The Book Report: Melissa Febos
The PEN Book Report is a weekly series that challenges the notion of “best of,” “top,” and “seasonal must read” lists and the default books and authors that regularly appear on them. We simply asked contributors to share with us a list of books they turn to over and over again, ones that both inspire and challenge how they engage with the world.
Founded by Hafizah Geter and Antonio Aiello, participants include Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Melissa Febos, Kelly Forsythe, Nathalie Handal, Abeer Hoque, Gene Luen Yang, Loma, Lisa Lucas, Joseph Mains, Colum McCann, Rick Moody, Darnell Moore, Celeste Ng, Gregory Pardlo, Khadijah Queen, Camille Rankine, Jeff Shotts, and many more.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Mixed-Form Things: Change is afoot in the realm of creative nonfiction. Or so they are saying. Terms I hear with increasing frequency include lyric essay, mixed-form nonfiction, experimental, innovative, cross-genre, in addition to the more antiquated autofiction and faction (a portmanteau of “fact” and “fiction” devised by Truman Capote). I have just completed a work of nonfiction to which many of these terms could and may be applied. Abandon Me is collection of essays that cohere around the theme of abandonment and features a 40,000-word title piece that mixes personal narrative, mythology, psychological theory, and history. Though I admire much of the “innovative” nonfiction being written today, I would name none of its writers as primary influences on my book. So often we mistake popularity or terminology for the advent of form (memoir did not begin with Frank McCourt, nor the essay with Montaigne). Here are some of the “mixed form” nonfictions that I would name as godparents. -Melissa Febos
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde (The Crossing Press)
“I have always wanted to be both man and woman,” begins Lorde’s biomythography. “I would like to enter a woman the way any man can, and to be entered—to leave and be left—to be hot and hard and soft all at the same time in the cause of our loving.” When I reread these lines while revising the story of my own queer awakening, I wondered if I wasn’t wasting my time. I wondered if she had already said it all in that short prologue.
Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks (Routledge)
I first read this essay collection at 19. Though explicitly an instruction manual for how to teach (and enact) social justice in the classroom, hooks utilizes in its telling all of the tools I have since learned to manifest in my writing, my life, and my pedagogy: personal narrative, critical theory, self-interview, dialogue, and historical context.
Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (University of California Press)
Cha’s 1982 “auto-ethnography” is structured after the nine Greek muses and Cha chooses her own, among them her mother, herself, Persephone and Demeter, Joan of Arc, and the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon. The book contains as many forms as it does heroines, though the leitmotif of voice surges in each.
My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid (Noonday Press)
There are page-long sentences in this memoir—winding, incantatory, discursive, and by some miracle always clear. It is a book about death, about hating and loving someone at the same time, about the chasm between the place that made us and the one we chose.
Storyteller by Leslie Marman Silko (Arcade Publishing)
Silko has described her work as “the attempt to identify what it is to be a half-breed or mixed-blood person.” Storyteller is a literary embodiment of this experience: stories bound together by tradition, orality, image, history, and memory. Books like this, which are not any one thing, have been my best teachers. They have taught me that a person can also be a hybrid animal, a mixed-form thing, and that she can still be whole.
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press 2010) and the forthcoming essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 2017). Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Guernica, Glamour, Post Road, Salon, New York Times, Dissent, Bitch Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Center for Women Writers, and she is the recipient of fellowships from Bread Loaf, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and The MacDowell Colony. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and serves on the Board of Directors for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.