by the Forward

Rachel Kushner

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Man Booker Shortlisted Author And ‘Girl Citizen’

Speaking to The New Yorker’s Dana Goodyear this spring, the novelist Rachel Kushner explained that she thought of herself as a “girl citizen.” Kushner was soon to publish her third novel, “The Mars Room,” which is set inside a California women’s prison. She’d spent a good deal of time at one such prison, the Central California Women’s Facility, while researching the book. Even after the novel’s completion, as Goodyear wrote, Kushner made regular visits to see the inmates with whom she had formed the deepest connections, and advocated for them from the outside.

“The Mars Room” was a success, ending up on the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. With it, Kushner, 50 and already a respected writer, entered a new sphere of literary fame. (Part of that fame: Following Masha Gessen (2017) she was dubbed the Forward’s 2018 Sexiest Jewish Intellectual Alive.) In doing so as a “girl citizen,” she quietly proposed a model of literary prowess somewhat in opposition to that which has recently dominated American letters. For at least the last half century, the literary world has often, not without a certain snobbishness, suggested that for writers, craft and rigor must come before an effort to be just. Kushner is one of a number of ascendant writers challenging that model.

“I am slouching toward the contemporary, and this book is my take, I guess, on both where we are as a society and what I think a contemporary novel might look like,” Kushner told The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. The contemporary novel, if she is right, will be a work of technical brilliance that is profoundly concerned with the implications of the story it tells. It’s not fiction as social justice. It’s fiction informed by deep engagement with the world of its subject. Per Kushner’s account, “The Mars Room” was informed by six years of in-person research in California’s prisons, courts, jails and criminological institutions. The model of writing as the product of painstaking hours alone in a study need not apply.

As Kushner observed to Treisman, each of her novels has moved forward in history. Her first was set in Cuba in the 1950s, her second in New York and Italy in the 1970s. “The Mars Room” is set in the early 2000s, which brings Kushner nearly to the present. In a fraught political and social landscape, as American literature undergoes a generational shift, the moment she next observes will be a telling one. The literary world — and more tellingly, those outside of its mainstream — will be waiting.

— Talya Zax

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