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Thin Skin

Essays

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Paperback
$19.00 US
On sale Jul 09, 2024 | 288 Pages | 9780593469538
ONE OF TIME'S 100 MUST-READ BOOKS OF THE YEAR A GOODREADS MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK • Examining capitalism’s toxic creep into the land, our bodies, and our thinking, this incisive new work is “a visceral exploration” (Katherine May, author of Wintering) from a National Book Award finalist and a powerful literary mind.

"A wrenching, loving and trenchant examination of feminism, nuclear weapons production, healthcare, queerness and American life" —Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

For Jenn Shapland, the barrier between herself and the world is porous; she was even diagnosed with extreme dermatologic sensitivity—thin skin.

Recognizing how deeply vulnerable we all are to our surroundings, she becomes aware of the impacts our tiniest choices have on people, places, and species far away. She can't stop seeing the ways we are enmeshed and entangled with everyone else on the planet. Despite our attempts to cordon ourselves off from risk, our boundaries are permeable.

Weaving together historical research, interviews, and her everyday life in New Mexico, Shapland probes the lines between self and work, human and animal, need and desire. She traces the legacies of nuclear weapons development on Native land, unable to let go of her search for contamination until it bleeds out into her own family’s medical history. She questions the toxic myth of white womanhood and the fear of traveling alone that she’s been made to feel since girlhood. And she explores her desire to build a creative life as a queer woman, asking whether such a thing as a meaningful life is possible under capitalism.

Ceaselessly curious, uncompromisingly intelligent, and urgently seeking, with Thin Skin Shapland builds thrillingly on her genre-defying debut My Autobiography of Carson McCullers (“Gorgeous, symphonic, tender, and brilliant” —Carmen Machado), firmly establishing herself as one of the sharpest essayists of her generation.
Preface

Thin Skin 
Strangers on a Train 
The Toomuchness 
Crystal Vortex
The Meaning of Life 

Acknowledgments
Sources
Preface
 
I’m sitting in my office, a converted garage in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the waning September light, with Lou, the small gray cat, on my lap, while Chelsea is out with a friend. I’ve just come inside from removing three dead baby mice from our shed. Their mother appears to have abandoned them, and though I tried, naïvely, to revive them—with tortilla chips,with carrot shavings, with oat milk in a syringe—they didn’t make it. My editor, Naomi, has asked me to write an author’s note for this book, which I’ve chosen to call a preface, because I like the sound of it better. The preface is meant to tell you what connects these five essays for me, to give you a plan, a sense of direction.
 
I wanted this book to open with something soft, some easy ground to land on. I wanted to begin with a funny anecdote, relevant to our times but not too taxing. I wanted to ease us all into it, the idea of our utter physical enmeshment with every other being on the planet. I wanted to let the bottom of our bounded individuality fall away beneath us slowly, almost imperceptibly. Instead, this book begins in the free fall of reality: the material fact of our exposure to nuclear and industrial waste, and our political and cultural willingness to wasteland entire human communities and ecosystems. Note that my impulse here is to apologize.
 
It starts with “Thin Skin,” a corporeal account of how thin the membrane is between each of us and one another, between each of us and the world outside. I want it to be clear from the outset that there is no “outside,” that the world is a part of our cellular makeup, that we impact it with every tiny choice we make. My thinking for this book began with an essay called “The Toomuchness,” which took five years to write. It was inspired by the clothes moths that had infested our closet, which I saw as a metaphor made literal, the ultimate intersection of capitalism’s excess and human mortality.
I couldn’t look away.
 
I began to see what I now think of as literalized metaphors for my entanglement, my complicity, all over my life: in my dermatological diagnosis of “thin skin,” in my friends’ having babies as the world burned, in the crystals cropping up everywhere to heal us of something, in my own sense of vulnerability and my desire to feel safe. I began to question the idea of myself as a being in need of protection, indeed as something that could be protected. Nothing can protect us: just look at the mice. It struck me as I wrote that I was utterly vulnerable to every other person, every other creature on Earth, and they were also vulnerable to me. Writing under lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic only made this more obvious and inescapable. As I wrote, I began to seek other ways of understanding the self that might be more useful than this shivering, weak thing we must shore up against the world.
 
At times I thought of these essays as a way to document coping mechanisms for capitalism: all the things that I do, that many of us do already, to cope with a broken and violent system. At other times I longed for a way to burn it all down and start again. What would it mean to imagine alternatives to our limited narratives about family, love, labor, longing, pleasure, safety, and legacy? As I thought and read about these intersecting ideas, I grounded the essays in the present conditions of my life, yet each one took me farther back in time— to the makeshift lives of queer women in the ___s; to the construction of our ideas about work and white femininity during the early days of U.S. colonization and slavery; to the witch hunts in Europe, a point of origin for our dysfunctional healthcare system and the ongoing pressure on women to caretake. I love essays because they can go anywhere, can incorporate any body of knowledge, any question. Nothing is too big or too small.
 
In writing these pieces, I saw myself as source material— not as a character, not as the story, but as one vehicle among many for probing the ideas that most torment or entice me, that keep me up at night. To be thin- skinned is to feel keenly, to perceive things that might go unseen, unnoticed, that others might prefer not to notice. The essays contain many people’s voices other than my own, some of whom express a sensitivity, an ability to feel and sense this profound permeability with others. Writing can be a mode of perception, a sensitivity to the world. This is a book about the joys and perils of our dissolving boundaries: the physical boundary of our skin as it absorbs chemicals, the emotional border where real fear meets cultivated violence, the obscured line from our desires to our material things, the ever- more- fluid overlap between self and work, and the imaginative realm beyond our prescribed expectations for a full life and toward expanded ideas of personhood, meaning, and purpose.
© Brad Trone
JENN SHAPLAND’s first book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won a Lambda Literary Award and a Christian Gauss Award, among other honors; it has been translated into Spanish, French, and Polish. Shapland has a PhD in English from the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she works as an archivist for a visual artist. View titles by Jenn Shapland

About

ONE OF TIME'S 100 MUST-READ BOOKS OF THE YEAR A GOODREADS MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK • Examining capitalism’s toxic creep into the land, our bodies, and our thinking, this incisive new work is “a visceral exploration” (Katherine May, author of Wintering) from a National Book Award finalist and a powerful literary mind.

"A wrenching, loving and trenchant examination of feminism, nuclear weapons production, healthcare, queerness and American life" —Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

For Jenn Shapland, the barrier between herself and the world is porous; she was even diagnosed with extreme dermatologic sensitivity—thin skin.

Recognizing how deeply vulnerable we all are to our surroundings, she becomes aware of the impacts our tiniest choices have on people, places, and species far away. She can't stop seeing the ways we are enmeshed and entangled with everyone else on the planet. Despite our attempts to cordon ourselves off from risk, our boundaries are permeable.

Weaving together historical research, interviews, and her everyday life in New Mexico, Shapland probes the lines between self and work, human and animal, need and desire. She traces the legacies of nuclear weapons development on Native land, unable to let go of her search for contamination until it bleeds out into her own family’s medical history. She questions the toxic myth of white womanhood and the fear of traveling alone that she’s been made to feel since girlhood. And she explores her desire to build a creative life as a queer woman, asking whether such a thing as a meaningful life is possible under capitalism.

Ceaselessly curious, uncompromisingly intelligent, and urgently seeking, with Thin Skin Shapland builds thrillingly on her genre-defying debut My Autobiography of Carson McCullers (“Gorgeous, symphonic, tender, and brilliant” —Carmen Machado), firmly establishing herself as one of the sharpest essayists of her generation.

Table of Contents

Preface

Thin Skin 
Strangers on a Train 
The Toomuchness 
Crystal Vortex
The Meaning of Life 

Acknowledgments
Sources

Excerpt

Preface
 
I’m sitting in my office, a converted garage in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the waning September light, with Lou, the small gray cat, on my lap, while Chelsea is out with a friend. I’ve just come inside from removing three dead baby mice from our shed. Their mother appears to have abandoned them, and though I tried, naïvely, to revive them—with tortilla chips,with carrot shavings, with oat milk in a syringe—they didn’t make it. My editor, Naomi, has asked me to write an author’s note for this book, which I’ve chosen to call a preface, because I like the sound of it better. The preface is meant to tell you what connects these five essays for me, to give you a plan, a sense of direction.
 
I wanted this book to open with something soft, some easy ground to land on. I wanted to begin with a funny anecdote, relevant to our times but not too taxing. I wanted to ease us all into it, the idea of our utter physical enmeshment with every other being on the planet. I wanted to let the bottom of our bounded individuality fall away beneath us slowly, almost imperceptibly. Instead, this book begins in the free fall of reality: the material fact of our exposure to nuclear and industrial waste, and our political and cultural willingness to wasteland entire human communities and ecosystems. Note that my impulse here is to apologize.
 
It starts with “Thin Skin,” a corporeal account of how thin the membrane is between each of us and one another, between each of us and the world outside. I want it to be clear from the outset that there is no “outside,” that the world is a part of our cellular makeup, that we impact it with every tiny choice we make. My thinking for this book began with an essay called “The Toomuchness,” which took five years to write. It was inspired by the clothes moths that had infested our closet, which I saw as a metaphor made literal, the ultimate intersection of capitalism’s excess and human mortality.
I couldn’t look away.
 
I began to see what I now think of as literalized metaphors for my entanglement, my complicity, all over my life: in my dermatological diagnosis of “thin skin,” in my friends’ having babies as the world burned, in the crystals cropping up everywhere to heal us of something, in my own sense of vulnerability and my desire to feel safe. I began to question the idea of myself as a being in need of protection, indeed as something that could be protected. Nothing can protect us: just look at the mice. It struck me as I wrote that I was utterly vulnerable to every other person, every other creature on Earth, and they were also vulnerable to me. Writing under lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic only made this more obvious and inescapable. As I wrote, I began to seek other ways of understanding the self that might be more useful than this shivering, weak thing we must shore up against the world.
 
At times I thought of these essays as a way to document coping mechanisms for capitalism: all the things that I do, that many of us do already, to cope with a broken and violent system. At other times I longed for a way to burn it all down and start again. What would it mean to imagine alternatives to our limited narratives about family, love, labor, longing, pleasure, safety, and legacy? As I thought and read about these intersecting ideas, I grounded the essays in the present conditions of my life, yet each one took me farther back in time— to the makeshift lives of queer women in the ___s; to the construction of our ideas about work and white femininity during the early days of U.S. colonization and slavery; to the witch hunts in Europe, a point of origin for our dysfunctional healthcare system and the ongoing pressure on women to caretake. I love essays because they can go anywhere, can incorporate any body of knowledge, any question. Nothing is too big or too small.
 
In writing these pieces, I saw myself as source material— not as a character, not as the story, but as one vehicle among many for probing the ideas that most torment or entice me, that keep me up at night. To be thin- skinned is to feel keenly, to perceive things that might go unseen, unnoticed, that others might prefer not to notice. The essays contain many people’s voices other than my own, some of whom express a sensitivity, an ability to feel and sense this profound permeability with others. Writing can be a mode of perception, a sensitivity to the world. This is a book about the joys and perils of our dissolving boundaries: the physical boundary of our skin as it absorbs chemicals, the emotional border where real fear meets cultivated violence, the obscured line from our desires to our material things, the ever- more- fluid overlap between self and work, and the imaginative realm beyond our prescribed expectations for a full life and toward expanded ideas of personhood, meaning, and purpose.

Author

© Brad Trone
JENN SHAPLAND’s first book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won a Lambda Literary Award and a Christian Gauss Award, among other honors; it has been translated into Spanish, French, and Polish. Shapland has a PhD in English from the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she works as an archivist for a visual artist. View titles by Jenn Shapland