This is the year I reverted back to my twelve-year-old self.
When my parents moved cross-country this summer, from South Carolina to California where I live, they brought with them a box of journals I’d kept from age twelve to my early thirties. I read some of the early ones aloud to my children to make them laugh. “He is so cute!!!!” I gushed about my crush on Rick Springfield, a new actor on my favorite soap, General Hospital. “He’s 33, but so young looking!”
I wrote that I was pretty sure my friends and I had ESP. I wrote about the latest craze for puzzle toys: The Magic Snake, Rubik’s Cube, Whip-It, Pryaminx, and the Missing Link. I recorded in great detail the clothes I bought at the mall, the grades I got on my tests, the fights I got into with my friends and how we made up. But the bulk of my journal entries were essentially lists of books and television shows. My kids were impressed by the number of books I read (an average of six per week) and shocked by the amount of TV I watched. “But you never let us watch that much!” they said. The truth is, this was a time in my life when I needed a lot of stories, other people’s stories. I needed escape from mine.
Here’s a small sampling of my favorite shows from January 1982: Fame; The Love Boat; Fantasy Island; Laverne & Shirley; That’s Incredible; Real People; Bosom Buddies; Gimme a Break; Facts of Life; Different Strokes; Too Close for Comfort; Three’s Company. And that was only my primetime viewing. In addition to General Hospital, after school I watched a whole host of reruns: The Jeffersons, The Waltons, The Lucy Show, Good Times, and Welcome Back, Kotter.
I haven’t kept such lists in a long time, but perhaps due to my ESP, I had an inkling that this year would be so strange and science-fictiony I’d have to regress and find familiar ways to escape. So far this year, I’ve read 74 books and watched thousands of hours of TV, way more than I normally do. I’m grateful to all the writers, editors, directors, actors, and everyone else involved in getting books and shows out into the world. Just like when I was twelve, books and TV saved me this year.
Here are some of the books that lingered with me, by genre:
I published a short story collection this year which means I’m expected to publish a novel next. (Half kidding.) Anyway, I tried to read more novels than I normally do. My favorite this year was Problems, by Jade Sharma. I’ve never encountered a voice quite like Maya’s, the heroine of Sharma’s raw, naked, heartbreaking, devastating novel. I read the whole thing in almost one sitting and then regretted that I didn’t savor it. But I couldn’t help myself. Maya is smart, funny, needy, self-aware, self-destructive, in terrible pain, yet incredibly alive.
Other novels that brought me hours of reading pleasure this year: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Richard E. Kim’s The Martyred, Albert Memmi’s The Pillar of Salt, Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, and Nancy Jooyoun Kim’s The Last Story of Mina Lee. Matt O’Keefe’s You Think You Hear, whose protagonist goes on tour as a roadie for a group of friends, provided a welcome escape from a burning democracy and worldwide pandemic. I also re-read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to confirm that, yes, it’s a timeless masterpiece.
Short Story Collections:
How had I never read Joy Williams before? I tried to catch up by reading The Visiting Privilege, a mix of previously published and new stories. Just one paragraph into one of her stories and I was itching to write my own. ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere made me feel that way too. Even though I’ve heard about this book for ages, I’ve saved it knowing that someday I would need it. I’m glad I waited. Just when I had convinced myself that writing was pointless and a waste of time, Packer reminded me in the most powerful way that I was just plain wrong.
The best thing for me about short story collections is that they can hold so many different worlds, voices, perspectives, time periods, and forms in one space. Some that I loved this year: Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, Catherine Lacey’s Certain American States, Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Michael Jaime-Becerra’s Every Night is Ladies’ Night, Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Dana Johnson’s In the Not Quite Dark, Vanessa Hua’s Deceit and Other Possibilities, Shruti Swamy’s A House is a Body, and Rion Amilcar Scott’s Insurrections, and Daniel Alarcón’s War by Candlelight and The King is Always Above the People.
I also made an effort to read more translated collections this year. My favorites were Paulina Flores’s Humiliation, set in her native Chile, and two by Korean writers — Chul-woo Lim’s The Dog Thief, and The Underground Village by Kang Kyeong-ae. It reminded me that the borders of time, language, and geography are arbitrary.
Nothing wakes me up like a poem read at the right time. Poems from these collections did just that: John Murillo’s Kontemporary American Poetry, Ruth Stones’s In the Next Galaxy, Brian Komei Dempster’s Seize, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Cenzontle, Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro, Hanif Abdurraqib’s The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, and Arhm Choi Wild’s Cut to Bloom.
Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation by David L. Eng and Shinhee Han is the result of a collaboration between a literary critic (Eng) and a psychotherapist (Han), bridging critical race analysis with psychoanalysis. Not only did this book help me understand myself better but it also highlighted the danger of living in a presumed post-racial, colorblind world where the words “multiculturalism” and “diversity” appear everywhere at the same time that we’re dealing with the reality of rising racial violence.
I’ll end here with the book I began the year with — Marina Abramović’s memoir, Walk Through Walls. I’m fascinated by performance artists for two reasons: they use their bodies as their art and their work requires an audience. How different from writers who create in isolation, whose work lives on without our actual, living presence being necessary. In her iconic piece, “The Artist is Present,” Abramović sat in the same chair for hours while museum goers sat across from her, both of them still and quiet, simply connecting. Many of them, including Abramović, broke down in tears. The concept, so plain, so powerful, is that when two people are fully present to each other, the world comes alive with feelings, meanings, and possibilities. If nothing else, this year of Zoom calls, distance learning, and virtual happy hours has taught me that the only hope for human beings exists in connecting with others.
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