'The Exhibition of Persephone Q,' by Alumna Jessi Jezewska Stevens '18 Coming in 2020

Audrey Deng
January 14, 2020
'The Exhibition of Persephone' book cover

Alumna Jessi Jezewska Stevens '18 will publish her debut novel The Exhibition of Persephone Q with Farrar, Straus and Giroux this March. The novel was listed on “Most Anticipated Books of 2020” lists by both the Wall Street Journal and Vogue.

The Exhibition of Persephone Q is the story of a newly pregnant woman living in New York with her husband, who one night becomes a stranger to her. One day, she receives a package containing a catalog for a photography show. The photos feature a sleeping woman, who the protagonist recognizes as herself—but no one else can see it. Macmillan calls the novel “a darkly witty satire about how easy it is to lose ownership of our own selves,” and Professor Rivka Galchen says that Stevens’ book is “[a] triumph of tone and intelligence. Percy Q's perspective is skewed and searching at once, and through her eyes, we see afresh not only New York's post-9/11 landscape but also the world of art, and love, and the process of becoming."

In a brief interview with Columbia University, we asked Stevens how this book project began and her feelings about its upcoming publication.

What is The Exhibition of Persephone Q about?

Jessi Jezewska Stevens: I don't know if I've ever come up with a satisfactory answer to this question! Let's see. On the surface, it's about a woman named Persephone Q (Percy, for short) who discovers that a former fiancé has used intimate pictures of her in his photography exhibition. This forces her to assert her identity, quite literally, in a way she's long avoided. "That's me," she says of the exhibition—only no one else believes she's the woman in the image. The disoriented post-9/11 cityscape and the first stirrings of digital advertising (her husband is a postdoc working on early matching algorithms) echo her confusion.

Beneath the surface, I think it's about searching for the "right" answers to unstable questions, and the negotiations we make around identity—about navigating the gap between the way you understand reality and the way that others do. I think there are also grace notes here about self-reinvention, which depends, for better or worse, on a kind of willful amnesia about the past. My hope is that Percy's absurdist obsession with reconciling the irreconcilable will resonate on both the individual and national levels.

How did this book project begin?

Gosh, it depends on what I'd consider to be the first draft. I threw out hundreds of pages. I think it had its first inception, however, when I sort of smashed two short stories together. One was about a woman who sees a picture of herself in a gallery, much like Percy, and tries to take Father Time to court. The other was about a failed writer who discovers her ex has become a famous artist.

One interesting difference is that Percy, unlike the failed writer in the latter story, is utterly without ambition. It was interesting to adjust to her more nebulous motives. I had to think about what might animate this otherwise fairly passive character in a way that would propel a novel-length work. 

How are you feeling about your book’s publication in 2020?

I mostly feel grateful and excited—as well as constantly reminded that I care too much about what the internet and other people think about me!

In all seriousness though, I've spent so long with this book as a private object that I'm looking forward to seeing how others respond. One of the most rewarding things about sharing work is discovering how much others see in it (good and bad) that you never noticed.

Stevens holds a BA in mathematics from Middlebury College and an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Paris ReviewTin HouseGuernicaBOMB, and elsewhere. She lives in New York, where she teaches fiction. Look for her book on March 3rd in bookstores anywhere.