n i g h t i n g a l e s h i r a z / shelf
Eula Biss | Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays
 
Eula Biss | Notes from No Man’s Land

The first time I read Notes from No Man’s Land was in September 2019, somewhere in the southwest of France.  Then, at the end of 2020 and given the summer we had had — the summer and the year and this always we seem now to be in — I decided to re-read it.  (Also: Andrew had just taken his turn at it, and he wanted to discuss it with me—aren’t we cute?).

So this, already, was my second reading.  And I suspect it will not be the last.  For the echoes of Didion, of course.  And for that first essay alone—the one about telephone poles.  (Those poles, of course, that were not to blame.)  For the essay on the twins, and for Eve Johnson and her grandchildren.

For her telling — in the essay on “All Apologies” — of what happened at the 2001 World Conference against Racism.  I will tell it to you here, but I will tell it in a different order:

The French parliament unanimously acknowledged that “the transatlantic and Indian Ocean slave trade, perpetrated from the fifteenth century against Africans, Amerindians, Malagasies and Indians, constitutes a crime against humanity.”

Spain issued a statement of “deep regret” over slavery.

The German foreign minister did not apologize, but he said that recognizing historical guilt could restore “dignity that had been stolen.”

England did not apologize, for legal reasons.

The United States and Israel walked out of the Conference.

Most of all for a kind of racial honesty — a racial awakeness — in relation to others, but also to and with the self, that I have yet to find in any other white writer alive today.

(I think of Dawn Lundy Martin’s essay in The Racial Imaginary: Everywhere I look, there’s a whole bunch of white people failing to recognize...)

Like when she is alone and struggling to live in New York City, and a Sicilian immigrant plumber helps her out:

I learned to make my experience of being young and new to the city sound effortless and zany.  I didn’t mention [...] my sickening realization that Sal was helping me because I was white.  He made me aware of this fact with a barrage of racial slurs that I failed to respond to with anything but silence.  Silence because I needed his help and I suddenly understood the contract.

Like years later, when she has recently moved into an integrated but steadily whitening neighborhood of northern Chicago, and she stops into an antiques shop with signs in the windows that read: “Warning, you are being watched and recorded.”  The white owner of the shop welcomed me to the neighbourhood warmly and delivered an introductory speech dense with code.  This neighbourhood, he told me, needs “more people like you”.  He and other “people like us” were gradually “lifting it up”.

For the fact that she is a white writer — a white person — who actually recognizes and talks about this code.  Who is, again, awake to it.

Later she is chatting with her landlord (another white man) near her neighborhood park—a park that is empty in the winter, but fills in the summer with Spanish-speaking families making picnics on the grass and Indian families playing cricket and groups of black teenagers sitting on the benches and young men playing volleyball in great clouds of dust until dusk.

“The warm weather,” her landlord tells her, “brings out the riffraff.”

When my landlord said this, I was standing on the sidewalk in front of our building in my bathing suit, still dripping from the lake, and a boy leaving the park asked if I had a quarter.  I laughed and told the boy I don’t typically carry change in my bathing suit, but he remained blank-faced, as uninterested as a toll-collector.  His request, I suspect, had very little to do with any money I may have had or any money he may have needed.  The exchange was intended to be, like so many of my exchanges with my neighbors, a ritual offering.  When I walk from my apartment to the train I am asked for money by all variety of people—old men and young boys and women with babies.  Their manner of request is always different, but they are always black and I am always white.  Sometimes I give money and sometimes I do not, but I do not feel good about it either way, and the transaction never fails to be complicated.

Do you see the awakeness?  They are always black and I am always white.


[Acquired in late August 2019.]
[Read first in September 2019 and then again, on and off, from January to March 2021.]

Danielle Vogel | Edges & Fray: on language, presence, and (invisible) animal architectures
 
Danielle Vogel | Edges & Fray

I’ve been doing these workshops with the Poetry Foundation for almost a year now, and some day I will tell you properly about some of the many ways in which they are saving my life — or rather, perhaps, the many ways in which they are making and saving and make-saving a space inside of myself, small enough to be quiet, large enough to breathe in, light enough to see my own hands.

But in the meantime, there is this one way that has to do with finding — through our February session on “Process & Ritual” — Danielle Vogel and her Edges & Fray.  Over at Entropy, you can find selections from the book.  And if you are anything like me, you will break your Amazon embargo to order it before you have finished reading what’s there — which is strange too in a sense, because one of the most wonderful things about these fragments is how re-readable they are.  How each seems like a piece of sculpture that you can walk around and walk away from and come back to—how it changes with the light.  (Or maybe you do.)

Virginia Woolf wrote, “A book is not made of
sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if
an image helps, into arcades and domes.” I’d like to
think that Woolf understood about refuge, how we
might come to language as architects of relation,
collecting ourselves, a series of intersections,
seeking to build the largest, most intimate
architecture.


Later when the book arrives, you find it begins with a note to the reader:

This book is intentionally structured as a series of filaments.  I cast a thought, leave it to begin another fray, and then return.  And while I wove the fragments and photographs in a way that can be read linearly, I invite you to lift these poems in any order...

Tom DeBeauchamp has written a perfect review, also in Entropy.  So I will not say much more.  Except—and this is maybe more so I myself can remember—that this book feels like a large and many-winged house that is on the one hand strange and new to you, and on the other, yours alone to explore.  No one else is here.  You can turn down any hallway and step into any room.  You can stand at any window and look out.  (Or maybe in.)

It feels too, like the impossible merging of something wholly architected—a carefully made thing—with something absolutely organic.  A wholly there thing.


[Acquired in early February 2021.]
[Read through mid-February — mostly in the mornings...]

Doris Lessing | The Golden Notebook
 
Doris Lessing | The Golden Notebook

The last time I wanted to throw a book across a room it was The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.  I feel more than a little bad putting Lessing in such company, because The Golden Notebook is way, way better (and better-written) than that manipulative piece of zero-dimensional brown-people porn.  There is no comparison, really.  But still.  I did not like this book.

Afterwards, in an effort to understand what I was maybe missing, I read some reviews.  Along the way I re-discovered a personal essay by Lara Feigel in Lit Hub, in which she lays a re-reading of The Golden Notebook over a summer of reckoning with feminism, free women, and white weddings.  I loved that essay back when I first read it, in 2018.  And even now I would much rather quote you bits from that, than from the book itself.

Maybe that’s why, in dallying a little with that idea, I found myself pausing at one particular part of Feigel’s essay:

Reared at a school where we’d been taught that girls could do everything and had no need of boys, we felt that there would be an element of self-betrayal involved in entering a state where we became dependent on the desire, approval and companionship of men.

That line jumps out at me now, because I realize how much it has to do with — no, points directly at — the thing that bothered me about The Golden Notebook.  Which is that yes, it is abundantly clear that what matters to Lessing, what she is exploring and underscoring and what is absolutely important to the book’s meaning and fire, is Anna’s passionate determination not to define herself, or to be defined in relation to her lover.  And yet.  You know the Bechdel test?  This book fails the Bechdel test, utterly and spectacularly.  There are way, way too many pages in which Anna (and therefore the reader) is thinking, wondering, and worrying about what a man is thinking, saying, or doing.  Not only does it feel like way too many pages (I’d guess at least sixty percent of the book), it feels like way too many repetitive pages.

Here I think of a line from one of the reviews I read in the Guardian, in which Diana Athill says something similar about the book’s overly minute analysis of communism:

[The] situation was interesting, but not so tremendously interesting as all that. Lessing’s involvement with it made me think of the Holy Roman Emperor’s supposed comment on an opera by Mozart: “Too many notes.” On this subject Lessing had written “too many words”.

Anyway.  I did throw it across the room, about two seconds after reading the last line.  Though I see now, that it was a different kind of throwing than with The Kite Runner.  The Kite Runner I wanted to throw across the room mostly because it was garbage.  This.  This I wanted to throw across the room because it made me so angry.

(I aimed for the armchair though.)


[Acquired in early January 2021.]
[Read mostly in late January / early February — in tandem with poor Carlotta!]

Sigrid Nunez | The Last of Her Kind
 
Sigrid Nunez | The Last of Her Kind

There is the story of a young woman arriving for the first time, into the world of New York City:

Two suitcases: one old, hard, battered, and heavy; the other soft and brand-new.  At the bus terminal in New York, a man appeared — big, handsome, smiling, as if he’d been sent to greet me.  He offered to help, and I was surprised when, after hefting each bag, he chose the lighter one.  And then, as if to prove that this really was a place like no other, a city where miracles could happen, he vanished into thin air.

One suitcase.  I lugged it to the taxi stand.

Hard not to see myself in that girl, getting off Greyhounds and coming up stairways to Christopher Street, Ninth Street, Penn.  Those doors at World Trade that never stopped swinging.  That feeling as the train pulled into those vaulted darknesses beneath Grand Central.  That feeling to come up after, into so much light.  Hard not to remember putting a folded five-dollar bill in the bottom of your left shoe.  Nodding as your brother says don’t stand too close to the edge of the platform when you’re waiting for a train, because people push.  Thinking as you look out over the next four years of walking these streets (though it turned out to be more, thank goodness more), that you will very likely, at some point, more than likely even — be mugged.  Hard not to think of all that.

This book was not The Friend.  (Some day I will go backwards down this list, and tell you about that one.)  But it was good.  It does what novels should do — it conjures up people and ideas and times, and time.  Much of it messy, as all of that tends to be.


[Acquired in early January 2021.]
[Read almost right away, almost entirely over a weekend, in Florence.]

Michela Murgia | How to Be a Fascist
 
Michela Murgia | How to Be a Fascist

A little too much of this book was a little too uncomfortable.

At first, I thought those would be the parts (though there are many) that I’d pull in here, to talk about.  But in re-reading and considering all the paragraphs I underlined, all the pages I dog-eared, and all the places in the margins where I say “Ouch”—I keep thinking how, satire or not, I cannot bring myself to have such sentences on my own site.  I don’t care how clearly the sarcasm comes through.  I can’t do it.

Instead, and for starters, I will give you the bit where she — or the narrator anyway — explains how language is the most malleable cultural infrastructure that fascism (and fascists) have:

Why would anyone need to overthrow institutions if all you need to do in order to seize them is to change the referent of a word, and make sure everyone speaks it? (Or, I would add, make sure no one minds when it’s spoken?)

Words generate behaviour, and those who control words control behaviour.  That’s the starting point: the names we give to things and the way we talk about them...

Later, in a chapter on free speech, dissent, and other key tools of fascism (because all tools, if used in a fascist manner, become useful to fascism), she assures ascendant and would-be fascists that when it comes to democratic contexts, they can hide in plain sight, because both progressive and conservative democrats will do everything they can to believe that [fascists are] not actually fascists: they will voluntarily ignore all signs that point to the fact that we’ve always been here, we never left, and we’ve been organizing for years.  They’ll call us “nostalgic”, “alt-right”, “nationalists”, or whatever, but they will be the first not to want to say the word “fascists”...

And if someone does actually catch on, she adds, and calls such people by the f-word, or suggests they should not be given space, air-time, legitimacy, whatever—all they need to do is cry: “See? You don’t actually believe in democracy!  You want to silence dissent, crush differences, pluralism, opinions different from yours,” and the impossible will happen: being a flawed mechanism, a democracy accused of being anti-democratic will short-circuit, and its supporters will even start thinking that they are the real fascists if they don’t let you speak.  This is the beauty of democracy: unlike fascism, it can always be used against itself.

Sounds familiar, no?  They will start thinking that they are the real fascists if they don’t let you speak.  Ugh.

She does this a lot.  Bits of logic that feel so familiar that I do not know whether to laugh or to be sick to my stomach.  Like with this, on how to hijack history:

The sequence that a fascist will follow, once the time is right, is linear: pollute the memory of others, then destabilize it and, finally, rewrite it.

For this process too, she recommends an all-too-familiar and trusted tool.  Because how does one begin?  With nuance.  It’s through nuance that you will be able to start the pollution.  After all, it’s really just a matter of muddying the waters:

Keep repeating that there was “a lot more going on too”.  Democracy pits young brave men against violent murderers?  Tell them that it’s easy to judge in hindsight, but back then everything was so blurred that even Churchill praised Hitler’s qualities as a state leader.  The supporters of democracy commemorate their dead?  You must also show up with your laurel wreaths [...], because all fallen lives matter.  If believers in democracy recount all the horrors of fascism [...], point to roads, infrastructure, monuments over on the continent, and say: “They did good things too.”

See what I mean?  It’s easy to judge in hindsight.  Back then everything was so blurred...  And really, all fallen lives matter.

Because you know...  They did good things too.

Ugh.


[Acquired in October 2020, from Feltrinelli.]
[Read mostly in late December 2020, in Florence.]

Vivek Shraya | even this page is white
 
Vivek Shraya | even this page is white

There is a section of poems entitled “whitespeak.”  (Among them “a lover’s bookshelf,” which is hilarious.)  You consider this word, whitespeak.  You know, exactly.

In the next section, a poem that makes you remember the way something in you, something you sometimes and often enough wish wouldn’t, is always doing this thing that the poem is doing.  Watching their Facebook posts for what they are watching and reading and writing.  An every-waking-moment and automatic census of what they are always acknowledging into being, with their very attention.  (And what not.)

Anyway.  This is the winking and quiet wryness, of “count the brown people”:

1n y0ur 1tunes tw1tter
feed fr1end c1rcle


[...]

0n the walls 0f y0ur art
gallery tv screen l1sts cred1ts

at y0ur galas dance
d1nner h0use


[...]

               1 am capt1ve c0unt1ng search1ng
               a cl0ck with a sec0nd hand stuck

And this is its ending:

brown life is an unbroken bearing of the weight and hollow of the active
absence of brown life.


Then too.  The whole premise.  It could have come off gimmicky, this idea.  This stating of what, after that first second it takes to sink in, is obvious: the fact that even this page—every page—is white.  And yet.  There is that first second it takes to sink in.

Weeks later, for a blog post, you are re-reading the book.  Only then you notice, consider, think about what it means, that across all its pages, almost all its pages, even the poems that continue from one page to another...  The top half, and sometimes more than the top half, of almost every single page is taken up.  By white space.


[Acquired in mid-December 2020.]
[Read pretty much all the way through and immediately, in Florence.]

Audre Lorde | The Cancer Journals
 
Audre Lorde | The Cancer Journals

By now it’s clear I’m a disciple, and therefore it is perhaps entirely unsurprising, how much of this slim and devastating book I have marked up.  (In the margins of page 26, I have written in all-caps: so much truth that you must underline everywhere...)

Of course there is much to mark up, in any work by Lorde but in this one especially, for this is the one about how your silence will not protect you.  This is the one that spawned and inspired the Audre Lorde Questionnaire to Oneself.  That questionnaire is a gift and a flint with which I light up many of my mornings.  But the rest of the paragraph from which it comes is even more combustible:

What are the words you do not have?  What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?  Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears.  Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself, a Black woman warrior poet doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours?

There is so much more.  I spent all of the morning re-reading, and there was so much more that I went and wrote a whole blog post.  And even then, even after, I have not gotten to the bit when she talks of the falseness among women these days, calling itself goddess-worship or “the way”false because too cheaply bought and little understood.  I did not get to where she tells herself that I will never be a doctor and I will never be a deep-sea diver.  I did not get to where she is learning to speak my pieces, to inject into the living world my convictions of what I think is necessary and what I think is important without concern (of the enervating kind) for whether or not it is understood, tolerated, correct or heard before...  (The world will not stop if I make a mistake.)

And everything, fucking everything, she says about breasts and identity and prostheses and profit and cancer and commerce and women and beauty and power and difference and action and invisibility and strength and knowing and selfhood.  I am talking here about the need for every woman to live a considered life.  Everything.

But this.  If I don’t get to anything else, I must get to this:

In this disastrous time, when little girls are still being stitched shut between their legs, when victims of cancer are urged to court more cancer in order to be attractive to men, when 12-year-old Black boys are shot down in the street at random by uniformed men who are cleared of any wrong-doing, when ancient and honorable citizens scavenge for food in garbage pails, and the growing answer to all this is media hype or surgical lobotomy; when daily gruesome murders of women from coast to coast no longer warrant mention in The N.Y. Times, when grants to teach retarded children are cut in favor of more billion dollar airplanes, when 900 people commit mass suicide rather than face life in america, and we are told it is the job of the poor to stem inflation; what depraved monster could possibly be always happy?

It’s a single question.  It’s a hundred forty-four words long.  It was written in 1979.


[Acquired in November 2020.]
[Read in November/December 2020, in Florence.]

Fatimah Asghar | If They Come For Us
 
Fatimah Asghar | If They Come For Us

Even if your grandfather never wrote persian poetry on glasses (maybe.  you can’t remember.  you made it up.  someone lied...), even if you cannot read from a compass of brown & gold & blood...  This book is a ride on the back of a blue-purple bird-of-heaven-and-heck.  Not only for feeling but also—maybe even most fantastically, fanatically, frantically—for form.  There are poems as ghazals and poems in prose.  A partially-upside-down poem and a list-of-things-pulled-from-a-pussy poem.  Poem as crossword puzzle and poem as a Bingo card.  Poem as grade school grammar exercise (or poem as Mad Lib).  Poem as cheat-sheet, poem as film treatment and poem as floor plan.

How else to say I am here?

These are poems that feel like corporeal bodies.

you’re a daughter until they bury your mother.  until you’re not invited to your father’s funeral.  you’re a virgin until you get too drunk.  you’re muslim until you’re not a virgin.  you’re pakistani until they start throwing acid.  you’re muslim until it’s too dangerous.  you’re safe until you’re alone.  you’re american until the towers fall.  until there’s a border on your back.

Some of them are hairy and some of them wax where (good) Muslim women wax.  Some of them are bleeding one way and some another.  Some of them are wearing too much kajol and some of them have left their dupatta in the car.  Some of them take off their shoes at weddings, never mind the glass on the ground from the broken bangles.

how many poems must you write to convince yourself
you have a family?  everyone leaves & you end up the stranger.


Some of them smell of jasmine and some of them smell of paan and some of them smell, to me anyway, of that exact combination of rain and sea and rickshaw exhaust, there where the car slows down, by Boat Basin.

Home is the first grave.


[Acquired in November 2020.]
[Read in what felt like one breath, in November, in Florence.]

Harriet Lerner | Why Won’t You Apologize?
 
Harriet Lerner | Why Won’t You Apologize?

I know, I know.  This is a self-help book.  But lucky for me (because I usually find self-help books shallow, mouldy, and magnificently annoying), this is an actually intelligent and—thank heaven—intelligently written self-help book.  You can tell the author actually reads good writing for pleasure, and you can tell she doesn’t think her shit will fix anything and everything.  Perhaps most importantly, you can tell she doesn’t believe in a world (let alone try to sell you one) whose meaning is dictated by happiness, positivity and that breathlessly North American obsession with brightsiding...  (Argh.)

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s also Ben Lerner’s mother.  (There’s a conversation she recounts having with Ben as an argumentative teenager, which is quite possibly my favorite conversation of the book...  At least when it comes to understanding that love and forgiveness do not always—cannot always—intersect.) So along with the usual suspects that seem always to get cited in these things (cue Gary Chapman and his 5 languages for everything/whatever—sigh), there are also some wonderful and writerly others: like Claudia Rankine (for something from Citizen), like Maggie Nelson (for something from The Argonauts), and like Roxane Gay.

Also.  Sometimes you read a book not because you need to read it, but because someone else does.  So at least one of you... will understand some things that need to be understood.

For example, that an apology doesn’t always mean reconciliation.  [...] Not everything we break can be fixed.

For example, that the word forgive is much like the word respect.  It can’t be commanded or demanded or forced, or gifted for no reason...  I know full well the firsthand experience of coming to a place of empathy and understanding for the very person who has injured me and never apologized for a particular action, never faced up to her insensitive or low-integrity behavior.  [But] the word forgiveness is not a word I use to describe this compassionate or accepting place that I may or may not come to when I feel wronged by someone who can’t get it, who is too defensive to take in what I am saying, and who will never genuinely feel that they have something to apologize for.

(Italics mine.)

Elsewhere, and a little further: Suggesting to someone that they forgive can leave the hurt party feeling more emotionally unsteady and betrayed all over again.

(In the margin, there’s a someone who has written, “JFC—so I am NOT crazy.”  That someone was me.)

Elsewhere, and maybe most of all: When it comes to our close relationships, I agree with [...] Janis Abrahms Spring: “You don’t restore your humanity when you forgive an unapologetic offender; he restores his humanity when he works to earn your forgiveness.”

And lots more, having to do with lots else, besides forgiveness.

For example, the idea that when people suffer, they often suffer twice, first because they have lived through something painful, and second because a key person [or several] in their lives doesn’t want to hear about it, or doesn’t want to hear all of it.

(A page or two later, from a mother who had done just that to her daughter, but had finally figured it out: I didn’t bring it up because I thought if you weren’t bringing it up, I shouldn’t bring it up.  That was a mistake.  I left you alone with it.  I’m so sorry.)

For example, the idea that, in order to offer a serious apology, you need the inner strength to allow yourself to feel vulnerable.  You need to be in touch with both your competence and your limitations.

For example, and speaking of competence: When we tolerate rudeness in any relationship—if doing so becomes habitual rather than a rare event—we erode our own self-regard and diminish the other person by not reaching for their competence to do better.

(Here I think of my brother, and of a cousin in Canada.  Of brown men especially.  Of my mother’s family, especially...)

For example, and speaking of tolerance: The courage and clarity to define our bottom line, which includes our needs and the limits of our tolerance, is at the heart of having both a relationship and a self.  Doing so is ultimately an act of kindness and respect.

(Here I think of my mother.)

For example, and speaking of the self: The other person’s willingness to own up to harmful deeds has nothing to do with how much she or he does or doesn’t love you.  Rather, the capacity to take responsibility, feel empathy and remorse, and offer a meaningful apology rests on how much self-love and self-respect that person has available.  We don’t have the power to bestow these traits on anyone but ourselves.

(Here...  Well.  Here, I’m just trying to listen.)


[Acquired in July 2020.]
[Read mostly in November 2020, in Florence.]

Toi Derricotte | The Black Notebooks
 
Toi Derricotte | The Black Notebooks

For her thoughts on black–white friendship:

There are so few friendships between whites and blacks in which the people are really themselves.  Even when white people try, they are often operating on stereotypes, and though the black person might want to accept them, the only way to break the stereotype is to tell the truth, which causes pain.  A black person and a white person are not just two individuals who have to decide whether they like each other, but representatives carrying huge expectations, beliefs that they must scale like dangerous mountains, trying to reach each other.

For explaining, thank-goodness-goddamnit, why it’s white people first, foremost, and especially, who need to call out, interrupt, and talk to each other, in difficult and (gasp) uncomfortable ways, about racism:

That’s when I realized that it is much easier for white people to confront racism than it is for blacks.  Because no matter what a white person says or does about racism, they are still white, which gives them the privilege of being listened to without already having been judged as doubly unreliable—unreliable because they are black and, therefore, foolish, and unreliable because they are merely acting defensively, defending their own race.

(And for saying out loud too, what I think about people who can do this, and then don’t: She said for me to escape the pain while others are not able to made me a betrayer.)

But for so much else—for example about memory:

I had always thought memory accrued in a chronological fashion.  [But this] memory had occurred because of something that had happened in the future.  It made me realize that memory itself, rather than being absolute, linear, must be a continuous and liquid process, rather like the process that keeps the balance of crystals in a solution.

I think that memory—they used to say that language is on the side of the country with the biggest navy—is in the service of the deepest psychic need.

And for example, about the self:

Now, after fifty years, I understand the importance of finding and inventing those internal mirrors in which we see ourselves as sacred.

For example, on the telling of truths:

It seemed that it was so important to keep up appearances, to not let people know there were problems, as if problems meant we were failures.

I think that what we don’t tell others, we often lie to ourselves about.

And for example, on the not-telling, too:

Perhaps against everything I have learned as a writer, there is something I have learned as a child of the oppressed—there is a secret place that, once articulated, becomes banal and squalid.

There are those who say, “Speak the unspeakable,” “Tell the truth, it is the writer’s job to say,” but it occurs to me that any held reality retains a power, that perhaps silence is a way of protecting what it is not yet time to bring to light.

For so much else, ancora.  Not only to do with race and color and whiteness.  But also, to do with friendship and love and connection and knowing—the knowing of others and the knowing of our selves.  (And the knowing of our others.)

And all of it, all of it offered up with an integrity of thinking—of the mind and of the heart—that I cannot remember feeling, so palpably, in anything else I have ever read.

(For the idea then, finally, that held complexities are resolution—perhaps even healing—are form.)


[Acquired in September 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in October 2020, in and after Bolzano.]

Nella Larsen | Quicksand & Passing
 
Nella Larsen | Quicksand & Passing

I had already read Passing, almost exactly a year earlier, when I’d taken it with us to that one-and-only vacation for the year, in Sainte Colombe.  And so I only wanted one of the two novels in this double-edition...  But if you have spent any time in the English-language sections of bookstores in Italy, you know the odds of coming upon a book that is neither a bestseller nor a classic (in the mainstream sense anyway...).  That is not only by a woman writer from the 1920s but a Black woman writer from the 1920s.  In short, beggars, choosers, etc.

Also in short, I think Passing is the better, or anyway stronger, of the two works.  Some day if I’m able to go backwards through this project and catch up on some of the books I read before I began it, I’ll tell you more.  (In the meantime of course, you can just read it.  For it is slim and quick and pointed like a bullet—softly burnished and quietly, quietly explosive.)

But still, Quicksand is worth reading, if for no other reason than to realize that if we’re talking these days about whether it’s possible to write or read or anyway enjoy narratives that reject the so-called requirements of narrative...  (The idea for example, that the journey must not only have a destination, but must come to it...  The idea that the conflict must not only be definable, but resolvable...)  And if we’re struggling these days to understand the intersection of race and gender and other things...  (The idea for example, that those other things are not only nameable, but describable...).  Then Nella Larsen, in 1928, was way ahead of us.

Way ahead too, in many other ways:

She hated to admit that money was the most serious difficulty.  Knowing full well that it was important, she nevertheless rebelled at the unalterable truth that it could influence her actions, block her desires.  A sordid necessity to be grappled with.  With Helga it was almost a superstition that to concede to money its importance magnified its power.

Some day you’ll learn that lies, injustice, and hypocrisy are a part of every ordinary community.  Most people achieve a sort of protective immunity, a kind of callousness, toward them.  If they didn’t, they couldn’t endure.

Somewhere, within her, in a deep recess, crouched discontent.  She began to lose confidence in the fullness of her life, the glow began to fade from her conception of it.  As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerable.  She went through moments of overwhelming anguish.  She felt shut in, trapped.

Why couldn’t she have two lives, or why couldn’t she be satisfied in one place?

And in some other ways, well...  It’s not so much that she was way ahead of us.  More that—how to say it?  The vague sense you get, as you’re reading...

...because Naxos Negroes knew what was expected of them.  They had good sense and they had good taste.  They knew enough to stay in their places, and that, said the preacher, showed good taste.

...that actually, it’s us.  We haven’t moved.


[Acquired in October 2020, from Feltrinelli.]
[Read in October 2020, in/around Bolzano.]

Elizabeth Strout | Anything Is Possible
 
Elizabeth Strout | Anything Is Possible

There is that bit, early on, in which Tommy Guptill remembers his older brother—who had been in World War II, who had been at the camps when they were being emptied—he thought how his brother had returned from the war a different man; his marriage ended, his children disliked him.  Not long before his brother died, he told Tommy about what he had seen in the camps, and how he and the others had the job of taking the townspeople through them.  They had somehow taken a group of women from the town through the camps to show them what had been right there, and Tommy’s brother said that although some of the women wept, some of them put their chins up, and looked angry, as if they refused to be made to feel bad.

At the time it made me think of that white friend of Claudia Rankine’s—the one in Just Us.  The one who just didn’t want to:

Maybe of interest to you and important to me: I know I shrink, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little, from scenes where I’m asked, personally or generally, to feel bad as a white person—where, whatever else is being asked, I’m also being asked to feel shame, guilt, to do penance, to stand corrected, to sit down chastised.

At the time I had not yet read Toi Derricotte’s The Black Notebooks—that would come later in the month—but if I had it would it have made me think of this:

What happens in a classroom when diversity begins to be expressed?  It would be nice if suddenly everything got better, but in reality this does not happen.  [...] The reactions of white students to the writings of the one or two writers of color in my undergraduate and graduate writing classes vary, but often an entirely different state of receptivity is in effect.  Often they feel isolated, excluded, bombarded by experiences and words they don’t understand.  They have described a feeling of distance from the poems, feeling defensive and determined not to be made to feel guilty, responsible, or ashamed.

Look at that.  Look again.

They have described a feeling of distance from the poems, feeling defensive and determined not to be made to feel guilty, responsible, or ashamed.

At the time I thought too, or anyway tried to remember that line of Lorde’s, that Crystal Fleming had quoted in How to Be Less Stupid About Race, from Lorde’s essay on “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”:

I have seen situations where white women hear a racist remark, resent what has been said, become filled with fury, and remain silent because they are afraid.  That unexpressed anger lies within them like an undetonated device, usually to be hurled at the first woman of Color who talks about racism.

At the time I had not yet seen that big book of photographs by Margaret Bourke-White, lying abandoned on the table next to ours at Todo Modo.  Had not picked it up and leafed through it, thinking to pass the few minutes before Davide reappeared with more wine than we really needed.  Had not come upon that picture (but be warned before clicking, for the love of everything be warned).

I know these things are not the quite same things.  And that the ways in which they are not quite the same are ways that are very, very different.  And yet.

And yet.


[Acquired in October 2020, from Feltrinelli.]
[Read in October 2020, in/around Bolzano.]

James Baldwin | The Fire Next Time
 
James Baldwin | The Fire Next Time

I read Dark Days last year (bought, of all places, from the bookstore at the Palazzo Strozzi... of all times, after Marina Abramovic...).  And I read I Am Not Your Negro the year before (bought, of all places, from the bookstore at Al Ghurair Center in Dubai...).  But for all serious intents and purposes, I had for some time intended for this to be my first “proper” Baldwin.  And so with a little nudging from Carlotta, it was.

And so what to say?  Where to begin with all the examples of how, as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, he refused to hold anyone’s hand?  How instead he makes you take that hand of yours and turn it over and hold it up to the light to look at, hard.

Like in that line I had already and only just encountered for the first time, in Roy’s Azadi: And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.

Like this: The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.

And this: Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.  To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.

And like this: White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany.  They did not know that they could act that way.  But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded...

Also.  All the things that are still, and everywhere (not only in the US), and so resoundingly—true:

How [we] are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels.  Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.

How [in] any event, the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems.

How [the] word “independence” in Africa and the word “integration” here are almost equally meaningless; that is, Europe has not yet left Africa, and black men here are not yet free.

(When I read how Europe has not yet left Africa, especially...  Here and now in 2020...  It is hard not to think of a certain grand and far-reaching international development organization, and the entire premise upon which its bloated and heaving, magnificently well-intentioned machinery rests...)

I love the very idea of a letter from a region in one’s mind.  And I am taken too—intrigued—by so many other, more specific ideas.  That it is the innocence that constitutes the crime.  That the impossible is the least that one can demand.

That people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are.  

And perhaps finally, that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.


[Acquired in late September.]
[Read through late September and early October (in tandem with Carlotta...).]

Jenny Offill | Weather
 
Jenny Offill | Weather

How to explain this book?  In trying, I said to Andrew that it’s a bit like Renata Adler’s Speedboat, except minus the speed.  Also, while it looks more fragmentary, visually anyway, than Speedboat, really it feels less so.  You can feel the form of it, both clearly and yet inexplicably.  The way a Sunday of puttering alone around the house still feels like a day.  The way life, when viewed without the rose-tinted glasses of cause, effect, and beginnings-that-lead-to-endings, of narrative and meaning and story—all of that...  The way life in all its formlessness too, feels like a form.

It reminded me a little also, of Lerner’s 10:04.  For the ropy tenderness and empathy that seems to breathe outward from each page, like the echo of a blue note.  But also for at least one specific detail.  In Lerner, there is that moment with the Manhattan skyline at night (and what a moment, what a Mona Lisa painting of a moment it is...), when he feels the small thrill I always felt to a lesser or greater degree when I looked at Manhattan’s skyline and the innumerable illuminated windows and the liquid sapphire and ruby of traffic on the FDR Drive and the present absence of the towers.  It was a thrill that only built space produced in me, never the natural world, and only when there was an incommensurability of scale—the human dimension of the windows tiny from such distance combining but not dissolving into the larger architecture of the skyline that was the expression, the material signature, of a collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate registers, were nevertheless addressed.  Only an urban experience of the sublime was available to me because only then was the greatness beyond calculation the intuition of community.  Bundled debt, trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water, the vast arterial network of traffic, changing weather patterns of increasing severity...

For whatever reason (maybe because it really does feel like a great painting, and so you remember that particular detail, like the face of the small dog looking out at you, like the curve of the angel’s ankle...), you remember those trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water.

And so, early on in Offill’s Weather there is a sense of repercussion, or of call-and-response:

So now we have extra bread.  I eat three pieces while my brother tells me a story about his NA meeting.  A woman stood up and started ranting about antidepressants.  What upset her most was that people were not disposing of them properly.  They tested worms in the city sewers and found they contained high concentrations of Paxil and Prozac.

When birds ate these worms, they stayed closer to home, made more elaborate nests, but appeared unmotivated to mate.  “But were they happier?” I ask him.  “Did they get more done in a given day?”

Elsewhere, an (other) example of how she makes a kind of magic, out of saying things without saying them:

After the election, Ben makes many small wooden things.  One to organize our utensils, one to keep the trash can from wobbling.  He spends hours on them.  “There, I fixed it,” he says.


[Acquired in early October 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read mostly through bouts of insomnia (related to climate change, kind of...), in early October.]

Victoria Chang | OBIT
 
Victoria Chang | OBIT

I would tell you about all the ways in which these poems define and undo the defining of grief.  Like the shape and nothingness-around-it, of each poem on each page.  A box with everything you can put in it, and everything again, that you cannot.

(Once I started trying, I realized how hard it was to explain and how it wasn’t even one thing I was trying to explain.  Grief scatters.  It’s like smoke, it gets in your hair, your clothes, everywhere, but you can’t touch it...)

The way so many of these poems begin on my birthday.  (The way my birthday is always a week after my father being gone.)  The way this is about a so-called fully grown human being, contending with what she knows every so-called fully grown human being must contend with, if their parent is a lucky parent.  (A parent who gets to die before their child.)  The way her contending brings back my contending.

Approval—died    on   August   3,   2015
at the age  of  44.   It  died   at 7:07 a.m.
How much money will you get was my
mother’s  response  to  everything.  She
used  to  wrap  muffins  in  a  napkin  at
the buffet  and  put  them  in  her purse.
I never saw  the  muffins  again.  What I
would  do  to  see  those  muffins  again,
the thin moist  thread  as she pulled the
muffin apart. A photo shows my mother
holding my  hand.  I  was  nine.  I  never
touched her  hand  again.  Until  the day
before she died.  I  love so many things I
have never touched:  the moon, a shiver,
my mother's heart.  Her  fingers felt like
rough  branches  covered  with plastic.  I
trimmed  her nails one  by one  while the
morphine   kept  her  asleep.   Her   nails
weren’t  small  moons   or  golden  doors
to somewhere, but  ten  last  words I was
cutting off.


All the ways.


[Acquired in August 2020.]
[Begun in August with the Sealey Challenge; finished in September with the Poetry Foundation.]

Arundhati Roy | Azadi
 
Arundhati Roy | Azadi

The God of Small Things didn’t do it for me (though there will always be those lines about what careless words can do—lines I can imagine leaving in some rooms I have lived in, like a forgotten earring or a clutch of keys to houses whose locks were long ago changed...), but for her essays I have loved Arundhati Roy since I first read her, in 2003.  In January of that year there was “Confronting Empire,” and later that spring there was the one-two punch of “Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy One, Get One Free),” and “Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates.”  Users of Yahoo! email, do you remember the Briefcase?  A kind of clunky precursor to today’s clouds and drives?  I saved those three essays in my Yahoo! Briefcase (along with that famous/infamous piece by Sontag in the first New Yorker after September 11th, the one about courage and cowardice, consequences and concealment, democracy and drivel...), because they felt like pages from a manual for equipment that I had until then been using with a kind of shrugged-on complacency.  Like an expensive camera you keep on auto-focus for years, and then one day someone shows you how to sharpen the parts of the image that happen to lie outside its center.  Suddenly, a way to see a different picture.

Anyway.  There is much here, that feels like it builds on that kind of manual.  And while the essays seem mostly to be talking about India, really, they are talking about everywhere.  For example, the ways in which religious fundamentalism and unbridled free-market fundamentalism can waltz arm in arm, like lovers...  For example, the idea that national pride has more to do with hate than love.  For example, the appalling logic of Hindu nationalists, when they explain that Muslims have so many homelands, but Hindus only have India. (Where have I heard something like that before...?)

For example too, the idea that today’s fascism, and the fake history of Hindu nationalism [or really, any kind of nationalism], rests on a deeper foundation of another, apparently more acceptable, more sophisticated set of fake histories that elide the stories of caste, of women, and a range of other genders — and of how those stories intersect below the surface of the grand narrative of class and capital.

(Italics mine.)


[Acquired in September 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in September 2020, in Florence—including at Ristorante Goong, on ice...]

Audre Lorde | Your Silence Will Not Protect You
 
Audre Lorde | Your Silence Will Not Protect You

I didn’t need to buy this book.  Almost every essay is in Sister Outsider, and Sister Outsider has been a kind of bible on the shelf now, for some time.  But I discovered that this UK edition has an introduction by Sara Ahmed.  And thanks to some recent conversations with Erica, I have lately developed a fellow-feminist kind of crush on Sara Ahmed...  Besides being awesome (as I have noted below, and elsewhere, and elsewhere again), she is also a fellow Lorde-lover.

Also thanks to some recent conversations with another Sara entirely (who has been reading this edition—and yes, I know that’s not really a reason...).  And finally too, thanks to that talk with Roxane Gay at the 92nd Street Y, in which Mahogany L. Browne performs “A Litany for Survival,” and Porsha Olayiwola performs “Power.”  This UK edition, unlike Sister Outsider, has some of Lorde’s poetry too—like “Litany,” and like “Power.”  And so it was enough.  I bought it.

I read the introduction by Sara Ahmed—and it was good.

Each time you write or you speak you are putting yourself into a world that is shared.

To speak from anger is to bring something into existence...

To write is to create something that will have its own life; writing as afterlife.

When we speak, we open the possibility of a return address.

Reading her work is a way of speaking too.

And I read the poems—and Lorde were they good.

When you are hungry
learn to eat
whatever sustains you
until morning
but do not be misled by details
simply because you live them.



[Acquired in August 2020.]
[Read in September 2020, in Florence.]

Ben Lerner | 10:04
 
Ben Lerner | 10:04

It seems Ben Lerner is the only living white male writer I’m able to read these days.  (I had to add in “living” because I can read Rilke.  Thank heaven, I can always read Rilke...)  I think the reason, really, is that Ben Lerner writes kind of like the opposite of say, everyone in this book.  How to explain this oppositeness?  Here’s an example:

While I stirred the vegetables I realized with slowly dawning alarm that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cooked by myself for another person—I could not, in fact, ever remember having done so.  I’d cooked with people plenty, usually acting as a dazzlingly incompetent sous chef for friends or family.  On various occasions I’d said to a woman I was interested in, “I would invite you to dinner, but I can’t cook,” at which point I would hope she’d say, “I’m a great cook,” so I could ask her to come over and teach me; then we’d get drunk in the kitchen while I displayed what I hoped was my endearing clumsiness, never learning anything. [...] I simply could not recall a single instance in which I had by myself constructed a meal, however rudimentary, for another human being.  The closest memory I could summon was of scrambling eggs on Mother’s or Father’s Day as a child, but the uncelebrated parent, as well as my brother, always assisted me.  Conversely, there was simply no end to the number of meals I could recall other people making for me, thousands upon thousands of meals, a quantity of food that would have to be measured in tons, dating from my mother’s milk to the present; just that week Aaron had roasted a chicken for our monthly dinner; Alena had made some kind of delicious trio of Middle Eastern salads the night before; in neither meal had I lent a hand, although I’d cursorily offered. [...] Surely there were instances I was forgetting, but even assuming there were, they were exceedingly rare.

I would like to say that, at the very least, I resolved to cook henceforth for my friends, to be a producer and not a consumer alone of those substances necessary for sustenance and growth within my immediate community.  I would like to say that [...] I was disturbed by the contradiction between my avowed political materialism and my inexperience with this brand of making, of poiesis, but I could dodge or dampen that contradiction via my hatred of Brooklyn’s boutique biopolitics, in which spending obscene sums and endless hours on stylized food preparation somehow enabled the conflation of self-care and political radicalism. [...] Realizing my selfishness just led to more selfishness; that is, I felt lonely, felt sorry for myself, despite the fact that I was so often cooked for, because, as I stood there in my little kitchen stirring vegetables, stood there at the age of thirty-three, I was crushed to realize nobody depended on me for this fundamental mode of care, of nurturing, nourishing.  “Don’t leave me,” Nina Simone begged in French, and, for the first time I could remember—whether or not the desire was a non sequitur—I wanted a child, wanted one badly.

I loved this book because it has so many moments like that.  Moments that are at once both intellectually virtuoso and deeply, vertiginously human.  Moments in which the experience of looking (in this scene, at the self; in other scenes, at others), is defined by empathy and vulnerability—a not-knowing...  A kind of osmotic receptiveness (Lerner might call it proprioceptiveness) or liminal permeability—to people and to the world and to time—that transcends the traditional idea of ego (and especially of the male ego—toxic masculinity, I’m looking at you...) that feels achingly rare.  You get why that Whitman quote is everywhere—for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.  And yet he out-Whitmans Whitman in a way, for this is not even a song of the self—the self-as-universe...  Really, it feels like a humming.

Also the metafictionality.  I loved it for that, too.  Also the hilariousness.  Also the scene in the co-op, with Noor.  (Also the co-op itself.  Carlotta!  He does the co-op!  He mentions the nannies!)  Also (speaking of the co-op), the bit about the new biopolitical vocabulary for expressing racial and class anxiety...  Also the empathy.  Also the hilariousness.


[Acquired in September 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in September 2020, in Florence.]

Sara Ahmed | Living a Feminist Life
 
Sara Ahmed | Living a Feminist Life

In preparation for an eventual paragraph to put here, I started jotting down some thoughts on this book, and some favorite quotes.  Along the way, I wound up with a blog post on self-care (and lots else), and a blog post on the conveniently double-edged sword-and-standard of (mostly) white exceptionalism (and lots else), and (at last count), some seven pages of collected quotes, both from the book and from an array of interviews with Ahmed herself.  I’m not even close to being done, and I won’t be for a long while.  But even if I were, I would not know how to choose what to put here, in a way that didn’t end up giving you a third of the book (and lots else).

So instead I will give you this.  It is not representative of the book, except it kind of is.  It is not about feminism per se, except it absolutely is.  It is not my favorite bit, except sometimes, it is:

I do not think it is good to be too confident in one’s decisions and, thus, to be too confident in the shape of the life you live, a life that has acquired its shape because of decisions you have already made along the way.  I think it is good to think of life as always potentially in crisis, to keep asking the question: how to live?  [There] is value just in this; the value of opening up life to a decision, of realizing that life is open to a decision.

Also, two quotes on reading books exactly like this one.  First this:

A world can flood once we have let it in, once we have unlocked the door of our own resistance.  Feminism too can become a flooding experience: one book read that leads to another, a trail that leads you to find feminism, more and more feminism, new words, concepts, arguments, models: patriarchy, phallocentrism, rape culture, the sex-gender system.  In finding feminism, you are finding out about the many ways that feminists have tried to make sense, already, of the experiences you had, before you had them; experiences that left you feeling all alone are the experiences that lead you to others. [...] I will always remember that feeling; a sense that there are others like you out there, that you are not on your own, that you were not on your own.  Your own difficult history is written out in words that are sent out.  I often think of reading feminist books as like making friends, realizing that others have been here before.

And then this:

For those of us who found feminist company in books, I think it is helpful to ask ourselves what we want from those books.  We can want different things, of course, and we do not always know what we want until we find it.  Sometimes it is a matter of what finds you.  I think of companion books as those books that make me feel less lonely, and also those that allow me to meet myself in a different way.

You can read the introduction over at Duke University Press.  It is f*cking good.


[Acquired in late July 2020—thank you EM, for putting me (back) on to Sara Ahmed...!]
[Read mostly in August 2020 (alongside the Sealey Challenge); finished in September 2020.]

Ijeoma Oluo | So You Want to Talk About Race
 
Ijeoma Oluo | So You Want to Talk About Race

Oh no, not another race book!  (I know.  You’d think this was something important or something.)  At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to get this one (I read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility last August, and had just begun Crystal M. Fleming’s How to Be Less Stupid About Race).  But I’ve seen how often Oluo’s book comes up in lists of resources and recommended texts for better understanding race, racism and white supremacy, and unlike some people (sigh), I get that these lists and articles are written by people who know and understand much more about all this, than I do.  I get that I’m nowhere near done with knowing what there is to know.

(Which reminds me, small world that this can sometimes seem, of a quote from MLK in Fleming’s book: It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.  Exactly.)

Anyway.  Those people who made those lists and wrote those articles?  They were right.  In fact, this book may be (for most people) the best first book to read on racism and white supremacy.  It feels slightly lighter and more accessible than Fleming’s (which is a little heavier on theory, and a little tougher in its talk too, perhaps...), and while it does ask the (white) reader to do some ‘work,’ it is not nearly as demanding in this sense, as I think White Fragility might be for many folks.  Finally, the layout is nothing if not straightforward: every chapter addresses a likely question / area of understanding, from tone policing to police brutality, from privilege to the prison pipeline, and from intersectionality to the “N” word.  Really, she could have called it Racism for Dummies.  But something tells me that might not have helped the way it does with all the other Dummies titles...  Huh.


[Acquired in August 2020.]
[Read in August 2020, in Florence.]

Crystal M. Fleming | How to Be Less Stupid About Race
 
Crystal M. Fleming | How to Be Less Stupid About Race

You know that feeling (if you’re a person of color in a white world), when you wish you could drop a pointed-but-ostensibly-not-at-all-pointed quote in your email signature, as a way of telling a well-intentioned (and of course, impeccably progressive) white friend what you would really like to tell them, about the sometimes rather magnificent gaps in their understanding of racism, whiteness, and white supremacy?  This book has plenty of those quotes.  Enough that if I had to pick just one, I’d have to pick at least four:

In order to oppose racism, we have to actually be concerned with oppression writ large.  This means drawing critical connections between the plight of people of color and the poor in the United States and the broader struggle for freedom and tolerance on our small planet.  It means fighting ethnic and religious bigotry throughout Asia and standing in solidarity with the Roma in Europe as well as African migrants.  It means denouncing the immoral violence of anti-Semitism as well as Israel’s immoral destruction of the Palestinian people.  It means taking a stand against ethnocentrism and genocide in Rwanda and standing up against antiblack racism in Brazil, Latin America, and the Arab world.  As antiracists, we have to cultivate concern and compassion for the suffering marginalized people in our own communities and on the other side of the world.

Have you ever wondered how people lived with slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching [or, I might add, with Hitler, Mussolini, and the Manifesto of Race...] but looked the other way?  Look around right now.  This is how they did it.  They did it by going on with their lives.  They did it by being polite, not rocking the boat.

Let the record reflect: white supremacy persists, to a great degree, because of white folks’ refusal to aggressively challenge other whites on their racism.

So, white people: y’all need to team up with your antiracist homies, leverage your social influence, stand up against racist behavior, and be willing to make your racist family members, friends, and/or colleagues uncomfortable.  Even more to the point: white folks need to make a proactive decision to do this work, rather than rely on people of color (who are already subject to the terror of racial violence) to pick up your slack and carry the burden of dismantling oppression.

Also: interpersonal and institutional racism are connected.

Read the books.  Do the work.  Just, please.  Do the work.


[Acquired in August 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in August 2020, in Florence.]

Beth Ann Fennelly | Heating and Cooling
 
Beth Ann Fennelly | Heating and Cooling

Early in July I started ‘going’ to more poetry readings (because what better for an introvert, than a poetry reading for which you don’t have to get dressed, don’t have to make small talk, and don’t have to perform your interest, interestingness, and sociability).  And there was this one, in which Beth Ann Fennelly read a piece from her new(ish) book of what she calls micro-memoirs...  And this piece, it made some gears grind to a halt inside me, in a way that—whatever you call it, micro-memoir or flash or prose poetry or poetry too—it’s these short, shaped forms that know how to do it.  Shaped to fit in your cupped hands.  Small enough to carry in a pocket, if your dress has a pocket.

The Visitation

I remember being in the car on the way to my sister’s surprise funeral.  In the backseat, I think.  I can’t imagine who was driving.  At a stop sign my head swiveled toward a flicker in the roadside greenery: a fox, poking its snout from between two bushes. I thought, or chose to think, That is my sister. That is my sister, come back in animal form to tell me it’s okay.  She’s okay.  I’ll be okay.

But it was not okay.  She was not okay.  I would not be okay.  I would not be okay for so long that when okay arrived it couldn’t place me.  It looked right past the veil of flickering leaves, my long red snout, my gloved paws swiping tears into my little black mouth.

(The other poets were amazing too.)


[Acquired in August 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in August 2020, in Florence.]

June Eric-Udorie (Editor) | Can We All Be Feminists?
 
June Eric-Udorie | Can We All Be Feminists?

It’s been a year and half since I started my little reading project on intersectional feminism.  And I have to say that this one book delivered on more fronts than many of the books I’ve read so far—maybe not so much in depth, but very much in terms of the sheer breadth of perspectives.  The essays vary widely in style (and a few are not as well-written / well-shaped as the others), but if you want some truly intersectional bang for your anti-capitalist buck, this is a starting point for all kinds of isms across all kinds of bodies—black and brown (including from Pakistani to Punjabi and beyond...), deviant and disabled, trans and migrant and fluid and fat.  I’ve underlined and asterisked all over this book, but in terms of a (very random) sampling:

On the plurality of feminism: There’s no explicit platform for feminism because it’s an idea, ownerless and atomized, based on the observation of one specific, persistent source of imbalance in a stunningly unfair world.

On intersectionality: Asking that feminism be intersectional is not asking it to do anything other than make sense.

On abortion: Folks who believe that abortion is permissible in the case of rape, but not permissible in the case of accidental pregnancy from consensual sex, are not actually condemning abortion; rather the moral axis here is the sexual behavior—the blameworthiness—of the pregnant person.

On beauty: Public policing of Beauty isn’t always obvious, but it is constant.  Its threat haunts every plan, every outfit, every decision you make before stepping out in public.

On fat: A good body can be permitted to carry weight, unlike a beautiful body, but this must be in moderation, carried in seamless proportion and coupled with hyperfemininity.

On the trans toilet-wars: Use of bathrooms and changing rooms is predominantly about safety, and which bodies are deserving of safety—and which aren’t.

On cultural appropriation: [It is] ignorance that leaves people believing, unthinkingly, that cultural exchange happens in a fair context and on a level playing field...

And on the everyday rollercoaster of being a nonwhite minority among your white friends: [That instant in which] whiteness becomes aggressive and hostile to our way of being.  One moment, it’s a normal conversation, and in the next, the person we’re with has revealed the limits of their understanding.


[Acquired in August 2019.]
[Read on and off from January 2020 through to July 2020.]

John Berger | and our faces, my heart, brief as photos
 
John Berger | and our faces, my heart, brief as photos

For his talk of poetry: In all poetry words are a presence before they are a means of communication.

For his talk of time: The deeper the experience of a moment, the greater the accumulation of experience.  This is why the moment is lived as longer. [...] The lived durée is not a question of length but of depth or density.  Proust understood this.  (So did Rovelli, I think to myself.)

And for his talk, finally, of train stations: Before the railways were built, what took the place of stations in people’s dreams?  Perhaps cliffs or wells or a blacksmith’s forge?  Like a tram or a bus this question is a way of approaching the railway station.  (I think of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.  And Neruda’s Book of Questions.)

For his talk, too, of Caravaggio.  And for the future of that parcel.


[Acquired in June 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in June and July 2020, in Florence.]

Angela Y. Davis | Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement
 
Angela Y. Davis | Freedom Is a Constant Struggle

Some things in this book—like all the books from 2019’s birthday crop on blackness, whiteness, and wrongness—have felt like salvos.  Some other things, like salve.

Like understanding incarceration and detention as ways in which the state consolidates its inability and refusal to address the most pressing social problems of this era.  Like understanding the need for collective and community-based change, at a time when neoliberalism attempts to force people to think of themselves only in individual terms.  Like understanding the tyranny of the universal (and the abstract).

And any book that describes marriage (in passing, mind you) as a bourgeois hetero-patriarchal institution, and as a capitalist institution designed to guarantee the distribution [or rather the lack thereof] of property... is my kind of book.

Still, this was sometimes hard to read—hard anyway to finish—through a June (and July) like 2020 has had.  But also urgent, necessary, long overdue.  One of those books (and there are at least a couple more, from that birthday crop), that I wish I could press into the hands of my wonderful white friends and say, read this.  Because we cannot go on as usual.  We cannot pivot the center.  We cannot be moderate.


[Acquired in August 2019.]
[Read on and off from August 2019 through to July 2020 (in tandem with Carlotta...).]

Fernando Pessoa | The Book of Disquiet
 
Fernando Pessoa | The Book of Disquiet

Among the blurbs at the beginning, a reviewer from the Daily Telegraph speaks of exhilarating lugubriousness.  This feels perfect, and yet there is so much more, so much quotable, so much that I have underlined and starred and squiggled across the multitude of mirrored and othered selves that make up this book...  On every page, something that reaches out and makes a wave in you.

Like this: I enjoy using words.  Or rather: I enjoy making words work.  For me words are tangible bodies, visible sirens, sensualitues made flesh.  (I think of Humpty Dumpty, holding forth with Alice...  “They’ve a temper some of them—particularly verbs...”)

Like this: Each thing is the intersection of three lines which, together, shape that thing: a quantity of material, the way in which we interpret it and the atmosphere in which it exists.  (I think of content, form, and context.  Also, of everything.)

And like this: Some people have one great dream in life which they fail to fulfil.  Others have no dream at all and fail to fulfil even that.  (I think of you and me and the universe of people that may or may not lie, between us.)


[Acquired in June 2016.]
[Read on and off from June 2016 in Santa Marinella, through to July 2020 in Florence.]

Ben Lerner | The Topeka School
 
Ben Lerner | The Topeka School

The idea of America as adolescence without end, and of the vacuum at the heart of privilege.

The idea that the deep truths are sedimented in syntax...

Now when I close my eyes and see phosphenes (though I seem always to need to search for the word, seem always to need to consider first, for a moment, whether they are pheromones, and then phonemes)...  And all my life I have wondered too, if they were universal, if everyone saw them.  But they were so faint and difficult to describe that he was never able to figure out if his parents or friends shared this experience just above the threshold of perception; the patterns dissipated under the weight of language, remained irreducibly private.


[Acquired in January 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in July 2020, in Florence.]