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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This year, my pleasure reading happened in fits and starts, in between ominous deadlines and periods of resting my brain with easy sitcoms (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Mindy Project, Seinfeld). In January, I was most thankful for Roxane Gay’s company in Bad Feminist, as I was in the final sprint of two years spent translating The Complete Stories, by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, while processing an explosive breakup and the Charlie Hebdo shooting in a place where I hardly spoke to another human for two weeks. In those essays and in Gay’s columns throughout this year of turbulent events, I have found wise and generous ways of navigating vulnerability, messiness, violence, and troubling clashes of opinion.
Reading in the nowhere space of airplanes leaves a satisfyingly concentrated imprint on you. Two books to be absorbed in focused bursts are Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green. I read both on a flight to Hawaii in February, for a birthday trip after turning in the Lispector manuscript and before heading back into edits and my long-derailed dissertation. Citizen, which mixes poems, visual art, and brief pieces somewhere between prose poem and essay, made me hyperaware of everyone around me in the airport and on the plane, as it tracks those barely perceptible charges of racial prejudice and consciousness of difference that seep into our everyday interactions. It also made me obsessed with Serena Williams, in time to jump into conversations about the U.S. Open and Drake.
Self-Portrait in Green, translated by Jordan Stump, was a different revelation, a crypto-memoir that swings in fragments between France and an African country that evokes Senegal. It swept me into a dream saturated in green hues (banana leaves; a woman’s bright dress; a series of mysterious, seductive yet melancholy green women) and cut with powerful, sensual images that recall the films of Claire Denis, with whom NDiaye has collaborated.
March through October became a torrent of Elena Ferrante, when I wasn’t wringing my hands and hunching my shoulders over work. I’m not earning any originality points for this pick, as one among hordes of women (and quite a few men) who’ve gotten drunk on any or all of the anonymous Italian writer’s seven novels to date — though I think of the Neapolitan Novels as four installments of one very long book. I’ve been surprised and excited to encounter this writing from inside women’s lives and bodies that’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. I also struck up an admiring acquaintance with Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, whose work has led me to read Primo Levi and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
I finished my dissertation, exhaled, and hit the road with Patti Smith in October. I listened to her narrate M Train two times over as I drove alone from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back, for a family visit and a reading. Besides Horses, the thing I love best about Patti is her uninhibited worship of heroes and talismans, intertwined with a romantic idealism usually found only in teenagers. She collects stones from a prison in French Guiana to bring to Jean Genet, swoons into a bed at Frida Kahlo’s Mexico City house-museum, joins the elusive Continental Drift Club out of a fixation on the explorer Alfred Wegener’s boots, and still fantasizes about a café of her own at the age of 67. Though the hardcover has pleasingly silken pages and includes the photographs she describes taking, I prefer the audiobook because it makes you feel like you’re hanging out with Patti, listening to her tell stories in her craggy, wry, cowboy-from-New Jersey voice, saying words like “yelluh” and “worter.”
The end of this year has taken a decidedly witchy turn. I first discovered John Keene through his translation of Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst’s Letters from a Seducer and was eager to read his fiction in Counternarratives. Who knows what book of spells Keene used to conjure these hypnotic, quasi-historical tales involving mystical convergences? Together they form a composite portrait of colonialism, slavery, and their influence in the New World, jumping between Brazil, North America, Haiti, and elsewhere, in the 17th to 20th centuries. My favorite story, “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrows,” is populated by Haitian witches and Catholic nuns in Kentucky.
Sometimes when you go around calling something “one of my favorite books,” to the point that you name your Wi-Fi network after the title character, but can only recall it in vague outlines, it’s time to check in again. So I reread Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman, described in the 1999 NYRB reissue as “an aging spinster’s struggle to break away from her controlling family.” An admirable cause, obviously, but I’d always liked Warner’s own description of it as a “story about a witch.” Yet I had forgotten how long we have to suffer with Laura, “Aunt Lolly,” under the thumb of her uptight aristocratic family in decline (think Downton Abbey but shabbier) before she decides that single ladies have rights too and moves to the rural village of Great Mop. Never have I experienced a more tranquil, nature-loving account of meeting Satan, aka the Loving Huntsman, and joining a mild-mannered community of witches. In one of her nonchalant conversations with Satan, Lolly explains, “That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.”
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