From an examination of the ravages of Jim Crow to a meditation on the idea of happiness, this fall’s noteworthy nonfiction debuts span the range of human experience
Margaret Burnham’s commitment to civil rights and the Black struggle has taken her from 1960s Mississippi, where she was a staffer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to Northeastern University School of Law, where she founded the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project in 2007. The project’s mission—to investigate racially motivated homicides in the Jim Crow South—is at the heart of Burnham’s powerful debut, By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners (Norton, Sept.). Drawing on a database of more than 1,000 homicides, the book resurfaces tragedies that are “unknown to the public,” Burnham says, “but that should be.”
One such case is the 1943 murder of Edwin Williams in New Orleans’s Algiers neighborhood. The perpetrator, a white U.S. Navy sailor who slashed Williams with a broken beer bottle in front of his wife and children as the family walked home from church, was acquitted by a jury and shipped off to the Pacific Theater of WWII. Decades later, Williams’s grandchildren knew only that their grandfather had gotten in a fight with some sailors and died.
After presenting the family with records related to the case, Burnham and students from the CRRJP went to Algiers on June 19, 2022 (Juneteenth and Father’s Day), for a celebration of Edwin Williams’s life. “They filled up the very same church this man had been walking home from with relatives,” Burnham recalls. “It was a beautiful photograph of Black America—the kids, the young kids, all the way up the line. Not every case ends like that, but they all have the potential of ending that way—in discoveries that give real meaning to the family, and a real sense of the past to that community.”
By Hands Now Known also examines how the federal government failed to protect African Americans, and how a national community of Black lawyers, journalists, and activists came together to respond to racial violence in the South.
“From the moment I read the proposal,” says Norton editor-in-chief John Glusman, “I thought By Hands Now Known had the potential to be a landmark book.”
Asked about her own hopes for the book, Burnham points to the Williamses and families like them. “I hope they appreciate that their stories are part of a stream of American history,” she says. “And that they deserve to be told as our country’s story.”
Ye or Nay
Brandi Collins-Dexter traces the origins of her first book, Black Skinhead: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future (Celadon, Sept.), to her Illinois childhood home, where the self-described “latchkey kid” grew up watching a lot of TV and movies.
“Pop culture became my frame of reference for understanding things,” says Collins-Dexter, the former senior campaign director at the progressive nonprofit Color of Change. “Whenever I read something that feels particularly complex, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, this is like that episode of Saved by the Bell.’ ”
In 2019, during a fellowship at Harvard’s Technology and Social Change Project, the complex thing Collins-Dexter was trying to understand was online Black political communities and political expression. At the same time, Kanye West was palling around with Donald Trump and talking about his newfound Republicanism.
Collins-Dexter, who considers herself a Kanye fan (but “not necessarily someone who wants to meet him in person”), saw a link between the things he was saying and what she was observing online—namely, the fracturing of the “once-unshakable Black Democratic voting bloc” and the disillusionment of Black Americans “with the failed promises of their country.”
Black Skinhead is a bracing look at the forces behind those upheavals. In it, Collins-Dexter sketches the history of alternative Black media spaces, analyzes drill music and streetwear culture, and speaks with Black MAGA supporters, porn performers, and others who “live outside the bounds of Black fetishized political identity.”
Those conversations, many of which took place over Zoom during Covid-19 lockdowns, made Collins-Dexter feel “connected to people in a way I hadn’t felt before.” But the gaze of Black Skinhead also turns inward, to the author’s own frustrations with the Democratic Party, and to her grief over the death of her father, whose health declined rapidly during the writing of the book.
Collins-Dexter credits her co-editors, Ryan Doherty and Cecily van Buren–Freedman, with encouraging her to include the poignant account of her father’s life and death that opens the book and touches on themes—the Great Migration, the gutting of Black urban neighborhoods—she explores throughout.
“Brandi’s writing about her father was so beautiful and raw, we knew we had to feature it prominently in the book,” van Buren–Freedman says. “This isn’t dry political theory—it’s incredibly personal and incredibly high stakes.” —D.A.
The Nap Minister
“Ask my mother, I’m always starting some new project,” says Tricia Hersey about founding the Nap Ministry. The organization holds community events and workshops focused on the idea that rest is a social justice issue, a notion she explores in Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto (Little, Brown Spark, Oct.).
Hersey started the Nap Ministry in 2016, when she was in divinity school at Emory University and exhausted “from the pace of my schoolwork, from raising a six-year-old son, from working two jobs. I was probably sleeping three or four hours a night.” She worked as an archivist for the university and had been researching capitalism’s role in the slave labor system in Georgia.
Nearing burnout, Hersey started hosting “collective napping experiences” during which participants gather in a communal space to nap for half an hour and then discuss how rest can be used to push back against capitalist exploitation. The program rapidly grew in popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic, even as Hersey was forced to take her events onto Zoom; she went from about 25,000 social media followers to 200,000 within a month.
Marisa Vigilante, senior editor at Little, Brown Spark, says Hersey came onto her radar in summer 2020. “I had thought about reaching out to her, but I actually didn’t because I was nervous to reach out to a woman whose entire platform is about resting and ask her to do the labor of writing a book,” she adds. But when Vigilante received Hersey’s proposal, she jumped on it and acquired it in March 2021.
Writing a book during a pandemic “was hell,” Hersey says, laughing and recalling having to race to meet deadlines while keeping her family healthy. She developed a system to balance productivity and relaxation: “There were many times when I would get an idea while I was taking a bath, and I would have my phone next to me and record voice notes.”
Much of the book was developed this way, with Hersey recording embryonic ideas on her phone as they occurred to her, then fleshing them out later at her computer. “Everybody will be looking for Tricia,” she says. “I’m underneath the desk trying to get this work done!” —M.G.
Life After Trauma
In 2012, Mike Mariani was an adjunct English professor living in Hoboken, N.J., when a heavy malaise came over him that he couldn’t shake. It was the onset of chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that reshaped his life and inspired his debut, What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us: Who We Become After Tragedy and Trauma (Ballantine, Aug.), which PW called “heart-rending” and “poignant” in a starred review.
Mariani remembers subscribing to Nietzsche’s maxim “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” since adolescence, but it took on new meaning after his diagnosis. “I was thinking about Nietzsche’s words and interrogating them, questioning their veracity and validity,” he recalls, later deciding to “put it to the test” by interviewing people who have experienced “catastrophic before-and-after life events.”
A journalist with bylines in the New York Times and the Guardian, Mariani reached out to dozens of nonprofit organizations that help people who have suffered through traumatic events, and they put him in touch with some of those they serve, including people who have vision impairment, have lost loved ones to overdoses, or have had amputations.
Out of the 150 people Mariani interviewed, he homed in on the stories of six, including a man serving a life sentence for killing a teenager when he was 17 and a young woman who lost nearly all her vision overnight while in graduate school. He credits intuition for helping him select the stories to focus on and says that if “I’m captivated, sympathetic to, and mesmerized by a certain story and want to know more, and I want to have a follow-up interview right away, then to me that’s a powerful indication.”
Writing this book has changed Mariani’s outlook on Nietzsche’s aphorism. “Though these catastrophic before-and-after life events do make us stronger, that strength is in the service of negotiating and bearing whatever burdens we have to endure,” he says.
Emily Hartley, Mariani’s editor at Ballantine, says that though she acquired the book in 2019, she thinks the Covid-19 pandemic became its own kind of before-and-after event for many and that Mariani’s stories about finding purpose after trauma show how readers might build a better future as the pandemic recedes: “Reading about how these people came through and found new meaning in their ‘afterlives,’ I think, will feel resonant to a lot of people as they move forward with whatever type of life they have after Covid.” —M.G.
Written in the Stars
Moiya McTier wrote The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy (Grand Central, Aug.) in two modes. To channel the imagined voice of the galaxy, which narrates the book, she wrote at night sitting by a window for a “direct line” between herself and the sky, and she also sometimes wrote underneath a blanket—“to get rid of Earthly distractions.”
The Milky Way is McTier’s debut, but not her first literary endeavor. In 2016, she wrote a sci-fi novel for her undergraduate senior project at Harvard, where she was the first person in the school’s history to get a combined degree in astronomy and folklore and mythology. It was the beginning of a career finding ways to combine storytelling and science.
In September 2019, McTier got an email from her current agent at the Science Factory, Jeff Shreve. “One of his other authors had seen me give a Juneteenth talk about astronomy, tying it into the history of slavery,” she says. “It was one of the more creative talks I’ve given.” Shreve wanted to know if McTier might consider writing a book. She was game, at the time in graduate school at Columbia working on her dissertation about the Milky Way.
“Doing this weird kind of fictional twist of telling the book from the perspective of the Milky Way made it feel different enough from my dissertation to be a fun project,” McTier says.
Maddie Caldwell, a senior editor at Grand Central, says The Milky Way stood out to her because of how “funny and accessible” it is. The combination of McTier’s background in astrophysics and her storytelling chops put her in a sweet spot to deliver the voice of the galaxy “to us mortals,” Caldwell says. She also pointed out that while it’s driven by science, working on the book had a lot in common with working on the voice in a novel. “It was a voice so authentic to Moiya. And that’s kind of a fiction sensibility.”
McTier echoes that idea of novelistic voice development, noting that creating the Milky Way as a character was worldbuilding “on a galactic scale.” —C.R.
Who’s the Hero
Nerd: Adventures in Fandom from This Universe to the Multiverse (Atria, Oct.), Maya Phillips’s nonfiction debut, is a sharp, genre-spanning look at nerd culture. The collection includes meditations on, among other topics, mental illness in the anime Paranoia Agent, race in Star Wars, and politics in Doctor Who. It’s all told through Phillips’s experience as a fan herself. “It’s obviously criticism, but it does have some memoir elements to it,” she says. “Lately, in the past couple years in particular, I’ve been really interested in bending the boundaries between genres.”
Phillips, a critic at the New York Times, has an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College and published the poetry collection Erou with Four Way Books in 2019. “For all the time that I’ve been a journalist, I was always doing poetry, and vice versa,” she says. “They’ve always been parallel lanes in my life.”
Julia Eagleton, Phillips’s agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, was struck by Phillips’s ability to write across forms using what Eagleton calls her “Promethean mind.” “I love working with poets who cross over into writing essays, memoir, and fiction, and it was this that drew me most to her work,” Eagleton says, noting that Phillips brings the “precision and philosophical nature of her poetry” to all of her writing.
Atria editor Melanie Iglesias Perez recalls her excitement when she first saw the manuscript for Nerd. “We’re seeing heroes who speak Spanish or Spanglish; we’re seeing heroes like Ms. Marvel speak Urdu; we’re seeing Black heroes on screen. That’s what Maya was talking about in these essays. The overarching message is, who gets to be the hero of their own story?”
Even though many of the shows, books, and films she writes about now are solidly mainstream, Phillips says that the notion still prevails that nerd culture is “too lowbrow to be considered seriously. Shows about people flying around in capes or having magical powers—they shaped me as a fan and as a critic. They do reflect the realities of our current age. And that’s not insignificant.” —C.R.
The Kids Aren’t Alright
One of Kyle Spencer’s first assignments as a reporter for the University of North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel was covering a 1990 victory party for the state’s hard-line conservative senator, Jesse Helms. “No one else wanted to go—and I was excited,” she recalls. “I wanted to get in a room with these people, see what they looked like, what they sounded like, how they celebrated. My interest in going to the dark side and exploring has been a long-standing obsession.”
Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America’s Ultraconservative Youth Movement and Its Plot for Power (Ecco, Oct.) is the fruit of that obsession. A fascinating group profile of right-wing activists Charlie Kirk, Candace Owens, and Cliff Maloney, it’s also an exposé of the dark money groups supporting them and a wake-up call for Democrats who think they have the youth vote wrapped up.
Spencer came to the story after spending the past 10 years writing about education for the New York Times and other outlets. At various universities, she encountered “young, flip-flop-wearing dudes” pushing legislation to permit the carrying of guns on college campuses. Discovering that the lobbying organization Gun Owners of America was funding these activists, she searched for similar groups and eventually got invited to a 48-hour training program for young conservatives at the Leadership Institute.
“It was mind-numbingly boring for me,” she says, “but these kids were eating it up. They were excited to tell me how effective they were.”
Spencer’s agent, Larry Weissman, sees Raising Them Right as a companion to his client Michelle Goldberg’s bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. “Kyle is zeroing in on the next generation of young people who want to burn the thing down and seize political power,” he says. “And she somehow convinced them to let her into their inner sanctum.”
Though Spencer was surprised by how much she initially liked her subjects (“I found their politics repulsive, but I was really impressed with their drive, their ambition”), her perspective had changed by the end of her reporting in May 2022. “I saw it with people I was up close with—the shift from troublesome to completely power-hungry and antidemocratic,” she says. “By the end, I was scared to death of them.” —D.A.
Mairead Small Staid
Mairead Small Staid’s debut, The Traces: An Essay (A Strange Object, Sept.), tackles an idea she thinks a lot of young writers shy away from: happiness. “I thought my pain was the most interesting thing about me, and it took a while to shake off that idea,” Staid says. “But I became intrigued by happiness and by what it could offer as a concept, intellectually, aesthetically, and as a form.”
The work grew out of an essay Staid started writing in 2014 about Italy, the novelist Cesare Pavese, depression, and suicide. “I had notes compiled for a year or more, and it just didn’t work,” she says. “It kept accruing new material to itself without really taking a shape.” As she continued working on it, she reread Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. That’s when she realized she had a book on her hands—one that would examine memory, literature, “the nature of happiness,” and her time traveling in Italy.
Calvino’s novel became the organizing principal behind The Traces. “Once I had kind of stolen the structure, which I hope he wouldn’t mind, it became a lot easier to fit all of these accumulated materials and fragments into a whole,” Staid says. She finished it “in a flurry” in 2017, while at Exeter on a George Bennett Fellowship.
Staid has an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan, and that training is in large part what made her writing stand out to Jill Meyers, cofounder and editorial director at A Strange Object. It gave Staid a particular eye for imagery, Myers says. “The way that she describes the world and engages with art is so dynamic. She’s able to keep so many topics in play, she can really marshal so many ideas and keep you moving between those ideas. It’s done in a gorgeous way.”
Staid notes that what she admires about Invisible Cities is that it’s a conversation—one that she’s eager for The Traces to join. “I’m drawing on all these thinkers that I admire, and that conversation needs a reader. The book begins with the word you in the very first line. I’m hopeful that people will enjoy being part of that.” —C.R.