Peeking out over an inescapable mask, I see once more, Women draped over ornate couches, Done with the world and its confinement, And its clothes. I see once more, Disembodied faces meeting unhinged shapes, Unsure, they attempt to devour one another. I see once more, Unlikely creatures emerging, As if willed by the vacuum of imagination. I see once more, Ambiguous structures, Soaring while more solid words explain little, Of what, perhaps, Should not be explained. I see once more, The collective embrace merge, With joint resistance, Forever twinned in a fleeting, nonchalant glance. Feeling nill, I wonder if I am measuring effort wrongly.
It’s lockdown 3.0 and whilst I’m sure you are probably wary of the repeated call to read more over this time, our Assemblage writers have carefully selected just a few texts to ward off lockdown restlessness. These recommendations are not intended to fulfill a reading list but instead represent our collective stream of consciousness, our discussions around what’s been distracting us, and awakening our senses.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (2019) recommended by Amy
Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, Doshi’s debut novel set in the city of Pune in West India examines a mother-daughter relationship fraught with pain and absence. It focuses on Antara, a girl abandoned by her mother Tara, and later burdened with questioning how or whether to take care of her mother three decades on. As Amy states, ‘Doshi probes the thin line between independence and selfishness without making her characters unsympathetic and thinks deeply about our responsibilities to one another’. Read Doshi’s novel for a gentle examination of the themes of motherhood, responsibility, and the fading and changing of identity.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969) recommended by Josie
Why do books become classics? Perhaps because they have an enduring poignancy that can be revisited in times of trouble. This is certainly the case with the first of seven volumes of Angelou’s autobiography, where she focuses on her early years, exploring trauma, racial and gendered prejudice, family, and ultimately a love for books. Its pioneering prose and revolutionary message make it a necessary text to reacquaint ourselves with, particularly in a contemporary context fraught with turbulence. This collection is as Anita Sethi states ‘a paean to the powers of storytelling to build bridges across divides, and heal what has been damaged.’ Angelou’s life story exhibits a kind of tender urgency, and never ceases to remain a call to always strive for social change no matter how difficult it may seem.
The Undying by Anne Boyer (2019) recommended by Anita
Little could have been more prescient than this autobiographical account of ‘cancer under capitalism’. Winner of the 2020 Pulitzer prize in general nonfiction, Boyer’s analysis of her experiences of having breast cancer as a single mother in an academic job expands outwards to an interrogation of illness in society. This book joins a line of unique writers such as Susan Sontag and Audre Lorde, who examine their relationship to illness along the lines of collective experience. Poet and essayist Anne Boyer moves fluidly between categories such as Ancient Roman history, illustration, scientific research, life story, and sociological analysis. As Nellie Herman states, ‘Boyer strives to explore breast cancer […] as a disease, as a historical entity, as a means of exposing the precarity of the individual inside larger capitalist systems’. It is a manifesto more than a purely personal account, its mixture of categories emphasizing how we are made up of more than individualized experiences, and paving the way for an intense interrogation of how health is seen.
Strangeland by Tracey Emin (2006) recommended by Tascha
If you’ve dipped into the world of art in the last decade or so, you will have heard of Tracey Emin, or more likely have been visually exposed to her works. Emin’s memoir is a rare written version of her art and strangely doesn’t focus too much on her journey with her visual endeavors. Whilst her writing style is often incoherent and inconsistent, the work itself acts as a form of her art, Alev Adil emphasizes that ‘Her writing wants to be art rather than literature. Readability and complexity are not Emin’s goals. She’s after an unmediated immediacy’. She explores painful childhood experiences, her Turkish Cypriot heritage, her relationship with her father, and her romantic relationships. This strangely put together autobiography is worth reading both to get a better grip on Emin’s understanding of herself, and how her art has moved and shaped itself.
Past Lives, Future Bodies by K-Ming Chang (2018) recommended by Karen
At a mere 22 years of age, Chang’s poetic achievements so far are mesmerizing. She stands as 31st Annual Lambda Literary Award finalist with this collection of poetry centered largely on her relationship to her gender and sexuality. Each line of her prose is uniquely memorable, combining serenity with pain. A kind of peaceful dread runs through her lines and I am left feeling completely exhilarated by how layered her work is, and how far her understanding of herself goes. I struggle to express properly how reading just a line of Chang’s impressive body of work ignites my senses and throws me into a different world without leaving my desk. In between the lines of Chang’s poems there exist multiple opportunities for taking your thoughts in different directions. She deals with themes of love, generational shifts, immigration, family, and sexuality. Her debut novel Bestiary (2020) was longlisted for the Centre for Fiction First Novel Prize and focuses on three generations of Taiwanese American women and the theme of myth. Chang’s work is an absolute treat to read both as comfort and challenge.
Disobedience by Naomi Alderman (2006) recommended by Emma
Now a major film starring Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz, the story of a hidden relationship between two women in an orthodox Jewish community in London started as a book by Naomi Alderman. Set in Hendon, Ronit, the daughter of a recently deceased Rabbi returns from her life in New York and becomes entangled in her past romantic connection with Esti, who is now married to her cousin Dovid. It centers on the layers of obligation in a larger world. Whilst Dina Rabinovitch laments that characters are ‘two-dimensional’, nevertheless, the tense intertwining of responsibility and independence carves out space for a necessary understanding of community dynamics. Assemblage’s Emma discusses how the book lines the juxtaposing tensions of security versus freedom, as the two women explore ‘the comfort they find both in escaping and living within their community’. An important read if you’re seeking to learn more about close-knit communities in urban environments.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman (2019) recommended by Jess
This strange, quirky novel is teeming with a jovial confusion that succeeds in drawing us into its ponderous rhythms, all without breaking a sweat with a full stop. No paragraphs mark the ramblings of a middle-aged Ohio woman’s string of thoughts, each section starting with the phrase ‘the fact that’, which comments playfully on the notion of fact in relation to thought. Katy Waldman remarks on the accumulative style of the book, ‘a vein of fear runs through Lucy Ellmann’s collector’s lust—that, even if one puts the world in a book, the story might remain incomplete.’ Indeed, Ellmann’s work makes you aware of the endlessness of thought, and the fickle line between what is said and what is felt. Well worth a read to see what can be achieved in a state of exhilarating stylistic abandon and a determination to thread through a day in the life of a person’s brain.