Download high-resolution image Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio play button
0:00
0:00

An Autobiography of Skin

A Novel

Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio play button
0:00
0:00
Paperback
$18.00 US
On sale Feb 27, 2024 | 256 Pages | 978-0-593-46693-3
A NEW YORKER BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR • This magisterial, intimate look at Black womanhood "follows three women whose various traumas haunt them literally and metaphorically, as it explores what it means to be a Black woman in America today" (The New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice).

A middle-aged woman feed slots at a secret back-room parlor. A new mother descends into a devastating postpartum depression, wracked with the fear that she is unable to protect her children. A daughter returns home to join the other women in her family waging spiritual combat with the ghosts of their past.

An Autobiography of Skin is a dazzling and masterful portrait of interconnected generations in the South from a singular new voice, offering a raw and tender view into the interior lives of Black women. It is at once a powerful look at how experiences are carried inside the body, inside the flesh and skin, and a joyous testament to how healing can be found within—in love, mercy, gratitude, and freedom.
Yesterday Was a Dream, Today Is a Miracle
 
The night, as most nights, was like a dream.
 
At 10:00 p.m., once I fed the dog the last of the scraps off the stove. Once I cursed the cat for scratching up my mama’s antique furniture, then welcomed him back into my arms. Once I slicked my hair back into a thin ponytail, wrapping it up tight in my mama’s old scarf. Once I stayed in the bathtub a lil too long, letting the heat of the water do things my husband stopped doing years ago. Once I oiled my body down and up and down again with cocoa butter, I reached for my housecoat hanging delicately against the door—leopard print and silk—wrapping it around my bloated body, not caring if the water or oil stained or bled through.
 
And as if a ghost, soundlessly, I floated to the garage and had a cigarette alone.
 
Mostly I listened to the blues. Lightnin’ Hopkins. Bessie Smith. Bobby Womack, if my mama was heavy on my mind which was most nights, but especially tonight. So I listened to the blues and nursed a lil Crown Royal poured thin over crushed ice. The kinda ice I used to crunch and eat out of nerves, and now just out of habit. I smoked my Virginia Slims, pulling that cool menthol taste to the back of my throat before pushing it out—a thick plume of smoke.
 
Creating that smoke is what I liked to do. A lazy sort of cloud that held in the air long enough for me to see the future, revisit the past, the everything at once found within that haze. I let my thoughts drift, curl and bend as the smoke did; full with memories before tapering out and disappearing. Or, as I guessed, becoming something else. Vapor. My daddy used to tell his congregation that life was like a vapor—here today and gone tomorrow—and so they best get right with the Lord soon. As I sat watching the smoke blossom like a flower from my lips, growing and weakening again; slowly giving away with each second, I couldn’t help thinking: There goes my life. I took another long pull, watched the ash stiffen then drop to the cold concrete floor and thought: There it goes again and again.
 
Sometimes I reached out for the smoke, tried to grab it and rein it in but like the life I was living, it always seemed just beyond my grasp.
 
If I became tipsy, I might sing. Not because I could or should but just because. A low hum. A gentle cry cause sometimes I only felt happy when listening to the blues. Until I changed the record player to something electronic. Something full of shock and wonder. The funk. That beat that lifted me up somewhere heavenly, then gently delivered me back to Earth. That’s what music did for me. It was an escape, the sweetest escape there ever was. Until I remembered my body, my senses, my reality called home. Where late nights in the garage seemed a sanctuary. A safe place where I could mourn the life that never was and make temporary peace with the present.
 
Tonight I did all of those things.
 
###
 
In my bedroom, I walked to my bath, the most beautiful space in my whole house. Decked out with zebra and lion prints; a jungle, the most feminine boudoir where I housed my relief. A long day’s exhale. A sigh of regret. There I stood before the mirror nude. There I watched the soft brown flaps of skin fold upon one another, creating stacks and stacks of endless flesh around the middle parts of my body. There I closely examined the fine lines and deep ridges carved like rivers into my face, where it told a story of longing for the unknowable. For the replacement of all that felt lost. Of everything life seemed to take from me, demand from me with the expectation of grace. My eyes were dull, gradually dimming with age. Like a fire whose amber coals glowed a deep burgundy in the dark until exhausted, then smothered to soot.
 
Needless to say, I was lonely. And my breasts showed the fact; their gentle dips against the top of my abdomen hung like plums gone soft under a hot summer sun. Ripe without appreciation, ignored to rot while gravity had its way. My thighs were thick like tree stumps, and that’s how I felt. Tall. Brown. Topped with a crown of hair gone thin, and thinner still, especially along its edges where in certain spots my scalp revealed smooth and soft bald spots. And yet I still felt desirable. Comforted with the warm burn of whiskey in my belly, my gaze took in the absoluteness of my womanhood and for a moment I still felt deserving of something good, someone who might love me. All of my hidden parts that somehow never made their way to the surface of my personality—day after day after day.
 
Sometimes in the quietness of the early morning hours, just before dawn, when the sky was a dark purplish blue, I felt hopeful. Optimistic. And then once my high began to come down, and the faint sounds of my husband’s snoring across the hall made their way into my own room, I was left with fatigue. And so it was then just as tonight that I went to bed; a mess of cheetah-spotted down comforters and black cotton sheets. I slipped under the covers, still nude, grateful for the coolness of the fabric against my skin. To feel at all something welcoming. And then I watched my stories: Young and the Restless, Bold and the Beautiful, General Hospital, CSI, NCIS, and all of the other crime dramas where dead bodies the color of cold milk wound up in unusual places and cold white people with serious faces and grim speech sought to find the cause of their demise.
 
The hours passed. And just as the sun revealed itself in orderly fashion, and the sound of school buses running like steam trains rumbled through the neighborhood and the light bickering of children seeped through the thin windowpane of my bedroom, I pulled my body into myself. Pulled the covers over my head and shut my eyes tight, willing darkness and sleep to come until it finally obeyed.
 
This was my night. Not so unique. Not so special. But always consistent.
  • LONGLIST | 2023
    Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
LAKIESHA CARR graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and received her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was awarded a Maytag Fellowship for Excellence in Fiction and a Jeff and Vicki Edwards Post-graduate Fellowship in Fiction. A journalist and writer from East Texas, she has held various editorial and production positions with CNN, The New York Times, and other media. Her writing has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, the DC Commission on Arts & Humanities for nonfiction writing, and the Kimbilio Fellowship for fiction writing. View titles by Lakiesha Carr

About

A NEW YORKER BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR • This magisterial, intimate look at Black womanhood "follows three women whose various traumas haunt them literally and metaphorically, as it explores what it means to be a Black woman in America today" (The New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice).

A middle-aged woman feed slots at a secret back-room parlor. A new mother descends into a devastating postpartum depression, wracked with the fear that she is unable to protect her children. A daughter returns home to join the other women in her family waging spiritual combat with the ghosts of their past.

An Autobiography of Skin is a dazzling and masterful portrait of interconnected generations in the South from a singular new voice, offering a raw and tender view into the interior lives of Black women. It is at once a powerful look at how experiences are carried inside the body, inside the flesh and skin, and a joyous testament to how healing can be found within—in love, mercy, gratitude, and freedom.

Excerpt

Yesterday Was a Dream, Today Is a Miracle
 
The night, as most nights, was like a dream.
 
At 10:00 p.m., once I fed the dog the last of the scraps off the stove. Once I cursed the cat for scratching up my mama’s antique furniture, then welcomed him back into my arms. Once I slicked my hair back into a thin ponytail, wrapping it up tight in my mama’s old scarf. Once I stayed in the bathtub a lil too long, letting the heat of the water do things my husband stopped doing years ago. Once I oiled my body down and up and down again with cocoa butter, I reached for my housecoat hanging delicately against the door—leopard print and silk—wrapping it around my bloated body, not caring if the water or oil stained or bled through.
 
And as if a ghost, soundlessly, I floated to the garage and had a cigarette alone.
 
Mostly I listened to the blues. Lightnin’ Hopkins. Bessie Smith. Bobby Womack, if my mama was heavy on my mind which was most nights, but especially tonight. So I listened to the blues and nursed a lil Crown Royal poured thin over crushed ice. The kinda ice I used to crunch and eat out of nerves, and now just out of habit. I smoked my Virginia Slims, pulling that cool menthol taste to the back of my throat before pushing it out—a thick plume of smoke.
 
Creating that smoke is what I liked to do. A lazy sort of cloud that held in the air long enough for me to see the future, revisit the past, the everything at once found within that haze. I let my thoughts drift, curl and bend as the smoke did; full with memories before tapering out and disappearing. Or, as I guessed, becoming something else. Vapor. My daddy used to tell his congregation that life was like a vapor—here today and gone tomorrow—and so they best get right with the Lord soon. As I sat watching the smoke blossom like a flower from my lips, growing and weakening again; slowly giving away with each second, I couldn’t help thinking: There goes my life. I took another long pull, watched the ash stiffen then drop to the cold concrete floor and thought: There it goes again and again.
 
Sometimes I reached out for the smoke, tried to grab it and rein it in but like the life I was living, it always seemed just beyond my grasp.
 
If I became tipsy, I might sing. Not because I could or should but just because. A low hum. A gentle cry cause sometimes I only felt happy when listening to the blues. Until I changed the record player to something electronic. Something full of shock and wonder. The funk. That beat that lifted me up somewhere heavenly, then gently delivered me back to Earth. That’s what music did for me. It was an escape, the sweetest escape there ever was. Until I remembered my body, my senses, my reality called home. Where late nights in the garage seemed a sanctuary. A safe place where I could mourn the life that never was and make temporary peace with the present.
 
Tonight I did all of those things.
 
###
 
In my bedroom, I walked to my bath, the most beautiful space in my whole house. Decked out with zebra and lion prints; a jungle, the most feminine boudoir where I housed my relief. A long day’s exhale. A sigh of regret. There I stood before the mirror nude. There I watched the soft brown flaps of skin fold upon one another, creating stacks and stacks of endless flesh around the middle parts of my body. There I closely examined the fine lines and deep ridges carved like rivers into my face, where it told a story of longing for the unknowable. For the replacement of all that felt lost. Of everything life seemed to take from me, demand from me with the expectation of grace. My eyes were dull, gradually dimming with age. Like a fire whose amber coals glowed a deep burgundy in the dark until exhausted, then smothered to soot.
 
Needless to say, I was lonely. And my breasts showed the fact; their gentle dips against the top of my abdomen hung like plums gone soft under a hot summer sun. Ripe without appreciation, ignored to rot while gravity had its way. My thighs were thick like tree stumps, and that’s how I felt. Tall. Brown. Topped with a crown of hair gone thin, and thinner still, especially along its edges where in certain spots my scalp revealed smooth and soft bald spots. And yet I still felt desirable. Comforted with the warm burn of whiskey in my belly, my gaze took in the absoluteness of my womanhood and for a moment I still felt deserving of something good, someone who might love me. All of my hidden parts that somehow never made their way to the surface of my personality—day after day after day.
 
Sometimes in the quietness of the early morning hours, just before dawn, when the sky was a dark purplish blue, I felt hopeful. Optimistic. And then once my high began to come down, and the faint sounds of my husband’s snoring across the hall made their way into my own room, I was left with fatigue. And so it was then just as tonight that I went to bed; a mess of cheetah-spotted down comforters and black cotton sheets. I slipped under the covers, still nude, grateful for the coolness of the fabric against my skin. To feel at all something welcoming. And then I watched my stories: Young and the Restless, Bold and the Beautiful, General Hospital, CSI, NCIS, and all of the other crime dramas where dead bodies the color of cold milk wound up in unusual places and cold white people with serious faces and grim speech sought to find the cause of their demise.
 
The hours passed. And just as the sun revealed itself in orderly fashion, and the sound of school buses running like steam trains rumbled through the neighborhood and the light bickering of children seeped through the thin windowpane of my bedroom, I pulled my body into myself. Pulled the covers over my head and shut my eyes tight, willing darkness and sleep to come until it finally obeyed.
 
This was my night. Not so unique. Not so special. But always consistent.

Awards

  • LONGLIST | 2023
    Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

Author

LAKIESHA CARR graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and received her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was awarded a Maytag Fellowship for Excellence in Fiction and a Jeff and Vicki Edwards Post-graduate Fellowship in Fiction. A journalist and writer from East Texas, she has held various editorial and production positions with CNN, The New York Times, and other media. Her writing has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, the DC Commission on Arts & Humanities for nonfiction writing, and the Kimbilio Fellowship for fiction writing. View titles by Lakiesha Carr

FROM THE PAGE: An excerpt from Lakiesha Carr’s An Autobiography of Skin

This magisterial, intimate look at Black womanhood “follows three women whose various traumas haunt them literally and metaphorically, as it explores what it means to be a Black woman in America today” (The New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Choice). An Autobiography of Skin is a masterful portrait of interconnected generations in the South from a

Read more