House of Sticks: A Memoir

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A Year in Reading: Eric Nguyen


2020, I stopped journaling. With everything happening that year, life didn’t
seem as observable. Every day, the pandemic raged on. I stayed at home. There
were no dinners with friends or readings to attend. It felt too depressing to
write down.

But in 2021, I made it a goal to get back into journaling because I felt I would miss out on a lot of memories, even if those memories were simply another mundane day—for what is life but a series of mundane days? Someday, I realized, the mundaneness will be gone, all of it will be gone. Better to record it as much as I could.

It felt right to begin with Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook, translated by Peter Bush. The notebook follows the then 21-year-old Spanish writer from 1918 to 1919, starting with the closure of his university because “[t]here is so much influenza[.]” Pla, too, lived through a pandemic, forcing him to return to his hometown of Palafrugell. His sprawling notebook—in which it seems like he wrote in multiple times a day—shows an observant writer as he reflected on history, recorded his opinions on the books he read, and sketched the colorful politics of his hometown. It’s really fun reading, but now and then, the pandemic makes its appearance: “Inevitably we all have, have had, or will have influenza,” he writes despondently on March 14, 1918.

If Pla’s writing is sprawling, what a contrast it was to stumble upon Emilie Davis’s Civil War. Written by a free Black woman in Philadelphia as the American Civil War raged on (never too close, but the threat of it always close enough), the diary covers two years in her life, starting when she’s 24. She wrote every day and each entry is only three lines long. Through Davis’s diary, we see her going to church and classes. She often remarks on the weather. Many times, through just a line, we learn of her loneliness. “I spent a very lonsome evening,” she writes on March 9, 1863. And on March 22 of the same year “very lonsome in the evening.” Then there are nuggets of history; the diary begins with an Emancipation Proclamation jubilee and then the next year, she notes Lincoln’s assassination: “The President Was assasinated by Some Confederate villain…the city in the deepest sorrow.”

Other diaries I read included Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary, translated by Michael Berry, which felt topical as the pandemic continued, and Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary. Woolf’s diary (really a selection from the much larger unabridged diaries), came as a perfect read at the perfect time. A certain anxiety comes with publishing a book, which I did this year, and it was refreshing to see Woolf—a titan of literature—worry about her book sales or the quality of her work. The Diary of James Schuyler has been a constant companion of mine as well. It’s a slow-moving diary that feels as if it’s going nowhere, but the pleasure is in the way he writes of the day, the weather, the guests that come and go, the effect of light on the landscape. (He, too, worried about book money, noting on January 2, 1968, that a check for a book advance still had not come in).

Reviewing what I’ve read this year, what emerges is my own obsession with memory. What is worth remembering? Who will remember? Will I remember? What about the memories that are not mine? Which is why I think I read more memoirs than usual this year—Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Mika Brina, House of Sticks by Ly Tran. And I just finished Dear Memory by Victoria Chang—a collection of letters and collages rather than a traditional memoir that particularly spoke to me as the author tries to recover her lost familial memories and inherited history. The same ghost that haunts Chang seems to haunt me, too.

feels like a way to deal with the hauntedness of the past and the present. And
perhaps it’s a way for a future me—as he reads over my scribbles—to do that as
well. Or at least, I’d like to think of it that way.

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