Back when computers meant people who did math, a precursor to NASA hired a number of women to analyze test data.
Women were thought better suited to repetitive, detail-oriented tasks — and they could be paid less. During World War II, an executive order brought nondiscrimination rules to the defense industry.
Margot Lee Shetterly was born in 1969 in Hampton, the daughter of a National Aeronautics and Space Administration research scientist, and grew up in a community of black mathematicians, professors, engineers and other professions who were elsewhere far behind in integration.
In “Hidden Figures: the American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” (William Morrow), Shetterly mines her own childhood for the remarkable people she knew — black women living in Jim Crow Virginia but working at Langley on the front lines of the space race.
She credits her husband with seeing the value of the story, she says: “I was able to see [the people I grew up with] and my hometown with fresh eyes.”
The six-year nonfiction project involved first-person interviews and such primary sources as NASA newsletters, black newspapers in Hampton, funeral programs and national archives.
“The thing that surprised me is how long it really takes to understand someone else’s story,” she says. “I’d interview someone over and over, look back at first interview from the end, and think, that’s what she was talking about!”
Shetterly weaves the women’s narratives through historical moments, showing the realities of legalized segregation and the story of hope and meritocratic triumph.
“There’s no way to tell those stories without telling how their lives were circumscribed by discrimination,” she says. “But there’s also no way to tell stories without the optimism and passion that they lived.”
The September release is the first book for Shetterly, who worked as an investment banker right out of school.
That trajectory is forever altered by “Hidden Figures.” The book was optioned by movie producers in the proposal stage, and a film starring such A-listers as Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner comes out in January.
“It’s been a really crazy thing,” Shetterly says.
Katy Resch George’s debut book, “Exposure,” is physically small, apt to be drowned on a bookshelf. But don’t be fooled by its size: The collection of short stories is one of the best pieces of fiction you’ll read this fall.
A photography teacher gets high on chemicals in his semiobsolete darkroom. A couple on their first date “clamped their bodies together in the cab of Steve’s pick-up, the ache of the leather upholstery a furtive sound that egged Reena on.” A teenager describes her love for a troubled boyfriend in a series of memories: “Once, Jake pulled over on the highway to weep at the sunset and all I could do was pick my chipped nails.”
The stories are brilliant flashes, like the view from a train going in and out of tunnels. In between, like in the tunnels, you’ll see yourself in the darkened glass.
One gem, “Adult Daughters,” has two sisters accompanying their newly sober father to Disney World, the problems and pathologies of the adult women slowly revealing themselves in the wake of their father’s forced positivity.
George, who moved to Richmond in 2009, is a poet by training, with a master’s degree in poetry and creative writing. “I think at the sentence level I tried to have an ear for the music,” she says, “like the same way when I read and write poems.”
Themes and events often link the otherwise disparate tales — storms, an old loss, a shared longing — for a euphonic effect. The title captures two variations on a theme. “The slow shutter photography described in one story, the idea that time accumulates and transforms an image, makes it beautiful,” George says of one. The other: “the different kinds of emotional exposure that the characters go through.”
Like the book itself, the stories are compressed, dense with imagery. “When I think back to how each story originated, the impulse came from each one’s central metaphor,” she says. “My poetry is also on the short, economical side.” S
Margot Lee Shetterly will be at the Library of Virginia on Tuesday, Oct. 25, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. for a free book talk and signing.
Katy Resch George’s “Exposure” (Kore Press) was released Oct. 15. Chop Suey Books holds a launch Wednesday, Oct. 19, from 6-7 p.m.