Our Favorite Writers on Fathers and Fatherhood

Image © Shutterstock
Image © Shutterstock

To celebrate Father’s Day, we’ve rounded up six great explorations of father-son and father-daughter relationships, as depicted by some of our favorite authors. Funny, daring, moving, and sincere, tackling large issues of race, sexuality, and inheritance alongside the comedy of day-to-day life, these are not sugar-coated reminiscences, but energetic, eloquent evocations of the mysteries of family.

The brilliant Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in Baltimore in the 1970s, as the city was sliding into decay, and the opportunities available to black teenage boys were bleakly limited. In that environment, where drugs and violence constantly threatened to lure his sons away, Ta-Nehisi’s father, Paul, was determined to keep them in school and send them to college and out into the world to do better than anyone expected. Paul was a hero to his seven children, a Vietnam veteran and former Black Panther, who believed in old-fashioned hard work and newfangled free love. In his richly poetic memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, Coates brings his father, family, and community blazingly to life.

Fairyland is also a tale of a 1970s childhood, a world away from inner-city Baltimore, but also in a community that operated under its own rules and codes against the lingering threat of violence. When two-year-old Alysia Abott’s mother was killed in a car accident, her bisexual father, the poet and activist Steve Abbott, moved with his small daughter to San Francisco to become a central player in the city’s gay cultural scene. Her riveting new memoir is a loving account of a nomadic, eccentric childhood that turns darker as a teenaged Alysia learns the cost of difference, and sees her and her father’s shared world ravaged by AIDS.

The distance between Steve Abbott’s San Francisco and Dan Savage’s national prominence as an advice columnist and memoirist is a marker of progress toward visibility and acceptance for gay parents. Savage’s memoir The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant tells a story both simple and exceptional, of a loving couple’s desire to have a child. What follows for Dan and his boyfriend (now husband) Terry Miller in their journey to adoption is both a personal tale of fatherhood, and an unavoidably political story in a climate of homophobic social-conservative denunciations of gay marriage, adoption, and parenting. Laced with Savage’s trademark wit and forthright energy, the book is a powerful reminder that fatherhood is a privilege, not to be taken lightly.

Author of seven novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and last year’s acclaimed Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon is also an accomplished essayist, and brings to his nonfiction the same sharp attention to detail, warmth, and humor that characterizes his fiction. His most recent collection, Manhood for Amateurs, draws on his experiences as a son, father of four, and husband to another successful novelist, Ayelet Waldman, for a series of linked essays exploring what it means to be a man today. Billed as a “shy manifesto” and an “impractical handbook,” the collection steers a careful path between the whimsically comic and the heartfelt and humane.

Some talents unmistakably run in families, and the English literary dynasty of the Waughs is a prime example of an inheritance that runs deeper than the shape of a family nose. Alexander Waugh, author of Fathers and Sons -- a family saga that is both biography and memoir -- is clearly a member of the Waugh tribe, evident through his elegant, witty style, and unflinching examination of family strife. Waugh traces the family business of words across a turbulent century, from his Victorian great-grandfather Arthur, a renowned publisher; through Arthur’s two sons, Alec and Evelyn, both controversial and wildly successful novelists; to his own father, Auberon, a prominent satirical journalist, to give a candid insight into the unique relationships between talented fathers and sons.

For fathers and sons who don’t share an artistic passion, sports often provide the bonding glue that sees them through the journey to adulthood. Novelist and sports journalist Will Leitch, in his rollicking memoir Are We Winning? explores his own relationship with his father against the backdrop of a trip to Wrigley Field to watch their beloved St. Louis Cardinals play the Chicago Cubs. Each half-inning stretch gives Leitch the opportunity to reflect on the game at hand, the national pastime itself, and the way that baseball fandom has provided a lifelong bond between himself and his taciturn father.