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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Trauma Is the Thing We Inherit

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.