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Works of Radical Imagination

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The highly anticipated new novel from the winner of the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize examines NYC and America in the burgeoning moments before the start of the Civil War through the eyes of a young biracial girl.

"Rarely does one encounter a book that can so profoundly change a reader. Moon and the Mars is that book. Corthron, a true heir to James Baldwin, presents a startlingly original exposure of the complex roots of American racism and classism as well as a sweeping exploration of love in all its myriad forms. The best work of fiction I have read in many years." —Naomi Wallace, MacArthur "Genius" Playwriting Fellow and author of One Flea Spare


In Moon and the Mars, set in the impoverished Five Points district of New York City in the years 1857-1863, we experience neighborhood life through the eyes of Theo from childhood to adolescence, an orphan living between the homes of her Black and Irish grandparents. Throughout her formative years, Theo witnesses everything from the creation of tap dance to P.T. Barnum's sensationalist museum to the draft riots that tear NYC asunder, amidst the daily maelstrom of Five Points work, hardship, and camaraderie. Meanwhile, white America's attitudes towards people of color and slavery are shifting—painfully, transformationally—as the nation divides and marches to war.

Kia Corthron's first novel, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, won the coveted First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction in 2016. It was championed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Angela Y. Davis, among many others, and received rave reviews in The New York Times Book Review, where it was an Editor's Choice, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere.

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“Kia Corthron has a knack for seeing what we cannot, for laying bare the truths we refuse to see. Moon and the Mars, her latest masterpiece, is an absorbing story of family and community, of Africans and Irish, of settler and native, of slavery and abolition, of a city and a nation wracked by Civil War and racist violence, of love won and lost. Unsettling the victim-perpetrator binary, she writes instead of people caught in the whirlwind of history, violence, politics, ideology, love, and desire; people navigating the actual world where race lines are drawn in shifting sands in blood and glue, elusive yet enduring, smelling of death and flowers. Corthron once again reminds us that nothing is black and white.”

“Rarely does one encounter a book that can so profoundly change a reader. Moon and the Mars is that book. Corthron, a true heir to James Baldwin, presents a startlingly original exposure of the complex roots of American racism and classism as well as a sweeping exploration of love in all its myriad forms. The best work of fiction I have read in many years.”

“Kia Corthron is a singular crucial creative artist with enormous vitality, re-imagining the real life of New York City rooted in new histories.”

“Kia Corthron, writing with insight, empathy and an acute sense of history, has reached into the divided heart of nineteenth century New York and produced a story of exceptional power. Through the eyes of Theodora Brigid Brook, a young woman of Irish and African ancestry, we encounter a city of vibrant streets, tangled loyalties, and the best and worst possibilities.”

“A searing, far-flung epic, a truly American tale, centered on one girl of African-American and Irish heritage, as she makes her way into a world rife with brutality, change and war. Kia Corthron is one of our finest novelists, constantly unveiling the truth and the way histories have been hidden from us, revealing people in all their glory and imperfection. This isn't just a novel. It is a history, a monument to hope.”

“In her absorbing and original second novel, Kia Corthron examines racism, family and identity through the eyes of Theo, a young biracial orphan growing up in mid-19th century New York City. You won’t soon forget this one.

“Playwright and novelist Corthron combines a propulsive coming-of-age story with a fascinating history of the years before and after the Civil War. Beginning in 1857, biracial seven-year-old narrator Theo Brigid Brook observes the social upheaval and racial injustice leading to the conflict. She lives in Manhattan’s infamous Five Points neighborhood with her Grammy Brook and Grammy Cahill, who are discriminated against for being Irish and Black, respectively. Other residents of the Brook household include a barber who boards with them and a woman who escaped from slavery in South Carolina. Theo is acutely attuned to such events as the Metropolitan Police riots, and her intense relationship with the rough-and-tumble Irish lad Ciaran seems fated from an early age. While Theo is bookish and entrenched in family and community, Ciaran eschews education and takes a series of manual labor jobs. Corthron smoothly weaves in historical developments as divisions flare in the Five Points, such as the implications of the Dred Scott case, something Grammy Brook sums up concisely: “Whenever the rich make a crisis, you know what gonna fall to the poor is catastrophe.” Corthron’s ambition pays off with dividends.

“In the native language of the colonized Irish Gael, the proverb Ar scáth a chéile a mahireann na daoine tells us it’s in the shelter of each other that the people survive. In Moon and the Mars, Kia Corthron has channeled the Seanchaí and the Griot, using beautifully rendered, gripping storytelling to resurrect histories too often disappeared. You will fall in love with Theo, a Black and Irish child who embodies her histories, as she takes you by the hand, guiding you through a mid 19th Century Manhattan landscape of community, solidarity, class manipulations, and racist violence. And you’ll tear through these streets and pages of joy and heartbreak full tilt, emerging with a renewed call to solidarity—for all our survival.”

“Intriguing, well-imagined characters...”

“Kia Corthron’s debut doorstopper The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize back in 2016 and we’ve been awaiting her follow-up with much anticipation. Set in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City, which will be familiar to any Gangs of New York fans, Corthron’s new historical epic spins an absorbing and linguistically nimble tale that proves she’s one of our most dynamic and risk-taking writers.”

“Theo is the lone narrator in “Moon and the Mars,” but her voice is so rich with the locutions and grammatical tics of her joint heritage that it sounds almost choral. The novel tracks her maturation until 1863 (followed by a coda set 15 years later), during which time her speech refines and her observations deepen. The plot is, effectively, history itself: Theo and her relatives struggle to maintain their dignity and decency, if not to simply survive, as they’re storm-tossed by the Dred Scott decision, the financial panic of 1857, the election of Abraham Lincoln and the start of the Civil War, among countless external tumults. The looming threat of fracture reaches a climax with the draft riots of 1863, in which an Irish mob enraged by federal draft laws targeted blacks, including children, in a spasm of arson and lynchings. Even here, Ms. Corthron is less attracted by the spectacle of violence (familiar from Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” for instance) than by understanding the tragedy’s causes and aftereffects... Ms. Corthron’s humility and curiosity match her outsize intellect and ambition. Her big, immersive novel almost never sermonizes; it is, however, eager to teach.

“At just under 600 pages, Moon and the Mars is an immersive read, propelling the reader into New York’s Five Points district between the years 1857-1863, as the nation marches towards Civil War. It is a story of racism, women’s rights, slavery, poverty, immigration, death and young love.The story is told through the eyes of Theo, a young biracial orphan who lives between her Irish Grammy Cahill and Black Grammy Brook’s homes. As the story progresses, our protagonist evolves from child to teenager. As she does so, the world around her changes, and so too does her understanding of this world and her position within it. Author, Corthron, a critically acclaimed playwright, effectively draws from this experience bolstering the story with song, props – letters, news bulletins – and spirited dialogue, to make the novel intimate and immediate.”

“She's been called the heir to James Baldwin, and it's true, too. Kia Corthron is one of the greatest writers of our time, and her latest epic, Moon and the Mars, will lift you to the moon too.”

blog — August 31

Creativity During Catastrophe

    

To celebrate today's publication of Moon and the Mars by Windham-Campbell Prize-winning writer Kia Corthron, we're proud to share an original piece by the author on creativity, grief, and finishing a novel as the world turned upside-down.

Creativity During Catastrophe
by Kia Corthron

I’m obsessive about waiting until a play or novel I’m writing is ready for production or publication before I let anyone read it — neither my agent nor my closest friends. Of course, I know the work isn’t really ready. For many writers, it’s part of their process to get reader responses (or, in the case of a play, to hear actors reading the work) early in development, while the author still has numerous questions to answer. For me, feedback is most useful when a legitimate first draft is complete. Reader questions then tend to be less generalized, more targeted.

A month into the pandemic shutdown, I’d reached this stage of “readiness” with Moon and the Mars. That timing, and the fact that my focus was on prose rather than a play, was fortunate. A couple of weeks ago, I was in email contact with an old composer friend who confided that the anguish of the past year had left him unable to generate new work, and his was far from the first such lament I’d heard. By contrast, because I happened to be near the end of a three-year journey with my book, the engine was moving too swiftly to be stopped: I was being productive which, for some of my hours anyway, was a distraction from all-encompassing despondency. Also, as craftspeople of the performing arts, my composer friend as well as most of my playwright colleagues have been dispirited by the live-audience precondition of our professions being reduced to, at best, many faces in isolated zoom squares. But for most of our social-distancing year, my own artistic energies were applied not to a play but to a novel, the writing intended not for an audience but for a readership which, by design, is a relationship built on work created in solitude to be read in solitude.

I completed the “ready” draft on April 15, 2020, and immediately sent it to my first readers, including the staff of Seven Stories Press, who’d published my debut The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter. Two days later, my sister Kim passed away. She was fifteen months older than I, succumbing to heart disease. At the time, COVID was raging in New York, making it impossible to get back to western Maryland where we both grew up. (She had been living just over the border in West Virginia.) My bereavement process was thus complicated by the fact that, other than phone calls, I had to mourn alone. I live in Harlem, and took early morning half-mile walks to the Hudson shore, listening to the quiet. I summoned up long-forgotten memories. I cried. I didn’t write. Had my sister died just a few days prior, before I’d put the final touches on Moon, I’m sure my novel would not yet be released as I would have stopped working for weeks. Or, had the manuscript already been submitted and contracts signed months before, deadline pressures may have materialized just as I was entering my shutdown to grieve. Instead, by the time that activity around the book began to kick in and editorial notes arrived, I had passed through the rawest phase of my sorrow, healed enough to undertake revisions.

The international horror dragged on, and I empathized with the countless losses worldwide as I diligently prepared Moon for publication. Even having endured my personal heartache, I marvel at the happenstance of narrow-window cosmic timing that impeded my fall into my own hole of despair — or at least prevented me from staying there.

Read More from Kia Corthron


How an Irish Syntactical Peculiarity Helped Me Find My Protagonist’s Voice
Kia Corthron on the Challenges of Dialect in Historical Fiction

Read more on Literary Hub


The Writer's Notebook: Kia Corthron on Urban Oases
Kia Corthron on exploring New York City's outdoor spaces — a practice that has brought her solace and changed her writing life.

Read more on the Windham Campbell Prize site

   

 Praise for Moon and the Mars

“Kia Corthron is a singular crucial creative artist with enormous vitality, re-imagining the real life of New York City rooted in new histories.”
Sarah Schulman

Kia Corthron has a knack for seeing what we cannot, for laying bare the truths we refuse to see. Moon and the Mars, her latest masterpiece, is an absorbing story of family and community, of Africans and Irish, of settler and native, of slavery and abolition, of a city and a nation wracked by Civil War and racist violence, of love won and lost. Unsettling the victim-perpetrator binary, she writes instead of people caught in the whirlwind of history, violence, politics, ideology, love, and desire; people navigating the actual world where race lines are drawn in shifting sands in blood and glue, elusive yet enduring, smelling of death and flowers. Corthron once again reminds us that nothing is black and white.”
Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

“Theo is the lone narrator in Moon and the Mars, but her voice is so rich with the locutions and grammatical tics of her joint heritage that it sounds almost choral. The novel tracks her maturation until 1863 (followed by a coda set 15 years later), during which time her speech refines and her observations deepen. The plot is, effectively, history itself: Theo and her relatives struggle to maintain their dignity and decency, if not to simply survive, as they’re storm-tossed by the Dred Scott decision, the financial panic of 1857, the election of Abraham Lincoln and the start of the Civil War, among countless external tumults. The looming threat of fracture reaches a climax with the draft riots of 1863, in which an Irish mob enraged by federal draft laws targeted blacks, including children, in a spasm of arson and lynchings. Even here, Ms. Corthron is less attracted by the spectacle of violence [than] by understanding the tragedy’s causes and aftereffects... Ms. Corthron’s humility and curiosity match her outsize intellect and ambition. Her big, immersive novel almost never sermonizes; it is, however, eager to teach.
—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

Playwright and novelist Corthron combines a propulsive coming-of-age story with a fascinating history of the years before and after the Civil War... Corthron smoothly weaves in historical developments as divisions flare in the Five Points, such as the implications of the Dred Scott case, something Grammy Brook sums up concisely: “Whenever the rich make a crisis, you know what gonna fall to the poor is catastrophe.” Corthron’s ambition pays off with dividends.
Publishers Weekly

Praise for The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter

“There are whole chunks of writing here that are simply sublime, places in which one gets swept away by the way she subverts the rhythm of language to illuminate the familiar and allow it to be seen fresh... [Corthron] blindsides you. She sneaks up from behind. Sometimes, it is with moments of humor, but more often with moments of raw emotional power — moments whose pathos feels hard-earned and true... [The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter] succeeds admirably in a novel's first and most difficult task: It makes you give a damn. It also does well by a novel's second task: It sends you away pondering what it has to say.

—Leonard Fitts Jr., The New York Times Book Review

Kia Corthron’s first novel is a stunning achievement by any measure—a riveting saga of two twentieth-century American families trapped inside the quotidian contradictions and compulsions of race, disability, and sexuality. The untidiness of history is conveyed through experiences, dreams, and inevitable eruptions of violence, yet also unexpected patterns of escape and possible orbits of justice.”

Angela Y. Davis, UC Santa Cruz

“When I first read it, I was stunned. It's a haunting and devastating tale, leavened with humor and hope ... I believe [The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter] is the most important piece of writing about twentieth-century America since James Baldwin's Another Country.

—Naomi Wallace, Elle

KIA CORTHRON's debut novel, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, was the winner of the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice. She was the 2017 Bread Loaf Shane Stevens Fellow in the Novel. She is also a nationally and internationally produced playwright. For her body of work for the stage, she has garnered the Windham Campbell Prize for Drama, the Horton Foote Prize, the United States Artists Jane Addams Fellowship, the Flora Roberts Award, and others. She was born and raised in Cumberland, Maryland, and lives in Harlem, New York City. Moon and the Mars is her second novel.

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KIA CORTHRON's debut novel, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, was the winner of the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice. She was the 2017 Bread Loaf Shane Stevens Fellow in the Novel. She is also a nationally and internationally produced playwright. For her body of work for the stage, she has garnered the Windham Campbell Prize for Drama, the Horton Foote Prize, the United States Artists Jane Addams Fellowship, the Flora Roberts Award, and others. She was born and raised in Cumberland, Maryland, and lives in Harlem, New York City. Moon and the Mars is her second novel.