I have always read “classics,” alongside contemporary titles, as an editor who desires to be informed by the past in shaping new publications; and a human who loves to read. We bring our personal and political lens to any work, and what makes reading and re-reading classics such an intellectually pleasurable occasion is to engage in the complicated questions brought up by context. Who is a reader today to talk back to a master writer? They are the only reader, they are the living interpreter of stories. Our breath and eyes are what literally bring a book alive.
I also think by critical analysis from contemporary lens, we gain the skepticism needed to read the hyped books of today with the same arched eyebrow–an awareness of the ways our world dictates so much of the form and content of what is published, what is praised, and what is lucky to be lasting as “literature” (quote unquote).
When I was offered the flattering invitation to pick an Oxford World Classic edition to read and discuss at the Bryant Park reading group this summer, I was drawn to titles that had informed my political consciousness as a young reader (a teen who always had nose in book, alternating between the canon and new releases, one day Kafka and Lorrie Moore the next). I considered The Jungle (the storyteller as activist!), The Way We Live Now (oh, look, a con man billionaire takes power?), and The House of Mirth (oh how I love that book; but jealously discovered Suzzy Roche got to Wharton first). Ultimately, I chose The Awakening, Kate Chopin’s novella about Edna Pontellier, a young mother in Lousiana whose sexual and spiritual transformations lead her to leave her husband, children, and ultimately her life.
I am the editor of a feminist magazine for mothers, MUTHA, where we share personal stories about birth and also among other things: sex, mental health, and (the taboo!) regret in the parenting role. So, frankly, the novella seemed “on brand.” Also, it’s a summertime story and it was August in NYC. It was hot and the water sounded lovely (Awakening joke).
“I have gotten into a habit of expressing myself. It doesn’t matter to me, and you may think me unwomanly if you like,” Edna tells her lover.
In this post, I want to offer an idiosyncratic paired reading list of living writers. Published in the period following Chopin’s “rediscovery” by the 60s-70s women’s movement, these books represent voices rocked by the waves left from Edna’s final swim.
First must be Toni Morrison’s Beloved, already often discussed as a companion or counterpoint, by the scholars who have delved much deeper into the silenced or caricatured Black women in Chopin’s work. Joyce Dyer writes, “it is time that we give Morrison her full due. It is time that we say, infullvoice—with pleasure and abundant thanks—how great has been her influence on our understanding of Chopin’s treatment of race.”
Brit Bennett, a powerful new Black voice, recently published her lauded debut novel The Mothers, which explores themes of sexuality, becoming (and not becoming) mothers, and regrets. ““Writing about ordinary black people is actually extraordinary,” as Bennett is quoted in the New York Times,“It’s absolutely its own form of advocacy.”
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are a fascinating read-alongside, not only because they are brilliant in limning the mother-writer conflict, but because like Edna, Lila disappears… and why (and to where, metaphorical or actual) has as many interpretations.
After Birth by Elisa Albert follows a feminist scholar, of the riot grrrl era (like me) who is now a new mother, through her post-partum depression and resulting drama, and is a scathing, brutal immersion into mother-anger. Imagine if Edna had tapped into her fury after she flees the “scenes of torture” of her friend’s childbirth and it might get you close. Elisa herself suggested this list (of radical women’s literature) in addition (and told me she once had a line from The Awakening written on her bedroom wall, “and the realization that she herself was nothing, nothing, nothing to the young man was a bitter affliction to her. But he too went the way of dreams…”).
Brokeback Mountain and Stonebutch Blues provide only the start of a list of queer experience stories that rocked their readership with their powerful sexual “awakenings” and “transgressions.” I found myself fascinated in particular by how the suicides (both implied) paralleled in Proulx and Chopin’s tragic figures, who found themselves propelled to act so far out of the bounds of their society that to be themselves, they sacrifice themselves.
The novel turned TV show I Love Dick by Chris Kraus is hilarious and sharp as an investigation of desire and feminism, and follow similarly the questions of whether Edna’s love for Robert is infatuation, lust, or a (warped) mirror of herself.
“When Kraus exploded privacy, what she demolished was a house beyond repair—sweeping away “privacy” in its present contradictory state so something that could be enjoyed, for the first time, equally and freely by both men and women, might take its place.”—Elizabeth Gumport
Unterzakhn is a graphic novel by Leela Corman, one of my favorite creators in the form, set in the early 20th century in New York City’s Lower East Side, and following two sisters who follow divergent paths as women/mothers (or not)/sexual beings in “face of the abyss and a condemnation of arbitrary, rules-based ethics systems,” as the book’s Comics Journal review illuminates. “If there’s a villain to be found… it’s hypocrisy.”
Featured image credit: “Blonde Girl by Pexels CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.