Blew Me Away: An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

Where do I begin? I’d started and deleted so many introductions to this post. Maybe I should just use the words of the Goodreads reviewer who convinced me to pick up the book: “Wow. Just wow.”

I actually learned about Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State through fellow Literary Wives blogger Carolyn’s beautiful review, which you can find here. Her post was compelling, but it left me in a predicament: I knew I wanted and needed to read this book and yet I wasn’t confident I could handle the intensity of the subject matter.

The book is a work of fiction, about a young Haitian-American woman who is kidnapped during her visit to Haiti to see her parents. Mireille is a spirited and headstrong woman who is living the American Dream. She is happily married and successful in her career as a lawyer. She is also the new mother of a baby boy.

The kidnapping takes place in the first pages of the book. The screaming, the pounding of fists on the glass of the car, the cries of the baby in the backseat – I can still see, hear, and feel the blood-thumping events as I type this. At that point I had to put the book down for a couple of minutes before continuing on. I had to, reading this as a woman and as a mother and wife.

Mireille’s father is a self-made man, who has succeeded in business and now lives a life of luxury that stands out all too starkly from the majority of the Haitian population. His wealth makes his family an easy target for kidnappers. And so the abductors demand a handsome ransom, but one that Mireille’s father can afford, and one that he makes the kidnappers wait to get. It would take him 13 days to give up the money, and so it is 13 days that Mireille has to endure – is there a stronger word for what she goes through? – before she is released.

The first half of the book details Mireille’s 13 days as a captive, and these scenes alternate with flashbacks to her past, mainly the development of her relationship with her husband and her entry into motherhood. There is some flashback to her life with her parents as well. This back story allows us to understand Mireille as a human being and gives a context for the second half of the book, which details the aftermath of her ordeal. When Mireille is finally freed, she is, both literally and figuratively, broken. She struggles to feel human again but doesn’t know how. We see how her husband copes, or doesn’t cope. We see her struggle in the new light through which she sees her father.

Mireille’s voice is a force. Roxane Gay’s writing is a force. The scenes of violence were intense and effective, but they were not gratuitous or more than I could handle.

Why did I choose to read this, knowing it was going to be difficult? Carolyn said it so beautifully, and so I will borrow her words here – first a quote from writer Cynthia Bond, and then Carolyn’s words:

 “Somewhere along the way, working with at risk and homeless youth in Los Angeles for 15 years, living with my own abuse, and hearing stories of such pain and torment, I thought—If you can bear to have lived it, I can at least bear to listen.”

Exactly. I read An Untamed State because somewhere out there, someone has lived it. And I can at least bear to listen.

I second that. And I’ve felt doubly so after learning that Roxane Gay had drawn from her own experience of having been gang-raped as a teenager to write this book. I am so grateful to have been introduced to this writer and I’ve already ordered her subsequent book, Bad Feminist: Essays.

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Have you read Roxane Gay? What is the most difficult book (in terms of subject matter) you have ever read? 

Marriage and Personal Struggle: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

I’m back, or so I hope! I had a hard time motivating myself to write over the last few weeks but I’m hoping to now slowly get back into the swing of things. 

I have been reading my books, though, so I have some reviews to catch up on. I’ll start with one of my favorites from the summer, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.

I first spotted Dept. of Speculation under the category of “Mystery and Thriller.” I skimmed the blurb which described it as a suspenseful tale of marriage and motherhood and immediately decided that it was right up my alley.

It turned out to be completely different from what I expected. First, it’s a slender book at 160 pages. And when you flip through it, all you see are what appear to be little paragraphs. Indeed, the structure is unconventional. The book reads almost like poetry and the nameless narrator (sometimes “I,” sometimes “the wife”) jumps from one thought or short vignette to another. Offill’s lyricism reminded me of Paul Yoon’s beautiful Snow Hunters.

The story is a first-hand account of the changes in a marriage, and one woman’s slip into depression and the impact on her marriage and ability to parent. It is about the realities of marriage – about how chasms build and how difficult it can be to bridge them. There is an element of suspense, because her struggles hit a climax and as readers we hold our breaths to find out what happens, but I would most definitely not classify this book as a mystery or thriller.

I found such beauty in Jenny Offill’s writing. The book is small but each word is pregnant with meaning. She throws in a number of literary and scientific references, including many about living in space. But all of it is relevant. And she conveys just as much in what she chooses not to write. Here is a passage that really stayed with me:

So lately I’ve been having this recurring dream: In it my husband breaks up with me at a party, saying I’ll tell you later. Don’t pester me. But when I tell him this, he grows peevish. “We’re married, remember? Nobody’s breaking up with anybody.”

“I love autumn,” she says. “Look at the beautiful autumn leaves. It feels like autumn today. Is autumn your favorite time of year?” She stops walking and tugs on my sleeve. “Mommy! You are not noticing. I am using a new word. I am saying autumn instead of fall.” (page 46)

And here is a space reference:

Survival in space is a challenging endeavor. As the history of modern warfare suggests, people have generally proven themselves unable to live and work together peacefully over long periods of time. Especially in isolated or stressful situations, those living in close quarters often erupt into frank hostility. (page 56)

“The wife” never tells us she’s anxious about her marriage, or that she is slowly falling apart as a mother and human being. I recognize her depression because I have been there: Anxious when marital longevity has deceived us into thinking communication unnecessary; fearful that my mood swings will one day drive my husband away; guilty about how absent I am as a mother even when I’m physically there. It’s eerie, how I picked up this book during a depressive relapse, thinking it was going to be some literary version of Gone Girl and instead hearing the whispers of another woman speaking right to me. “The wife” and I do not experience the same marital crisis, but I could relate to what goes on inside her head.

It’s a book that I am planning to re-read, and this time with a pen and notebook, in order to pick up on everything that I had missed the first time around. It’s a surprisingly intimate read given its brevity – a little somber, sometimes irreverent, but ultimately hopeful. Most of all I just found it very real.

Literary Wives: “Wife” as Depicted in The World’s Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy

Our (on-line book club) Literary Wives’ August read is Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection, The World’s Wife.

In The World’s Wife we are introduced to the women – lovers, partners, sisters and wives – of some of the most well-known men in Greek mythology, the Bible, history, literature and pop culture. We hear from the women themselves, from Mrs. Faust to Frau Freud to Medusa, and the voices are often surprising. They’re irreverent, sarcastic, angry, sad, triumphant, bawdy, spiteful and, not infrequently, laugh-aloud funny. Here are my responses to the two questions we explore with each of our Literary Wives reads:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Being a wife is not a happy thing. In these poems, it is about putting up with egos, living in shadows, being neglected. Through the fictional voices we are imagining what it might feel like to be the wife of one of these famous men. Mrs. Aesop is tired of her husband’s moralizing; the loyal Mrs. Quasimodo, Quasimodo’s physical equal, is betrayed by her husband when he falls in love with someone more attractive; and even Eurydice, whose husband Orpheus loves her and tries to get her out of the underworld, prefers to stay in Hades, apart from him. She would rather be dead than to not have a voice, to live in her husband’s artistic shadow:

Big O was the boy. Legendary.
The blurb on the back of his books claimed
that animals . . .
flocked to his side when he sang . . .
 
Bollocks. (I’d done all the typing myself,
I should know.)
And given my time all over again, 
rest assured that I’d rather speak for myself
than be Dearest, Beloved, Dark Lady, White Goddess,
      etc. etc.
 
In fact, girls, I’d rather be dead.

 (page 59)

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

The women in the book grasp for power where they can within the confines of their relationships. To continue with Eurydice, she ends up appealing to Orpheus’ ego, in order to trick him into turning around to look at her, an act which causes him to lose her back to the underworld. Mrs. Midas, tired of her husband’s obsession with material wealth and his thoughtlessness toward her, eventually leaves him. Mrs. Icarus and Mrs. Aesop view their husbands with scorn and condescension. About their disappointing sex life, Mrs. Aesop says, “I gave him a fable one night / about a little cock that wouldn’t crow, a razor-sharp axe with a heart blacker than the pot that called the kettle. / I’ll cut off your tail all right, I said, to save my face. / That shut him up. I laughed last, longest.” (page 11)

The poem in which I found a defining message about wifehood, though, is Mrs. Beast. Here she warns about princesses and princes and happily ever after:

 . . . The Little Mermaid slit
her shining, silver tail in two, rubbed salt
into that stinking wound, got up and walked,
in agony, in fishnet tights, stood up and smiled, waltzed,
all for a Prince, a pretty boy, a charming one
who’d dump her in the end, chuck her, throw her overboard.
I could have told her – look, love, I should know,
they’re bastards when they’re Princes.
What you want to do is find yourself a Beast. The sex
is better. 

(page 72)

A celebration of love and partnership these poems are not. But I did find The World’s Wife a sharp, clever and witty read. Though many of the women were cattier than my preferred tastes in women’s voices (many of the poems reminded me of the darker side of female conversations bashing boyfriends and husbands), I read this collection for what it is. I enjoyed the modern and feminist twists on traditional and historical stories as well as the opportunity to revisit various cultural and historical references. (I kept my iPhone by my side to look things up while reading.) As a novice poetry reader, I also found this collection very accessible. My favorite Literary Wives read so far!

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Please also check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library (she will post in a couple of weeks)

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

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The Disappearance of a Young Woman Abroad: People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry

In 2000, a young British woman named Lucie Blackman working as a club hostess in Tokyo disappeared after taking a ride with one of her wealthy customers. Her body was found dismembered seven months later in a seaside cave.

People Who Eat Darkness by award-winning British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry is the story of Lucie, her family, her disappearance and the subsequent investigation and legal proceedings of the case. It is also the story of her abductor and killer, Joji Obara.

Before traveling to Japan, Lucie had worked as a British Airways flight attendant until she realized that the grueling schedules and isolation (she was never in any place long enough to make real connections) were too much. She subsequently resigned and, knee deep in debt, accompanied her best friend to Tokyo where they planned to work at a hostess club, an establishment on the fringes of the sex industry and that caters to wealthy Japanese businessmen willing to pay over $100 an hour for female company. The clubs paid handsomely, or at least compared to English teaching, and Lucie believed this to be the quickest way to get back on her feet financially.

The hostess clubs are an interesting phenomenon. There is, supposedly, no sex involved. Attractive women, often foreign, are paid to basically stroke men’s egos. The hostesses exist to pour drinks, light cigarettes, listen to the men and laugh at their jokes. The most difficult part of the job seemed to be boredom. But the women did have pressure; to keep their jobs, they needed to establish their own clientele of regulars, whom the clubs relied on for steady business.

Perhaps Joji Obara was a prospective regular. One evening, the friend receives a cell phone call from a seemingly delighted Lucie. Lucie says that Joji will soon be giving her her own cell phone, and that they are now driving to the seaside. That was the last time her friend ever heard from her.

The book details the long months following Lucie’s disappearance: the role her parents and siblings played in drumming up media and other support to keep the story and investigation alive (Lucie’s father went as far as reaching out to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair); the sometimes infuriating and slow responses of the Japanese police; the way Lucie’s family’s dysfunction played out in each person’s grieving process; and, finally, the identification and discovery of the abductor and murderer, and the final attempts to bring him to justice.

We learn, upon his arrest, that Joji Obara was a serial rapist. In his apartment were detailed records and videotapes of the women he had lured and drugged for thirty years. He used a different name with each woman. Another club hostess had gotten sick and died some years back after spending a night with Obara and complaints had been made, but the police had not followed up.

In the author’s profile of Obara, we learn that he is an ethnic Korean whose parents had immigrated to a poor Korean ghetto in Japan. Though Parry does not excuse Obara’s crimes (most people with difficult pasts do not become rapists and murderers), he paints an illuminating picture of a troubled man with a troubled past, a personal history that became a window into the ugly but often hidden and unspoken realities of Japan’s ethnic minority communities and the prejudices they face.

Parry, too, is honest in his portrayal of Lucie’s family. Her father Tim, who flew to Japan frequently and never tired in his efforts to fight for his daughter, is a confusing portrait of loyalty and self-interest. Where had he been when Lucie was growing up, when he became involved in multiple affairs before finally leaving his family? Why had he accepted a substantial amount of money from the killer during the court trial, in exchange for providing some verbal support? Lucie’s mother and father, who were icy at best before Lucie’s disappearance, became even more hostile after her death. Without judgment, Parry does an admirable job of laying bare the flaws of a family trying to survive a horrific and unspeakable tragedy.

Though some parts felt repetitive, I couldn’t put the book down. I found it simultaneously intimate and chilling. I was fascinated to read about a part of Japanese society that I’d never entered. It is an eye-opening look into Japan’s mizu-shobai, or “water trade,” a euphemism for its diverse night entertainment or sex industry; its criminal investigation/justice procedures (one of which is a heavy reliance on criminal confession and inevitability of cooperation and remorse); and its Korean community and history. On a personal level, the book is an intimate account of a flawed but real family and how they contributed to both creating Lucie and remembering her in her death. And, finally, it is a disturbing story of a human being gone wrong. I remain haunted to this day, by the images of Joji Obara.

My Writing Process

One of my favorite bloggers Rudri at Being Rudri tagged me some time ago in this meme about the writing process. I have mentioned Rudri and her wonderful blog before. She writes thoughtful and reflective posts on the process of growing, healing, and finding joy. Her words are compelling because they come from a place of loss. She also writes regularly for The First Day, a quarterly print journal and on-line magazine about the spiritual journeys taken by people from all faiths and cultural backgrounds. Thanks so much for including me in this exercise, Rudri.

What am I working on as a writer?

I’m in a gap period in my writing. I’ve enrolled in writing courses over the last few years and worked on some personal essays for publication. Then I realized that I was suffering from a huge gap as a want-to-be writer: I wasn’t reading enough. A former classmate advised me to “learn from the masters” and so for the last couple of years I’ve been trying to return to the classics as well as familiarize myself with contemporary writers. I’m trying to figure out which voices and styles resonate with me most. I continue to write in my blog and last year began writing about books as well.

I would actually like to write a short story. For years I thought I would write a memoir but I struggled about privacy. Fiction, however, made me feel inauthentic. But I think blog writing has helped to release much of my pent-up emotions. I can comfortably try my hand at fiction now, as soon as I feel confident enough to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). For some reason I feel terrified about doing this.

I am also interested in poetry. I actually signed up for a free on-line poetry writing course that started while I was still traveling. I have a few course emails waiting for me so I need to get on that. But talk about a reading gap – I definitely need to read more poetry!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t know if I can say that my writing belongs to a genre and, if it does, if I can say that it differs from others. I’ll just say that in general my writing tends very much to be on the personal side, and sometimes that applies to my book reviews too. I usually like to incorporate a personal voice into my posts.

Why do I write what I do?

I often get very personal in my writing, as my readers know. I’ve asked myself many times why I do this, when clearly I’m the only one among my (non-blogging) friends who reveals so much. I’ve come to the conclusion that I do it because I’d led a life of secrets. I come from a culture in which the most human conditions are seen as shameful flaws: hardship, injury, illness, failure, misfortune. I’ve been made to swear more than once to not utter a word to anyone about [something completely normal]. I also grew up in a home in which emotions were not acknowledged let alone discussed. This could work for some people, but I’m expressive and sensitive by nature. I see and interpret the world through words and feelings. Not allowing an expressive person to communicate is like forbidding an athlete from moving. I’ve had to write the most personal in order to heal and to find a healthy way to exist. I also do this in the hopes of making others (who may have grappled with similar issues) feel less alone. Being personal has helped me connect with readers, and I love and appreciate my small community here.

How does my writing process look?

I only sit down to write (blog) about two to four times a week (usually write 2x and edit 2x). I do, however, go about my days alert for possible topics. It might be a feeling that I have watching my son do something, or it might be something that my husband or friend brings up in conversation. Does that incident or comment reveal something larger about what many of us go through? I look for those moments and sometimes I talk them through with my husband. I store my ideas away mentally and on my phone and then get on my laptop the day before I want to publish the post. I try to write in the early mornings, and will postpone (non-urgent) work if necessary to get a post done. I write it all out in one sitting and then go back and edit small parts here and there. My most authentic posts get written the most quickly. For me personally, if I am in writing mode but the words are not coming to me easily, it’s a signal to me that I am not really writing what I’m feeling but writing because I feel pressured to churn something out. (The pressure is all internal, of course.)

Regarding my book reviews, I keep a small notebook of notable quotes to trigger memories of my biggest take-aways. More often than not I rely on memory. I’m not sure if this is the best tactic, though, given my no-longer-so-young-brain, so I think I need to start taking more notes!

Do you write? What is your writing process like?

Bookish Miscellany in Tokyo

Well, I’d overestimated my ability to blog while traveling so I apologize for having disappeared! We had a wonderful time in Japan and I am now back, finally getting over a very bad cold that I had caught the day we left for the airport. While my primary goal in Japan after seeing family, friends, and clients was to eat, I also made sure to check out the book scene in Tokyo. Japan has a strong literary and reading culture and was ranked #1 in number of bookstores in 2012 according to The World Cities Cultural Report released that year. Below is a small peak into Japan’s reading world:

First, the bookstores. I visited about seven or eight during my trip. According to The World Cities Cultural Report in 2012, Tokyo had 1,675 bookstores that year. There is also what is known as the Book District in the university town in Jimbocho – a half square kilometer of almost 160 used and rare bookstores. I spent a short afternoon walking around here, wishing that I could read Japanese as most of the books I found were in Japanese (naturally). The Book District is known to be the largest book market in the world.

The Book District

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Junkudo, a popular bookstore chain -There were about 18 active cash registers and a staffer managing the queue. From my experience the major bookstores have as many as 5 to 8 floors of books.

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A display of Haruki Murakami books at Junkudo

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Ernest Hemingway and other western literature in translation at Kinokuniya, Japan’s largest bookstore chain with stores in the U.S., several Asian countries and Australia. They’ve recently remodeled one of the main stores to dedicate the entire top floor to foreign books and Japanese books in translation. I was quite impressed by their selection and the prices were not exorbitant. Wouldn’t it be something to find this kind of selection of foreign books at Barnes & Noble?

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These English-language novels are labeled with corresponding TOEIC scores to assist non-native English speakers in choosing appropriate books. The TOEIC is the Test of English for International Communication, taken by many non-native English speakers who wish to qualify for various work and academic requirements. 

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Japanese literature wrapped to ensure their good condition. I asked Max about these, and he thinks these may be out of print or somehow “special” books, since contemporary books for sale are not wrapped like this. I found shelves and shelves of these at one of the larger and more modern bookstores in the Book District.

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And speaking of wrapped, whenever you buy a book in Japan, you have the option of getting it wrapped (usually in brown paper) for free. At first I thought this was to protect the book – and this is true – but when I started reading my purchase on the train I realized that the book cover holds another benefit: privacy. 

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There are also many fancier book covers for sale at book and stationery stores, meaning that covering up is quite popular in Japan. Here is one that I found. I love Japanese English!

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Some of our western feminist sensibilities might get a jolt when visiting Japan. In some bookstores are sections for “ladies,” but then maybe this is simply the Japanese equivalent of the labels “Chick Lit” or “Women’s Fiction.” (More knowledgeable readers, feel free to weigh in!) This photo is of the “ladies'” comics or manga section at a shopping mall bookstore. (Manga are also protected before purchase by cellophane ties or plastic wrap.)

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And at last, my Japan finds, because I couldn’t visit without bringing back something for myself: Haruki Murakami’s (translated into English) memoir What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, two books on speaking Japanese, a Japanese novella that a friend recommended to me as one way to practice Japanese, and this Kinokuniya tote bag. There were many Japanese books in translation that I wanted to get but I controlled myself, knowing that I can get them cheaper through the internet :-(. Plus I can only carry so much back in my suitcase…

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Have you visited bookstores in other cities? What are your favorites? How is the literary scene in your city?

Greetings from Land of the Rising Sun

And the sun rises early here…like before 4:30. I know, because I’ve been awake since 2:30. Jet lag.

We got in 36 hours ago and have hit the ground running. We’re here for both business and pleasure. I expect to still post when I can, if even just photos.

I might go back to sleep now, so I’ll see you again next week. Or, as the locals say, Mata raishuu!