In August 2022, we launched an exciting new book subscription box series, curated by the incredible novelist, essayist, editor, and teacher Alexander Chee. Called The American Fiction Series: On Becoming an American Writer, it features some of the best new voices in American fiction, along with a writerly gift and a special letter from Chee. Ever since the first box was announced, we have been overwhelmed by the response the series has received, and continues to receive.
Here, we talk about how the series came to be, what’s in the book boxes, why it is important, and why you should care. But first, say hello to our amazing curator.
Alexander Chee: Writer and Champion of Other Writers
Alexander Chee is not only a brilliant writer and teacher, but also a generous champion of other writers. He is the author of the masterful novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, as well as the acclaimed essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, a cultural and generational touchstone. A contributing editor at The New Republic, and an editor at large at VQR, his essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, T Magazine, The Sewaneee Review, and the 2016 and 2019 Best American Essays. He is the editor of The Best American Essays 2022.
The theme of the series, On Becoming an American Writer, is inspired by the title of the last essay in his book, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, which was in turn inspired by his own mentor, James Alan McPherson, the first Black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
How It All Began
Alexander Chee is also the first person Boxwalla asked to curate a book box. When he accepted our offer to curate his own box, we were ecstatic. As Sandeep said in an LA Times article about the collaboration:
“We were surprised, and it was amazing because we were all on the same page about what we wanted to do. We’ve been sort of jaded when it comes to American fiction, and reading Alexander’s recommendations revitalized the whole thing for us.”
Chee elaborates on the collaboration in an interview with The Nerd Daily:
“Lavanya and Sandeep were not so interested in American fiction at first and more or less said so to me in our first conversations—and that amused me, as they have astonishingly good taste in books. And it should be said American fiction has been seen as provincial and full of a narcissistic belief in its own importance for a long time, maybe as long as our writers have written books but at least for the last century. I wasn’t surprised—I first encountered that skepticism decades ago and found the truth of it—as a college student, the American writers I could find were often boring or embarrassing to me. So much was kept from Americans as a condition of enjoying the prosperity here, and that became the way those offering that prosperity took it away—a systemic pickpocketing of people as they dream the American dream. So I saw this as a series for readers like Sandeep and Lavanya. America isn’t as provincial as our literature but that’s changing, and that’s what I wanted to showcase.”
But Lavanya echoed our excitement the best with this announcement on Instagram on Alexander Chee’s birthday:
For this collaboration to happen – two events had to occur – Alexander Chee had to be born and Sandeep & I had to get married. And both these events just happened to occur on the same date. 😀 Happy Birthday Alexander! 💜
What’s In the Box?
Each American Fiction Series: On Becoming an American Writer box includes:
- Two books
- A bookish gift
- A special letter from Alexander Chee about why he chose the books, what is special about them as well as other notes to add to the pleasure of reading them.
Please note that this is a six-box series. The series will run for a year. We have worked hard to ensure that the retail value of this box exceeds the cost to subscribe, always at least matching the Amazon prices of the featured books.
The first box in the series features:
- Brother Alive by Zain Khalid
- The Town of Babylon by Alejandro Varela
- A beautiful black-ruled notebook in the legacy model by Blackwing
Both the novels in the box reinvent the American suburb. And both, as Chee says, are “about families who fled their home countries because the American empire remade those countries into places of tremendous strife, overt and covert, by supporting corrupt regimes—El Salvador, Columbia, Saudi Arabia—in order to enable the American arms trade. The two books tell very different stories born from the same root. Read together you get a larger vision of our country’s place in the world, and our place within this country.”
According to The LA Times, which covered the launch of this series,
Khalid’s Brother Alive is a sweeping journey that begins in a mosque on Staten Island, N.Y., where an imam has adopted three boys — one Nigerian, one Korean and the third of unknown Middle Eastern origin — and resolves in a transformative trip to Saudi Arabia. Varela’s The Town of Babylon follows a gay Latinx professor’s return to his suburban hometown as he works to reckon with a complicated past. Both novels have received acclaim in all the right places without quite breaking through in a tough market — and will surely benefit from Chee’s and Boxwalla’s seal of approval.
Brother Alive by Zain Khalid
The first book in the box is Zain Khalid’s extraordinary debut novel: Brother Alive. Lavanya says, “When Chee recommended this book to us (before its release), we didn’t know what to expect. But the minute we started reading it, we were blown away and we knew! This is what American fiction can be, but very often isn’t.”
Chee beautifully described the book in his blurb as: “A novel with the polish and warmth of a stone smoothed in the hand after a lifetime of loving worry — original, darkly witty, sometimes bitter, and so very wise. And certainly the debut of a major new writer.”
The Town of Babylon by Alejandro Varela
The second book in this box is another extraordinary debut novel: Alejandro Varela’s The Town of Babylon. It is a novel about hierarchies within a suburban community, how such hierarchies can affect public health, a book about love and longing, and so much more.
Box 1 is still available for purchase for a limited edition one-time box.
The second box contains:
- If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery
- Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho
- The Star Spinner Tarot Deck by Trung Le Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American comic book artist and writer from Minnesota
The books in this box are in the form of interconnected short stories. The form itself offers some interesting possibilities which depart from traditional ideas of both what a novel or a short-story collection should be.
If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery
The first book in the box is Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You, a wonderful collection of connected short stories following a Jamaican-American family in Miami. This book has been on some pretty great awards lists as well! I’d hinted last month that this book was on the National Book Awards longlist. It has also been long-listed for the 2023 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. The New York Times called Escoffery “a gifted, sure-footed storyteller, with a command of evocative language and perfectly chosen details…. Perhaps most important, he wields a disarming, irreverent sense of humor.”
Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho
Jean Chen Ho’s Fiona and Jane, the second book in the box, is another remarkable collection of interconnected short stories following the lives of two young Taiwanese-American women. Here’s Tammy Tarng in her review of the book for The New York Times: “Over the course of the book, Fiona and Jane become real and electric and precious people. The stories move through intimate, cinematic scenes…. The world Ho creates between the two women feels like one friend reading the other’s story, wishing she were there.”
Box 2 is still available for purchase for a limited edition one-time box.
In this box, we showcase:
- Meet Us by the Roaring Sea by Akil Kumaraswamy
- Which Side Are You On by Ryan Lee Wong
- A surprise bookish gift!
As Alexander Chee describes it, both books in this box are connected by their common theme of “what our mother’s legacies to us are, and on our relationships to them. How do we learn, how do we create community, how do we survive the world’s transformations?”
Meet Us by the Roaring Sea by Akil Kumaraswamy
Akil Kumaraswamy’s novel begins with the loss of the protagonist Aya’s mother and Aya discovering her archive. The narrative shifts between the near future where Aya is an artificial intelligence trainer as well as the past, via the Tamil manuscript that Aya is trying to parse through.
“Kumarasamy’s quirky language and wit are dazzling…This humor is the way I dig it — deep — extending an opportunity for the reader to take a beat before absorbing the novel’s more sobering themes.” – New York Times
Which Side Are You On by Ryan Lee Wong
In a moving article for Lit Hub, author Ryan Lee Wong outlines his intentions behind writing Which Side Are You On:
“The novel is simply an offering, a chant recited for others. May it be of benefit.”
In the novel too, the narrator and protagonist, Reed, hopes to be of benefit to those around him. He works to be of use to society and correct the wrongs of history and racism. How he navigates his politics and defines his humanity when he goes back home, to his (former) activist parents who now seem jaded to him, forms the crux of this coming-of-age story.
Said Alexander Chee of this novel: “Salty, funny, angry, and heartbreaking, Which Side Are You On synthesizes the struggles of a family that has been working and hoping for a better world for two, maybe three generations, and in the process, renews our sense of the histories involved – American history, Korean American history, Black history, Los Angeles history. This is a stunning debut, but also a novel I didn’t know I was waiting for.”
Why Is this Series Important?
What is America? Who is an American? These are questions that have been fiercely debated about and legislated over, even before the Founding Fathers created the government and forged this nation. Ever since, these questions have dominated national concerns, with each generation preoccupied with some aspect or the other of what it means to be an American, to live in “the land of the free”.
In recent times, these questions seem more important than ever before. The lines that divide race, gender, class, wealth, and borders are now starker and more contentious than ever. So, why does this curated series, launched by two Indian immigrants in Southern California and Chee, with his Korean and Scottish heritage, matter?
Consider Alexander Chee’s mission behind the series:
“This country is in an argument over what it means to even belong here. And meanwhile, there are some fascinating new novels and story collections emerging month by month, a literature like we’ve never had, alongside editors and houses reaching back for the writers left behind, older writers, some living, some dead. The result is a reimagining of our literary landscape that we risk missing if we don’t really look.”
– Alexander Chee
The American Fiction Series: On Becoming an American Writer is an extended, deep and often contradictory analysis of what it means to be American and live in the United States today. The books in the series are written by authors who, according to Chee, “know America better than America knows them”. They’re people who wouldn’t have been considered American a few decades ago (some might argue, even now). And from the margins, they have a view like no other of the country and its current situation. Reading these books is knowing what America is, and what being an American entails, today.
You can subscribe to this limited edition subscription box here.