Recommended Reads on Reconciling Past and Present, by Padma Viswanathan

Recommended Reads on Reconciling Past and Present

By Padma Viswanathan

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I’m working on a nonfiction book, provisionally titled Alias Delia George, about a dear friend’s stepmother, a woman who robbed banks in British Columbia in the 1950s. My friend, Collin, told me her story 20 years ago, but when I started the research, I learned it was much more complicated than his relatively romantic and sunny version. I unearthed information he didn’t know about his own past, and when this information disrupted our friendship, I realized the book’s scope needed to be wider, to include not only his stepmother and her bank-robbing collaborators, but also a feminist journalist who championed her cause, Collin’s radical leftist father, Collin and me. 

Alias Delia George is about reconciling past and present, and about the ways this process is rarely satisfying. I think this description also applies to the story “N-Place Exiting,” which I chose for’s 8th Annual Contest in Fiction. The form of the book will be experimental, in ways inspired by these recommended reads:


Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
This graphic memoir has become deservedly popular, particularly since being made into a Broadway musical. (It is a good adaptation, taking liberties, as it should, with the text and characters for the greater sake of theatricality, but I was so attached to the book, whose text and characters are so exact, nuanced, and fully realized, that the changes simply left me feeling indignant.) It is the probing and various tale of Bechdel’s childhood with her closeted father in rural Pennsylvania, and of his mysterious death. Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and undertaker, and the book is enhanced and deepened by close readings of various literary works that he loved.


The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
This reflection on sexuality, identity, and parenthood achieves a singular critical intimacy. A memoir in fragments, Nelson interweaves Wittgenstein, Deleuze, and Barthes in a quest to understand her evolving relationship to her partner, her baby, herself. Funny and deeply moving, often in ways that are difficult to parse.


Dancing With Cuba by Alma Guillermoprieto
When she was 19, the now-established Mexican journalist was an aspiring dancer. It was 1970 and she was recruited to teach ballet in the Cuban National School of Dance. Guillermoprieto writes searchingly about youth and purpose and politics, turning her gaze equally on her perceived inadequacies and small triumphs as well as on this moment in Cuban history.


In Fond Remembrance of Me: A Memoir of Myth and Uncommon Friendship in the Arctic by Howard Norman
In 1977, this American novelist, then living in Canada, was sent to Churchill, Manitoba, to record and translate an Inuit elder’s tellings of creation stories. Norman befriended Helen Tanizaki, a Japanese-British woman rendering the same stories into Japanese while also dying of cancer. A hilarious and highly literary book that includes Norman’s translations of the tales.


The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar
Matar’s father was disappeared in Ghadaffi’s Libya when the author was 19 and at university in England. This is the story of the Matar’s 25-year search for him, which eventually takes him back to Libya for the first time since he left. The vanishing hovers at the edges of Matar’s previous books, both novels but, in The Return, it finds formal expression with unparalleled emotional force.  



Padma ViswanathanPadma Viswanathan is the author of two novels — The Toss of a Lemon and The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, published in eight countries and shortlisted for major prizes — and short stories published in such journals as Granta and The Boston Review. She has also written plays, personal essays, cultural journalism, and reviews. Her translation of the Graciliano Ramos novel S. Bernardo is forthcoming from New York Review Books. She teaches at the University of Arkansas, where she lives with the poet and translator Geoffrey Brock, together with kids, parents, and an array of animals. 

Header photo by geralt, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Padma Viswanathan by Joy Von Tiedemann. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.