Time passes stunningly; perhaps never more so than in the last two years of the breakneck movement in global events, as well as the unending, stop-start pace of our collective anxiety and fear. Still even in normal years, you might wake up one day and find yourself past the age requirements for certain clubs, awards and/or lists. Maybe it’s 26 or 31. Perhaps it’s 46. Or 70. The literary world, much like the broader one, is obsessed with youth and genius, but everyone (if lucky) grows up (and arguably, writes way more textured books than they ever could at say, 22).
As someone who is deeply suspicious of peaking early and chronological age mandates, I was thrilled to discover these fully grown-up writers with thoughtful, diverse books out in early 2022. Their subjects are both fiction and nonfiction, and include outstanding women from other eras living well outside the society’s prescribed lines, difficult historical moments (Australia’s aboriginal family separation policy and World War II), and contemporary senior lives in Philadelphia and Covid-hit New York. Collectively, they’ve had careers in the literary world and out of it, some only got their literary starts well over the age of 30, and two are writing luminously in their eight and ninth decades! Age seems rather irrelevant and “it’s too late” might just be a fictional construct.
The Great Mrs Elias: A Novel Based on a True Story by Barbara Chase-Riboud
Sculptor, poet, and novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud has had a career that is mind-blowingly productive for just one lifetime. One of the first Black female artists to show work at the Whitney and subsequently showing at the world’s great museums, Chase-Riboud entered the literary world with a collection of poetry edited by Toni Morrison, and proceeded to win multiple awards. Her 1979 best-selling, first novel Sally Hemings came at a time when the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Hemings was still officially unacknowledged.
Now 82-years-old, Chase-Riboud’s latest novel The Great Mrs. Elias is based on a true story of a Black businesswoman in early 1900s New York City, which feels so palpable and jumps off the novel’s pages. I am hoping that Chase-Riboud is working on a memoir of her own expansive, transatlantic, character-filled life.
Wildcat: The Untold Story of Pearl Hart, the Wild West’s Most Notorious Woman Bandit by John Boessenecker
A historian of the American West and in particular its criminal elements, John Boessenecker (68-years-old) narrates the story of Pearl Hart, who in 1899 robbed a stagecoach in Arizona, and became the most infamous woman in the country at the time. From her Tucson jail cell, she conducted interviews and crafted her image as “The Bandit Queen.” She smoked cigarettes, wrote poetry, knit, used morphine, and read books. In short, a total bad bitch of her time, when most women, with some exceptions, were rarely allowed outside the domestic sphere. In Wildcat, Boessenecker investigates the true stories behind the Hart myths, and offers a different portrait of the women of that era.
Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket by Hilma Wolitzer
If you’re worrying about being too old (a trap, and a voluntary one!) for anything, least of all, writing, then take note that the now 91-year-old Hilma Wolitzer wrote her first story at 36 and published her first novel in her 40s. Since then she’s published a bookshelf of nine novels and one craft book. A self-proclaimed “late-blooming novelist,” Wolitzer also created a novelist—Meg Wolitzer.
This collection includes that very first published story—and a new one “The Great Escape” which has the pandemic as its main frame. In real life, Wolitzer recovered from the illness, but her husband did not. The story will probably crack your heart in multiple ways.
Our Gen by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
68-year-old Diane McKinney-Whetstone’s novels have charted Black Philadelphia lives from previous historical moments, but in her latest, she takes on the contemporary—and how to live now, beyond a certain age. Cynthia enters Our Gen (short for Sexagenarian), a retirement community where she becomes friends with two Black residents and an Indian woman. They hang out, smoke weed, dance and talk politics, as if they were back at their college dorms. McKinney-Whetstone takes on the coming of (older) age trope in a humorous fashion, and moves back and forth between different eras of the women’s lives. Figuring out how to grow up is apparently eternal.
The White Girl by Tony Birch
In the rural Australian town of The White Girl by Tony Birch, Odette Brown tries to save her light-skinned granddaughter from the government’s forced family separation policy. It’s the 1960s and the policy would continue for another decade—in this time, Aboriginal Australians are not yet “recognized” as citizens. One of Australia’s leading contemporary literary voices, Birch, who is 64 and of Koorie descent, portrays the harshness of the time and intense racism experienced by the family in understated prose. An absolute (and unsettling regardless if you are unfamiliar with the country’s shameful recent past or not) page-turner, Birch’s novel, his third, gets its American debut in March. It was published in Australia in 2019 and bestowed multiple awards; read this review by Indigenous novelist Claire G. Coleman for an idea of the novel’s resonance there.
A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Restless Life by Marcia deSanctis
“A person who is able to measure life in journeys taken is a lucky one,” writes Marcia deSanctis in her collection of her global wanderings, which begins in early 1980s in Moscow, and proceeds to travel through France, Rwanda, New England, Cape Town, and elsewhere. An experienced news producer, de Sanctis did not publish her first essay till she was 50, and did so fabulously (and brutally and beautifully about her marriage surviving her infidelity) in Vogue and is part of this collection. Now in her early 60s, deSanctis meditates on travel and why we do it, but also the nature of staying home: “there are such enticing mysteries everywhere, even at home. The world is full of them.”
Blood and Ruins by Richard Overy
The Second World War and its traumas are the focus of 73-year-old Richard Overy’s Blood and Ruins. In it, the renowned British historian argues for a reconsideration of the narrative of the War in a more global frame to include the Asian and Pacific fronts, as well as, to view it as a war of many different civil conflicts. The “last imperial war” was seeded almost a century before, Overy writes. The why question—of why did it happen when it did—is treated engagingly, probably more so than most might recall from high school. A (refreshed) look back to another traumatic global moment could prove to be instructive—on how the War was viewed and re-seen, and perhaps, the different ways that we might view the stories of our current worldwide tumult.