‘Mostly Dead Things,’ a Novel About
Taxidermy and the Human Heart
The author Kristen Arnett makes frequent and witty use of Twitter. In a recent tweet meant to encourage people to pre-order her first novel, “Mostly Dead Things” (Tin House, June 4), she called the book her “gay Florida taxidermy baby.”
The novel is narrated by Jessa-Lynn Morton, a Floridian fighting to keep her family’s taxidermy business afloat after the suicide of her father.
Arnett’s first book, “Felt in the Jaw,” was a collection of short stories, and her novel has its origins in a story idea. “I had never thought of taxidermy as being funny, but looking at a lot of bad taxidermy was hilarious to me,” she said. “What if a brother and sister tried to taxidermy a goat for a friend? How hilarious would it be to have the goat just be totally ridiculous-looking?”
That story stalled out, but Arnett said she had a hard time moving past the general idea, eventually creating new characters and embarking on the novel.
Arnett has spent her career working in libraries, a vocation she has written about with great affection. Her enthusiasm for research came in handy while writing “Mostly Dead Things,” during which she watched “a million” YouTube videos about the craft at the story’s center. “All my browser windows other than Twitter were just really weird taxidermy websites,” she said. “People probably thought I was a serial killer.”
The graphic nature of the fact-finding was a joy for Arnett, who described her fondness for things that are “very gross and visceral and tactile and about the body.”
But the book is not all stitched-up pelts. Arnett is interested in writing about “how queerness functions inside a household,” and Jessa-Lynn’s efforts to understand her family, and her own emotional and sexual life, are the novel’s primary concerns — and they work in concert with the family business.
“I was thinking a lot about how we try to preserve memories, and about specific nostalgia — wanting things to remain pristine,” Arnett said. “What is taxidermy other than that? Much of the time, a taxidermied animal is an animal someone hunted and killed, and the way they decide to pose them is a memory they’re creating. I think we do that with other people — family, romantic partners. We reconstruct.”
— John Williams
‘A Particular Kind of Black Man’
Explores How We Construct Our Identities
When Tope Folarin, who was born in Utah to Nigerian parents, won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2013, there was some controversy over whether he qualified as an African writer.
It was a familiar quandary. His debut novel, “A Particular Kind of Black Man” (Simon & Schuster, Aug. 6), explores questions about belonging that he says have long been part of his life.
The novel tells the story of Tunde Akinola, a Nigerian-American growing up in Utah, though he doesn’t stay there. Over the course of the novel, he moves from place to place, including Texas, Morehouse College in Atlanta and eventually Lagos, searching for connection and a sense of himself.
“The book contains a number of realities,” Folarin said. “It’s a coming-of-age book. I think it’s also, in its own way, an immigrant story. But in the end it’s a book that’s obsessed with identity and identity construction — how we come to be as human beings.”
Tunde’s life at times mirrors Folarin’s — part of the author’s childhood was spent in Texas, he studied at Morehouse and, aside from an early-childhood visit to Nigeria that he doesn’t remember, he didn’t see the country with his own eyes until he won the Caine Prize. But the book contains both “explicitly autobiographical” and wholly fictional material, he said, an advantage of the novel form, which, as he puts it, is “capacious enough to hold the real and unreal.”
Folarin is a Rhodes Scholar who earned master’s degrees in comparative social policy and African studies. After Oxford, he worked in public policy and communications at Google’s London office before deciding to “give myself a shot as a writer.” He now lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a vice president at the nonprofit organization Local Initiatives Support Corporation and board chairman of the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank. He is already at work on a second novel.
Ultimately, Folarin said, Tunde’s struggle is about deciding who he wants to be — a successful black man who doesn’t threaten the status quo, or someone else? — and the structure of the book, with a conventional memoir-like beginning that shifts a few chapters in, parallels the protagonist’s journey. “I think in a weird way,” Folarin said, “the novel becomes aware of itself in the way I became aware of myself.”
— Andrew LaVallee
‘Searching for Sylvie Lee,’ a Novel
Inspired by a Real-Life Disappearance
In 2009, one of Jean Kwok’s brothers disappeared. A few days before Thanksgiving, her parents called her in the Netherlands, where she lives with her husband, to tell her they hadn’t heard from him in days. When he didn’t show up for the holiday, they feared the worst. “He would never, ever do that without telling us unless something had really gone wrong,” Kwok said.
She jumped into investigation mode, talking to her brother’s friends and breaking into his email to look for clues. She learned he had bought a plane and taken off from Texas en route to West Virginia, where her parents now live, but had never landed. Eventually a search-and-rescue team found his body along with the plane’s wreckage in the woods of West Virginia.
That experience provides the emotional backbone of her new book, “Searching for Sylvie Lee” (William Morrow, June 4). In the novel, Sylvie, the oldest child in a family of Chinese immigrants, goes missing. Sylvie is the family’s golden child; her younger sister, Amy, has always lived in her shadow. When Sylvie vanishes, Amy must help find her.
“It’s very much a story about immigration and culture, and not truly knowing the people we love the most, and not being able to know them,” Kwok said.
In many immigrant families, Kwok said, “the newer, younger generations don’t actually speak the same language as the parents, and so you end up with this tragic situation, where within the family you can’t fully communicate with each other.” To illustrate this point, she alternates between the two sisters and their mother’s perspectives, showing how their inner lives are obscured to one another by the language barriers that separate them. Amy’s dominant language is English; for Sylvie, it’s Dutch (she was partly raised in the Netherlands by her grandparents); and for their mother, Ma, it’s Chinese. Amy views Ma, at times, as a beloved but meek woman, but Ma’s inner dialogue presents a completely different person, one who is “rich, thoughtful, full, intelligent,” Kwok said.
Most of Kwok’s family — she is the youngest of seven — emigrated to the United States when she was 5 years old. They lived in a roach-infested apartment in Brooklyn, and Kwok worked at a clothing factory from a young age, along with the rest of her family members. Her life changed when she was accepted to a prestigious New York City high school, and she later went on to study at Harvard and Columbia. Kwok credits her deceased brother with helping her break out of the family’s cycle of poverty. Once, after a long day of school and work, he came home with a gift. It was a diary, and he told her, “Whatever you write in this will belong to you,” she said. It inspired her to start writing.
Despite her success, the educational spaces she reached did not always feel like home. “I do feel like, as an immigrant, you have to divide yourself into pieces,” she said. “Each world can only see a certain part of you.”
Her book explores the mirage of the American Dream. Sylvie seems to have made it in every sense of the word, but Kwok’s story asks: What is the price of realizing this dream? And who must pay it?
— Concepción de León
‘In West Mills’ Brings a Troubled
Woman Back to Vivid Life
De’Shawn Charles Winslow grew up in Elizabeth City, N.C., a small town that he left soon after graduating from high school. He only “started to think about home a little more,” he said, in 2008, as he approached 30. That’s also when he began writing, inspired by the “pretty unexpected” death of his father.
Realizing he didn’t know much about the man, Winslow began studying the family’s history in order to write a work of nonfiction, but that study didn’t lead far. “There was no way for me to get the answers I needed, so fiction was the only way to go,” he said.
Frustrated by the lack of discovery about his father’s life, Winslow turned his imaginative attention toward a woman he had known briefly when he was a child — his great-uncle’s girlfriend, whose nickname was Knot. She was an alcoholic, and died when Winslow was 10.
“My mother left me with her for a couple of hours, probably when I was 8,” Winslow said. “Most people wouldn’t have left their child with Knot. But my mom knew her and trusted her. I’ll never forget that day. I remember her doting on me a bit. That’s probably what fascinated me — this other side of her that wasn’t about alcohol but about fixing me a sandwich.”
Winslow, who now lives in East Harlem, attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he worked on what has become his debut novel, “In West Mills” (Bloomsbury, June 4). In the book, which spans the 1940s to the 1980s, a woman in North Carolina named Azalea “Knot” Centre battles alcoholism, various estrangements and her fraught romantic relationships with men. One platonic friend, a married man named Otis Lee Loving, stands by her throughout her hard times.
Winslow didn’t do much research to recreate the book’s mid-century atmosphere, relying instead on his recollection of spending time with people like his grandmother. “I grew up in the households of 75-year-old women,” he said. “The dialect in the book comes from my memory of how they spoke.”
Given his brief and early exposure to the real Knot, Winslow said the character in the novel quickly bloomed into someone else entirely. “The Knot in the book is a person I don’t know,” he said. But he wanted to do right by her. “I set out to show that a person with a big problem can also be much wiser than those of us that have less noticeable problems.”
— John Williams
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