Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History

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A Year in Reading: May-lee Chai

2018 was my year of reading for #resistance. I’m grateful that there were so many amazing books that nourished my soul in more ways than one—I needed artistry to give me beauty, I needed social consciousness to give me fire, and I needed the innovations in craft and storytelling to inspire my own writing.

I started off reading Tayari Jones’s masterpiece, An American Marriage, which explores the effects of racism in the American “justice” system on a young African-American couple’s relationship after the husband is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. The novel isn’t just politically relevant; it’s also beautiful in its telling of the love story of Celestial and Roy. The emotional repercussions of Roy’s incarceration had me crying the last 100 pages.

Another deeply inspiring work was Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, about “urban Indians” gathering for a pow wow in Oakland, California. This novel has it all—great characters, compelling plot, lyrical language, and innovative storytelling that made my heart race. It also shows the way U.S. government policy, symbols, and even popular culture have worked to erase Native Americans. This innovative novel fights that erasure in indelible ways.

There were a number of exciting debuts by Asian-American writers, including first novels by R.O. Kwon and Vanessa Hua. Kwon’s The Incendiaries uses innovative jumps in point of view to tell the story of religious extremists who turn to terrorism—that is, a fundamentalist North Korean-backed Christian cult that bombs an abortion clinic. And Hua’s novel A River of Stars puts human faces to headlines about “birth tourism” and anchor babies. Hua’s deeply empathetic storytelling kept me turning the pages.

I was inspired, too, by poets, including Julian David Randall, whose debut collection, Refuse, won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. His poems show empathy and fire from the point of view of a queer Black Latinx man making his way in the world. Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s fourth collection Oceanic left me breathless reading her love songs for Earth’s many creatures. I also reread Tanaya Winder’s Words Like Love, which addresses with fire and fury and, yes, even love, the poet’s grappling with cultural loss and attempts at reconstruction of her multi-tribe Indigenous heritage. Poet Norman Antonio Zelaya’s debut short story collection, Orlando and Other Stories, offers resistance in the face of gentrification in the Mission district of San Francisco with prose that echoes the voices of the uncles and “old heads” and other Nicaraguan-American protagonists of Zelaya’s world.

Memoirists and essayists gave me hope and words for resistance. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel packed equal measures of historical heft and wit. The beauty of the sentences in Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries took my breath away. Poet Camille T. Dungy’s first essay collection, Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, delves into the fears and joys of an African-American woman adjusting to motherhood with language that sings. And I reread Luis Alberto Urrea’s searing memoir, Nobody’s Son, which offers a welcome look at hybridity in the United States—from families and blood lines to the very language we speak.

Meanwhile, I found much to savor in speculative fiction. For example, Nona Caspers’s novel The Fifth Woman uses the tropes of spec fic to highlight the grieving process of a young queer woman in San Francisco mourning the loss of her partner. In precise and glowing prose, Caspers describes mysteriously animated shadow dogs, bosses who disappear or hide under desks, and a gathering of the dead at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.  Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut short story collection, Friday Black, blew me away with its trenchant depictions of racist and capitalist-inspired violence. There are many standout stories, from “Zimmer Land” where a black employee of an amusement park faces patrons who kill virtually to the horrors of the titular story in which a clerk faces zombie-like patrons infected with a virus that makes them ravenous for sales.

Finally, I devoured all three volumes of Liu Cixin’s science fiction epic, Three Body Trilogy (translated by Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen), which imagines the many ways that humanity might be destroyed, destroy ourselves, or pull back from the brink of galactic destruction. The books are filled with examples of human folly and treachery as well as hope and rebirth. The imagery in the last part of the third volume is stunning, but I can’t even mention examples without giving away major spoilers.

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A Year in Reading: Angela Garbes

I started 2018 hugely pregnant, so looking back, I suppose it’s no surprise that I spent a lot of time dwelling in writing about bodies. The first book I treated myself to this year—and feasted on—was Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. Here were bodies I could get down with: female bodies, brown bodies, queer bodies, possibly magical bodies, doing everything: working, eating, cooking, loving, haunting, surviving. Other books I have treasured, that have fucked me up in equal measure, and are distinctly masterful at examining life (and death and aging, menopause, trauma, race, and care) as it is experienced in human physical form: The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown, Heavy by Kiese Laymon, The Middlepause by Marina Benjamin.

I did have that baby, in March, and the four or so months that followed (during which I was also on book tour, something I do not recommend) are a blur. Because I didn’t have the attention span or capability to read whole books, I left stacks of New Yorkers around the house and in my bag, pre-opened to articles I wanted to read. I actually ended up reading a lot this way (while nursing, while the baby was napping, on flights), and feeling quite accomplished about it. Now, though, I realize I remember absolutely nothing of what I read, save for this detail from a profile of ESPN host Stephen A. Smith: that he once hosted a late-night R&B radio show called “Tender Moments.”

Sometime in late summer cookbooks, specifically Vibration Cooking by Vertamae Smart-Grovesner, as much a vivid memoir and cultural history of America as anything else, brought me back to reading and, in many ways, back to life. Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat and Alison Roman’s Dining In were balms. When standing somnambulant in sweatpants and a soft bra in front of an open fridge filled with languishing vegetables and in desperate need of dinner, a common refrain in our house became “What would Samin do?” Often I’d just boil some vegetables, open a can of sardines or smoked trout, make Roman’s preserved lemon labneh or spiced olive oil, douse everything in the sauce, and call it good. During a year of postpartum haze, frequent travel, and constant energetic output, it was reading these warm, encouraging books that got me back into my kitchen, back into my body, and feeling (mostly) like myself again.

I read nearly all of The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling on my 41st birthday on a beach in Mexico, and it really did feel like a gift: Affirmation that, given the current state of our country, I don’t want to know or be friends with anyone who is remotely okay. That our institutions are working exactly as they were designed to, and that they will fail us as humans. But that amid all this, there is still love and light and connection and grace. It was one of several books I read that also complicate the conventional ways we view and talk about motherhood, including Camille Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers, Vanessa Hua’s A River of Stars, and The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs (I still think about Boggs’s essay “Solstice” all the time).

Because I’m also the mother of a four-year-old, in truth the most reading I did this year was of children’s books, always out loud, mostly the same ones over and over: Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore, Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats, Hey Willy See the Pyramids and Swami on Rye by Maira Kalman. But it’s Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances books that I’ve read pretty much every day. The books are pleasurable and funny for adults and I love them, though not nearly as much as I love watching my daughter develop her own reading life. She relishes creating the tunes to Frances’s many songs, then marches through the world making up her own.

This summer was a strange time to have any sort of public platform to discuss parenting in America, especially as a woman of color and the daughter of immigrants, which is exactly what I was doing on book tour. Family separation made it impossible to not think and talk about our country’s shameful, inhumane, and morally bankrupt policies. I did so many events freshly postpartum and thinking about these things, with both the sharp fear and knowledge that at any moment I might completely lose track of what I was saying, or just start raging or weeping uncontrollably. I still live on that edge.

My strongest memory of reading in 2018 will be a scene that repeated itself so many nights in our living room this summer: Reading the I Can Read Level 2 paperback version of  A Baby Sister for Frances aloud, my infant daughter in my arms or upstairs asleep in her crib, her older sister in my lap or face pressed into my chest, my glasses fogging up as hot tears rolled down my face when I hit page 33: “A family is everybody all together.”

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

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

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