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Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes’s 5 Novels on Strangers in Strange Times

These works are diverse—in form, tone, subject—but in my emotional and intuitive memory they speak the same language. They feature women out of their time or in impossible places, women who scuttle across traditional boundaries like Gregor Samsa. I’m interested in books whose narratives require playing with form (Event Factory, Margaret the First) and whose forms are shaped by religious traditions that allow for different visions of reality (Slab and The Shell Shaker). The women here are all time travellers, in a way. Some literally cross linear time divides (rendering them false), others were born far ahead of their time. They delight in the world’s marvels, without minimizing its wounds. This, too, is how I often feel: an alien traveller, frightened, wounded, and yet willing to open to wonder for the right words.


1. Slab, Selah Saterstrom

The majority of this book takes place on a slab of concrete, which is all that is left of the heroine Tiger’s Louisiana home after a destructive hurricane. Tiger is a stripper, performance artist, Southern grrl, and the slab is the perfect stage for what is her greatest performance—and perhaps her death gasps. Selah Saterstrom’s a Southerner, and her gothic is unlike any I’ve read: formally inventive, mold and voodoo-soaked, with women who are constantly reinventing themselves. Shifting between closet play, interview, historical reenactment and a fateful tarot reading, Slab is increasingly unpredictable, especially in its ability to find salvation amid the muck.


2. Shell Shaker, LeAnne Howe

This multi-layered literary mystery, by multi-talented Choctaw writer LeAnne Howe, flits between pre-removal Choctaw Mississippi in the 18th century, and an Oklahoma reservation in the 1990s. The historical elements are fascinating, as is the presentation of American Indian spiritual beliefs and how they shape narrative. In both timelines, a hero has been killed; the past haunts the present and the present rewrites the past. Characters reoccur across the centuries and at the center is Auda Billy, a woman haunted by a centuries-old murder and furious enough to consider a murder of her own.


3. The Woman of Colour, Anonymous

This anonymous epistolary novel of the long 18th century was out of print for 200 years before it was republished in 2007. (Novel theory nerds rejoice!) Research suggests it was written by a black British woman, cracking open a history not only of black and mixed-race women characters but writers from that time as well. The novel’s narrative is similar to Jane Eyre’s, yet told from the perspective of a free woman of color, and—here is the real twist—written 40 years before Jane Eyre was published. The eponymous heroine, Olivia, a mixed-race free woman, has been willed her white father’s estate with one major stipulation: she must travel to England and marry her cousin in order to inherit. As Olivia says of this bargain, “when I set my foot on your land of liberty, I yield up my independence.” Olivia is of course lovely and pious, but she is also fiercely independent with a strong sense of her own desires even as she balances precariously between cultures that refute her selfhood. Though definitely marked and hindered by the prejudices of its time, The Woman of Colour is a complex and nuanced study of racism and sexism, rife with gothic entertainment and brilliant barbs.


4. Event Factory, Renee Gladman

In this wondrously wandering book, an unnamed woman travels to the mysterious city of Ravicka, a city which is slowly and inconceivably disappearing beneath the fingertips of its inhabitants. A yellow fog coats everything and begins to interrupt and disrupt meaning itself. Though the protagonist is fluent in the native tongue, language too is slipping away. She wanders the city in search of what she used to know—words, landmarks, old friends—capable only of finding a deeper and deeper sense of being lost. I often teach Renee Gladman for how her writing makes students question their sense of reality and what versions of truth they accept from media. All three of Gladman’s Ravicka books are available on the amazing Dorothy, A Publishing Project.


5. Margaret the First, Danielle Dutton

Danielle Dutton is the creator of Dorothy, A Publishing Project and for this alone she deserves much acclaim. In her novel Margaret the First, Dutton has re/created (resurrected) a female folk hero who is prickly, hilarious, difficult, and a pure joy to read. Part imagined journal, part biography-that-should-have-been, Margaret the First details (in fleeting, sparkling droplets of prose) the life of Margaret Cavendish, an aristocrat, scholar, and novelist in the 17th century. Margaret writes sci-fi books, wears black stars on her cheeks, and attends a premier of a play bare-chested. She is a wonder not only for her absolute refusal to obey the limits of her times but because of her simultaneous refusal to be likeable and one-noted. Like the newly-invented telescopes that populate the book, which made the night stars feel close enough to touch, this elegant work both does and cannot possibly contain its heroine. Instead Margaret the First is a gift—here you go, here is this woman, there’s no stopping her once she’s got your attentions.


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