This year was bracketed by both joy and terror. I watched, scared, as people I love grew, learned, succeeded at various things—including me. What did it mean? Writing for years, coming close to getting published once before, then suddenly finding my book out in the world, cherished and loved by strangers who became friendly readers—and why now? Of all times, when our country is literally being burned down? And when, on a daily basis, I fear for our lives? All year, in response, I held on tight to books I love, remembering not only specific words, but the moments of real comfort I found in these books. Cherishing these.
Beloved, by Toni Morrison, a book I read in high school when it was first published, always one I “mean to” return to but found myself too dazzled and silenced by—this year was the year that, in my studio cabin at MacDowell Colony, I sat and read the book without interruption, making extensive notes on structure and strategy. Embracing the past to let it go. Sixty million and more. For the first time, reading Morrison’s hallowed words, I was delighted to find that I understood the book’s structuring, the unfolding, building of tension in specific scenes. For the first time I dared to hope that I would write a book, a real book, that could matter.
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, completely woke me up to poetry. What had I been doing, all this time? In high school too, I’d been lucky enough to be part of the Academy of American Poets workshop. I’d written poetry, “always” written it, I thought. Then stopped. This year, I couldn’t remember why, and so the poems came out, got revised, but not with any kind of condescending withering. “Citizen” taught me all too well—there’s already a world ready to hate. We must honor ourselves. I read Rankine’s bold, intellectually rigorous, extremely serious and vivid words and felt like she was saying to me, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you don’t know what you know.” All the poems I published this year (19! And counting, including this one that received a Joy Harjo prize, and this one in THE SAME MAG where Maggie Smith published her poems (!), and THIS ONE where Natalie Diaz published poetry—and this essay I wrote even before reading all of Citizen this year, and being awakened to poetry again, in general, by the conflagration of hatred and terror that we are living through, somehow.
All my writing, engagement with any words and rhythms, had as its backdrop the feeling of being supported by poems by women and people of color, all the time. All year, while writing, I also “ate up” poetry quietly and gratefully—like Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith, which made me realize that I, too, was radiant from “panic” about the state of current affairs, like cold, lovely splashes of Maggie Smith’s Good Bones, which made me too shy to say hi to her when I saw her and she smiled back at AWP, and like surreptitious “sips” of My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz, which made me question the simplistic dreams I’d had as a medical student of “volunteering on the rez,” realizing on a visceral level how there is SO MUCH MORE to it, to any kind of engagement with a brutalized and marginalized community when you “happen to have” services they need, through “accidents” of history (that are not really accidents, a la Marianne Moore, another poet I reread this year, loving her words and hating myself for how deeply ingrained her words are in my mind given that she was a person who supported Indian boarding schools for children. The poet who wrote “Marriage” was never who I dreamed she’d be).
My anger had to find some quarter, I suppose. Who could’ve guessed that it would be turned into appreciative laughter so easily? That I’d be so susceptible to charm? But it did and I was: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, even for the title story alone, which I read and then hugged tightly to myself like a puffy jacket I’d been coveting (reminiscent of another puffy jacket, from another great story, by Sana Krasikov talking about post-Soviet Russian consumerism in One More Year, also brilliant and another book that I reread this year).
To finish revisions on the novel that my agent will (I hope) submit to publishers in 2019, I read (what else?) This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley, and it is true that “luck favors the prepared mind” because, reader, I MET him in person at the Texas Book Fest not long after I read and took notes on that book, including 1) at least “touch” your novel for one and a half hours per day, even if all you do is read and reread what you have, just touch it so it doesn’t become foreign to you and 2) get the complete draft done. Just get it done. Tell the story. (Worry about “telling it slant” later). Then I MET WALTER MOSLEY! And so, I could honestly tell him, before I fled our 90-second “meeting,” “I adore you.” Upstairs in the building that Moseley was walking out of it, I said the same thing (again meaning each syllable, probably almost too fervently) to Alexander Chee, FACE TO FACE OVER HUEVOS RANCHEROS. His book Edinburgh that I’d read last year was as masterful and moving as How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which capped for me the trend in reading I realized I was pursuing, of reading a novel, then tracking down writing advice from its author, then devouring the essays by that author… about writing. Following this thread I read everything I could find on the Internet (and attended her talks too! Including at AWP) by Min Jin Lee—both Pachinko (for the first time, crying at the sad parts by a swimming pool where children thought the crying was from their ruthless splashing of me, and my paperback) and Free Food for Millionaires, which I also read for its immensely skillful plot structure, engrossing, yet unfolding at a stately 19th-century pace, though without any didactic digressions. (I eagerly, EAGERLY await Min’s book of essays about writing which, if not already in the works, I SO HOPE will now be in the works. Hint, hint.)
Naturally (I felt) Lee’s use of the omniscient third had to lead me to novels like Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy (whose prologue long ago inspired me to write this story in White Dancing Elephants, featured recently at Electric Lit). I loved Hardy, of course, and also dipped into Wuthering Heights again, on a long plane ride where sniffling was assumed to be something everyone was doing (and hiding), because of the dry air and so on (and dipped into it mainly because of the brilliant, hilarious, melancholy evocation of the book I’d heard read out loud in a piece at Sewanee Writer’s Workshop, by Shanti Shekaran, whose novel Lucky Boy I read once, utterly loved but couldn’t bear to read again, for how close it came to uncovering my own feelings about infertility and miscarriage, and how it described such heartache around attachment and loss and parenting, I just couldn’t bear it. But no 19th-century novel made as indelible an impression on me as Henry James’s Washington Square, which I listened to twice all the way through, driving to and from work, in the Librivox version beautifully narrated by “Dawn”, one of the many tireless readers who make these free audio books a widely accessible resource.
Perhaps it’s because, like the heroine Catherine’s father, I am a doctor too, but I felt so keenly for nearly everyone in this book (except of course the hapless Morris, whom Catherine never would have expected a thing from, had she not been so blinded and burdened by the painful, enmeshed, guilty, tormented relationship with her father). The perfect, Victorian-era “snark” of how the book sets up the cruel events that lead Catherine to lose her mother, implying just enough that the doctor-father was too detached, and simply didn’t act fast enough, to save his own wife and son from death– I felt the devastating wound of it, of how much people expect from doctors, yet how little compassion is extended to us when, like every other human being on this earth, we suffer loss. We grieve. We feel the limits of what humans can control, and what we can’t.
Strangely, though, the essay collections I read were not by doctors. Nor were the novels, though I did read an interview I really enjoyed, with gifted novelist and fellow psychiatrist Daniel Mason in The New York Times, for how the tone of the interviewer SO COMPLETELY ERASED any people of color or women from the identity “psychiatrist” so breathlessly parsed therein.
(Um, NYT dude whose name I think I had trouble pronouncing, no offense—not all psychiatrists are cishet white upper middle class males preoccupied with “affective containment” as an ultimate goal. That very limited, exclusionary, anti-public health/private pay vision of psychiatry pretty much ended in the ’70s. What we have now are “recovery communities” and “neurodivergence,” in case you didn’t realize. Like, psychiatrists who are women of color who can get down with The Collected Schizophrenias as forthcoming by Esme Waijun Wang, for instance, or who can clearly express compassion and caring for patients with eating disorders as detailed by writers with these conditions like Kathryn Harrison in The Mother Knot. Thanks for understanding, dude. No doubt.)
Instead, in reading as in life, I pursued a kind of lightness, an attitude, insouciance, coupled with breathtaking honesty, shrewdness. One might put all these book covers in a Twitter post and caption it MOOD. Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else, and Melissa Febos’s Abandon Me (yes, if she comes to AWP, I’ll get shy and girl-crush-struck and run away from her too, I don’t doubt it). Morgan Jerkins’s This Will Be My Undoing. As a Rhodes Scholar, my voice caught in my throat reading her account of being “instructed” on how, as a woman of color, she could “assimilate” into various white elite spaces her intelligence and drive had helped her gain access to. She cut close to the bone.
Then to cap off the year, I read and took a lot of notes on story collections to help finish revisions on my second story collection, which only exists because it turns out I’m a writer literally with manuscripts in a drawer that I take out and revise and don’t send out anywhere for years (and not any of the stories that belong to this second collection were written recently, though excerpts were featured recently here and here). The jewels among the several collections that I read include (in addition to Friday Black, above, which I just read out of love, and not for work)—Florida, by Lauren Groff, reading again and again the particular story of a woman writer obsessed enough with researching her novel to have to go to France; anxious enough to take her children with, literally dragging them, making them walk in rain and cold, making them speak French, forcing them, making them, almost crying from the effort of trying to hold the structure together while staying dreamy enough to actually sit down and write. Sigh.
Also read, and studied (again, after reading the first story while in high school too—“The Chinese Lobster” when it first came out in The New Yorker) the whole collection by A.S. Byatt, so stunning: The Matisse Stories, and timely too—dipping into #MeToo themes as well as fundamental questions about “who gets to make art” which then took me, on a pleasurable digression, to Claire Messud’s thrillingly good, extremely entertaining, admittedly shrill book The Woman Upstairs, which I liked but I think was secretly wishing would talk more about the racism that a Middle Eastern family might experience in the Republic of Cambridge, MA (yes, even there). I got back to the stories, though, delightedly wading through Everyday People, the anthology edited by Jenn Baker and one that includes a detailed bibliography of works by women and nonbinary authors of color in the back.
All in all, the year of reading made me a little less afraid. Not really less afraid of our political futures. No. But less afraid of losing hold of what and whom I love. Much less afraid of forgetting any of what is most vital to me. Maybe memories do define who we are—a recent interesting and long thread of Twitter, and something I contemplated while reading a lot of press coverage about the fascinating Amazon Prime original with Julia Roberts, Homecoming (which draws directly from PTSD research and prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD, modalities I’m trained in administering).
I also thought more about trauma and memories while reading Marlena for the first time, to interview Julie Buntin here—and thought about my family’s memories, coming to terms with my younger brother’s autism and disabilities, when I read (and wept with real gratitude) over Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success and how it represented a level of acceptance and love of a child with differences that I’d always wished myself and those I knew could feel and demonstrate more clearly, more spontaneously, without such hard effort and constant education of ourselves, to understand my brother’s perspective, to hear his voice. It may be true that our memories somehow define us—but I prefer to think that books are loving and beloved carriers of our memories, trigger the ones we need to remember the most, stimulate the memories that heal us.
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Though Venus is more like Earth in size, Mars is the planet that regularly makes headlines. New ice under its sandy cliffs has been caught on camera, causing more hope that life may have been present at some point in the past. Prominent people like Elon Musk are talking about going to Mars in the near future.
Scientists are once again planning sustainable living quarters for the colonization of the fourth planet from our sun. This is not the first time humanity has endeavored to send a manned mission there. For more than a century this planet has been popularized in the news as well as in pop culture. Mars has especially held a rich place in world literature.
In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli said he saw channel-like structures in his observations of the Martian surface. Partially through mistranslation, some scientists further thought these were actually canals built by intelligent life-forms. A few years later, American astronomer Percival Lowell agreed wholeheartedly with Schiaparelli’s so-called findings. Years later, when better telescopes were more readily available, the scientific community for the most part dismissed the concept of the channels for they were not present on the planet’s surface. However, Lowell was no fool. He predicted that another planet in our solar system existed outside Neptune’s orbit.
This extraterrestrial body was indeed discovered (it was called Pluto). But despite their brilliance, Lowell and Schiaparelli (and others) saw things in their telescopes that weren’t really there. It has been suggested that the optics or even tired eyesight brought on the effect that tricked these astronomers. This is still a bit of a mystery.
Prior to the scientific community’s brushing-off of this concept, another French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, wrote several works that would today be considered sci-fi novels. In one of these, Les Terres du Ciel (1884), Flammarion describes the scenery of bodies such as the moon and Mars to his readers. Flammarion’s interest in the moon may have been sparked by the 1865 novel by his fellow countryman Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon.
Percival Lowell was also able to write and have published a number of lengthy essays about the proposed life on the Red Planet. His first was a book that was simply called Mars, originally published in 1895. Two more followed: Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). Lowell died in 1916, and Pluto would be discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh.
Around 1898, a mere three years after the publication of Percival Lowell’s first Martian book, H.G. Wells’s epic sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds was published. The story he tells is one of invaders from Mars coming to Earth and leveling cities with their destructive lasers. Humanity retaliates with what it can, but the Martians’ tech is too advanced and efficient. It is fitting that the Earth finds itself in a desperate fight with the inhabitants of Mars, the name for the ancient god of war. The War of the Worlds enjoyed a host of Hollywood film adaptations. It was also converted into a radio play in 1938, late in the Great Depression, and was broadcast and narrated by Orson Welles. His realistic rendition and delivery of the script famously caused a panic throughout the U.S. (although, this historic aspect has been disputed in recent years).
In 1917, the year after Percival Lowell’s death, a novelization entitled A Princess of Mars was published. This book was the first in the Barsoom series; its author was the renowned Edgar Rice Burroughs. Apart from the Barsoom series, Burroughs other famous story was that of Tarzan. Ten sequels were produced, most of them being attributed to Edgar Rice Burroughs. The last of these was John Carter of Mars, which was published in the early 1940s. Barsoom is the Martian word for Mars itself. Thus, the series is referred to as the “Barsoom series.” (It was the basis for the 2012 film John Carter.)
Sci-fi was a new and rising genre in the 1930s. Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short story “A Martian Odyssey” was published around this time. Many stories of the same caliber were being published in that decade. In 1938 (the year Orson Welles made the renowned radio broadcast), a book called Out of the Silent Planet was published. It is often overlooked by sci-fi fans, and yet is was created and penned by one of the greatest fantasy authors of the 20th century. Its author was none other than British professor C.S. Lewis, a good friend of J.R.R. Tolkien. Out of the Silent Planet was the first installment of Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy. The alien planet on which much of the story takes place is Malacandra, which is meant to be Mars.
The next notable literary work is Robert A. Heinlein’s 1949 novel Red Planet. The Martian Chronicles, a collection of short stories about the colonization of Mars by Ray Bradbury, was published the year later. Then in 1951, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars was published. This whole period was filled with Martian literature. The 1950s and ’60s were the golden era of sci-fi, and so Mars appeared frequently in much of the pop culture of the day. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) also takes the reader to Mars.
It was really not until the ’90s when quality literature about Mars and Martians became popular again. This is because it was in the 1990s that high-tech probes like Mars Global Surveyor, Pathfinder, and Sojourner landed on the planet, giving us new, more detailed imagery of the Martian surface. The Mars Society was also founded in the late 1990s. In this decade, astronomer and astrobiologist Carl Sagan said, “Because of the historic romance of the general public with Mars (consider even today the associations of the word ‘martian’), the exploration of Mars has a public resonance and support that probably no other goal of the space program can claim.”
In 1993, Greg Bear published his award-winning novel Moving Mars, a futuristic story that discusses many political themes. Kim Stanley Robinson also published numerous Martian novels throughout this decade. Dr. John Gray published a book entitled Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992), which covered topics about the psychological differences between men and women. It employed the metaphor of the title to get its point across, picturing that the two sexes originated from two different planets of drastically different societies. Apparently, it was the longest-running nonfiction bestseller of the ’90s. And in 1999, bringing the decade to a close, the novel The Martian Race by Gregory Benford was released.
The most popular Martian-related literary tale next to the classical War of the Worlds did not reach its readers until 2011. This of course is Andy Weir’s widely acclaimed The Martian which, unlike The War of the Worlds, actually takes place on Mars itself. It was adapted for the silver screen and released to theaters in 2015. This obviously helped in popularizing the novel itself.
It was also in 2011 that the poetry collection Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith was first published. The work features creative pieces that include imagery of numerous objects seen throughout the cosmos. Smith was likely inspired by the life of her father, a scientist involved with the development of the Hubble Space Telescope. Even more recently, Martian anthologies such as Old Mars which was edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois have been published.
Even music writers have shown a great fascination with the Red Planet. For instance, English composer Gustav Holst wrote the classical suite “The Planets” between 1914 and 1916. Mars is given tribute in its own section entitled, “Mars—Bringer of War.” In hearing it, it can easily remind the listener of various John Williams soundtracks such as that of Star Wars. Nearly a century after Holst’s composition, in 2012, the singer, voice actor, and songwriter will.i.am had his piece “Reach for the Stars” broadcast from Earth to Mars and back again.
We are entering a new age of Martian exploration in both science and science fiction. Our efforts are being directed at colonizing the sandy celestial body. As humanity strives to reach out toward the Red Planet, more imaginations will be sparked, more pens put to work. Someday soon, writers may find themselves living on a red planet, writing even more far-fetched fantasies than those of their forebears.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
“Maybe I [felt] a shift in responsibility when I had kids. I wanted the work I was doing, whatever it was, to be something that could be meaningful to them one day. That’s where the germ of the memoir came from. I thought that perhaps writing about my parents and where I came from would one day be helpful for my kids.” For Guernica, Christopher Kondrich interviews Tracy K. Smith about writing a memoir, the presence of David Bowie in her Life on Mars, and her reverence for the cosmic. Also check out Sophia Nguyen’s Millions review of Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light.
Drafted into teaching Sunday school, the whole congregation praying for her chastity, a younger Tracy K. Smith wrote “God is not that small” over and over, killing time (or something else) until class ended. A prayer asks; an invocation summons. This seems to have belonged to the second category of religious gesture: a ritual description, loosing God from the mean beliefs of prudes. Reproduced only once in her new memoir Ordinary Light, the words leave an impression of certainty armed by clarity. It also leaves ambiguous what Smith felt — cool defiance? hot recrimination? — while setting about this task, of inscribing a schoolhouse penance with rebel energies.
God is not that small; emphasis hers. For all its elegance as a rejoinder, the sentence only draws a lower bound. Questions pour into the space left by negative definition: how large, then, is God? For that matter, what? Where does this presence fit into an adult life just starting to take shape? And God isn’t the only unknown: for x, substitute the soul, substitute death. At this point in her story, Smith has only the religion she’s grown out of — a shelter built of prohibitions, watched by an omnipotent, father-shaped deity — and the impulse to put pen to paper.
Her searching stitches together the memories collected in Ordinary Light. It threads through the discrete, self-contained episodes of the first half — she visits her grandmother in Alabama, hatches quail chicks, watches wide-eyed as a cousin traces “motherfuck” into the dust — and binds them to the narrative of the second. As Smith leaves her Christian, Californian upbringing for university on the East Coast, her mother is diagnosed with cancer. Discovering literature, politics, sex, the college-aged Smith averts her eyes from the specter of impending tragedy; it swells; she and her siblings are called home for their goodbyes.
“Sometimes,” Smith writes, “I tried to work it out in my head like a riddle: I am not a soul, but I possess one. When I die, I become what I possess.” The sneaky, oblique determinism of a logic game renders the form inadequate to loss — but then, there’s poetry, the grace of which lies in its ability to hold difficult ideas in equipoise; it can keep a conundrum’s walls from collapsing. After her mother dies, she finds herself returning to Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances:” “I thought of walking round and round a space / Utterly empty, utterly a source.” She wonders aloud, “What did it mean to be both empty and a source? Was there something I housed or might one day house?” Smith teaches at Princeton; in these passages, she retraces her steps toward the center of the sonnet’s mysterious power, its resonance beyond reason. It’s a kind of reenactment for our benefit, and one of the book’s many gifts: she parses these lines such that we grow with her, as a reader.
In those years, of course, she was also growing into the poet who would win a Pulitzer for Life on Mars, in part an elegy for her father, an engineer who worked for the air force, in 1980s Silicon Valley, and on the Hubble Telescope — in an era when, as she describes it, “Technology was public.” From the central lyric dedicated to him, “The Speed of Belief,” the poems expand outward. They map their subjects — outer space, God, current events — as public, pop ideas, vintage postcards from the collective imagination. The opening poem, “The Weather in Space,” asks, “Is God being or pure force? The wind/ Or what commands it?” Later, “Cathedral Kitsch” gives the interrogative an ironic edge: “Does God love gold?/ Does He shine back/ at Himself from walls/ Like these, leafed/ In the earth’s softest wealth?” But the questions are no less real for being rhetorical. These poems say: leave the devil his details. God lives comfortably in line breaks and double-spacing, in enjambments, between if/ands, neither/nors — even in, as “It & Co.” suggests, a failed shorthand: “How can It be anything but an idea,/ Something teetering on the spine/ Of the number i?” Smith concludes, “It is like some novels:/ Vast and unreadable.” Smith nominates Charlton Heston and Ziggy Stardust as emissaries of the beyond, and they descend, puckish and melancholy, as embodied spoofs of man’s need to view Creator as character.
As it too becomes a meditation on the lapses in language, Ordinary Light takes up the other end of the telescope; its concerns are personal rather than public. Combing through her coming-of-age, Smith sorts the unexpressed from the inexpressible, the blank space on the page from the quiet across the dinner table. She assembles a field guide to silences and their keeping — “an articulate variety of wordlessness” that avoids confrontation. The children sidestep topics that might expose political difference, and hide their romantic relationships and broken hearts. Their parents don’t admit to the seriousness of the disease. Craving reassurance, Smith never asks the most direct and difficult questions about how her mother feels. Only when she commits the reality to paper, writing “My mother is dying” in a letter petitioning the dean for permission to drop a literary theory course, does she accept it.
It’s not surprising that Smith writes about how, after the funeral, she took shelter in those she calls her “necessary poets” — but family and friends, her fellow bereaved, have a more immediate and urgent presence. Smith fights with her father, and confides in her sister, Jean; she walks with old friends, other motherless women, and together they try to articulate their hopes about heaven. We get only glimpses of these moments — the exact exchanges either have been lost, or are deliberately obscured. Instead, she charts the wake left by the words. She seems most interested in talk: a genre without form or discipline, that can match the mess of grief. Through sentences slung and stuttered, forced to double back and revise, people give and receive solace.
She admits: “I’d never spoken so freely or honestly with my mother.” That she never engaged with her mother about religion, never sounded out the dimensions of her changing faith together, is one of Smith’s enduring regrets. As with her read of the Heaney’s sonnet, each of her religious queries, taken alone, seems deceptively straightforward: “Is God each of the many different things we seek in the course of a life?” Smith asks. “Does God become an armament we leverage for the ones we love, the ones we have committed to nurture and protect?”
These questions, when laid out in prose, have none of the irradiated rigor of the poems in Life on Mars. They give way to each other effortlessly; there’s always room for one more. Poetry might be depthless; prose’s gift, it turns out, lies in plentitude, in creating a sense of ampleness. With Ordinary Light, Smith has written a book that speaks into past silence, one in which language is more than careful; it’s a form of caretaking.