Shelf Life

 

Shelf Life

by Jessie Chaffee


We asked debut author Jessie Chaffee to share a section of her bookshelf with us. Here, Chaffee talks about the books that she used for inspiration and research for her novel Florence in Ecstasy, and what she plans on reading next.


Between my husband and I we have hundreds of books—on shelves, in stacks, wherever there’s a flat surface. This small standing shelf sits on top of another shelf near my desk and it is my sacred space—it holds books that will get pulled out and paged through innumerable times while I’m working on a project. The books in the photograph were my “library” during the research and writing of Florence in Ecstasy (plus some recently acquired books I’ve started and don’t want to lose track of in the TBR piles!).

 

I began Florence in Ecstasy in part as a response to work that I was reading at the time, novels by women that depict—in a way that is visceral, unrelenting, and absolutely real—the interior lives of women who are on the fringes or isolated, butting up against societal constraints, and their own desires, addictions, and demons. These included Jean Rhys’s full catalogue, especially Good Morning, Midnight, her haunting portrait of a woman disappearing into alcoholism. I was also reading the Italian feminist writer Dacia Maraini (Woman at War), Elena Ferrante (The Days of Abandonment and others), Marguerite Duras (The Ravishing of Lol Stein and others), and Jane Bowles (Two Serious Ladies).

 

Though Florence in Ecstasy is set in present-day Italy, my protagonist Hannah becomes obsessed with the Italian women saints of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, who were also on the fringes and trying to find paths to expression. The saints were rebels of their time, and they were able to gain a certain degree of autonomy, power, and, in some cases, celebrity through their faith, ecstatic visions, and miraculous actions. Many became educated and wrote or dictated their life stories, which are woven into the novel, so I read their literature, much of which is pictured here, including Angela of Foligno: Complete Works—her descriptions of her ecstasies and the relationship between love and pain are fierce, sensual, and surprisingly modern. I also spent a year in Italy researching the saints, and The Pilgrim’s Italy: A Travel Guide to the Saints became one of my go-to texts during my literary pilgrimages because it included information on the small hilltop towns where the saints lived or are entombed.

 

The novel is also an exploration of the experience of an eating disorder, and Rudolph M. Bell’s Holy Anorexia, Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast, and Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s Fasting Girls were texts I returned to again and again for a sense of the longer history of women’s relationship with food, their bodies, and self-erasure. For more contemporary reflections of desire, denial, and hunger, I read Caroline Knapp’s remarkable Appetites: Why Women Want and Drinking: A Love Story, which felt in some ways like a more modern version of St. Angela’s confessions, and also captured the intensely powerful and destructive love affair of addiction.

 

Finally, there are books I’ve just started reading or are on-deck (many of them in translation, inspired by my work at Words Without Borders): French Oulipo writer Anne Garréta’s Not One Day (translated by Emma Ramadan), Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon (in a new translation by Jenny McPhee), Japanese writer Fuminori Nakamura’s The Boy in the Earth (translated by Allison Markin Powell), and Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell). To the very right are books by two brilliant writers I know personally: Paula Bomer’s recent Mystery and Mortality: Essays on the Sad, Short Gift of Life, and Mariela Dreyfus’s bilingual poetry collection Pez/Fish (English translations by E.M. O’Connor). Both of them explore loss in all of its manifestations—loss of life, language, love, memory, one's self—and the power of literature to respond to that loss. 


 

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photo by Heather Waraksa

 

Jessie Chaffee's debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy, was published by the Unnamed Press in May 2017. She was awarded a 2014-2015 Fulbright Grant in Creative Writing to Italy to complete the novel, during which time she was the Writer-in-Residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has been published in The Rumpus, Bluestem, Global City Review, Big Bridge, and The Sigh Press, among others. She lives in New York City, where she is an editor at Words Without Borders, an online magazine of international literature in translation. Find her at www.jessiechaffee.com.

 


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