Hi all! Today’s post is gonna be a little different. Last night I went to see Nova Ren Suma and Courtney Summers because I adore their words, but I also was using the event for one of my response papers for a class I’m taking this semester called Feminism and American Poetry. Like the nerd I am, I’m ridiculously proud of what I wrote, so I thought I’d share for anyone that missed the event and wishes they could have attended.
Suma and Summers Talk Their “Beautiful and Brutal” Novels at McNally Jackson
New York Times Bestseller author Nova Ren Suma and ALA Award Winning author Courtney Summers were at the independent bookstore McNally Jackson last night, October 25, 2016, to promote the paperback releases of their latest novels, “The Walls Around Us” and “All the Rage,” respectively.
Events at McNally begin the same way. You step into the store, the roar of the city behind you instantly fading, sneak a peek at the crowded café and long for a warm cup of tea, marvel at the tables of books and resist the urge to touch each of them, and then you make your way downstairs. You meet strangers, readers, and bloggers, and editors all mingling. Eventually, the booksellers will appear to transform half of the lower floor into an event space. It’s a magic trick. Bookshelves disappear, hundreds of books vanishing with them.
Listening to Suma and Summers is no less magical. One would think these two talented women have known each other for years, as just a glance at Summers’ second book “This is Not a Test” yields a powerful blurb from Suma calling the at-the-time fledgling author a “ferocious talent.” However, there is a twist in the story. Suma and Summers had only just—finally—met in person the day before the event. Their relationship began online. They connected through Suma’s blog, on a post she had written about rejection. Summers could relate. She left a comment, and their friendship followed from there. Suma read pieces of the original post, laughing and grimacing at the purple prose and overdramatic “the rainbows have turned grey” sentiment of what rejection makes one feel.
They have been online friends and critique partners for ten years, a support system for each other. When asked what the best piece of advice one has given the other, Summers said simply that when Suma tells her she “can do it,” she can keep going, Summers believes her. I’ve seen female authors do events together before, but it is always different when the authors have worked together, and battled the hardest parts of writing—the doubt, the anxiety, the frustration—together. There is a special bond there. When recounting their meeting at the hotel the other night, Summers and Suma were both laughing, describing Summers’ elevator opening as Suma walked into the lobby, like a romance from a movie.
The women also talked about writing “beautiful and brutal” books about teen girls. Summers, while wearing a shirt that said Unlikeable Female Character, spoke about the large number of female characters in literature that have been written by men. They are portrayed as “objects,” as “mystical” perfect girls. Summers’ said she feels women read this work and have a disconnect to it, can’t recognize themselves in it. The crowd laughed in agreement, as if all remembering a moment they read a woman in literature written by a man who was more a goddess than a human. Summers ended with the notion female characters are different when women write women. Suma agreed, talking about teen girl culture, which she said is beautiful and brutal, to recall the earlier words of the moderator, and that “the teenage girl is so feared, powerful, and misunderstood.”
Suma also raised an interesting point when asked what her favorite scenes to write were. She said, without pause, she liked the violent scenes. “The Walls Around Us” certainly is a violent book, set in a juvenile delinquent center for teenage girls, with ghosts and murderous ballerinas. She self-deprecatingly said she does not know what that enjoyment of violent scenes means about her. But I think it raises the point Summers made earlier about men co-opting women’s stories and female characters. In the same way, men have controlled the rhetoric around violence in literature, and many times, women are victims of usually sexual violence. Men tend to be heroes, punching people in the face, handling a gun deftly, and skilled with knives while they save the girl. Or, they are the perpetrators and get to unleash every urge and desire they have. Women, when they do have the luxury of being a hero, tend to be sexualized, or she is the single one in a group of men. So there is something revolutionary of women writing violence, of taking control of the narrative around blood and letting teenage girls be more than victims, but terrifying.
While “The Walls Around Us” is an exploration of girls and violence, Summers’ “All the Rage” is about rape culture, sexual violence, and trauma. Summers was not able to talk much about rape culture, but she did say briefly that it was hard to write a book about these topics and look around at the world around her and see it mirrored so closely.
Feminist poet Anne Sexton also got a shout-out by Suma, when asked what books she loved as a teen. Suma said she loved “The Handmaid’s Tale,” as well, and those two writers tell you all you need to know about what Suma was like as a teen.
To close the evening, Summers said about writing, “It almost feels like magic.” It does, just like a crowd of strangers gathered in the basement of an indie bookstore over words on a page, or two women meeting each other after ten years of kinship online, or the notion that girls can be beautiful and brutal.