Feel Like an Outsider? You Are Not Alone. R.L. Maizes’ characters try to overcome challenges in We Love Anderson Cooper.

Review and Q & A With R.L. Maizes

40236976.jpgMy Review:

I haven’t read a lot of short stories and when the publisher asked me to take a look at We Love Anderson Cooper I was happy to do so…the title made me smile and when the book arrived I was increasingly motivated by the great looking cover!

A teenage boy coming out publicly at his Bar Mitzvah, a cat playing favorites during the Christmas/Hanukah holiday season, the relief of a called off wedding, and the power of a couch…so wonderful getting to know the varied characters and becoming absorbed in their emotional journeys in such a short time.

I really loved all the stories and was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with author R.L. Maizes about this new short story collection, her writing process and more.

Q & A with R.L. Maizes

Q:  From a reader’s point of view, each of your stories in this wonderful collection stand on its own and is unrelated, with different characters and situations.  Every main character seems to have a problem or obstacle they face and tackle during the short time we are with them and I became invested in each and every one!  Are any of these short stories in We Love Anderson Cooper linked or connected to each other in any way?

Thanks so much for the kind words about the collection. What connects the stories in We Love Anderson Cooper is that the main characters are outsiders. For example, in the story “Tattoo,” a tattoo artist is shunned because of his unusual appearance. In “Collections,” a woman is excluded from her wealthy partner’s upper crust world because of her race and class. In “No Shortage of Birds,” a young girl becomes alienated from her mother and her friends when her father dies. Being outsiders creates challenges for these characters that they try to overcome in the stories.

Q: Did you write each story with the others in mind?  Are there other stories that didn’t make the cut?  Did you always plan on putting these together in a collection?

I wrote the stories over a ten-year period. The pain we all feel at being excluded and our tremendous desire to belong was one of my preoccupations, but I wasn’t thinking of writing a collection during that entire time. Many stories I wrote didn’t make the cut. 

Q: How long did writing each story take?  Have any of them been published on their own prior to this book?

With the exception of one very short one, I spent more than a year writing and revising each of them. Some took many years. A number of the stories were published in magazines before being included in the book. One aired on National Public Radio. Another was dramatized in a production of Stories on Stage. 

Q: From a writing standpoint, how do you gage timing, know how much to reveal in such a short time and do you have to do any work developing the characters or the story arc before the story is written or does it just all come together as you write?

I’m what’s known as a pantser, which means I develop the stories as I write them (“fly by the seat of my pants”) rather than plotting them out beforehand. The stories end up needing more revision this way, but it’s the only way I know how to write. 

Figuring out when to reveal information is one of the great challenges of fiction writing, and each story has its own needs in that regard. In “Ghost Dogs,” for example, the last story in the collection, I intentionally hold back important information until the middle of the story. While in another story, I reveal the end of the story first, allowing the suspense to arise from how the ending comes about.   

Q: What is the editing process like for a short story – do you generally write too much and have to cut, or too little and have to expand?

Both! I have to write too much to discover what the story is really about. Once I know, I cut to the heart of the story. The challenge of the form is compression. At the same time, when I want to go deeper into a character or to slow down a scene for dramatic purposes, I expand parts of the story. 

Q: Would you ever consider expanding any of these stories into a book?

I’m writing a novel now called “Other People’s Pets.” The main character is an animal empath who drops out of veterinary school to become a burglar. Her father’s been arrested and she’s desperate to earn enough to pay his attorney’s fees. It has some similarities with the collection. The main character is an outsider and the book features animals. But it’s not an expansion of any of the stories. I don’t plan to expand any of the stories in the collection because each one feels complete to me as it is.  

Q: How do you get your ideas for your writing?

Stories are everywhere. A news report might trigger an idea for a story. Something that happened to an acquaintance might be the genesis of a story. I might observe something odd in my neighborhood. But the finished stories are always greatly changed from what initially sparked them. 

Q: Are you going on book tour?

It’s a little too soon to know. I’ll be reading at bookstores in Colorado where I live. But I’m not sure where else I’ll tour. 

Q: What are three books you recently read and would recommend?  

I loved Rebecca Makkai’s recent novel, The Great Believers, and her story collection, Music for Wartime. Mad Boy by Nick Arvin is a wonderful book, funny and tender. It’s currently a finalist for a Colorado Book Award. I’m a big fan of Steve Yarbrough’s novels because of the compassion he has for his characters. The Unmade World, which came out this past year, was fantastic. I thought Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend was great. Naturally because of the dog. But also because the structure of that book was marvelous. I guess that’s more than three.

Q: What is on your nightstand to read next?  

I’m looking forward to reading Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise and was lucky enough to pick up an advance reading copy at a conference I recently attended. I’m also about to begin Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut story collection, Sabrina & Corina. 

Thank  you to R.L. Maizes for answering some questions!  If you feel like an outsider, you are not alone.  Easy to read, engaging and thought provoking, every step of the way, I highly recommend pre-ordering a copy of  We Love Anderson Cooper today – book will be available in July.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

R.L. Maizes’s short story collection, WE LOVE ANDERSON COOPER, will be published by Celadon Books (Macmillan) in July 2019, with a novel to follow. The stories have aired on National Public Radio and have appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. Maizes’s essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.

Born and raised in Queens, New York, Maizes currently lives in Boulder, CO, with her husband, Steve, and her muses: Arie, a cat who was dropped in the animal shelter’s night box like an overdue library book, and Rosie, a dog who spent her first year homeless in South Dakota and thinks Colorado is downright balmy.

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Identity, Dance and Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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Feeling comfortable with who you are can be complicated…a difficult journey for many who feel different from others.  Often this is just a perception, as we all come from various sordid places and are birthed from unique people with their own individual backgrounds.  

I am lucky enough to be part of a group that feels like home, a safe place to tap into who I am and also feel connected to others. For 15 years I have been taking the same dance class and, although there has been some ebb and flow of participants through the years, there is always a solid group of regulars who together create a warm atmosphere of acceptance for all who take part. We come together because of dance, and the positive, nurturing environment our teacher, Luisa, creates and sets the example for. In the safety of the four walls where we convene, we express ourselves freely as individuals, and collectively when we catch eyes in the mirror, simultaneously experiencing heightened endorphins and joy from the movement and the music.  From married, single, children, no children, business owners, workers, retired… to under 40, over 80, black, white, asian, immigrant, townie…everyone has their own unique identity that is accepted and celebrated in the shared space filled with each person’s confidence, energy and light.

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Our dance family has planned outings on occasion, providing us with opportunities to talk, get to know each other and develop connections and friendships that increase the fulfillment of time spent together.  Recently this unique community of ours started a book club, and this month we chose to read Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. We selected it because we thought it was about two girls who were brought together through dance. We thought we were going to love it.

It started out about a dance class uniting two young girls, but quickly veered away and was really about much more.

Book Club Impressions

In Swing Time, an unnamed narrator told her story and we, as readers were the observers, charged with the task of understanding and finding meaning in her life.  She was a light skinned black girl who came from a mixed race family. She was drawn to Tracy, another racially mixed girl from her dance class and they became fast friends. Their young friendship was strong, the narrator became Tracy’s loyal sidekick, and then the friendship faded as their lives went in different directions. The narrator’s lack of proficiency in dance led her to becoming an assistant to a pop star, while Tracy pursued a dance career but ended up unemployed with three children each from a different father.  Mixed race, broken homes, untapped talents and unfulfilled dreams, drug overdoses, neglected friendships and bad relationships, betrayals, lack of support systems, poor decisions and misdirection sum up the challenges the characters faced, but the underlying theme was everyone’s search for identity, self fulfillment and acceptance. 

Only half our group was able to finish the book, as we all mostly agreed it felt like it was a bit of slog, an emotionless slice of life, providing nothing of great interest to tap into our curiosity.  An anonymous narrator with lack of ambition didn’t show enough of herself to create connection with us. We never even knew her name.  I believe the author intended to keep all the characters at arms length in order to allow readers to draw conclusions about identity, race and wealth from their actions, but for our group this approach fell flat.

This was an ironic book choice for a diverse group that collectively has the opportunity to feel supported, connected and in touch with their individual identity in a warm and accepting environment.  So it is not surprising that we were not overjoyed with a story about unresolved personal journeys, struggles and unfulfilled dreams. In the book, the time periods jumped around quite a bit and despite the easy to read prose, Swing Time was a challenge to follow and not as engaging as we had hoped.  It definitely was fodder for rich discussion though, and while the characters in the book struggled, we bonded.   Read this one at your own risk.

Goodreads Summary 

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About the Author:

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW, as well as a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. Swing Time is her fifth novel.

Visit www.zadiesmith.com for more information.

The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton

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My Review:  

The Sun Does Shine is a powerful and important memoir, showing a discouraging side of our legal system and an incredible testament of stamina and hope.

In 1985, Anthony Ray Hinton was convicted of murder in Alabama and sentenced to the electric chair.  He was a 29 year old, poor, black man who had a job, a happy disposition and was a devoted son to his loving mother.  The judicial system did not protect Hinton as it should have and he chose not speak for the first 3 years of his incarceration. Rebelling in silence as he wavered between anger and despair, he anticipated being put to death in the electric chair, knowing he was innocent but unable to prove it, despite every bit of evidence indicating the truth.

As time went on, and the legal system repeatedly failed him, Hinton decided to speak up, fight for justice, and he found a way to survive death row…for almost 30 years.  Visitation with his mother and best friend, Lester kept his spirits up.  He learned to exercise his imagination and transport himself to different times and places.   Finding comfort in this, he wanted to share the pleasure of escaping with his fellow inmates and he started a book club. He researched the law while spending his allotted “free” time in the prison library.  He sought out an attorney who had his best interests in mind and the drive to prove innocence.  He befriended the most unlikely alleged criminals and created a supportive and caring family for himself; sadly 54 of them were executed during his incarceration.

With joy and appreciation for his relentless attorney, the unwavering love and friendship of him mother and Lester, and genuine forgiveness in his heart, Anthony Ray Hinton was released in his late 50s, in 2015.

This memoir was upsetting and joyful at the same time.  The judicial system, race relations, prison conditions, and the death penalty all need to be reviewed, discussed, examined and improved so innocent people are not sent to jail, and people in jail are treated humanely.  We are not meant to live in a 5 x 7 cell for any amount of time and these conditions with little human contact can contribute to negativity, violence and hopelessness.  Putting people to death is barbaric and a poor precedent for a government of a free country to support.  Anthony Ray Hinton had incredible strength of character and faith to be able to re-enter life outside prison and find joy and purpose.  I admire his immense fortitude and ability to forgive.

I highly recommend this book.  Check out Oprah’s interview with the author.

Goodreads Summary

 

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About the Author:

ANTHONY RAY HINTON spent nearly thirty years on death row for crimes he didn’t commit. Released in April 2015, Hinton now speaks widely on prison reform and the power of faith and forgiveness. He lives in Alabama.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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My Review:

In An American Marriage, circumstances put loyalty to the test.  After just a year of marriage, Celestial and Roy find themselves in an undesirable situation and Roy is sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. How does a new relationship endure such a setback? During Roy’s incarceration, the couple grows apart; they exchange letters about their feelings and family, but is it enough to keep them together?  Ultimately Celestial’s prison visits dwindle to nothing and Celestial turns to her old friend Andre for support.  Roy is continually hopeful he and his wife will pick up where they left off when he is released but is naive when it comes to her true feelings.

This uniquely written character driven novel let’s us in on the struggles of an incarcerated man, an independent woman and their marriage during a 12 year sentence.  Through the exchange of letters we learn of their past, their families and their desires, yet their communications are cause for misunderstandings.  Celestial’s family hires a lawyer to fight for justice and after a long time working on the case and five years served, Roy is set free.  He hopes to return to his previous live, but time has moved on and even though Celestial has stood by him in his innocence, she has mixed feelings about his release as she has changed direction in her personal life.

I enjoyed this book although the consensus of my bookclub was that even though it was well written and worthwhile to read, the characters were not likable.  Celestial and Roy’s choices and behaviors are fodder for good discussion:  Should she visit Roy in jail?  Divorce Roy?  Should Roy give Celestial permission to leave him?  Should he act upon his jealousy?  Are they clear with each other about their desires regarding a family?  Did their role models in life effect the way they behave and think?

Race and the justice system are undercurrent themes in this story of love, marriage, commitment and the pursuit of the American Dream, and I recommend it, especially for book groups.

Goodreads summary

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About the Author:

Tayari Jones is the author of the novels Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, Silver Sparrow, and An American Marriage (Algonquin Books, February 2018). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, The Believer, The New York Times, and Callaloo. A member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, she has also been a recipient of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, United States Artist Fellowship, NEA Fellowship and Radcliffe Institute Bunting Fellowship. Silver Sparrow was named a #1 Indie Next Pick by booksellers in 2011, and the NEA added it to its Big Read Library of classics in 2016. Jones is a graduate of Spelman College, University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. She is currently an Associate Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University.

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

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My Review:

Rebecca Stone desperately needs help with her newborn and Pricilla, a La Leche nurse from the hospital comes to her rescue.  Pricilla, having mothering experience herself as she was a single, teen mom many years ago, leaves her job at the hospital to becomes the nanny for Rebecca’s baby.  Rebecca feels close to Pricilla, confiding in her and voicing her fears, hopes and dreams while learning how to care for her child and what it means to be a mother; she looks up to her and relies on her stability and competence, and in some cases, due to the fact that Pricilla is black, she causes her to think about the world in a different way.  After an unexpected turn of events, Pricilla becomes pregnant, has the baby and then is gone, and Rebecca volunteers to adopt the newborn.  Rebecca feels this is the least she can do to thank Pricilla for all she has done.  But there is a lot Rebecca does not know about raising a child of a different race.  And she is blinded by her rose colored glasses when she looks at life.  

This story brings up a lot of questions and it is difficult not to pass judgement and have an opinion on Rebecca’s thoughts and actions.  Is she “saving” this black baby by bringing him into a white, wealthy family, or is she doing him a disservice by not allowing him to grow up with black parents who can teach him what it means to be black in America?  She doesn’t know much about being black; how to take care of black hair and skin, and she doesn’t think much about what prejudices he might face as a black man.  That Kind of Mother is about the challenges of motherhood, race and how family can be created without being blood related, but it is also commentary on selfishness disguised as selflessness, lack of understanding blinded by positivity and hopefulness for the future.

Rebecca’s view of her relationship with Pricilla is so much different than what I saw as a reader.  She believes they are connected, the closest of friends, and she feels loyal to Pricilla because of what she has been taught about mothering and due to the support she has felt from her during the most stressful part of her life when she was responsible for her brand new baby.  But my opinion is this:  the relationship was one sided.  Pricilla was doing a great job being a nanny, supporting the mother, teaching her how to care for her child, listening to her talk, and providing her with the time to be independent.  But did Rebecca know anything about Pricilla?  Her family?  Her home life? Her hopes and dreams?  Did she ever ask her? Rebecca may have been privileged – white, wealthy, recognized in her field, and able to provide an adopted child a financially solid home, but I believe this perceived friendship, combined with her own self centered outlook on life (regardless of race) misguided her and adopting this baby was not necessarily the best thing for him or for Rebecca’s family.

To give you something more to think about, this book was written by Rumaan Alam,  the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, married to a white man and raising two adopted black sons in Brooklyn, NY.  Alam does a great job writing from a woman’s perspective as he explores women’s friendships, describes giving birth, breastfeeding and articulating thoughts inside the head of a woman.  He also shows how families are formed in many ways and can be very different, but they all have things in common too.  Parenthood is a challenge no matter who you are, and acknowledging what you don’t know can be a good thing – often it takes a village.  I highly recommend this book, and particularly for bookclubs as it has so much to discuss.

Goodreads Summary

 

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About the Author:

My stories have appeared in StoryQuarterly, Crazyhorse, Meridian, and elsewhere. I’ve written on design and other subjects for the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, and other places. I studied writing at Oberlin College. Now I live in New York with my husband and two kids. I am very good at building things out of Legos and making overly-complicated dinners.

Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison

 

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My Review:

A wonderful coming of age story about a 22 year old Mexican man, told with wit and humor, Lawn Boy author Jonathan Evison brings to light the struggles based on race and socioeconomic class.  Mike Muñoz mows lawns for a living.  He has limited education, lives in a dilapidated home, has no money and although all he wants is the American Dream, he has so many strikes against him.  Through trials and tribulations, Mike moves one step forward and two steps back as he makes choices to better his future and tries to achieve his goals.  He is extremely likable and although he makes some questionable decisions, I was always rooting for him.  A disabled older brother, a shady businessman and a sleazy real estate agent are some of the people in Mike’s life that create havoc, but he takes the good with the bad and learns along the way.  I love that he finally felt energized and supported and conjured up the power to live his authentic self through his relationship with Andrew, a wacky activist who works in the library.  Andrew generates great conversation, brings Mike new experiences and opens up his world to possibilities that could lead to happiness and success.

Mike enjoys reading, has great passion for tree sculpting and landscaping, loves his family and is persistent… and despite his faults, you will love him too!  A heartwarming story with many colorful characters – fun and entertaining, while at the same time bringing to light how ethnicity, education, money and perception all play a role in success.  I highly recommend it!

Goodreads summary

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About the Author:

Jonathan Evison is the author of four previous novels, including All About Lulu, West of Here, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, and This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!
In his teens, Evison was the founding member and frontman of the Seattle punk band March of Crimes, which included future members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
Born in San Jose, California, he now lives with his wife and family in Washington State.

Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

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My Review:

It is the 1990s and Dave, son of Harvard educated hippies, is one of only a few white kids in his Boston middle school.  Having a difficult time connecting with the other students, he becomes drawn to Marlon, a black kid from the projects who seems to have similar interests; video games, the Boston Celtics and getting into the better high school.  They become friendly but both are ashamed of their home life and there is always a distance between them even as they become closer.  They spend hours watching vintage basketball games and have
Continue reading

New People by Danzy Senna

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My Review:

I really enjoyed New People and was intrigued by who the description, “new people”, referred to.  Maria and Khalil are a seemingly happy, engaged couple living in Brooklyn, both light skinned, mixed race.  Khalil, a technology consultant, comes from a solid, intact family unit and is close with his parents and sister who is darker skinned than he is.  Maria has no relatives; she was adopted by a black woman who was hoping to raise a “mini me” and has since passed away.  She is spending her time writing her dissertation on Jamestown and busy learning about the mass suicides, how this could happen, and how those people kept going as long as they did. Maria’s previous boyfriend was white and although something about him made her despise him as a person, they had unrivaled physical chemistry.  She now is planning her wedding to Khalil, but is distracted by her attraction to a black poet who she keeps running into.

Maria has done something in her past that is dishonest and cruel to Khalil.  He is unaware and loves her very much.  Now that she is obsessed with another man she makes questionable decisions which lead her into some dicey circumstances but the details are not revealed to Khalil so the reality of who she is and what she does in her life remain hidden.  She has been and continues to be deceitful, yet for me, she is still likable and worthy of compassion.

I believe Maria’s studying of Jamestown, the people who were looking for their true selves and a place to belong in this world, and the music that enriched, was a representation of her personal quest for belonging.  With a college friend she doesn’t even remember, she has a brush with Scientology, as she allowed this former classmate to perform some tests on her, and then she feels a pull, back to the ideal life of Khalil and his family.  She looks white but feels black so her identity is unclear as she seems to be searching for people she can relate to, often feeling disconnected.  Maria’s bad judgement and and questionable decisions lead to some unusual situations that were humorous and uncomfortable.  New People, referring to mixed race people, this story of identity, relationships and communication was enjoyable, short and easy to read and I highly recommend it.

 

As Seen on Goodreads:

From the bestselling author of Caucasia, a subversive and engrossing novel of race, class and manners in contemporary America.

As the twentieth century draws to a close, Maria is at the start of a life she never thought possible. She and Khalil, her college sweetheart, are planning their wedding. They are the perfect couple, “King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom.” Their skin is the same shade of beige. They live together in a black bohemian enclave in Brooklyn, where Khalil is riding the wave of the first dot-com boom and Maria is plugging away at her dissertation, on the Jonestown massacre. They’ve even landed a starring role in a documentary about “new people” like them, who are blurring the old boundaries as a brave new era dawns. Everything Maria knows she should want lies before her–yet she can’t stop daydreaming about another man, a poet she barely knows. As fantasy escalates to fixation, it dredges up secrets from the past and threatens to unravel not only Maria’s perfect new life but her very persona.

Heartbreaking and darkly comic, New People is a bold and unfettered page-turner that challenges our every assumption about how we define one another, and ourselves.

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About the Author:

Danzy Senna is an American novelist, born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts in 1970. Her parents, Carl Senna, an Afro-Mexican poet and author, and Fanny Howe, who is Irish-American writer, were also civil rights activists.

She attended Stanford University and received an MFA from the University of California at Irvine. There, she received several creative writing awards.

Her debut novel, Caucasia (later republished as From Caucasia With Love), was well received and won several awards including the Book-Of-The-Month Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, and the Alex Award from the American Library Association.

Her second novel, Symptomatic, was also well received. Both books feature a biracial protagonist and offer a unique view on life from their perspective.

Senna has also contributed to anthologies such as Gumbo.

In 2002, Senna received the Whiting Writers Award and in 2004 was named a Fellow for the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

Danzy Senna is married to fellow writer Percival Everett and they have a son, Henry together. Their residences have included Los Angeles and New York City.

Nasty Women Project: Voices from the Resistance Edited by Erin Passons

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As seen on Goodreads:

American Women. Their Stories. Their Resistance.

The despot is perched in his tower, threatening democracy with every tweet. Vultures of big business occupy his cabinet seats, while empty-headed puppets tie the Senate to a string. With a wave of a pen, they set our rights on fire.

Welcome to the new America.

And who are we? We are the women of the marginalized majority. We come from every corner of America. We are the outraged mothers. We are the unprotected daughters. We are the uninsured sick, the gay and the blamed, the cast-off patrons of the lesser paid, and the survivors of trauma taught to feel ashamed.

We are every woman you have ever met, and every woman you haven’t. Our stories are of struggle, but also of strength; of fear, but also of courage. We know despair, but we never lose hope. We are extraordinary women living in extraordinary times.

We are The Nasty Women Project.

100% proceeds from our book sales are donated to Planned Parenthood.

My Comments:

Nasty Women Project is compilation of essays written by regular, everyday women from almost every state in the US.  In an effort to be educated on the plight of women of all races, colors, creeds and sexual orientations, Erin Passons, the editor, called for submissions hoping “the darkness inspired by Trump will only bring forth more light”.  When it became a possibility that The GOP would have the opportunity to defund Planned Parenthood the idea was born: she would gather the written words of women across the country and publish them to sell, donating all the proceeds to Planned Parenthood.

Telling their stories of election night, prejudice and life experiences provides women in the United States of America the opportunity to make sense out of their fears and hopes, and reading them provides a sense of camaraderie and courage.  These powerful, well written essays show struggles and fear along with new-found strength and focus.

Elizabeth Martin of Ohio says “Since Trump’s win, we have begun to organize.  We sign petitions.  We call politicians.  We march.  We fight.  I have thousands of life preservers surrounding me, and I no longer have the fear of drowning.”

As Jennifer Tyree from Arizona says, “We must rally.  Now is the time to make history.”

Take the time to hear what the women of the United States have to say and purchase your copy of Nasty Women Project HERE.  All proceeds are donated to Planned Parenthood.