Cisneros in the Summer: 2017 in Books
2017 was too much. Too much stress. Too much chaos. Too many changes. In order to survive my last year of college, my move across the country, my never ending job search, I had to find my own ways to process and deal with the changes I willed unto myself and suffered as a result of shifting alignments in the universe. Between taking up yoga, experimenting with aromatherapy, refusing to go to the doctor, learning to appreciate the outdoors, and cooking my way into better health, I picked up reading again.
When I got to college, ~College Life~ got in the way of my personal reading time. Obviously, I had to take a stab at parties and all-nighters and bouts of depression and ennui and research and internships and fellowships and all the other things which make this time period so… much. However, once I had sufficiently gotten all of these things out of my system (except my depression… she’s here to stay!), I decided that I would start reading for fun again because last I remember, the stillness, the solace, the rapture of a good, not-required-for-class book, is unmatched.
One of the genres I’ve always loved reading is Golden Age Russian literature. I guess there’s something about bearded realists and verdant land that makes me feel warm. Or maybe young Leo Tolstoy just turns me on enough to make me want to read hundreds of pages of trains and betrayals. Who can really know with these things, right? When the year started, I decided early on that I would focus on works by authors of color. This meant that I wouldn’t be reading epic tomes written by wealthy white men pretending to be peasants for the ‘Gram, or in their 1800’s equivalent: moral treatises. This did mean, however, that I would be reading fifty works of brilliant writers that I only recently began paying attention to as I began to decolonize my hobbies.
Thus, in January I began where any person should probably begin their year of anti-colonial year in books: Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks. An affirming, heavy, if a bit dated text. I began reading shortly before classes resumed in January and looked forward to my evening conversations with bell hooks and a cup of peppermint tea in my hand. I knew this was going to be a consequential year, so I needed to prepare myself to be confident in and critical of myself and others. This was surely the way to start.
I really only read eight books during the spring semester of 2017. Eight because #anxiety #depression #collegesenior. One of those books was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 bomb of a book Between the World and Me. I really, really loved that book. And I still do. However, to exemplify just how much one can learn in just a meager six months, I later learned to be deeply critical of Coates as I read important analyses of his mythological construction of whiteness and support of neoliberal Drone Lord and Deporter-in-Chief Barack Obama. For this hot take, I am indebted the phenomenal Dr. Fleming for her many and insightful yet digestible tweets on TNC and neoliberalism+white supremacy. It’s still hard for me to recommend this book to others, but I do. Maybe one day I’ll stop, but right now, I would encourage friends to check it out at local libraries. Or you can hmu and I can lend you my copy. Read it, but think twice or thrice or five million times before you hand TNC your money.
Anyway, once I graduated in May, I wanted to read books that were less… intense. After having Sandra Cisneros on my literary radar for literally eons, I finally made a point to read one of her works. Actually, I ended up reading almost ALL of her works last year because I loved them so much! (I’ll read Caramelo ONE DAY…). I started reading poetry last year; I started loving poetry last year because of tía Sandra’s poems. I hope that there comes a day, sooner rather than later, when I can feel as sexy and free as her characters. I’d have to say my favorite texts of hers is her memoir A House of My Own, mostly because I prefer non-fiction and I can relate, or want to relate, to her stories of travelling, being a student, and existing in the body of a Mexican-US cis-woman from the midwest. She’s the cool aunt I aspire to be.
I read Cisneros in the summer. It was fun. I went to the beach and ate ice cream. I went to parks and drank iced teas. I started to read more and more since I wasn’t burdened any longer by papers and research (which, I regret to inform, I am beginning to miss). I know I said I was going to read books written only by people of color, but I kept hearing this Joan Didion character thrown around on the internet. I’m not white, so I had no idea who this lady was tbh lol. So, I found her newly released notebook at my local library with ease. South and West was easier to get a hold of than Morgan Parker’s incredible collection of poetry There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce, and I think that says a lot about the demographics, taste, and/or the cool ass readership at my library. Didion’s notebook was probably not a great introduction to the allegedly brilliant ouvre of the author. I can believe that. I’m definitely going to read more of her work this year, but I have to say that South and West didn’t do anything for me. Recently though, I saw Netflix’s The Center Will Not Hold which is a documentary on Joan Didion. My Twitter will confirm that I was simultaneously crying, in deep pit of anguish and admiration, and actively looking for a pair of sunglasses just half as cool as JD’s. Watch this doc. Regarding Morgan Parker: definitely read. Definitely give her your money. Definitely tell all your friends. Etc etc etc.
In October I was preparing my road trip/move to Oregon that was scheduled for the end of the month, allowing my boo and I to arrive to Portland shortly before my birthday. (Yes, I’m a scorpio. *shrugs*) It was a month of much excitement for me. I love my family, and I miss them so, so much right now. But believe me, living with them for a few months after living on campus at college for four years, was almost. unbearable. So, to say that I was “excited” about moving out, and what’s more, moving across the country, is a profound understatement. In October, I think, I was too busy, too alive to read. I did read one shorter book though, and it was one of my favorites of my whole year, of even my whole life. It was Jaime Manrique’s Eminent Maricones: Arenas, Lorca, Puig, and Me. I honestly don’t remember how or why I acquired the book. I was previously unfamiliar with the author and had never heard of the title. I’m guessing I scooped it up at used book sale in the past couple of years and kept it in the dark for a while. I used to have a lot of books. And I do mean a lot. A couple or a few hundred. A safe estimate: 300. Ok, so that’s not a lot compared to some people I know who have about a thousand, or when weighed against the collection of like, Karl Lagerfeld, who famously has about 300,000 books. Hey, if I had that much money, that sounds like something I could do as well. Anyway, I had to get rid of most of my books before I left. It was painful.
I think one of the foremost reasons I enjoyed Manrique’s book is because I love books. Manrique writes about his life and the lives and effects of important authors in his life. It’s kinda like this post. I love books about books. I love pictures of books. I love books!! And so does Jaime Manrique, and so do lots of other people, and I feel great, nerdy kinship with all you bibliophiles everywhere.
After Manrique, I read some more poetry and some more non-fiction. I read Colson Whitehead’s A Colossus of New York which reminded me of one of my very best friends who moved to NYC to pursue post-grad studies and a career. He’s the kind of person who inspires me to be bold and be big and loud and be gracious. Much like what I hear New York is like. I enjoyed Whitehead’s book because I want to also find my own big city where I feel at “home” and devise my own taxonomy of it. Maybe at a later time I can write about Portland: why I’m here, what I want to do here, what I have failed in, what I want to contribute. For now, reading about other cities, home, mundane life, and bodies in transit is enough. Read this book if you are interested in any of the above.
In November, and shortly after I arrived here, I attended Wordstock, a literary festival in Portland that brings together readers, writers, editors, and the like, under several roofs for fun, nerdy, literary events. The only panel I sat in on was about contemporary poetry by Black authors. It was incredible. I went for Morgan Parker, and I stayed for Danez Smith. There’s probably a recorded version of the panel somewhere on the internet, and I beseech ye who have made it this far into this post to search for it. For me, it was really a privilege to hear so much brilliance, honesty, and vulnerability in one hour.
And so, per that panel, the last book of the fifty that I read last year was Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead. I won’t do their poetry justice with my adjectives and corny voice, so all I can say is: Give Danez Smith your time. Give Danez Smith your money. Read Danez Smith. I had followed them originally a few months earlier as I become more interested, more engaged with poetry. Eve Ewing wears many hats; some of them are Sociology Professor, Black Artist from Chicago, and Poet. I followed her on Twitter for the stated reasons, and over the course of a few months I followed her co-conspirators and associates for a better world too, among them Danez Smith. I didn’t read Eve Ewing’s book Electric Arches, but I did listen to it on Spotify! The audiobook is all there and read by Ewing herself. I couldn’t locate a copy at any library, and didn’t have the money to buy my own, so I was very grateful when she released the audiobook for free! It was a really beautiful book, and one that I certainly wish I had read early in life. (The artwork is also incredible!). While I’m talking about Chicago real quick: I think it’s safe to say that Chicago arts are truly the center of the creative universe right now. Jamila Woods, Fatimah Asghar+Sam Bailey (Brown Girls web series and more), Noname, and Eve Ewing, just to name a few, are the most brilliant Brown and Black artists I can think of, for various reasons. I enjoyed the fruits of their creative labors last year and have become a better person for it. I have deep, deep love and admiration for their work, which are products nurtured by and developed for Black/Brown folks everywhere, but especially those who are women or girls in Chicago.
So, I read Black authors. I read Mexican authors. I read queer authors. I read poets. I read novelists. I read memoirs. I read a picture book (shouts out to Abbi Jacobson from Broad City, my guiltiest of pleasures). I read not-so-great-books. I “read” an audiobook. I read fkn Rupi Kaur. I read ethnographies. I read fictional/factual cosmologies of Xicanxs (you pick). I read the Lorde. Shit, I read poetry by detainees and newly released prisoners from Guantanamo.
I considered a lot about who is or is not a person of color while reading in 2017. It’s a simple question with many complexities, and reading “PoC” was just one way to approach and schematize the issue. Since I’m not trying to give a legit analysis of race in this piece, I’ll just leave it at this: At least I didn’t read any bearded “genius” who is overrepresented in the global literary canon.
As I begin to curate the selection of books I plan to read this year, I am incorporating my dramatic, annoying Russian lovers, but in a more mindful way. I would recommend to everyone to do at least one year of reading works exclusively by people or color. It was an experience, to put it simply, that was more present, visceral, and illuminating, than what I was accustomed to when reading books by a majority of white authors.
So do I have any specific book recommendations? My most enthusiastic picks are every specific text I’ve pointed out in this lil piece (except maybe South and West). If you want to look at all the books I read or plan to read, or shit on my proclivity to read hits from 19th century, add me on Goodreads, follow me on Instagram, or straight-up write me a letter (DM me for addy!!) so I can reply to you with my cool new-old typewriter.
Michelle is a writer and researcher with interests spanning several themes. She is primarily interested in the intersection of education, culture, + language as they relate to liberation. You can find her on Instagram @chinchorroz