grieving what was never good

Right now, I am swimming in a sea of grief more days than not.

The other day my driving route took me through a small, vibrant downtown. I found myself kind of interested in the shops, scoping out the coffeeshops, and wondering if the multiple new Asian fusion restaurants were good or trying too hard and awful. I found myself laughing a little at what it would be like to go to the out-of-date gym, and wondering who goes there now. But looking at the businesses and the people, I mostly felt like I was visiting the past. I struggled to believe that I was in the moment.

I have been lucky, and I have experienced the privilege of class and race over the last two years, and so my grief is more for places, things, and ways of living forever gone to me than people lost. In the astonishing number of souls lost directly and indirectly to covid-19 in the last two years, I have lost surprisingly few people close to me. I have experienced this enormous loss more as a diminishing collective light, as a resounding lack of elders to guide us through these troubling times, as the pain I see and feel around me in the grieving of others, and as the first echo of what is coming when we talk about the end of the Anthropocene.

Sometimes it is hard to make a proper place for the grief of the loss of things and concepts when so many that I know and love are grieving the loss of dear ones. And yet another part of me knows that grief is grief. It will have its due whether I make space for it or not.

I know I am also grieving the life I believed I would have, the one that I was, finally, very excited for. It included arranging my work schedule permanently so that I could travel regularly both for pleasure and work, and do international work that was important to me. In fact, I believe I have grieved this and for the most part let it go, but I have not found something to replace it. And I have not found a way to do international work and I am scared that I will not see my friends and comrades outside the US again, some of whom were once some of my closest people. That part really scares me and it makes me really sad.

Though it’s hard to admit, even to myself, I am grieving the life I had, the one where I ate at a restaurant every week and went to the movies. Or where I traveled for pleasure, or did a thousand dumb things more easily than now. I am an anti-capitalist and it’s not true to say that I want to rebuild that lifestyle for myself or anyone else. There are many ways that I am glad to have ripped the band-aid off and to have reduced my dependency on the underpaid labor of others in a lot of ways in my life (I am interested in finding more pleasurable and constructive ways to do similar things together without that!). But the brilliant adrienne maree brown has recently reminded us both that grief is complex in that we can grieve people and things we had complicated feelings about to start with, and that capitalism is quite tricky in how it feeds us empty calories to make us think we are enjoying it even when it is not really satisfying us.

I have hesitated – for two entire years! – to write much about this because this grief feels selfish. There are clearly more urgent issues to address, and because it is not that I want most of the things I miss to come back. But this grief is also lonely. Deeply, hollowly, empty lonely. And finally, I thought perhaps I am not alone with this feeling.

Disenfranchised grief” is grief not recognized socially. It can be harder to move through. Perhaps, I hope, there will be a reason to talk to each other in this grief and to connect over it as humans. Perhaps that is the way through, because the capitalist trap is to continue to hide or even subvert our feelings, and to try to do things by ourselves—although doing things “ourselves” almost always means relying on the paid or coerced labor of others.

I know better than to think that just because others have lost more, that my grief is not real. Although it can be really hard, we need to make space for everyone to feel and express their grief, large and small. We do not need to equate those losses, but we can create appropriate spaces for each other to acknowledge that they happened. So many of us are grieving, still forced to move through the world of the past, unsure (and afraid) of what the future will actually be.

Fiction I read in 2021

I am not sure if I read less fiction than usual this year or if I made some bad picks and as a consequence I have fewer books to recommend. I certainly read more books than usual that I don’t want to recommend, and even a few that I actively want to dissuade anyone from reading (seriously, don’t read the Overstory). But despite the few bad experiences, I continue to find joy, rest, and thrilling new ideas in fiction.

Reading the same books as other people also creates a connection and a shared experience that I have loved since childhood. I love discussing the plot, the reactions, the details of how it feels to be enveloped in the author’s world and that motivates me to share my faves with my network every year too, hoping to share those connections.

the books

Grievers -adrienne maree brown – a beautifully written book about Detroit, grief, pandemic, and social movement

Black Sun – Rebecca Roanhorse – I’ve raved about Roanhorse’s work before, so I was of course excited to read this as soon as it came out. It did not disappoint, and the powerful ways that Roanhorse draws on the ideas of earlier Indigenous peoples in the Americas has stayed with me all year.

Las Aventuras de China Iron (the Adventures of China Iron) – Gabriela Cabezón Cámara – The first book I started in 2021 and the last one I wanted to finish! This is a feminist take on the “classic” Argentine epic gaucho poem Martín Fierro.

Things We Lost in the Fire – Mariana Enriquez – Short stories that are scary, but only as scary as reality. The past, and maybe other things, haunt present-day Buenos Aires.

Factory Witches of Lowell – C.S. Malerich – Queer, witchy, labor organizing. It’s perfect.

Testimony – Peter Lazare and Sarah Lazare – this political thriller is a must read for folks in social movements who will instantly recognize the dilemmas and scenarios here. It also brought the early 2000s back to life for me, and showed so clearly how they continue to shape the current political landscape.

The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune – Jy Yang – Yang has built a compelling and interesting gender non-binary world, inside of exciting plots

Children of Blood and Bone and Children of Virtue and Vengeance – Tomi Adeyemi – at times devastating books also full of adventure

Binti the complete series – Nnedi Okorafor – You should be reading Okorafor’s books!

Lying Life of Adults – Elena Ferrante – I love Ferrante’s work so I loved this: beautiful prose, powerful insight into gender politics, and psychic drama from the perspective of an adolescent.

A Burning – Megha Majumdar – beautifully written multi-narrator novel

The Salt Roads – Nalo Hopkinson – I’ve read several of Hopkinson’s novels and they never disappoint.

Two nonfiction books this year I have been reading in groups with friends and giving as gifts:

Beyond Survival – edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha – This is the book I have been needing in my hands since I was a young adult in community spaces and house parties. Full of concrete tips and discussions in short essays about how to create justice outside of and beyond the harmful and violent police industrial complex (and the dilemmas and pitfalls).

We Do This Till We Free Us – Mariame Kaba – A series of essays about the work of abolition in its many forms, and why it is important, and the many issues to consider. Kaba has been part of numerous abolitionist and transformative justice projects over the last 20 years in the US, especially those focused around gender-based violence and youth, and is one of the key abolitionist thinkers of our time.

essential all-the-time listening:

I always leave these podcasts feeling wiser and, most importantly, more hopeful.

How to Survive the End of the Worldhttps://www.endoftheworldshow.org/

Movement Memoshttps://truthout.org/series/movement-memos/

A cement wall stands alone on an abandoned lot with a blue sky. In huge letters filling the wall, graffiti text says "read."
Photo by carnagenyc on Flickr

open letter to NPR (guest post)

Dear All Things Considered.

As a 20+ year listener to All Things Considered, I was really shocked and angered listening to the story titled: “For a musician in New York City, not being fully vaccinated comes at a cost.” I am a composer and performer. I also have tinnitus and would get vaccinated as many times as am asked. I have worked for the last 10 years to build a grassroots network of music-makers. This project has involved epic travel and endless performances. I have not given an in-person performance for nearly two years because I refuse to ask people to risk their lives, as well as the lives of anyone they could come into contact with on their way, to come see me. This is the true cost of a return to a music status quo. We as people have a right to music, but we do not have a right to an audience, Carnegie Hall or otherwise. As life and society change, music changes. We, especially musicians, must learn to listen over the background noise even when it is in our own heads– of this, Beethoven is always a good example. It is up to us to change with music, otherwise we join the voices asking for a return to the original context of so-called classical music: a return to despots, tyrants, and inquisitionists. This is the origination of the music we do well to keep alive so as not to forget. So many have already died so that this music could be made. I will not ask that a single other does just so that I may have a moment of attention.

Sincerely,

Cyrus Pireh, MM

Cyrus Pireh sits under a blue canopy playing electric guitar during an outdoor performance in Brooklyn.

speaking and seeking the truth about covid

I have been trying to write something about covid for over a year, and have almost finished several short essays, but have not quite been able to work it out. I have so many thoughts and ideas that need writing down, that I need to work through and share in this way, and yet I am scared to do so. A lot of what I’m going to say here is going to be partial, incomplete, not quite right, and maybe just wrong. But I’m so hungry for this conversation and dialogue that I’m going to take this plunge.

Covid seems to me to be a new avenue or axis of political struggle, analysis, and terrain, and with that come all the same difficult conversations and rending in the fabric of relationships precisely when we need them most. I have lost a couple of my closest and longest friendships in the last two years, and other friendships seem to be teetering on the brink. I haven’t handled everything the best and I know most of us are struggling in various ways. So, although I have started writing several times, I haven’t been brave enough to finish a lot of it. But there is so much gaslighting and half-truths about what’s really going on out there that it remains critical to my own survival, and I believe that of a lot of other people, to keep trying to talk out loud about what’s real and what actions, solutions, campaigns, and types of care are needed.

For me, covid has been a moment of absolute rupture. That doesn’t mean that a lot of these things were not happening before – the nexus of infectious disease, global inequality, disability, and climate crisis is not new. But at least for me, this global pandemic and the climate events that have occurred during it and which have perhaps driven it have been a major alarm bell. I cannot imagine my life ever being the same again.

Although one person’s individual actions can’t change the tide and don’t cause the problem, neither are actions neutral. I spent significant time, perhaps a full year, mourning and grieving the end of life as I knew it. It is sad to let that life go, but I do not think I will be returning to it given the embodied knowledge about the intertwining disasters of climate collapse and contagious disease that I have gained in the past two years.

In fact I have spent a lot of time grieving my life, my old life, and all the dreams and plans I had for the future. Many of those plans and ideas seem almost laughable now, and unthinkably selfish. It could be that I will not keep feeling this way – perhaps there will come a time when 6,500 people per day are not dying from covid (or another infectious disease) and I will feel very differently. We seem to live in very turbulent and changing times and that calls for a lot of flexibility and patience with ourselves as well as with each other.

I think however that this kind of turbulence and rapid change calls very much for mourning and acknowledging the changes. For me it has been personally critical to make the decision that there is no “going back to before” and that my old life (including my hopes for the future) has vanished. This is not all sad; the last two years have also been a time of growth, discovering skills I wasn’t sure I had, and working on some other abilities that need strengthening.

Without romanticizing the first two pandemic years, where millions have died and millions more have lots their loved ones and their health, it’s also important to remember there were also some gains made in the last two years. We should not want to go along with “getting back.” “Getting back” strikes me as an inherently conservative idea that also takes us back to a world without eviction moratoriums; where you owe the government interest payments on your education; where the government does not offer you unqualified payments so you can eat; and where more public money goes to the police for the purpose of advertising their effectiveness and arming themselves against us rather than for education, water, or anything that serves the purpose of life.  It is in the interest of elites – the rich, the politicians, and the media that they control – that we all “get back” to how things were. And it looks as if other people, namely middle-class white people, are most focused on getting themselves isolated from covid or its more serious effects, rather than working to protect everyone. Maybe this is obvious or predictable, but it is nonetheless sad, infuriating, frustrating, and enraging.

Of the many things that I am working actively on, I am struggling with how to do all of the following at once: hold on to principled forms of action and ethics for myself in difficult circumstances, how to remain in movement and community, how to keep punching up instead of down or across, not be judgmental, and think about helpful structures of accountability when something has social consequences. I am not great at this and none of it is easy. For me, one of the more isolating aspects of covid has been the inability to have these conversations and the seeming collective amnesia as the US has moved through different phases. It feels like lessons are not being collectively carried forward. Even if this pandemic is an unpleasant experience (of course it is), there have been some critical public health and other lessons! I am left with big questions like: why haven’t more people learned to take (or give) sick days yet? why aren’t we taking better care of ourselves and each other after two years of this? why aren’t more of us re-thinking the implications of travel in more fundamental ways, beyond just the current travel regulations or even covid?

I write this as an attempt to find or re-connect with folks who want to have these conversations. I believe now, as I have for a long time, that we need honesty and that we need each other.

en el fallecimiento de Aurelia Arzú

(English below)

Ya basta de abrir mi cuenta de Facebook y enterar de otra compañera/o/e fallecida en Honduras por la narcodictadura apoyado de mi gobierno, por la falta de sistema de salud, saqueado por el partido nacional, por los asesinatos de defensoras/es, acelerado por el robo de las tierras, por la precariedad ante huracanes y cambio climático, por la desigualdad, por los múltiples desastres, y por la oscuridad de vivir así.

El mundo ha perdido la compañera Aurelia Arzú. Yo solo tuve una oportunidad de hablar con ella, hace poco más de un año, para aprender sobre las condiciones durante covid en las comunidades organizado con OFRANEH. Sus palabras y su sabia en esta pequeña entrevista me tocaron profundamente.

Unos meses después de que publiqué la entrevista, intenté servir como un puente para una oportunidad para difundir las palabras de la compañera Aurelia en inglés. Pero al final fue imposible por la situación que viven en esta parte de Honduras, por los dos huracanes que hicieron ya más imposible la comunicación hacia afuera.

La compañera Aurelia fue conocida como Patrona, y fue una lideresa importante de OFRANEH por muchos años. Me hubiera gustado conocerla en persona, y me hubiera gustado escuchar más de sus palabras. Pero ya no puedo. Eso me llena de dolor, y de rabia también. No me imagino como se sientan las personas que la conocieron. Les ofrezco a sus seres queridos mi más sentido pésame. Entiendo que su vida fue una vida de luz, de lucha, de fuerza, y de mucho amor, y que eso sería su legado.

I’m tired of opening Facebook and finding out about another compañera/o/e in Honduras who has died because of the narcodictatorship supported by my government; because of the lack of health system, looted by the National Party; by the assassination of human rights and land defenders, accelerated by the theft of lands; by the precarity of hurricanes and climate change; because of the multiple disasters; by the darkness that comes with living with all of this.

The world has lost Aurelia Arzú. I only had an opportunity to speak with her once, a little over a year ago, to learn about the conditions under covid of the communities that are organizing with OFRANEH. Her words and her wisdom in that small encounter touched me deeply.

A few months after I published the interview, I tried to serve as a bridge to an opportunity to publish compañera Aurelia’s words more widely in English. But in the end it turned out to be impossible because of the situation that people are in in that part of Honduras, because of the two hurricanes that made communicating with the outside world even more impossible.

Compañera Aurelia was known was Patrona, and she was an important leader of OFRANEH for many years. I would have liked to meet her in person, and I would have liked to hear more of her words. But now I cannot, and this fills me with sadness, and also anger. I cannot imagine the way people who knew her feel. I offer my deepest condolences to her loved ones. I understand that her life was one of light, struggle, strength, and much love, and that this will be her legacy.

why write? an incomplete list

when I have my ideas and thoughts out of my head on the page I can examine them and work through them and move forward with them and develop.

then they are out there and ideally they can become a way to have a broader conversation with other people.

the writing can become a tool for other people to use. it’s also a tool for me.

once a piece is done, it’s like being able to complete a thought. 

a sense of completion and accomplishment for an idea, and a way for me to hold on to it as I put it into practice.

a clear way for me to develop an idea or concept as I put it into practice.

a way for me to send it into the world, in hopes that someone else may find it useful.

a way for me to send something to the world as a question, with the idea that I may get a response.

a way to be known.

releasing the burning words from my mouth.

encouraging people to read the things that I believe are better than what I’m saying.

sometimes I want to establish the common ground for conversations I’m having.

sometimes I just want to share my joy in reading or watching something good.

a way occasionally to meet others.

to provoke.

a way to act as the wind carrying the words and work of others.

to counter hegemony.

to introduce people to the work of others or their words.

so people will like me and think I’m smart.

a way to process.

a time to practice freedom.

A young white woman sits at a typewriter in an office in France in the late 1940s. She is pictured from the side, with a desk and another box with a blurry red cross on it a bit blurry in the foreground as she types.
Image from National Archives, identifier 19999025

Why Are We Still Working? (If Not Now, When?)

One morning recently I woke up thinking about how everyone I know (myself included) is still going to work. What is so damn important that we continue to work while 7 million people have died in just over a year, with as many as 900,000 in the US, and many more than that experiencing long term disabilities as a result of this illness?

Throughout the last year, I have had many conversations with loved ones about how concerned and reactive we should be to the political failures and crises around us. Should we have a go bag on hand? Should we be ready to flee? Where would we go, and when would we do it? One question seems to lie at the heart of these: What crisis is THE crisis? When is the moment when everything changes?

I have learned from history as well as from the experiences of my friends and comrades, and even from my own experiences, that such a moment does not necessarily exist. In this past year in the US, many of us seem to feel that if we were really in a social collapse (akin to the ones we’ve read about or seen in movies over and over), we would know it. It’s too easy to miss the point that most people inside of historical events didn’t know or did not change their behavior to recognize and engage the social crises they were living through.

The reality is that during a dictatorship, during a genocide, during a rebellion and a revolution, daily life continues. People go to work, people cook meals, people go to school, there are in fact some people whose lives can feel almost unaffected by what is going on around them. The testimonies of people who were tortured during the last military dictatorship in Argentina are rife with anger about the silence of their neighbors as they were being kidnapped from their homes, as well as a whole slew of films examining how upper class and otherwise privileged people convinced themselves to ignore what was going on in dictatorships throughout the Southern Cone and beyond as they reaped the benefits of “social order.”

But you can see the same social life playing out in the background of countless other situations, too. People continue shopping, working, participating in the economy and other institutions to which they belong, while others may be actively refusing all of that and uprooting their lives completely (or having it foist upon them). A few years ago in Honduras, Karla Lara explained another version of this dichotomy by saying there are two kinds of “bubbles”: activists, political people, and those being victimized by the state are aware of the situation there—the narco-dictatorship of Juan Orlando Hernández— while the other “bubble” is full of people who shop, go to work, watch the TV news, and think things are generally fine.

Put in such a way, the “everything is fine” bubble sounds incredible. But put another way, it’s not incredible at all. The same concept has already been happening in small and large ways in the US since its foundation; after all, the majority of us go about our daily lives never thinking about the 2.3 million people imprisoned in the US, or the torture, sexual assault, and other forms of harm that befalls them every day, in part because we believe in the necessity of such a system.

I do not mean to flatten the important differences between all of these examples. But I believe there are also important similarities as well here too, and they are worth thinking through. The pandemic is perhaps only the latest version of the question: should we be going to work with this number of people dying each day? It seems critical to explore this question because it’s uncomfortable to think about the forces that compel most of us to keep going on with our normal-ish daily lives as if nothing was the matter when so much is the matter.

One reason we continue to work is that we need to. We work in order to have money to feed ourselves and our families. We need to work to have a place to live. And work is not the same for all of us, it is not socially valued in the same way for all of us, some work is both critical and unpaid, and, crucially, we are not all in equivalent need of money for food and shelter. I cannot of course deal with all these differences here, nor do I mean to try. My goal here is to point out that even within, between, and across these differences, there are overarching moments for collective and individual reflection.

What I want to point out is that if we feel we must work even in the midst of social collapse because otherwise we will lose food and shelter, this is not an accident. This is a purposeful entanglement of capitalism. It bears repeating and highlighting. It’s also certainly worth noting that capitalists themselves had a banner year last year despite all the hand-wringing about “the economy.” In a year of catastrophe, some individuals made unimaginable sums of money even as the people responsible for their profits lost their lives on the job and millions more lost their jobs. The 719 billionaires in the United States made $1.62 trillion dollars between March 18, 2020, and April 12, 2021, including Jeff Bezos, whose income has grown by 74 percent, and Warren Buffett, whose income has grown by 50 percent in this period.

If we are forced to continue to work even when thousands of people per day are dying in our own society (to say nothing of worldwide death tolls), or when the National Guard is occupying your city to quell a rebellion against the continual execution of people on the streets by police, when would be the moment that we would or could refuse work? These are both individual and collective questions.

While I mean for these questions to be provocative in the literal sense, I don’t mean for these questions to be rhetorical. I don’t think I have all the answers or that the answers for our times—or for each of us—will necessarily be obvious. I think these questions merit and require examination, and perhaps merit continuous reflection, beyond the expression of exhaustion and mild pushback to being asked to meet the same productivity standards.

I ask these questions both as someone who did refuse to continue working in an unsafe service job during the pandemic, but only once I found another job option. Not so long ago, I was also convinced to go into work and teach a class at the university when a toxic cloud of uncontrolled flames could be seen from both my house and the window of my classroom.

If we haven’t yet refused work (again the “we” is both individual and collective) how could we each go about loosening our relationships to work, or conversely, strengthening our ability to refuse work when it becomes dangerous for us individually and collectively?

Like other forms of refusal of the status quo, it is important to think about these questions and actively practice the pieces that answering them will require in our lives before the moment arises. So much of our daily life, in movements but also at work, at home, wherever, is also a rehearsal. One of the functions of certain social movements or collective spaces has sometimes been to create protected spaces to “rehearse” ways of being with each other. In Two Cheers for Anarchism, James Scott gives a good example of practicing disobedience by occasionally breaking small laws or rules like refusing to wait for a traffic light when no one is around. The idea is being prepared to disobey and practicing it as a counter to the deep socialization in which we are steeped.

One important piece of the puzzle of rehearsal (but not the only one), are the simple abilities to say no and to experience conflict. The ability to refuse work is first premised on the ability to say no. Are we still working because we haven’t practiced this? It seems that we must be able to say no to protect our boundaries, and to say no for whatever reason. Can we say no to our bosses, for both little and big things? And if not, how can we practice that? And what else must we first practice? Because it will only get harder when the stakes get higher.

Given that the climate crisis is already intensifying and that many of us work for revolutions of various kinds in our social conditions, I think it is necessary to ask ourselves these questions and reflect on them. Who are we, and what role do we expect to play in various kind of social crises and events that are either already happening or that we can foresee or hope to see happen in the future? Under what conditions would we stop working, if not now? Why is it so damn important to go to work, and who are we enriching with our labor? And if we don’t feel we can quit work, how can we strengthen our ability to do that in the future?

the police just keep murdering people

the last time I sat down to write, I was trying to write about the police killing Black people, and about the widespread harm the police do in general. it was last Wednesday, and Daunte Wright was still alive.

my poet friend really described this best in “Next Black Murder

in an effort to spread ideas, hope, and care for each other, and to fortify our abolitionist networks, here are some things folks can do about the violence that is inherent to policing:

What Does It Mean to Feel Hopeful Right Now?

Mariame Kaba says “hope is a discipline,” and of course, as in most things, she is completely right. What makes me so devastated is that right now I see so many people (ahem white liberals! but others too) digging for and grasping at false hope. Yes, we absolutely must have some hope for better times ahead in order to get through tough situations, like the coronavirus pandemic we’re living through right now. But to me it is critically important to distinguish “hope” in the generic sense from the kind of hope that Mariame Kaba is talking about, or the kind that I embrace as I face the world anew every day. Irrational hope that things will just get better on their own; the mistaken but common belief that massive, systemic problems will resolve themselves through the simple passage of time (“history moves forward”); and false hope in bad solutions or ones that simply sidestep issues and create new and different systems of inequality – I can only see this hope leading to more cynicism, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. Hope in *anything* just for the sake of *having some hope* doesn’t really seem like hope to me at all.

I do not feel any hope in a vaccination roll out that continues right down the genocidal and imperialist path we are already walking down. Seeing and hearing people more focused on how quickly we can fulfill our own desires than on how they can work with others to leave fewer people behind fills me with despair, not hope.

Hope, for me, comes from the visionary organizing of disabled people who have fought for priority access to the vaccine. Hope, for me, comes from learning how to design solutions to this pandemic that would actually work for most or all of the population by working collectively in struggle with the groups that are most affected by it, not by listening to some blowhard politicians that actually do not give a shit if people die. Actually what I mean is some politicians that are interested in killing people so they can profit off of it or, best case scenario, would not bother to help us even if they had the chance to cast a winning vote.

Hope comes to me in letters from prison and in messages from Honduras and in emails from long-lost friends. It says “they tried to separate us but they could not.” It says “they tried to kill our visions but they could not.” It whispers “they tried to tell us the sun would not rise unless we gave up everything that meant anything to us but they were wrong.” It reassures me “They tried to make us afraid to live with dignity but I’m not afraid if we do it together.” Turning to the discipline of hope, I can tell myself that there are many things that I might want to make my life more comfortable/relaxing/fun right now, but I can sit down, take a deep breath, and reach within my network and my imagination to find how can I meet that need in another way without leaving someone else behind. I have hope that my sacrifices are actually saving and improving lives, and that my work matters to someone.

I am deeply, deeply angry – I am in a rage a lot of the time. But I have a lot of hope too. I am inspired by the brave and visionary people all around me, and I learn constantly how to do a better job working to create a different and better world together with those people. This hope is not always easy. It requires work. But it is built on my real experiences and relationships, not lies. It is hard to let go of the easy, shiny promises and false hopes being hawked but I know I am not alone and I know these hopes are solid. I know that the only way to a future I want a part of is one that I take an active part in creating and understanding and in that, there is also hope.

Pink and gray images of a wrench with a heart in the middle. Text says "The virus is capitalism. A new world is upon us. Let's build it together."
art by Christeen Francis @ Justseeds Collective

Fiction I read in 2020

I believe that fiction, and art more generally, is never frivolous. Abolition, to give one potent example, relies heavily on the power of imagination because we must be able to imagine a world beyond cages, beyond borders, beyond policing of all kinds as we begin to build that new world. This work requires us to strengthen our imaginations, and part of the work of abolition is also recuperating imagination from capitalism, which is relentlessly working to kill and co-opt our ability to imagine things for ourselves. Capital (and capitalists) wants to show us things as it sees them, as it wants things to be; it wants to shape the world and sell it back to us. It does not thrive when we are able to imagine, shape, and reshape the world for ourselves. Human beings have powerful imaginations, but only when we cultivate them.

Fiction is critical just when things seem to be at their most serious, and, in that spirit, I share some food for your imagination.

***

I strongly encourage anyone purchasing books to avoid Amazon in particular and other large chains in general (the library is also always an option). If you don’t have a particular independent bookstore or even if you do, you can order any of these books easily online at Bookshop and support independent bookstores.

***

  • The Plague – Albert Camus – Very cliché read, and yet I cannot say enough how many passages leapt off the page as if they had come out of the Washington Post. I thought this would be depressing and yet it was validating (and infuriating). The excitement in the air about the vaccine feels so much like the end of the book.
  • Loop – Brenda Lozano – A very apt book for right now. A book about waiting, and about nothing and everything.
  • The Death of Vivek Oji – Akwaeke Emezi — Powerful, affirming, sad book about nonbinary gender, but not as sad as I thought it would be.
  • Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera – A beautiful allegorical tale about the borderlands between the US and Mexico, recommended by many readers of Mexican literature as an alternative to Jeanine Cummins book (please don’t read that book)
  • The Deep – Rivers Solomon – Aching, haunting, powerful but not devastating. Perhaps one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.
  • The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste – An intersectional tour de force on colonialism, class, gender, caste, and race, and maybe one of the most difficult books I’ve read for me personally, possibly because of the combination of the subject matter, format, and unfamiliarity with the history and region. A difficult read that was worth it.
  • Storm of Locusts — Rebecca Roanhorse – the sequel to Trail of Lightning which I loved last year. It did not disappoint!
  • Mildred Taylor’s Logan Family series  – This is highly recommended YA by the woman who wrote Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It turns out Taylor wrote a whole series of books around multiple generations of the family in that book, beginning with The Land. In August I disconnected from all electronic communication and hung out in my house to detox. During that period, I read five books, and in the end, The Land was the one I ended up recommending to everyone.
  • American Marriage – Tayari Jones – A really compelling and engrossing book about the effect of large social forces on one family.
  • Brooklyn Brujas series — Zoraida Córdova – YA about Chicana teenage witches. Do I need to tell you more, really?
  • The Distance between Us – Renato Cisneros – Part family memoir and part reflection on individual roles and responsibility? ignorance? innocence? in the midst of governmental terror, this is the true/fictional account of the son of a Peruvian general in the 1970s and 1980s, given to me by a close friend who lived through the same period and recently translated into English by the wonderful Charco Press.
  • The City We Became – NK Jemisin — If you are not yet reading everything by NK Jemisin, you may want to start. I am, so I will continue to recommend it.
  • Unpregnant – Jenni Hendricks and Ted Caplan – A very funny book about a serious subject (restrictive abortion laws). I recommend that this become a genre.

Especially good non-fiction:

  • Who Killed Berta Cáceres? – Nina Lakhani – A powerful investigative account of how the murder of Berta Cáceres was arranged and how the crime is embedded in larger forces of extractivism, corruption, and especially counterinsurgency tactics linked directly to the US. Some of the clearest writing I’ve read describing how counterinsurgency actually works inside communities.
  • Indigenous People’s History of the United States – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz – Should be required reading for every white and/or settler person in the United States. I had picked and chose chapters to read previously, but Dunbar-Ortiz’s thesis grows slowly over the course of the book and I appreciated the ideas much more deeply when I read the whole thing straight through.
  • Dead Girls – Selva Almada – Imaginative, powerful, and intimate book about femicide and machismo exploring the unresolved murders of 3 girls in the interior of Argentina in the 1980s and their ghosts. Just short enough and just the right tone to be read without quite breaking my heart completely.
an image relevant to the COVID era from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince