp of banks, and I’m in the Earthseed pews. I think we got a future ahead of us.

I have to say that when I recommend this book to people, I do give them the hard sell. I tell them that it is assuredly the great American novel, and soon this will be universally recognized, and they can now have the pleasure of getting in on the ground floor.

I think it’s silly, it’s really, because of course the right argument is great American novel, what do you even mean by that? That’s not a thing. Be quiet. But as long as it is sort of this trope in our literary culture, I am going to bend it this way. I’m going to say, “I’ve got one for you.”

JENN:

Thanks again to Robin Sloan for joining us and recommending The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. His latest novel Sourdough, published by FSG, is now available wherever books are sold. You can hear more from Sloan at robinsloan on Twitter.

OUTRO:

Thanks to Fierce Reads for sponsoring the show on behalf of Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary by Martha Brockenbrough. Be sure to check out the Recommended Season 1 giveaway at FierceReadsRecommended.com.

Next week on Recommended, get ready for a tale of derring-do.

UNNAMED AUTHOR:

“He breaks out of prison after like 14 years and goes back to wreak revenge on the enemies who put him into his prison. He’s got this decades long really intricate plan of revenge, and of course, it doesn’t go exactly the way he expects.”

JENN:

If you liked what you heard, please take a moment to review and rate us on Apple Podcasts. We love to hear your feedback and it helps other folks to find the show. You can find shownotes at Bookriot.com/recommended, and you can email us at recommended@bookriot.com.