many commercial banners on a storefront that's made of peeling wooden

april 2021

reading diary

Eleanor: Or, the Rejection of the Progress of Love by Anna Moschovakis

What is an origin? What is a way forward? What sort of “self” remains in a world which renders images of self as data/information under the guise of self-expression and lifestyle? Sitting around a ceremonial fire at a eco-farming commune, Eleanor starts to trip on the drugs, and slowly falls away from the group. On her way back to the open-plan house, she sees a sudden opportunity for connection—to the plane of language, thought, event—and spits out an improvised sentence: We are performance that is quality life try now. There’s an attempt at a syntactic diagramming of the sentence but the last clause (“try now”) escapes placement. An inability to fully grasp, place, utilize, becomes the pivotal moment of action for a character who seems to have fallen into an epic unsureness. Still reeling in the bathroom, she picks up a book of Rimbaud and has a connection to the poetry. The evasion of knowability becomes a catalyst to her connection, her appreciation for the poem. I’ve replayed this scene in my mind many times, in preparation for these notes, but also just as a daydream. It places a divertive force in the path to frustration.

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

After the Atlanta shootings, it seems like so many turned to this book. After we found out Rachel and Anna were both in the middle of it on their Kindles, Laura and I purchased it the very next day. Its essays are deft, wide-ranging, challenging/questioning of their author, but emphatic in their purpose. She describes the conditions of Asian political power in America through descriptions of the Asian political voice, undercut by both oppressor and oppressed through the dilution of the “model minority” myth. “(You/We) don’t have it so bad.” “(You/We) should be grateful.” “(You/We) are so close to being (us/them).” Dissolving the possibility of speech through a constant spotlight of doubt cast from outside and inside alike. How does speech come out of this?

[Theresa Hak Kyung] Cha, I should note, developed an aesthetic out of silence, making it evident through her elisions that the English language is too meager and mediated a medium to capture the historical atrocities her people had endured. It was more truthful to leave those horrors partially spoken, like Sapphic shrapnel, and ask the reader to imagine the unspeakable. In a way, the scholar is mirroring Cha’s own rhetoric of silence. By disclosing her death in the most abstemious manner (“In November 5, 1982, Cha was killed”), the scholar indicates that her homicide is too horrifying to impart through biographical summary and it’s up to the reader to imagine what happened. But where does the silence that neglects her end, and where does the silence that respects her begin? The problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it’s silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting.

Minor Feelings provides some of the best descriptions of the experience of shame that I’ve ever encountered. The inescapable sense of liminally belonging (being made to belong) in a shunned state.

Dawn by Octavia Butler

During his lectures at Johns Hopkins this spring, Moten mentioned teaching the Xenogenesis trilogy. I haven’t been much of a sci-fi or fantasy reader, so I pulled Laura’s copy of Dawn off the shelf and started moving through it at night before sleep. Moten had said that, in its first three pages, everything is there. Indeed, much of the thrill of my experience was the fullness of Butler’s treatment—we get to see some version of what’s left beyond the end of the world, and Butler draws a seemingly exhaustive account of the repercussions our prior world might have on the creation of a next. If any few of us were to survive the cataclysm of nuclear holocaust, what parts of our humanity would we still have to contend with? What of our “nature” would trouble the making of the next world? What are the consequences of world-making, guided by humans or elsewise?

Some of the most complicated scenes/questions for me involved sexual contact, exchange, consent. Following their plans to make a genetic “trade” with the human race, the Oankali alien guardians/captors mostly don’t offer a way out of these exchanges, beyond relegation to a permanent sleep, but make a deep enough impact (through some unearthly synaptic pleasure induction) that most of the humans come to accept it. Some men who wish these pleasurable feelings weren’t outside of their control violently rebel. But glimpses into Lilith’s interior show that even her more active participation doesn’t happen without doubts, fears, misgivings. Butler makes a very gray space in these ambiguous depictions of consent, and I’m eager to see how the sexual, familial, communal relationships are explored in the coming volumes.

Outline by Rachel Cusk

After finishing Dawn, I reached for Outline for the possible contrast. Not the smartest choice, as it too is the start of a trio. But it seemed fast reading, and fun, and it was both those things. Outline focuses on the limitations of the first-person narrative, drawing a tension between those limitations and the constant temptation to account for our lives in the story form. People speak at the main character—Faye, who we learn only a bit about directly—in monologue after monologue. They exaggerate/diminish the roles of others in their lives, crafting arcs that are compelling but seem to make it difficult for the speakers to grasp what’s really happened.

A recurring shtick is that most of the stories focus on the bourgeois hetero marriages of the speakers, often after the marriage’s demise. Faye has herself been through a recent divorce, and so part of the book is unpacking the creation of novels as a way in which an author’s experience gets told through aesthetic construction, no matter who’s talking. Partnerships become a kind of foil to the first-person mode, in as much as it’s then that two people share a story consciously, and share in its creation, attempting to “believe in an illusion” in a way that transcends the sense of isolation. For me, a delicious ambiguity surrounds the main character’s position: as she moves on from the break of her own marriage, away from such a moment of shared belief, what remains possible outside the kind of speech she seems so skeptical of?

Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim

Dear Cyborgs was an exuberant pleasure, smart as a dolphin, its scenes forged at the strange intersection of tenderness and jaunt. The prose has a texture, too, like a crisp wave of half-toned foam passing over on a clear day—epic in scale, yet produced with a knowingness and a wink-and-nod to its own structures. Similar to Outline, the form of the monologue carries us through the divulgent explications of one character after another. And, too, there’s the sense that the monologues are reflecting/continuing the single voice/search of the author, but perhaps more so in Dear Cyborgs, where the book’s central question—what is protest?—is given a few dozen takes, illuminating so many forms of defiance, and so accruing a mosaic mural of what defiance offers life in spite of its (seeming) ineffectiveness. Each passage was almost its own essay on this or that form of resistance but, structured in the lives and motives of characters, Lim makes sure that all talk of defiance is necessarily paired with an exploration of yearning. Where, in our epoch, it seems we’ll never transcend the debilitating divide between “politics” and “life” as separated spheres, Dear Cyborgs puts all manner of hum and pulse into the realm of the political. It gave me the relieving sense of expanding to meet the shape I have.

Corregidora by Gayl Jones

Astounding. Immediately sunk into my muscles and synapses, the eyes behind my eyes. Like, any time I gazed into the distance, I was there with it again. Corregidora has an intensity that is not even (or not only) traceable to the traumatic origins of Ursa’s family, but there in Jones’s communication of what yearning feels like, what it is to yearn to exist beyond the limits on which an existence is supposedly predicated, what it is to have to exist always pushed up against those limits. Ursa who sings not just to make a living, but to live. There’s the lostness, the confusion when crisis is everywhere and hidden at the same time. When the trauma and violation are coursing in the blood of all, and everyone is looking around trying to pin their hurt to you, trying to attribute that hurt they feel to you and what you represent, as though they could separate themselves from pain by containing it in you. What is that thing that a strong person cannot give away? Not strength, the thing that strength is trying to protect. Perversely, perhaps this is also the thing that weakness is trying to protect, in its (destructive) weakness.