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A sure thing we know is that our readers are into sex and exploring all facets of it: from uncovering the best clitoral vibrators to learning how to navigate life as a single person, there's so much learning and pleasure that can be gleaned from exploring sexual wellness from all angles (the puns just write themselves, folks). So when a new anthology titled Anonymous Sex landed on our WFH desks, we knew reading all about sexual desire can be yet another way to expand our minds on what intimacy can be, or look like.
Co-edited by IRL writer friends Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Anonymous Sex is a collection of erotic fiction by some of today's emerging and established writers — Louise Erdrich, Téa Obreht, Helen Oyeyemi, Jason Reynolds, Rebecca Makkai, even Mary-Louise Parker (to name a few) — but the catch is that every story is anonymous. The resulting compilation is a wild and varied romp into all kinds of sexual tales and fantasies. As Tan says, "There stories of sexual obsession and sexual love. Stories of domination and submission, power and surrender. There’s revenge sex and sex with strangers; sex as rebellion and sex as holy. There’s unrequited sex, funny sex, tortured sex, and tender sex." Horny reader: this is a book you'll wanna keep on your bedside table.
Ahead, the co-editors share what they've learned about sexuality through these short stories, how anonymity made the experience that much more intimate, and the books they've been reading (about sex and otherwise) that have inspired their own work.
How did this book project come about?
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan: "When Hillary and I were at a French bistro one night about seven years ago, we began talking about our shared love for reading erotic fiction — we were also discussing some of our favourite contemporary writers and books that we loved. We then took it one step further and thought, How brilliant would it be if some of our favourite writers right now were to write a piece of erotic fiction?"
Hillary Jordan: "As we started naming names from our dream list of contributors, the next two questions became: How could we entice them to sign on, and a publisher to buy the book? That’s when we hit on the idea of anonymity."
CLT: "Then the pandemic happened and I was in a strict lockdown in my childhood bedroom in my mother’s home in Singapore, and Hillary was in isolation in Maine. We got on a FaceTime call and said, 'You know, we both have the time now. Let’s do it.'"
This is a fun and truly unexpected roster of writers. How did this list come together?
CLT: "We specifically wanted to reach out to writers who were not known for writing explicitly about sex — this would make this anthology truly unusual because here we’d have prize-winning authors explore a creative space where they’ve not necessarily gone in their fiction before."
HJ: "Some of our invitees, like Edmund White and Victoria Redel, had erotic passages in their novels, while others, like Dina Nayeri and S.J. Rozan, had never written explicitly about sex. We wanted the book to represent the full spectrum of desire, so we invited writers across all ages, genders, sexuality, ethnicities, and nationalities.
CLT: "As a novelist from Singapore, it was very important for me to include contributors who have an international perspective — sex and erotic writing isn’t just an American construct, after all. Look at what is probably the most famous book about sex, the Kama Sutra, or Heian-era love poetry by Ono no Komachi or Izumi Shikibu. So I was thrilled when non-U.S. writers I’ve long admired — Helen Oyeyemi, Chigozie Obioma, Jeet Thayil, Souvankham Thammavongsa, to name a few — signed on."
HJ: "I kept having to pinch myself that I was getting to work with all these writers, who’ve won just about every award there is — the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the PEN Awards, the Orange/Women’s Prize, Britain’s Carnegie Medal, etc. Their trust in us, in taking this leap with us, was an incredible gift. And because the stories were anonymous, they were also putting huge faith in each other, in the sense that they could be assumed by the reading public to be the author of any one of the stories. One of our contributors took to calling the project the “Good Ship H.M.S Anonymous Sex”, and it really did feel that way, like we were sailing together into the unknown."
Did you discover a throughline about eroticism while editing Anonymous Sex?
HJ: "We asked our contributors to give us a story about sex between 1,000 and 8,000 words. There were no other instructions or limitations because we wanted to give them total free rein. One of the great pleasures for me in reading and editing these stories was seeing where the imaginations of all these brilliant writers took them.
"The stories really run the gamut. There’s queer sex and straight sex, real and imagined sex, fairy tale sex and holographic sex. Stories of sexual obsession and sexual love. Funny sex, tortured sex, ghost sex, fairy tale sex… The range of these stories, and their individual uniqueness, were a powerful and beautiful reminder of just how deeply personal sex is."
CLT: "We ended up having such a marvellous range — no story is really like the other. There’s sex all over the world — Hong Kong, Nigeria, France, India, Australia, the U.S. There’s past sex, present-day sex, future sex, and even sex in the afterlife.
"This book, I believe, offers a reader the purest reading experience — you’re going to either love (or loathe) a story simply because of the words on the page, and not because you had liked or disliked that writer’s previous work or agree or disagree with their politics. Shouldn’t we all be reading books in this way, anyway?"
Hillary Jordan's Book Recommendations:
"My two favourite books I’ve read recently are Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (which has no sex in it whatsoever) and Matrix by Lauren Groff (which has some very sexy passages despite being about a group of 12th-Century nuns). In Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro works his usual magic: creating an intimate and ultimately devastating snow globe of a story — in this case, about an empathetic A.I. named Klara — that gives us tantalising hints of the larger, troubled world outside its sphere. Matrix is a book I read in two or three sittings, both for the gorgeous prose and the surprisingly gripping storyline. It took me right out of my writer brain — where I’m reading for craft, analysing how an author did this or that — and gave me the rare pleasure of simply being an avid reader."
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan's Book Recommendations:
"I’m fascinated with power dynamics in a sexual situation — how characters (often female characters) sometimes use sex or seduction to wield power or to acquire agency. Two novels I love come to mind: Masks by Fumiko Enchi and The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark. Both are masterpiece sketches of women and their sexual agency in a time when women didn’t have much power in society. They’re both beautiful reads that may not perhaps be conventionally sexy. If you’re looking for some terrific contemporary sex writing I’d highly recommend The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw. The book, which was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award, is a collection of short stories about the sexual and intimate lives of African-American church women and they’re very funny, incredibly incisive, so poignant, and will set your heart racing while reading — and make you crave peach cobbler."