Reading with... Melissa Febos

photo: Beowulf Sheehan

Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart and the essay collection Abandon Me. Her second essay collection, Girlhood, was just published by Bloomsbury. The inaugural recipient of the Jeanne Córdova Nonfiction Award from Lambda Literary, Febos is an associate professor at the University of Iowa, where she teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program. Her essays have recently appeared in the Paris Review, the Sun, the Believer and Vogue.

On your nightstand now:

Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad. Suleika was a graduate student of mine at Bennington and has since become a friend. It's a gorgeous account of recovery from illness and the complicated aftermath of physical recovery that gets written about so much more rarely than illness itself, and which she does so with such grace and intimacy that it's hard to put down, even though I've read it before.

Favorite book when you were a child:

How could I possibly choose? Books were my obsession, my friends, my addiction and my heroes as a child. One of my first favorites was The Velveteen Rabbit, which resonated for me in such a profound and melancholy way. I wanted to be made real by love, as the rabbit is. I also reread the Chronicles of Narnia countless times, and my favorite one was The Magician's Nephew, because I was mesmerized by the idea that a person could jump into a pool of water and emerge into a whole other world, which I suppose is one way of describing the experience of reading itself.

Your top five authors:

Wow, this is a surprisingly hard-hitting interview! Forget top five, here are just five authors whose work I love and return to regularly: Siri Hustvedt, Toni Morrison, Annie Dillard, Maggie Nelson and Audre Lorde.

Book you've faked reading:

Oh god, I faked reading so many books as a young person. I was a high school dropout, and I had this idea (it wasn't mine, of course) that in order to be taken seriously as a writer, I had to have read what was considered the Western canon. Never mind that I had been reading feverishly since childhood, the books I'd grown up loving--most of them by women and queer writers--didn't count toward this prerequisite. I'm sure I lied about having read all of Shakespeare, definitely Faulkner and surely scads of other white dudes whose books I often had on my shelf. I just wasn't actually interested enough to read them. When I was in my early 30s, I drove a massive suitcase full of books to a donation site and said goodbye forever to all my white dude books that I was never going to read, or reread, and I haven't looked back since.

Book you're an evangelist for:

I have given Pema Chödrön's When Things Fall Apart to more people than I could possibly remember. I buy multiple copies of it per year, because I give it away so often. Life is hard, and it helps to read acknowledgment of that fact, along with wise instructions for how to hurt and not run away or panic. Also, Cruddy by Lynda Barry.

Book you've bought for the cover:

When I was a kid, I picked up Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina from the public library because the photograph on it (taken by Dorothea Lange) was so haunting. I read it in one day and when I finished the last page, I burst into tears.

Book you hid from your parents:

Oh, all the masturbation material books, obviously! I remember keeping Anaïs Nin's Delta of Venus under my mattress for a long time.

Book that changed your life:

I'd say that Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body changed something fundamental about my relationship to writing, which then changed my life. By the time I read it, when I was 15 or so, I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't know that a writer could write something so sexy and brainy and passionate and strange, not the way I understood it after reading that book. It was the first book that I remember reading and thinking, That. That is what I want to do.

Favorite line from a book:

The last line of Toni Morrison's Sula is the first I thought of: "It was a fine cry--loud and long--but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow."

Five books you'll never part with:

Well, I like to give away my favorite books, so let's go with five books that are embedded in my heart, such that I could never be metaphysically parted from them: What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt; Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde; Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson; Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger; Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy or the Xenogenesis trilogy by Octavia Butler.

Books you are looking forward to in 2021:

The Renunciations by Donika Kelly (who is my beloved, but I would definitely say so if she wasn't!), White Magic by Elissa Washuta, Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib, Love Is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar, Outlawed by Anna North, Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge, God of Nothingness by Mark Wunderlich, Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar, Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler, Let the Record Show by Sarah Schulman.... Honestly, I could keep going and going--it's going to be (and has already been) such a good year for books.

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