Jezebels, Jazz and Rijsttafel – The New York Times

Dear readers,

I never witnessed my grandmothers interact — I don’t think they were ever in the same time zone together, or even the same continent — but they managed to present a united front about some essential principles. Hardly anyone was entitled to privacy, and very few stories could get by without a little embellishment. On a slow day, the wrong glance was enough grist for a yearslong scandal. Tell the village.

This could be a lot to take as a kid, trying to stay in the narrow lane of behavior acceptable to both a ferociously competitive woman from rural Ohio and a Beiruti who solved crossword puzzles in artisanal caftans. So it was always a relief when other people were the subject of their scrutiny. And I had to admit: Other people’s problems made for fantastic entertainment, even if I didn’t quite know what “jezebel” meant (in any language).

I still have a soft spot for hearsay, shocks to the community, ill-fated marriages and the like, and unsurprisingly there’s no shortage of them on my bookshelves. Here are two novels that dole out generous helpings, in settings as wildly different as the ones that separated my grandmothers.

Joumana Khatib

Fiction, 2002 (translation 2015)

Watching someone get precisely what she wants rarely makes for great fiction. But how often do you encounter a figure like Dewi Ayu, the most beautiful prostitute in the fictional Indonesian city of Halimunda, who could raise herself from the dead after 21 years?

Her return to life is (literally) explosive, sending headstones flying and sheep bleating into the hills. But she herself is fairly calm, unknotting her burial shroud and trotting home to check in on her youngest daughter, to whom she gave birth shortly before her death.

While pregnant with that child, Dewi Ayu prays the baby will be unthinkably ugly; her three older daughters, all beauties, fled home “as soon as they learned how to unbutton a man’s fly.” She got her wish: The child was born monstrous, with ears like pot handles, a nose like an electrical outlet and an overall mien so frightening that hardly anyone dares to stop by the house.

Seeing that child — named Beauty — grown and hideous, Dewi Ayu couldn’t be prouder.

Dewi Ayu’s personal history maps neatly on the story of Indonesia, from the time of Dutch colonization through World War II and its independence. There are fantastical elements throughout — giving birth to a child whose body looks charred is hardly the beginning — along with lots of evocative writing about bodily functions and excreta. And it’s quite funny. A soldier in a brothel, told to “feel free to make love here as if you were in your very own home,” responds: “That’s ridiculous. All I’ve got at home is my mom and my old granny.”

Read if you like: mouthy elders, postcolonial theory, George Saunders
Available from: New Directions

Fiction, 1995

West, a writer and editor, was known as “the Kid” of the Harlem Renaissance writers — or, as she put it, “the last leaf on the tree.”

Born into an upper-middle-class Black family in Boston, she arrived on the 1920s Harlem cultural scene after taking second place in a story competition. (She tied with Zora Neale Hurston; the pair would later share an apartment.)

By the 1940s, though, she was living on Martha’s Vineyard year-round, and pulled from her own experience in her fiction. Her debut novel, “The Living Is Easy,” satirizes the Massachusetts Black elite, as an outsider tries to secure her future there. Forty-seven years later, West published her only other novel, “The Wedding,” a best seller dedicated, however improbably, to the memory of her editor, Jackie Onassis. It follows a Black community on the vineyard in the 1950s, as one of its most beautiful and promising young women, Shelby, prepares for her marriage.

It should be a happy occasion — Shelby had her pick of well-to-do professionals from acceptable backgrounds. The trouble is, Shelby’s fiancé is a jazz musician. And he’s white.

The one family member pleased by this arrangement is Gram, who hopes that Shelby’s marriage to a white man will restore her to her own heritage. And none of this is to mention that another outsider, a wealthy Black furniture maker named Lute, also trains his sights on Shelby.

For all the story’s questions about the interplay of race and class, and how family duty can sucker-punch individual desires, West’s position is unambiguous: “Color was a false distinction,” she writes. “Love was not.”

Read if you like: gossip, martini-sealed promises, complicated family trees
Available from: Anchor

  • Dip into Clarice Lispector’s crônicas, impressionistic, personal columns she published in Jornal do Brasil that earned her a fervent readership — including one fan who reportedly showed up at Lispector’s home with an octopus to cook for dinner?

  • Solve Sicilian crimes with a rule-bending, power-loathing detective (who also has a taste for octopus)?

  • Ride shotgun as Dalia Sofer’s protagonist reflects on his slip from revolutionary idealist in Iran to government technocrat, and totes around his father’s ashes in an empty box of mints?

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