This spring’s standout emerging authors include writers from the U.S., the U.K., France, and Nigeria, and their books tackle a dizzying array of themes: female desire, sexual trauma, municipal corruption, financial malfeasance, war, and the connection between art and politics. Together their books—experimental novels, story collections, family sagas—present a picture of contemporary fiction that is impossible to classify.
From London, a new author captures American reality
The first version of Elaine Castillo’s debut novel, America Is Not the Heart (Viking, Apr.), ran, by Castillo’s estimate, to about “three billion pages.” In fact, the book she and her U.K. agent, Emma Paterson, sent to Viking editor Laura Tisdel was a little more than a thousand.
Tisdel was nervous about the novel’s length, but it was hard to put down. “I couldn’t stop reading,” she says.
Castillo eventually trimmed the book—it’s now around 400 pages—but it remains a capacious narrative. The novel is a “contemporary saga of an extended Filipino family,” in the words of PW’s starred review. It centers on Hero de Vera, a former communist insurgent who, after being disowned by her parents, is forced to leave the Philippines and move in with her uncle in the Bay Area.
Castillo, 33, who is originally from the Bay Area, lives in London, where she works as a freelance writer. She moved to the U.K. in 2009, shortly after her father’s death. She was ready, she said, “to be somewhere that wasn’t full of ghosts.”
For about three years, Castillo didn’t write, and hardly even read. But the character of Hero had been with her for a long time, and when she began writing the novel, in 2013, it went quickly, only taking her two years to complete.
Among the notable formal qualities of America Is Not the Heart (the title is a pun on America Is in the Heart, a 1946 novel by Filipino-American author Carlos Bulosan) is its inclusion of other languages: Ilocano, Pangasinan, Tagalog. For Castillo, that’s simply reality. “My parents spoke four languages between them,” she says. “There wasn’t that much border between them, and there were huge pockets of my world that I understood or didn’t understand.”
Milpitas, the city where the novel is set (and where Castillo grew up) is ethnically diverse, and many households there speak multiple languages. “That’s an American city—that’s an American reality,” Castillo says. “American fiction that’s not commensurate to that reality… I can’t really imagine it.”
A Nigerian novelist meets the demands of her home city
When Chibundu Onuzo was writing her novel, Welcome to Lagos (Catapult, May), she knew she wanted to write something big. But it was only after her sister suggested she call it Welcome to Lagos that Onuzo understood (with some trepidation) just how big it could be. “If you call a book Welcome to Lagos, you have to feel like you have experienced Lagos after you put down the book,” Onuzo, 27, says.
The novel follows five characters who, after coming into possession of $10 million of corruptly acquired cash, set about trying to spend it charitably. Jonathan Lee, Onuzo’s editor at Catapult, says the novel casts a satirical eye on “corruption and political wastage—so many of the things that happen to be relevant to us today.”
Onuzo, who was born in Lagos and is pursuing a Ph.D. in history at Kings College in London, says she was particularly interested in Lagos’s “arrivals and departures”—the myriad people from “different walks of life, different races, different countries” who enter and leave the city daily. “Depending on what baggage you bring to Lagos, your perspective on the city changes,” she notes.
Some visitors, such as the book’s journalist characters from the U.K., see only the bad: “The infrastructure isn’t working; the light isn’t 24 hours. All they see is everything Lagos is not,” Onuzo says. Others see only “glitz and glamour” and opportunity.
Onuzo maintains that, ultimately, the novel is Lagos according to Chibundu Onuzo. “This is not the last word on Lagos,” she says.
Off the reservation
Tommy Orange, author of There There (Knopf, June), first became interested in literature hoping it would provide a kind of belief system. Growing up, his father was a roadman—a sort of pastor—in the Native American Church, and his mother, who is white, was an evangelical Christian. Orange was raised, he says, “between those two things almost battling each other.” He adds, “I really didn’t want anything to do with either one of them. But there was a giant hole of belief and meaning that I needed to fill.”
Orange, 36, began writing There There in 2011 while working as a digital storytelling facilitator at StoryCenter, a nonprofit in Berkeley, Calif., that teaches writing. In 2013, he was accepted at the MacDowell Colony. At that time, Orange was unfamiliar with the colony’s prominence in the literary world; a student of his at StoryCenter had to tell him what a big deal it was. The acceptance gave Orange motivation: in 2014, he entered the low-residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he continued to work on the novel.
There There follows a range of Native American characters who convene at a powwow in Oakland. The novel is distinct, to Orange’s mind, in that it focuses on the experience of urban Indians, rather than the experience of Native Americans who live on reservations. “There’s an insecurity” to being urban Indian, Orange says. “There’s a worrying over self and identity and connection to nativeness.”
Jordan Pavlin, Orange’s editor at Knopf, calls the novel a “report from a world few of us has ever seen.” Reading it, she says, she felt that “a new part of American history was being written before my eyes.”
Orange says he took inspiration, when writing the book, from other multivoice novels such as A Visit from the Goon Squad and Let the Great World Spin. Including multiple perspectives, for him, has an amplifying effect: “The idea of having a voiceless people explode in a polyphonic way was very appealing to me.”
A short story writer explores female desire
Danielle Lazarin wrote the first story that would become part of her debut collection, Back Talk (Penguin, out now), in the early 2000s, when she was living in San Francisco and working in fund-raising. The story, “Hide and Seek,” is about a brother and sister, and originally it focused more on the brother.
The story was strong—it’s part of why she was accepted at the MFA program at the University in Michigan, which she attended from 2005 to 2007—but, for Lazarin, 39, it now represents one of her early struggles as a writer: she was afraid to write about women.
Female writers, Lazarin says, are often given the impression that “stories about girls and about families are not as important.” It took several years, she says, for her to find the courage to “go into the domestic full-force.”
The stories in Back Talk deal in girlhood, motherhood, romance, and female friendships, “telling complex stories of loss, hope, and joy,” in the words of PW’s starred review. Lazarin says she wanted to combat entrenched stereotypes about women, such as the idea that “mothers love every minute of being a mother,” or that women don’t experience sexual desire. “We still have so far to go in putting women’s experiences on the page,” she says.
Julie Barer, Lazarin’s agent, says her stories depict women who “lay claim to desire in a world that often asks them to be more selfless and less hungry.” And though the narratives range in subject matter, they cohere around a common theme, according to Sarah Stein, Lazarin’s editor. For Stein, that theme has to do with “how women are permitted”—or not—“to express themselves.”
Lazarin says she wants her stories to complicate readers’ understanding of women, but she acknowledges that her perspective is ultimately her own: “I hope I can push someone to read my book and say, ‘That’s not my experience,’ and then get mad and write their own experience.”
An experimental novel explores the aftermath of an assault
Emma Glass began writing her debut novel, Peach (Bloomsbury, out now), about a young woman who struggles to resume ordinary life after being assaulted, a little less than a decade ago while she was studying creative writing at the University of Kent in the U.K. For her final assignment, Glass had to write the first 4,000 words of a novel. The prompt was open-ended, but the program, she says, put special emphasis on plot-driven, commercially viable narratives, which she had little affinity for.
“I’ve never been particularly good at coming up with stories,” Glass says. In her frustration, and with the deadline approaching, she put on some music and started simply writing “words”—not even sentences. “I was surprised at what came out,” Glass, now 30, says. “It felt like it was something different.”
After finishing her degree, Glass put those 4,000 words aside, turning her attention to more practical-seeming pursuits. She wanted to be useful—to “make a difference in other people’s lives”—so she studied nursing. It was only after she had moved to London for a job in that field that she took Peach out of the proverbial drawer. She also reconnected with old university friends who asked her, “What ever happened to that weird thing you were writing?”
When Glass finally finished Peach, she sent it to one of her former teachers at Kent, who passed it along to Alexandra Pringle, group editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury in the U.K. Pringle was overtaxed at the time—she was trying not to take on any new writers—but she found Peach, in its dark intensity, hard to resist. “You don’t get a voice like this every day, or indeed every decade,” she says.
Liese Mayer, Glass’s editor at Bloomsbury in the U.S., describes Glass’s voice as “brutally spare” and compares her writing to the work of Eimear McBride, Max Porter, and Claire-Louise Bennett. The novel’s “nightmarish narration,” she says, “proves itself to be the perfect and most resounding expression of the trauma that Peach has undergone.”
Glass, who is at work on her second novel, has kept her job as a nurse. People sometimes ask her whether Peach, with its visceral bodily imagery, was influenced by her career in medicine. The answer is no. “That kind of grotesque violence, I’m afraid, is all my own,” she says.
A novel of polyamory examines sex and power
A 19-year-old girl with a dead-end job and a mild painkiller habit meets a couple, Matt and Frankie, who invite her into their relationship. They give her a new name, Lilith—perhaps the first sign that their relationship will become, like all relationships, marked by power imbalances. Their encounters, which consist of Matt and Lilith having sex while Frankie watches, grow increasingly fraught, with Lilith coming to feel like merely an “object to bring them pleasure.” On top of all this, Matt happens to be a satanist. If there’s anything to be said about Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other (Dzanc, Apr.), it’s that it does not shy away from darkness.
Perhaps that makes sense, given that one of Nash’s favorite authors is Mary Gaitskill, whose work often explores the treacheries inherent in intimacy. “If I ever feel uninspired, I pick up Bad Behavior,” Nash says.
Nash, 30, lives with her family in northwest Arkansas. She says she wanted to write about polyamory because she felt it was underrepresented in conventional media: “I wanted to showcase something that wasn’t traditional.” She also wanted to look at the “complexity of those situations—what can go wrong when you’re that young and you don’t know exactly what you want.”
Michelle Dotter, editor-in-chief and publisher at Dzanc, says Animals Eat Each Other is just the kind of book Dzanc seeks out—stories “that are maybe out-there, not on other people’s radar.” The novel, she adds, “taps into this national narrative about consent, sex, dominance, power.”
And yet it’s far from a morality tale. Lilith is “not even a particularly nice person, and she’s not meant to be,” Dotter says. “There’s a lot that can be explored by resisting the urge to turn her into a victim of her own circumstances.”
Parody of precarity
When the British poet Luke Kennard was writing his first novel, The Transition (FSG, out now), he imagined it taking place in the very near future. But novels take years to write, and the future arrives more quickly than we expect. Now, the themes at the center of the book—millennial hopelessness, financial precariousness—feel scarily current. “A lot of things it explores have been superseded by reality,” Kennard jokes.
The Transition tells of a feckless writer named Karl who, mired in credit card debt and facing jail time for his unwitting part in an online fraud operation, is forced to enroll (along with his wife, Genevieve) in something called the Transition—a program that aims to help struggling young people get their financial and personal lives in order. Kennard, 36, likens the Transition to less-extreme iterations of the self-help cult, such as mindfulness. “I’m quite cynical of those sorts of movements,” he says. “You can’t avoid suffering.”
Kennard was also responding to the perilous economic situation of his peers. In the U.K., rising house prices have made the dream of home ownership seem like a fantasy. “Most people of my generation don’t have any fail-safe,” he says. “We don’t have any savings.” He also thinks critiques of so-called millennials—that they’re lazy, entitled, that they spend their money frivolously—are misguided. The Transition, Kennard says, dramatizes a problem that is “essentially financial” but that gets “dressed up as other things.”
Georgia Garrett, Kennard’s agent, says the novel depicts a “corporatized society” in which “things previous generations would have expected—jobs for life, nice homes—are gone.”
It hardly sounds like a near future. If anything, the novel’s speculative conceit enables Kennard to depict the contemporary moment more clearly, according to Laird Gallagher, an associate editor at FSG. “It’s freeing,” Gallagher says. The world of The Transition may be skewed, he says, but only insofar as it “reflects our psychic reality.”
A comically erudite novel of art and politics
The title of French author Noémi Lefebvre’s novel Blue Self-Portrait (Transit, Apr.), her first to be published in English, refers to a painting by Arnold Schoenberg in which the Austrian composer depicts himself in a melancholic shade of blue. Lefebvre, who has a Ph.D. in music history, calls the painting, which she first saw at the Neuhardenberg Castle in Germany, a “pure experience of politics.” (Schoenberg was disparaged by the Nazis and emigrated to the U.S. in 1934.) Schoenberg’s music, Lefebvre says, “was also there in his painting; that’s what became clear—in this painting that the Nazis could never have liked or even tolerated.”
Blue Self-Portrait centers on a woman who, on a return flight to Paris from Berlin, reflects, often to comic effect, on a wide range of subjects: the fallout of her affair with a American-German composer (who is fixated on Schoenberg’s painting); the influence of Nazism on art; her personal shortcomings (she has a problem with désinvolture, translated as notcaring); and Theodor Adorno and Thomas Mann, whose correspondence she spends the flight reading.
“She keeps asking herself if she’s the kind of woman who’s fit to admire these great men,” says Ashley Nelson Levy, copublisher of Transit Books. And “this beautiful portrait of female intelligence seems to shape and form as she goes.”
The narrator of the novel is plainly Lefebvre herself. “I didn’t even invent the situations or the characters,” she says. “It’s a novel without any fiction!” And her intellectual preoccupations permeate the narrative. “I will never come to the end of the connections between art and politics,” she says. “The more specific aspect of it that I look at in the novel might be the question of conscience, not our capacity to think of ourselves as living beings—that would be too Cartesian for me—but in the sense of our capacity to cast a critical eye on ourselves within our own times.”
Sophie Lewis, Lefebvre’s English translator (who translated the author’s responses for this article), admits that at first she didn’t find the novel, with its long, Bernhard-like sentences, to be an “easy read.” But, she adds, she eventually “warmed to the hyper-self-critical yet also motormouth” narrator. The novel, she says, “does what the nouveau roman was invented to do, but most of its first practitioners weren’t listening to their own inner-thought reel closely enough.”
A short story writer draws on his years with the Navy SEALs
Will Mackin, the author of the story collection Bring Out the Dog (Random House, Mar.), has spent most of his adult life in the military. After completing ROTC training at the University of Colorado, Mackin attended flight school in Pensacola, Fla.; worked at the Pentagon as a speechwriter for an admiral; and then spent six years with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, deploying in Afghanistan and Iraq, among other places, with Navy SEAL teams.
All that time, Mackin was also writing. Though he took steps to improve his craft—in 1999, he attended a fiction-writing class taught by George Saunders in St. Petersburg, Russia—he mostly kept his writing secret, especially from the people he was serving with. Writing about his experiences with the SEAL teams, he says, caused him some trepidation.
“We thought of ourselves as Fight Club,” Mackin, 49, says, referring to the film based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel. “And the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.”
When Mackin retired from the military in 2014, he began work on the stories in Bring Out the Dog, which draw on his years with the SEAL teams. He originally intended to write nonfiction—he felt obligated, he says, to “get it right”—but eventually he preferred fiction and the narrative liberties it afforded him. “For Will to do this as fiction freed him up to a certain degree,” says Andy Ward, Mackin’s editor at Random House.
The stories in Bring Out the Dog, three of which have appeared in the New Yorker, are remarkable for their vivid details. While serving, Mackin kept a journal in which he recorded “things I wanted to remember, or that were so strange I couldn’t forget.”
Esther Newberg, Mackin’s agent, says the author has had experiences “nobody else has.” And, she adds, “most people who have them can’t write about them.”
For Mackin, writing these stories has enabled him to capture those experiences, and to get some distance from them. Working with the SEAL teams required him to adopt a “fuck-you sensibility,” to be “this type-A person, which I’m not, truly,” he says. “In my personal life, in my professional life, I had to get away from that attitude. Writing the book helped me do that.”
An Ethiopian-American writer takes inspiration from her community
The title of Nafkote Tamirat’s debut novel, The Parking Lot Attendant (Holt, Mar.), will have special resonance for Ethiopian-Americans. According to Tamirat, a first-generation Ethiopian-American from Boston, everyone in the Ethiopian-American community knows someone who has worked in a parking lot. “Our parents, our grandparents, our uncles, aunts—everyone does,” Tamirat, 31, says, adding that no one seems to quite understand why. In a way, The Parking Lot Attendant is her attempt to make sense of the phenomenon.
The novel is set primarily in Boston and centers on a young unnamed woman, a first-generation Ethiopian-American, who comes under the influence of a charismatic but suspicious parking lot attendant named Ayale. Ayale represents an older generation of Ethiopians who migrated to the States in the late 20th century.
The novel is also partly speculative—the narrator tells her story from a fictive island utopia—and originally it was even more so. But Tamirat says early readers found the scenes in Boston more compelling than those on the island. “There’s a concrete element, in terms of the details, how people speak,” they’d say. She decided to devote more space to the city where she grew up.
Tamirat, who now lives in Paris, says writing the novel felt like entering into conversation with the Ethiopian stories of her childhood—narratives “from Ethiopian movies, Ethiopian plays, our family’s stories.” Though the book is written in English, she imagines its events unfolding in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. “I very much wanted it to be an Ethiopian story,” she says.
Tamirat’s agent, Julia Masnik, worked with her on the book for years and was always convinced of its strength. But its exploration of a close-knit immigrant community “feels more urgent” now, she says.
Caroline Zancan, Tamirat’s editor, says that after the 2016 election, one of her first thoughts was, “Thank God for people like Nafkote: her work is more important than ever.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York. He teaches in the undergraduate writing program at Columbia University.