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A Trip to Sri Lanka Spurs a Meditation on Sexuality

By Daniel Lefferts | Jan 29, 2016

In 2010, before starting her debut novel, Wreck and Order (Hogarth, Feb.), Hannah Tennant-Moore, then 27, spent two months backpacking around Sri Lanka. She’d recently completed her M.F.A. at Bennington College and had no major commitments—no regular job, no boyfriend. “I didn’t even have my cat yet,” she says. “I went there not knowing anybody. I felt displaced in this really magical way. I became sort of an organism of observation.”

As a Buddhist, Tennant-Moore was attracted to Sri Lanka’s religious culture. As a nonfiction writer with a focus on gender and sexuality, she was interested to see how women there navigated a largely patriarchal society. “I was struck by how hardworking the women tended to be, and how lazy the men tended to be,” she says. She met young girls who were wary of riding bikes for fear of breaking their hymens before their wedding nights. When Tennant-Moore began writing upon her return from Sri Lanka, she set out to document “the inequality of pleasure—the double standard in terms of the male and female enjoyment of sexuality.”

Wreck and Order centers on a young woman in her 20s, Elsie, who travels to a number of places, including Sri Lanka, Paris, and California, and carries on a number of (sometimes destructive) romances. Tennant-Moore, who grew up near Boston, had written a number of essays on women’s sexuality, for publications such as Dissent and n+1, but, in her novel, she wanted to “simply describe the feelings and sensations” that result from gender imbalances. “I didn’t feel like explaining facts that really got at the underlying issue, which is that it causes a lot of pain to young women who are excited about starting to become sexual beings. That pain was something I hadn’t come across.”

Alexis Washam, an executive editor at Hogarth, acquired the book in summer 2014. “What was really exciting to me about this book was how fearless it was,” she says. Tennant-Moore “is willing to go places that are a little uncomfortable, and that might strike some readers as difficult to swallow.” Washam adds that the book “serves as a challenge to some of the narratives of enlightenment, or narratives of sexual discovery, that cover familiar ground.”

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