The year 2020, as awful as it was, did have a few silver linings. Growth was a big one, especially because I finally acknowledged my own racism. I’ll be on this journey for the rest of my life as I learn something every day, but in the past year, I’ve done a lot of listening and learning to become a true ally. Of the many things I’ve learned, one thing sticks out in particular, mainly because I’m ashamed I’d never heard of this and never thought about its impact before: the concept of passing, where a Black person with light skin tones consciously passes as a white person.
I first learned about this in the novel Three-Fifths written by John Vercher, and when I interviewed him, he spoke about the topic as his main character — passing as white — struggles with his mixed identity. Passing is also a core theme in The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett‘s second novel, which took the literary community by storm last year and was one of my favorite books in 2020.
In reading and researching both of these books and in speaking with Vercher, there was one book that continuously came up: Passing by Nella Larsen. It’s the original book about the passing literary canon, and it allowed this topic to be pursued in scholarly settings, as well as pop culture. To say it’s had an impact is an understatement. So I finally did my due diligence and bought this classic novella. With its themes and its setting among the Harlem Renaissance, Passing provides an extraordinary look into a life so few understand — including the main character herself.
When I first moved from Missouri to the northeast, I lived “right on the edge of Prospect Heights and Crown Heights” in Brooklyn, as I would tell people. If you look at a map, my first apartment lies not even a half a block from the imaginary line separating the two neighborhoods, so it makes sense that I would describe my apartment’s location that way, but if I’m honest, there was another reason why I felt the need to define my address.
I knew very little about Brooklyn when I moved here, so I didn’t know which neighborhoods were “bad” versus “good.” It didn’t take long, though, to figure out what those two adjectives actually meant. I also learned quickly that Crown Heights had a reputation for getting “worse” the further into the neighborhood you went — i.e., the further away from Prospect Heights, which was a very wealthy and a very white neighborhood. So even though geography was on my side, so was my racism when I told people I lived on the edge of those two neighborhoods. I’m ashamed to say it, and books like When No One is Watching reflect that attitude directly in my face.
This thriller written by a Black woman, who we do not see promoted enough in this genre, may seem like an extreme version of gentrification, but with the rate Black people get displaced in the cities white people originally fled, it’s not far off. Gentrification benefitted me by giving me a sense of safety — which was of course steeped in the racist lies others told me and that I told myself. So I did a lot of self-reflection while reading this one — as well as trying to calm my nerves, which were extremely frayed by the end.
Since we were sprightly little teenagers, my cousin Kaitlyn Wibbenmeyer and I have bonded over our shared love of books. And in particular, we’ve been fond of (re: obsessed) with one author in particular: Emily Giffin. So I knew when Giffin’s latest novel, The Lies That Bind, was released early this year, Kaitlyn and I would have to discuss. And boy, did we have a lot to say.
In the latest episode of The Biblio Files, Kaitlyn and I chat about Giffin’s amazing and relatable characters; how she brought 9/11 into her fictional tale in such a sensitive yet powerful way; and how her writing has matured and improved over the years. (Yes, somehow it’s possible to keep getting better when you are already so good.) We even make the claim that The Lies That Bind has set a new Giffin standard. And yes, we fangirled … hard. We left our love for Emily Giffin on this recording, and we are not afraid to admit it.
(We’re currently accepting applications for the EG fan club as we speak.)
Listen to our conversation about The Lies That Bind on your preferred podcast platform. Don’t forget to share and subscribe and to also visit Anchor where you can become a supporter of The Biblio Files. Enjoy!
Y’all should know my love for Emily Giffin by now. I’ve never tried to hide it since I first read Something Borrowed when I was 15. In a way, I’ve grown up with Giffin’s writing, and I’ve seen a change in her books just like I’ve seen a change in myself. But there are some aspects of Giffin’s work that have never altered, and for that I am grateful.
From her first book to the her 10th, she’s showcased an incredible ability to write great and relatable characters, and she excels at telling stories that thrive in that gray area that makes literature so wonderfully complex. These same attributes are ever-present in her recent novel, The Lies That Bind, which might just be her best work yet.
This genre may not look familiar to you on this blog. That’s because I never read books of essays or short stories. I need a plot, people. I need characters playing out those plots — even if it’s non-fiction, and these are actual people. So no, I have not read a book of essays since starting Big Little Literature nearly three years ago, and I wasn’t expecting to read one — not until Colson Whitehead.
He has easily become my favorite writer the past few years. Between The Underground Railroadand The Nickel Boys, his writing has moved me, and his creativity has inspired me. I’m determined to read all of his books, all of which I know will become instant favorites.
Now mix my favorite writer with my city, and it’s not surprising that I read a book of essays. OK, so I no longer live in a New York City zip code, and I don’t pay those astronomical (but beneficial) city taxes. I’m right across the river though. NYC is where I work when a pandemic hasn’t taken over. It’s the city I stare at every day on walks. It’s the city that changed my life for the better. So yes, it is my city still.
I’ve had intense nostalgia since this pandemic started, and not going into the city every day has broken my heart. My favorite writer and my favorite city would surely cure my blues.
In terms of literature, I haven’t had the best start to 2020. I’ve read some meh books, some I didn’t like, and also quite depressing ones. I vowed to change that about a month ago. With my birthday and a trip to San Diego on the horizon, I needed something fun.
Elizabeth Gilbert met my needs. I mean, how could she not? In her latest book, Gilbert combines two of my favorite genres with my favorite city to produce effervescent characters, stellar voice, a captivating story and plot, and wit beyond belief — and relief. I can’t tell you how many times I laughed out loud while reading of City of Girls, and I really was smiling throughout this entire book. Now that is some high praise and exactly I what I needed.
There’s nothing like weekend getaways to quaint beach towns. I can so easily get lost in the quiet stillness and the views these places have to offer, and they’re the perfect escape from life in the city.
Enter: Sag Harbor, New York.
I’ve only ventured to the Hamptons one other time in my life. (Thanks to my BFF for taking me as her plus one to a work event four years ago.) So I was ecstatic to break away from home the last weekend in September to visit what I’d heard was one of the cutest spots in the region. And the reviews proved to be right. Sag Harbor was beautiful and cozy and everything I was looking for in a small beach town. I can’t say I expected to step into bookstores, but I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon two that gave me all the literary feels. They were definitely a highlight of a fantastic trip.
If you live in New York and have never visited the New York Public Library‘s main branch at Bryant Park, shame on you. If you’re a non-New Yorker, add it to your future bucket list. I don’t need to justify this.
With that said, I could never say no to a literary Halloween party at this gorgeous library. I owe a big thanks to my friend Hilary for inviting me to the most lit party of the year (yes, the puns were used): The Library After Hour’s Halloween Masquerade on Oct. 26.
This storyline makes for great TV too, and on May 6, Starz premiered a six-episode Sweetbitterbased on a screenplay written by Danler who also worked as an executive producer. Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, coproduced the series.
It would be a shame if Big Little Literature let this opportunity pass; therefore, it’s time for Sweetbitter to go toe to toe: book versus TV show.
The Futures made all of the lists last year. Readers (including myself) were falling for the story of Evan and Julia, who move to New York City at 22 only to find they don’t have the answers to being adults amidst the Financial Crisis and that they don’t know how to make it work together.
The author of The Futures, Anna Pitoniak, is an editor at Random House where she has worked since graduating from Yale with an English degree in 2008. She began writing her debut novel a few years after graduation, and it was released in January 2017. Although it’s still a challenge to balance being an editor and writer, Pitoniak uses this to her advantage. “[Writing and editing] feed into each other,” she said. “Being an editor has definitely made me a better writer. And I think having written my own book and having it published probably makes me a more empathetic editor in certain ways because I can relate to a lot of things my writers are going through.”
After soaring into the lit scene in 2017, Pitoniak was kind enough to chat with me about the challenges of writing her first novel, one of my favorite TV shows, and about this beautiful yet stressful place we both love: New York City.