Barbershops of America: Then and Now by Rob Hammer

Barbershops of America is a photographic tribute to a profession, an aesthetic and a community institution. Photographer Rob Hammer documents both “the old timers… like dinosaurs about to go extinct” and “the next generation,” in two distinct sections covering more than a thousand shops all over the United States. Images are only infrequently interrupted by quotations from barbers and their customers, so readers of this coffee-table book will revel most in the visual: elderly barbers and young, tattooed ones; beat-up barber chairs and decades of detritus; colorful signage, diverse clientele and what Hammer recognizes as the soul of these storied spaces. This collection of glossy documentary art is for lovers of culture, local color and traditions passed down across generations.


This review originally ran in the November 3, 2020 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.


Rating: 6 cool vintage chairs.

Stillicide by Cynan Jones

This minimalist meditation on climate change and human choices offers stark realism, haunting characters and lovely lyricism.

Cynan Jones (Everything I Found on the Beach; Cove) beautifully reprises his distinctive voice and poignant themes in Stillicide, a novel of climate change and human relationships. This novella-length meditation excels in its thoughtful considerations, quietly lyrical language and memorable lines and characters.

Water is rare and sought after. A water train has replaced the old pipeline to bring this commodity into cities, which are resented by the surrounding countryside. The train is armed: “Deer. Dog. Man. If it was still alive and present when the water load passed, the defence guns of the train would fire automatically.” In the opening chapter, a marksman stands by as additional security, life and death in his hands. Meanwhile, the authorities plan to replace the water train with a new and wider corridor, to drag an iceberg overland into the city. “A gash cut through the city,” this will displace many residents; protestors gather.

The subsequent chapters focus on different characters and their perspectives. A construction worker for the new iceberg path wonders if his work is for good or ill, and contemplates the work of his partner, who makes flowers from refuse to plant “in the cracks of the kerbs.” A young nurse contemplates an affair; an older nurse lies dying. A boy chases a stray dog through the streets. An elderly couple on the coast refuses to move inland even as they see the future approaching. These perspectives note where the natural world still gleams in a city increasingly dry and dusty–aphids, butterflies, the rare deer, “sparrows and pigeons, as if from nowhere.” A professor finds evidence of an endangered species in the iceberg’s path, and with it hope: “A dragonfly could stop an iceberg. For a while at least.” Many of these characters remain nameless, so that even in their specificity they stand in for a larger human experience, and the effect is that this thirsty world is a little blurred.

Stillicide is a sobering consideration of a possible near future, and a moving work of fiction. Jones is easy to appreciate also for his writing, for the poetry in “the contained clatter of the runnelled rain.” The marksman guarding the water train, where the novel both begins and ends, drives home questions about what to value and protect, and when to let go. This is a quiet masterpiece of language, imagination and grim possibility.


This review originally ran in the October 26, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 drops of water.

A Million Aunties by Alecia McKenzie

After a great loss, a man returns to his mother’s homeland of Jamaica in this stunning novel of love, loss, grief, healing, art, identity, family and home.

Jamaican author Alecia McKenzie (Sweetheart) offers her readers delightful characters and thoughtful themes in A Million Aunties.

Chris seems to be running from something when he arrives in the Jamaican village of Port Segovia from New York City. In the opening chapter, “How to Paint Flowers,” his grief is gradually revealed: a woman, Lidia, now gone; Chris’s dark paintings; the impulse now toward light, as if to make up for what is lost. His friend and agent, Stephen, has sent him to Auntie Della in Port Segovia, promising, “You’ll have anything and everything you want. The whole range of tropical beauties: hibiscus, bird of paradise, bougainvillea.” Della owns a local nursery.

Just as readers settle into Chris’s pain and paintings, McKenzie shifts the focus. Chapter two is told from the point of view of Chris’s father, aging in Brooklyn. He worries about his son and their frayed relationship. Other chapters focus on other characters: Chris’s agent, Stephen, Jamaican by birth, who lives in New York; their friend Féliciane, a French artist who works with found objects; Uncle Alton, a painter in Kingston; Miss Pretty, Port Segovia’s local eccentric, who walks all day long in a fur coat. Chris was born in the United States, to a Black man from Alabama and a Jamaican woman. His father remembers first meeting her, and noting “the arrogance and confidence of growing up as a majority. The shortsightedness of it.”

Chris and Della are the heart of this story, but the kaleidoscope of other perspectives enriches it. Chris begins to heal from the loss of Lidia and even reconsider his relationship with his father, with the help of a new auntie and a broadening view of the world. The myriad characters offer a textured background to this central story. From rural Jamaica to New York City, Paris and the Firenzes of Alabama and Italy (Chris: “Firenze was always Firenze, never Florence”), and across generations, they share common threads: art, flowers, love, loss. “Painting flowers is political action,” Chris’s best-remembered teacher used to say. Now this seems to be all he can do for Lidia, who rearranged her life to devote it to flowers.

Stephen’s relationship with Auntie Della offers perhaps the novel’s central theme of human connection, built families: “In his most morbid moments, he sometimes thought: lose a mother, gain a million aunties.” A Million Aunties is an exquisite novel about beauty and pain, and what binds us together. Through captivating character studies, quiet lovely writing and deceptively simple storytelling, McKenzie illuminates basic commonalities and rethinks what family and home mean.


This review originally ran in the October 22, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 heaped plates.

Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

This classic noir-style mystery recast with humor, female leads and superb style is both satisfying and great fun.

Willowjean Parker (who goes by Will) ran away from home at 15 to join the circus. She’s working on the side, a security job at a construction site–the kind of job women get to do now that “the men who’d usually have taken them were overseas hoping for a shot at Hitler”–when she first meets Lillian Pentecost, the famous lady detective. A few clever deductions and a little knife-throwing skill later, and she finds herself in Ms. Pentecost’s employ, apprentice to the aging lady detective. Stephen Spotswood’s first novel, Fortune Favors the Dead, sparkles with the wit and personality of this bold, unconventional heroine. Will may revere her boss, but readers know that it’s the intrepid younger woman who stars.

In Will’s delightful first-person telling, peppered with vernacular asides, the two women initially clash in a violent midnight action sequence worthy of the kind of pulp novel Will so loves. She now relates this and other stories from a distance of some years, confiding in her readers the difficulties of choosing what to include. The major case she highlights is that of the Collins family: the patriarch dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, matriarch bludgeoned with a crystal ball following a séance–in a locked room–leaving twins Randolph and Rebecca to tease and manipulate their hired detectives, Ms. Pentecost and Will. The twins’ godfather is now acting CEO of Collins Steelworks; his loyalties are unclear. And the medium and “spiritual advisor” whose crystal ball became a murder weapon is another wild card: she seems to have unusual power to intimidate Ms. Pentecost, which unnerves Will entirely.

This mystery plot has all the twists and surprises a fan of the genre could ask for, but it is Will’s distinctive, captivating voice and background–from difficult childhood to the circus to lady detective–that is Spotswood’s real triumph. Fortune Favors the Dead resets classic noir elements (smoky nightclubs, femmes fatale, unexplained midnight gunshots) in 1940s New York City as experienced by women who like women and men who like men, as Will discreetly frequents a slightly different kind of nightclub, and no one is precisely who they seem. Ms. Pentecost’s expertise and no-nonsense attitude are appealing and entertaining, but gutsy Will, with her snappy, slangy narrative style, ultimately wins readers’ hearts and carries the day.


This review originally ran in the October 2, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pockets.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Anna North

Following Monday’s review of Outlawed, here’s Anna North: Choices People Make.


Anna North is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and author of two previous novels, American Pacifica and The Life and Death of Sophie Stark. She’s served as writer and editor at Jezebel, Buzzfeed, Salon and the New York Times and is now a senior reporter at Vox. She lives in Brooklyn. North’s third novel, Outlawed, will be published by Bloomsbury on January 26, 2021.

How much research do your books require?

photo: Jenny Zhang

My first book is a dystopia, so I mostly made a lot of stuff up. For Sophie Stark, I did a fair amount of research about directing and female directors and how people put movies together. For this one, I went to Wyoming for a week, to the Willow Creek Ranch at Hole in the Wall, a working ranch on the site where the real gang lived. We drove through the valley and out to Hole in the Wall, and I took a bunch of photos. There’s a little western history museum in Casey, Wyo., [the nearest town] that had a lot of funny stuff, like little mannequins dressed up in period costumes. There’s a Fiddleback Ranch in the book, which is inspired by the Fiddleback cattle brand.

I researched the history of the real Hole in the Wall Gang, real “outlaws” (a funny and loaded term) and the history of what is now called the American West, but obviously had not been that for millennia before Europeans came there. I read up on the Arapahoe people living in Wyoming, and other Indigenous nations in the area, on Black cowboys and Black Americans in what is now the American West and on the history of the Americas in the 19th century.

A book called Lieutenant Nun informed my thinking on Outlawed. It’s a memoir by a person who lived as a man, had a lot of adventures and fights and appeared to seduce women–sort of a swashbuckling adventure story–and then, at the end, is revealed to have been assigned female at birth, and enters a convent and becomes a nun. It’s from the 15th century. I love this book. It’s a window into the forever-long history of gender. For cis-normative American culture, there’s this idea that gender has been very fixed and it’s just now becoming fluid, but that’s just not true.

Why reproduction as the central issue?

When I had the germ of this idea, I was with a friend, visiting a Shaker dwelling. Part of their religion was not having children. I was interested in writing about a separatist group that would live off in the woods together. The story morphed and changed a lot. When I focused on Ada, I thought of making her mother a midwife. I know a fair number of midwives; it was just in my mind. Early bits of the book went through a bunch of drafts as I was trying to figure out, what’s the alternative history element? What’s the focus of this society? This group is set off from society; what’s set them off? What is that group like, what are its rules, its norms? The idea of a society that’s obsessed with reproduction and that ostracizes women who are barren came late in the process. There were a bunch of planets orbiting around that needed a unifying theme: reproducing, not reproducing, different kinds of families, different kinds of groups, different kinds of isolation and togetherness. Ultimately the framework that worked for that was an alternate history. I didn’t want this to be a one-to-one stand-in for America today. I wanted to think about the choices that people make, how they are constrained, what our society might look like if things were different.

Is this a feminist narrative that found its shape as a western, or a western that became a feminist tale?

Sort of both. The story only took off for me when I realized it was a western. I was thinking about the Shakers, writing about this group of people who live together, separate in this particular way, and I had them in New Hampshire, which is where I visited the Shaker dwelling. I’ve lived in New York for 10 years now, but I’d grown up in California, and I’m just not as good at writing about the East Coast as I am at writing about the West. As soon as I thought, I’m going to put these characters with some red rocks, it felt better.

I was reading Lieutenant Nun at the time. She didn’t live in North America–she was traveling around Central America, I believe–but it’s a colonial story of this “frontier” (obviously a loaded term). I was also reading a lot of Krazy Kat, set I think in Arizona–there’s a lot of red rocks, and sheriffs. It’s also gender-bending. It plays with sexuality, and you’re not sure what gender Krazy Kat is–he switches pronouns a lot; there’s a great essay in the New Yorker about this. Same-sex attractions are talked about fairly openly. I started thinking about the West as a space of, sometimes, freedom around gender and sexuality. The western states were some of the first states to give women, mostly white women, the right to vote. This could be a space of freedom–and obviously it’s also a space of colonization and genocide and unfreedom. There were interesting interplays there. But I guess the short answer is it just only became a book when it became a western. Then things started to fall into place.

What makes a captivating protagonist?

I’ve always been interested in heroes. Traditionally, the hero is a male concept. The Odyssey, the Iliad: the heroes are male. I’m interested in recasting that as a female hero. I don’t know if Ada is exactly a hero–in some ways the Kid is more the hero of the book. It’s complicated, whether the Kid is likable or unlikable, heroic or unheroic. And maybe in a way I want the Kid to be both. Throughout my writing, I try to put someone in difficult circumstances and watch them rise to that occasion. That’s a kind of heroism, I think.

We learn and grow with Ada–she’s so curious.

I wanted to get across her inquisitiveness and desire for knowledge. I wanted to think in the book about knowledge and science as these double-edged swords. Ada puts a lot of stock in knowledge and in science, like this is what’s going to convince people to not stigmatize other people, and obviously it doesn’t always. I wanted to talk about instances where science has been used to really horrible ends. I wanted to explore that tension with her. But I sympathize with her. I also like to read books and learn things, so that was fun for me.

Is there anything new you’re working on?

The pandemic has changed what I’m interested in working on next. In some ways it’s made me crave speculative fiction more again, because I don’t know what realism or reality is going to look like day to day. If I want to work on a long-term project, it has to be one that’s not grounded in this reality, because I literally don’t know what this reality is. We’ll see–it’s going to depend on what things look like when I can get back to my desk.


This interview originally ran on September 16, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: Outlawed by Anna North

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on September 16, 2020.


Outlawed by Anna North (America Pacifica; The Life and Death of Sophie Stark) is a wild, ripping western with a firm feminist bent, set in an alternative North America.

“In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.” Some decades ago, the Great Flu decimated the national population, the United States government collapsed and, in its place, the people established Independent Towns west of the Mississippi. Ada has grown up in the Independent Town of Fairchild, where she has lived a good enough life. Her mother is a skilled midwife; Ada excels in her own training in the profession and helps care for her beloved three younger sisters. She marries at 17, as girls do when they become able to reproduce, and so begins the serious and sacred work of trying to become pregnant. But when six months pass, then more, Ada begins to worry. To be barren in Fairchild is a crime punishable by death.

At the end of a year, her husband’s family rejects her, and Ada’s mother sends her to the Sisters of the Holy Child, hoping to keep her safe. In the nunnery’s library Ada continues to read and study, seeking the truth about infertility; her mother had taught her, against popular belief, that barrenness was a medical condition and not witchcraft, but the details are not well understood. It is not a wish to have children herself, but Ada’s hunger for knowledge that drives her from Holy Child and further west, to join up with the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang. This band of outlaws is led by the Kid, “nearly seven feet tall, the sheriff said, and as strong as three ordinary men put together. His eye was so keen he could shoot a man dead from a mile away, and his heart was so cold he’d steal the wedding ring from a widow or the silver spoon from a baby’s mouth.” But like everything else Ada has been taught, these stories aren’t quite accurate. The Kid is charismatic, beloved and possibly dangerous in entirely different ways than the rumors insist, and the outlaws are not what they are thought to be. It is only in the West that it occurs to Ada that “perhaps barren wives were not hanged for witches everywhere.”

Outlawed is a delightful tale of adventure, rebellion, the importance of knowledge and the value of family–however family is made or defined. With the Hole in the Wall Gang, Ada finds unexpected freedoms and fluid gender roles, and is forced to consider what she has to offer her new friends and the world. “I don’t think I’m much of a threat,” she tells the Mother Superior when she leaves Holy Child, but her story is just beginning.

In her new life of crime, Ada learns to care for horses, to shoot and to be a member of a community she’s chosen and loves. As the gang plans and attempts robberies, North’s narrative is often lighthearted, with style, humor and a sense of fun, but her protagonist never forgets the high stakes. Ada meets men and women who are not what they seem, including an actor who’s studied male dress, movements and mannerisms because “the male roles were the most prestigious.” She becomes aware of not only gender but also race as a point of prejudice and contention in North’s version of the Wild West. She learns new skills to supplement her midwife training; she treats gunshot wounds and mental illness and comes to be called Doctor. She learns to carry herself differently. But she never stops worrying about the sisters she’s left behind in Fairchild, who are vulnerable to punishment simply for their relationship to Ada, “a barren woman, a discarded wife, an outlaw wanted for cursing women’s wombs even though I had helped coax dozens of babies into the world.” Ada does not take naturally to the business of holding up stagecoaches or robbing banks, but her devotion to her new group of friends forces her to take risks. Eventually she must choose to invest in their future, or strike out on her own again.

Part of the genius of Outlawed is that its feminist themes juxtapose neatly with the traditionally male-dominated western genre. In Ada’s first-person narration, the critical significance of reproduction and fertility seems simply a background element, central to the workings of North’s fictional world, which is in itself curious and thought-provoking. Ada’s voice is perfectly authentic and easily believable: her developing rebellion is organic, born of her love for her family and friends. She is a maverick, and the best kind of heroine: adventurous, innovative, self-doubting but brave, with intense loyalty and a magnetic, compelling curiosity.

Outlawed boasts a lively, quick-paced plot, a well-constructed alternate-historical setting and an indomitable heroine. While North clearly has something to say about gender in society and the politics of reproduction, this novel is absolutely a work of energetic literary entertainment first. For all readers in all times.


Rating: 7 drops.

Come back Friday for my interview with North.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Ominous events throw two families together and off-balance in this captivating, thought-provoking novel.

Rumaan Alam (Rich and Pretty; That Kind of Mother) thrills and unsettles with Leave the World Behind, a novel about family and other relationships, getting what’s desired and reactions in the face of crisis.

The story begins mid-road trip, a white family of four on their way from the city to their vacation rental. Amanda is an account director in advertising, Clay an English professor; Archie is 15, Rose 13. They have an apartment in Brooklyn (“really Cobble Hill”) and a mid-range sedan somewhere between luxurious and bohemian. “The life they had was perfect,” Amanda frequently reflects, and yet they are jealous of their well-appointed Airbnb, its idealized decor and the imagined lives of its owners. The four of them enjoy the house, the pool, the beach. Their vacation is perfect if a little boring, like the family. Alam’s narrative and descriptions are gorgeously detailed and impeccably paced, so that this is a story for readers to sink into, effortless and comfortable, even sumptuous. Until a knock comes at the door.

Ruth and G.H. are the owners of the vacation home, and the arrival of the older couple in the middle of the night is disturbing enough, but their story is stranger: a blackout in New York City, fear driving them out into the country, invading the family’s perfect getaway. Amanda is suspicious. Unexpectedly, Ruth and G.H. are Black. Amanda wonders if it wouldn’t make more sense for them to clean this beautiful house, rather than own it.

The almost entirely undefined external situation–the reported blackout, loss of cell and Internet services, televisions reduced to blank blue screens–forces the four adults and two teenagers together and holds them there, a delicious narrative device that leaves them simmering. The resulting tension touches on generational differences, gender dynamics, class and race–Clay and Amanda are self-conscious of their faux-benign racism, and the story serves subtly as a criticism of social norms. There is a note of the locked-room mystery and heaps of foreboding. Readers gets meticulous details of Amanda’s grocery shopping and the vacation home’s furnishings, but the extent and nature of the outside threat is delivered in mere hints. “Some people got sick, because that was their constitution. Others listened and realized how little they understood about the world.”

Leave the World Behind is pitch-perfect in atmosphere, easy to read and deceptive in the high polish of its setting. Alam has crafted a deeply bewitching and disquieting masterpiece.


This review originally ran in the September 4, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 green porcelain lamps.

Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays by Robert Michael Pyle

Collected essays arguing for nature as a unified matrix serve as an excellent introduction to the work of this veteran writer, or a continuing pleasure for readers in the know.

After decades of writing and naturalist study, Robert Michael Pyle (Wintergreen; Where Bigfoot Walks) thoughtfully collects essays on a theme in Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays. He conceives of a single, interconnected whole, not a binary of natural and non-natural worlds, but an organism of which humans are an inextricable (if often unaware) part. He explores the “extinction of experience” that threatens our future, defines his religion as “Alltheism” (with nods to Darwin, Muir and Kurt Cobain) and envisions wilderness as a continuum, with some version of the wild existing in every vacant lot and on every street corner. The introduction, “Pyrex, Postcards, and Panzers,” makes the point nicely: it took both pretty pictures and tanks to teach the author about the interrelatedness of the natural world–which is to say, simply, the world.

With 24 books to his credit and having studied, written, lived and taught all over the world, Pyle has a broad and rich body of work to draw on for this collection, first conceived of (by this title) in the late 1960s. Nature Matrix as published in 2020 may contain different essays than 1970’s would have, but the principle remains faithful. These 15 essays (ranging back to 1969, five of them previously unpublished) cover classic Pyle territory: butterflies, conservation, quiet appreciation of the outdoors.

Also included are a profile of John Jacob Astor I and arguments for reading hardcopy books rather than screens and for Bright Lights, Big City as an “elegant ethology of one species of upright hominoid ape under the influence of one species of plant in the contemporary canyonlands.” Nabokov is a recurring character (for his literary and visual arts and his lepidoptery), alongside “the High Line Canal, an irrigation ditch coursing the altitudinal contours across the landscapes of Greater Denver, carrying Platte River water from its mouth at the edge of the Rockies out onto the plains near the present Denver International Airport,” where the author as a child first learned to observe and love the details of the natural world.

Pyle’s voice varies from cantankerous to droll, awe-filled to academic; his characters and fascinations are equally wide-ranging. After all this, “In some ways am I right back where I started: fascinated by a stump on the corner.” It is the persistent note of wonder as much as his impressive depth of knowledge and passion that makes Nature Matrix a remarkable addition to Pyle’s life’s work.


This review originally ran in the August 27, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 twitchers.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, illustrated by Fumi Nakamura

World of Wonders is a lovely, thoughtful series of meditations, charmingly illustrated, with love and awe on every page but never shying away from the prickliness of life.

Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Oceanic) stuns with her nonfiction debut, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, delightfully illustrated by Fumi Nakamura. These essays explore the natural world and the human experience, finding parallels, meaning and beauty in the intersections.

“A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun,” Nezhukumatathil begins. This is an apt and representative line: place-specific, beautifully phrased, with reference to some of the identities these essays will explore. They are mostly titled for the plants and creatures they center–peacock, comb jelly, narwhal, dancing frog–with a few exceptions, such as the expressively named “Questions While Searching for Birds with My Half-White Sons, Aged Six and Nine, National Audubon Bird Count Day in Oxford, MS.” The red-spotted newt and dragon fruit that title their respective essays receive Nezhukumatathil’s attentive study and yes, wonder, but the author’s own experience is always a second thread. She brings a poet’s ear for language and an eye for commonality and metaphor, both reverent of the natural world and specific in her personal story.

Fireflies, touch-me-nots and flamingoes offer her a way to talk about being a brown girl in a white man’s world, growing up in the era of Stranger Danger and feeling disjointed between continents. A young Aimee is asked to draw an animal for a class assignment in Phoenix, Ariz. She responds with a resplendent peacock, India’s national bird, but is chastised and asked for an American bird. Her bald eagle wins a prize but causes her shame. Fumi Nakamura’s accompanying illustrations are whimsical and warm–who doesn’t love an axolotl’s smile?–and sweetly complement Nezhukumatathil’s prose.

World of Wonders offers a series of brief naturalist lessons, but is perhaps at its best in drawing connections, as between the axolotl’s smile and what to do “if a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup.” When it goes boom, “the cassowary is still trying to tell us something.” “And just like the potoo, who is rewarded for her stillness by having her lunch practically fly right to her mouth–perhaps you could try a little tranquility, find a little tenderness in your quiet. Who knows what feathered gifts await?” Wisdom, wonder and beauty make this slim collection one to treasure.


This review originally ran in the August 11, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 pale berries growing in spite of the dark.

author interview: Isabel Wilkerson

Following my review of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, here’s Isabel Wilkerson: A Portal to Understanding.


Isabel Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1994 for her work as Chicago bureau chief for the New York Times, and was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2016. Her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, among many other awards. She has taught at Princeton, Emory and Boston Universities and has lectured widely. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents was published by Random House on August 11.

You very naturally and quickly inserted material related to the pandemic in this book. How do you handle that kind of lightness on your toes?

photo: Joe Henson

This book is so far-ranging: three continents, three cultures, the manifestations of the artificial hierarchies that caused so much tragedy in all three. The breadth and the scope of the research was just overwhelming. To build this story meant going into so many different aspects of life, to show how it affects all of us to one degree or another as we find ourselves entrapped in a caste system that we did not ask to be in. I was constantly adding, down to the wire. And then Covid-19 became an ever-present reality in the lives of Americans, and I had to figure out where it could go. It’s been an extraordinary experience, just from a publishing standpoint, to have everyone working on this book spread out all over, trying to put together something this complicated, in addition to all the other projects that anyone who was working on this book was doing. It’s a miracle. That it could come together at all is a testament to what can happen when people are dedicated and committed.

What’s interesting is that it was already in there, because the book opens with a pathogen, and that was just a prescient–almost a premonition. There’s something about how the mind works and intuition acts. A thesis of the book is that caste is so ever-present, an invisible powerful force in society and in all of our lives, that anything that happens somehow has a connection to caste.

This book involves such rich use of metaphor, in a serious piece of heavily researched nonfiction.

I think in metaphor. I’m primarily a narrative writer; narrative nonfiction is where I’m happiest, is the natural expression of my ideas. I find that I’m most at home in telling a story, and a metaphor is a story. It’s making that connection, it’s a way of reaching a reader through the most natural means that I know. I don’t know of any other way.

American caste is both a novel concept and an instantly recognizable one. How does this book tread new ground?

The Warmth of Other Suns is the story of six million African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South for the north and west over the course of much of the 20th century. Some would describe that as the story of a response to what many people would call racism. However, that word does not appear in Warmth, not in the text. It might be in the title of an article that I refer to–that book has 100 pages of notes–but that’s not a term I use, because I don’t think that it’s sufficient to describe the phenomenon that undergirds interactions and structures of power in the United States. That doesn’t mean racism does not exist, but I did not feel that it was the most applicable or accurate way to describe what people were fleeing, or what they met in the places that they fled to.

This book is a continuation of the perspective I took with Warmth. I think that using the word caste requires us as Americans to think differently. It automatically expands our sense of what we think we know. It’s an uncommon word to apply to ourselves, so it gets you thinking in a way that words we’re accustomed to using can blur. Because it’s not a word that we’re accustomed to using, it’s not judgmental, doesn’t feel as if it’s an accusation, doesn’t automatically incite shame or blame or guilt. Not only is it accurate, but it is a portal to understanding. That’s how I connect with the word as a writer.

Historically speaking, caste has on occasion been applied to the United States. Charles Sumner had used the word; Martin Luther King had used the word. Where people have looked deeply at the structures that we have inherited throughout American history, they have often come back to this word. But there’s been nothing that dives deeply into what that actually means. This was an attempt to do that, and to go to the original caste system that would come to mind most readily, which would be India, and that of the short-lived, terrifying Third Reich, and the interconnectedness of those two and that of our own country.

Then there are the pillars, which I came to as a result of going deeply into the topic: what had been written before; the Laws of Manu, which is the code for the Indian caste system; the Nuremburg Laws; and, of course, the aspect of all this that I knew best, the Jim Crow laws in our own country. I researched them ever more deeply in order to emerge with what I have described as the eight pillars of caste.

I read scores of books from multiple cultures. I collated and pulled together the histories and the ways of enforcing these caste systems into a more easily digestible rendering in one place.

At what point did you see the book take shape?

This has been simmering within me for a long time. Warmth was a precursor. It’s about the Great Migration, but it’s really about freedom and how far people are willing to go to achieve it, and the caste system that they were forced to flee. That’s one reason why Warmth has remained so constant a presence in all the ups and downs we’ve seen since it came out. There’s still been a hunger for it that defies the presumed topics, because the topic is so much bigger than the Migration itself.

I heard a side note on the news about anthrax emerging from the permafrost in Siberia in July of 2016. I didn’t know what I might do, but I knew it was something. That was the beginning of this book. Who knew that by the time I would complete it, we would be in a global pandemic that would shut down humanity in its tracks. I didn’t know at that moment I would write a book about caste, but that was the beginning of an understanding that this was big. The planet was in peril, humanity was in peril, and this was a seemingly small example that didn’t get a lot of attention at the time, but it spoke to me strongly. Every passing month, every passing year after that, it became more urgent. It was a progression toward this book.

First the pandemic, and then the responses to George Floyd’s murder, mark this book’s entry to the world. It feels very timely, but also timeless.

Whenever I write, I seek to be timeless, and focus on the history. We keep seeing the repeat of the history that we’re not paying attention to or don’t know well enough. These events are shocking, but not surprising if you know the country’s history. I go back to one of the many metaphors in the book, the old house: I’m essentially coming in as the inspector of the building and saying, these are the weak points that need attention. If you know your house, then you know what is wrong with it and you will seek to fix those things. If you don’t know, you can’t fix them. If you have no interest in knowing, you absolutely are not going to be able to fix those things.

Without transcending the artificial boundaries between us, without seeing the humanity in one another, we will continue to hurt each other. What we’ve seen recently has been brewing and simmering for 400 years. It rises and it falls, accelerates and slows, but it always comes back, because we’re not dealing with the essential structures that have created the system we live in. Until those systems are addressed, it will continue.


This review originally ran in the August 4, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

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