My Favorite Love Story is Not a Love Story

At least not in the traditional sense. Otravida, Otravez by Junot Diaz is my favorite love story because it’s the story of love when it’s hard, of love when it’s difficult, or when it seems impossible.

The narrator is a woman in love with Ramón, a man with a wife and son he does not speak to.

Our first months Ramón and I were in the park daily. Just to wind down after work, he said, but I painted my fingernails red every time. I remember the day before we first made love, how I already knew it would happen. He had only just told me about his wife and about his son.

The narrator (and in turn, us, the readers) are haunted by the letters sent to Ramón from his wife.

In a box on the top shelf of the closet he has a stack of Virta’s letters, cinched in a fat brown rubber band. Nearly eight years’ worth. Each envelope s worn and frail and I think he’s forgotten they’re here. I found them a month after he stored his things, right at the start of our relationship, couldn’t resist, and afterward I wished I had.

He claims that he stopped writing to her the year before, but that’s not true. Every month I drop by his apartment with his laundry and read the new letters she has sent, the ones he stashes under his bed. I know Virta’s name, her address, I know she works at a chocolate factory; I know that he hasn’t told her about me.

The letters have grown beautiful over the years and now the handwriting has changed as well – each letter loops down, dropping into the next line like a rudder. Please, please mi querido husband, tell me what it is. How long did it take before your wife stopped mattering?

The narrator writes,

Here there are calamities without end—but sometimes I can clearly see us in the future, and it is good.

Her love for this man is something fraught; described to her best friend like this,

Ana Iris once asked me if I loved him and I told her about the lights in my old house in the capital, how they flickered and you never knew if they would go out or not. You put down your things and you waited and couldn’t do anything really until the lights decided. This, I told her, is how I feel.

But still, the love feels real, or at least, the need to stay is.

I am pregnant when the next letter finally arrives. Sent from Ramón’s old place to our new home. I pull it from the stack of mail and stare at it. My heart is beating like it’s lonely, like there’s nothing else inside of me. I want to open it but I call Ana Iris instead; we haven’t spoken in a long time. I stare out of the bird-filled hedges while the phone rings.

I want to go for a walk, I tell her.

The piece ends just as softly as it begins.

She’s writing again, I say, but Ana Iris interrupts me.

I’ve been calling my children, she says. She points out the man across from the courthouse, who sells her stolen calling-card numbers. They’ve gotten so much older, she tells me, that it’s hard for me to recognize their voices.

We sit down after a while so that I can hold her hand and she can cry. I should say something but I don’t know where a person can start.

It gets cold. We go home. We embrace at the door for what feels like an hour.

That night I give Ramón the letter and I try to smile while he reads it.

It’s Pisces Season

IMG_4384.JPGThis is my desk. Or at least, the calming corner of my desk (the rest of it tends to be mussed with a laptop, stack of books, strewn papers). Every work day of every week for the last four years at least, I’ve woken up early to sit here and write for an hour before I attended one of three jobs, changing over the years, but all involving writing in some way or another. For most of this time, I was working on a novel, occasionally short stories and essays as they came up.

But for the last nearly three weeks, I fell out of this routine. “Fell” isn’t really the right word, I deliberately decided to not write, is more like it. I woke up later, meditated for twenty-ish minutes, made coffee, drank it slowly, watched the news, occasionally turned on my laptop and played around with a short story I wrote this time last year and haven’t yet returned to in order to make the appropriate edits, but this I did without conviction. Some mornings I woke up feeling absolutely directionless, too foggy-headed to make a decision on how to spend the 45-60 minutes before I needed to get myself together and head out the door, and those mornings were almost inevitably spent scrolling through my phone while I ate oatmeal or toast, reading but not absorbing much of what I saw, growing outraged at mere headlines.

It felt right to take a break, but yet strange. We tend to define ourselves by our work, and if not our work, then at least by what we are working towards, who we aspire to be. (Case in point: I spent much of my very early twenties telling anyone who asked that I was “working on becoming a writer” and still, one month shy of 30, having gone to school, been published, with my long labored-on manuscript finally completed and in the hands of a caring agent, I occasionally feel the word “writer” getting stuck in my throat, hear it spoken like it came from someone else.) It’s not that I feel like this label is now false just because I’m taking time off, but it does feel odd to not be in the act of “working towards it” or (as I try to convince myself) “doing it.” What am I if I’m not doing this one thing that I’ve staked plenty of my own time (all of my twenties) and (several) dollars pursuing?

In my day job, I’m a grant writer. A “development professional.” But is this how I define myself? Of course, not. This is something that, at 29, I found that I’m not bad at, that I can live off of, at least for now. But without the writing, the focal point of my days has shifted. My mind has been commandeered by grants, funding streams, the insane but necessary worry that VAWA will be defunded by the current administration and my livelihood will go away. These are not things I tend to like the majority of my time to be spent on.

I know it’s silly, ridiculous even, but three weeks without writing has had me worried about all of these things, labels and definitions, the existential “What am I?” etc. I fear these are my own neuroses, out on the table and in full view.

Another existential battle: in the current world we find ourselves in, where the news is always bad, or at least doing a good job of hiding what we know to be good and decent acts happening somewhere else, what is it to be a writer? More specifically, what is it to write fiction, poetry, meandering essays like this one? I’ve become, like many, incredibly bogged down in what to do, how to do it, where to show up, where not to show up, how best to protest, what to avoid to ensure you don’t suck at protesting, how to be a better white person, where to donate, what link to share, which article to read, which petition to sign. Where is the space for creating stories in all this? What is the need? Is there a need, or are we (writers) merely hoping that there is still a need?

A young woman I spoke to recently confessed in the self-conscious way I’m beginning to feel is consistent with all writers (or at least writers who are also women) that she, too, spends at least part of the many hours of her weeks writing fiction. I felt this kinship strongly, pictured her holing up somewhere like we do, in the glow of a laptop screen, carving out some space to exist solitarily. I was with this woman for several hours over the course of a Saturday, some of which was spent talking about writing and great American writers, but much more discussing politics and our horror at the changing world. (She, a Brit, moved to America just after Brexit, the proverbial “double whammy.”) I asked her, during the course of this long day of occasionally interrupted conversation, if she still felt fiction to be a worthwhile pursuit, given the political climate. She looked at me squarely. “Of course,” she said, in that lovely full-throated London tone I experience almost painful nostalgia for. “It’s needed now more than ever.”

I nodded my head and agreed, and I suppose some part of me does agree, or at least very much wants to, but it still didn’t keep me from feeling strange, almost selfishly ignorant, when I sent an email to the aforementioned lovely agent only a few days after the presidential inauguration with the subject line “Literary Fiction Novel” to say, “I’m pleased to resubmit to you…”

Where am I going with this? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I woke up feeling emotional. I’m a Pisces, it’s nearly our season. I’ll probably go back to writing next week and wonder why I spent so much time ruminating on this. (A yoga teacher, when teaching her students how to meditate, told us the horrifying fact that only 3% of the mind’s thoughts are new. Another thing to worry about: Are all of my thoughts recycled? Slight revisions of previous thoughts?)

And yet, I can’t move past the feeling of being pulled in two. The energy needed to write is equal to (or greater than?) the energy needed to pay attention and act, to get through the day. And yet my days without writing have felt incomplete. I’ve been lingering in the space just before falling asleep at night with the nagging feeling that I left the oven on, or that I’ve forgotten to do something I said I would. As though the deliberate act of not writing has left something unfinished, something vitally important to my sense of self.

I, like many others, spend time daydreaming about the future. (Going directly against the advice of another yoga teacher, “Do not predict the future, do not dwell on the past.”) Selfishly, of course, these predictions are centered around me. The future version of me is always a rosier version of my current self. Contented, balanced, self-aware. She spends more time doing than she does worrying. She has accomplishments, goals, a different living space, an affable, bewildered baby strapped to her chest. This future version of me wears her hair long and wears (casually!) floor-length, flowy dresses. (Why? I tell you this now: my hair refuses to grow more than an inch below my shoulders and I do not, nor have I ever, owned a long, flowy dress.) And yet, this woman exists in my mind clear as day. Who is she? Why does she exist? Is she here to taunt me?

There are different versions of her: a writer (who is somehow not scraping by), a mother (who is somehow not overwhelmed or exhausted), a vegan café owner (a side project that always exists in my head that I lack both the will and skill to actually do), still in nonprofit development (please, no). Overlaying these visions of a future there is the reality of crisis: where will we be in four years? Eight years? Twelve? (“My biggest worry,” says a colleague, “is that we’ll never have a Democrat in office again. That there will be a Republican coup.” To which I could do nothing but shake my head and explain that my mind can’t quite bend to the possibility of that reality.)

The truth is, in this intrepid future, I will probably still be me, just a slightly older version of me, hopefully wiser, but maybe not, still with the same worries, the same fears, the same circular, meandering thoughts.

And the same burning need to write about it.

Read in 2016: Top Five

Here we go, ya’ll. Twenty sixteen is over, and while it was raucous to say the least, we’ve made it through. Yes, it can be hard to look beyond the dire fear that 2016 has effectively ushered in the end of the world, but, we did get Lemonade out of it. That has to count for something.

In any case, despite the insane political shit show we’ve all been forced to endure, I hope you’ve all managed to get some decent reading time in. But who am I kidding, we hit 129 degrees this year. What else were you going to do?

As I like to do every year, I’ve taken a look back at the books I read over the last twelve months (never as many as I would’ve liked) and meditate on which ones I liked, which ones I loved, and which ones I will never, ever pick up again. This post won’t go through all of that, but I will share with you my top five books that I read this year. If you recall, I decided earlier this year that I wouldn’t be reading white male authors if I didn’t have to (and I had to, twice, for book club, neither of which made the top five cut, and one that I’m particularly annoyed was even published). That trend will stay mostly in effect next year, but less because I’m over the white male perspective (though, still true) and more because so many other writers, particularly women, are kicking ass. This year, as many years before, continued to prove that fact. 

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#5 The Bricks That Built the Houses – Kate Tempest

I discovered Kate Tempest for the first time this year, and I’m so very glad that I did. As her bio tells you, this girl is a wriiiiiter. She’s a poet, playwright, rapper, recording artist, and novelist, and this debut did not disappoint. Set in gritty southeast London, the story follows a group of young city dwellers connected through love, drugs, friendships, and their own desperation. Tempest sets up a not-your-typical love triangle that is at times harrowing, heartbreaking, and yet completely satisfying. Unlike similar premises before it (think Tao Lin’s Taipei, Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero) Tempest does not bore us with long scenes of aimless, drug-addled youth. Instead, she weaves beauty and empathy into every character’s interaction, and when she shows us somewhat aimless, drug-addled youth, it is not to show off, but to demonstrate humanity. And while the novel’s form could do well with a break from its formulaic structure, lines like, “she is riddled with the haunted, shy defiance of a woman born with all the bits adding up to the wrong amount” are enough to have us look past that. You’ll read for the story but stay for the writing.

#4 M Train – Patti Smith

I was first introduced to Patti Smith’s indelible writing not through 1975’s poetry and rock-infused Horses, but through her 2010 memoir Just Kids, that chronicled her time as a young 20-something in New York with the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe. If you read and loved Just Kids, her next book M Train was not part two (which is okay, we don’t need to add to perfection). M Train was the perfect meditative read that I needed for the syrupy days of summer, the right book for a rainy day (or any day). Part essay, part poetry, part memoir, part cultural critique, M Train infuses New York post-Hurricane Sandy, TV crime shows, Japanese literature, Frida Kahlo, an Arctic explorer’s society in Berlin, Sylvia Plath, Jean Genet, black coffee, brown bread, olive oil, death, love, and loss. Lovely, moving, honest, we can only hope Patti Smith never, ever stops. 

#3 A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James

The only male writer to make the list, and very near the best book I read this year, goes to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. (“Brief” is ironic, the book boasts close to 700 pages). When I finished this book, I was on a writing retreat in the middle of nowhere Maryland, staring out over a lake. I was stuck, for several minutes, wondering how on earth I could return to my own novel when things like this existed in the literary world. The novel is no short of explosive, switching from a plethora of characters–young gang members, older Dons, drug dealers, The Singer (Bob Marley), a woman who loved him, CIA agents, even ghosts–over the course of thirty years. Officially, there are 77 characters, not all who get a voice, but all who exist in some way throughout the book. The setting is mostly the streets of West Kingston, eventually moving to Miami and New York. Not for the weak of heart, the writing and language is intense, violent, at times assaulting (I couldn’t read this one in long stretches), but absolutely mesmerizing. My only critique: the book could do with more women. The few female perspectives are a refreshing reprieve from the intensity of the male perspective. And James’s writing comes alive the most through the female characters. For example, we first meet the character Nina Burgess she’s waiting outside the house of The Singer, the man she loves, lingering, waiting for him to appear. James perfectly captures her heartache with the final line of her section: “The white man takes the first bus that comes. I don’t and I’m telling myself that it’s because I don’t want to be on the same bus with him. But I know I’ll miss the next one. And the one after that too.”

#2 Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine

I first discovered Claudia Rankine with 2004’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and realized then what poetry could do. Fusing politics, poetry, prose, and images, Claudia Rankine powerfully sums up the times (at that time, the George Bush Administration) with lines that punch. Citizen does exactly that for our current times. In the era of Trayvon, the cover is a solitary black hood cut from a sweatshirt, demonstrating the hypocrisy of the politicization of a simple garment. Moving from personal to the political (the pages on Serena Williams are incredible), Citizen chronicles the frustration of our times with lines like, “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” In relating Serena and Venus to Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” Rankine writes, “This appropriated line […] seemed to be ad copy for aspect of life for all black bodies.” And, when Rankine tells the story of a [white] woman she works with mistaking her for another [black] woman she works with, she jokes, “who cares? She had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right.” And yet, following an apology by the woman who refers to “our mistake,” Rankine writes, “Apparently your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion. This is how the apparatus she propels you into begins to multiply its meaning.”

Rankine cuts. Her words put a microscope on the subtle and large injustices that our country continues to allow. In its biting brilliance, Citizen is the smack-in-the-face cultural critique we all need.

#1 Gold Fame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins

Of all the great books I read this year, there was only one that made me want to stop everything and write. Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus stopped me in my tracks. Who writes like this? Who uses adjectives like this? In a world where California has gone completely dry and the rest of the country is fighting for scarce resources, Luz and Ray are trying to survive in a barren state. When Watkins described insatiable thirst, I felt it in my throat. When she described the omnipresent sand, I felt it pass my skin.The caustic heat on my body. Line by line, her language is intoxicating: “for she wanted to give him all things there, in their tiny kaleidoscope universe fixed in the center of the great big benevolent cartwheeling galaxy around them. There was nothing she wouldn’t let go–the freedom of that[…]” The story, for some, is strange. Watkins breaks the rules on what a novel should be by infusing short story into a straight forward third-person narrative, which do not always make sense at the time of reading (I think, however, it all works on reflection). But her willingness to push boundaries, to write like a bullet train dipped in modern art, makes this the best novel I read this year.

Other close runners-up: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, and Leah Hagar Cohen’s The Grief of Others.

So, 2016 wasn’t all so bad. Great art has always been there to help us through the toughest times. As we move into uncharted territory, writers will be there to document, empathize, and take us to new worlds when we most need it. Here’s to 2017 and another year of great literature.

Favorite Females Friday: The Goddess Herself

This #FavoriteFemalesFriday is dedicated to the goddess herself, Patti Smith.

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I recently (this morning) finished M Train, her 2015 follow up to the National Book Award winning memoir, Just Kids, the gorgeous story of Patti’s life while moving to New York in her early 20s, meeting Robert Mapplethorpe, and becoming the rockstar/poetess we know her as today.

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If you’re looking for a reprise of that book, you won’t necessarily find it in M Train, which is a slow, quiet meditation on Patti’s life now, with reflections back to a time living with her two children and late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. The book floats between memory and the present as we travel with her to places around the world and around her home city of New York, become engrossed in Jean Genet and Haruki Murakami right along side her, feel the sting of things lost in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, dissect many TV crime shows, and drink plenty of coffee at corner tables. Set amongst Smith’s melodic passages and subtle black and white photographs, we consider objects and people lost, the lassitude of melancholy, the passage of time, and our own concept of age and death.

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Smith’s words on the page have always done something to me. They are calm, soothing, meandering, poetic. I marked two passages that were particularly beautiful to me:

Fred finally achieved his pilot’s license but couldn’t afford to fly a plane. I wrote incessantly but published nothing. Through it all we held fast to the concept of the clock with no hands. Tasks were completed, sump pumps manned, sandbags piled, trees planted, shirts ironed, hems stitched, and yet we reserved the right to ignore the hands that kept on turning. Looking back, long after his death, our way of living seems a miracle, one that could only be achieved by the silent synchronization of the jewels and gears of a common mind. 

The image of the faceless clock comes back again at the end, as we follow Smith through a dreamscape where Fred appears to her, racing next to a clock with no hands, as though always impervious to time.

Smith is open and unassuming about the loneliness that comes with being a writer, and especially the frustration of being alone but still unable to produce the words you want to say. While spending time in Japan and trying to conjure her muse at the time, Osuma Dazai, Smith writes:

I returned to my station and gazed at my notebook. I was determined to produce something despite an inescapable lassitude, no doubt due to the deeper effect of travel. I could not resist closing my eyes for just a moment and was instantaneously greeted with an expanding lattice that shook soundly, blanketing the edge of an impeccable maze with a torrent of petals. Horizontal clouds formed above a distant mountain: the floating lips of Lee Miller. Now now, I said half aloud, for I was not about to get lost in some surreal labyrinth. I was not thinking about mazes and muses. I was thinking about writers. 

M Train is lovely in the way of a long conversation with a friend, or a first sip of hot coffee, or the first crack of a new book. Read it, enjoy it, and keep it on your shelf to come back to again and again.

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Mornings. 

  

Pausing the flow of one novel in order to return to another. Six am mornings. Revision. The work rarely feels done.

Orlando: Sitting with the Pain

I woke up this morning still awash the in the weight of the weekend’s news. Yesterday, I cried. I cried in the shower. I cried while emptying the dishwasher. I cried again while trying to distract my mind with a magazine. I fired off angry tweets to senators, infuriated with the same overwrought platitudes of “thoughts and prayers” that they’re so used to saying and we’re so used to accepting. I put my phone away and turned off the news. A friend offered the truth I’ve also been thinking: “It’s getting harder and harder to bounce back.” When my boyfriend came home I held him closely and told him I loved him. I fell asleep early and stayed in bed past my alarm. I didn’t write. I didn’t meditate. My body wanted only to lay in the latent heaviness of feeling, as though stuck in a hangover. I arrived at work and a coworker asked cheerily how my weekend was. I quietly said an “okay” and then cried more at my desk. I shut myself in the bathroom and cried more there. I pushed through a foggy morning of unproductive work. At lunch, I called my boyfriend to tell him that I’m still sad. He told me felt the same; he had to turn off the news and distract himself with his work, music. I sat in the park eating my salad, watching groups of people sitting together eating their lunches, talking and laughing. I wondered how anyone could talk or laugh. I sent an email to my closest friend to tell her how heavy I felt. How incredibly saddened I was. How hard this one hit me. She told me that she understood; that she felt it, too. And then she told me to turn off the news, turn off social media, to tip it over into words.

I know that our capacity to love each other far outweighs the hate we can harbor. I know this. And I have to believe it, or else I’ll cave under the pressure. But in times like this, on days like this, it can be so hard to remember. When the sadness of it permeates everything we know, when the shock and horror is all we can think of, when we face the frustration of having to once again mourn the death of so very many innocent lives at the hands of guns, when all of this leads us to argue in its wake instead of holding onto those we love and telling them how very much we love them, the thin fabric of our connection to each other begins to break down. I believe that our liberation is tied together. It depends on one another. We need each other every day, but now it becomes even more desperate. 

I can’t say why this tragedy is affecting me more than the others. Why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it even for a second. I’m not particularly connected to Florida or Orlando, other than having traveled there several times as a young girl and still viewed it as the magical place it was to me back then. Maybe it’s that I worked in a place similar to Pulse Nightclub in college, and still hold in my heart the incredible community I was introduced to through that experience. Maybe it’s because the number of victims has grown to levels that has made it the largest mass shooting in our history. Maybe because it feels so damn preventable. Maybe it’s picturing the cowering hostages, hearing of the texts to family members expressing fear for their lives. 

A coworker returned from Orlando two days before the massacre. When I asked how she was doing, she expressed to me her sadness, and I told her mine. She reminded me that it’s important to feel it, to sit with the pain of it. It’s important, she said, to not become complacent. To remember that this isn’t normal.  That no matter what, we can’t let ourselves believe that this is normal.

Understand that this was an act of hate on a specifically targeted group. Sit with the fact that these were mostly queer men of color. Know that an absurd holdover from our past severely limits the ability of those who are willing to give blood. The LGBTQI community has experienced so much of the worst of America’s cultural hatred for being who they are and loving who they love. Mourn with them. Feel all of the pain and outrage that they feel. Understand that in America, tragedies of this nature are no longer a matter of “if” but of “when.” 

I know I’m not saying anything new. I’m certainly not the only one to feel this way, and there are so many others, the families of victims, the LGBTQI community, that are feeling deep sadness on a level I cannot comprehend. But this is my process, we all have our own. And we will get through it. We will all get through it. And we’ll move on. But it will happen again. And we’ll again go through this collective grieving process. And we’ll again feel anger, and sadness, and perhaps hopelessness. But we simply cannot allow ourselves to become immune. We cannot fall into the trap that this is America and we can’t change it. We have to be able to change it. This cannot become our every six month existence. We cannot live like sitting ducks, waiting for the next deranged person to become enraged by a slight, or by no slight at all. It is too easy in this country to own a gun, even legally. It is too easy to own a specific type of military-style killing machine that has the sole purpose of taking as many lives as possible very, very quickly. 

Call your senator. Email them. Tweet at them. Demand change. Don’t wait until time has passed and we’ve forgotten this feeling. Hold onto this pain and use it. We have to change it. We have to change it. We have to change it. 

Book Review: Everything I Never Told You

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”

So begins Celeste Ng’s riveting novel, Everything I Never Told You, which, as you can see, has all of the elements of a mystery we’re familiar with. A small town, a family, a missing daughter. But from this trope, we are given new things to grapple with: first, we know immediately that the daughter is dead. Second, this daughter is not the same blonde haired blue eyed young darling we’re used to feeling feelings for. This is an Asian American girl in a mixed Chinese-White family, and so there are new things to grapple with. 

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Let me say this, to those who don’t already know my reading preferences: this novel sounds like something I might pick up, read a page or two, think that’s some lovely writing, and put back on the shelf, never to actually read. And that is because of one thing: plot. I disdain overly plotted novels, the ones that feel contrived and convenient, overburdened with the author’s hand. Give me novels about people being people over mystery thrillers any day. But, and I say this honestly and from a point of cynicism, this one is different. How, do you ask?

For one, the writing really is lovely, and that alone was enough to make me stay. It’s soft, poetic, but not flashy or filled with tricks. It invites you in, asks you to hang out for a bit. It’s not the exclusivity of Ben Lerner, not the language play of Lauren Groff, and not the simplicity of J.K. Rowling. It’s in a sweet spot in between all of those that really, really works.

Second, Ng places her characters in 1977 Midwest. (I lived in Pittsburgh. Ohio counts as the Midwest.) It’s only a few years after the final state battled imgres-3for the right to inter-marry. Racial tensions are high. (In fact, I thought a more accurate depiction would have been to increase the racial tension in the town, but perhaps Ng didn’t want to change the focus of the novel too much.) James, the patriarch of the family, teaches American Cowboys at the local college and knows what the students think every semester when he enters the room to teach. He sees how people look at him and his family. But, he has swallowed so much racism throughout his life that during one particular scene of his son Nath swimming at the local pool, the reader endures an excruciating exchange amongst the white kids and Nath that leads James, with all his buried internalized racial inferiority to pronounce to his inquiring wife Marilyn: “Some kids teased him at the pool today. He needs to learn to take a joke.” This internalized stuff creates much more tension later on, when we see Marilyn and James breaking down to their constituent parts, screaming at each other while the distance between what they mean and what is perceived is vast. The one disappointment here is that Marilyn never grapples with her whiteness, let alone with the race of her children and husband. It did kind of feel like a missed opportunity.

Ng does an amazing job of creating tension throughout the story, as we flash back in time and forward again, learning what really happened to Lydia

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only at the very end, a truth that the rest of the family never gets the relief of learning for themselves. Each character is deft at secrecy, withholding so much more than they reveal. Amongst the three children, the two oldest, Nath and Lydia have the closest connection, but even this becomes stifled when Lydia starts hiding the acceptance letters to prestigious universities coming in for Nath, for fear of him leaving. Nath frequently finds himself bogged down under the weight of their parents’ admiration for Lydia, which Lydia herself finds suffocating, but Nath, unlike Lydia, imagines a clear escape for himself: college, away from Ohio.

Hannah, the youngest, is our fly on the wall, our quiet, observing presence, who occasionally doubles as the narrator. She watches her family, observes their interactions, seems to know everyone better than they know themselves. I thought Ng’s use of her was pivotal. Though we rarely hear from her, the book would certainly being lacking without her presence.

Of course, there are things that are glossed over and a tad unbelievable. Marilyn and James’s first meeting is one, wherein Marilyn the student lunges at him during his office hours on the first day of class. This was nothing short of jarring, and to my professor friends, laughably false, even for the ’70s. Some of the quiet moments observed by Hannah feel too profound for a young girl. I wasn’t sold on the revelation about the “bad boy” who is pegged by Nath to have some knowledge of what happened to Lydia. But these moments are small, and infrequent, and we can learn to live with them due to the ferocity of the rest of the novel. 

This is not a happy novel, but Ng is deliberate in planting glimmers of hope, however small, that help us to not feel overwhelmed by the end. All in all, this is a well-crafted novel by a skilled novelist. Add this one to your summer reading list now!

#FavoriteFemalesFriday: Celeste Ng

I’m dedicating this #FavoriteFemalesFriday post to one gal: Celeste Ng. Not only did she write the amazing Everything I Never Told You, the New York Times bestseller, New York Times Notable Book of 2014, and Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, but she’s also super bad ass, discussing race boldly (the family in her book is mixed Asian-White in the 1970s Midwest, a time when biracial marriage had recently been illegal in some states. *Cough* Looking at you, Virginia) while invoking the feeling of isolation associated with being a person of color in a sea of white. (Which is also something that could be said of the U.S. publishing industry.)

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Ng had this to say about how Asian American fits into the conversation on race in America on NPR’s Code Switch: 

I think in the United States we talk about race as a black and white issue. … We’re generally talking about it as if it’s a binary equation whereas, in fact, there’s more than two races and in fact those races blend together. There are a lot of different ways that people identify. I think as we have more interracial marriage and we become more aware of all these issues, we may start to talk about race in a more complicated way.

But race is a factor in Everything I Never Told You, not the full story. The novel is much more complicated than that. Throughout 300 pages of tightly woven family history, secrets, and unexpected twists, we learn the story of the Lee family, and the 15-year-old daughter who drowned in the lake near their house. The novel is air-tight; Ng knows exactly what she’s doing. Furthermore, we have a present tense omniscient narrator. Yes, present tense. And this is how good Ng is: I had to check to make sure I was right. I almost always tire of the present tense within a short story, let alone a novel. But Ng is so damn skilled that it is seamless. 

This is how the book opens:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”

What? So bad ass.

Back to the issue of race, since it is a component of the novel. In an interview on Hippo Reads, when asked to dive into the choices for the characters’ racial identity and how true to life the racism is, Ng responded:

An early Goodreads commenter remarked that the racism in the book was unbelievable—she felt it might have been realistic “in the 1920s, maybe, but not in the 1970s.” And at one of the first readings I did, someone asked, “How did you research the racism?” The sad truth is that I didn’t need to do a lot of research on that front: with one exception, every racially-tinged encounter in the novel—from the more outright discrimination to the many microaggressions, intentional or not—is something that’s happened to me, to family, or to someone I know personally.

 

Here’s some research I did do: in 2001, the Anti-Defamation League, along with several other groups, conducted a landmark study on attitudes towards Asian Americans in the U.S. It found that 68% of Americans had a “somewhat negative” or “very negative” view of Chinese Americans; that more Americans were uncomfortable supporting an Asian American for president than a black, Jewish, or woman candidate; and that 24% disapproved of intermarriage with an Asian American. A 2009 followup found numbers had improved, but only somewhat. I’ll note, also, that so far, the only people who’ve expressed surprise at any of the racial attitudes in the book have not been people of color. For the most part, readers who have been minorities—Asian or otherwise—have pretty much reacted, “Yup.”

And finally, I’ll end with this, my favorite quote that definitely resonated with me as a writer: 

I think many writers are drawn to write about their fears as a way of domesticating—or at least managing—them.

Yes. Feel that one. Deeply.

Thanks, Celeste Ng, for being a truly gifted, bold writer. The world needs more of you.

Book Review: Gold Fame Citrus

As promised from Friday’s post, here’s my review of Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus.

Nature had refused to offer herself to them. The water, the green, the mammalian, the tropical, the semitropical, the leafy, the verdant, the motherloving citrus, all of it was denied them and had been denied them so long that with each day, each project, it became more and more impossible to conceive of a time when it had not been denied them. The prospect of Mother Nature opening her legs and inviting Los Angeles back into her ripeness was, like the disks of water shimmering in the last foothill reservoirs patrolled by the National Guard, evaporating daily.

The debut novel from Watkins (whose first book of short stories, Battleborn, won her heaps of praise) opens in a California without water. Most of the residents (known as “Mojavs”) have left or been evacuated, and the few patches of people that stayed behind live a post-apocalyptic existence, scrounging food, surviving on ration cola, and suffering through long, somewhat purposeless days. This is the setting we meet Luz (once known as “Baby Dunn,” the child born in the year of the drought and marked by propaganda as she aged: “Governor Signs HSB 4579: Every Swimming Pool in California to be Drained Before Baby Dunn is Old Enough to Take Swimming Lessons” one headline read, and another, “Berkeley Hydrologists: Without Evacs Baby Dunn Will Die of Thirst by 24”) and her boyfriend Ray, living in the abandoned house of a young starlet.

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Threatening them from afar is the Amargosa Dune Sea, a massive swath of ever-moving sand that accumulated between Southern California and Las Vegas.

Luz said, “What is that?” just as the answer came to her.

Ray said it. “The dune sea. The Amargosa.”

“It’s that close?” They were barely beyond the city.

Ray shook his head. “It’s that big.”

This knocked Luz off balance. The dune was not atop the empurpled range before them but beyond it, beyond it by miles and miles. The white was not a rind of ice, not a snowcap, but sand piling up inland where the Mohave had been.

Resigned to stay in Los Angeles with the other bands of misfits and holdouts, Luz and Ray spend their days working on “projects” to keep busy. Ray: food and drink to keep them both alive, Luz: trying on each of the dresses in the starlet’s closet. It isn’t until they take in (steal?) a neglected two-year old bobble-headed girl they call Ig (described as “touched”) from a group of derelicts that they decide it’s time to head toward the promise of green land, flowing water, and fruit in the east rather than stay in barren, sweltering Los Angeles. First, they rule out traveling north: “Let’s go to Seattle,” she said. Ray frowned drowsily. “There’s militia at the Oregon border. You know that.” Washington State had stopped accepting Mojav relocation applications. It is on this journey eastward they encounter the dune sea, and the strange community of people who have made it their home.

If Watkins doesn’t floor you with her words, she’ll impress you with how far she’s willing to push the boundaries of the novel, interspersing direct storytelling with short stories: a short chapter written as notes from a psychiatric ward, a section involving a businessman on a plane staring down at the broken Los Angeles, a chapter set in a gambling community near Yucca Mountain, sections told a la Ben Greenman’s short story What 100 People, Real and Fake, Believe About Dolores. These breaks from direct story action offer us a respite from the apocalypse novel, which can be stressful at times for a reader of literary fiction who is not a regular reader of the apocalypse novel (especially a reader who is legitimately terrified that this sort of thing is not too far out of the realm of possibility).

But beyond the story of climate change’s disastrous effects, the story seems to be a poignant poke at Los Angeles in general, and notably that of the variable, irresponsible culture of the super rich. “Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That’s why no one wants them now. Mojavs.” Says Ray, upon first meeting Luz. This is even more pronounced in the final pages of the novel:

What she felt, beyond the painful range of Ig, was the astonishing relief of quitting. Taking her rightful position in that long line of runners and flakers. […] Antsy pioneers, con artists and sooners, dowsers and gurus, Petnecosts and Scientologists. Muscle heads, pill-poppers, pep talkers, drama queens and commuters. […] Drained lakes, sulfur seas, yucca forests pines dried to paper, redwoods blighted and departed, sequoias and pinyon pines tinder for a never-satisfied wildfire. These were her people. Speculators and opportunities, carnival barkers and realtors, imaginers, cowards of dreamers and girls. Mojavs. Eyes peeled for the flash of ore, the flash of the camera, the wet flesh of fruit. Gold, fame, citrus. […] Hold it icy against your injuries, Cut it with sugar, with liquor, with pesticide, blast for gold or gas with it, grow creatures with it. Ride it, spray it into the street, swim it, soak in it, drink it in, piss it away.

Watkins has created a novel that gave me chills, both for its beauty and its frightening accuracy into what may become of a world we no longer care to fix. Read it, think on it, and read it again.