happy spin around the sun, friends. congratulations on making it through. here is what i was grateful to sink my brain into this year -- mostly fiction, some memoir and essays, a handful of poetry and plays, lots of beautiful work by inspiring friends. listed in order read (not ranked), with some of my most devoured/cherished compiled in the gallery below. i wish each and every one of you the words you're looking for in 2021. may this next revolution be more sparkly than dumpster fire.
30 books to purchase by Black and Queer authors, collectively recommended. Novels, plays, poetry, essays, nonfic. Mostly Canadian, mostly contemporary, but a little bit of everything. Click photo for link to purchase, and please feel free to add to the list via the comments below.
Reproduction by Ian Williams
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
The Flood by Leah Simone Bowen
No Crystal Stair by Mairuth Sarsfield
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Policing Black Lives by Robyn Maynard
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis
What We All Long For by Dionne Brand
The Book Of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
3 Cities by Whitney French
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad
You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
Little Fish by Casey Plett
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins
Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby
The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Untamed by Glennon Doyle
Giovanni’s Room by James Bladwin
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
The Other Side of the Game by Amanda Parris
Junebat by John Elizabeth Stintzi
Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphreys
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
dear woman seven,
i have a hard time with you. not because i'm jealous, though i absolutely am. i am jealous of your intelligence, your style, your talent, your confidence, the way you are admired, etc.
i don't want to get married. "you're afraid," someone says. i am not afraid to get married. i don’t want to get married, which is different. this feels relevant.
i have a hard time with you, but not because of my jealousy. i have a hard time with you because i don’t like you. i don't like you, but i love you. in some ways, the softest part of my heart is reserved for you. it's not big, but it's deep. the cushiest corner of a king-sized bed, my love for you is tormenting in its elusiveness. it's a large lesson to learn in its entirety, that one does not have to like a person to love them. in fact, one can actively dislike a person and love them. you're a small child wrapped inside the skin of a difficult woman. you're still learning, which i do say patronizingly, because it gratifies the child my skin shrouds to say “she’s still learning." but i think it's also true. you are still learning, and you always will be because you are curious, which i admire. i think when you learn to stop letting your insecurity turn you mean, you will rule the world, and i will be so jealous.
i hate you because you are parts of me i hate, and i love you because you are parts of me i hate, and that's the greatest piece of hope i've ever been gifted.
dear woman six,
you are a rock-face, i think. as in the face of a rock. i've thought a lot about what you are. a tree, i thought at first. a lake. maybe a stone. but a tree is too breakable and a lake is too malleable and a stone is too precious. you are sturdy, and you oversee. oversea, too.
what i think is so great about you is that you have been shaped by the wind, but extremely slowly, over a very long time. you are alone, but in a way that welcomes others to come and picnic; to spend a day in your world, as long as they make it back to their own by dark. if they don't, you become dangerous.
when bits of you break off, they become something else. hazardous. but also: sand for lovers to tramp through, a piece for another person to collect.
you are solitude, and especially now, you are who we watch. we want to be sturdy. we want to exist after the end of the world. we want to evolve.
dear woman five,
the first thing i wondered about you was how you met your wife. i was sure you had a wife. i liked your glasses. i appreciated the nerves you obviously felt in the situation. i felt like if you saw me in the crowd of 400 people, saw me seeing you, we might be friends. old habits die hard. this was a fresh start for me, but still i sat very still in the buzzing room and watched the way your right foot tapped, hoping you might feel me thinking you were interesting in all of your drab. fascinating in your very plain blazer. i had a deference to difference and immediately wanted to learn from your crooked tie, messy hair, peanut butter breath. you had toast crumbs on your collar. "okay," you said to the room, glance passing very quickly over the human looking too intensely in your direction, "hello."
i wondered what led you to dedicate your life to teaching other peoples' meanings, and what made you decide it was better to ask than to answer. there are no answers, is what you taught me, but in a glass-half-full kind of way, even though you never cracked a smile. basically, if nothing is true, i learned in your class, so is everything.
i became obsessed with your brain. your knowledge. your shyness. the fact that you were reserved and removed and dedicated to what was on the page. i took all of your classes and racked up so many philosophy electives, i had to take another year of undergrad just to fulfil my actual degree's requirements. we never chatted face-to-face, but i poured myself into your assignments. i got 97s and 98s. i learned all about assumptions. perspective. the shifting nature of truth. i became an expert.
years after graduation, maybe five or six, you ordered a coffee from me. you were with friends, talking and laughing. they guffawed as you cracked jokes about your ex husband, your kids' dad, whom you were "finally kicking to the curb!" you were the life of the sunday morning party. you were bubbling, ebullient, colourful. a tall handsome man with grey stubble and a smirk had his hand on your lower back, and you wore something expensive-looking, ordering the fanciest drink we had. No this, no that, extra whip, low fat - and then: "hey!" you said, kind of loudly. "do we know each other????"
our eyes locked, and i laughed. you weren't taken aback. i couldn’t remember your name, and all at once i wondered if i ever knew it. "i'm not sure," i said, handing you your change.
you told me to keep it, and i always will.
dear woman 4,
words shape you into something, and i don't want to see your face, so i will keep this brief.
i remember when you first appeared, gliding across the white floor. it's a visceral memory, fight flight or freeze. i will never say your name aloud. i will never conjure you, though maybe i should. maybe i can. maybe i have.
i know what you sound like, and i know your dress. the buttons down your back, round and black. the lace along your edges. the bun atop your head. i know the shatter that reverberates before you. i know your name. you whispered it to me the first time. i will never speak it.
i don't know your face. you are a skulking entity without features, something rubbed out; smudged by the squishy palm of a third-grader, the meaty part of a hand writing the next line of a story. you're black and white and lead all over. garishly grey. illogical and inevitable. more than i want you to be. stay where you are. i hope you will stay where you are.
stay in the hospital room, and in the gorge.
stay on the train tracks.
somewhere in the sky during the blackout of 2003.
stay in the nightmare, at your canvas.
continue painting something mundane.
a jar of honey, a bowl of fruit.
keep your back to me.
stay at the top of the stairs; the edge of the cliff before you push.
stay in the before and after.
stay sharply featureless, peripherally centred.
but please don't leave.
dear woman 3,
last time we were together you called me an anchor, which i LOVE because it means in some universe i'm grounded instead of floating.
i think you are superwoman, but it just seems to be in your bones. in your seams. not that i think your life is effortless. i think it's full of effort, actually. but what you teach me is that effort is different than struggle, and you are a maker. a maker of your life, a maker of your days.
we talked about stress once, and you said you don't feel it. you said you don't feel stress, and i wonder how that's possible when your days are full and your nights are full, and when you're not doing something you're doing everything. "i don't know," you said. "why? what makes you feel stressed?"
it takes at least a decade to learn to truly only do what you want, you said. practice it now, every day.
i think you are the definition of practice because you make perfect, and i think you have gorgeous hands. you're a gorgeous person, but when i think of you, i see your hands - capable of sculpting a statue, or a healthy dinner or the day of a friend. you take up space by making room and add to the universe without overloading it. you say no and life says yes. to want means to do. to have means to deliver. to sing means to open your mouth. that's the next thing i see when i picture you - your smiling teeth. thanks is really what i want to say. thank you for existing in a way that all of us could, all of us should, if only we would stop letting everything happen to us and start remembering we have feet. (hands! teeth!)
some old, some new, most borrowed, some blue. some re-reads, a few forthcoming. not ranked, listed in order read. a handful of very faves pictured below. thank you for your words, thank you for your recs! wishing each of you the words you need in 2020.
dear woman 2,
it was the way your bathing suit was too big on your bum. it was the way the pink spandex of it sagged that made me think, more than anything else that day: uh oh.
“are you here with your daddy?” best friend and i asked you, almost at the same time. we didn’t need to talk about it. it was in how you ran into the sauna with us. it was in how he followed you and rolled his eyes and said you were “6 going on 16” and you corrected him. it was in how you corrected him, mostly. “no i’m not,” you said. i’m 5.”
“right,” he said and chuckled, following you again after you ran back out of the sauna. “kids.” he rolled his eyes and looked at best friend. she had a body like a movie star. like natalie portman or sandra bullock in the net. i was wearing a one piece i got from walmart. it was from the plus-sized section and had a wraparound skirt. i didn’t know it at 14, but it was a kind of super power.
best friend and i went back into the hot tub part of the pool, which felt cold after the sauna. the whirlpool part. “that was—” was all i managed to get out before you swam up to us. waded, really. the water was low. just your height. your hair was brown and stringy and your fingers were pruned and your nails were painted sparkly blue. “wanna play with me?” you asked and threw a ball at us.
“sure” we said together, dodging the blow.
we threw the ball back and forth.
“are you having fun?” best friend asked after a few seconds.
“yeah!” you screamed, giggling, jumping up and down in the water. your bathing suit should have fit you properly. instead it flooded around your collarbones when you dunked and exposed your chest when you catapulted. "up up and away!" you shouted. your skin was pale and you had blue veins running in all directions. you splashed best friend, and i followed the water and saw him from the corner of my eye. he was in the sauna again, this time watching us from the little window.
i pinched best friend’s thigh, and she didn’t have to follow my gaze.
“i know” she said to me, and then to you: “are you here with your daddy?”
“nooooo,” you said, as if you wanted us to keep guessing. you were drooling, which was barely noticeable if not for a particular shine on your chin. spit mixed with chlorine.
best friend looked at me.
“your uncle?” i ventured.
“noooooo,” you said again, dunking underwater. i looked back over my shoulder. he wasn’t in the window anymore.
you burst back out.
“hey!” best friend said to you – too loudly – when you resurfaced.
what if he was behind us? i thought. what if he heard? “shhh” i said to best friend.
“hey,” she said again, quieter. “then who’s that guy you’re with?”
you laughed and laughed and spat water in my face. “i don’t know!” you giggled.
he opened the sauna door.
“you don’t know?” i said.
“what do you mean you don’t know?” best friend asked.
“i just met him!” you said. and then: “ahhh! monster!!!!”
you screamed, looking over best friend’s head at the man. you laughed again, pointing. “he said his name was peter cottontail!” you dunked back under the water just as he reached us.
“come on, hon!” he called after you. “come on! time to go!” he looked at us again. at best friend. “thanks for watching her.”
we didn’t say a word, both of us frozen in the hot tub.
“kids, right?” he said again.
he walked over to the other side of the pool. we looked all around for you.
“where’d she go?” best friend said, not to me. “where’d she go?”
we didn’t see you burst back up. he disappeared too, into the crowd. we didn’t see you follow him. we didn’t see you follow us. we didn’t see you again.
“call if you want,” the adults said later. “call if you want, girls, but did she look distressed? can you describe the man? you have to be careful what you get yourself into. you have to be really sure. you know how kids are. you know how they like to play. what if it was just her dad and you ruin his life?”
i hope he was, and i hope we didn’t. ruin your life. i hope you got out from underwater, and i hope you grew into your bathing suit. then i hope you grew up up and out of it. i'm sorry.
dear woman 1,
sometimes when i walk into the grocery store, i imitate your posture. there is something about a straight back, slightly rigid limbs, skin careful not to touch the insides of clothes, an aware glance that says: i know what i am here for. in my case, it’s milk. or broccoli. a hunk of salami, maybe. in your case, it’s to keep the rest of us safe, but i like the way it feels when my feet are on the ground.
i think he’s your soulmate. i think you know it. i think you want him so bad it makes you sick. your eyes are your tell. your face has always been soft. i think you are so afraid, and i wonder if whether you let your stomach sag every once in a while, you might have flickers of what it’s like to let go. to breathe. even hot air, even smoke.
there is an art to avoiding the world too, you know. there are benefits to having an unaware glance. a lot gets in that way. a lot sneaks by. sometimes death, but sometimes love.
i wonder if slouching every once-in-a-while might smother whatever gave you such a straight spine. not forever, just for a beat. you might damage your backbone, but only marginally, and anyway, don’t you think it’s necessary to living? damage?
if you ask me, which you never will, we have no idea how something really works until it’s broken. i also think it’s futile to try and stay intact all the time. we’re not really together until we’ve been in pieces, and you need a break.