A Year in Reading: Crystal Hana Kim

It’s easy to feel defeated these days. It takes more effort and conscious positivity to focus on the future, on the historic firsts. We elected a record number of women to the House this year, including 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women in Congress, while Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland became the first Native American Congresswomen. Florida elected their first openly lesbian mayor. There’s so much more. On a personal note, I teach high school students from across the United States. They all inspire me, but my female students in particular give me hope. From New York City to Detroit to Sioux Falls, they are canvassing, organizing community meetings and protests, creating change. I am flooded with strength as I look to the future.

So, in gazing forward while reflecting back on 2018, I want to highlight the women writers I’ve fallen in love with this year. I’ve read 35 books so far, and though some were written by men, we as a society need to #readmorewomen.

In poetry, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion both consider addiction, family life, dreams, myth, and cultural history. These powerful poems dismantled and surprised me. Emily Jungmin Yoon’s debut collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, is stunning. Written in the voices of Korean “comfort women,” Yoon’s poems about sexual violence, gender, and oppression are brutal, incisive, and necessary.

My first novel was published in August, and with publication came an eventful book tour, which I’m profoundly grateful for. At the same time, book publication also brought the fear that I was speaking about myself, my writing process, and my novel too much. I found refuge in novels written by the wonderful writers I was lucky enough to do events with. I was drawn into the strange and magical What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine. In this dark, feminist novel a girl named Maisie has the power to kill and resurrect with her touch. I read What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan, The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, and The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling in a packed, whirlwind of knock-out debut fiction. I loved Naima Coster’s Halsey Street, which alternates between Penelope, a young woman who returns to a gentrified Brooklyn to care for her ailing father, and Mirella, Penelope’s estranged mother in the Dominican Republic. In Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, four friends navigate their entwined careers, love lives, successes, and failures as a string quartet. Gabel’s descriptions of music, music-making, and auditory pleasure were absolutely beautiful.

Elsewhere in fiction, I read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time. What took me so long? I want to devour everything she’s written, and I want more books that reimagine our literary canon. I finished Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing while on a weekend break from book tour. It made me want to return to my writing desk immediately. Ward is a literary genius, and I will read everything she writes. In more recent fiction, Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong and You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman both made me reconsider the body, food, consumption, and our desire to belong.

In nonfiction, Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know about the adopted author’s decision to find her biological family moved me with its honest portrayal of the fears we have about belonging, identity, and motherhood. I read Bluets by Maggie Nelson on a beach, staring at the blue of the ocean, the sky. One of my dearest girlfriends gifted me Kayleen Schaefer’s Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendships, which reinvigorated me to reach out to all of my female friends, to strengthen those relationships even in adulthood.

I want to end with Deborah Eisenberg’s short story collection Your Duck Is My Duck because she is one of our best living writers. Her fiction precisely illuminates what it feels like to be alive, to wade through our world in its natural beauty and manmade devastation. Her writing is political and true, intimate and expansive.

I hope to read more in these last weeks before 2019 arrives. I’ve just started Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses. Toni Morrison’s Paradise awaits, as does Jenny Xie’s Eye Level. Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of is on backorder at my local bookstore. There is so much more to read and so much more to hope for, and I am grateful.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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Reading Resistance in Translation

Last year, I felt a deep sense of powerlessness as I watched the election season unfold. While Donald Trump gained traction, I struggled with my small political actions, which felt ineffective and insufficient. Would the staff member answering phone calls in the senator’s office really pass on my message? Would signing those online petitions amount to anything? Would the kindly, disabled grandmother I met canvassing in Iowa reach the voting booth come election day? Had I moved the needle at all? And, of course, daily life distracted me. I knew I could do more, but I also felt exhausted.

I needed to find a way to nurture myself at home. Reading, I knew, I could always count on. And translations, I thought, would broaden my views while also providing a pleasurable escape.

I decided to seek novels that would push me beyond our country’s borders—beyond the expected, mainstream experience into the margins, where voices are silenced, ignored, and unheard.

One of the books that I chose during this period was Mercè Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves, which is titled La plaça del Diamant in Catalan. I picked this novel because I was curious about Catalan literature and the only other book I had read about the Spanish Civil War was For Whom the Bell Tolls. About a white American male’s experience abroad, written by a white American male (albeit, yes, Ernest Hemingway), For Whom the Bell Tolls provides a decidedly confined lens to the war. The Time of the Doves, on the other hand, was written by a female Catalan author and is about a young woman’s experience at home as the fighting continues around her. Perfect, I thought.

The Time of the Doves delivered what I needed. Rodoreda’s novel focuses on Natalia, a naïve shop girl, through a stream-of-consciousness narrative. Early on, Natalia is nicknamed “Colometa,” or “little dove” by Quimet, a man she meets at a dance in plaça del Diamant, the local square. Quimet, a harsh and obsessive man, courts Natalia until she eventually acquiesces to marriage though she must give up her fiancé, Pere. In a heartbreaking scene early on in the story, she encounters Pere after marrying Quimet:
And he gazed at me like he was drowning in the crowd, in the flowers, among all those stalls. He told me how one day he’d run into Julieta and Julieta had told him I was married and as soon as he heard it he thought of how much he wished me luck. I lowered my eyes because I didn’t know what to say or do, and I felt like I had to roll the sadness into a ball, a bullet, a bit of grapeshot. Swallow it. And since he was taller than me, while I was standing with my head down I felt the weight of all the sadness Pere carried inside him on the top of my head and it seemed like he saw everything inside me, all my secrets and my pain.
Rodoreda inserts violent imagery like the swallowing of “a bullet, a bit of grapeshot” into Natalia’s everyday emotional interactions, and although the Spanish Civil War has not yet begun, the mood is foreboding from the start. The rhythmic, rambling sentences add to this atmosphere, which becomes increasingly ominous as the war approaches.

The Time of the Doves follows Natalia’s life as a wife, mother, and eventual widow. Enduring Quimet’s small insults and larger abuses, his fanatical need to raise doves in their apartment while leaving the caretaking to Natalia, and then his absence when he joins the Republican Army, Natalia endures war, poverty, depression. Perplexed by her own helplessness and the destruction of the life she once knew, she even contemplates killing her children:
And one night when I was lying with Antoni on one side and Rita on the other, with their ribs sticking out and their bodies all lined with bright blue veins, I decided to kill them. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I couldn’t blindfold them and throw them off the balcony. What if they only broke a leg? And they were stronger than I was. I had about as much strength as a dead cat. I couldn’t do it. I fell asleep with my head splitting and my feet numb.
What I loved about The Time of the Doves was how close I came to Natalia’s thought process. Rodoreda precisely renders Natalia’s life as she saw and lived it in the moment. As the book progresses, Natalia’s psychology and self-analysis deepens, and though the novel skirts the conflict between the Republicans and the Nationalists, the reader learns about the war’s destructive effect on citizens at home. So often we read stories about soldiers and their suffering, and of course they do suffer, but the women are cast aside or swept away. Forgotten. This novel’s greatest strength is Rodoreda’s skillful expression of the women who were left behind. Natalia catalogs everything from the loss of essential items like gas and charcoal and milk, to the terror of waiting for your husband to return or die in battle, and how life and work and motherhood must continue despite it all.

Rodoreda crafts an absorbing, dreamlike voice that conveys the effects of war while always remaining in Natalia’s purview, as she does here:
I’d wake up at night and all my insides were like a house when the moving men come and shift everything around. That’s what I felt like inside: with wardrobes in the front hall and chairs with their legs sticking up and cups on the floor waiting to be wrapped in paper and packed in straw in boxes and the mattress and the bed taken apart and leaning against the wall and everything all messed up.
This is an example of how Rodoreda describes the wartime experience while remaining in the language of the domestic sphere. By comparing Natalia’s fraught state to a home in disarray, Rodoreda elevates the importance of the feminine. Yes, women during the Spanish Civil War suffered. Yes, this suffering looked different and was less visible than the traditional male-centered war narrative, but it is still important to discuss and name.

Rodoreda’s choices took on greater significance for me when I researched the author and the circumstances under which she wrote The Time of the Doves. In 1939, the military dictator Francisco Franco captured Barcelona. Soon after, he began suppressing the Catalan language and culture, and Rodoreda went into exile. Years later, when she began writing La plaça del Diamant, no one was sure the Catalan language would survive much longer. And yet, Rodoreda decided to write in her mother tongue, to use her writing as an act of resistance. This linguistic defiance, coupled with her decision to feature a woman’s story as the voice of the Spanish Civil War, is powerful and heartening.

I found solidarity in understanding that across time and culture and language, those who are marginalized and repressed continue to resist. This knowledge comforts me still, as Trump attacks freedom of speech, ridicules the DOJ and the FBI, baits Kim Jong-un, dismisses Puerto Rico’s catastrophes, guts healthcare protections for the most vulnerable, orders xenophobic and Islamophobic travel bans, and more.

Fiction creates empathy in a way that reading the news does not. It pierces our consciousness, allowing us to find similarities in the human condition. Now, when I come upon articles about Catalonia’s recent vote for independence and the subsequent demonstrations, violence, and suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy by the Spanish government, I recognize some of the history and pain that has led to this political moment. I wonder if Trump and his men would change if they read similar stories about the people they demonize in North Korea, China, Iran, or Mexico—or even here at home, about the black, native, poor, imprisoned, Muslim, Asian-American, undocumented, or LGTBQ experience in America—anywhere and anyone foreign to themselves, really.

The Time of the Doves reminds me that writing can be an act of resistance as well as a reclamation of one’s beliefs, culture, and humanity. As the Trump administration continues its attempts to disempower its citizenry, Mercè Rodoreda encourages me to search for the voices most likely to be excluded. She reminds me of the power of the written word, of language’s ability to create new spaces in our world. In a time when our future feels more unpredictable than ever, this novel will continue to fuel me in the days to come.