Five Things Right Now: Katy Simpson Smith

Katy Simpson Smith is the author of the non-fiction book We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the American South, 1750-1835, the novel The Story of Land and Sea, and, most recently, Free Men. She shares five things she’s reading, watching and thinking about right now. 

1. Monarch butterflies in my milkweed

They came, they laid eggs, the eggs popped into caterpillars, the caterpillars nibbled away all the leaves, and they left. But where did the caterpillars go? Shouldn’t they have made chrysalises? Why can’t I find them? The pupal cycle is only fourteen days, so shouldn’t I have soon seen the next generation of butterflies? Do cats eat chrysalises?

2. Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

In case the value of physical bookstores needed proving: I was browsing the packed and towering shelves at Powell’s in Portland last summer when I spied a funny title on a spine – Epitaph of a Small Winner – filed optimistically under ‘A’. I pulled it out, saw it referred to as the Brazilian Tristram Shandy, and said, ‘Yes, I’ll take that trip.’ (Nota bene: It’s a trip you too want to take.) I rode my Machado de Assis high all the way back to New Orleans, where a Sunday afternoon found me browsing the cat-patrolled shelves of Blue Cypress Books, and there, filed puckishly under ‘D’, he reared his head again, this time with Dom Casmurro. And now I proselytize for Machado, I who six months ago never knew him to love him. Thank you, bookstores.

3. MasterChef Junior

Why do small children know to cheer each other on, to weep when their dreams are crushed and then promptly to turn to their peers with open arms and tiny high fives, when adults with all our years of maturation and understanding are so small-hearted?

4. Beyoncé, ‘Formation

The hundred miracles of this song have all been well dissected by now, and thank God for pop in politics, but let me just add: albino alligators. These are my first memory of New Orleans – me age five, them ghosting around the Audubon Aquarium, haints from a deviled swamp. Waxy white scales like outsize Chiclets. (Yes, they’re technically leucistic; calm down, scientists.) I see there’s a chance Bey was talking about alligator shoes, but I’m going to go with a sunnier interpretation here.

5. The boy who cut off his hand

Did you read this story? Did it make you sit down and stare at a wall in contemplation for the rest of the day? Did it reveal the gap between your own measly self and true conviction?

Photograph © Christopher Michel


From Granta 134: No Man’s Land

‘I do not do this work for the government, or the Taliban, or even the men who I collect from the battlefield and return to their loved ones. All these years I have done this for God.’

‘It’s hard enough getting a person out of a war – it’s harder getting the war out of the person. Whether we wish it or not, memory is faithful as a shadow. We forget that when memory goes, we go. Without memory, we’re nothing. Somehow, we have to find a way to balance life with memory.’

‘Is the Tarzon in mass production? Is it used regularly in Korea? The Air Force doesn’t say. Still more sensational films show the Tarzon seeking out a bridge. Loaded with an atomic warhead, the Tarzon could be the world’s most terrifying weapon.’

From the Online Edition

‘Americans are afraid of many threats to their lives – serial killers, crazed gunmen, gang bangers, and above all terrorists – but these threats are surprisingly unlikely. Approximately three-quarters of all homicide victims in America are killed by someone they know. And the real threat from strangers is quite different from what most fear: one-third of all Americans killed by strangers are killed by police.’

‘From the tension in his face, the new hardness in his gaze, she sensed the sharpness and durability of his anger, but she also sensed that he was not unhappy to be feeling and cultivating this newfound right to hate his parents, that it made him seem bigger in his own eyes, and bound him more tightly to his own will, heretofore often feeble because subjugated to his parents’, which was implacable, enigmatic and savage.’

‘I never liked refugee stories. Yes it is all very sad and desperate, but they are always the same. Wailing child, home destroyed, report, write, repeat. The relationship between journalist and refugee is awkwardly transactional and collusive. The journalist must tell the great suffering; the refugees must present themselves to be greatly suffering. Faced with a journalist, refugees are reduced to selling their package of abject despair, advertising it with tears and torn clothing and desperate quotes. Reduced to the very basic: I need help. It is very bad back there.

Which does not in any way alter the undeniable extant fact of the woman with her child sitting in the dust mud dirt in front of me, saying that she needs help because it is very bad back there.’

Solmaz Sharif, ‘Civilization Spurns the Leopard’
Tim Beckett, ‘Crossings’
Kao Kalia Yang, ‘Cry of Machines’
Jesse Ball, ‘Lucia Series’
Cortis & Sonderegger, ‘Icons’
Teffi, ‘Torn Silk and Garlands of Garlic’
Eliza Griswold, First Sentence