This season’s slate of notable debut fiction draws on Native American and Igbo lore; Chinese numerology; class divisions in London, Rio de Janeiro, and Berkeley, Calif.; familial strife; and reparations. Several of the authors profiled describe how fiction proved to be the perfect form to explore their subjects after building careers in other fields.
Burning the Midnight Oil
Growing up in southern Nigeria, Uchenna Awoke would write into the night until his mother emptied the family’s one oil lamp to signal her disapproval. “She saw it as a waste of kerosene, but more importantly she thought it would get me into trouble,” Awoke recalls.
As a young man, he worked agricultural and construction jobs to support his parents and siblings while clinging to his writing dreams. Years later, after publishing a short story in the literary journal Transition, he secured a fellowship at the MacDowell colony in 2018. The opportunity gave him his first exposure to global literature, which he found in the residency’s library, a resource that proved equally important to the time and energy to focus on his writing.
Awoke describes his debut, The Liquid Eye of a Moon (Catapult, June), as a “contemporary tale of ‘human tabooing’—a form of intergenerational discrimination that still exists in eastern Nigeria.” The novel is a picaresque portrait of an artist, Dimkpa, following his journey from his hometown to Lagos and back, as he takes any job he can find, pursues an education, and gets swept up in the country’s separatist political movements. The narrative also delves into the family’s hidden past involving rites and folklore associated with a fearsome goddess, and it highlights the subjugation of their caste in Igbo society.
Awoke endured waves of violence in his farming community at the hands of nomadic herdsmen, and had just been displaced from his home and sought refuge in another village when Catapult editor-in-chief Kendall Storey first spoke with him. He’s currently living in Fayetteville, Ark., on an Artist Protection Fund fellowship until August.
Storey acquired the novel after mentioning to Awoke’s agent, Annie DeWitt at the Shipman Agency, that she was on the lookout for African novels different from those usually published in the Anglophone world. “For systemic and cultural reasons, and with Nigerian writing in particular, the African writing that’s published here tends to be by writers who have been formally educated abroad and who’ve grown up in major cities,” Storey says.
DeWitt responded by immediately sending Awoke’s novel of rural Nigeria to Catapult on exclusive. “It was really one of those magical conversations,” Storey recalls.
Odds and Evens
Describing his days as a 20-something singer-songwriter in New York City during the 2000s, Abraham Chang riffs on Wordsworth’s famous dictum about poetry being emotion recollected in tranquility. “I didn’t have that tranquility,” he adds, “so I was just getting my feelings out.”
888 Love and the Divine Burden of Numbers (Flatiron, May), Chang’s ebullient debut, is anything but tranquil. Praised by Flatiron v-p and editorial director Zachary Wagman for its “infectious energy,” the novel follows Young Wang, a Chinese American coming of age in late-1990s Queens, N.Y., who views the world through his idiosyncratic brand of numerology. A helpful glossary explains the properties of various numbers from one to 888 according to Chinese tradition and/or Young’s personal taste (19, an example of the latter case due to its significance in Stephen King’s oeuvre, stands for “GOOD”).
Young learns to embrace the inherent chaos of the world from his globe-trotting uncle and his gleefully coarse girlfriend. Each chapter begins with a “soundtrack,” and Chang, a first-generation Chinese American who grew up on a “constant diet of Western pop culture,” strews references to films by David Lynch and Brian De Palma throughout, hoping to please the “pop culture geeks who are going to catch every Easter egg.”
As a boy, Chang thought his given name came from Abraham & Strauss, a department store in the Queens neighborhood where he grew up. In reality, he was named after Abraham Lincoln, the subject of his grandfather’s master’s thesis. Chang’s grandparents emigrated from Taiwan via mainland China to start a Chinese-language newspaper, and Chang’s parents followed later. He attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and then Tufts before enrolling in NYU’s MFA program for poetry, where his favorite poet, Philip Levine, was teaching.
Chang currently works in special sales for Simon & Schuster. “For the past 20 years, I’ve been helping other writers and authors be successful,” he says. Now, after having mulled the story over for some time, he has no qualms about sharing his extensive sales experience with the team working on his novel.
“I know how the sausage gets made, so I’m their best ally—or their worst enemy,” he jokes.
Maura Cheeks’s path to fiction writing was long and winding. After running the social media accounts of the New York Knicks and the U.S. Olympic Committee, she went on to attend NYU’s MBA program and published a paper on Black women in corporate America in the Harvard Business Review. A fellowship at the Atlantic followed, which resulted in a 2019 feature on generational wealth and racial discrimination.
While at the Atlantic, Cheeks read Salman Rushdie’s inventive political fable Midnight’s Children, which convinced her that fiction would be the best avenue for thinking through a thorny topic: reparations. “It’s so hard for our country to talk about race in an honest way,” she says. “Sometimes fiction frees you up to go places that you can’t as a journalist.”
Ballantine senior editor Chelcee Johns adds that when Cheeks’s novel, Acts of Forgiveness (Ballantine, Feb.), came across her desk in 2021, the debate around reparations struck her as overly combative and lacking nuance. “It felt like Maura’s book was the right way to bring some humanity back to the conversation.”
Acts of Forgiveness takes place in the near future, when a woman is elected president of the U.S. She also happens to be the great-granddaughter of Andrew Johnson, the president widely credited by historians with botching Reconstruction, and she passes the Forgiveness Act as an attempt to atone for her ancestor’s sins. Under the new legislation, anyone able to demonstrate their descendants were enslaved will receive $175,000.
Cheeks homes in on the Revels, a Black family living in suburban Philadelphia. The father, Max, owns a construction company that puts them solidly in the middle class, but a downturn threatens their business and prized family home. Max’s grown daughter Willie, who has put her own journalism career on hold to work for the company, resolves to apply for the program and travels to Natchez, Miss., to gather the necessary documentation.
“I wanted to portray a family that would prompt others to ask why they would need reparations,” Cheeks says, “but also one that was touched by the generational impact of slavery.”
Throughout, she does not shy away from the racial and bureaucratic complexities of implementing a massive reparations program. “If something like this actually passed,” she adds, “it would be messy.”
Clara Drummond has no qualms identifying her favorite of the three novels she’s published in her native Brazil. “They’re all quite similar,” she says, speaking in English, “but I think this one is the best.” She’s referring to Role Play (FSG Originals, June), her first book to be translated from the Portuguese (by Daniel Hahn).
Drummond currently lives in Lisbon, where she moved from São Paulo after Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency in 2019. “Personally, it would be very depressing to stay in Brazil,” she says.
When she left, she was working as a freelance fashion and architectural journalist and had published two novels about the fast-living set among Brazil’s young creative class. She began the morning after returning from a 2013 New Year’s Eve party, writing the opening while running on Red Bull fumes.
The narrator of Role Play is Vivian, a freelance curator in Rio de Janeiro’s art scene whose ritzy lifestyle is heavily subsidized by her parents. Waiting outside of a nightclub, she witnesses a woman being savagely beaten by the police for illegally selling alcohol. Vivian shrugs off the incident, but when she later learns the woman died of her injuries, she begins to grapple with Brazil’s class inequalities, albeit through her blinkered and ironizing perspective.
Drummond describes being lonely and depressed as a teenager growing up in a “very bourgeois, stiff, and conservative Catholic” environment in Rio de Janeiro. As a fashion journalist living in São Paulo in her 20s, she was surprised to find herself attending glamorous parties and cool underground clubs, comparing her experiences to those of an anthropologist visiting a different country.
Amid the novel’s satiric dissection of the upper classes, Vivian, a self-described misandrist and miso-
gynist, reveals her history of depression, anxiety, and frank sexual desires. “I think sex is a little bit like dreams,” Drummond says. “It shows you something about your unconscious.”
Drummond was called the voice of Brazil’s Instagram generation in the Brazilian media after her first novel was published, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Benjamin Brooks says he’s eager to introduce her “caustic, confessional, and pee-yourself funny” novel to American audiences. “It’s like Fleabag in Rio,” he adds.
A Whale of a Time
There’s a heat wave in London and the city is “desperate, tetchy, and horny” in Oisín McKenna’s debut novel Evenings and Weekends (Mariner, July). Enter a huge bottlenose whale that beaches itself on the Thames. “I wanted the book to be able to follow disparate characters as it moved through the city,” McKenna explains, and the whale provided a unifying spectacle.
The novel’s three central characters are in transition. Maggie and Ed have mixed feelings about their relationship, their baby on the way, and their financially motivated decision to leave London to move back to their unexciting hometown in Essex. Phil, who grew up with Maggie and Ed in Essex, is preparing for a party in his illegal loft rental while trying to clarify his feelings for one of his eight roommates, a man in an open relationship. “There’s a certain amount of precariousness that can feel acceptable or tolerable because you feel young enough,” McKenna says about the trio’s amorous, economic, and living situations.
Over the weekend, the protagonists amble through the teeming city. “You can stand on one street corner of London for only 30 seconds and feel its rich history,” McKenna explains.
Mariner assistant editor Jessica Vestuto calls the novel a “love letter to London,” but notes that the book also delves into “what it means to really love a place that’s designed economically to make living there nearly impossible.”
McKenna has written and performed monologues for the theater and on video, honing his sense of rhythm, humor, and pathos. “I usually perform the stuff myself, so it always has to feel good coming out of my mouth,” he says.
As a performer, McKenna has no trouble going onstage, but he describes himself as very shy in his personal life. “I often experience a disparity between what I’m feeling internally, which can be intense and overwhelming, and what I’m expressing,” he says. By turning to fiction, he found he was able to marshal the dramatic potential of this disparity, building suspense around the moment when private thoughts are finally externalized.
Mexican writer Clyo Mendoza is drawn to horror less for its thrills than the way it questions the nature of reality. “I’ve always been interested in whether the world is as I see it or conceals something,” she says in Spanish on a three-way video call from Oaxaca, with Elisa Taber, her editor at Seven Stories, translating. In her debut novel, Fury (Seven Stories, Feb.), Mendoza rends the veil separating the visible and invisible world for a tale of violence, madness, obsession, and body horror.
Fury, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, unfolds with the intensity of a Greek tragedy in the Mexican desert. It follows the descendants of traveling salesman Vicente Barrera, who sows “the seed of his cursed bloodline everywhere he passed,” Mendoza writes. Cruel and lustful, Vicente descends into madness and, seeming to morph into a rabid dog, ends his days chained to a bed.
Mendoza was born in and grew up traveling around Oaxaca with her mother, a teacher at rural schools, and was exposed to the region’s various languages, cultures, and beliefs. Discussing the porous boundary between humans and animals in the novel, Mendoza says the “mystical symbiosis” between man and beast is an important part of Mexican culture, and her connection to creatures has been an important way for her to “understand my own animality.”
Two of Vicente’s sons from different mothers, Lázaro and Juan, unwittingly enter an incestuous relationship after meeting as opposing soldiers during an unspecified civil war. Salvadore, a third son from a different woman, is a morgue worker who wanders into the desert after the paternal madness grips him. As the novel’s hallucinatory quality attests, Mendoza says she’s drawn to “altered states of consciousness,” and she recounts experimenting with peyote in the Mexican desert, a landscape that exerts mystical effects on the novel’s characters.
Folklore also abounds in Fury, with an itinerant trader appearing regularly to relate strange tales and offer Faustian bargains or magic coins. Mendoza, who has published two books of poetry in Spanish, describes this oral storytelling tradition as crucial to her writing.
It’s a quality that caught the ear of Taber, who describes the novel as “anthropological fiction that reimagines what it meant to be human in Amerindian mythological terms.”
In late summer 2017, journalist Sarah Ruiz-Grossman was covering climate and housing issues for HuffPost and moved from New York City to the Bay Area. Wildfires broke out in Northern Californian a month later, and she drove to Santa Rosa to interview survivors who had just lost their homes. “That started me on the wildfire beat,” says Ruiz-Grossman, who now lives in Los Angeles. The experience also sparked the idea for her first novel.
A Fire So Wild (Harper, Feb.) chronicles the effects of a devastating fire on the lives of various people in Berkeley. The characters range from a wealthy family involved in mixed-income housing advocacy to a couple who sleeps in their van while waiting for affordable housing. The novel dramatizes such pressing issues as economic inequality, lack of housing, complacency over climate change, and the ways people cope with devastating loss. “Everything becomes more precarious and more precious all at once,” Ruiz-Grossman says about the lives of her characters after the fire.
Ruiz-Grossman attended a K–12 French school in Manhattan (her mother is French and her father is French Canadian) before studying international relations, economy, and development in Latin America at Brown University. After a six-month stint doing nonprofit work in Ecuador, she returned stateside and eventually transitioned into journalism.
“In journalism, the story you’re telling is fairly narrow,” Ruiz-Grossman says. Fiction provided her with a broader canvas on which to paint a nuanced examination of how natural disasters impact people differently depending on socioeconomic status and race. “Each victim is part of the story of how we face, and don’t face, the climate crisis as a society.”
Harper assistant editor David Howe says he’s always on the lookout for stories with “suspense and pace” that make him “think deeply about important issues.” He found both qualities in Ruiz-Grossman’s novel, which he secured in a preempt after circulating the manuscript among other editors at Harper. Acquisition stories like this one, he adds, are about “colleagues being ready and willing to listen when you say, hey, this is something really special.”
After growing up in rural Perris, Calif., about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles, Rachel Stark led a peripatetic existence before “getting her act together,” as she puts it, by enrolling at UC Riverside and then in UC Davis’s MFA program. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, she left Davis for Colorado, where she worked as a ranch caretaker. She was assigned to a small cabin with frozen pipes but a promising name: Cathedral. “It was what I needed at the time, and it became a sacred sanctuary for me,” she says.
At Cathedral, Stark completed her novel Perris, California (Penguin Press, Mar.). “Rachel was completely unconnected in any way to anybody in publishing,” recalls Stark’s agent, Stephanie Cabot at Susanna Lea Assoc. Cabot received the manuscript through “about 12 degrees of separation.” Comparing the novel to Monica Potts’s memoir The Forgotten Girls, a nonfiction portrait of struggling women in rural Arkansas, Cabot says Stark’s novel will similarly “shed light on people who are often misunderstood.”
Stark still prizes the solitude and joy of a youth spent roaming outdoors in Perris. “Some don’t see as much beauty in the land as I do, but it was a magical place to be able to run wild in,” she says. She made the conscious decision not to return to the Inland Empire town while she was writing the book because she wanted to remember Perris as she knew it in her youth.
Not that the novel presents Stark’s hometown as a rural idyll. It begins in 1989 as teenage Tessa runs to a neighbor’s house for help in the middle of the night after being badly beaten by her stepfather and stepbrother. Ten years later, she is married and living in a trailer with two young children and a third on the way when Mel, a girl with whom she had a secret romance in high school, returns to Perris and stirs up old feelings for both women.
Of her resilient, restless protagonist, Stark says, “I don’t write plot. I write character, and Tessa’s someone that I’ve carried with me for a long time.”
Alexandra Tanner’s debut novel, Worry (Scribner, Mar.), a dark comedy about anxiety, sibling bonds, and toxic elements of the internet, has already entered Scribner’s office lexicon. “One of my colleagues and I have coined the term worrycore for anything that reminds us of this book,” says associate editor Emily Polson.
After moving from Florida to New York City for her MFA at the New School, Tanner abandoned a novel she was struggling with and embarked on a new project, one with a simple goal. “I just wanted to write something that my younger sibling, Jess, would think was funny,” she says. Jess, who is nonbinary, also provided the idea for the novel. They were the middle of a college internship in New York when black mold was discovered in their apartment. They were supposed to stay with Tanner for a weekend; the cohabitation lasted six months.
In Worry, Jules begrudgingly lets her younger sister, Poppy, stay at her Brooklyn apartment for an extended time after moving to the city. Poppy is prone to depression, has recurring bouts of hives, and exhibits a fierce commitment to social justice. The sardonic, anxiety-ridden Jules has an unsatisfying online job and a growing obsession with Mormon “mommy bloggers” on Instagram—picture-perfect blond women hawking various products and conspiracy theories about vaccines and satanic messages inscribed on Oreos.
As a novelist, Tanner draws on her previous interest in experimental playwriting. The codependent, bickering sisters resemble characters in what Jules calls “the stupidest Beckett play ever.”
Tanner cites “comedies of the downward spiral” such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and A Serious Man as lodestars of humorous bleakness. “I wanted the novel to have a repetitiousness and specifically absurdist aspect, where they’re struggling to make up their minds about who they want to be to each other,” she says.
Zach Williams always had trouble extricating himself from awkward conversations. So when he first watched Errol Morris’s 1981 documentary Vernon, Florida, in which, he says, the director “just put the camera on people and let them talk,” it resonated deeply. “The film was formally fascinating, like being stuck in a very strange conversation that you couldn’t get out of.”
That sense of bizarro claustrophobia informs the stories in Williams’s debut collection, Beautiful Days (Doubleday, June), especially “Trial Run,” about a man subjected to the conspiratorial ramblings of his co-workers.
Williams grew up in Wilmington, Del., and moved to Los Angeles after college in the mid-aughts to work in the film industry. He had a brief stint as Jerry Bruckheimer’s fifth assistant before being let go (“I was bad at looking busy,” he says). After moving back east to teach high school, he entered the NYU MFA program in his early 30s, then secured a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, where he’s currently a Jones Lecturer in fiction.
“Wood Sorrel House,” one of the collection’s speculative fictions, was previously published in the New Yorker. It features a slippery portrayal of time and follows a couple stuck in a bucolic simulation of reality with their toddler, who, unlike his parents, shows no signs of aging. Williams says that readers of his dreamlike stories often ask him what’s really going on. “I think anything can happen as long as one beat leads convincingly to the next,” he adds.
His agent, Claudia Ballard at WME, praises Williams’s “incredible mastery of the metaphysical,” adding, “Sometimes you’re reading something, and you just feel, okay, I will follow this person’s mind.”
Doubleday v-p and executive editor Thomas Gebremedhin compares Williams to Wells Tower. Citing the recent critical and commercial success of other collections like Ling Ma’s Bliss Montage and Morgan Talty’s Night of the Living Rez, Gebremedhin has high hopes for Beautiful Days. “I think there’s a newfound appreciation for what the story can do,” he says.