On this episode of The Desk Set, we dig into two 10 to Try categories: Books by Native American Authors and Biography and Memoir. We chat with Hugo-Award winning author Rebecca Roanhorse about her Navajo-inspired urban fantasy Trail of Lightning and her award-winning short story, "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™". We also sit down with Seattleite and memoirist Litsa Dremousis to talk her about her memoir, Altitude Sickness, and her role in the #MeToo allegations surrounding Sherman Alexie. Plus, we recommend some memoirs we love and the downloadable audiobook versions of those books, available on OverDrive.
A transcript of this episode is available at the end of our show notes.
In addition to the books included below, listeners can explore some additional reading for context: NPR's story on the #MeToo allegations against Sherman Alexie and Litsa's statement about her role, including an update about her Cease and Desist order against Alexie. You can also read more about how female memoirists feel about the gendered critical reception to their work.
If you'd like to get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Desk Set is brought to you by the King County Library System. Most of the audio heard on the podcast was recorded at the Makerspace at the Bellevue Library. The show is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, and produced by Britta Barrett. Our theme song is "I Know What I Want" by Math and Physics Club. Other music provided by Chad Crouch, from the Free Music Archive.
Emily Calkins: You're listening to The Desk Set.
Britta Barrett: A bookish podcast for reading broadly.
Emily Calkins: We're your host Emily Calkins.
Britta Barrett: And Britta Barrett.
Emily Calkins: In each episode we'll talk about two themes from our 2018 reading challenge Ten to Try. Learn more about the challenge and see a list of all the categories at KCLS.org/10totry
Emily Calkins: On this episode of the Desk Set we're talking about memoirs and books by native American authors. We chat we the Hugo award-winning author Rebecca Roanhorse about her Navajo inspired urban fantasy, Trail of Lightning.
Britta Barrett: Then we sit down with Seattlite and memoirist, Litsa Dremousis to talk about her memoir, Altitude Sickness, and her role in the #MeToo allegation surrounding Sherman Alexie. Plus we recommend some memoirs we love.
Rebecca R.: Hi everyone, my name is Rebecca Roanhorse and I am a speculative fiction writer. I write primarily fantasy and science fiction and I work in indigenous futurism and what I like to call Res-based fans.
Britta Barrett: What does indigenous futurism mean to you?
Rebecca R.: I think its sort of looking at the future from an indigenous perspective. I think you can sort of come at that two ways, you can look at that as being in dialogue with colonization or colonialism. In sort of speaking back to that history and those tropes for example, rather than thinking that 1492 as the day that Columbus landed or something you can approach that from a speculative fiction perspective and make that the day of conquest or genocide or the beginning of the apocalypse as opposed to beginning of the discovery of a new world. And the other way I think indigenous futurism works is that you can write a story that has absolutely nothing to do with colonialism. You can write what I would call a sovereign story, a story from indigenous cultures or an indigenous perspective that doesn't engage in sort of Western culture at all. That it only focuses on its own culture and its own internal stories and mythos.
Emily Calkins: In the book, Trail of Lightning, we get a little bit of a sense of the world outside Dinetah, mostly from Kai whose from what used to be Albuquerque. But for the most part it kinda of its own contained world and its protected by this massive wall. Can you tell us about the wall?
Rebecca R.: Oh, sure. That's a little bit of a political commentary that sort of motivated that wall idea. But I like the idea of indigenous people building a wall after the apocalypse to sort of keep everyone else out. I though that would be sort of ironic but of course in my book, the apocalypse for the rest of the world, there's a rebirth for the Navajo or the Diné. Their wall is not sort of your typical concrete, harsh, ugly apocalyptic wall, their wall is beautiful. It's made from stones or shells representing the four sacred mountains that surround the Dinetah. And its made hand in hand with the Navajo gods and the holy people and the Hataalii, the medicine. And so its something to protect them, to keep them safe, and to let the culture rise up. In sort of renaissance, sort of rebirth within the wall.
Emily Calkins: Sorta building on some themes there, there's a lot of fun stuff in this book. Its got like really great action and adventure scenes. Its got awesome fight scenes. There's a homemade flamethrower and monsters and romance. But it also has a really dark side, Maggie's power is the result of a very horrible trauma in her life and that scene isn't the only one of graphic violence. How do you balance that fun adventure stuff with the more serious side?
Rebecca R.: Yeah, I think coming from marginalized cultures, when one comes from one, for me, being native and being Black. I think that balancing the horror with the humor sorta comes naturally. I think that that's life, I think particularly for a lot of native folks on the Res, life can be really difficult. It can be a lot of struggle or it could be a lot of traumas. But what I really try to do was have strength come from that trauma and sort of explore that idea, sort of the superpowers in the book, the magic that Maggie and others are able to find that comes from their heritage from their clans is triggered by trauma, by some sort of deep trauma.
Rebecca R.: The book sorta explores the idea that something good can come from something bad and I don't really give you the answer, the characters in the book don't agree. Maggie certainly thinks that's not the case, she thinks that her powers are a curse. But I think the idea its one that's intriguing and that's sorta wanted to play with that. And I think as far as sorta of the violence in the book, I really wanted the book, like you said it can be a lot of fun and its an adventure and I think readers can read it that way and that is great. I want people to enjoy the book, clearly, but for me, a lot of the book is about violence and the effects of violence on someone's life.
Rebecca R.: When you go through something that its so traumatic, how that sort of affects all the relationships that you try to create because Maggie is completely terrible at these relationships, whether they be friendships or mentorships or romantic relationships. Whatever it is she's trying to do, this trauma that she has experienced as a teenager, sorta radiates out and impacts all of her decisions. And so for me, it was really important to talk about violence in a very visceral way not to sugar coat it or to make it too cartoony. I wanted it to be pretty dark and I wanted that the book just be this sort of exploration of the impact of violence on a person's life.
Britta Barrett: Something you said just reminded me of this Toni Morrison quote: “if there's a book you want to read but it hasn't been written yet then you must write it.” And for many marginalized people who loves speculative fiction the transition from fan to creator is precisely that journey. I'm wondering is Trail of Lighting one of those books?
Rebecca R.: It definitely is, yeah because Trail of Lighting sort of falls in the urban fantasy genre, I used a lot of those familiar tropes and try to put my spin on them and I wanted to keep that sort of familiar structure to the story that urban fantasy readers know about. And I am a big fan of the genre, and I read a lot of urban fantasy that had native characters but they didn't really ring true for me. Their nativeness was often, they didn't know their tribe or it was often limited to one power, maybe like a nature power or shape shifting power or something.
Rebecca R.: But the world that they lived in was very European centric, it had like elves or werewolves or vampires or whatever have you that you see in a lot of mainstream urban fantasy. As much as I loved those books I wanted to see a book that had a native character that was living in a native world. That was surrounded by the traditional stories from her own culture that she knew her tribe. And that her powers didn't come simply from some nature element or animalistic element but came from something deeper, something that had to do with who she was in this case, in Maggie's case, as a Diné woman and that she would be living in this milieu of gods and heroes and monsters from the Diné culture. And yeah that's what I wanted to read so that's what I wrote.
Britta Barrett: Growing up who were some of the authors and their characters that spoke to you?
Rebecca R.: Oh goodness, growing up I read a lot of questing farm boys as I always say. I read Belgariad and Tolkein and I had an obsession with like the Dragonlance chronicle I think sort of the stories everyone was reading I guess at that age. Maybe Dune is the one that really broke through for me. I'm still a huge Dune fan. And I think it was the first time I saw an indigenous culture that I kinda got interested in as “oh look, there's indigenous people in this book” and their not just laconic horse people sort of thing. Which is what you usually see in epic fantasy if there's any kind of indigenous culture, they're riding horses and they're stoic and you're just I don't come from any tribe that even rides horses so that was really always disappointing to me.
Rebecca R.: Now I read actually, in college, I read a lot of African American literature, and some of the classics like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin, I think that's when I started saying “Hey, I can see my experiences and my self in books.” And I was a genre fan and I wanted to see my stories or myself in science fiction and fantasy, although I suppose like, Morrison you can argue is pretty fantastic. But, yeah, probably not until then, and then like I said, I think urban fantasy has sort of let me personally down, and science fiction and fantasy in general has sort of let me down as far as representation is concerned. But that's certainly changing, I mean I think that the face of the genre and all these incredible stories both in short fiction and in novels that are coming out these days are great. And not only are they quality stories but there's all these voices we haven't heard before and yeah they're brilliant and the things that they're bringing to the table just blew me away.
Emily Calkins: Can you tell us some of those more recent titles that you're, either titles or authors that you're enjoying now?
Rebecca R.: Oh sure, lets see, I just read the Broken Earth Trilogy, of course, N.K. Jimisin who won the Hugo three times in a row for those novels. Just excellent. I am a big fan of R.F. Kuang who wrote The Poppy War. I just read Jade City as well by Fonda Lee, which was this wonderful sort of Hong Kong plus gangsters and a little bit a magic thrown in sort of saga, sort of Godfather-ish. What else have I read recently? I'm reading The Changeling by Victor Lavalle right now. And I'm looking at my wall, I probably should be looking at my kindle actually. But yeah, I think there's a lot, The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden, I really enjoyed that one. Everything by Nnedi Okorafor, she's wonderful so yeah there's a lot of options, a lot of great stories being told and I'm here for it I'm so excited about it.
Emily Calkins: Speaking of Hugo awards, congratulations you are also a Hugo award winner.
Rebecca R.: Thank you, yes I am.
Emily Calkins: Can you tell what that experience has been like?
Rebecca R.: Oh, its been pretty intense, I guess, I wrote the, I won it for a short story, Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience, TM. That was published in Apex Magazine in August of last year, 2017 and I was, that was actually the first short story I ever wrote.
Emily Calkins: Wow.
Rebecca R.: Yeah. And I wrote it because the special guest editor, they were doing a special issue of indigenous fantasists, as they called it, and the special guest editor Amy Sturgis put out a call asking for people to summit stories for consideration. And I was like “Well I have to do that, that's so cool, I want to be a part of that”. Cause how often do you get a call for indigenous science fiction and fantasy, more now but not very often, so I wrote that story specifically for that issue of the magazine. Never, well not even sure if they were going to publish it, never thinking it would blow up the way it did. Its just been a total like, shock and surprise and I'm humbled and honored and all of those things that people say are totally true because I've never written a short story before, I had no idea, no idea that the people would respond to it the way they did. And so its just really been a blessing, its very exciting.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, how incredible to win that for your first story and then also for Trail of Lighting to come out.
Rebecca R.: Right, and I had actually sold Trail of Lighting before I wrote the short story. I knew Trail of Lightning was coming but the publishing cycle is long and it was a good 18 months from sale to shelf sort of thing. Yeah, I knew that was coming, I wasn't sure how that would be received either, you sort of write your story and then you throw it out there and you see what people like and don't like.
Rebecca R.: But that's been pretty positive too and I think, clearly, that Hugo and the Nebula, I won the Nebula as well, have help raise the profile for both the book and the short story. I really kinda lucked out, that was very helpful, thank you, everybody who voted.
Emily Calkins: If we can get back to the book, I know we're almost out of time but I just have a few questions about the book. One of the things that I really loved about it was all that secondary characters, I'm particularly partial to Tah, Kai's grandfather, but I also loved Grace who runs the bar that sort of place of refuge an important location. Do you have a favorite secondary character? And can you tell us about him or her?
Rebecca R.: Oh gosh, I can't pick favorites, those are all my babies right? I do love Grace, I think she's sort of a neat character and I can visualize everything about the all-American in my mind and the bar. She's sort of this tough as nails, gun running, boot legging woman whose made her way on the reservation. She's African American and she has carved out her spot, I think she's, I like her, I think she's a great character. And of course she's an older woman too, and you don't get to see a lot of older woman in science fiction or fantasy. I was excited to write her and have her be a character that really gives Maggie a lot of crap honestly. And its one of the few who can do it sort of successfully. Yeah, I am excited to see, she'll be around, she's not going anywhere, she'll make an appearance in book two as well her kids, the twins and Freckles. Yeah, I will pick her but I will reserve the right to change my mind.
Britta Barrett: And for the readers who already devoured Trail of Lighting and can't wait for more, when will the sequel be published? And what can the readers look forward to?
Rebecca R.: So, Storm of Locusts, the second book in the Sixth world series will
Rebecca R.: be out in April 2019. And I call that book my "Girl Gang, Post-Apocalyptic Road Trip down Route 66"
Britta Barrett: Yes!
Rebecca R.: So that book, Maggie and Rissa, who is Grace's daughter, and a couple of other characters you have yet to meet, go on a road trip down Route 66 through what's left of Northern Arizona in the apocalypse.
Rebecca R.: So in book two, you get outside of the wall, and you see a little bit about what happened to the rest of the world. And you're going to run into all sorts of interesting characters; new born Casino Gods, Cult Leaders and all sorts of stuff like that.
Emily Calkins: Sounds fun!
Britta Barrett: I can't wait!
Emily Calkins: Yeah!
Rebecca R.: Yay! So, hopefully that one is sort of a more typical post-apocalyptic road trip story, but I think it's a lot of fun.
Emily Calkins: Are there any other indigenous authors, futurists or otherwise that you think should be read more widely?
Rebecca R.: Oh, you know, I love Daniel Wilson, he wrote Robopocalypse. And he sort of, he says what if the machines rise up and cause the apocalypse? But he's Cherokee and he's got some great sort of twists on that story and it's very cinematic and a lot of fun.
Rebecca R.: So, I'm a big fan of Stephen Graham Jones, who wrote Mapping the Interior, he won the Bram Stoker Award for that. And he sort of bends towards horror, but really interesting, provocative stuff.
Rebecca R.: So, I'm also a big fan of Cherie Dimaline, who is a Canadian First Nations writer; she won the Kirkus Award for her YA (young adult) novel, The Marrow Thieves. Which is post-apocalyptic take, a story, where all the non-native people have stopped dreaming. And the only way they can dream is to consume the marrow of indigenous peoples' bones. And, it's sort of dark. But it's fascinating, it's a great metaphor for the exploitation of indigenous lands and cultures and people. And it's all about found family and it does end on a positive note, so if you don't like grim, don't let that put you off; it's a great book.
Britta Barrett: Well, I can't wait to read all of those! Thanks so much for talking with us today.
Rebecca R.: Thank you for having me.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, our pleasure!
Britta Barrett: Litsa Dremousis writes about difficult topics from mental illness to grief and loss and sexuality. She also played a role in bringing the #MeToo allegations about Sherman Alexie to light. Her memoir, Altitude Sickness examines the death of her best friend in a climbing accident.
Britta Barrett: We talked to her about gender, anger, #MeToo, and more.
Litsa Dremousis: I'm Litsa Dremousis. I am the author of Altitude Sickness published on Future Tense Books from Portland's indie publisher.
Litsa Dremousis: I'm an essayist with The Washington Post, and I freelanced for about fifteen years; I've written for New York Magazine, Esquire, Salon, NPR ... a lot of entities I'm very proud to be associated with and working diligently on my second book.
Britta Barrett: Your work has appeared in some of my favorite publications, like The Believer and Jezebel. And you've interviewed incredible artists like Janelle Monáe and The Decemberists and Death Cab For Cutie.
Britta Barrett: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Did you set out thinking, like, I'm going to make literary fiction, or be a blogger or journalist. How did that happen?
Litsa Dremousis: I always wanted to be a writer.
Litsa Dremousis: I started keeping a journal from the age of ten. Which is really funny when you go back and re-read them. I majored in creative writing at the University of Washington. Many of my family members are attorneys.
Litsa Dremousis: My detour in life, was going to law school for a year; realizing God, I hate this! And leaving law school after a year, and I feel really fortunate that at a young age, I did something I hated. I value the profession, I just didn't want to do it. I caved to family pressure. But when I got out of law school, I realized, God, I'm not listening to anyone else's advice again about my own life. And my family is wonderfully supportive now, but at the age of twenty-two, telling your Greek parents ... my mom was the Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, my father was supervisor of the Sentencing Unit; telling them, that even though my grades were very high, I don't want to become an attorney: I'm going to be a writer! That was not met with a warm reception and as I've joked, I think my mom yelled at me more than Charles Manson's mom probably yelled at him. She got over it and we're extremely close. But yeah, I always knew I wanted to be a writer.
Britta Barrett: And your book, Altitude Sickness, is a little over ten-thousand words, which is a length that is kind of uncommon in print publishing; too long for magazines, too short for traditional print runs for novels and it came out of this Portland based small press called Future Tense Books. And it was released as both an e-Book and a physical chap book.
Britta Barrett: I'm wondering as an author, as a reader, how do you feel about the differences, the strengths, the limitations of print and digital mediums in terms of the reading experience and the publishing experience?
Litsa Dremousis: The advantage of the e-Book side of it was we were able to do it very quickly.
Litsa Dremousis: Future Tense Books, they approached me in March 2014, by October 2014, we had the book out.
Litsa Dremousis: The disadvantage is, I'm fifty-one. I'm still of that era that you want to physically hold the book. So when it came out as a chap book, I was so excited, because it just felt much more real.
Litsa Dremousis: For two years, I had been taking notes about the neurobiology of climbers and people who engage in extreme sports, not knowing what this was going to become. I even had a file on my computer called altitude sickness, knowing it would be the title of something, but I didn't know what it was going to become.
Litsa Dremousis: So when Kevin and Matthew emailed me, we settled the whole thing in less than half an hour. It was one of the greatest and easiest writing experiences of my life ... and I've been moved by the way it seems to resonate with people.
Britta Barrett: And memoir as a genre, is frequently, gendered as a feminine form of writing, and as a direct consequence sometimes dismissed or diminished by folks who view it as somehow less literary. And I'm curious if you have any resistance to the label of memoir. Because Altitude Sickness is a book that combines both personal stories from real life and that reportage of neurobiology; do you think of it as a memoir or narrative non-fiction, or something else entirely?
Litsa Dremousis: We talked about that after I finished it, because much of it is memoir and then much of it is reportage about neurobiology.
Litsa Dremousis: You know, at this point, I've started to call it a memoir, just because everyone else calls it a memoir. Most accurately, it is a collage, but even that as a genre, gets picked apart.
Litsa Dremousis: I realize that people view confessional works as more feminine ...whatever. I write what I write. I was writing essays before they became trendy. Part of it is, I have been disabled for twenty-seven years. Myalgic encephalomyelitis, which is what I have, is similar to MS. So I spent a lot of time alone.
Litsa Dremousis: I can't travel the world anymore. I was extremely lucky in that, when I was healthy, I got to see the world, a lot. I traveled a lot. The sicker I get, the more confined my physical world becomes. So if I write a lot about my own life, and the people in my life, tit's because that is what my world is.
Litsa Dremousis: So for me, one is organically born from the other. I write a lot of first-person because I'm alone a lot ... that's just the nature of my life.
Emily Calkins: You mentioned that people find the book funny, and for me, that was one of the most striking things about it ... is the sort of searing combination of humor and anger.
Litsa Dremousis: Thank you!
Emily Calkins: Yeah!
Emily Calkins: Can you speak about how those emotions influence your work?
Litsa Dremousis: I wanted to rigorously honest. And Neal, was his nickname; the reason I call him Neal in the book ... he used to tease that I was Jack Kerouac and that he was Neal Cassady. And well when he was alive, he had four pieces published about him when he was alive. He bopped around the world doing things and I was the one who lionized him and wrote about him.
Litsa Dremousis: We were together on and off for twenty-one years. We both had great loves apart from each other, but we talked every day. But God! We made each other laugh. For all the ups and downs, we made each other laugh. The only way to honestly recount this story was to, tell it in a funny way.
Litsa Dremousis: And it's in no way disrespectful to him. I think much more respectful to his memory; to be funny. He was hilarious!
Litsa Dremousis: Also, that's just organically ... like a lot of people whose work who gets deemed funny, that's how I process grief and the worst pain ... and also, I think when readers are reading, they're more likely to absorb what you're trying to say, if there's something comical in there. It's not tactical; it's just organically how I write. But, if it were just ten-thousand words about this scar that still, eight years later, that has not healed, I don't know who wants to read that.
Litsa Dremousis: You know, we've all grieved, we've all lost. I wanted to do something more than that. I wanted it to be a tribute to who he was.
Litsa Dremousis: The anger that you noted in Altitude Sickness is obviously ...and I even say it in the book, is because I love him so much. Some days it's easier to be angry than it is to miss him.
Litsa Dremousis: In Greek culture, that's not really that noteworthy. And to the best of my knowledge, Altitude Sickness was only reviewed once by a Greek writer; Greek-American. But she honed it on it in many ways and it's a Greek-American demonstration of grief ...there's not some taboo in Greek culture when it comes to loving someone so profoundly and deeply, and probably more than you'll ever love anyone else, and still be really angry at them!
Litsa Dremousis: I've seen that comment. You know, we're all not supposed to read the comment section, but of course, sometimes you give into your worst impulses and you do. Dremousis is angry, Dremousis is angry. Fine! I don't care. Yes, as a human, I am angry sometimes.
Litsa Dremousis: If you're woman, and you display anger for the most righteous, logical reasons, you're still going to get tagged with it.
Litsa Dremousis: I think that is a nice thing about getting older, I just simply don't care. I'm going to write what I write and I'm going to say what I say. And I think, especially in 2018, it's...it's profoundly dangerous for women to stay silent. This is not the time to pretend or to put a happy face on things. I think we have every right to be angry.
Britta Barrett: And you frequently tackle subjects in your writing that are difficult; ranging from experiences of someone living with chronic physical or mental health issues, to the profound grief of losing your best friend. As an author constructing these narratives, you have a lot of choices, in terms of how much you reveal, and what tone you take. I would characterize your work as very generous and intimate and full of vulnerability ...and regard you as brave for being willing to be angry at someone who is dead, or talk very honestly about stigmatized subjects. And I'm curious, how did you develop that voice and make those choices, and what do you see as the value of telling these stories the way that you do?
Litsa Dremousis: I think the value is that we are all human, and at our core, we've got so much common. And I'm not saying that in a cheesy kumbaya way, because there are real differences, as we know. What I look for when I'm reading or what I value most in my friendships, are when we, when you can really trust someone and let your walls down.
Litsa Dremousis: I don't see any logic to maintaining these walls or to ascribing stigma; I have written a lot disability, about grief, about mental health ...I think there was an essay called "After the Fire" and it made it to Most Notable Essays for Best American Essays, and I wrote it a year after TJ died.
Litsa Dremousis: But I talk about the fact, in the grief literature, no one tells you, if it's your lover, your partner who dies, as you try and reclaim your sexual sense of self, how freaking crazy that is; because sex is so fundamental. And something you associated with pleasure and joy, is now hardwired in your brain to the worst pain you've ever experienced.
Litsa Dremousis: I was bombarded in the best way with letters people saying: God! I thought I was crazy. I thought it was just me!
Litsa Dremousis: And those are the sort of human experiences where I think all of us feel isolated or alone, or crazy, or Oh my God! Am I the only one who has gone through that? And I think, the more we can all relate on a human level; that's what I look for when I'm reading, and that's just organically, how I write.
Britta Barrett: It's such a gift to readers. I'm wondering who are some authors who do that for you? Who reach in there and make you feel so like, seen and understood.
Litsa Dremousis: God! Alexie. Alexie was my all-time favorite author. We became friends because I interviewed him; I've read all twenty-seven of his books. For the last ten years, I was on short group of his friends who he sent his work to while he was still working on it.
Litsa Dremousis: So that, number one, obviously, is different now.
Litsa Dremousis: Patton Oswalt, I know we don't conventionally think of him as an author, but God, I love his books and I love his standup so much. And especially Annihilation, his standup that he did after his wife's death. It's just masterful; it's one of the funniest things you'll ever listen to and you'll break down crying at least twice if you're human.
Litsa Dremousis: In the last year, through a lot of different venues, I've met a lot of different women authors whose work I hadn't read before. Journalist Jacqueline Keeler is amazing. Tiffany Midge is a humorist who writes a lot for McSweeneys ...is utterly hilarious; she's devastatingly funny and I love her work. Virginia Woolf obviously, Dorothy Parker obviously. I will always always always return to Carrie Fisher's Postcard from the Edge, and I know I'm supposed to say Tolstoy or ... and I love Tolstoy; I think we all love Tolstoy!
Litsa Dremousis: But if I'm crying in bed and it's been really lousy day and I just want to eat popcorn and curl up with the dog, I'm not re-reading Anna Karenina, I'm re-reading Postcards from the Edge!
Litsa Dremousis: So Postcards from the Edge, if we're being honest here, Postcards from the Edge, and both of Mindy Kaling's books; I think I've committed all three to memory. And I was an enormous admirer of Anthony Bourdain. Perhaps he was penalized for being angry but I didn't see it in the obituaries. We all valorized him for going after Alec Baldwin, when Alec Baldwin was being demonic regarding #MeToo. And Bourdain eviscerated him. And we were glad Bourdain eviscerated him.
Britta Barrett: And so, as a part of that #MeToo conversation, it's really taking place in the literary world right now. There's a reckoning, with allegations of sexual harassment by high profile authors, from Jay Asher to Junot Díaz, and it can be difficult to process that when it's just like your favorite author from afar, but I can only imagine what it's like when it's a close personal friend. And you know, there have been a lot of variations in consequences for folks, whether that was losing a contract or a position, and you know, we've seen with Boston Review, that they came to a different conclusion.
Litsa Dremousis: Yes!
Britta Barrett: And I think as a society, we are all grappling with what to do with these people and trying to hold a truth all at once that acknowledges their creative contributions, the harm that they've done, the harm that's been done to them and the difference in response when either are both victims
Britta Barrett: are from marginalized communities.
Litsa Dremousis: I think there are two factors at play. Quite obviously, Alexie was a National Book Award winner and had published 27 books in 27 years and was internationally known. Diaz had won the Pulitzer and hadn't published as many books but was also in the pantheon. So those two were much better known. So quite obviously they're going to get a disproportionate amount of press. What has concerned a lot of women is Diaz seems to ... The women who have come forward thus far are almost exclusively women of color and with Alexie, I have read I don't know how many dozens of emails from women at this point, but they're disproportionately from native women. I never would have gone public with those allegations if I didn't know that were true.
Litsa Dremousis: What I think sometimes people don't understand when any woman comes forward, whether it's in literary industry, not only is the woman taking on the man in question, but if the man is prominent, she's taking on his agents, his managers and his attorneys so you're taking on an army and you don't do that lightly. I would never have done it if I didn't know I was telling the truth and I am telling the truth. I was, am, and will be telling the truth. Native, it turned out so many native authors had known for so long and once I came forward, the floodgates just burst.
Litsa Dremousis: What saddens me, and I've been grateful that so many of the women authors in question I've become good friends with. They didn't feel that they could come forward. A lot of them had known for years. They are professors, they have Ph.D's. They've published more than me, and they felt that as native authors, they would just get dismissed if they came forward. No one wants this to be a witch hunt. I think the biggest misconception about #MeToo in any industry is that any woman is enjoying this. None of us are. It's terrific. You have nightmares, you're nauseous all the time. No one's enjoying this. There should be a threshold of proof. But once you've proven it, there have to be consequences. There absolutely have to be consequences.
Litsa Dremousis: I'm quite comfortable with the fact that Hachette is saying they're not publishing anymore of Alexie's books. He brought this on himself and it's heartbreaking. It is utterly freaking heartbreaking. This was one of my closest friends. There is no joy in discovering one of your closest friends has harmed countless women. As I've written in my statement, I was a domestic violence victim advocate for almost two years. Once women started coming forward with #MeToo, their details were so specific to him, it would have been grossly immoral to look the other way. For all the nights I have not slept. For all the times I thought I'm going to throw up. For all the women in this story, we've all been there for each other. Women who've had panic attacks, we've all had nightmares, nausea, just feeling completely overwhelmed. We've all had the most horrific things written about us online.
Litsa Dremousis: I don't regret it for a second. We spoke the truth. What means more to me than anything is all the emails and private messages I've received from people, most of them strangers saying, "When I was being abused, I wish someone had spoken up." People knew. The overriding question has to be a moral one. If you yourself are physically safe, fine, people are going to say crappy things about you online. It's not the end of the world. If you're telling the truth and if you're in a position to stop it, you have a moral imperative to do so.
Litsa Dremousis: I knew that we had a really bad problem with tokenism in the publishing industry. I didn't realize just how bad it is until all of these stories came forward. How many of the native authors in question, particularly native female authors were told explicitly by their publishers and their agents, "Get a blurb from Alexie. Get an introduction from Alexie. See if you can get a recommendation from Alexie." We have a publishing industry that is, like we were saying, overwhelmingly controlled by whites who still viewed any other native author through the prism of Alexie and what killed me is sometimes I'm associated with other authors with the disability, but it's not that big of a deal. They got lumped in with him, whether their writing had anything to do with his or not, and they were put in a position where they had to play ball with him and as a white writer I've never faced that once. I get to stand or fall based on the merits of my own writing, and that has to be true for everyone in this industry.
Litsa Dremousis: I've never had a publisher or an editor ever say, "Go find a Greek person to endorse you." There's phenomenal wealth of talented native authors who, it's strange and sad that they're getting the spotlight now because Alexie's career has been significantly damaged. It would've been wonderful if their work had been allowed to shine on its own.
Britta Barrett: What are you reading now?
Litsa Dremousis: God, the Washington Post cover-to-cover each day. I am about to dive into Tiffany Midge, The Woman Who Married A Bear and she's the humorist I referred to earlier. She just did a piece on McSweeney's last week, just devastatingly funny. So Tiffany Midge, The Woman Who Married A Bear is next step for me. Elissa Washuta who is on the record in the NPR story, and further went on the record for KUOW, My Body Is a Book of Rules is amazing, and her second book, Starvation Mode is on Future Tense Books too. Obviously Joy Harjo. Joy Harjo of course. Louise Erdrich, of course. Erika Wurth and she spells it with a U, sometimes people forget that, W-U-R-T-H. I really want to read Tommy Orange's There There. I have not gotten to it yet. I've read the excerpts. But so many reviewers, critics, everyone just felt like, "Oh, we have found the one and we don't need to keep looking," and it was harmful because there's just so many talented authors who were getting overlooked.
Litsa Dremousis: If something good is coming out of this, aside from the fact we're demonstrating, this has to be a safe industry. But the second thing is just take authors as they are. Like I said, don't get hung up on comparing every native author on the planet to Alexie. Accept that wow, millions of people have have created more than one talented guy and that just shouldn't have been such a hard hurdle to clear and I think maybe we've reached a turning point.
Britta Barrett: Yeah, it's interesting with like "Don't read the comments" comment that you had earlier and talking about twitter and activism and what it can do. I'm curious how you see the role of social media in an author's life now.
Litsa Dremousis: I wouldn't say it's a necessary evil. It's a necessary, I don't know, like I joke, it's kind of the necessary, let's say hypothetically you have to give yourself a shot of insulin everyday to survive. You don't enjoy it, but it keeps you alive. If I could, I would probably opt out. I'm not at a point in my career I can do it. With #MeToo, it's been, we've never seen anything like it in history. We're the first women in history who have a chance to stop it. Many of these opportunities are arriving via social media, so for all of the trolling and the hateful things that get said online, I would still say the sum total is beneficial.
Litsa Dremousis: The absolute terrifying part is as we've seen with Gamergate or in other stories like that, when it's no longer just trolling and it becomes a real question of exigent safety and no one male, female, nonbinary should have to endure that just for speaking the truth. That's what I think we've got to address more and I don't really know how. If you look at it in the scheme of things, we're only 10 years into social media. We still don't have as many safeguards as we need. It can be really terrifying to read some of the things people say about you when you know you're telling the truth. Sure, you can be tough and brave, but it'll take a toll. It will take a toll.
Litsa Dremousis: My big concern is how many people have faced harassment in real life as a result of something they said online. For any authors listening, I heartily recommend becoming a member for Pen USA, which is one of the largest human rights literary organization nonprofits. They'd been around for what, 100 years now worldwide, and they fight on behalf of writers and authors worldwide and in the US who face any sort of legal repercussions for speaking out and they're actively working, trying to find ways to keep us all safer for when we're online.
Britta Barrett: Are there any other organizations that authors should know about?
Litsa Dremousis: I don't think this is a political statement. I think in 2018, most authors are going to agree, ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center. I think it's imperative as authors, what do we do for a living and what do we do by choice. We distill complicated thoughts and emotions into something palatable and I think all of us who know how to write, it's imperative that we're on the frontlines working on behalf of others. I don't think, I don't have some delusion that writers or artists are powerful. We're not oil companies for God's sake. But we do have a certain set of skills and I think it's important right now to use them on behalf of others.
Emily Calkins: In her interview, Lisa mentioned that what writers do is distill complex emotions into experiences that other people can understand. So we have a couple of memoir picks to share with you that we think do just that. I'm going to start. My pick is The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. This book is basically impossible to describe, but it's also one of my favorite books of all time. So I'm going to try. In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson writes about pregnancy, about the birth of her child, about her relationship, and her partner's gender transition. She's called the book auto theory, so she incorporates gender theory and parenting theory. She uses literary theory and psychology and more to build a frame for her very specific story. She's a wonderfully clear-eyed observer of herself and of other people and the writing is frank and intimate, but it's also cerebral. It's deeply intellectual, but grounded in the realities of her own bodily experience. I've never read anything like it. It's sexy, funny, messy, moving and mind-blowing, what do you have?
Britta Barrett: Well, one, I totally have to agree. The book is amazing. You get two suggestions from us to pick that one up, but I've got a few more. I didn't really get into memoir until I was reading Tina Fey's Bossypants and that really started it all for me and I feel like there's a slew of other celebrity memoirs that came out. Mindy Kaling's books are so hilarious. Litsa mentioned loving those too. Phoebe Robinson's You Can't Touch My Hair is amazing. Then I started reading sort of like non-celebrity memoirs, like the memoirs of writers whose primary job it is to write and do it so well, are so smart and so funny. I just love like Shrill by Lindy West and recently I picked up three books that are kind of all on the same themes. So we've got Sex Object by Jessica Valenti, Landwhale by Jes Baker and Hunger by Roxanne Gay.
Britta Barrett: So all of these tackle issues like objectification and the role of valuing women's bodies and rape culture and if that sounds like a huge bummer, don't worry. These authors are also just so awesome in taking these complicated ideas and making them hilarious, even when they're a little bit tragic. When I'm done, I just feel so validated and seen and eager to give them to a friend and I just want more and more and more of those voices in my life and on my bookshelf.
Emily Calkins: So speaking of voices, one of the things that's great about memoirs I think is when you have an opportunity to listen to them. So if you are a library user and you don't already know, you can download audio books to use on your phone with the OverDrive or Libby Apps. You can get these apps from the Apple Store or from Google Play or from Amazon to use on all of your different devices.
Britta Barrett: Thanks for listening. You can find all the most mentioned in today's episodes in our show notes.
Emily Calkins: The Desk Set is hosted by librarians, Britta Barrett, and Emily Calkins, produced by Britta Barrett and brought to you by the King County Library system.
Britta Barrett: If you like the show, be sure to subscribe, rate, and review us on Apple Podcasts.