WSIRN Ep 243: Predicting the next great American classic

WSIRN Ep 243: Predicting the next great American classic

Today I’m chatting with Charlandra Jenkins, a Florida reader who is on the hunt for stories that reflect her life, love, grief, and humanity back to her. For Charlandra, new book releases and recent bestsellers by Black authors are a joy, but she’s also yearning for some history… backlist titles by women of color that say “hey! we’ve always been here, we’ve always existed”. So my task is to recommend 3 backlist titles suited to Charlandra’s taste for complex, fully-realized female characters finding their way through life, and finding themselves along the way. 

We discuss Charlandra’s enduring  love for Zora Neale Hurston, novels that carry the reader through grief… and you’ll definitely want to hear about the book Charlandra expects will become a classic of our time. 

Let’s get to it!

A photo of a Black woman with medium length natural hair wearing a black shirt and gold nose rings, looking into the camera with a serious expression. Next to the photo there is a quote: "I am not the sidekick in my own life. I am the main character in my own life, and I want to feel that when I read a book."

Follow Charlandra’s reading adventures on Instagram @Rantiesnplanties.

ANNE: I just love the way your voice changed when you talked about how much you loved it. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] That really means something.

CHARLANDRA: It definitely does. Ugh, I think about that book often.

[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 243.

Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?

We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.

Today I’m chatting with Charlandra Jenkins, a Florida reader who is on the hunt for stories that reflect her life, love, grief, and humanity back to her. For Charlandra, new book releases and recent bestsellers by Black authors are a joy, but she’s also yearning for some history… backlist titles by women of color that say “hey! we’ve always been here. We’ve always existed.” So my task is to recommend 3 backlist titles suited to Charlandra’s taste for complex, fully-realized female characters (and I love the way she describes them) finding their way through life, and finding themselves along the way.

We discuss Charlandra’s recent breathtaking reads and her enduring love for Zora Neale Hurston. We’re digging deep into novels that carry the reader through grief, southern literature, — and you’ll definitely want to hear about the book Charlandra expects will become a classic of our time.

Let’s get to it!

Charlandra, welcome to the show.

[00:01:35]

CHARLANDRA: Thanks for having me.

ANNE: Oh, it is my pleasure. We were so excited to get your submission [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] at What Should I Read Next HQ and I’m really excited about talking books with you today.

CHARLANDRA: This is a dream, so thank you so much.

ANNE: Well something that was very clear in your submission is you’ve thought a lot about your reading life. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] You know what you enjoy. You know what you’re looking for. How would you describe your experience as a reader?

CHARLANDRA: It’s funny because actually my parents were in the military. We moved around a lot, so I had a lot of, like, different experiences than other people. And then as I moved into a smaller town, my mom’s hometown in Ocala, Florida, my experiences were definitely different and it was a different world being in, like, central Florida. And having read as a child a lot of books that sorta center maleness, whiteness, European-centric experiences as an adult, it’s been really important for me to read experiences that mirror more of what my life experience has been.

And I think I was in high school when I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, and reading Zora Neale Hurston and seeing actually in print my little town Ocala, Florida making it into the book. It was, like, magical for me. And so as an adult, I’ve decided that I want to read more books by women who not only just look like me, but have an experience similar to mine. And it’s just been really important for me to read about those women, about myself and I glean so much insight into my own interior world … I love complicated women.

ANNE: Tell me more about your relationship with Zora Neale Hurston.

[00:03:20]

CHARLANDRA: I read that book and to see this woman trying to navigate a world that I was familiar with, a world that I was currently living in. Her characters felt so real to me. They felt like people that I knew, the way that they spoke. And Zora Neale Hurston herself just had such an interesting life, you know, at one point she decided that she was going to rewrite the rules for herself and just cut a ten smooth years off her age and decided to re-enroll herself in school. [BOTH LAUGH]

She was a pioneer. She was an anthropologist. She was a folklorist. She was interested in canonizing southern Black literature and centering women in that in a way that’s been so important to understand because my history, my family history, I have very little information about where I came from because of the nature of slavery in this country. And so to read something that potentially like my great-great-grandparents, my grandparents could recognize that feels a part of their world is just so important to me. It’s really been like a mirror into a part of myself that, like, I knew was there but I hadn’t fully realized.

ANNE: I love that you used that word. I was just thinking of my conversation with Lamar Giles, a wonderful episode of the podcast; please go back and listen if you haven’t, listeners. But he talks about the importance of having books that are windows and books that mirrors, and I love Zora as well, but she’s a window for me. It’s so good to hear that you connected with her as a mirror and I love that you connected with her so deeply even though there are many decades between your existence in Florida even though you were very close to each other geographically. I’m dying to know, have you read her new but very old collection Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick?

CHARLANDRA: No, it’s in my queue. I have not read that yet, but I actually just finished Barracoon, which was incredible. And that was about the last slave who was brought over from Africa illegally, and then he was enslaved for a period of time and then freed. And his experiences from Africa to the ship to America and ugh, it reduced me to tears and there was just so much power in that account.

ANNE: Now you are definitely the Zora expert in the room here, but my understanding is that [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] that Barracoon is quite different from her other books. It’s more anthropological, isn’t it?

CHARLANDRA: Yeah, it’s an interview. There’s not really any novelization there. It’s just a direct account from his time in Africa to his time in America. It’s really a window into his life, but also I mean, she was very politically oriented. She actually felt there was a murder in Florida that she actually did a lot of work with the newspaper to explain the accounts that were happening and it was about a Black woman who had murdered a very rich white man who was believed to be her lover. She really wanted to canonize what Black people, Black folks were going through during this history in time. She knew the importance of canonizing that narrative, canonizing our experiences.

[00:06:42]

ANNE: I’d asked if you had read Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick because I just finished listening to it in the past month, so it’s fresh in my mind, and something I really appreciated about it is that this edition, it was edited by Genevieve West and Tayari Jones does the forward.

CHARLANDRA: Oh, wow.

ANNE: These two women say so much about Zora’s work as a whole and then what’s specific about this collection. But I laughed when she said she shaved ten years off her age. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] Not because … not because it doesn’t sound bold and preposterous, which it does, but because they talked about that at length in the intro to this text and so it said so much about her personal history.

And I knew a little bit about her professional history, you know, her education, and how important she was in the literary community and Harlem during a really crucial time. But I didn’t know as much about her personally and I so appreciated that they did not skimp on her personal history. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] I will read anything Tayari Jones writes about anyone.

CHARLANDRA: Yes.

ANNE: But I really loved that aspect, and for listeners who don’t know, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, one of the early things in the books is here’s what that title means. And here’s how it fits so smoothly into the language for which Zora Neale Hurston was so well known.

But it’s a collection of old Zora Neale Hurston stories that were just recently found because they were published in periodicals and archives and newspapers and magazines that people were reading in, you know, the ‘20s and the ‘30s, but they’re not names that we think of now and so people have just stumbled upon these physical papers and sometimes microfiche, and we get new Zora Neale Hurston stories almost a hundred years later. So I’m excited that that’s on your to-be-read list. I think you’re going to like it.

[00:08:27]

CHARLANDRA: I’m so excited to pick it up.

ANNE: Okay, so, we know you love Zora. She’s an author that’s been really important to you. What other authors or experiences have been really formative in your reading life?

CHARLANDRA: I love bell hooks. She’s been incredibly important to me. She’s so prolific. I love the idea that she’s just like, as a woman, you should write [LAUGHS] which is something I’m trying to get a better handle on for myself. But she’s been a huge figure. And I just … I recently kinda gone on this tear, I think, I want to blame, like, Halle Butler’s The New Me about like these really just complicated, wayward women who … I just love the idea, it’s not like this woman who has it all, who has figured it all out. It’s something that I can relate to more so [LAUGHS] so someone who's desperately trying to figure it out and making mistakes and just learning, and it’s not pretty. It’s - it’s real life.

And I think one of the additives that comes up a lot is kinda grotesque and it sounds kinda gross, but to me that just means we’re not shying away from realities. There’s this idea that women are supposed to be very strong, that we have it all, and that we‘ve moved forward in the world in a way that’s take no prisoners or the damsel in distress, and I feel like what’s more powerful is like the nuance in between, about a woman who perhaps wants a relationship, but also feels like motivated to do her own thing, but doesn’t really know herself well and is trying to figure out. Those are some of the experiences that I do relate to and that I do see in the page when I read someone like Halle Butler or Sorry To Disrupt the Peace.

ANNE: Yeah.

CHARLANDRA: Just really complicated women who are trying to make the best of it. I choose the books that I do because it does give me that mirror, like, I do need to know that I’m not alone, especially during the difficult COVID times. The isolation is real, and my books are a constant companion.

ANNE: Well, Charlandra, I can’t wait to hear what you chose and how we’re going to see wayward, complicated, and your word, grotesque women. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] I’m excited to dive in.

***

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***

ANNE: So, you know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. How did you choose these?

[00:12:13]

CHARLANDRA: It was really hard. I had to choose books that I think I have the strongest reactions to, but also like, have managed to linger in my mind after reading other books and I’m still like redirecting myself to these books and thinking about them. Actually We Cast A Shadow, I had started it maybe last year and it hit way too close to home initially. It’s about a Black man in a post-racialized south, and I’m using air quotes when I say post-racialized. [LAUGHS]. And he works for a law firm. There can only be one person in this crop of associates ascend to partnership, and he believes that he needs to become a partner in order to get his biracial son a surgery that will render him white-passing.

And just all of the elements of work culture and professionalism while being Black, it’s just … At first, it feels so over the top in terms of its satire, but it’s so grounded in realism, in the real life complexities of being Black in America today. I mean, I feel strongly that book should be read in schools. I believe it’s a new classic. I think it’s incredible.

[00:13:31]

ANNE: I know it’s been long listed for literary awards and I’m looking forward to reading it, but I haven’t yet.

CHARLANDRA: [SIGHS] It’s a lot to take in and it kinda feels farcical at times, but there’s a part in the book that I just laughed but also, like, wanted to, like, curl up in ball and cry where he’s describing his workplace and there is a diversity committee at his job that literally is only held by white people. And they all have abled-bodied privilege and they’re all heteronormative. So it’s just like, it’s just a lot to take in, and it’s an incredible book. I strongly recommend.

ANNE: So that is We Cast A Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin.

CHARLANDRA: Yes.

ANNE: I’m just stopping to notice that you had this experience of reading a book and you thought, ah, everyone should read this. This should be taught. Like this is important enough and potentially formative enough that you want to see young people and people really studying literature to have this experience.

CHARLANDRA: Absolutely. I think that it’s so important because I think that there’s someone in your show, I forgot what episode it was, but someone mentioned the difference between fiction and nonfiction, about the fact that like fiction really tells us who we are. Nonfiction tells us, like, what it is, but fiction tells us who we are. And like I believe that sometimes we can really be taught more about a person’s humanity in fiction than we can from nonfiction. Because we are living a life of nonfiction every day, like, this is real life but there’s something about novelizing those universal principles that people can really take in and absorb in a way that perhaps can be drowned out by everyday experiences. It gets us out of our bubble.

[00:15:21]

ANNE: Charlandra, what did you choose for your second book?

CHARLANDRA: My second book was My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I would say that this - this aligns with my grotesque, complicated female niche, about this woman who is just having a tough go at it. She is in a job that she doesn’t really care much for. She’s in an awful relationship, which is not something I’m currently in. Just wanted to be very clear about that. [BOTH LAUGH]

She’s in a relationship that’s not servicing her needs and it’s a difficult time, and she’s decided that she is going to opt out of life for a little bit, and drink and take pills for the next year in order to, like, numb herself. And I know that sounds really depressing, but it’s actually … I don’t know. There’s something about this book that I just come back to over and over again and how this book along with, like, Severance really reminded me that we can become untethered by grief and how we respond to grief. It’s so key and I just saw a lot of myself.

ANNE: Oh, that’s such a lovely way to put it.

CHARLANDRA: It’s a great window into just how hard it is to sometimes get through life, and it doesn’t hold anything back.

ANNE: When did you read this book?

CHARLANDRA: I want to say late last year. I’m not going to lie, it’s probably a little darker than what I would probably choose to pick up right about now. But I read this last year when shortly beforehand my - my grandfather passed away. So I saw a lot of myself in this person who’s grieving.

ANNE: I imagine that changed the way you connected with Ottessa Moshfegh was writing.

CHARLANDRA: Yeah, absolutely. It just feels bad being out there in the world with nothing to keep you grounded and in place. I feel that. I connect with that deeply.

[00:17:18]

ANNE: That sounds really powerful.

CHARLANDRA: So, I guess my third pick, my third book would be Severance, which I just mentioned again. Which was a book I read pre-COVID [LAUGHS] and you can imagine that now it’s something that I revisit in my mind constantly. But that’s also a book beyond just like a book about a pandemic, that’s a book about being untethered by grief in a way where you are lost and you’re trying to look for things. And I think the author did so many great little touches. There’s a part where she gets connected to a group of people who are taking care of themselves.

ANNE: First, for those who haven’t read Severance, let’s talk about viruses for a moment.

CHARLANDRA: [LAUGHS] Yeah. So the book is about a young woman who is working in a listless job, but there becomes a virus that originates in China and quickly spreads across the globe. I don’t know if anyone’s familiar with that idea. [LAUGHS] And this was written I think in 2018 or published in 2018. I read it last year.

ANNE: Do you want to hear something truly terrible? Uh, I just came across a review of this recently in a list of Coronavirus novels...

CHARLANDRA: [LAUGHS] Oh god.

ANNE: And I was looking at something from the New Yorker in 2018 and it said Ling Ma’s Severance captures the bleak fatalistic mood of 2018, and I thought oh, you just have no idea what’s coming.

CHARLANDRA: No idea … [LAUGHS]

ANNE: No idea.

CHARLANDRA: [LAUGHS] It’s true. If you thought that was bleak and fatalistic, wait til … wait til you meet 2020.

You just see the way that she’s trying to go out and figure herself out in the world. And yes, there’s this pandemic, but she’s also grieving a loss of a family member and trying to figure out her space. And so I just relate to that. I just love the book so much. It’s just … It’s more than about the pandemic, and I know the ending is very … divisive. People either love it or hate it. I personally loved it.

[00:19:23]

ANNE: Well either way, any divisive ending you love or hate makes for excellent book club discussion. So if anybody listening is in charge of selecting something for book club, that’s always a good sign. I just love the way your voice changed when you talked about how much you loved it. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] That really means something.

CHARLANDRA: Yes, yes, it definitely does. Ah. I think about that book often.

ANNE: I love that you used the word linger when you described how you chose these books.

CHARLANDRA: Yeah, I mean, l like to think like a good book changes something in me. It makes me think about something a little bit differently.

ANNE: Charlandra, how did you choose the book that was not for you?

CHARLANDRA: I chose a book that actually I read for my book club and that was more complicated than just like love or hate. I don’t have a problem with saying I hate a book at all, but I chose this book because I do think there are some great parts of this book on merit, but then there’s some really troubling things that I feel like it’s important to call out.

ANNE: What’s the book?

CHARLANDRA: So I chose Where the Crawdads Sing because I love nature writing. I’m familiar with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Marjory Stoneman Douglas. I’m from Florida. I love things that center like nature and when like the environment becomes an important character in a novel. And reading it, I just love the way she describes it, but the reason why I put it as something that I didn’t care for or like because this book is set in a certain time where Black people were segregated but also there was cruel, cruel injustice. And I felt that the way that she wrote her Black characters were very much just in service to the white narrator.

And in one particular scene, unfortunately, the author chose to degrade one of her Black characters. There’s a scene where there’s two white kids who are taunting one of the Black characters and they call him the n-word, which is one of the cruelest ways to dehumanize a person. The white character saves the day by kinda sneakily throwing things to spook them out and leave him alone. And I think the author wanted to show that the white narrator has grown close to this person because she’s an outsider for one reason and he’s an outsider for another reason, like, look these two outsiders have managed to forge a relationship, but I do think there’s something that diminishes his humanity in order to show that they were close that cheapened the novel in general.

And then they also described … the Black character’s name is Jumpin’ … the way that Jumpin’s wife was very much an overemphasis on her physique. They man-ified the wife. And so I was very disappointed by those things. It was troubling, and that’s why I think it’s important for communities that are marginalized, it’s really important for them to write their own stories and it’s also important for the publishing industry when they see things like this to kinda call it out and make sure they have people in place and diversity is important in publishing as well.

I was just so dumbfounded, like, why didn’t that editor see that for what it was, and say hey, this actually doesn’t move the story forward. This doesn’t actually service these characters, these characters have no agency. Let’s do something a little bit different in order to, like, have a more well-rounded, nuanced character development for these people. And so that’s where I felt the book lack.

[00:22:57]

ANNE: I’ve not read this one, which somehow I feel like I’ve been saying a lot on What Should I Read Next lately. I guess readers are bringing it up for all kinds of reasons, but I can really relate to the experience of reading a book and loving certain parts of it, but feeling like ugh, this had such potential to become an amazing read.

CHARLANDRA: Yeah. Because it’s not as if I don’t want the book to exist. All of the nature writing and the beautiful love story to me was diminished by the lack of humanity that the author had for the Black characters. I’m not a sidekick in my own life. I am the main character in my own life, and I want to feel that and have that experience when I read a book.

ANNE: I love the way you put that. We’re going to keep that in mind when we pick books for you today.

CHARLANDRA: Oh, yes.

ANNE: Charlandra, what have you been reading lately?

[00:23:47]

CHARLANDRA: I recently read Real Life by Brandon Taylor and that was incredible.

ANNE: I’ve heard wonderful things.

CHARLANDRA: Oh, wow, that was just so beautiful. About a young, gay, Black man in the biology field trying to find his way in life. I also just read Nella Larsen’s Passing, which is incredible. I had no idea that she existed. She wrote during the Harlem Renaissance. I feel like she’s a lesser name. We hear our Langston Hughes’s and our Zora Neale Hurston’s, but Nella Larsen was someone I haven’t heard of until this year, and reading Passing, and being prepared to read Britt Bennet’s new book The Vanishing Half, it set me on the right course.

And so I’m actually right in the middle of Britt Bennet’s book The Vanishing Half. I loved The Mothers, and I loved that it was a complicated female relationship between friends, and so now I’m interested in, like, this idea of passing and also it being within the same family of twin sisters. And I’m enjoying it so far. It’s incredible.

ANNE: It’s been so deeply satisfying to see that book really catching fire on the Internet. Speaking about The Vanishing Half now, I loved it so much. It’s already become a book that I can’t stop talking about on What Should I Read Next since I read it [LAUGHS] back in the spring and I’m so glad that you’re reading it and enjoying it.

Tell me more about Passing. This is a book I also read this year for the first time, and it was not at all what I expected. I can’t believe ... [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] I can’t believe it took me until now to read it. I thought I knew what it was about. And it was, but there was so much more to the story. I had no idea.

CHARLANDRA: Yeah. So much more.

ANNE: What was your experience?

CHARLANDRA: I thought that the writing was incredibly fresh for it to have been written so long ago.

ANNE: It was like 1925, ‘26, something like that.

[00:25:35]

CHARLANDRA: Exactly. And so you have, like, this relationship between these two women who used to know each other growing up, but one of the women decides to pass for white, but her passing for white has left her alienated within her own home, her community further, and so she finds herself wanting to like be apart of the Black community that she removed herself from, and the dangers of that.

And oh, you just see these two women kinda competing and going at it, and I really feel like it was almost, like, I was watching like a Black Downton Abbey. There’s this master of wits situation going on. I just loved it so … And it was so surprising. And it’s fairly short, so you can read it very quickly. But I just thought it was so fresh and so unexpected.

ANNE: Yeah, readers, if you’ve been thinking about picking this one up, it’s such a fast read. It’s not long. If you want to hang on a little bit, there’s a new beautiful edition coming out, I think, early this fall.

CHARLANDRA: Oh, wow.

ANNE: Your library is likely to have it. Maybe you can download it today and finish before dinner.

CHARLANDRA: Yes. I mean, I got it through my library and ah, I just, it’s a psychological thriller, which I had never read from that particular perspective, that date and time, that’s why … That’s really the thing that caught fire for me about, like, backlist titles.

ANNE: ‘Cause I imagine you’re thinking something like okay, this book was written almost a hundred years ago. I’m just reading it now. It blew me away. What else am I missing?

CHARLANDRA: Exactly. It’s like oh, I had no idea this person existed and now what else do I not know about? I need to know all the things now. [LAUGHS] Like I love bookstagram. Bookstagram gives me lots of great books that are about to come out, but I know there’s books that I have not heard of, and I want to read about women, about marginalized groups, about you know, nonbinary folks. I want to read about all those experiences. I want to learn about marginalized communities from people who are in those communities and I know there’s a backlist. We’ve always existed, right? I know it’s not a new thing that all of these books are coming out. I want to explore what has already been put out there.

[00:27:48]

ANNE: In some ways I feel like oh, I can’t believe it’s been here all this time, and I just didn’t know. But on the positive side, it opens up this whole world of possibility.

CHARLANDRA: Exactly. It makes me so excited for my recommendations.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] No pressure, Anne. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS]

***

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***

ANNE: Okay, you loved We Cast A Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, and Severance by Ling Ma. I just gotta repeat that you said that you looove stories about complicated women. Not for you was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and we’re looking for more backlist titles by women, those in marginalized communities, and if the stories are told, by those voices out of that experience so much the better, yes?

[00:29:53]

CHARLANDRA: Yes.

ANNE: I’m excited.

CHARLANDRA: Me too!

ANNE: Although always a little bit terrified right here. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] Okay, so you said that you loved Passing in part because it was a psychological thriller. And that makes me wonder if you have ever read The Street by Ann Petry.

CHARLANDRA: No! Tell me more …

ANNE: Do you …

CHARLANDRA: No, no, I’ve never heard of that.

ANNE: Oh, I’m so excited! That is music to my ears. This book was published in 1946. It sold a staggering number of copies, like, 1.5 million. It was incredibly popular in its day. And then we all forgot about it. Actually I have a little theme in my reading life lately. I keep reading works that have been introduced by Tayari Jones, so.

CHARLANDRA: Ahh.

ANNE: This is totally coincidence, but I am - I am here for it. I like this trend. I would like to invite the universe to keep sending Tayari Jones texts my way. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] I’m good with that. But she wrote this excellent introduction to the version of The Street I read in which she talked about her personal experiences with the book, but in part, she’s taking stock of the literary landscape as she sees it today and asks why do so few people read Ann Petry today? I have no idea.

I wouldn’t call this a psychological thriller, but it is a literary thriller and it does two things that you don’t often see together but that I really love put together. You can tell me how this sounds. It’s a literary novel, beautiful prose, carefully crafted. You’re in the hands of a skilled wordsmith who wants beautiful language, but there is plot, like, pulling you through the story.

[00:31:28]

CHARLANDRA: Ooh.

ANNE: So you can call this a literary thriller. I like to call the genre compulsive readable literary fiction. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] Based on some of your favorites, this could work for you. But let me tell you more about the story.

CHARLANDRA: Yeah.

ANNE: At the time she wrote it in 1946, it was contemporary fiction and she explicitly wanted to address the issues of the day which were as she saw it were race and gender and poverty. Sadly those are the issues of our day as well. That much has not changed. The way it looks is a little different.

But the heroine here, her name is Lutie Johnson, and she’s a single mother who lives in Harlem with her 8-year-old son and she’s married. She married the man she fell in love with and thought they were going to live happily forever in Harlem, but the marriage falls apart. And what she shows is the choices Lutie Johnson makes and it makes you think, what? What could this poor woman have done differently to make things end up better? Her husband can’t get a job. Petry’s very explicit in text that he can’t get hired because he’s Black. No one wants to hire him because he’s Black. It’s a problem. They don’t have any income. It destroys their relationship. It destroys his self-esteem.

What Lutie Johnson does is she sees is an ad for a family in Connecticut that needs a nanny basically. So she leaves her own son at home to go to Connecticut for 27 days out of the 31 in a month. She doesn’t want to come back weekly because then she’d have to pay the train fare, and she’s trying to save as much money as she can so the family can be together again because eventually surely, her husband will get a job. Except he doesn’t. I don’t know if we’d call it a spoiler, but I’m not going to tell you what happens when she’s in Connecticut but it’s not good.

CHARLANDRA: Oh.

[00:33:06]

ANNE: The family she’s with in Connecticut is really kind to her most of the time, but she sees and experiences racism in that community and the way they talk about their help that causes her to reflect on the page for the reader about what it means to be Black and why they view her the way they do and how that’s different than the way she views them. And she reflects a lot on economics and she’s learned something about Ben Franklin, how he believed you can make something about yourself. You just need the will. You just need to read. You just need the smarts. You just need the drive. And she believes in that version of the American Dream that she can do that.

But as she moves back to Harlem, and she tries to put these deep-seated beliefs that she can make something of her life, this specific kind of vision that she wants to have in her life for her son. As she tries to make that into being, you see through everyday she’s living out on the page everything she’s facing. And things that seem promising turns out the people offering them have completely different ideas in mind than she did as to what they’d each get out of the deal. And ugh, it’s just gutting.

CHARLANDRA: Wow.

ANNE: But in a really thought-provoking, page-turning way. I want to tell you a little bit about what Tayari Jones said in the introduction.

CHARLANDRA: Yes.

ANNE: And she said a funny thing. She read this book as assigned reading back at Spelman when she went there as I believe an undergraduate. But she was a student. She said she brought her copy from the bookstore, and the cover art was dignified. It was a black and white photograph, and she said it was radioing to the students this is an important book with serious themes.

But her classmate got the book someplace else. It was an old copy that she had taken from her mother’s bookshelf. And in this copy, Lutie, the heroine is wearing a corset and a red dress and she’s got this hairdo and the tagline on the front which wasn’t written for students and scholars, it was written for the people who bought 1.5 million copies of this book, sex and violence on the mean streets of Harlem. And Tayari Jones said, now, come on, this … I would have actually wanted to read that book. Like everybody should have seen that cover. You can Google them and see the differences. It’s really interesting.

[00:35:16]

CHARLANDRA: Oh, wow.

ANNE: But that is The Street by Ann Petry, 1946. It’s been reissued recently and so the hope is that it will see a resurgence in readership. How does that sound? Do you think you might be one of those readers?

CHARLANDRA: Oh, that sounds incredible. When you were describing it, it reminded me of a lot of Behold the Dreamers.

ANNE: Yeah.

CHARLANDRA: And I enjoyed that a lot. So I’d be interested in reading something like that. Plus, I mean, I enjoyed American Marriage so much, another complicated woman, so yeah. I definitely would check that out.

ANNE: Okay. The next one I have in mind is from 1982. It’s Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place.

CHARLANDRA: Yes.

ANNE: Is this a title you’re familiar with?

CHARLANDRA: I have actually never read it, but I’ve seen the movie so many times.

ANNE: Are we talking about the mini series that Oprah made?

CHARLANDRA: Yes.

ANNE: What did you think?

CHARLANDRA: Oh my gosh it’s - it’s …

ANNE: ‘Cause I haven’t seen the mini series.

CHARLANDRA: Oh, wow, I feel like … I feel like it’s just one of those movies where it’s always on in the background when I was a kid. I have watched it so many times, but I haven’t seen it recently. You know, it never occurred to me to like pick up the book. I’ve actually never read any Gloria Naylor, so, and her name has been popping up quite a bit. So I’m excited.

[00:36:29]

ANNE: Oh, I’m glad to hear this. She went on to write plenty of other books but this is her debut. Published in 1982. It actually won the National Book Award as a first novel in 1983, and this is one of those books critics and readers both loved, which we know that’s not always the same thing. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] So you’ve seen the TV version. For the novel, I don’t know if you’ll be surprised to hear or not, that this is a novel in short stories. It’s a kaleidoscope.

So the whole book is set in a housing development in an unnamed city which was founded by people with insidious goals, and it’s just got this aura of corruption about it. It’s set in short stories overall, but the first six stories, each one focuses on an individual resident who lives in the development. And what’s unique about the short stories is that they each have their own arc. You get the whole picture when you put them together, but each short story has its own character development. And the final story focuses on the community as a whole.

So what I like about this for you is that it covers a wide range of Black women’s experiences featuring women of different classes, different backgrounds, different geographical origins, different sexual orientations, different generations. And something Gloria Naylor does really, really well is move the reader through time. I mean just in the span of a few paragraphs you can cover 80 years and somebody’s life and family history. All the residents are there for different reasons which is interesting and you see again a wide variety of motivates. There’s reasons for being. There’s only one of the six residents in this housing residence by choice and that’s interesting too. There’s a story of Lorraine and Theresa who are the only lesbian residents at Brewster Place.

CHARLANDRA: Yes.

ANNE: I think something that’s really unique about a book like this is you get the personal glimpse of someone’s history many times over …

CHARLANDRA: Yeah.

ANNE: … Because of the way the novel’s structured. You know the story. How does the book version sound to you now?

[00:38:31]

CHARLANDRA: The book version sounds really great. You know, it’s interesting you said that about, like, the different backgrounds of the women themselves, like being different, and I think that’s important to me in terms of like Blackness isn’t a monolith, right? The experiences of that lesbian couple juxtaposed to the experiences of, like, the heterosexual women in that community are going to vary and those nuances are important and ah, that’s a really, that’s a really great pick. I’m really excited about that one.

ANNE: I’m excited you’re excited. Charlandra, I did not see us talking about this book today, but how do you feel about nonfiction?

CHARLANDRA: I love nonfiction.

ANNE: The book I have in mind in part because you’ve talked about how you love nature writing several times is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Do you know this one?

CHARLANDRA: I literally last night just put this on my TBR.

ANNE: What! What happened that you put it on your TBR last night?

CHARLANDRA: Oh my gosh, I don’t even remember. I’ve just been doing more research about nature writing and trying to find more Black or Indigenous authors in that realm, and this came up.

ANNE: Yes because Kimmerer is a citizen of the Potawatomi nation. Well here, let me tell you the subtitle of the book. It’s Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teaching of plants. This book was first put on my radar a hundred or so episodes ago when Ashley Gossens chose it as her favorite in episode 163. And listeners, if you want to listen to her talk about it, that episode is called “wonderful wonder-filled reading in the great outdoors.”

I was just talking to a friend recently about what she’s reading now because that’s often what I talk about when I see friends. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] I say, what are you reading, and she said that she had had a conversation with her therapist about how she was having a hard time being a person in the world right now ‘cause there’s just so, so much happening and I was surprised to hear that her therapist recommended she read this book. My friend is a gardener. That’s what she does professionally, so maybe that’s part of it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I like the idea of people reading Robin Wall Kimmerer right now. Because what she does in this nonfiction book is weave together disparate elements to make a story that perhaps you didn’t know you wanted, that I didn’t know I wanted. She’s a biology professor. She’s a Potawatomi woman. She’s a mother. She’s a writer. And she’s someone who has a deep and abiding appreciation and respect for nature.

And what she does is, I think, shows you how to see the world in a way that you never thought to see it, especially she - she’s looking at something that we’re all familiar with, the natural world, but she’s calling you to see it in a whole new way. This is important anytime and also right now because she’s calling us to see how we’re all in this together. She talks from her heritage about how we need a culture of regenerative reciprocity instead of one that just diminishes everybody.

[00:41:36]

CHARLANDRA: Yes.

ANNE: Or gives the few a lot at the expense of many who have nothing left. She’s calling us to better way to live, and what it reminds me of is … I’m in Kentucky. I love Wendell Berry. He’s said in interviews for years, like, if the economy we have does this to the people and the land, we need a new economy.

CHARLANDRA: Yes.

ANNE: So that stuck with me because he’s the first one I heard articulate that thought in that way and Robin Wall Kimmerer makes a similar argument in her own beautiful, eloquent, really compelling way. She’s talking about how we need an economy … And when she says economy, we’re not just talking about changing money. We’re talking about ways of living in the world with other people. We need an economy that is aligned with life, not stacked against it.

And she says that it’s easy to write that. It’s harder to do, but the first step is to envision what it could be like, and just … She’s so imaginative and her writing is so evocative.

CHARLANDRA: Oh, wow.

[00:42:34]

ANNE: I just think you might really like it. And let me tell you about the braiding sweetgrass.

CHARLANDRA: Yes!

ANNE: In order to literally weave a braid of sweetgrass, there has to be someone on the other end of your strands holding them taut, and that’s the analogy underlining the book. What do you think, Charlandra? How does that sound to you?

CHARLANDRA: I’m, like, floored by that recommendation because I’m reading actually Working The Roots.

ANNE: I don’t know that one.

CHARLANDRA: Yeah, it’s by Michele Lee and it’s about traditional African American healing, but that’s also coupled with the Indigenous people who African Americans learned like healing methods but also the methods that they had in Africa really brought to the States coupled with the Indigenous peoples. And I love botany, I love plants, and so, oh wow, I’m really excited that this is a recommendation. I loved what you said about the generous recip … What was it?

ANNE: Yeah, the generous reciprocity.

CHARLANDRA: That’s it. I love that. I’m so excited.

ANNE: I”m excited that you’re excited and I mean, you know it’s a good sign if you just put it on your TBR last night and then it comes up again.

CHARLANDRA: Yes! I saw it very quickly. I was just doing very cursory research about things I want to read next, but I hadn’t really delved into what it was. So that just further bolstered that it should be in my TBR.

ANNE: I’m happy to hear it. Okay, you know we’re going chronological order. So we’ve been from 1946 to ’82 to 2013. How do you feel about graphic novels?

CHARLANDRA: I’m very open to them.

ANNE: Okay. We gotta do one more.

[00:44:10]

CHARLANDRA: Yes.

ANNE: The one I have in mind is recent. It’s from 2018. This would not be backlist, but it’s called Bingo Love. It’s by Tee Franklin. Do you know this?

CHARLANDRA: No! I’ve never heard of it.

ANNE: Oh, that makes me so happy. Our producer Brenna Frederick put this on my radar. Longtime listeners know that Brenna is a huge graphic novel fan and also a recommender. I mean when we get together as a What Should I Read Next team [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] we trade books recs. I know no one is shocked. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] But Tee Franklin is a Black queer and disabled comic artist, so I know that you are wanting to read #OwnVoices perspectives ...

CHARLANDRA: Yes.

ANNE: … From marginalized writers. So this book, hard things happen of course but it’s just so gentle and happy and it’s also so, so beautiful. This is a love story about two girls, Hazel and Mari who are best friends as children. They meet when they’re young at a bingo hall and something that I really love about the story is the way these gorgeous drawings really bring that to life. The colors are really saturated and vibrant and you can see … Like in the bingo hall, you can see like all the little balls in the bingo machine popper thing. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] And they’ve got their cards and there’s mood lighting for different scenes. It’s really … It makes for an interesting reading experience.

And what I love about a graphic novel is that instead of setting the atmosphere with prose and the turns of phrase, the artist can also do it with the lighting and the look on someone’s face and the clothing and the hairstyles. And oh, I just … that’s really fun. So Hazel and Mari are best friends, and then they become more than friends. And then … Ooh, you know what I should have told you, is this story starts in the ‘60s.

CHARLANDRA: Oh! Oh, wow.

ANNE: So they become more than friends. Someone sees the girls kissing on the sidewalk. And these two rather traditional Black families, both the parents lose their minds. And one of the girls ends up getting moved down south for the explicit purpose of splitting the girls. It’s the ‘60s. We don’t do that.

[00:46:13]

CHARLANDRA: Right.

ANNE: There’s a lot of talk about sin and shame and how dare you, you know, bring that on the family. So they’re torn apart. And they grow up. They both go on to marry men. One of the girls is told by her father, like okay, you did your little rebellious stunt thing. Here’s James. He’s your husband. They grow up. They live their lives. But then in their 60s when they’re grandmas, they meet again in the small town they grew up in. So at its heart, this is very much a love story.

CHARLANDRA: Oh.

ANNE: Well, in two parts. The first time they’re in high school, but the second time they’re in their 60s. So you have these two, I mean, still completely gorgeous grandmothers with their graying hair meeting again and falling again and having it go differently that time and the women are beautifully drawn. One of them really loves clothes and so you see that in the illustrations, which is really fun. You love a complicated woman.

CHARLANDRA: Oh, yes.

ANNE: Clearly you enjoy hard themes and while this book has hard themes, it’s just so happy and I think … I think it might be a nice compliment to the books we’ve gathered here today. What do you think?

CHARLANDRA: Oh, absolutely. I could definitely … One I don’t read as many graphic novels as I feel like I should because I know there’s some beautiful storytelling that’s happening there. So I’m really excited by this medium that I’m not that fluent in. And then also I love those themes of kinda like the forbidden love, but also the presence of happiness … I like the occasional happy endings, so I think ... [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: I’m glad you said that because I might not have known.

CHARLANDRA: I think that’s definitely something to look forward to reading, yeah, for sure. For sure.

ANNE: If you get the jackpot edition of this book, it contains a whole bunch of bonus material. It’s something like 60 pages, and that includes a lot of stories by writers as well, like Beverly Johnson, Shawn Pryor, Alyssa Cole, Gail Simone. So it is a graphic novel, and yet you can have all this bonus content as well that you may really enjoy.

[00:48:20]

CHARLANDRA: Noted! Wow, I’m so excited.

ANNE: Okay, so Charlandra, today we talked about The Street by Ann Petry, The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Bingo Love by Tee Franklin. Of those titles, what do you think you may be reading next?

CHARLANDRA: You know, I will be reading all of these, but I think the next one I will likely read is I think it’s The Street. That one is just really intriguing to me. I think that’s going to be my next book.

ANNE: I’m happy to hear it. I can’t wait to hear what you think.

CHARLANDRA: Just to be very, very clear: all of them are getting read. [ANNE LAUGHS] There’s not one that doesn’t sound incredible, so it’s just an issue of which order, and I might just stick to the chronological order idea.

ANNE: Is it weird to say I wouldn’t have thought that myself? Even though I very deliberately put them in chronological order for you? [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS] Well I’m excited you’re excited, and I’m so glad we got to have this conversation. Thanks for talking books with me today.

CHARLANDRA: Thank you so much for having me. This has been incredible. I feel like I’ve said incredible 20 times, but it - it has been.

ANNE: I mean, we’re talking about books. I’ll take it. [CHARLANDRA LAUGHS]

[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Charlandra today, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/243 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. You can follow Charlandra on Instagram @rantiesnplanties. She loves my favorite things: books and plants as you’ll see.

Subscribe now so you don’t miss next week’s episode in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and more. We will see you next week!

Readers, thanks so much for being part of our community here. We’d love to connect with you through our newsletter: sign up for our free weekly delivery at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter.

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Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.

Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening. And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.

Books mentioned in this episode:

Some links are affiliate links. More details here.

• Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
• Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Stories from the Harlem Renaissance by Zora Neale Hurston
• Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston
• The New Me by Halle Butler
• Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell
We Cast A Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
♥  Severance by Ling Ma
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
• Author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
• Author Marjory Stoneman Douglas
• Real Life by Brandon Taylor
• Passing by Nella Larson
• The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
• The Mothers by Brit Bennett
• The Street by Ann Petry
• Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
• An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
• The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor
• Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
• Author Wendell Berry
• Working the Roots: Over 400 Years of Traditional African American Healing by Michelle Lee
• Bingo Love by Tee Franklin

Also mentioned: 
• WSIRN Ep 186: Finding the book that feels like it was written just for you, w/Lamar Giles
• WSIRN Ep 163: Wonderful, wonder-filled reading in the great outdoors, w/Ashley Gossens
• The Women of Brewster Place mini series

Thanks to this week’s sponsors:

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What do YOU think Charlandra should read next?
Let us know in the comments!

13 comments | Comment

13 comments

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  1. CB says:

    This was such a thoughtful episode. I loved Charlandra’s comment about how the way the black characters were treated in “Where the Crawdad’s Sing” didn’t move the story forward. I know that sometimes just ONE thing like that in a book can ruin the whole thing for me. (often for me it is abuse or killing of pets-I rarely can see how that is essential to the plot or to the message trying to be conveyed in a book). I also share Charlandra’s interest in botany and I don’t know anything about traditional African American medicine/healing so that definitely sparked my interest when she talked about that & what she was reading.

  2. Jennsev says:

    Loved listening to this. Enjoyed the passion that came through loud and clear. So many new books for my TBR list!

  3. Lisa J says:

    What a fantastic episode! If she hasn’t read it yet, I think Charlandra would absolutely love Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. It’s a must-read for everyone, but it’s exactly what she is looking for!

    • Julie Pearc says:

      I only just heard this episode and agree that Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo came to mind for Charlandra when I heard what she likes and what she is looking for. I live in England, and was in London mid-eighties. A book relevant for current times: an all around great mirror/window for strong women through challenging times.

  4. Zeena Regis says:

    I really loved this episode. And I started reading Passing last night. It has been on my TBR forever and I can’t believe I hadn’t picked it up before. I had a hard time putting it down last night.
    I agree completely with Charlandra’s thoughts on Where the Crawdad’s Sing. That book provoked great discussion at my book club meeting. I had a strongly negative reaction to it, in no small part because of how the Black characters were written.

    • Anne says:

      Zeena, I’m so glad you enjoyed the episode, and that you inspired to pick up Passing! And thanks for sharing your story from your book club—it’s always so validating to hear that another reader had the same experience with a book that we did.

  5. Heather says:

    Loved this episode! Two of Charlandra’s loves are on the top of my TBR already (Severance checked out from the library last week!) and I am moving them up after hearing her passion for them. I added her other favorite to my TBR, too! And Passing which I have never heard of and sounds amazing. As did Ann’s rec for The Street, which I had also never heard of before. I love great old backlist novels! Braiding Sweetgrass went back in my TBR, too. Not sure how it fell off, but it feels right to read that book now, so thank you for reminding me of it. And adding Working the Roots for the same reason. Those feel like a beautiful pair! Thank you and curse you both equally for adding to my already out of control TBR. 💕

  6. Claire Long says:

    I really loved this episode, and much of my taste in reading aligns with Charlandra’s – loved Severance, and found Crawdads awful….
    Charlandra may appreciate some recent works by Indigenous Australian authors which have achieved critical acclaim here in Australia and which also do some long overdue truth telling. Some titles: White Girl by Tony Birch, The Yield by Tara June Winch and Too Much Lip by Melissa Lukashenko.

  7. Sue says:

    This was a such a great episode. Thank you Anne and Charlandra for all the addition to my tbr!

    If you’re looking for a similar theme to “Severance” I highly recommend “Songs for the End of the World” by Canadian author Saleema Nawaz. It’s U.S. release is Aug 25th. The novel takes you through the lives of several characters as they navigate the fear and existential threat of a … wait for it… a novel coronavirus that hits NYC and spreads across the world. Nawaz started researching the book in 2012 and finished most of the writing by 2018, yet it feels like it could have been written last week. It’s so well done.
    Thanks again for a wonderful episode.

  8. Meghan says:

    I’m currently reading Braiding Sweetgrass and loving it. Robin Wall Kimmerer was also a guest on the podcast Ologies (the Bryology (moss) episode) and she was an absolute delight to listen to. 😊

  9. Shay Hurlocker says:

    Wow! This was my first time listening and I believe you created my “dream” podcast! I was blown away by the thoughtful discussion of literature and so intrigued by the book suggestions. I immediately started reading Braiding Sweetgrass (ummm, wow! I want to use the first essay in my high school language arts classes) and can’t wait to try The Street (never heard of it before). I am very much looking forward to digging into your archives. Thanks so much for the reading inspiration!

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