I don’t know about you, but around this time of year I’m feeling the weight of having survived a great many things along with a sense of urgency in expectation of what is yet to be come and remains to be done. My reading choices this year, more than ever, dig deeper into my interest in what writers are doing, thinking, and living beyond the page. I’m more aware than ever of changes of tectonic proportions taking place as I write this. While I have been interested in the musings of writers on their daily exercise habits or extensive rituals that help them beckon their muse, I’ve grown to care more about the busy, complicated, and passionate lives of writers that are sometimes torn away from the page by the callings of the world (or of young children), and then claw their way back it. I care deeply about how writers choose to live in the world, what they choose to fight for and what they choose to build. What do they risk and what is at stake? The books and writers I mention here address these ongoing concerns in some way.
ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigibles Air Transport Lines by Sesshu Foster and Arturo Romo has been like a cousin to my book. Not only because our books were published around the same time earlier this year by the same publisher (City Lights), but also because I think of Sesshu as a kind of literary tío (uncle), not to mention a friend. Arturo Romo is one of my favorite artists and a worthy collaborator to Sesshu in this expansive and emancipated project. As in much of his fiction and poetry, Sesshu does what he wants with intelligence, playfulness, and irreverence and I think ELADATL is best enjoyed when approached similarly. It’s a book of many portals to many overlapping realities, fictional and historical that will turn a reader topsy turvy through the numerous story lines across various times. Unlike with most of my actual biological tíos, I often take Sesshu’s recommendations to heart, particularly the bookish kind. Thankfully, because of Sesshu, I have learned about the life and work of Mary Oppen and her husband, George Oppen, in her recently re-published autobiography Meaning a Life. More recently, Sesshu has pointed me toward the writings of Lucia Berlin, who, like Mary Oppen, lived a literary life that was intertwined with her life of travel, child-raising, and cultural scene-making (and fascism-fighting in Oppen’s case) alongside their formidable, sometimes-overshadowing husbands. I look forward to reading Berlin’s Manual for Cleaning Women, which was published posthumously in 2005, 11 years after her death.
Early in 2021, I read Art Is Everything by Yxta Maya Murray, a novel based on the life of Chicana artist Laura Aguilar, whose photography captured intimate views of Mexican-American life in East L.A., including rare views into queer and lesbian spaces such as the now-famed but long-gone Plush Pony bar. Aguilar died in 2018 shortly following her first retrospective. Some would say that the acclaim and applause came too late, as it would have best served her decades earlier when she struggled in so many ways to persist in her art. Yxta Maya Murray is precisely the correct author to bring Aguilar’s story to life. Additionally, Murray is not only an established fiction writer, (I first read her debut novel, Locas, in undergrad) but also as a prolific art critic and professor of law. We’ll be seeing a lot more of Murray in the near future as she’s gathering up a number of new works that I’m eager to see out in the world.
Published in September, Joy William’s new book, Harrow, prompted me to read her Pulitzer Prize-finalist The Quick and the Dead. Reading Williams for the first time made me feel like I’d finally found my feral kin. I recognize a lot of my own energy in her writing, with characters that bite and scratch, in a world populated by sometimes ungroomed and always very driven girls that prowl about the thorny landscape. They have more empathy for animals and their endangered ecosystems than they have for most dudes, or adults in general, for which I do not blame them. I’m currently enamored not only with Williams’s fiction, but also with her nature writing, as well as her habit of wearing sunglasses at all times. I dream of being cool enough to wear impenetrably dark sunglasses while performing all of the essential domestic tasks of being a mother. Sunglasses to the grocery store, sunglasses when picking up the kids from school, sunglasses while nursing, sunglasses while baking cookies or doing laundry.
Chola Salvation by Estella Gonzales and published by the iconic Arte Publico Press is a triumph. This collection of short stories set in East L.A. is the author’s first published book and is evidence of not a novice at work, but of a seasoned writer that has cultivated these gems with time, care, and much skill. I also read and enjoyed Under the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, We the Animals by Justin Torres, and Coatlicue Girl by Gris Muñoz. Another author and literary tío is the unmistakable Héctor Tobar, who earlier this year published The Last Great Road Bum: A Novel. Tobar traces the travels and musings of Joe Sanderson, putting to work his masterly skills as a research-driven journalist as well as his artistry as a fiction writer. As 2022 approaches, I’m looking forward to Raquel Gutiérrez’s Brown Neon, a collection of essays on Latinx art and culture. Like many of my favorite people, including most of the writers mentioned here, Raquel is an artist of many talents and has established herself as a force with important contributions as a performer, poet, and art critic.
In the summer of 2020, many of us in California woke up to a red sun and a burning sky as wildfires raged all across the state. This red sun bore itself into my psyche in a real way and impressed upon me, like never before, the gravity of our irreversible climate crisis. We are fucked. Nonetheless, how do we continue to live? As the parent of two young children, I am obligated to take survival of humankind seriously. Ben Ehrenreich’s Desert Notebooks: A Roadmap for the End of Time is about the end of world, not just of the world as we know it, but also of the many ends that have come before us. I found solace, if not twinklings of hope, in his expansive vision of human history and its unending chain of conundrums and catastrophes because it is a vision that is also cosmic and, counter to most disastrous Western notions, reasserts our connection to the natural world. I am comforted in the reminder of our closeness to stars and to our ancestors, who in their own time, experienced the end of the world too. And yet here I am, a living tendril of their lineage that persists. And here are my kin whom I intend to prepare for the new world. May the bold visions of our unflinching artists, writers, and other visionaries help us find our way. May they be imbued with grace, courage, and compassion.
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