January 2021. There was something like hope. The world (or my view of it from Portland, Ore.) was cold and gray, we were still locked inside, washing our hands after every trip to the grocery store, but I knew people who had gotten the Covid vaccine, friends who were doctors and nurses. There was a different old man getting ready to take over the presidency. I wasn’t expecting things to get better, but I thought they might not get worse, something like stalled progress. I read Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, a novella about the final shift at a Red Lobster before the location permanently closed. I had spent the decade before 2020 working in restaurants, performing every task from cook to bartender to manager. In March 2020, I went to work as a bartender for the last time for over a year without realizing it. There was no fanfare. No celebratory “last night slinging drinks.” My coworkers and I left the restaurant for the final time together, too scared to hug one another. In the months that followed, a friend and I lamented that there was no going away party, only fear of what the evolving pandemic would bring. So, when I read O’Nan’s novella, I was struck by how no one else really gives a shit that the restaurant is closing. In fact, Manny (the manager of the doomed Red Lobster) seems to be the only one who cares they’re shutting down, and he spends the book trying get others to see the gravity of the situation, an end of an era.
In the second half of January, I read Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby. Based on my Twitter feed, many of us (trans women in particular) spent the beginning of 2021 reading this book. There was a lot of excitement for the first big trans novel to be printed by a major publisher. I read Detransition, Baby in three days, the kind of book that reflected many of my own thoughts on gender, motherhood, and family. I laughed a lot while reading it, which is something I think is important when telling stories about trans people. It fed the hope I was feeling so that it was like something was growing, hope like a pile of dough sitting on the counter, starting to rise.
February sapped all that hope from the air. The dough that had started to rise collapsed in on itself. I watched in horror as conservative state legislators argued anti-trans bills in more than 33 states. More anti-trans legislation was argued and passed this year than any other year previous COMBINED. The news was inescapable. Even Mavis Gallant, who generally pulls me into a different time and place far from our reality, could not drag me away from these terrifying legislative bills. I read Gallant’s collection Home Truths and in between stories, I called representatives and wrote emails to state legislators and crafted op-eds and cried ugly tears. I prayed for trans women to be left alone. It was all I wanted. You don’t have to love us, I thought. Go back to pretending like we don’t exist, but they wouldn’t.
My ability to focus on reading is tied directly to my mental health. When I was a child and free of much of my mental anguish, I was a voracious reader. I checked out 12 books each Saturday from the library and would have read them all by Wednesday, often reading them a second time before returning them the following weekend. The legislation coming out of states grew both in number and degree of disgust. Anti-vaccine rhetoric was already starting to be spread, even before most of the public was given access to the medicine. I spent a lot of March crying and trying to write and read. I had picked up Satantango by László Krasznahorkai and when I could fall into it, it was such a welcomed distraction, although the story of grifters (or the Devil or an angel?) coming to a decaying Hungarian village wasn’t exactly worlds apart from our reality. The book demanded my attention when I held it. The only problem was I had a hard time picking it up.
At some point in the Spring, I read Anne Carson’s Plainwater and was astonished that anyone would ever break up with Anne Carson.
By May I was fully vaccinated and thought my social life might be coming back. José Vadi sent me a review copy of his debut collection of essays, titled Inter State. I lined up a venue for a review and ate up the collection in a week. By this point, writing had become somewhat elusive to me. Writing did that from time to time, slinking under the porch to rest while I searched for it furiously. There is a lot of shame wrapped up in not writing. Mostly, I just wanted to do right by Vadi’s collection, a beautiful book about skateboarding, tracing ancestral roots through California, and gentrification. I thought I would feel better as the world opened back up, but instead, I felt shame in not writing what I should have been writing and grief for a year lost that had gone on ignored for too long.
A friend of mine, Stacy Brewster, sent me his debut collection of short stories, What We Pick Up, asking for a blurb. A blurb I could do. I had been reading Brewster’s work for years and knew I liked it. I loved the interconnected stories about queerness, masculinity, and family, both blood and chosen. Getting the blurb back to Brewster’s publisher was the first writing assignment I’d given myself that I finished on time in two months. (By now I had already contacted the editor who had been interested in the review of Vadi’s collection and told her I wouldn’t be able to get something in on time.)
So much regret, but I told myself to push through it.
We went to Montana to visit my wife’s family in July, and I brought Susan Taubes’s Divorcing. I had read the essay “The Headless Woman: On Susan Taubes and Clarice Lispector” in the LA Review of Books comparing the book to Lispector’s Hour of the Star. (They were both written months before the authors’ deaths, at a time when potentially both authors knew they were going to die soon.) I have a deep love for Lispector’s work. (A tattoo on my chest reads, “A world wholly alive has a Hellish power,” a quote from The Passion According to G.H.) I ordered Divorcing as soon as I read the essay. It was my type of vacation read. A book about a woman going through a divorce, a possible suicide, and a trial set in purgatory.
When I got back from vacation, The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar was waiting in my mailbox. Joukhadar’s book is lyrical and rooted in reality, while still leaving a toe in the magical realm, as if to say, “We don’t have to go to other worlds to find magic.” At this point, I was running low on money from my book advance and didn’t see the point of not working if all I did was stare at a blank Word document every day, so I decided to get back to bartending. I thought it might jump start my social life. I was spending too much time online, reading too many transphobic comments made by authors I used to love. It seemed all the anti-trans legislation had stirred up anti-trans sentiments exactly as intended. I went back to work at my old restaurant and spent the rest of August reading The Thirty Names of Night. The book about a Syrian trans person finding connections to their culture and their family’s past was a balm to the hate I continued to see online.
I had surgery at the end of October, so I stocked up on books and movies to enjoy from bed. Surgery went smoothly. I spent several days stoned out of my gourd in bed, too high to read. When my head cleared, I dove into Casey Plett’s A Dream of a Woman (another book I had received an early copy of, and had told myself I would write a review for, back before the words stopped coming). There was a quietness in my room post-surgery. Reading came easily. Plett’s collection of interconnected stories centering trans women restored something in me, something that felt like it had been undone by the year spent inside, unable to see other trans women, save for a few lunches or coffee dates here or there. The collection reminded me that there are a lot of us, that when we tell stories where we are happy and free, then we tell the world what it’s like to live like we do.
Next, I read Raven Leilani’s Luster, a book whose narrator drove me quickly to the end of the novel, a good companion to Plett’s collection. Both books reminded me of the best parts of reading, when you can fall into a book so deeply that everything else disappears. In reality, nothing had disappeared. In fact, both books highlighted the ways the world can hurts us and the ways we can hurt each other. But both books made me want to write again.
Lately, I’ve been reading The Atmospherians by Alex McElroy. The novel, about a cult started to reform men plagued by toxic masculinity, is funny, odd, and beautiful at times. It is a good reminder to not be online so much, that often people are at their ugliest when they’re behind a screen of anonymity. So, I’m online less. Every morning, I wake up and read by the fire in my living room and then I go write. The world is nowhere near normal, or this is the new normal, or it was never normal. I’m not sure, but I’m learning how to return to myself, a writer, a reader.
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