An American Nightmare: The Millions Interviews Dave Eggers

With the presidential election drawing near, it seems there has been an increase in Trump-related books, though the publishing industry has steadily published titles about Trump or inspired by him since he took office. Dave Eggers, author of numerous books, founder of McSweeney’s and Scholar Match, and co-founder of 826 Valencia and Voice of Witness, has reported on Trump’s presidency for The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, and recently turned to fiction to focus on the subject.

Eggers’s latest book, The Captain and the Glory, is a hybrid of political satire and allegory that begins when a new captain, modeled after Trump, takes over a cruise ship called the Glory. The book presents the Captain as cowardly—he hides under his bed, listening to a voice in a vent—and cruel. While the ending of this slim novel is hopeful, the inhumane acts may be what linger most for readers.

During what is now commonly known as “the before times,” I spoke with Eggers at the McSweeney’s office in San Francisco to discuss The Captain and the Glory. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the upcoming elections, the American Dream and Nightmare, and Trump’s cruel policies. 

The Millions: What do you think is at stake this election?

Dave Eggers: Well, I don’t think I could handle four more years myself, but whether it’s four more years or just a year, I do believe that we can bounce back and think that the values that we typically live and stand for will be restored. I think he’s once in a lifetime. There’s nobody with his combination of fame, charisma, madness, and seeming expertise in certain things. There’s nobody like that, there hasn’t been, and I don’t think there will be.

I think that the dignity of the office will humble the next person in the way it’s supposed to. That’s what I hope and believe, and that’s what I wrote at the ending of this book, because I actually can’t imagine it being any other way. If there was another person like him in the wings I would be scared, but I don’t know if that person exists.

TM: In a PBS NewsHour interview, you mentioned that the American Dream “is always alive and always under threat.” I think that The Captain and the Glory is your take on the American Dream, specifically post the 2016 election, and I like to define these kinds of terms and concepts. How do you define the American Dream?

DE: Well, you walked through Scholar Match on the way here and that to me is the embodiment of the American Dream, where higher education is much more accessible here than it is in any other country; we have more colleges, we have more of an egalitarian approach to it. Higher education has been the catapult to class mobility since the beginning of the Republic, since Alexander Hamilton came from the Caribbean and got his degree and came here with nothing and ended up as Secretary of Treasury and one of the framers of the nation.

You see the American Dream alive every single day, and the most sort of bedrock and corny aspects of it—if you work hard, you can get ahead; if you play by the rules, as they say, you will be given opportunities. You know, I’m from the Midwest, we believe in some simple but provable concepts. I believe that’s where I define the American Dream, where it is about anyone from here or from elsewhere in the world, if they come here, opportunity is available—it is not always available, but for so many, tens of thousands, if not millions, every year, it becomes a reality.

At the same time, I think that Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, when he was part of the administration, all of these people, would very much like to limit the access to that American Dream and pull up the ladder, close up the borders, and keep a white majority and limit those opportunities to people that are already here and can prove their lineage to Norway ideally. I think that’s where it’s always under threat.

I don’t think in our lifetime the American Dream, as it pertains to new arrivals, has ever been so explicitly denied. There might have been implicit or quiet ways of making people feel unwelcome, or favoring certain groups, but this is the first time in our lifetime where from the highest levels we’ve said, Enough, enough of any of you from countries that we don’t consider favorable to our national demographic. It’s never been so punitively and cruelly stated, I think.

TM: It’s been said that we’re living in a moment of crisis, that these things have always been present, and the volume has been turned up. I think you partially answered this next question, but how would you define the American Nightmare?

DE: Well, I think in many ways we’re living in it, in the cruelty, the denial of rights, the denial of the rule of law, the naked xenophobia, the glorification of ignorance in a way, the black hole culturally speaking of the White House—having no recognition of any cultural contributions that the United States has or makes or can export. It’s been the first administration in probably 100 years that hasn’t had one artist visit the White House at any time. Instead, like out of any authoritarian playbook, there is an exaltation of the military, of the police, of anyone in Europe, of order. For a liberal democracy, this is as far as we can go toward illiberal authoritarianism without completely breaking the American experiment.

At the same time, weirdly, our checks and balances and our legal system and organizations like the ACLU, keep proving every day that there are ways to thwart, slow down, push hurdles in front of, and outright defeat so many of these policies. One of the most encouraging moments was seeing Ivanovic and Bill Taylor, and dedicated civil servants, come out with incredible earnestness and talk about their work and talk about the mission that they’re tasked with and how important it is to create a hedge against Russian imperialism. It was heartening to see there are tens of thousands of people like this in the government that are so sincere. They are what make the government run and hold themselves and the country to the highest standards.

It was restorative to see civil servants in public expressing basic outrage about what they see as an infringement on and an abasement of the dignity of their mission. That makes me think that there are so many more of them than there are the Trumps and the Bill Barrs. The vast majority of Washington and all government systems are sincere people.

TM: It sounds like that even though you think that we’re living in a nightmare, knowing that these folks work in the government, helps you feel more hopeful or secure about the future.

DE: Yeah, it was a good reminder. I think the foundation is strong. There’s a certain amount of damage you can do from the Oval office, but I don’t think that it’s enough to irrevocably alter that foundation.

TM: You’ve talked about scaling down setting and characters in The Captain and the Glory in order to satirize D.C. What things did you intentionally leave out?

DE: Melania, it started with Melania, maybe. It’s both too easy and too mean.

TM: In what ways?

DE: Well, I had passages written about somebody like Melania, and it seemed too broad, actually, and I guess too easy. I was about to say I consider her a victim of this predatory clown, but I don’t think that she’s a victim.

I think you have to decide on who that cast of characters is. When you shrink the cast and the setting and you create a universe with its own rules, you don’t have to at all conform to the logic of D.C. or a government anymore. There’s something inherently funny about a cruise ship, and the people that work on it. At the same time, if you consider what is to be a happy, celebratory atmosphere and turn it a little bit and the people that serve you mojitos and lay out the deck chairs become a pseudo-militia that carries out what amounts to ritualized drownings of certain people, then it can get really dark, really quickly. I wanted that to be part of it from the start. There’s this ridiculousness at the superficial level, which we’re living with, but then, at the same time, Trump and his cohorts enact policies that have ended the lives of countless people and created a culture of menace and fear for millions.

I was visiting a family that I wrote about before, that has been living in a church basement for a year and a half. A woman that came here because her ex had threatened her life, and she was quite sure if she didn’t leave, she would be killed. She left one child with her mom, came up here with her youngest child, presented herself at the border, applied for asylum, and they gave her a court location but no date. They said they would tell her the date and time of the court appearance. They never did and they tried her in absentia and they issued a final order of deportation. If she goes home, she dies. She has two American kids now, she’s been working— she’s exactly who we should be protecting in every way, and we should be keeping her with her American children where they can do harm to no one and live their lives in peace; but instead, the government has put the full force of its authority into removing her. They most recently fined her almost $300,000. They issued a terrifying letter saying that she owed the government $300,000. They tried to lure her out of the church, so that they could arrest and deport her, which they do a lot of times. And that level of venom and cruelty is, at least to me, new and soul shaking and hard to live with.

There’s the ludicrous communication and superficial appearance and clownishness, and then there’s this cruelty and our capacity for tolerating cruelty. Those were the two themes of the book from the beginning.

TM: Yes, and in the Captain and the Glory, there seems to be an attempt to get at the Captain’s internal reality, almost as a way to explain why those themes exist. In the book, it seems that his fear and paranoia are fueling the clownishness and cruelty.

DE: Yeah, and in the book, the Captain starts as a little bit more of an empty vessel than Trump is, I think, in real life, and the voice in the vent articulates and confirms his fears and gives him an action plan for them. In my studies of Trump, he’s always been a racist and he’s always been a xenophobe, but it turned up many notches when he ran, and I think his handlers, starting with Bannon and Miller and others, convinced him that this was important to his base. I’m sure Nixon was the same kind of fearful and loathing personality, but, in public, he had some discipline about expressing it. Trump’s lack of discipline is actually the reason why we see the nutty side.

If you read the tweets before he was in office, more and more, he was always inclined toward the conspiracy, whether it was Muslims dancing after 9/11 or starting with the Central Park Five. He was always ready to believe the worst of anyone that wasn’t white, for one thing. Then he started courting and being advised by people like Bannon, Alex Jones, Stephen Miller, and coddling the alt-right—that was the voice in the vent, originally it was an amalgam of Alex Jones, Stephen Miller, Bannon—people that do present a bleak, paranoid, fearful view of the world that is about threats and about invading hordes. He gravitates towards those voices, because they stoke these fearful embers in him and that is something that’s fascinating to me.

I was trying to get at that the Captain is such a cowardly person that he has to live largely under his bed, and there has his fears confirmed and articulated by this disembodied voice. It’s one of those things where it started writing itself, because a lot of this was written in a stream of consciousness, in the first draft. Sometimes that’s where you get your best and purest truth—when you just let go and, like the shaping of a dream, you realize afterward that it’s speaking to something that you haven’t been able to articulate otherwise. I think writing from the subconscious is rewarding sometimes.

TM: Slightly related to the subconscious, I was thinking about symbolism. I was thinking about the vent and the ship and what they might mean on a symbolic level. But I think you might be fascinated with ships, or maybe they appear in your work because of San Francisco, your setting.

DE: Well, obviously I think it’s subliminal—you’re always seeing oceans, water, island, and ships. Once I knew that to make this at all interesting, it couldn’t be in D.C., and it couldn’t be exactly now, it couldn’t be landlocked or land-bound; you do have to completely change the venue to tell a story that has parallels, but doesn’t kneel before the facts at all times. You have to tell your own story that is appealing and entertaining on its own—and I was determined to do that.

I wanted the story to go into even darker places, and to show nobody aboard that ship is suited to revive it—they’ve been transformed, paralyzed, and desiccated, and it’s only those from elsewhere that have heard the legend of the Glory that are equipped to restore it and to believe in the mythology and to believe in those books of laws and principals. Refugees from tiny vessels come having recovered the floating manuals and guiding principles and laws, saying, I thought you might want these back. I didn’t know that was the ending until I wrote it.

TM: Right. You didn’t know that that’s where you were heading. Given that it’s a book about the American Dream, and that you believe in the foundation of the government, and you believe in the American Dream, it makes sense that your subconscious would take you there, right?

DE: Yeah, I’ve always said the people that dream the American Dream the best are immigrants and the sons and daughters of immigrants—it’s always been that way—I don’t think there’s any exception. We’re not ourselves without constant influx of new people, that has always been the energy of this country and it always will be. On a basic entrepreneurial level, all the statistics say immigrants are double or triple the rate of entrepreneurship and that’s important to me—I am sort of an entrepreneur, too.

I hope that we’ll be okay. The number of asylum seekers we’re taking in has dropped almost to historic lows, the number of turnarounds at the border is higher, higher than ever. It will take a lot of effort to get that back up again, because it’s hard to open the doors once people have gotten used to them being closed. But I do think that the people that will remind us of why this country exists are not necessarily going to be the Stephen Millers and Bannons and Trumps of the world—it’s gonna be people that actually have read and believed in the words that define the country in the first place.

TM: Earlier you mention cutting Melania out. I’ve been thinking about the Captain’s fascination with his daughter. As a reader, I think it’s clear he has sexual desire for her—the way he’s looking at her. It’s something that the narrator goes back to again and again, and I’m interested in why this book includes it.

DE: The book is mirroring his public comments on Howard Stern and elsewhere, and when he said, “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, I’d perhaps be dating her.” Because there are too many outrages to count, we forget 90 percent of them in any one assessment. We elected somebody who had been accused of and demonstrably was a predator, bragged about it, and also expressed amorous interest in some way or objectified his daughter in the national media. There were certain things that I wanted to remind people of.

TM: You mentioned being an entrepreneur. In an interview on Connecticut Public Radio, you listed some attributes that you thought should be necessary for the president. You mentioned empathy and knowing the Constitution, among other things. The presidency is kind of a macro example of leadership. What attributes do you think are necessary for leaders on a more micro level, in small businesses or institutions?

DE: Empathy, again, of course. There are positions for people that lack empathy and they could be in places where they could do less harm. I think empathy is genetically predisposed to have more or less, but I also think it’s something that could be taught, simply by reading a lot and listening a lot.

Intellectual flexibility, curiosity, eagerness to listen and learn, a presumption that you don’t know much and that everybody around you can teach you so much every day. I think one of the great joys of life is you go through it knowing how little you know and taking such pleasure in the relief that you’re really not going to know 99 percent of anything. So, if you consider yourself a vessel that has room to be filled, then that’s so liberating in a way. I’ve learned so much even in the last 20 years being with McSweeney’s.

With 826, I knew 100 percent I did not have any qualifications to run a nonprofit, so I was going to do mostly listening and helping along. All Nínive Calegari, the co-founder, and I ever did really was aggregate everyone’s ideas into a workable form and execute them. So tenacity, the ability to achieve the result, would be the last attribute.

Bonus Links:
A Little Bit Beta: On Dave Eggers’s ‘The Circle’
The Perils of Writing Wilderness: On Dave Eggers’s ‘Heroes of the Frontier’
Stranger in a Strange Land: Dave Eggers’s ‘The Parade’

The Spirit of Community and Collaboration

When it comes to my favorite writers, I keep up to date with what they’re writing, winning, saying, doing—you get it. Yes, I’m the type of person who has Google alerts set up for multiple writers (Claudia Rankine, Renee Gladman, Amina Cain, and Tiphanie Yanique, to name a few) and, if they are on Facebook, I receive notifications when they post, which is how I found out about Chicken of the Sea.

On June 13, 2018, Viet Thanh Nguyen posted: “Ellison’s first, and hopefully not last, co-creative effort with me. He came up with the title, story, and illustrations, while I wrote it…I believe he was inspired by his time at the Djerassi residency with illustrator Thi Bui, who gave him a lot of attention.”

I thought, If I were an editor at a press, I’d publish that book.

A couple of weeks later, he posted again: “On an otherwise bleak day, let me just note that Ellison Nguyen, 4 years and 11 months, has obtained a literary agent to represent him (and me) on his book CHICKEN OF THE SEA, which I mentioned here on Facebook and which led an editor from a notable press to express interest in said book. More details to come on this collaborative project with artist Thi Bui and her son Hien providing the illustrations, and Ellison and me working on the story (which was his idea).”

Damn, what a cool book project! I thought.

When I read Chicken of the Sea, written by Viet Thanh Nguyen and his now six-year-old son, Ellison Nguyen, and illustrated by Thi Bui and her now teenage son, Hien Bui-Stafford, I remembered the years I worked with students at the literary nonprofit 826 Valencia and 826LA. Students wrote stories often paired with illustrations by professional, local artists, and the stories were often wild and absurd. Their stories surprised and delighted me, they brought me joy. These days it is rare for me to encounter stories that delight and surprise me, that bring me joy. Chicken of the Sea, a wild, action-packed story in which farm chickens become pirates and sneak into the enemy territory of Dog Knights, is one of these rare stories. What’s more: the multigenerational collaborative book project has the potential to inspire artists, writers, parents, and children to collaborate with one another.

I had the opportunity to interview Viet Thanh Nguyen, Ellison Nguyen, Thi Bui, and Hien Bui-Stafford, and sent them questions via Google documents. Viet typed out Ellison’s responses, and I edited questions and answers for pacing and coherence.

The Millions: Ellison created Chicken of the Sea shortly after his time at a six-day writing residency where 10 Vietnamese diasporic writers gathered at Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Viet, you described the residency as a “huge moment” for Vietnamese diasporic writing. Can you elaborate on why it was a huge moment?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Vietnamese diasporic writing is flourishing in many countries, and yet many Vietnamese diasporic writers feel as if they’re writing alone, or at least in isolation from other Vietnamese diasporic writers. I think it was important to bring a group of them together so that they could have conversations with each other and build a community, and also to demonstrate to outsiders that such a thing as Vietnamese diasporic literature exists.

These 10 writers are only part of a larger group of writers with books published and awards won. The residency was the first of six events (three of which have taken place) that will bring together more than 40 writers from the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, and Vietnam. We were building on momentum and hoping to further that momentum for Vietnamese diasporic writing, and we did so in the spirit of community and collaboration. We wanted to help these writers and have them help each other, rather than treat writing as only an individualistic practice (which it most basically is, but it also flourishes in the space of movements). There’s no doubt that Chicken of the Sea, itself a collaborative project, was sparked by this collaborative space.

TM: Thi, how would you describe your time with Ellison at the retreat?

Thi Bui: Viet and I had just presented The Displaced at BookExpo in New York, where Hien met Viet for the first time, and then we flew back to San Francisco, Hien went home with his dad, and I went straight to Djerassi. That’s where I first met and spent time with Ellison (along with some literary heavyweights like Nam Le, Monique Truong, and Hoa Nguyen and reconnected with writers I already knew like Bao Phi, Aimee Phan, and Nguyen Phan Que Mai). I love having a little kid at writers’ or artists’ retreats—while it’s harder for the parents, it’s a wholesome addition for everyone else and pure joy for me to have someone to play with when I need to escape from my brain.

I showed Ellison how to do fake kung fu moves and gave him a lot of piggyback rides. Like, a lot. I also drew him in the copy of A Different Pond that Bao Phi and I signed for him.

TM: How was this collaborative project different from previous artistic collaborations you’ve done? (I’m thinking of A Different Pond, and how different it is from Chicken of the Sea.)

TB: I knew that Hien would have good instincts for illustrating Ellison’s ideas, and that his quickness and spontaneity would be a better match. My adult carefulness would fill in the gaps in the preplanning and finalizing of the art. It was kind of awe-inspiring to watch how casually Hien approached the compositions and the character designs. I want that kind of freedom.

TM: I read that you decided to color Hien’s illustrations. One of the things I enjoyed about Chicken of the Sea is the color scheme. The colors are bold and bright; they are loud. Why did you choose these colors for Chicken of the Sea? How do the colors complement both Hien’s illustrations and Ellison’s story? I especially loved the illustration of the Dog King’s heart.

TB: Hien and I chose general colors for the mood of the pages when we were laying out the text and the first thumbnail sketches. The action sequences called for exciting colors! And the page where the Dog King’s heart grows is a homage to the 1966 animated movie of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!.

TM: Hien, I find that the illustrations pair so well with the story. The facial expressions and body language of the chickens lend to a comical and playful tone. Is this normally how you illustrate, or did Ellison influence your style?

Hien Bui-Stafford: Ellison definitely influenced my style. I was also influenced by the playfulness of little kids. For this book, I drew fast and didn’t really look at anything to copy; I just drew from my imagination. For other drawings I do, I actually look up a lot of reference photos and take more time.

TM:  What would be your ideal, dream art project?

HBS: Designing a robot.

TM: Thi and Hien, based on your experiences, do you recommend artists and writers and/or parents and children work on collaborative creative projects?

HBS: Yeah.

TB: It’s a lot less lonely working with collaborators, especially when you can work in the same place at the same time. It’s also nice to wear a slightly different hat than I normally wear as a parent.

TM: I read that you spent a day making and looking at art in Rome. Can you describe that day in Rome and how Chicken of the Sea fit into it?

Hien: My mom was coloring that day. I was just drawing random stuff and giving my mom advice.

TB: I am always behind on my projects, partly because I try to do too many things at the same time, and partly because I always have more to add to what I’m working on. So we were juggling a research month in Greece where I was learning about the refugee crisis there, a mother-son summer vacation, finishing Chicken of the Sea, and killing time because we missed our flight from Rome to Athens. Hien had had enough of the crowds of tourists visiting ancient ruins in the heat, so we found an outdoor cafe with shade across from the National Gallery of Modern Art. Hien gave me guidance on the Dog Knights’ clothing and armor. We had at least a couple of iced cappuccinos and then we went to look at some art, and I was pleased with how much Hien responded to modern and contemporary art.

TM: Ellison, congrats on receiving your first advance at such a young age!

VTN:  An advance is the money you got for your book.

EN: Where is it?

VTN: I kept it.

EN: Give it!

VTN: You owe me money.

EN: No.

VTN: You’re expensive.

TM:  Ellison, can you tell me about what it was like working with your dad on your story?

EN: It was great.

VTN:  Exclamation point?

EN: No.

TM: Viet, can you describe your experience co-creating a story with Ellison?

VTN: It was a real joy. I love watching Ellison create his own stories, which are comic books.

EN: I don’t do comic books anymore.

VTN: You did.

EN: I’m not selling anymore comics. I’m not making any more comics.

VTN: Your agent will be sad.

EN: Okay, okay!

VTN: Does that mean you’ll make more comics?

EN: Dogs of the Air.

VTN: What’s that?

EN: Dogs make a hot air balloon and fly up into the sky but then the hot air balloon blows up and they find treasure in the water. We done here yet?

TM: [Laughs.] Almost! I am curious: what was the last book you loved?

EN: Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man: For Whom the Ball Rolls.

TM: What book (or books) are you reading now?

EN: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules

VTN: On Audible.

EN: Disney Frozen 2: The Magical Guide.

TM: Viet, you wrote that June 26, 2018, the day Ellison obtained literary representation, had been “an otherwise bleak day.” Did this news help offset or alleviate the sense of bleakness? Do you believe that art and community as well as fatherhood can function to do so?

VTN: Art, community, fatherhood all bring challenges, but if they are done right, they also bring great joy. As a writer and a reader, I find joy in literature, and of course I want my son to enjoy what I do. We spend a lot of time reading books together, and so it was wonderful for me to see him become an early reader and then, surprisingly, a writer and artist, although as he points out above, that may be ending soon. Even if his writing career goes no further, however, he’s had fun, and it turns out he’s pretty good in front of an audience reading from his book. Hopefully he’ll remember the experience. And the memory of the joy remains. Even now, I remember the fun of how this book came into being, and I don’t remember what was so bleak on June 26, 2018 (Don’t remind me.).

TM: Lastly, what are two or three of your favorite children’s books and why?

VTN: I loved the Curious George series and the Tintin series, probably because both had a great sense of adventure in their own ways, as well as unlikely plots with surprising twists and turns. They were also marked by distinctive visual styles that charmed me and remained consistent over the series. Curious George and Tintin also never changed or aged. They knew who they were, they pursued getting things right in their own ways, and always solved the challenges they faced (even if, in the case of Curious George, he created them himself).

As an adult, I can certainly see some of the possible problems at the heart of these stories’ conceptions, which are inseparable from colonialism, but reading them with Ellison, I can see their enduring power. But while part of the pleasure of sharing storytelling with him is about seeing how entertained he is, the other part of the pleasure is trying to help him understand the complexities of the stories he loves. We’ll have to wait and see how successful I am.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Unsettling the American Dream: The Millions Interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen
A Year in Reading: Viet Thanh Nguyen

A Year in Reading: Zoë Ruiz

I spent most of the year living in a small town in Oregon where I read a lot of student work and finished my MFA thesis. There I read my first but not last book by Octavia E. Butler, Kindred. I borrowed Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, from a graduate employee union organizer, read some stories, and assigned one to my introduction to fiction class. adrienne maree brown, one of the editors of the anthology and author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, gave a keynote for an on-campus conference coordinated by community organizers, and the talk ended with her encouraging the audience to howl together in honor of the full moon. After her Friday night talk, I walked out into the cool air and saw cherry blossoms lit by street lamps.

At the end of June, I was back in Los Angeles and sitting on Rocío Carlos’s porch and talking to Chiwan Choi, who told me that Los Angeles Public Library had opened up the Octavia Lab. I was back in L.A., where Butler’s archives are held at the Huntington, and telling Chiwan that I hoped someone is writing Butler’s biography because not one yet exists. I suspect the reason one has yet to exist has to do with inequities in publishing. (If you read this and you know of a published biography, please let me know.) Before I was in L.A., I stayed in San Francisco for a couple of days and met with my friend Dan Weiss who now works at McSweeney’s and he told me about their forthcoming issues. Later, back in L.A., I enjoyed their artfully designed Twenty-First Anniversary Issue, featuring 65 contributors, including Claudia Rankine, Terrance Hayes, and Morgan Jerkins.

In July, I stayed in a one-bedroom casita in Santa Fe, spent most of time journaling and meditating and practicing yin yoga at a yoga studio a block away. My friend visited me, and we took a tour of O’Keeffe’s house and I started reading Laurie Lisle’s biography of O’Keeffe, Portrait of an Artist. I wanted to read every biography of her and then realized that maybe I really enjoy biographies focused on artists. This year, Love Unknown, an Elizabeth Bishop biography, was published, and I want to read and gift it to avid Bishop readers. In the one-bedroom casita, I sped-read Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage and bookmarked Rachel Vorona Cote’s article “Eve Babitz Could Capture Only One Side Of L.A.,” which argues that Babitz’s work is “saturated with a carelessness afforded by whiteness and beauty.” From a used bookstore, I bought a beautiful copy of Julio Cortázar’s Cronopios and Famas.

After Hernán Diaz read my (unpublished) fiction at Bread Loaf in 2016, he recommended I read Cortázar, specifically this title. So I’m reading it. Slowly. On mornings that I work on my fiction, I read one story from the collection. Sometimes I just read a paragraph. I’m taking my time with it. Because it’s a special book with special stories, unlike any other I’ve read. Because it’s strange, it’s delightful. Because it’s my cure for days filled with despair and bleakness and, in this way, reminds me of the power of fiction. Because Cronopios and Famas is a book that inspires me to get out of bed and sit at my writing desk and do the work. Because you only get one chance to read a book for the first time, and when you find a book that affects you like Cronopios and Famas affects me, you take your time with it. In Santa Fe, I made friends with a yoga teacher who would bring her dog to classes, and on one of my last nights in that city, I went to dinner with her and a Dutch-Canadian visual artist who had recently moved to the area.

In August, I spent two weeks at Bread Loaf, focusing on coordinating events in the Little Theater, participating in a writing workshop led by Ravi Howard, and socializing with writers. I bought multiple copies of De’Shawn C. Winslow’s In West Mills for myself and family and friends. I loved falling into the world that Winslow created in his debut novel, and look forward to reading his second novel. Bread Loaf’s assistant director Lauren Francis-Sharma organized a private screening of “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” in the Little Theater. Morrison was at Bread Loaf in 1977, and her archived talk is available online. When I was back home, I read Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, which has been on my to-read list for years, and implore every writing instructor to read this book as well as anyone interested in, studying, or writing literary criticism and fiction. After I finished reading Playing in the Dark, I started reading Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.

I began working for a true crime writer and bestselling memoirist who recommended that I read Helter Skelter. I knew very little about the Manson family or the murders and admittedly had little interest in them, but found Helter Skelter to be a page turner. The book is well-written and structured, and Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s matter-of-fact style and detailed knowledge of the case and the cast of characters was propulsive. On a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, I discovered Helter Skelter pairs well with Didion’s essay “The White Album.” The true crime writer and memoirist asked me to read Billy Jensen’s Chase Darkness with Me: How One True-Crime Writer Started Solving Murders for research purposes. I recommend this title to anyone who is interested in reading about true crime or serial killers. It’s not exactly my field of interest and tends to disturb me in the most depressive- and anxiety-inducing of ways. When those moods come—and they do—I reach out to friends, and now remember one Monday night in October when Peter Woods, Rocío Carlos, and Rachel McLeod Kaminer responded to my texts. We gathered at a bar on Spring Street in downtown L.A. when Sara Borjas was bartending, and I spent hours with them, my spirit lifting.

Reading true crime and researching serial killings has me thinking of a section of “True War Stories,” an essay written by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Nguyen writes:

Opening a refrigerator is a true war story. So is paying one’s taxes. Complicity is the truest war story of all…Americans do not wish to confront this domestic horror directly, which is why they substitute for it stories of zombies and serial killers and the like. Fictional violence and monstrous horror are easier to stomach than understanding how opening our refrigerator or watching a football game connects us to war, which is not thrilling at all. The true war story is not only that war is hell…The true war story is also that war is normal, which is why we are always going to war…War involves all of us, and that is more discomfiting than any horror story over here or blood-and-guts story over there.

These days I often think of lines written or stated by Nguyen, because I’m reading approximately 60 essays and op-eds written by him and over 200 interviews with him.

In October, I attended John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons” with my 15-year-old niece who is a Leguizamo superfan. We waited in a long line so Leguizamo could sign Ghetto Klown, and she was elated after meeting him. Most of the time my niece experiences reading as a chore or schoolwork, but she started and finished the graphic novel memoir in less than 24 hours. My sister sent a photo of my niece walking and reading the book in the halls of her high school. As I read Leguizamo’s memoir, illustrated by Christa Cassano and Shamus Beyale, I focused on visual narration, the structure and plot, and identity politics and inequities in Hollywood. In 2020, a paperback edition of Ghetto Klown will be released with an introduction by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I’m thinking about what I’ll read in 2020. I haven’t been in a book club since I created a book club for 826LA volunteers almost a decade ago, and am considering joining Los Angeles Gay Lady Book Club, curated by a friend and ProDomme. I’m creating a list of writers who I want to interview in 2020—and, as always, my goal is to read more than last year.

A Year in Reading: Zoë Ruiz

I’m currently reading Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s essay collection Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, which was chosen by Maggie Nelson as the winner of the 1913 Open Prose Contest. I’ve been an admirer of Sloan’s essays since her first collection, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White, was published.

I read Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and now I’m rereading Citizen. Alexandra Schwartz for The New Yorker writes, “‘Citizen’ opens with a series of vignettes, written in the second person, that recount persistent, everyday acts of racism of a kind that accumulate until they become a poisonous scourge.” As I reread, I am paying attention to form and how Rankine accomplishes the feeling of accumulation in the book.

Lit Hub’s article “The Classes 25 Famous Writers Teach” includes courses taught by Rankine and Viet Thanh Nguyen, and I plan to read texts from their classes next year. This year, I read Nguyen’s short story collection, The Refugees, which received many glowing reviews. In her New Yorker review, Joyce Carol Oates writes, “Viet Thanh Nguyen, one of our great chroniclers of displacement, appears to value the term ‘refugee’ precisely for the punitive violence it betrays.” She also writes, “Nguyen leaves us with a harrowing vision of the sprawling tragedies of wartime, and of the moral duplicities of which we are capable.”

In May, I attended “An Evening with the National Book Awards” at The Skirball Center, featuring Nguyen, Karan Mahajan, and Robin Coste Lewis. After the event, I went to the Los Angeles Public Library and checked out Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, which was the 2015 National Book Award winner in poetry. I also checked out Jennifer Richter’s poetry collections Threshold and No Acute Distress because I registered for Richter’s poetry course at Oregon State University. Richter’s first book of poems, Threshold, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards. As a reader and writer who is interested in chronic illness and motherhood, I found her most recent collection, No Acute Distress, compelling.

In the fall, I took Richter’s poetry craft course on hybrid forms and reread Gary Young’s book of prose poems No Other Life. Reading his work for my first term at graduate school seem like an intense moment of synchronicity. Young was one of my mentors as an undergraduate and this summer I had read with him at Bookshop Santa Cruz in celebration of the anthology Golden State 2017, edited by Lisa Locascio.

I read Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments, a book of aphorisms that are witty, dark, and poignant, and found the aphorisms about desire and ambition particularly captivating. In order to learn more about Manguso’s writing process and the book, I attended the panel “Outlaws and Renegades: Innovative Short Forms” at Wordstock and listened to podcast interviews with her on Otherppl with Brad Listi and Beautiful Writers. Her previous books OngoingnessThe Guardians, and Two Types of Decay are now on my bookshelf, and I look forward to reading them in 2018.

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A Year in Reading: Zoë Ruiz

During the first half of the year, I read poetry.  While I stayed at Rachel McLeod Kaminer’s downtown loft, I picked up Patti Smith’s Early Work: 1970-1979 and Louise Mathias’s The Traps from her bookshelf, and later in the year, read Kaminer’s collection As in the Dark, Descend. In San Francisco, McSweeney’s editor Andi Winnette handed me Rebecca Lindenberg’s Love, an Index. Lindenberg’s partner went on a trip to research volcanoes in Japan and then disappeared. He never returned. She lost him and she wrote these poems. While in Connecticut, I read Gary Young’s Adversary and when I was back in California, I read Young’s Even So. I read Love Sonnets and Elegies by Louise Labé and I didn’t think I’d particularly enjoy love sonnets by a woman from the 16th century but I did. I liked reading her yearning. It made that kind of ache seem timeless.

I spent hours late at night reading the manga Lone Wolf and Cub, a tale of violent revenge set in Japan’s Edo period. The lead character is a former shogun’s executioner who lives a life as an assassin and cares for his toddler-aged son. Father and son, together they travel the country, carrying out murders. As this 28-volume tale unfolds, the plot thickens and more becomes at stake, but I only read up to volume 13 because I became distracted by life. There is a strong likelihood that I will spend the second half of December fiendishly finishing this blood-filled story. Not only are the illustrations of the landscape beautiful and many of the lines read like poetry, but I’m slightly in love with this story.

I read What Becomes Us by my former professor Micah Perks. The language in this story is lively and reads fast, and the story centers on Evie who is pregnant with twins and leaves her abusive husband on the West Coast to start a new life on the East Coast. The town she moves to is community-oriented but also strange and a bit creepy. As Evie’s hunger for love, food, and more takes her over, she begins to have visions of historical figure Mary Rowlandson. During King Philip’s War, Mary Rowlandson was held captive and wrote a narrative about her experience; this captivity narrative was the first prose book published by a woman in the Americas. After I finished What Becomes Us, I read The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.

I read Natashia Deón’s critically acclaimed debut novel Grace, which is an epic novel that masterfully and keenly tells the story of Naomi and her daughter, Josey, as well as the stories of the men and women they encounter. All of Deón’s characters are alive and complex and her language is filled with rich images that delight, surprise, and many times hurt. Grace brings the history of slavery in the United States very close to the reader and in doing so, offers the reader space to imagine the dreams and visions of the people who lived this history, dreams and visions that people in power suppressed and tried to erase from our history and imagination.

In April, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies was published by Harvard University Press and the book was shortlisted for the National Book Award for nonfiction. Nguyen wrote a critical text that examines war and memory and forgetting, and this academic book is accessible to nonacademic readers. For years, I told myself I wasn’t smart enough to comprehend theoretical and academic texts, but after reading and line-editing Nugyen’s book, I realized that not only are some academic works accessible and comprehendible, but their analysis of relevant topics are crucial in helping me understand the world in which I live. I suppose I believe that if I fully understand power structures, then I can strategically fight against them.

I read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and after I finished the book, I read interviews with her from 2014 and listened to recordings of her reading excerpts of Citizen. In September, she became a MacArthur Fellow and that same month in a Buzzfeed interview said, “As citizens, we’re being asked to be in collusion with the murder of black people, to not regard it as a state of emergency, and to continue in our normal course of business.” This year, she encouraged us as American citizens to acknowledge that we are in state of emergency. In October, I read headlines that she was using the MacArthur grant to study whiteness and that she stated, “It’s important that people begin to understand that whiteness is not inevitable, and that white dominance is not inevitable.” In 2017, I want to read books that help further the idea that both whiteness and white dominance are not inevitable, and I want to read books that help me understand how exactly we got to the place that we are in now.

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

Trauma Is the Thing We Inherit

1.
When I was 14, I read a book of stories by Gabriel García Márquez titled Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories. I still have the copy of that book. I do not hold onto books usually. I try to get rid of them every so often because my father hoarded books. I do not think about the library or collection I could have one day. I think of what I do not want to become, what I do not want to inherit, even though you do not get to choose what you inherit.

2.
My mother left Colombia and came to California; my father left Connecticut and landed in California. They met in Los Angeles, married, and had me. I always thought they were opposites, my mother and father, and, for the most part, they are. But they are similar in how they talk about the people and the places that they left, which is to say they do not talk about them.

With my father, everything about the past was a joke or off the table, and this combination was apparent when he would say in a sing-song tune: “Don’t ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.” My mother did not like questions either. She still does not. She becomes anxious. I understand their silence. It has to do with trauma or, maybe in Márquez’s words, misfortune. Strange that these two people, my mother and my father, would marry and have a daughter that would become a woman who makes a life out of stories, even as she feels robbed of her own. Or maybe it is not strange at all. Maybe it makes perfect sense.

My father is on his deathbed and I went to visit him and found myself thinking, Now is the time. You can ask him questions. He is at his most vulnerable. As he transitions from life to not-life, a man is dying, his lung capacity so weak that his voice is only a whisper, and I cannot stop being his daughter and feeling like I am owed something. Something he cannot give me.

3.
The copy that I still have of Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories is from Brand Bookshop. During high school, I had a crush on a bookseller there; he was not that much older than me, and a few years ago, he passed away. Last year the former store owner died and the year before Brand Bookshop went out of business. It no longer exists. I spent many hours in that bookstore as a girl with my father and then later with my high school friends, friends I no longer know.

“There is no real way to deal with everything we lose,” Joan Didion once wrote. Maybe because there is no real way to deal with what I have lost, I keep this book. I hold in my hands a concrete item and the past is with me again. To think that time is divided in clear lines of past, present, and future is one way in which we try to deal with what we lose. Maybe because there is no real way to deal with these things, I write. I make meaning out of things, knowing that to do so may be a futile attempt at controlling the uncontrollable. I write about Innocent Eréndira, about what the characters lost and inherited. I make connections that may or may not exist.

4.
The short story collection opens with “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother.” In the story, the character Eréndira is overworked and exhausted from doing endless chores for her cruel grandmother. One evening, without having the strength to get undressed, “she put the candlestick on the night table and fell onto the bed. A short while later the wind of misfortune came into the bedroom like a pack of hounds and knocked the candle over against the curtain.” The grandmother’s mansion burns to the ground, and the old woman looks at the ruins. “‘My poor child,’ she sighed. ‘Life won’t be long enough for you to pay me back for this mishap.’” The grandmother makes her 14-year-old granddaughter have sex with countless men in order to pay her back for what she has lost.

At first, the heartless grandmother keeps careful track of the debt owed. After six months, she says it will take Eréndira eight years, seven months, and eleven days to pay her back. But, as time passes, the grandmother stops speaking of the “original debt, whose details had become twisted and whose installments had grown as the costs of the business became more complicated.” Instead the grandmother says, “When you no longer have me…you’ll be free and happy.”

5.
My copy of Innocent Eréndira is worn, the pages are yellow, stained with age, an indication that time is passing. The paperback cover is torn and will fall off soon and when the cover falls off, I plan to frame and hang it on the wall near my bookshelf.

The cover illustration depicts a young woman who is sitting naked and alone. Her legs are bent and tucked into her body and her head is bowed down into her chest and hidden from view. This is the first image of Eréndira, a sad and vulnerable girl left to comfort herself.

I wonder if as a 14-year-old girl, I bought this book because I liked the cover illustration, because I related to it. I wonder if I as a 32-year-old woman, I plan to keep the cover because I still relate to the image of her.

6.
There are many images of Eréndira throughout the story that are difficult to read. Her first sexual experience is with a man who rapes her. Eréndira tries to shout and fight him, but he slaps her, grabs her, and holds her down. Finally “Eréndira then succumbed to terror, lost consciousness, and remained as if fascinated by the moonbeams.” The grandmother is in a room nearby. She negotiated 250 pesos for the price of her granddaughter, whom she described to the man as “completely new.”

Later in the story, there is another image of her “unable to repress the trembling in her body and she was in sorry shape, all dirty with soldier sweat.” When the grandmother sees her in this state, she tries to tell Eréndira that there are only 10 soldiers left, and “Eréndira began to weep with the shrieks of a frightened animal.” The grandmother strokes her granddaughter’s head and says, “The trouble is that you’re weak.”

7.
I consider the grandmother’s past. Her husband died of a fever, her son was murdered, and she buried them both in her courtyard. After her mansion burns down, she brings the bones of her husband and her son with her. From one town to the next, she carries her heavy losses. She cannot let them go.

While she sleeps, she has “repressed ravings,“ and relives trauma. Her dreams are dark and turbulent. She screams and sobs, she sings for God to bring back her innocence. She retells of a time when a “crew of madmen” arrived and of one man in particular who had the “breath of death” and called her “the most obliging, most beautiful woman on earth.” While she dreams, the grandmother tells the story of a man (presumably the same man, the man with the breath of death) who wanted to come into her bedroom. She says, “I felt I was going to die, soaked in the sweat of fear.” She barricaded the door. He invaded her space and she gave him a warning and he just laughed. Then she slit his throat.

8.
The women and men who act cruel in life often have a past that is filled with darkness. I think of my father. He knew how to hurt people and he did. He did not have friends. He did not have close relationships with his family. Many of his brothers and sisters did not speak to him, and I stopped speaking to him in my mid-20s. When he was dying, when he had little time left, I decided to see him again. He was delirious and wide-eyed with pain. Repeatedly he asked me, begged me to help him. He wanted someone, anyone to ease his suffering. This was something I could not give my father, could never give him.

When I started this essay, my father was on his deathbed and now as I finish it, he is no longer alive. When I think of his past, I am left with questions. I find myself asking: How much did his past shape him? And when I ask that question, I am asking: How much of a choice did he have in becoming the man he became? How much did Eréndira’s heartless grandmother have a choice in becoming the woman she became? I do not know the answers to these questions, and I likely never will. What I do know is that my father’s past is also my past. The grandmother’s past is also Eréndira’s past. This is how trauma works. It gets passed down. This is what we inherit.

9.
At the end of the short story, a young man with the “gringo name” of Ulises, who has fallen in love with Eréndira, kills the grandmother. He commits murder because Eréndira asks him to do so. He says, “For you I’d be capable of anything.” Murdering the old woman is no easy task and it takes a few attempts. When she is lifeless, he is no knight in shining armor. The last image the reader has of Ulises is him “lying face down on the beach, weeping from solitude and fear.” Eréndira does not live happily ever after with the young man who loves her. She loves him but does not choose him. Instead, she chooses to run.

“She was running into the wind, swifter than a deer, and no voice could stop her.” Eréndira runs and runs and runs. She outruns her past or runs from it or runs it out of her system. Or maybe she runs with her past. Her grandmother’s blood flows through her veins and Eréndira runs and run and runs. I do not believe the grandmother was right. I do not think Eréndira finds freedom or happiness without her, but I believe that in her flight, she experiences moments of joy.

10.
The story ends with these words: “…she was never heard of again nor was the slightest trace of her misfortune ever found.” This is interesting because there are two characters that keep alive Eréndira’s story of misfortune: a musician by the name of Rafael Escalona and the narrator of the story. The narrator is a man who saw Eréndira and her grandmother but once in a border town. Years later, he hears Rafael Escalona sing a song that “revealed the terrible ending of the drama” and the song inspires him. He thinks that “it would be good to tell the tale,” which I understand. I am not the kind of woman who runs. I am the kind of woman who tells the story. I am not running like Eréndira “beyond the arid winds and the never-ending sunsets.” I am sitting in bed and finishing this essay, and as I write, I experience moments of joy, that same kind of joy I imagine Eréndira experiences as she runs.