Apocalypse, Darling (Machete)

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A Year in Reading: Sejal Shah

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It’s been a hard year to read (for me, to focus) even with many astounding-sounding books and also a challenging year to publish a book (which I also did). In the hardest parts of the pandemic, I retreated to the bathtub with Epsom salts. Reading in the bathtub helped me get through many difficult times and years: since my twenties, it’s been a reliable way to self-soothe.

This
is not comprehensive, but here’s some of what I read, in and out of the tub,
with a focus on nonfiction and essays.

In the beginning of the year, I read Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book. Even though I know a lot of writers, there’s so much I didn’t know about publishing a book. I started an internship at Beacon Press in college, but decided it was too much time to be unpaid. Would it have better prepared me to understand the business? I’ll never know. What I do know is that I’m grateful for this book. Maum’s book dealt with all parts of the process: blurbs, galleys, agents, websites. I especially appreciated the section on handling email (and Paul W. Morris’s contribution to how he deals with email, Boomerang, scheduling, color-coding).

Maum also includes specific advice from and for queer writers, women, and writers of color, all of which I found helpful. In the final chapter, publishing professionals and authors share their best take-aways for debut authors. Julie Buntin, editor of Book Deal (and also my former student from a zillion years ago), wisely noted “It’s a kind of trauma, making that part of yourself public. Being a writer in the world, it’s a privilege, but it’s not gentle. It’s a really heavy experience.” That resonated. If you or someone you love has a book forthcoming, please get this guide!

Also in January, I read Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning in preparation for interviewing Cathy Park Hong–the first interview I’d done in years. I found the range of her essays and their subjects astonishing, invigorating, and inspiring. Like many of us, I was waiting for this book and its fighting words. In the first essay, “United”: “This country insists that our racial identity is beside the point, that it has nothing to do with being bullied, or passed over for promotion, or cut off every time we talk. Our race has nothing to do with this country, even, which is why we’re often listed as “Other” in polls.” And from “The Indebted,” the final essay in the book: “At what cost do I have this life? At what toll have I been granted this safety?”

I
can’t remember what I read in February.

At the start of the pandemic, I fell back on rereading as talisman and comfort. I reread bell hooks’s title essay, ‘”talking back” from her 1989 book, talking back; thinking feminist, thinking black. There is a tradition of women writing and claiming speech, particularly for Black women, that I took refuge in: “in black communities (and diverse ethnic communities), women have not been silent.” hooks’ essay reminded me, through all the various stresses on mind and body, to keep going.

I reread Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and looked at the images, the white space. A favorite sentence: “The route is often associative.” And “Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight.”

From James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, I reread “Stranger in the Village” and  “Autobiographical Notes.” From the latter: “I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.” Underlined. This felt helpful to reread this year.

In March or April, I read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. There were few continuous narratives I was able to pick up and stay with this year: I loved falling into the structure and world of Machado’s book, fairy tales, prologue, multiple epigraphs. Even though it’s about an abusive relationship, it’s also about how to free ourselves.

I devoured Mia Birdsong’s How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community: I’ve been recommending this book to everyone. Oakland activist and author (and former Rochesterian!) Birdsong has written a tremendous guide for how to live more connected lives, investing in friendships and community.

Also, this spring, I read Sopan Deb’s wry and poignant debut, Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me, a memoir about family, forgiveness, learning to see our parents as people, and also about depression, trauma, estrangement, comedy, and love.

In June, I read Donovan Hohn’s The Inner Coast: Essays (Norton, 2020). I had read and admired Hohn’s poems many years ago in an anthology that included poems we had written as high school students. This year, we both published books during a pandemic consisting of essays written over twenty years. Hohn’s far-ranging and meditative essays explore landscapes, ecology, friendships, family, and how we come to know ourselves. His introduction notes: “We are born into stories already in progress.” I was struck by how Hohn began his book including the reader–how we locate and make sense of our place in the world.

Sometime this summer, I bought Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century, edited by Alice Wong). I read and kept returning to Ellen Samuels’s “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time,” maybe because of what time has felt like during the pandemic and also the reality of how exhausted I felt doing even a virtual book tour. Zoom made some events more accessible, but disabilities and neurodiversity don’t disappear just because there’s no travel involved. In a pandemic, so much was harder. Samuels notes, “Disability and illness have the power to extract us from linear, progressive time with its normative life stages and cast us into a wormhole of backward and forward acceleration, jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings.” I’m looking forward to reading more.

In July, I prepped for my first time teaching graduate students and teaching online for The Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA. For an RWW class, I co-taught Deborah A. Miranda’s Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir (Heyday Press) with my friend Wendy Call who had previously taught and loved the book. When I read Bad Indians, I thought I didn’t know a book could do this. Miranda created a collage memoir using family photographs, historical documents, real and invented elementary-school assignments, Blood Quantum charts, newspaper articles, lyric essays, oral history, journal entries, poetry, and a table of contents stretching from 1776 to the present. When she came to visit our class, I was star-struck. Miranda’s memoir broke rules in the very best way making me rethink what I wanted to in my writing, how our stories can be a way to counteract lies, to show a culture even through a genocide.

In August, I wrote my first-ever blurb for a slim and gorgeous, prescient book of poetry: Familiars (Alice Greene & Co, 2020), Holly Wren Spaulding’s collection about the natural world. Her poems are reminders to slow down, to look at the world disappearing around us: that we are that world, that we must act. Spaulding’s spare poems are divided into three parts: each part has three sections, each title is one word. Beech, Lark, Vine, Acorn, Heather, Hazel, Sycamore, Ash. Like many, I spend too much time on devices, lost in space. I lose track of the body in space, what it means to walk, what we learn from trees. Reading Familiars brought me back to attention.

In August, I also read Apocalypse, Darling, Barrie Jean Borich’s concise and lyrical meditation on post-industrial landscapes, family, and navigating identities.

In September, I read Heather Lanier’s Raising a Rare Girl: A Memoir about her daughter who is born with a rare genetic syndrome. It’s about navigating life, medicine, family, and our ideas of what our lives might be. I read this book and my heart felt bigger. I felt less alone in my own struggles that are not about raising a rare girl. I felt less alone reading her book and to have some companionship this year was such a comfort. I sent it to my friend Geeta Kothari who echoed my love for it. I didn’t read it a second time to study how the narrative worked: I was just grateful to be able to slip into someone else’s story and learn about their world, another way to travel.

Also, in September, I began poet Jaswinder Bolina’s debut collection, Of Color: a sharp and thoughtful volume of essays. I also listened to some of the essays via audiobook (“Writing Like a White Guy” is one of my favorites.) I have been happy to see the number of essay collections published this year, especially by writers of color.

At various points this year, I read and underlined parts of The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity (Louise DeSalvo). I’m sure my family would say that I don’t need a guide to writing slower. Writing my first book took twenty years! I don’t want to be a slower writer, but I want to better understand, in my writing and in my teaching, how time functions. There are short, accessible chapters on important topics: practice, decisions, game plans, process journals, and managing work. My friend Geeta recommended it as did Wendy.

Another recommendation came from Geeta from earlier in the year: Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. Art, capitalism, social media. I found Odell’s book far more persuasive than The Social Dilemma documentary on Netflix.

In October, I read Michele Morano’s Like Love: this wonderful essay collection is about love and unconsummated romance, infatuations and other attractions. Part of the sadness in launching a book during a pandemic was the halt of travel plans. Like Love gave me a chance to travel with Morano and through some of my personal histories of love and landscapes.

Around the election I sat in via Zoom, on Wendy’s capstone class in which she was teaching Shailja Patel’s Migritude, a beautiful and complex hybrid text published a decade ago by Kaya Press. I was taken with Migritude’s power to enact how personal and colonial history are intertwined through the composition of the text. Migritude grew out of performance and includes a foreword, poetry, images, a shadow book, a timeline, and interviews, all of which provide context, create meaning. It reminded me of Bad Indians–these two books breaking apart the usual order of things so we can see cracks in that order, in the histories and framing. How the stories we tell implicate us. On the back cover it’s classified as Non-Fiction / Poetry / Performance / African Studies / South Asian Studies. It’s beyond classification in the best way.

Later in November, I read World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (Milkweed, 2020). So much to love in this book by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, beginning with the subtitle. Her nature essays brought back some of the wonder of childhood for me with her focus on small moments and the specificity of her lens. Some essay titles and subjects: Peacock, Catalpa Tree, Monsoon, Vampire Squid, Dragon Fruit, Ribbon Eel. It’s also beautifully illustrated with whimsical images.

In December, I ended the year with rereading and new-to-me essays for a writing workshop with Kim Chang. We reread Toni Morrison’s “The Site of Memory,” an essay I first encountered in the nineties; Paisley Rekdal’s “Bad Vacation with Tasaday Tribe or How My Grandfather Acquired the Laundromat” from The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee (2002), a couple of essays from Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land (2010). New to me was Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route.

Toward solstice, I found solace in returning to Emily Arnason Casey’s collection, Made Holy: Essays (2019), and its focus on love, loss, addiction, interior and exterior landscapes like her childhood one from Minnesota. Casey catalogues what we hold onto from childhood, what we keep, but don’t display, what is in our homes and what we seek out around us. These essays are quiet and powerful.

I’m grateful to have finished my virtual book tour. So many books came out in 2020. Now I just want to read. I hope it gets easier. I’m looking forward to starting or finishing these books of nonfiction in 2021: Just Us; Girlhood; The Body Papers; The Memory Eaters; Pain Studies; Tomboyland; Caste; Notes on a Silencing; Mill Town; The Magical Language of Others; Later; This Way Back; The Unreality of Memory; Having and Being Had; Wow, No Thank You; Brown Album; Words for the Unbearable: A Journey Through Loss. Poetry: Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World & The Galleons. For fiction: Days of Distraction, The Office of Historical Corrections; Real Life; The Secret Lives of Church Ladies; Each of Us Killers; Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories; Death, Desire, and Other Destinations; I Have the Answer; Meet Behind Mars; How Much of These Hills Is Gold; And I Do Not Forgive You.

All I
long for these days are pajamas or baths. It’s time to break up with my social
media accounts and reread How to Do
Nothing. Or maybe just get better at doing nothing.

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