BookExpo held its first Adult Book and Author Dinner, in lieu of a breakfast, on Wednesday night, showcasing five of the big books of the year via Zoom. The event, moderated in part by BookExpo event director Jenny Martin and by Zerlina Maxwell, the MSNBC political analyst, senior director of progressive programming for SiriusXM, and cohost of the Sirius show Signal Boost, highlighted a wide range of books expected to make big splashes.
All of the books featured were written by women of color: U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, authors Carmen Maria Machado and Rebecca Roanhorse, and U.S. Representative for Minnesota Ilhan Omar, who was unable to make the dinner.
Zerlina's own nonfiction book, The End of White Politics: How to Heal Our Liberal Divide (Hachette Book Group, July 7), tackles a prescient topic: the future of politics in a diversifying America. “What’s the end of white politics?” Maxwell asked. “Politics. Politics is what white politics is. The end of white politics is putting an end to the central and solitary focus on white voters.” Zerlina noted that Pew Research projects that white voters will be in a minority by 2045. “So why wait until then to start moving and organizing and voting like we’re the minority?”
In her book, Maxwell said, she argues that lived experiences matter, and that people who “look like me, a black woman,” will better be able to represent her interests, and the interests of those who have not benefited from white politics and white political power—an urgently needed change. Democratic political successes in the future, she argued, will be defined by voters of color. “We need to start looking at the reality staring us right in the face: the future of politics is not going to be only about what white voters want and think.”
Harjo's book, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry (to be published August 25), which she edited with with Leanne Howe, Jennifer Foerster, and another 13 poets serving as consulting editors, is the first anthology of Native American poetry published by Norton. “It was finally time,” Harjo said. “All the contributing editors are native poets, which is kind of a first. We started off with a lot of challenges. First of all, some people in America don’t even know that we’re alive. They think John Wayne killed all of us. Then some people think we’re alive, but—poets?”
Harjo said she and her editors put the book together with the help of a team of students from the University of Tennessee, who would meet with the editors over Skype or Zoom. “The roots of poetry in this country, usually people look to Europe, but they come from everywhere—and there are indigenous poetic roots that have affected all of American culture in one way or the other,” she said. ”It was important to do this collection to highlight that.” They ran into challenges assembling it, she said: “How do you fit the literature of 527 federally recognized tribes, and there are others beyond that, into 350 pages,” and still manage to cover all of the mainland U.S. to Alaska, Hawai’i, and some of the Pacific islands? The strategy, Harjo said, was to separate the book into five geographical areas, and to order them from the oldest poems, from "time immemorial," including an origin chant in Hawai'ian, to works by the youngest poets, including Jake Skeets, born in 1991. She said the anthology could have been four or five times as long, but they ended up with nearly 170 poets. “Poetry is a living art,” Harjo said. “Even if it’s printed, it’s made of our breath. We always turn to poetry in times of transformation because it carries, as our breath does, our wishes and feelings and hopes and dreams.”
Machado, the author of Her Body and Other Parties and In the Dream House, makes the move from literary publishing to comics in her latest, The Low, Low Woods, illustrated by Dani (DC Comics, Sept. 29). She said DC approached her to write the work for Hill House, the imprint at the publisher run by novelist and comics writer Joe Hill, and while she has always loved comics, it had never occurred to her that writing them was something she could do. So she found notes for an old horror story she had sketched out but shelved, set in a fictional town called Shudder to Think, Pennsylvania, in the 1990s, and adapted it. She said she was a little hesitant to move to comics from prose, but the folks at DC helped, including suggesting that she put moments of surprise on even-numbered pages, so as to leave the surprise for the turn of a page, and not to have readers spoil the moment with scanning eyes.
The story, Machado said, is of two “queer dirtbag teens,” she said, who wake up in a movie theater with mud on their shoes and no recollection of how they got there, and are forced into unraveling an increasingly supernatural mystery. It was important to Machado that the protagonists were queer young women of color, and that one of them was fat. “The conflicts in their life are both deeply relatable and deeply weird,” Machado said: Octavia is in love with her classmate, Jessica, whose mother “is a sinkhole,” while “Elle is trying to figure out if college is good for her, and also why there is a plague of amnesia” in their town. “The inspiration for the story came from a dream I had,” Machado said, but the inspiration for the setting came from her own adolescence in Eastern Pennsylvania and is based on the abandoned, and haunted, town of Centralia. It was a right of passage for the cool kids growing up in Eastern Pa. at the time to go to Centralia and take moody B&W photographs, Machado added. “I think Pennsylvania is a strange and beautiful place, and I think it deserves the literary attention that other states have gotten in spades.”
Rebecca Roanhorse, who has won the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, and Campbell awards for her speculative fiction, called her forthcoming novel, Black Sun (Saga Press, Oct. 13), which is the first in a trilogy, “the book where I’m allowed to thrive. It’s the book of my heart.” Growing up, she said, “I really didn’t know that I could be published. I hadn’t discovered folks like Butler and N.K. Jemison yet, and there certainly were no native authors writing in the genre.” This book is her big swing, an epic fantasy “not inspired by a Western European or pseudo-European history” but by the history of the indigenous Americans, pre-conquest. “All these cultures were sophisticated and complex,” she said. “You have architecture to rival their contemporaries in Asia and Africa and Europe. You had great astronomer-priests who mapped the solstice and equinox” and cities “so beautiful that even the invading Spanish noted in awe their beauty, right before they destroyed them.”
But Black Sun, she hastens to add, is not a history book. “This is a place where I let my imagination run: spear-warriors on the back of giant corvids” and “god-touched prophecies. But Black Sun is also just about people, as the best stories are,” four people in particular, whose lives will collide on the solstice under a rare solar eclipse. The heroes, Roanhorse said, unlike those in Western stories, who must adventure out into the world on a hero's journey to find their place in it, starts with the heroes already out in the world, needing to find their way back to home. In the comments section of the Facebook stream, the excitement for the book was palpable.
Omar's book, This Is What America Looks Like, will be released by Dey Street Books on May 26.