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An ‘unguarded’ conversation

Notes from the October Literati meeting

The backdrop of COVID-19 brought a different perspective to our discussion about all things wordy on the theme of vulnerability. We delved into this broad topic from many angles—from sex and relationships to the survival of an entire species and the unprotectedness of immigrants, even touching on the far-too-relevant topic of ‘sheltering the vulnerable’—and came up with a great list of things to read and watch. 

There are strong characters who have very human vulnerabilities, behind-the-curtain observations about domestic life and inner thoughts, larger questions of flight or fight, and a few topical recommendations.

Coupled with strength

The flip side of vulnerability is strength; these works showcase characters that embody both sides of that coin.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
The debut novel from an author with a PhD in biology, this vivid book follows the struggle for survival of a girl abandoned as a pre-teen. Owens sticks with Kya from childhood through to death, all while painting an expressive portrait of the marshes and swamps of North Carolina. 

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
With a heroine who’s strong and determined, but also vulnerable in so many ways, this literary classic stands out as a case study in how subverting societal conventions leaves people—particularly women—dangerously exposed.

The Power by Naomi Alderman
Turning modern-day assumptions about the relative place of men and women on their head, Alderman flips the dynamic and gives women more physical power. The book also raises questions about whether women in the real world suppress their intellectual and emotional power in order to fit with the more accepted, more vulnerable version of being female.

Domestic life

There’s perhaps nowhere we let down our guard more than at home, so naturally there are a lot of books and other wordy-things that deal with our families and friends. 

Gilmore Girls created by Amy Sherman-Palladino; staring Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel
An agreed-upon comfort-watch for autumn, this TV show is a wonderful vehicle for tapping into our own vulnerability. Watching Rory and Lorelai navigate their own dramas might grant us permission to examine and share our own.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
With uncompromsing honesty, Taddeo documents in detail the love and sex lives of three American women. Her journalistic approach reveals the extreme vulnerability of female desire and the grimness of gender inequality. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Following four friends in New York City for decades starting in adolescene, this hefty novel depicts heavy issues like self-harm and sexual abuse—make sure you’re in a strong mental state before picking it up! Yanagihara deftly shows how past traumas hinder real human connections and prevent people from feeling safe. 

Big Friendship : How we Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Couched in the story of their own friendship, the hosts of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast discuss the often overlooked and under-valued world of platonic relationships.

A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum
The narrative is unfortunately common: economic desperation fuels Isra’s arranged marriage and de facto domestic servitude. But while it may be a sadly familiar story, Rum’s exceptional writing makes this multi-perspective novel a satisfying read.

Want : a novel by Lynn Steger Strong
This personal novel invites readers to witness the emotional and economic fragility of a main character on the brink of having her professional and personal lives fall apart.

‘Note to Self’ by Ximena Escobar de Nogales
Read aloud by the author herself, this poem reflects the extreme vulnerabilities of our cognitive functions and the sweeping damage of dementia. 

Exodus and exposure

Everyday survival is not guaranteed in an increasingly stressed global ecosystem, particularly when we migrate into new locales. Picking up that thread, the resources below explore the lack of power and protection in unfamiliar locales and in the natural environment.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
An arguably intensely unlikeable main character exposes the heightened risk, physiological anguish, and uncertainty of being a foreigner in Essbaum’s novel about an American transplanted to the suburbs of Zürich.

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
This non-fiction read spotlights undocumented immigrants in the US and their real, imperfect lives. Villavicencio injects some of her own memoirs into this decidedly non-glossy look at the reality of living in the US without the necessary paperwork. 

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
Set in a future that feels very near to the present, this story of animals and the planet exposes the much larger lack of protection brought about by climate change. There’s a sense of existential loneliness, but also an echo of hope.

The Next Great Migration : the Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move by Sonia Shah
A conceptually ambitious look at migration, particularly in relation to climate change, Shah incorporates politics, sociology, and other disciplines to challenge long-held assumptions about life on the move.

All too relevant

The great believers by Rebecca Makkai
In a novel that chronicles the AIDS epidemic from the 1980s through to the present, Makkai looks at the human, cultural, and emotional impact of the virus in a way that’s eminently relatable during the current pandemic. 

And the band played on : politics, people, and the AIDS epidemic by Randy Shilts
A journalistic examination of the spread of AIDS and, in particular, the government indifference that allowed a pandemic to spread nearly unchecked.

Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Positing that the opposite of fragility is not robustness but antifragility, Taleb suggests that aiming for antifragility is the way to create a more adaptable, stronger society. 

Orange is the New Black created by Jenji Kohan; based on Orange is the New Black : my Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman
This much-lauded TV show exposes how threatened incarcerated women are in prison and after their release. In response to the ongoing problems with imprisonment in the USA, producers and cast members created the Poussey Washington Fund to support eight non-profits helping those affected by mass incarceration. None of us have read the book that inspired the show, but it’s been added to a few of our reading lists, so perhaps it will pop up in a future discussion of The Literati.

Coming up next

On the topic of future meetings, the next gathering of The Literati is Wednesday, December 2. The theme is ‘Balance’ and you can sign up on the event page. With in-person gatherings looking less and less feasible, we’ll likely be meeting via Zoom again—even better to share the love of all things wordy wherever you are!


Image modified from a photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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