I woke up this year with a fear: what if reading brings me nowhere? What if reading delivers me to nothing? To myself, as a person among people/s, nobody; that all the time I have spent reading and all the things I have read, do not change me, do not improve me, do not deliver me into a greater form?
I draw the fear, the question, out: what if all the reading and all the things to be read (as all the writing) does not change anyone or anything. I mean enough to deliver anyone or anything, the world, into a greater form. The question feels cynical. It feels like squandering. I chastise myself, briefly, then go on; I am being honest: nothing greater than an altar for all the living and the dead so monolithic its memorialization obscures and makes the living and the dead more easily forgotten?
Because (also) I have been thinking, the last few days (weeks, whenever this is being read), about ancestors. I have been mourning my ancestors. I have been mourning some part of their existence, only partially formed at the time of their passing into ancestorhood, which is being translated through my thinking about them now as: mourning. At first, I felt it particularly: I mourned their arrivals, and the consequences that influenced and/or enforced their arrivals, as either settlers or aliens, in some cases, enemies, in this, the settler colonial United States. I mourned the fleeting shadows of their feet first stepping up or down.
How is this related to the fear? I have been having two related thoughts: that (1) ancestors, occupying and BEING the space between the people of whose genealogies we are one form of consequence and what is being translated across time of those people, manifest in moments of awareness and recognition (fleeting consciousness) including those which happen inside reading; and that (2) books, which possess not only stories, histories, thought, and expression, but stories’, histories’, thoughts’, and expressions’ dreams of being and being continued — dreams which they hold, in the interval, for (future) readers — are not only the bearers of ancestors, but, themselves, ANCESTORS.
I think of the ways in which I am and/or am not the incarnation of my ancestors’ dreams, when they were thinking, abstractly, of what they were imagining of, and committing to, the future, in the same ways in which I either succeed (receive, bear, and carry forward) the work of what I am reading, or fail to be the inheritor, the messenger, the book that I am reading might have imagined.
The first book I read this year was Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior(1975), in which she writes, “The reporting is the vengeance — not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words.”
When my great-aunt Joy was four, she was incarcerated, with her family, in the Poston Relocation Center, on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, in Arizona. The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversaw the camp. The Japanese were free labor; they would be used to build the reservation’s infrastructure. Iyko Day, in Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism (2016), writes about how, after the war, the government offered the vacated barracks to the indigenous people as compensation for using their land: “From this vantage point, Poston becomes a space where the dispossessed and the recipients of government ‘welfare’ confront each other as exchangeable figures of colonial management.” Alien Capital does a million things, including mapping out the triangulation of Native, alien, and settler positions in settler colonial capitalism. I entered Alien Capital through Chapter 3: Japanese Internment and the Mutation of Labor (thanks to Kimberly Alidio, who sent me, first, the chapter, then the book; thanks also to Caitie Moore, who introduced me to Day through Day’s essay, “Being or Nothingness: Indigeneity, Antiblackness, and Settler Colonial Critique.”) Joy told me that being incarcerated was not as difficult for her as it was for her parents; she was young, had not yet begun to question the reasons why her country would force her, a young American girl, into confinement in the desert. But she said it was even more difficult when her family was released and returned to Los Angeles, where her mother found work as a maid for a white family in Beverly Hills. She remembers being fed the white family’s scraps.
In An Autobiography (1974), Angela Davis witnesses, one night, from the window of her cell in the Women’s House of Detention (NYC), a demonstration on the street below protesting her solitary confinement. She describes, in that moment, “losing the sensation of captivity,” then, hearing her sister Fania’s voice among the people, being “shocked back into the reality” of the “weight” of her imprisonment. With the voices outside enlivening her cell, she reflects upon the “impenetrability” of her situation, before bringing what she calls “self-pity” to a halt. “I transformed my frustration into raging energy for the fight”, she writes. The range of feeling in that moment of impenetrable confinement is extraordinary, and fast, and through it can be seen a transfiguration. See also the window of Davis’s cell, apprehended from both sides: from the silent side, voices; from the street side, silence: both demanding forms of belief that constitute a large part of the struggle.
An. An Autobiography. Also: Assata Shakur’s Assata: An Autobiography (1987). The number of autobiographies inherent within the lives of these two women suggested by An. Both books are extraordinary self-portraits and portraits of American life. And both are reports from the political, legal, extralegal, especially judiciary and carceral, labyrinth that is the war against black dissent, and black lives, in the United States.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (2016) enunciates how the impending regime of Der Donald was made possible by the collaboration of MANY forces, including, but not limited to, the continuing solidification of neoliberalism and the incorporation of protest movements into the compromise of electoral politics, both legible and encoded functions of white supremacy. It is a masterpiece of synthesizing, and building a tragic narrative out of, the unending cascade of facts and figures by which the United States could be appraised as the slow-boiling terrorist organization that it is. Read Taylor on the consequences of Bill Clinton’s “crime-fighting” legislation of 1994, pp. 100-102, 119-121. Also among the cascade: the 2010 study that revealed the disparity between the median wealth of single white women and single black women: $42,600 for white women, $5 for black women.
Mohamed Bouazizi (1984-2011) was a fruit vendor on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, who, on December 17, 2010, after years of harassment (extortion, confiscation of fruit, humiliation, assault) by the police, set himself on fire on the street outside the governor’s office. Tahar Ben Jelloun’s fictionalization of Bouazizi’s story — included in By Fire: Writings on the Arab Spring (2016), translated from the French by Rita S. Nezami — reminds me of the Daimonji fires on the hills surrounding Kyoto during Obon: five fires, burning in enormous shapes, that guide the dead, following their annual visit to the world of the living, back to the spirit (ancestral) world. The fires form the threshold of the story of the dead, extending their life, trajectory (light projection), while illuminating the reconstitution of the dead in the imaginations of the living. I do not mean to be comparing fire/s, they are very different fire/s, but to see, in Ben Jelloun’s story of Bouazizi’s struggle, a reimagining (illuminating) of desperation and resistance as unending threshold AS memorial.
Among the many revelations in Karen L. Ishizuka’s Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties, an indispensable narrative archive of Asian-American organizing and insurgency, is the revelation of another indispensable archive: Gidra: The Monthly of the Asian American Experience (1969-1974), the inaugural newspaper of the Asian American movement, the entire run of which is available through yet ANOTHER indispensable archive: Densho’s Digital Repository. I spent a long time staring at Robert Nakamura’s photograph of the inaugural Manzanar Pilgrimage, December 1969, which first appeared in the January 1970 issue of Gidra, reproduced on pp. 156-157 of Serve the People. The pilgrimage was the “first public national commemoration of the World War II concentration camps,” and gave rise to annual pilgrimages to many containment sites. I spent a long time staring at the 29 faces framing, surrounding, looking into and through, the desert, in which they and/or their ancestors were incarcerated.
I read Fred Moten’s The Service Porch (2016) in my friend Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s backyard. I was traveling through Arizona back to west Texas from back-to-back family reunions, both on the Japanese (Yamashita, Shimoda) side of my family, in southern California, and was still feeling the discomfort and sadness of having ACTUALLY been surrounded by so many incarnations of my (our) ancestors’ dreams, which I have been trying to articulate, to myself, and also to my therapist, as the discomfort and sadness of observing (feeling) within my Japanese-American family the process of self-erasure with which the United States indoctrinates its people in the name of citizenship and assimilation. The Service Porch was not an antidote, but I did want to counter my feelings with poetry, as occasionally happens. Josh, who published The Service Porch, gave me a stack of paper. I sat in a chair facing a long white wall with my back against the kitchen window and let the stack of paper fall apart in my lap. “It’s not about cutting piercing, or even putting it in its place,” Moten writes, “but bearing radical displacement everywhere.”
One of the most emotional moments in my year of reading took place when I turned to pp. 54-56 of Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (2016), to discover, forming something like a dream map, Choi’s childhood drawings of outfits for her paper dolls she made while her father was in Vietnam, accompanied, as if being observed and encouraged, by cropped photographers of her father, in Vietnam. Or maybe the outfits, awaiting their paper doll bodies, are observing and encouraging and breathing into and wishing well and hurry home, Choi’s father; the outfits really start to move…
I slipped, as if hypnotized, into several passages on the color gray, including in: (1) Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha (1953): “The sobbings, the frustrations, the small hates, the large and ugly hates, the little pushing-through love, the boredom, that came to her from behind those walls (some of them beaverboard) via speech and scream and sigh — all these were gray;” and (2) pp. 70-75 of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event (2011), which I read via PDF on a bunk bed. As Brooks writes, “There was a whole lot of grayness here.”
When I read a novel, it is like living life. Because when I am living life, like when I am reading a novel, I am half in living life and half in conceiving the part of life that realizes itself, like overlapping roof tiles or fish scales, as memory. What I mean is: I read a novel in real time, but the novel often does not continue or complete itself until I am no longer reading the novel, not yet dead, but no longer inside. I do not mean the production, like of history, or interpretation, or the difference between process and knowledge, but experience. A novel is not experienced, and does not experience itself, all at once. Sometimes it does not happen at all, but when it does: not all at once.
Am I just rephrasing the fundamental experience of reading…
In more garbled language?
Novels inscribed on three planes at once: the subterranean, terrestrial, and ethereal. For example, among the novels I read this year, there are four that I feel are still reading both themselves and ME in the guise of no longer being read, which maybe means they might not ever end: Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (1974), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood (1977), Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green (2005; Jordan Stump translation, 2013); and Vi Khi Nao’s Fish in Exile (2016). Yes, it sounds like I am rephrasing the fundamental experience of reading. But there is something particular about these books that makes me believe their authors wove into them some kind of time-release (extended) life, by way of what and how they used of substances, colors, coelenterates, voices, faces, fields at night, nocturnal rites, blood-nearnesses, rerouted traumas, lapses, inborn absences, hallucinations.
The night before entering Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems of Yoshimasu Gozo (2016; translated from the Japanese by many translators, and edited by Forrest Gander), I had a dream about four peaches. In the dream, the four peaches looked like apples, and were rotten. When I woke up, I entered the book, and found peaches. “Poetry is (Soaked is drowning / is a stitch,,,,,,) a way to a (pitch-black) Perpetual World // Peaches, peaches, golden peaches white peaches” [exact formatting more complicated and beautiful]. I was on a train and when the train rose over a river, I entered, through “Peaches, peaches,” back through my dream of peaches, a moment of integration. I had been, until that moment, feeling like I was disintegrating. Something happened above the river. I cannot explain.
I read Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose (1978; translated from the French by Georgina Kleege), a novel about the life and death, by Christian Phalangists, of a young woman and teacher in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, every year. I read it every year for many reasons, one of which is the final chapter, the final paragraph even, which is given to Marie Rose’s deaf-mute students. I have not, even after many readings (years), reached any clarity or resolution. About it or anything. Maybe that is why I return. Maybe that is why I keep returning. I hope you do not mind me sharing the entire paragraph here:
Whether you like it or not, an execution is always a celebration. It is the dance of Signs and their stabilization in Death. It is the swift flight of silence without pardon. It is the explosion of absolute darkness among us. What can one do in this black Feast but dance? The deaf-mutes rise, and moved by the rhythm of falling bombs their bodies receive from the trembling earth, they begin to dance.
More from A Year in Reading 2016
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Update: Vargas Llosa wins! Learn more.
Now that The Nobel Prize Committee has already selected their winner for the Literature prize, there’s only a little time left before the announcement to bet on the winner at Ladbrokes. Of the 237 nominees selected, Ladbrokes bookies chose a few dozen authors they felt are particularly likely to win. Among them are some six Hispanophone writers, with the favorite of the bunch running at 25/1 odds. Still, everyone loves an upset, and with that in mind, we’ve handicapped the group ahead of the big day.
Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has been given 25/1 odds by the bookies. Vargas Llosa, 74, is an all around man of letters, in the long Latin American tradition of such figures. He’s a journalist, playwright, columnist, critic, politician (he ran for president of Peru in 1990), but most of all he’s a novelist, and among his greatest hits is The War at the End of the World, novel that made Harold Bloom’s best of all time list. A good starting point however might be The Time of the Hero, a coming-of-age story that takes place in a military academy. Of his non-fiction I am fond of Letters to a Young Novelist, a lyrical meditation on Flaubert, Cervantes, Borges, and other authors Vargas Llosa admires. It’s an admirable book of essays in its own right.
Things in favor: old age, politically active
Things against: politically conservative, name recognition
Mexican Carlos Fuentes (30/1, then 33/1), in addition to being the screenwriter (of awful films), the former ambassador to France and an essayist, has penned some dozen novels. His fame for erudition in Mexico has reached near Harold Bloom levels. Fuentes, 82, spent much of his life in the United States as a boy and wrote The Death of Artemio Cruz when he was 34. Among other things novels often allude to U.S-Mexico relations. Of his books, I greatly enjoy The Old Gringo, a historical novel based on satirist Ambrose Bierce’s sojourn in Mexico. Fuentes remarkably takes the old stereotype of fatalistic Mexicans – seen in works by Graham Greene and D.H. Lawrence – and turns it on its head.
Things in favor: old age
Things against: name recognition, politically centrist
This year, 79-year old Spanish novelist and poet Juan Goytisolo (30/1 then knocked to 66/1) – listed with the wrong first name on Ladbrokes (Luis Goytisolo is his brother in fact and I highly doubt he’s up for a Nobel; he hasn’t even been translated in English) – made the list. Obtuse, postmodern, and confessional are a few words that describe Goytisolo’s work. The Dalkey Archive recently reprinted Juan the Landless. A narrative tirade told with a brutal sense of humor, the book is the final part of a trilogy that announces Goytisolo’s own self-imposed exile in Morocco.
Things in favor: obscure, expatriate, homosexual, old age
Things against: none
Ernesto Cardenal – not Cardinal, as Ladbrokes spells it – a Nicaraguan poet and former Sandanista was given 30/1 chance of winning the prize until Ladbrokes knocked him down to 45/1. After a correspondence with religious poet Thomas Merton, Cardenal decided to study at Merton’s convent in Kentucky in the 1950s. Then a visit to Cuba in 1970 lead him to embrace liberation theology – a mix of Marxism and Catholicism extremely popular all over Latin America at the time – which in effect converted him into a Sandanista. After the Sandista victory in 1979 he was the Minister of Culture until he resigned in 1987, and this year he publicly denounced Daniel Ortega, former Sandinista, and now president of Nicaragua. Cardenal is also a longtime friend of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and New Directions released an anthology of his poems last year, Pluriverse. My favorite poem from the collection, “At the Grave of a Guerilla” imagines an astronaut looking down on a guerrilla’s tomb from space.
Things in favor: leftist, politically active, old age, literary merit, neglected country, poet
Javier Marias, the youngest of the group at 59, is, after Vargas Llosa, is probably the most well known in the Anglophone world, not to mention a best-seller in his native Spain (I once bought one of his novels from a vending machine). Son of the expat philosopher Julian Marias, a prodigious English translator, he was recently accepted into the Real Academia Española. Of his novels, I like Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me, the story of a love affair and an untimely death, delivered in what almost sounds like a soliloquy, laced with Shakespearean references.
Things in favor: politically outspoken
Things against: name recognition, young
Rounding out the group, we have writer Eduardo Galeano (66/1). Author of Open Veins of Latin America, his first work that he wrote when he was a journalist in the 1960s. This is also the book that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez handed to President Obama upon meeting him. All of his works since then are collections of short, aphoristic non-fiction fables. Galeano has cranked out quite a few beautiful quotes, some of which can be found in Voices of Time: A Life in Stories, an excellent place to start with the Uruguayan writer.
Things in favor: leftist, politically outspoken
Things against: none
Who would I like to see win:
Ernesto Cardenal – He’s been reprimanded by Pope John Paul II and had has his bank account frozen by Daniel Ortega; someone has got to cut this guy some slack, and who better than the Swedes?
Who might win:
Juan Goytisolo – His standing almost reminds me of recent winners, with an obvious political element in his work, recognized for his work, but in the bigger picture not well-known. Of course, that is if Ladbrokes doesn’t really mean Luis Goytisolo – who doesn’t stand a chance.
Wild card pick:
Although he didn’t appear on the Ladbrokes card Nicanor Parra, 94, has been projected to win so many times he’s written a poem about it, or anti-poem, as he calls it.
With all of Ladbrokes’ typos, errors, and last minute changes, I wonder who is really betting on this. I’ve got my copy of Petals of Blood handy just in case the favorite Ngugu Wa Thiong’o (7/2) wins.