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Archive by tag: Emma BrockesReturn
May 15, 2021

The author of the Women’s prize-shortlisted The Vanishing Half talks about race, the dangers of nostalgia and writing only what pleases her

There was a rule to which Brit Bennett adhered during the writing of her novel The Vanishing Half. It is a sprawling blockbuster that opens in a small town in Louisiana in 1954 and unspools almost to the present day. It takes twin girls, Desiree and Stella, and through their divergent fortunes tells a story of race and class in America, in which history appears much closer than one might think. Bennett’s rule of composition was this: in a narrative heaving with sadness and disappointment, whenever the writing started to drag like homework, she broke off, only to pick up again when she’d rediscovered the joy. “Just write the parts that are exciting to you,” she thought, “and figure out later how you’re going to connect it.”

The smart premise of The Vanishing Half helped to propel it to the top of the bestseller lists in the US, where it appeared as one of the New York Times’s best books of 2020 and was longlisted for the National book award. Desiree and Stella, twin girls born and raised in the fictional town of Mallard, make a startling decision after running away in their teens. Mallard, which “had always been more of an idea than a place,” writes Bennett, is peopled exclusively with light-skinned African Americans, “fair and blonde and redheaded, the darkest ones no swarthier than a Greek”. After arriving in New Orleans, one twin decides to “pass” as white; the other remains black. Through this device, Bennett is able to explore not only “shadeism” and the arbitrary demarcations between racial groups, but other social boundaries, too. “A lot of stories about passing are about these multiple forms of passing,” she says. When Stella marries a wealthy white man, she is confronted with the task of not only performing whiteness (“there was nothing to being white except boldness,” writes Bennett), but performing wealthiness, too.

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May 01, 2021

Ever since she was a child, the Fun Home cartoonist has been fascinated by fitness. The cartoonist talks about the ‘salvation’ of running, polyamory and being seduced by a fan

The first obsession, for Alison Bechdel, was with karate. In her early 20s and fresh out of college, the artist and writer turned up on a whim to an all-women’s karate class (this was the early 80s in New York), became swiftly addicted, and a year later, after training five nights a week, popped out the other end with a black belt. After that, in swift succession, came fanatical attachments to skiing, cycling, yoga, running, climbing, aerobics and weight training. “Due to space constraints,” she writes in The Secret to Superhuman Strength, her graphic memoir about these obsessions and the quest for enlightenment that drove them, “I have not touched on my passion for in-line skating.”

This is Bechdel’s third graphic memoir, her breakthrough first book, 2006 blockbuster Fun Home, was rapturously received by critics and readers. With painstaking detail and mordant humour, Bechdel detailed growing up in rural Pennsylvania in a family that, if it didn’t turn her into a writer exactly, certainly bequeathed her a life-long wealth of material. (In short: Bechdel’s parents, who were teachers, ran a part-time funeral home, and just as Bechdel was starting to come out as a lesbian, her closeted gay father died in a presumed suicide.) A few years later, an obscure reference she’d made in a cartoon strip to misogyny in movies was re-discovered and the Bechdel Test, as it became widely known – the requirement that a movie should include at least one scene in which two women talked to each other about something other than men – made her a household name.

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Apr 04, 2021

Timeless books by authors such as Beverly Cleary bring far more joy than those that give a knowing wink to parents

There’s a child who exists only in fiction, specifically modern fiction aimed at six-year-old girls. Her name, invariably, ends in a “y”. Her tone is perky – or “sassy”, as reviewers occasionally describe it – her speech is arch, and her humour is self-referential. “How many minutes is shortly?” muses one such heroine, from a franchise targeted at the American first grader. “Is it one minute or eight minutes or eleven minutes? On account of it’s one minute, I can wait, probably. But eleven minutes would be out of the question.” No six-year-old I know talks like this.

Bad writing ranges across every genre, but bad writing for children, when it falls along uniform lines, can be a test of how childhood itself is perceived. This fact was particularly evident this week, after the death of Beverly Cleary, the beloved American children’s author who died in California at the age of 104. I say “beloved”; her books, which date from the mid-1950s onwards, had no reach in the UK when I was growing up, and coverage of her death in the US was the first time I had heard of her. On a friend’s fervent recommendation, I picked up Beezus and Ramona from the library, and prepared to apply it to my children.

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Dec 26, 2020

In seven revealing interviews, the late US supreme court justice sheds light on her astonishing career in a profession once the preserve of men

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from law school in 1959, women made up 3% of lawyers in the US and there were no women judges on the federal courts of appeal. The most she could aspire to, the late justice tells us, in one of seven interviews that make up this timely and inspiring book, was to earn her living as a lawyer, but even that was no foregone conclusion. The story of Bader Ginsburg’s rise from one of nine women in her class at Harvard Law School to a justice on the supreme court and a beloved American figure, becomes no less astonishing the more times one revisits it.

Bader Ginsburg died in September this year, at the age of 87. This book, marketed as The Last Interview, is part of a series of interview compilations with late thinkers and writers that features, among others, James Baldwin, Nora Ephron and Hannah Arendt. It’s a wonderfully wide-ranging and unmediated way to engage with each subject and to be transported back to their earliest ventures in public life. When we meet Bader Ginsburg, it is as a 38-year-old speaking to the New York Times on the occasion of her accepting a professorship at Columbia University. The year is 1972 and it is the first time Columbia has chosen a woman for a full-time post higher than lecturer. Reading Bader Ginsburg’s comments gives one slight vertigo – to encounter her as a young woman and see, for a second, the entire arc of her life, right up to her death – and an intimacy with the justice that a more conventional retrospective might lack.

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Sep 12, 2020

As his latest novel Inside Story is published, Martin Amis talks about cultural appropriation, surviving lockdown, and how he’s still chatting to Christopher Hitchens

The new novel by Martin Amis, Inside Story, which combines elements of memoir with fiction and in which Amis himself is the protagonist, features a pseudonymous ex-girlfriend called Julia, who complains about the kind of male-authored book in which it’s just “him going on”. Among the many drive-by assassinations featured here – at mention of the antisemitism espoused by Ezra Pound, John Wyndham and TS Eliot, for example, he summarises the trio as “two nutters and a monarchist” – the most enjoyable is the one Amis turns on himself. The novel is a revisitation of the author’s now familiar obsessions – Christopher Hitchens, his father, Kingsley; Larkin, Nabokov, Bellow, the New Statesman books desk of the mid-1970s. In it a series of women, including a fictionalised version of Amis’s wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, tell him repeatedly: “I can’t believe you’re still going on about that.”

At 71, Amis, banging on still, remains highly entertaining, partly because his hangups coincide with universal anxieties and partly because the memoir aspect of the novel – if some of the names are real, much of the dialogue is invented – grounds his wilder impulses as a writer of fiction. A few years ago, Anne Enright took him to task for being all voice, and while Inside Story has a few gimmicky elements, including a central and (to my mind) entirely fabricated character named Phoebe Phelps – an ex-girlfriend who turns out to be that load-bearer of female meaning in Amis, an escort – it is a different beast to his other novels. Less schematic, more loose-limbed and rangy. We find the author fretting around the edges of his lifelong preoccupations, while wondering what precisely his own game has been. “What is the good of the novel?” asks Amis, the character. “What does it do, what is it for?” For that matter, he wonders, what is any of it for? Through the lenses of love, death and poetry, the novel attempts to find answers.

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