“She was lost in her longing to understand.” —Gabriel García Márquez
Last year, a colleague lent me Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and I accepted it, even though I retched inside. At my desk, the hardcover sits uncracked, blanketed by a film of dust. For this book, I furnished a collateral, a title I hunted down using my indie bookstore resources: multiple search databases, a 30% discount. I will miss that California writer because I can’t make myself read that Pulitzer winner right now, and I do not have the heart to tell my dear friend.
My life is held together by lists. We know our kind—how we include one already completed thing to immediately check (it helps stave off Sisyphean angst). But a problem with lists is sometimes things are overlooked, or purposefully excluded. In Litreactor’s “5 Female Short Story Writers You Should Be Reading RIGHT NOW!,” Keith Rawson confesses he is “colorblind” before emphatically (see the caps) plugging the previously mentioned. He is, indeed, colorblind because he neglects and/or ignores people of color, which is painstakingly clear from the displayed head shots. In the Goodreads Blog’s “20 Favorite Last Lines from Books,” seven out of twenty of the writers featured are women. Zero POC are represented. And this is just a sampling of what I have clicked on lately.
In Lit Hub’s “Men Explain Lolita To Me,” Rebecca Solnit posits, “[M]aybe the whole point of reading is to be able to explore and also transcend your gender (and race and class and nationality and moment in history and age and ability) and experience being others.” Unfortunately, some lists don’t support this notion. Thankfully some lists do. Buzzfeed Books features a heart-lifting list “51 Of The Most Beautiful Sentences In Literature” that features a fantastic mix of writers, written—of course—by one of us. Recently, the National Endowment for the Arts released a list of the 2016 creative writing fellowship recipients, and that list makes me feel like maybe I, with much hard work and even more luck, have a speckle of a chance in the literary world.
My Reading Past
All of my reading life, I have compiled a TBR list, and have favored women and “diverse” books subconsciously. When referencing books I had read in college courses, shoulder shrugs and note scribbles greeted me, but that is a separate essay.
Post-grad school, I attacked that list and am embarrassed to say that once upon a not-so-distant time Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Joan Didion and ZZ Packer were strangers to me. When someone mentioned them, I wore blank bug eyes, or I grinned, nodded, made a mental note and changed the subject. As I cross the names and titles off my list, it, the only list I feel comfortable with growing, grows. Who do these writers that I love love? blurb? recommend? I must know the insides of those books, too.
So what kept me from reading the writers I wanted to read? To name several: syllabi and other required reading; the availability of books at libraries, stores, online; books shoved at me without considering, well, me; what was popular, faced-out, in the glossies. Then, I was young and dumb. I didn’t have enough power to not read what everyone else was reading, so I read Slaughterhouse Five, I read Bukowski, I read The Catcher in the Rye, and I honestly liked them because some pain is universal. But the books that I love most are about the pains that aren’t, and I am in charge of my own reading now and as Eleanor Roosevelt asserted, “With freedom comes responsibility.”
My Reading Present
In August 2014, I began reading women writers exclusively, actively. I purchased only books by women. From the library, I requested and checked out only books by women. Therefore, I recommended only books by women. I didn’t miss the white male point-of-view one bit. I did, however, miss other POVs. A year later, I expanded my reading lens to male POC and LGBTTQQIAAP writers. So, yes—like Nicole Perkins declared in LA Times’s “A Response to ‘On Pandering’”—I only avoid books written by straight, white men, except for colleagues I respect and support. Bless the male feminists and the white people who get it; as Elena Ferrante said in her Financial Times interview, you are a minority, too.
In 2015, I read 32 books. Their first sentences are featured below, followed by the author and title. Please find a pen and keep it close to add the ones that whisper themselves into your heart to that TBR list.
“‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you.’” —Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
“Strange happenings, Chloe knows, can take place in a town built on tragedy.” —Shawna Yang Ryan, Water Ghosts
“Sometimes our steersman sounded like he was having really hot sex back there in Six, but that was only when the canoe was moving.” —Lisa Linn Kanae, Islands Linked By Ocean
“Lydia is dead.” —Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You
“Start the volcano again; I’m watching.” —Mary Ann Samyn, The Boom of A Small Cannon
“She is plucking her bird of paradise of its dead branches, leaning around the plant every time she hears a car.” —Julia Alvarez, In the Time of Butterflies
“What Makes Iago Evil? some people ask.” —Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays
“Me and Jasmine and Michael were hanging out at Mr. Thompson’s pool.” —Danielle Evans, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
“In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.” —Joan Didion, Blue Nights
“Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the ètagére.” —Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus
“I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne.” —Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina
“Dear Ol’ Dirty Bastard: I too like it raw, / I don’t especially care for Duke Ellington / at a birthday party.” —Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn
“My name is Ruth.” —Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
“The paint doesn’t move the way the light reflects / so what’s there to be faithful to?” —Richard Siken, War of the Foxes
“Joey felt that his romance with Daisy might ruin his life, but that didn’t stop him.” —Mary Gaitskill, Bad Behavior
“May in Ayemenem is a hot brooding month.” —Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
“The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart.” —Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River
“My solo three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings.” —Cheryl Strayed, Wild
“A voice mistook for stone / jagged black fist / thrown miles through space, through / doors of dark matter.” —Saeed Jones, Prelude to Bruise
“I met all four of them at an off-site catering event for the opening of their new Minimally Invasive Spine, Back and Neck Group.” —Merritt Tierce, Love Me Back
“Every Friday at 4:30, they gathered cross-legged on the brown shag rug, picked at its crust of mud and glitter and Elmer’s glue, and leaned against the picture book shelves.” —Rebecca Makkai, The Borrower
“By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909.” —ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
“Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway.” — Zadie Smith, White Teeth
“The mother jiggles her key in the ancient lock, nudges open the heavy oak door with her shoulder, and then freezes on the threshold.” —Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage
“When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.” —Claudia Rankine, Citizen
“1956.” —Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters
“On the fifth anniversary of my father’s death, my mother confessed to his murder.” —Nora Okja Keller, Comfort Woman
“Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair.” —Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun
“I dream of her still.” —Nora Okja Keller, Fox Girl
“What’s your story?” —Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
“Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake / and dress them in warm clothes again.” —Richard Siken, Crush
“Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly.” —Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah