A Year in Reading: Jennifer S. Cheng

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The facts of motherhood, along with the pandemic, have made reading not only a rarer pleasure but a balm for times of graceless dissonance. There is a reason why my artist-mother-pandemic-support group regularly shares textual fragments and book recommendations—older and newer—to such an extent that our biweekly in-person gatherings have become a kind of book club. We share them the way we do precarious home spaces, bowls of miso broth, mushroom rice, spontaneous gifts of kaga plum jam and embroidery thread: with incredible care and tenderness, owing to the sparing nature of joy and togetherness in these years. This list, then, culled to 10 entries, is a history of care and tenderness these past several months. It traces a web of connections against the distances of the moment. I assemble this list especially for Vivian, Mia, and Heidi.

1. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer: a place to begin, though most of my reading of this book happened in 2020. I am still making my way through the final chapters, sleepily, sporadically, hoping, perhaps, to make its pages last through the entirety of the pandemic—a through-line that I can wrap around me like a blanket. I have such gratitude for the profound listening and being within these pages, ear to earth, which, at the beginning of our world-wide calamity, helped to locate me inside an ethos of tending, attending, and care.

2. Poetics of Relation by Édouard Glissant: this one, a private return, a re-reading, on which I pin a series of orbitals. The epigraph from Derek Walcott reads “Sea is History.”Later, in the section “Repetitions”: “This flood of convergences… When you awaken an observation, a certainty, a hope, they are already struggling somewhere, elsewhere, in another form. Repetition, moreover, is an acknowledged form of consciousness…” And here, from my favorite essay, “For Opacity”: “Agree not merely to the right to difference but, carrying this further, agree also to the right to opacity… Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components. For the time being, perhaps, give up this old obsession with discovering what lies at the bottom of natures.” In my notes I have written down a list of words and phrases: multiplicity, diffracts, decentered, open sea, unknown, fluidity, relation, accumulation of sediments, poetics as epistemology, trembling knowledge, archipelagic thought, errantry, traces.

3. Asemic: The Art of Writing by Peter Schwenger: to speak of convergences—in late spring, I happened upon poet Carolina Ebeid’s Instagram post about an upcoming class co-taught with artist Maia Ruth Lee. I heart-poundingly noted the words “Asemic Writing” because in the previous week I’d found myself, by way of what I call “poetic rituals,” experimenting with a kind of mark-making that resembled writing but was empty of actual meaning. Something about the language of grief. Something about language for when language is impossible. In the final assignment, Carolina and Maia asked the class to wrap and bind an object, paying attention to materials and gestures. I wrapped a scrap of textile around a tiny, speckled river stone, and around that I wrapped little sheaths of asemic mark-making I’d made, binding it all together with pieces of leftover embroidery thread as I went. To wrap something so small required all my attention and forgiveness. The process was not linear but recursive. At one point, I used my teeth.

(Asterisks: Renee Gladman’s Prose Architectures and Danielle Vogel’s Narrative and Nests, an earlier incarnation of her beautiful book Edges and Fray. Around this time I shared some of Vogel’s work with Mia, who found her way to Edges and Fray, which informed the class she was teaching, in which I was a participant… Here, we might mention weaving, a language of repeated returns. At some point, we began writing and stitching asemic letters to one another.)

4. Keeping / the window open: Interviews, statements, alarms, excursions by Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop, edited by Ben Lerner: or, more specifically, the excerpt from Rosmarie Waldrop’s Against Language?. My interest here was always poetry, poetics, gardening the gap, e.g. “All mystical sects know the concept of the sanctum silentium which…is…part of their cognitive method”; “anything that exists hides”; “But since the silent poem is not possible, Mallarmé has to make do with approximations.” What particularities of meaning do silence, blank space, lacunae carry in this moment?

5. Since last year, perhaps in search of grounding, rootedness, I have been particularly drawn to nonfiction on the natural environment. In the summer I read Underland by Robert Macfarlane while my partner, toddler, and I drove for uncountable hours amid a global-warming heatwave to see our families in Texas, stopping at Joshua Tree and the rocks of Arizona and Utah. It was a stressful trip for many reasons. My only tether to a state of being resembling peace was sketching the passing landscape from the car as my child slept, before it got too dark, and making detailed drawings of rocks I’d picked up on short walks in the dry heat. What I am trying to say is that my experience of reading about deep time and deep earth in Underland is inextricable from this practice of mark-making; my memories of the book will always recall streaks of charcoal pencils, dust of red rocks imprinted on my palm. Later, I would text an excerpt to the group: “In the Celtic Christian tradition, ‘thin places’ are those sites in a landscape where the borders between worlds or epochs feel at their most fragile. Such locations were, for the peregrini or wandering devouts of circa AD 500 to 1000, often to be found on westerly headlands, islands, caves, coasts and other brinks.” Someone in the group would respond with gratitude for the ways we were overlapping and touching in this thin place.

6. Borealis by Aisha Sabatini Sloan: is a book I only just finished reading, the first in a series edited by Youmna Chlala and Ken Chen called Spatial Species. The text examines a phenomenon of aloneness. The text examines space, place, and landscape, in relation to a constellation of questions and anxieties. It brings together the spectral presence of a glacier; bewilderments of the Alaskan landscape; the artwork, writing, and scholarship of figures like Lorna Simpson, Matthew Henson, Fred Moten, Jean Toomer, Saidiya Hartman; memories of the narrator’s past relationships with women; the space of boredom; the space of relation; the space of interiority; and alongside/against/through all this, an experience and meaning of Blackness. Among the passages I marked and starred: “When I paint the walls, the change in space says something to the idea of an hour. Or, what I wanted to say was that this has never been a book about glaciers so much as its about landscape, which can be an internal experience Black women who have been called ‘strange’ by their sisters have had collectively, and alone.”

7. Art and Faith by Makoto Fujimura: at the beginning of our text group in early 2020, someone shared a different book by Fujimura, who is an artist and person of faith, and almost unthinkingly, I passed the title along to my older brother simply because he had recently given up his livelihood as an engineer to become a missionary. Even in childhood, my brother and I were opposites that repelled, negotiating the world in totally divergent directions without ever meeting. Unexpectedly, the ethos that Fujimura brings to both art and faith has become a kind of bridge between us. In Art and Faith, Fujimura proposes a theology of art-making. Attention is a form of worship, Fujimura says. He describes how as a child, “moments of creative discovery seemed sacred to me, even if I did not fully understand them.” Furthermore: art-making is a form of knowing, rooted in intuition, feeling, and the body—by nature it is anti-capitalist. Beauty is superfluous, pleasure is superfluous, making is superfluous, Fujimura says, in the way that “God creates out of love, not necessity.” Even the story of Creation, he writes, “is more about poetic utterance of love rather than about industrial efficiency, a mechanism for being, as many Western commentators may assume.” All I have been wanting, I am realizing, is to be eternally inside the space of process, never ceding to the purview of product.

8. At some point, Vivian mentioned Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and intergenerational trauma. Mia had read it a while back. Heidi began listening to it on tape the morning I was halfway through; I kept reading until the end because it was too disorienting to put the book down. A certain liminal space can be ruptured open when one is attempting to replace the threads of a novel’s world with those of the real world. Over warm broth, the four of us talked about the book and shared stories from our own matrilineal inheritances, our own negotiations of identity and displacement. Every time I read a novel with Asian characters, I am startled by my emotions while reading. It’s not as if I weren’t emotionally immersed in books I read growing up—on the contrary—but encountering all the subtle layers of familiarity and intimacy transforms the reading experience in a way I hadn’t known.

9. Names for Light by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint: I started reading this last week. I am moved by: the shapes and sizes of its textual blocks; the naming of family history, which one might call biomythography; the page that starts “This place repeated enough times begins to sound like displaced” and ends “Displaced is where we moved to, displaced is where I grew up, displaced is where I am from.”

10. Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd. I save this one for last because it has been a guiding spirit through the year. Something of its temperament makes it a soothing companion. It isn’t only her hermitic way of life—it’s also the vulnerability of the epistolary form as a way of inhabiting distances, and it’s the exquisite care with which she attends to world and word, Self and Other. The tone of her address, whether to friend or cousin or mentor, merges tenderness and boldness all at once. She is unafraid in navigating by her interior language. Death and loss perforate the epistles, along with generous reports of seasonal flora, careful gifts of pressed yarrow or geranium leaf, beautifully precise textures of daily domestic life. The letters contain sentences like “To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations” and “These behaviors of the year hurt almost like music, shifting when it ease us most.” In a time when every small utterance can feel like a missive I am either sending out or catching in my hands, I am somehow consoled when Emily observes that letters contain something of the infinite “because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend… there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone.”

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005