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.

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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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.

Favorite Females Friday: Gold, Babies, and Why We Can’t Hate Bey

Ughhhhh this rain. #overit

BUT, it’s Friday. Which means Favorite Females Friday. Which is something that I’m starting. Kind of. #favoritefemalesfriday

This week I finished Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold, Fame, Citrus and I was so sad to see it end. It has been such a pleasant journey reading this book. CVW’s language is the type of gorgeous, sharp-eyed poeticism akin to Lauren Groff (who, you know, I also love). Just read this and tell me you’re not having a great time:

She chewed her root and watched his beautiful voice comet across the heaven of their dome. She lifted her hand before her face and made patient, shimmering contrails with her fingers. A little disappointed, for she wanted to give him all things there, in their tiny kaleidoscopic universe fixed in the center of the great big benevolent cartwheeling galaxy all around them. There was nothing she wouldn’t let go–the freedom of that–this was her thought when he asked her for something else.

I was reading a section aloud to my boyfriend when I came across this passage. He gave an admiring “Mmm,” and said, “Wait, read that again?” And I did. And we were both in awe. Amazing.

(I’ll have a full review soon, but let me just say that the last few lines killed me. Killed. Me.)

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This week’s recommended reading on Electric Literature (if you don’t subscribe to Electric Literature, do it now) was a story by Helen Phillips called Dopplegangers. I loved this story. I am not a mother, nor am I around many, but I still felt every tortured, blissful moment of motherhood through Phillips words. The story begins,

The Queen always looked profound when she pooped. Her eyes solemn, as though regarding the void. That was why they had taken to calling her The Queen, even though she was only a month old. Also, the way she sat enthroned in her car seat in the over-packed car as they drove to the new town. And the regal purple stars on her blanket, beneath which her absurdly tiny legs jerked this way and that.

Throughout the story is the ever-present nausea of heat, which for some reason is a weather description I cling to (I think for its inherent added intensity).

The house felt small, small and hot. Mimosa could smell herself more strongly by the minute. Her body odor had intensified since The Queen’s birth. Sam had read somewhere that newborns can recognize only one person in the entire world, and the way they recognize that person is by scent alone. She wondered when her stink would begin to offend The Queen, or if The Queen liked it more as it grew stronger.

And then, there’s the women she sees. The ones who are eerily exactly like her. The ones with the same “hair wilting in the heat,” the same “bodies at the same stage of post-birth flab.”

My favorite passage comes near the middle of the story, when the protagonist, Mimosa, (“My mom’s favorite drink”) finds herself in company with the new mothers, her dopplegangers.

They were lounging on blankets in the park, the doppelgängers and their babies; the mothers were eating grapes, they were tossing grapes, they were laughing, their minds were loose and hazy, their babies had awoken them at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. and 6 a.m., and what could be more hilarious than that? Now the babies were crying, now pooping, now wanting milk, milk, milk, and out came the luminous breasts, and who wouldn’t want to place lips on breasts so full, and the mothers grinned at each other like a bunch of teenagers on the same high, and the heat wave painted an extra shimmer over it all, and the grapes were radiant in the grass and The Queen smiled her wide milky smile and motherhood (the doppelgängers agreed) was underrated, everything so dazzling, Mimosa had diamonds for eyes. A universe away from the grim dinner table in her quiet home, from the version of herself that had sat on a beat-up brown couch with Sam a decade back, both of them stock-still and united in secrecy when his ex-girlfriend entered the room; now it was she and The Queen who froze when he entered the room.

The story’s intensity remains consistent, with a wondering, satisfying end.

 

And, finally. This #FavoriteFemalesFriday (really trying to make it a thing, guys) would not be complete without Miss Queen Bee herself.

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Beyonce’s Lemonade has been the only thing in my ears since it came out last week. It has spurred countless think pieces. Facebook is a buzz. But what really amazes me about the album is the poetry, which was adapted from British poet Warsan Shire.  To hear Beyonce’s haunting voice state the lines that make it impossible for us to not dive into them to seek out facts (let us remember that artists often blend truth and fiction to create their art). The effect is incredibly compelling. Some of my favorite lines:

I tried to make a home out of you / but doors lead to trap doors / a stairway leads to nothing / unknown women wander the halls at night / Where do you go when you go quiet? / You remind me of my father / a magician / able to exist in two places at once / In the tradition of men in my blood / you come home at 3am / and lie to me / What are you hiding? / The past and the future merge / to meet us here / What luck / What a fucking curse.

From “Intuition” we move to “Denial” with Beyonce’s words coming out faster and sharper:

I tried to change / closed my mouth more / tried to be softer / prettier / less awake / fasted for sixty days / wore white / abstained from mirrors / abstained from sex / slowly did not speak another word / in that time my hair I grew past my ankles / I slept on a mat on the floor / I swallowed a sword / I levitated to the basement / confessed my sins and was baptized in a river / got on my knees and said ‘Amen’ / and said I mean / I whipped my own back and asked for dominion at your feet / I threw myself into a volcano / I drank the blood and drank the wine / I sat alone and begged and bent at the waist for God / I crossed myself and thought / I saw the devil / I grew thickened skin on my feet / I bathed in bleach and plugged my menses with pages from the Holy Book / but still inside me coiled / deep was the need to know / Are you cheating on me?

Beyonce’s last line, “Are you cheating on me?” echoes while we see her submerged in water, her hair flowing all around.

Whether or not Beyonce is speaking from her own experience, the experience of all black women, or is just telling a really intense story, the feeling is the same as when I read any great poetry or fiction, or hear a great song, or view great art. It’s transformative. And we don’t need to look into it anymore than that. Thanks, Bey, for the feels.

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Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

The stories we tell create our truth. And in North Korea, the stories told by their Dear Leader are the only stories that matter, at least, according to Adam Johnson. One day, someone can be one person, and then suddenly, their story is changed, and the next day they are someone else entirely. As one character puts it,

“Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

This, of course, makes for great fiction. Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son takes its reader on a journey through modern day North Korea—a place that is, in Johnson’s mind, dictated by fear and depravity, brutal violence and brainwashing. If the North Korea of today is true to the North Korea depicted in the book, then it is far worse than I had imagined from my comfortable spot here in the U.S. Of note, Mr. Johnson’s research for this novel involved firsthand testimony from defectors, and visiting North Korea himself. He is not a Korean novelist.*

imgres-1Set in the recent past, (Kim Jong-il is the ruler) the story ostensibly follows Pak Jun Do, (John Doe[?]) a man who grew up in the orphanage his father operated. When we meet Jun Do as an adult, he has become a professional kidnapper for the state, which involves some early gruesome images and unspeakable violence. His only levity comes while at sea on a fishing boat; late at night he takes to listening to a haunting voice emanating over the radio waves: two American women rowing around the world, one of them singing while she rows through the night. We learn quickly just how backwards his world is. There is a constant fear of Americans prepared to “sneak attack” the country. Images of the wives of men are tattooed on their chest. There is no “I,” there is only “we” and there is a defined fear that comes from believing otherwise. North Korea is perfect, a land of plenty, as long as that story continues to be told. When one character chooses to defect by leaving the fishing boat in a life raft stacked with cans of food, everyone else on the ship must make up a horrific story, lest they all be sent to prison camp for allowing a member of their team to leave. All of these examples give you just a small sense of the world these characters live in.

There is an almost obligatory sense of detachment throughout the entire novel. This is because Johnson (rightly so) does not romanticize the story by adding many deep relationships, friendships, or love scenes (with the exception of one, which feels necessary after 300+ pages where we suffer through beatings and starvation and countless other terrible things). We never really have a character we’re rooting for, and there is only some breathing room offered towards the end, when we have very small moments of light shining through the cast of immense weightiness. There are stomach-churning scenes of torture. We become nauseated by the lies being perpetuated over the loudspeaker set up in every North Korean home, the stories that become truths and shape every citizen’s life. Johnson includes very little sensory description, making the writing straightforward to (at times) a detriment. All I could picture was gray, gray, gray. Does the sun even shine there? Not in Johnson’s mind.

imgres-2From the fishing boat back to North Korea, where the story of how the friend was lost (now in a brutal attack that involved both the U.S. Navy and a shark) becomes a lived truth for Jun Do, to a brief encounter in America, in the grand state of Texas (which is the most ridiculous part of the novel and still confuses me why a State Senator and a few other “officials” would be meeting with North Korean “officials” by themselves), back to North Korea and an out-of-your-nightmares hospital where the dying are drained of their blood (so it can be sold, of course), to a break in the narrative and time passing at a prison camp so brutal that the punishment for attempting to escape is to be buried up to your waist while every single prisoner whips rocks at you. After all of this, we enter the second half of the book, where Jun Do emerges with an entirely new identity. How is this possible? Because the Dear Leader says it is so.

More sickening brutality ensues; the interrogator we come to know in the second half explains a prison camp that uses lobotomies performed with a 20-centimeter nail in order to maintain prisoner complacency, there is a pain machine that promises the most painful death of all: “We ramp up the pain to inconceivable levels, a shifting, muscular river of pain. Pain of this nature creates a rift in the identity—the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the professor who now begins the crossing.”Gah.

The second half of the book is the bulk of the major narrative, and we finally meet Sun Moon, the nation’s actress, plucked into stardom by Kim Jong-il himself. We have a direct encounter with the Dear Leader. There are strange references to the film Casablanca. There is a somewhat chaotic end, and eventually, we come to understand the fates of all the characters we’ve learned to (somewhat) care for. It all goes on a bit too long.

There are moments when a characters’ humanity peaks through the heavy cover of imagespolitical compliance. There are sparks of individualism: the love Jun Do begins to feel for the widow of the defected second mate, the pleading of Sun Moon to Commander Ga to come with her and her children to America, the comfort of hearing a female rower sing in the night, as her voice plays softly over the airwaves, the interrogator whose one goal is to document the histories of those he must kill, so that their stories are not forgotten. It’s these moments Johnson attempts to remind us that even through the mask of an upside-down world, we’re all human.

The book is good, in the sense that it’s structurally sound, tells an interesting narrative, and is fascinating in its ability to imagine a world most of us know very little about. If you can get through the brutal, gut-sickening violence, it’s worth a read. What Johnson does not skimp on are the too-insane-to-be-true details. And he’s an undramatic writer (at least on a line-by-line basis). If you’re looking for a novel with great language, poetic sentences, and beautiful sensory details, this is not the one for you. But if you’re ready to be taken to a totally new world that is (scarily) not the stuff of science fiction, if you’re ready to be confronted with the reality of an entire nation that the rest of the world is still powerless to do anything about, read this book. Though maybe at times a bit gratuitous–but who knows?– The Oprhan Master’s Son is worth the read. 

 

 

*If you’re keeping tabs, note that yes, I broke my own rule by reading a white, male author. I justify this in that a) it’s a book club pick and this is a democracy and b) the characters I’m met with are not all white people, so that helps.

Why I’m Taking a Break from White Male Writers

In January of 2015, I set myself a reading challenge. Last year my goal was to read 20 books. I read 14. One of those books was The Goldfinch and another was Purity, and those are each of lengths equal to two books, so that basically ups my count to at least 16 (but who’s counting?). In any case, I set the same goal for myself again this year, and maybe I’ll make it, and maybe I won’t, but I do try, even if my reading time these days is mostly relegated to the half an hour before I fall asleep each night.

This year I’m also setting myself another challenge. I’ve decided that I’m not going to read white male writers. Sure, there’s the occasional Saunders story that may pop up in my world, and of course I’m going to continue reading the work of my white male friends in my writing group, but for the most part, I’m taking a break. Every novel, short story collection, or chapbook that I read in 2016 will be written by a woman or person of color. Here’s why.

It’s easy not to read them.

Despite what popular reviews tell you, there are so many talented writers who are not (heterosexual) white men. Zadie Smith is one of my favorite writers (okay, maybe just my favorite, singular). Jennifer Egan is a close second. My favorite book of 2015 was written by a woman, Lauren Groff. I love Jenny Offill, Mary Miller, Chimamanda Adichie, Donna Tartt, Junot Diaz, Renata Adler, Teju Cole, Justin Torres. I’m so excited to explore more work by Mary Gaitskill, Claudia Rankine, Marlon James, Claire Vaye Watkins, Lorrie Moore, Roxane Gay, Emily Gould, Helen Oyeyemi, and Celeste Ng.

Willingly and unwillingly, I’ve been reading them my entire life.

Many memories from my high school experience are patchy (it was over ten years ago!) but I do recall my English classes. In them, we read Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Arthur Miller, William Golding, J.D. Salinger, Alexandre Dumas. I think we talked about Lord of the Flies for six months. We did read Harper Lee, but that felt like a given. Notably, there was no Jane Austen or a Brontë sister, no Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston. We didn’t read James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison, no Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf.

My undergraduate college experience was mercifully different. In it, I was exposed to writers like Gloria Anzaldúa, Joan Didion, Jo Ann Beard, Jean Rhys, bell hooks, John Edgar Wideman, Alice Walker, and poets Bernadette Mayer and Douglas Kearney. Sure, I still read my fair share of David Foster Wallace and David Sedaris, but there was a balance that I was comfortable with.

I went away to graduate school for writing in Oxford, England. My first semester, I took a class called Narrative. It should have been called White Male Narrative. We received the full semester reading list a few weeks before classes began, and there, one right after the other, was J.D. Salinger, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, and John Irving. When a student emailed the professor (who was a lovely British man and a great teacher, just one with an unfortunately narrow perspective) about this, he hastily swapped out two other male novelists for Marilynne Robinson and Kate Atkinson. (If you’re keeping score here, that’s five white males, two white females.)

And there are some white male writers whose books I love. I will happily read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot again and again. I like David Foster Wallace (nonfiction more than fiction, but I did push myself through Infinite Jest). John Irving is brilliant. I think Ben Lerner is frighteningly good. Up until recently, I loved everything Jonathan Franzen ever did. I even get down with some Leo Tolstoy.

But the truth is, I (and we, as a culture) have been so inundated with the white male (heterosexual) perspective that it can be easy to forget that there are so many other brilliant, worthy voices to be heard. We just need to seek them out, since they are so often not provided to us.

The market is already flooded.

This summer, Elisa Gabbert’s writing advice column, The Blunt Instrument, became suddenly very popular with a question from a white male poet. The question was in earnest, a writer who admitted to being aware of his own privilege both within the larger context of life and the publishing world, wanting to know how to move forward as a writer. Should he write from the white male perspective even though the need for this is, in his words, “just not there anymore”? Should he write from the perspective of others, despite his position being one that inherently bars him from fully understanding that perspective?

Gabbert’s advice was simple: keep writing, keep seeking publishing, but do it less. She writes, “Instead of making things even harder for overworked, underpaid editors, let’s improve the ratios in the submission pool by reducing the number of inappropriate, firebombed submissions from men. You – white men – have all the advantages here, so you should work to solve the problem of imbalance, instead of putting all the burden on women, POC, and LGBTQ to fix it themselves.” In this, Gabbert is referring to editors who claim the imbalances in publishing stems from the face that they receive far less submissions from women and POC than they do from white men. Some claim to have received submissions from white men who send another story immediately after being rejected.

The point here is clear. Each year, VIDA puts out their count of popular publishers and journals, and each year, while some publishers get steadily better, the counts stubbornly remain basically the same: more men are being published in major journals than women, and queer folk and POC are being published even less. Publication in major journals does not guarantee a writing career, but it certainly does help. And then there is the problem of when male writers become male novelists they’re reviewed more often.

They’re not in the best position to tell the stories of women, queer folk, and POC.

Jonathan Franzen may have done the worst representation of a white female millennial that I’ve ever read. In , Hubert Selby, Jr. awkwardly writes in the voice of Bobby, who we learn from the back cover is “young and black” (period.) and his mother, from whose voice we read, “it making no difference if it be day or night there just be screaming and yelling and banging up and down the stairs and no man, no mutha fuckin man to help raise those gauddamn kids, no man there more than a nights flop, and if they be there longer they be wantin to dig into her welfare check.” Colum McCann writes as a black female prostitute. Hemingway’s Maria is a sad, voiceless, worshipping plaything.

Jonathan Franzen may have done the worst representation of a white female millennial that I’ve ever read. In The Willow Tree, Hubert Selby, Jr. awkwardly writes in the voice of Bobby, who we learn from the back cover is “young and black” (period.) and his mother, from whose voice we read, “it making no difference if it be day or night there just be screaming and yelling and banging up and down the stairs and no man, no mutha fuckin man to help raise those gauddamn kids, no man there more than a nights flop, and if they be there longer they be wantin to dig into her welfare check.” Colum McCann writes as a black female prostitute. Hemingway’s Maria is a sad, voiceless, worshipping plaything.

And this one, truthfully, gets controversial. We don’t always read fiction to read a perspective from the author. We do read to be taken to different places, with different people. I’m just saying that maybe there are other voices that would be better positioned to share those journeys than the white men who so often get to write them.

Finally, there are so many books out there, and so many authors waiting to be heard. Read as much as you can, actively seeking out new voices and styles and perspectives, not just the ones being reviewed in The Times. I’ll be right along with you for the journey.

Why Fates and Furies Was the Best Book of 2015 (and What I’m Excited For in 2016)

True statement: the longer the title, the better the post.

But really, I’m excited to have this space to discuss what was in my view the best book of 2015, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Even in the year of Purity, this one shines above for its gorgeous writing and fascinating characters. (And Lauren Groff is super nice, too!)

If you told me that my favorite book of the year would involve one character named Lancelot (Lotto) who is, for better or worse, a white, attractive, privileged male who becomes hugely successful as a playwright, and a tall, model-like pixie wife named imgresMathilde, I would have told you, simply, no. But somehow Lotto as a character becomes interesting and enlivened on the page not in spite of his predispositions, but because of them, and Mathilde is full of secrets and thoughts and personal revelations that endear me to her. I tore through this nearly 400-page book in a week and a half, and it will now become one of those books I read again and again (joining the likes of Zadie Smith’s NW, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter, and Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her).

The story is split into two books, one told from the point of view of Lotto (“Fates”), the latter of Mathilde (“Furies”). Groff admitted that over the course of five years while writing the book, her original intent was to publish two books, one to come out FullSizeRender-2six months after the other. She always saw them as two separate stories. Her publisher nixed the idea (given the state of book publishing, one can understand why), and instead, Groff went back to the stories and wove them together, finding the moments of interconnectedness that would create the story we now read. This, thankfully, does not feel forced. Instead, Groff is able to create an elegant portrait of two married individuals who love and care for one another, but never quite know everything about each other. It breaks down the many nuances of a relationship to this one central idea: we are still separate individuals, with separate thoughts, ideas, and experiences. No matter how much we love our partners, this will always be true. The novel then moves along with this idea, treats it like a given, to create a story that explores the nature of living, the multitude of highs and lows one culminates in a lifetime.

One review from New York Times stood out to me as a particularly important read of this book, “The deepest satisfaction gained by reading ‘Furies’ after ‘Fates’ lies less in admiring how tidily the puzzle pieces snap together – though they do – than in experiencing one’s own kaleidoscope shift of emotions and concerns.” I found the strength of the story came not from the many reveals that gave us a deeper understanding of the characters’ relationship, but the many untidy, sometimes out-of-character story lines that created a sense of chaos, an assurance that life is not ever neat, that we as sentient, complicated beings still do things that don’t always make sense.

Never did this feel more apparent than when spending a long time in a pseudo-depressive state with Lotto while he tries to write an opera at an artist’s residency. There are plot points in this particular section that support other things in the story, IMG_2765but not everything in this section leads to something else. While in that space of the book, I wanted to be out of it. It was miserable, dark, uncomfortable. (It felt similar to the artist residency present in Ben Lerner’s 10:04 – the confusing space of creativity and loneliness that comes from being alone with only your work.) Personally, the payoff doesn’t totally make sense or feel necessary for the events that happen in the rest of the book. And still, it turned out to be one of the scenes that stuck with me the most, for its sloppiness (not on behalf of Groff’s writing, but of human life), its tendency toward self-pity, its accurate representation of the frustration of the human species: we can be perfectly successful in so many areas of our lives, and still constantly fighting the feeling that we’re sinking quickly into a black hole.

A note on the writing: Groff began her writing career intent on being a poet. This comes through in the language, which (especially in “Fates”) is something that a reader needs to work through. It begins with sets of descriptive fragments: A thick drizzle from the sky, like a curtain’s sudden sweeping. The seabirds stopped their turning, the ocean went mute. Houselights over the water dimmed to gray. For those who had difficulty getting into the rhythm (I had members of my book club express that the style of writing prevented them from engaging with the character, which is a shame), the second half, “Furies,” thankfully adjusts and helps fill in any gaps that we missed in the first half. This was a deliberate shift in tone to match the voices of each character: Lotto, choppy and quick-paced, Mathilde, longer sentences, deliberate language. 

There are also odd things: occasional point-of-view shifts and narrative insertions that some may find difficult – for a moment we see things from the angle of a gray cat, once from a stranger walking on the street, and the insertions never reveal anyone’s but the author’s thoughts. But I won’t fault Groff for either of them. For me they made the story strange, interesting, and beautiful.

I won’t say anymore because there are too many things that can be revealed, but just know that if you pick up this book, expect to be taken through an emotionally-charged journey of marriage, loneliness, expectations, and ultimately how all of these things are just fragments of so many events and emotions that make up a lifetime. It’s not an easy, tidy plot, and that’s okay, because neither are we.

Read it. Read it again. Wait for the last lines to tear your heart out. Breathe through it.

Favorite lines:

For a long time, she held him. She felt the heat of him leave. She stood only when she could no longer recognize his body, like a word repeated until it has lost all meaning.

[Mathilde’s prayer: Let me be the wave. And if I cannot be the wave, let me be the rupture at the bottom. Let me be that terrible first rift in the dark.]

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Finally, as the title of this post promised, there are a few books I’m really looking forward to diving into in 2016. First, Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and won the Man Booker Prize, is a sprawling story that begins with an assassination attempt of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976, follows to New York City in 1980s, and back to the changed Jamaica of the 1990s.

Next, Clare Vaye Watkins’ debut Gold Fame Citrus, which begins in a California desiccated by climate change and follows the relationship of Ray and Luz, two twenty-somethings holding out in this barren wasteland.

For poetry, I can’t wait to finally sit down with Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric. Rankine won the National Book Award for this one, which comes ten years after the amazing Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In 150 gorgeous pages, Rankine infuses poetry with prose and visual art to explore how racism pervades American daily life.

I also can’t wait for Patti Smith’s M Train, a meditation that infuses culture and art, a book that is sure to be a beautiful follow-up to 2010’s Just Kids.

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I have so many other books I meant to get to this year and haven’t, and many old books I still want to read, including the short story collections Drown­ by Junot Diaz and Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, and the novels Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Coehen, and A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. Let the new year of reading [and writing] begin!

Book Review, Or, Why Everyone Needs to Read “Between The World and Me”

Across the front jacket of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ nationally acclaimed book Between the World and Me is a quote from Toni Morrison. “This is required reading,” it says. And Toni Morrison is never wrong.

imgresI saw Coates speak at the Free Library in October. At the time, I hadn’t yet read his latest book. I had known of him through his interviews on news programs and his journalism work for The Atlantic. In 2012 he penned Fear of a Black President, noting Barack Obama’s “remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites,” and again in 2014, he published the widely discussed The Case for Reparations, which is striking in all its heartbreaking truth. These pieces set the stage for Between the World and Me. This book follows his 2008 memoir The Beautiful Struggle, which recounts his childhood growing up in Baltimore the son of a Vietnam Veteran and former Black Panther.

Between the World and Me takes its influences from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and is written as a letter to his son, a full-length searing meditation on living in a country where unarmed black men and boys are gunned down by police with no repercussions. Where racism, both subtle and overt, runs rampant.

Reading his words is one thing. He’s an amazing writer and journalist but it’s hard imgres-1not to read the difficult truths he presents (that so many people have known for so long) and not come away feeling overwhelmed. Empowered to act, yes, but overwhelmed with where to begin. A feeling of bleakness settles in. Seeing him in person and hearing him speak is not so different from reading his words, except that his presence is so profoundly magnetic, so commanding of attention (though he speaks softly, in truth), that the feeling of bleakness is all the more disconcerting. Coates speaks the truth, plainly. There are no fancy adjectives or methods of presenting information in any other way than honestly. And what he says stings: for centuries in our country and elsewhere, deliberate policies have been maintained to hold an entire group of people to the level of marginalized citizens. Their bodies have been hunted, their lives plundered, over and over again throughout history, by those people who believe themselves to be white.

This is important distinction that he makes in the book, and which others have reminded us, which we must continue to be reminded of until it sinks in. There are no such things as divided races amongst the human race. There is no Black race and White race. There are people who believe themselves to be white because history and policies have told them so.

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(For the next few paragraphs, I’ll use the term “white” and “race” as much as it is culturally understood, because I myself am still learning the language to distinguish these things.)

My own upbringing and understanding of race was pretty much nil. I grew up, like so many in this country, in an insular, white, rural neighborhood. We weren’t wealthy, but we were okay. There was plenty of white poverty, just as much as there were extremely wealthy people thriving and living cheaply in the area. I go home now and there are TRUMP signs in every front yard, to give you an idea. My high school graduating class of 260 had less than 10 students who weren’t white. Of those, most were Asian, Indian, Pakistani. We didn’t talk about race. Not at home, not in school. But speaking of the place as a whole, it was apparent there was a fear. Fear of black men in Pottsville, fear of Latinos in Reading, a complete disregard for black women. These were sentiments that had been passed along for generations. My grandfather told me to thank God every day for being Christian (which I’m not), white (which I am only by societal standards), and American (entrenched idealism). My grandmother used racial slurs to describe the family who lived next door, who she was kind when speaking to. I didn’t recognize these as slurs until much later in life, but I did recognize that I could play with the girls in the neighborhood who looked like me freely outdoors, but the young girl next door, skin much darker than my own, I could only play through the railing that separated my grandmother’s porch from her mother’s. We passed toy cars underneath the small gap.

I thankfully attended a large, diverse college that helped to shape my worldview, but even then I was still dumb to my privilege, still believed some of the narratives that had been taught to me by family, the place I grew up, the news. It would take until after college, until my personal and professional relationships diversified, that I learned to talk frankly about race and began to understand the immense privileges I had been born with simple for having less melanin in my skin.

I bring up my own experiences because this, to me, feels like the heart of Coates’ frustration. Words and thoughts mean things. They are the narratives that have been passed along generation to generation. They affect policy. Policy affects lives. Policy change is the difference between us accepting that a 12-year-old boy can be gunned down by our police or not accepting it. Policy change is allowing soaring unemployment for black teenagers and young adults or not allowing it. It’s being okay that black and brown families in this country can be forced to live in an entirely separate world, a world underscored by fear for their bodies, with rules and repercussions no one who believes they are white will ever have to deal with.

IMG_0228I struggle to understand exactly how narratives about race continue. My grandmother wasn’t a hateful person. But she erred when she listened without question. The narratives she’d been taught had been passed along to her, or shaped at some point in her life. Poor American leadership have supported the myths of race, have allowed for the systematic imprisonment of black and brown bodies, the insatiable poverty, the plundering of whole communities. These narratives have been passed along, shaped and reshaped, since slavery (Coates reminds us that black Americans have been enslaved longer than they’ve been free.) And now it’s nearly 2016, and this is where we are.

Coates writes, “The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.” He speaks often of “The Dream” which, he explains is “perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways” this is used as in direct opposition to the world in which he grew up in West Baltimore where, “The streets transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beatdown, a shooting, or a pregnancy. No one survives unscathed.” He writes, “And so in my Baltimore it was known that when Cherry Hill rolled through you rolled the other way, that North and Pulaski was not an intersection but a hurricane, leaving only splinters and shards in its wake.” The Dream, then, to Coates, was the world just beyond all of this, a world he couldn’t see but always knew existed. But also, “The Dream thrives on generalizations, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” The Dream is, essentially, the thing that keeps racial strata unshakably in place.

Coates’ writing takes on its most literary form when recalling Howard University, or, The Mecca, which he calls “the crossroads of the black diaspora.” He writes,

“I first witnessed this power out on the Yard, that communal green space in the center of campus where the students gathered and I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variations. There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set. There were California girls turned Muslim, born anew, in hijab and long skirt. There were Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses. It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of ‘Redemption Song,’ each in a different color and key.”

The language is beautiful and moves like poetry. It is rich and playful and is some of my favorite bits in the book. From this part of the story, we meet Prince Jones, who IMG_2603becomes the centerpiece for much of the latter half of the book. Prince, described in the book as a person who “seemed to have a facility with everyone and everything,” and “Generosity radiated off of him,” was shot and killed by a Maryland police officer after his car was wrongly identified and followed. Coates writes, “I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.” In other words, Prince’s death, just like Trayvon Martin’s, Tamir Rice’s, Eric Garner’s, John Crawford’s, Michael Brown’s, Tanisha Anderson’s, Walter Scott’s, Freddie Gray’s, Laquan McDonald’s, and the countless other black bodies that have been maimed or killed and didn’t make the mainstream news, were a culmination of fear narratives and political action held in place and perpetuated for years and years. Yes, the cop kills, but what society does the cop come from? There is no one rogue officer doing all of this killing.

Coates, like Baldwin and Wright before him, lives part-time in Paris, France, a place that (though not perfect) does not share the U.S.’s history of plundering black bodies. Paris, for Coates, “recalled New York, but without the low-grade, ever-present fear.” He moved to Paris for the language, perhaps for the food, but mostly for his son, who he wanted to have a life “apart from fear.”

The story ends with a scene on a dreary, rainy day, when Coates visits Prince Jones’ mother. It is an emotional scene, with Dr. Jones recalling the Jeep her son begged her to get him, the same one he was killed in. After leaving her home, Coates contemplates, “Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.” He goes on, “But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small change of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious.” He prophesizes that the Dreamers, after plundering bodies, after plundering the earth, will ultimately ruin themselves.

I think I want to revise what I wrote earlier. It’s not so much a bleakness that overcomes when reading Coates. It’s a deep understanding that what he articulates is the hot, coiling truth of the American story. There would be no American Dream without the foundation of bodies destroyed and used as ladders to climb to some suburban paradise. And those who believe they are white can continue to do it, over and over again, until there is nothing left for them to destroy in their goal for excess. But what can we do? How do we change it?

We can start by paying attention, listening instead of speaking, voting for policy change, being an ally, acknowledging the history that got us to this place, acknowledging privileges afforded to you based solely on skin color, gender, sexuality, wealth or lack of. We can live in a country that is fair and kind to all its citizens and to its earth, or we can carry on the way we are, the way we have been. And look where that has gotten us all.