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Pickle Me This

May 4, 2008

Unmistakably hers

In the Paris Review Interviews, II, from Toni Morrison: “There is no black woman popular singer, jazz singer, blues singer who sounds like any other. Billie Holiday does not sound like Aretha, doesn’t sound like Nina, doesn’t sound like Sarah, doesn’t sound like any of them. They are really powerfully different. And they will tell you that they couldn’t possibly have made it as singers if they sounded like somebody else. If someone comes along sounding like Ella Fitzgerald, they will say, Oh we have one of those… It’s interesting to me how those women have this very distinct, unmistakable image. I would like to write like that. I would like to write novels that were unmistakably mine, but nevertheless fit into African-American traditions and second of all, this whole thing called literature.”

Defining what to me are “the two kinds of books in the world”. How extraordinary it is as a reader to come across those “unmistakable” books. To be turning the pages and think, I’ve not read anything quite like this in my entire life. And how vastly different that is from “Oh we have one of those…” These derivative works have their own place of course, they are made to be read, but more easily forgotten.

There is a certain energy you get whilst reading something entirely new. A frisson of infinite possibility, of personal discovery. I felt that way as I read Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife. Here was something I could not explain away by anything I’d read before. This feeling only intensified as I went back and read her previous novels, and gained an understanding of that voice that was “unmistakably hers.”

It’s happened before– the first time I read Grace Paley or Laurie Colwin are two examples I can think of. Immediately afterwards, entire back catalogues have to be explored. And these explorations become journeys into whole worlds we’ve only glimpsed yet. My own literary universe expanding again.

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