(Insert) Boy

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A Year in Reading: Ismail Muhammad

I’d never been inside of
a prison until this past spring, when I received a grant to teach a creative
writing workshop at the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall facility. This meant
driving every Tuesday morning for two months to Martinez, California, a sleepy
city to Oakland’s north, until I arrived at a squat, nondescript beige building
set off from the street by oak trees and a huge visitor parking lot that was
always full. Usually I parked on the street, which extended on into the
distance until it curved around into a residential neighborhood—California
ranches, two car garages, various shades of beige and gray. From the
neighborhood, not a single aspect of the prison was visible.

The strip mall parking
lot aside, the juvenile hall was an unassuming element of the neighborhood: it
featured a boxy modernist design, a pleasant little courtyard just out front,
and a sleek glass façade. If not for the signage indicating that I had indeed
stumbled upon a prison, I would have assumed I was walking into the local high
school, with its boxy Modernist structure, pleasant courtyard, and glass
façade.

The interior trashed that
illusion. When I arrived for a February meeting with prison authorities to
discuss the workshop’s logistics, a security guard barked at me from behind
bulletproof glass—rules required that I trade my driver’s license for a guest
badge. I felt a vague, animal discomfort about the exchange. The prison
librarian, a woman about my age whose easy smile and buoyant personality calmed
my nerves, arrived in the lobby and ushered me into the facility’s innards. The
prison revealed itself to be a seemingly endless labyrinth of identically spare
white cinderblock hallways leading to unmarked doors that opened up onto yet
more cinderblock hallways. There was little signage indicating what turns took
you where, but the librarian kept a quick pace. She whipped her away suddenly
around corners without much warning; I scampered after her. My shoes slipped about
on concrete floors so polished that I could almost see my reflection in them. I
wondered whether, if left to fend for myself, I’d ever find my way back out.
What would happen if a security guard caught me wandering the halls, if he
didn’t see my badge?

The librarian and I
chatted the entire way, about how excited the students were to meet me, how
relieved they were to encounter somebody new, how much they were looking
forward to writing. We approached one of the doors; the librarian stopped dead
in her tracks, but didn’t stop talking. I must have looked confused; “We have
to wait for the guards to open the door,” she explained. We stood for a few
seconds before a voice boomed from out of a speaker I could not find. “Tell him
to show his badge,” someone commanded. Startled, I lifted the badge from my
chest, offering it to a camera I knew was there but could not see.

We walked through, into
the prison’s center, and were immediately met by a group of boys, marching
slowly down yet another cinderblock hall. Something about their bodies—the
limited range and uniformity of their movements, the way they shuffled their
feet instead of lifting them from the ground, the way their heads bent so that
their faces were nearly parallel to the buffed concrete—was off. It took me a
few seconds to process what I was seeing: black and brown teenage boys being
marched single file by a CO, their hands and feet shackled to a single chain. They
appeared younger than I had imagined, their faces puffy with baby fat. Not a
single one of them looked older than 19, and when they lifted their heads,
their eyes met mine with a mix of hatred and shame.

That day, I left the
prison with sadness and doubt swirling in my gut.  What was my presence in that place and with
those boys meant to do? Was I just legitimizing the prison’s dehumanization of
black and brown youth? I had volunteered for the workshop out of some hazy
notion that I’d change how marginalized youth thought about their world, give
them the tools to represent their own lives via story. But the sight of those
shackles made my vision seem flimsy in comparison.

My experience in the prison sent me on a yearlong search for literature with the heft of reality—not of this reality, but another one, to remind myself that writing could conjure entirely worlds altogether different from the one I’d encountered in the prison. Before the first workshop session, I sent my students a poem—“Alternate Names for Black Boys,” a stand out from Danez Smith’s 2014 book [insert] boy, which I had read that spring upon the recommendation of an artist friend. Smith’s poetry feels religious in essence, in the way it insists that there has to be another world beyond this one, where black bodies are imprisoned, shot, choked out, electrocuted, subject to an endless series of horrors. There has to be another world, they insist, and we have to make it, together. In the poem “Poem Where I Be & You Just Might,” Smith writes: “God’s flaming eye, I stare into it always/Dying to blink, irises cracking like commandment stones.” Their language is incredibly visceral, urging the reader on to this bodily encounter with the divine—an encounter we can only begin to envision through communion with one another—moved me to tears when I first read [insert] boy. I’d hoped that my class, a gathering of black and brown boys, would find it an appropriate starting point for our workshop.

Smith sent me on a poetry bender, as I’m wont to do during the summers. Simone White’s Dear Angel of Death was my biggest summer obsession: it’s a patience-testing monster of a book that blends essay and poetry in order to rethink the prominence that music enjoys in African American studies. Smith is interested in how the tightknit relationship between a mostly male-dominated jazz canon constructs a strain of black studies that conflates “feeling black” with an immersion in black music. For her, this intellectual legacy forecloses some larger questions about blackness, and leads us to automatically associate any black music with radical black resistance. Her prose—audacious, often moving in two directions at once, infused with the ethos of the black vernacular, informed by hip hop culture but never succumbing to sentimentality about the music—is never less than riveting. Turning her attention to the rapper Future’s 2015 song “I Serve the Base”—an ode to being an unrepentant scumbag—Smith is decisive: undue commitment to music as an object of black study leads us to excuse a music that will serve “Whatever you want … for money, for a nihilistic, endlessly repetitive and narcotized kind of peace … the call to recede into the persona of whatever it is one serves.”

Jasmine Gibson’s Don’t Let Them See Me Like This was also impressive. It’s a poetry collection that manages to be simultaneously tender and incisively political. In “Electric Wizard,” she writes, “In which panel do I get to be Fred Moten or/Frantz Fanon, so that you can think my words are pretty too?//I want myself against everything/Stay there and be burned into the mind/Into the mind,” and I love the way that third line turns on a minute shift, from trenchant disdain for a world built on white supremacy into something like desire, the will to be “against everything,” as Mark Greif would have it, turning into the yearning for bodily proximity. For me, the collection’s incessant flitting between anger and sensuality destabilized what it means to undertake a radical politics, moving us away from a hardened antagonism and into something more receptive: an attention to the sensuality of black bodies, and all the ways they can be in the world.

I read plenty of good prose, too, that spoke to that sense of possibility. Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man is a collection of short fiction so masterful that you can’t help but put the book down to marvel at the architecture of his language. Brinkley’s virtue is that he doesn’t settle for merely representing black life (a black Greek party soundtracked by Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo,” for example); instead, he uses fiction as a space in which to reveal the sense of enchantment that undergirds black life. By the end of “No More Than a Bubble,” Brinkley managed to make me think so deeply about the series of performances known collectively as “black masculinity” that he made me reconsider what the short story form is capable of. Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy performs similar alchemy, drawing our attention to the physical experience of black masculinity. Laymon asks us to think about what happens when black male bodies fail to mirror the images that the American cultural imaginary is always comparing us to. In doing so, he has also written an aesthetically gorgeous bildungsroman of the assorted tragedies, affections, and traditions that turned him into a writer.

There was so much more that I read and enjoyed this year. I’m a Californian, and it delighted me to no end to see an outpouring of literature by and about fellow Californians. There were a few highlights for me. Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State is at once a hilarious examination of poor white culture in Northern California’s far flung rural counties, and a harrowing portrait of single motherhood. Kiesling’s juxtaposition of motherhood and an incipient political crisis seems to equate the governance of tantrum-throwing Californians with the raising of tantrum-throwing children. Vanessa Hua’s A River of Stars is a vivid portrait of an urban community of immigrants. Wandering City Lights Books in San Francisco over the summer, I found a copy of Wanda Coleman’s Native in A Strange Land, a collection of prose poems and short stories about Los Angeles that evoke the loneliness, but also the enchantment, of being black in a city that has normalized alienation. Joan Didion’s Where I Was From made me reflect on my family’s scant presence in the state, such that I can’t think of California as a place that I’m from so much as a place that I ended up via a few historical aberrations: my maternal grandparents’ decisions to abandon Louisiana so they could become shipbuilders down at San Pedro.

More than anything else that I read this year, those two books made me appreciate the unlikeliness of my black life here in this golden state—the persistence and tenacity that preceded me and resulted in my being here at all. It’s a lesson that, after walking out of that prison, I needed to relearn.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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A Year in Reading: Jacqueline Krass

This year I read not one, but two books about or by famous Russian male writers’ wives. If there are more of them, which I am certain there are, I would like to read those, too. The first one was Véra: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, and I found it via an interview with the writer, Stacy Schiff, in the Paris Review. She was discussing how difficult it was to write a book about someone who worked so hard to excise herself from a narrative—the narrative of her husband’s career, of his genius—and about the absence at the heart of this book about a woman who did not want to be found. Absence, presence, women—those are the words that set things off in my brain. Right away I ordered the book at my local bookstore, which was also at the time my place of employment, and although I do not usually read biographies I read this one and loved every page of it.

Then some other article somewhere sent me to Nadezdha Mandelstam’s brilliant, chilling, disturbing, insightful memoir, Hope Against Hope, and I wondered if I should devote my life to the study of books by famous Russian writers’ wives, because it was the best thing I’d read in a long long time. Nadezdha Mandelstam was married to Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam, who died, under circumstances that were never revealed to Nadezdha, in a forced labor camp sometime in 1938. The account of life in Soviet Russia alone is devastating. But what struck me most about the book was the way Mandelstam watched and understood the people around her, her deep attention to the things that happen to individuals under totalitarian rule. One friend, she writes, “told me I should not allow anyone into the house unless I had known him all my life, to which I always replied that even such friends might have changed into something different. This is how we lived, and this is why we are not the same as other people.” One question this book begins to answer is: What does fear do, to individuals and to a society?

There are some connections to our own present moment that perhaps I do not need to spell out.

I also read some really good poetry this year: Morgan Parker’s fantastic Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night; Tommy Pico’s ecstatic, hilarous Junk; Danez Smith’s ravenous [insert] boy; Natalie Eilbert’s Indictus, which I’ve been thinking about nonstop ever since (and talking about to just about everyone I know). I bought José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal at his reading in Madison, Wisconsin, because of my boyfriend; I read Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (not poetry) and was embarrassed by how much I loved and related to it. (One underlined quote, which I then copied out into my notebook like a true adolescent: “I get that you despise convention, but you shouldn’t let it get to the point that you’re incapable of saying, ‘Fine, thanks,’ just because it isn’t an original, brilliant utterance.”)

And I read a pocket-sized selected edition of W.H. Auden all winter and into the spring, for comfort and for elucidation, in times of fear and uncertainty and devastating politics and flights cancelled due to Midwestern March snowstorms. Back in Brooklyn, at a strange moment of in-between-ness, I stumped up and down the perimeter of mostly frozen Prospect Park and recited Auden to myself. These two stanzas about birds and flowers, from “Their Lonely Betters,” particularly got to me:

Not one of them was capable of lying,There was not one which knew that it was dyingOr could have with a rhythm or a rhymeAssumed responsibility for time.Let them leave language to their lonely bettersWho count some days and long for certain letters;We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:Words are for those with promises to keep.

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A Year in Reading: Angela Flournoy

In January I vowed to purchase and read as much poetry as I read fiction. I traveled more this year than ever before, mostly in support of my novel, and poetry became a way to keep good words on my person without lugging around a heavy hardcover. For a fiction writer like me, who loves clause-heavy sentences and a good, chunky paragraph, poetry reminds me that every word and every sound can and should be considered. The poetry I read, in the order acquired:

Prelude to Bruise, by Saeed Jones
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine
Blue Yodel, by Ansel Elkins
Hemming the Water, by Yona Harvey
Gabriel, by Edward Hirsch
How to Be Drawn, by Terrance Hayes
[Insert] Boy, by Danez Smith
Boy With Thorn, by Rickey Laurentiis
Voyage of the Sable Venus, by Robin Coste Lewis
Bright Dead Things, by Ada Limón

An unexpected and wonderful thing happened as a result of putting my first book out this year: I read a good amount of 2015 releases. It usually takes me a while to learn about new books, and longer still to read them, but there’s only so many times you can see your book alongside other good-looking ones in bookstores and in the press before you pick them up and see what’s what.

Disgruntled, by Asali Solomon
Diamond Head, by Cecily Wong
Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, by Julie Iromuanya
Mrs. Engels, by Gavin McCrea
The Star Side of Bird Hill, by Naomi Jackson
Bright Lines, by Tanwi Nandini Islam
The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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