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A 19th-century American slave memoir is a huge hit in Japan

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books.

Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897) Wikimedia Commons | Josette

Welcome to the weekly Vox book link roundup, a collection of the best writing on the web about books and related subjects. Here’s the best the internet has to offer for the week of November 12, 2017.

Well, we’re at a difficult moment in history. Many people in power are attempting to rewrite the past and the present to fit their narrative. Writing about spirits is a way to counteract some of that, because the people of the past are allowed to be present in the moment and tell their own (true) stories, and often, there is a reckoning between the living and the dead. And perhaps both books wrestle with grief; writing about ghosts allows us to puzzle through that heaviness.

  • Also at the National Book Awards, Annie Proulx made a speech so good that people in the press pit were murmuring, “Damn,” and by people, I mean me. Vulture has the full text:

The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war. We observe social media’s manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures. We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data.

What can you do? You’re so deranged by love that you decide to host Thanksgiving this year. You who have cooked dinner perhaps four times in the last decade. You who are lying now and know you have made dinner only twice.

Horikoshi found the story of the slave girl to be germane to modern life. "There is definitely an imbalance in Japanese society. There are many girls who live outside of Tokyo who can only see themselves as becoming a school teacher or a nurse, at best. They face adversity. But this is the story of a woman who was born a slave, who fought against all odds, who learned to read and write and eventually won her freedom. I hope that the girls and boys who read this realize that they can do anything they want, become who they want, if they apply themselves. There are people who've faced worse odds. This is a story about triumphing over adversity."

[Maxwell] says that romance novels were part of the evolution of gender relations at the time: “In those books in the ’80s, we didn’t see [the male lead] as a rapist. We saw him as a virile man who was so taken with this woman that he would do anything to have her. I think it’s important to go back to those books and realize that, even though there was a traumatic event, at the same time, in the course of that story, we find people who begin a dialogue and begin to gentle themselves into a meaningful relationship, and that the hero is not demeaned by that gentleness.”

I always asked my students if Othello could have been white. They’d debate it for a bit, going back and forth about how what he wrestles with is in part universal, and also connected to his gender. I’d wait for the moment when they’d bring in the Leo Africanus reference, and discuss how those stereotypes about jealousy wouldn’t resonate if Othello wasn’t African. Many of them say he was easier to prey on because of his race.

One year, one of my black students wondered what it would be like if Iago was black, and she said: “He wouldn’t have been as trusted as much as he was  —  I don’t think.” This was the same student who, after the Trump election, said to a room full of white students: “the fact that y’all are surprised is funny to me. I’m sorry, but … look around.”

Assuming that Alcott’s reasons for writing were the same as Jo’s only perpetuates the idea that good writing is not done for money. But it was the public’s embrace of personal writing, and the willingness of Alcott and other Transcendentalists to sell it, that allowed them to survive and sometimes even thrive in the midst of the vicissitudes of a rapidly expanding market economy. It was, in other words, a job. Jo — and Louisa May — were not the only creative women who needed one.

As a child, the first time I heard English was on a train. I was perhaps two or three years old, and I heard an elderly couple (any adult was elderly to me) speak in a language that hardly sounded human at all. They weren’t speaking — they were quacking at each other like frogs, the words undulating and indistinct, entire sentences merging into one long, mouthy sound, differentiated only by the pitch and rhythm of the quacks. I decided to communicate to these people in their own language — I, too, started making frog-like quacking noises. It was my way of saying hello. But they looked at me with annoyance. It was my first attempt at speaking English. I resolved that one day, I, too, would learn the mysterious tongue of the frog people.

Happy reading!

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