good afternoon!!! how are you!!!!! don't read that climate change article it's not very helpful!!!!!!!!!!!! here, let's do a project together: get a pen and a piece of paper (ho hum, i'll wait), okay, are you back? ready? i want you to make a list of things you can do this week to be useful to other people. concrete tasks! none of this Be A Better Person or Definitely Exercise More You Lazy Fuck. like: make dinner for friends you haven't seen in a long time. or finally get around to volunteering at the place you've been meaning to volunteer. or if you have a little extra money this week donating it to an organization that works with refugees. or showing up to a protest. or calling your senators and reminding them you would strongly prefer to have healthcare. okay, got your list? now assign each task to a day. one per day is fine!!! or two or three if you have the capacity. but the point of this activity is not to make yet another list of things you beat yourself up for failing to do, okay, so make your tasks manageable and realistic. i mean, yes, we are all totally fucked, but what are you gonna do, jump out a window? please don't! i am always heartened by the moment that happens on a crowded subway car in new york sometimes, when some Disaster looms--electricity fails, someone pukes/passes out/is visibly Extremely High and/or Not Okay, medical emergency, lost and weeping tourist, et cetera, and everyone gets out of their ipods and their papers and so on and bands together and is like All Right, We Are Going To Deal With This Together Now, and everybody Deals With It. okay? We Are Going To Deal With This Together Now. do your tasks this week and let me know how it goes.
this weekend i did a lot of reading! i finished victor lavalle's The Changeling, which i read in TWO DAYS because i COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN, and then i read valeria luiselli's Tell Me How It Ends, and then i read hala alyan's Salt Houses, and then i felt rather embarrassed by how patchy my knowledge of the palestinian-israeli conflict is so next i am going to read phyllis bennis' primer as recommended by sarah j. (one of my Useful Tasks for this week is Be Less of A Dipshit About History which i know is not a tangible project as i instructed you and is in fact rather an unhelpful descriptor of myself but you know what we're all a work in progress and i can't help having been raised catholic.) ANYWAY.
The Changeling is, in my humble opinion, victor lavalle's best book (which, if you have read any victor lavalle, is really saying something). it is like if The Neverending Story got mashed up with Here Is New York and a strong dose of angela carter for good measure. apollo kagwa is a rare bookseller in new york city who falls in love with a REALLY badass librarian, successfully woos and weds her, has a beautiful baby boy, and scores a signed first edition of TKAM worth like eighty grand. he's set!!!!!! except not really because that would be a short novel with no conflict, bo-ring! apollo's wife, emma, starts acting real weird, and then he and emma get in a terrible fight that is his fault, and then she (spoiler i guess? if you can't figure this out from the jacket copy/title idk how to help you) murders their child, says "IT WASN'T A BABY", and disappears. that's a fucking conflict for you! apollo, with the assistance of his bestie patrice, goes on a truly epic quest to find emma, one which involves two sorts of trolls, some really good jokes about the internet, an enchanted island full of witches, a magical forest, a lot of wonderful new york stuff, about a million amazing female characters, parts that made my cry, and parts that made me laugh out loud on the train. there are a million things to love about this book but one thing i liked in particular was apollo's struggle to Not Be A Douchebag with no role models (his father disappeared when he was a child for possibly Magickal reasons). sometimes apollo is a douchebag anyway! it's a thing that happens for people who are socialized as men! but he flails around and gets through it. his friendship with bestie patrice is also really beautiful and nourishing in ways that men-friendships in fiction rarely get to be. and emma is a motherfucking force without feeling like a jacked-up caricature of a Strong Female Character. if you like fairytales and new york novels and things that are good hie thee hence to nab yourself a copy.
an important thing to know about Tell Me How It Ends before you read it is that it will fuck you up, so be prepared, but also this book should literally be required reading for every single person in america, right up there with claudia rankine's Citizen. it is a deceptively tiny book--if it were any longer i think it would have killed me, tbh--spun out of luiselli's work as a NYC court translator for undocumented refugee children from, primarily, honduras, el salvador, and guatemala. luiselli's prose is lean and flawless--no surprise, if you've read any of her previous books (if you have not GO FIX THAT!!! at once!) and in many places throughout the book she lets the children speak for themselves. her job is a harrowing one, somewhere between literal interpreter and translator; it is ultimately her task to coax out of the children she interviews some kind of narrative that reads as coherent to the demonic and inhumane court system, which demands that these children--some of them barely old enough to speak--produce stories of highly specific traumas that will qualify them for visas. if the children are unable to report their experiences in a way that is legible to the immigration court--the children who are lucky enough to secure pro bono legal representation--they are deported, back to the horrific gang-related violence they risked their lives to flee in the first place. (gangs aided and armed, as luiselli coolly notes, by the united states.) Tell Me How It Ends is devastating and beautiful, and all the more devastating for how beautiful it is; it is also not unhopeful, which is something.
and then i read Salt Houses! which is lovely and lush and so self-assured it is hard to believe it's a debut novel. beginning with the eve of a wedding and moving forward through four generations of a palestinian family uprooted first by the Six-Day War of 1967 and subsequently by saddam hussein's invasion of kuwait, it's a novel about home and displacement, tradition and rebellion, being super pissed at your mom, figuring out who you are as a person when you have a lot of historical and familial Baggage piled atop you, and what home means when home is a place you have never seen and cannot return to (in this case, palestine). it's one of those gorgeous intergenerational family epics that are so compulsively readable (think mira jacob's The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing or betty smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn); it's a joy to stick with this family through love and death and marriage and parties and faith and Terrible Adolescences.
i did not read these three books in succession on purpose, they all came in to the library at once, but they made an oddly perfect triad: they are all about family and immigration and refugees and making a home, or trying to, and they are also in their own ways each about trying to be useful to other people in a world that is terrifying. in all three books the monsters are both literal and figurative: The Changeling has an actual child-devouring troll in it as well as another sort of troll; in Tell Me How It Ends the child-eating troll is La Bestia (also known as The Death Train), a network of US-bound mexican freight trains that refugee children ride--and frequently die on--in their horrifying journeys north; in Salt Houses the monster is war and displacement, chasing families from one country to another in search of safety. there are no easy happy endings in any of these books but they are also, i think, perfectly suited for this perilous time: people survive because they love each other, take care of each other, do the best they can. they Deal With This Shit Together. all three of these books will put you through the wringer, but in a way that makes you tougher and braver and more compassionate. if we're going to survive whatever's coming, we need those lessons. over and over until they stick.