Garry Knight

TaraShea Nesbit’s Six Women Writing Through History

The women on this list write through history in unpredictable ways, trouble a linear narrative’s perpetuation of a solid past, draw closer the space between past and present, and have fun with how a contemporary writer may utilize archives. I delight in the microhistories and vignettes here—a baby is born, a woman is embarrassed, someone lives with grief—for how they extend a hand through time, from one woman to another. And the delight is heightened by unexpected narrative leaps of consciousness and lean, shimmering prose that is, nevertheless, modest.


1. Shena McAuliffe

A boy who lives refuses to be pinned down, eschews delineation, is never fixed in the silver of a photograph. But a boy who dies is unchanging.

A writer who works in both fiction and nonfiction, Shena McAuliffe has a good dentist’s attention to the sentence: precise, never unnecessary in her procedures. The metaphor is apt: You’ll have to wait a bit for her forthcoming novel, but it is set in the 1930s and features a couple reeling from the loss of their child—due to a root canal gone wrong—who travel the world in grief and curiosity. Meanwhile, the husband, a dentist who is falling in favor in his profession because of his seemingly bizarre ideas, tries to prove again and again that he is not wrong. I’m compelled by how McAuliffe’s work is often preoccupied both with how we mortals get perception wrong, and how perception fails us at finding anything universally true. She writes about the fragility of humanhood so tenderly. I could live a long time just thinking about these things. An excerpt from the manuscript is published here in Memorius.


2. Yaa Gyasi

Because of this, Effia grew thinner, skin on small bird-like bones, with a large black hole of a mouth that expelled a hungry cry which could be heard throughout the village, even on the days Baaba did her best to smother it, covering the baby’s lips with the rough palm of her left hand.

Since first reading Yaa Gyasi’s short stories “Sunset,” in the African American Review, and “Many Sons,” in Callaloo, I’ve been keen to the rumor that she was at work on a novel. She has a way with voice and knows what to leave out from a story to heighten the stakes. I’m really excited for her debut, Homegoing, about two sisters with very different journeys, beginning in 18th century Ghana and spanning generations. The book is to be released in June and has a favorable review in The New Yorker .


3. Danielle Dutton

Remedies were prescribed, everything from more rest to the excrement of a virile ram rubbed across my belly.

Danielle Dutton has two books—S P R A W L and Margaret the First. The first renders suburban sprawl beautiful again by slowing down to really see it, and has comedic elements: “The arrangement and rearrangement of these everyday objects is comforting and has to do with human nature in the petroleum age.” The latter explores the life Margaret Cavendish, the reserved yet boldly unconventional 17th-century Duchess and the first woman to write for publication in England. In both books, Dutton roams perspectives, never builds a common image, and gives single paragraphs the page-worth of space they deserve. I love how she talks, in this interview, about having a stack of research books as a “lucid curve ball” she throws herself to go “off track so of course back on.” Dutton also runs Dorothy, a publishing house devoted to publishing books by women, and I’ve loved everything on her press and often find new women writers through her curation. Particularly, two of my favorite authors: Renee Gladman and Joanna Ruocco. Oh, make that three: Barbara Comyns!


4. Joanna Ruocco

A daughter’s love for her father is a third thing, a special kind of love with an almost vestigial quality, a hold over from primitive times, when there were no parents per se, just fathers who owned their progeny, who could keep or kill or marry off their progeny to serve any purpose.

Joanna Ruocco wrote the historically-based “sari-ripper” (a romantic story set in historical India) Ghazal in the Moonlight, which allows me to slyly sneak in a mention of Ruocco, who usually writes contemporary-based work. I find myself thinking pretty frequently about her modern story, “Third Party,” in Web Conjunctions, which has forever altered the word “penultimate” for me. Like her work generally, “Third Party” opens new spaces in my brain and her humor is a batch of feelings—anxieties, loneliness, the desire for closeness and admiration and love. I read her writing and am in awe. The sentences are hilarious and virtuosic but without any show-off—which is basically, I must confess to you, what I thought of her when I heard her read a few years ago at the American Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. Ruocco co-edits Birkensnake, an imperfectly beautiful hand-bound fiction journal. She’s published other books, but quietly: Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych, A Compendium of Domestic Incidents and The Mothering Coven.


5. Pamela Ryder

It plays until the lid falls closed: Shoo fly, shoo. Shoo fly, shoo.

Pamela Ryder’s Correction of Drift zooms into multiple, shifting perspectives of those involved in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. The famous aviator Charles Lindbergh is here, yes, but so too are the family maid, the kidnappers, and the conflicting newspaper reports that reveal the mysterious story in a narrative form that resembles a mirror broken into several shards, detailed down to every edge. To say lyrical these days is to say soda, something common and banal and not very good for you, but these sentences are crisp, fresh lettuce of sentences, and the bridge between the past and the present is short.


6. Marguerite Yourcenar

… each of us has to choose, in the course of his brief life, between endless striving and wise resignation, between the delights of disorder and those of stability, between the Titan and the Olympian …

I’m breaking my own rule for contemporary writers here to talk about a dead author that is widely under-known. Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1951 novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, is an epistolary novel from the perspective of the aging emperor, Hadrian, reflecting on his life in direct address to his adopted grandson, Marcus Aurelius. It’s good, but what I return to is the essay at the back of most editions of the book, “Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian,” in which Yourcenar offers soothing insights for any writer who has doubted their writing process. At one point she burned the pages, took nearly a decade off from writing, and swore she would not continue the book. If she could prevail and write her book, she gives hopefulness during the dark hours of one’s own lopsided and seemingly dilapidated drafts.


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