Day three of the ABA Snow Days began with a thought-provoking panel on “Storytelling in the Cultural Moment,” featuring four authors in a dynamic conversation about upcoming fiction. Emma Straub, co-owner of Brooklyn’s Books Are Magic, moderated the discussion with Jennifer Egan, Kali Fajardo-Anstine and Celeste Ng. All four had read each other’s work to prepare, and they dropped some tantalizing hints (but no spoilers).
Straub’s fourth novel, Tomorrow at this time (Riverhead Books, May 2022), envisions a second chance: its protagonist, a 40-year-old woman whose father is ill, falls asleep in 2020 and wakes up in 1996, aged 16, her father still healthy. What does this pious plot tell us about our present time? “The older I get, the more I understand that novels are products of the times in which they are written,” Straub said, before asking how the zeitgeist influences the panelists’ storytelling.
Novelist, journalist and former PEN America president Jennifer Egan skipped the premiere. “Fiction is the artifact of the collective dream life of the culture that makes it,” she said. Like at Straub Tomorrow at this timeEgan’s The candy house (Scribner, April 2022) is about remembering things past, but Egan’s vanity is a utopian technology, Own Your Unknown, that allows users to upload their own memories and those of others. “I came to this out of a desire to look at the world through someone else’s eyes,” Egan said. “Accessing other consciousnesses is of course the thing that fiction does.”
Egan started writing The candy house in 2012 with the notion of a “break” which (like 9/11 in his Pulitzer Prize-winning film A visit from the Goon Squad) “created a kind of before and after” for his characters. In conclusion amid the pandemic and other global shocks, Egan felt his fiction was channeling “seismic events. In our cultural dream lives, we have anticipated something.
“All of these novels seem to be about our time,” agreed Celeste Ng. Ng, of which Small fires everywhere was adapted as a limited series on Hulu and whose third novel, Our missing hearts (Penguin) drops Oct. 4, said the panelists’ work — from science fiction to historical fiction — speaks to our collective now. In Our missing hearts, Ng imagines a dystopian future America in which the children of revolutionaries can be removed from their families; under this threatening regime, a Chinese-American boy faces the absence of his mother, a dissident poet whose work is considered unpatriotic.
Straub, who said she ‘snipped a copy very early’ from Our missing heartstold Ng that this narrative of repression rings too true: “It’s fair to say it’s in a world that rubs shoulders with our contemporary world,” Straub suggested.
“I tried to imagine a world that morphed a bit,” Ng replied. “The world kept changing to catch up with the world I had imagined.” Pandemic-induced violence against Asian Americans “seemed like something I had to recognize in my fiction,” Ng added, and it “created its way into my book without me even expecting it. This had never happened to me before, and she noticed a change in her “risk tolerance: how willing I am to look at the things that make me feel uncomfortable” in an effort to remedy the injustice.
Kali Fajardo-Anstine, whose short story collection Sabrina & Corina was a National Book Award finalist, also relies on representation and fairness, albeit from a historical perspective. Her first novel, Woman of Light (One World, June 2022), is set in Depression-era Denver (Fajardo-Anstine’s hometown). Through the experiences and visions of protagonist Luz “Little Light” Lopez, Fajardo-Anstine portrays five generations of an indigenous Chicano family.
Egan told Fajardo-Anstine that Woman of Light “really feels lived in in a way that I found striking and rich; it feels entirely metabolized,” and Fajardo-Anstine explained that the book is grounded in archival research and her own location-based memories. Historical research fueled her passion for “archival justice and what it means to research as a marginalized person in these spaces,” she said, and it allowed her to recognize the parallels between protest movements 1930s and the uprisings of 2020. She marvels at the “disconnection between these two timelines” and reflects that “there must be a path to a more just and equitable future” through the stories we tell.
“I’m not trying to teach a lesson, I’m trying to expand consciousness,” Fajardo-Anstine commented, and to that, his co-panelists took part in the Zoom session chat.
“Can we please put this on a bumper sticker or a T-shirt or both?” Ng posted.
“The One World team is on it, Celeste!” spoke with Ruth Liebmann, Vice President/Director of Account Marketing at Penguin Random House.
While this chat reminded viewers that the panel was pre-recorded, some saw that as a virtue, not a flaw. “Who would have thought that one of the few benefits of doing this on Zoom…is that panelists can comment on the discussion as it unfolds?” commented David Sandberg of Cambridge, Mass.’s Porter Square Books.
If only for an hour, the panelists were in two places at once, a familiar feeling to writers and readers of fiction. Straub brought the session to a close, urging booksellers to “buy a million copies. It’s a million by.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the 03/21/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title :