#MatteredToMe - April 24, 2020: Short Cuts, Wonderful!, Little Fires Everywhere
- There's a segment of the "Civil Disobedients" episode of Josie Long's Short Cuts podcast where comedian and activist Mark Thomas is describing the feeling of riding on a street flooded with bicycles, and it's just lovely.
- Just before the ad break in this week's episode of the Wonderful! podcast, there's this little interaction between Rachel and Griffin that is so sweet and so adorable, and it just made my day better to hear it.
- Finally, J and I sat down and watched the Little Fires Everywhere finale on Wednesday night. The whole series was so well done, and it just makes me so happy for Celeste Ng to see her book adapted so well.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I hope you're well. If you're having a hard time, something I was reminded of recently is that it's okay to be upset about upsetting things. (A hat tip to Sarah Gailey for that reminder.)
Thank you, and take care.
#MatteredToMe - April 17, 2020: Space and Time, Responsibility and Reckoning
- It seems to me that this week the poems that struck me have in common something about space and time, memory and understanding. First, Matt Morton's poem "Not the Wind, Not the View," in which I feel the distance.
- Then Sasha Pimentel's poem "Leaving the University Gym," in which one moment brings another with it, so that they happen together, which to me is what memory always feels like.
- Then Wayne Miller's poem "We the Jury," in which, again, understanding is made impotent, or perhaps impossible. And what, then, does it mean to reckon with or to take responsibility?
- This question of taking responsibility is at the heart of Matthew Salesses's forthcoming novel, Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, which is strange and unsettling, but which also felt strangely familiar to me throughout.
- Finally, Sarah Gailey's YA fantasy novel When We Were Magic, which I just realized that responsibility and reckoning are also central in, but also loving friendship and self-acceptance.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I guess I'm thinking a lot about responsibility lately, and what it means to be responsible to each other. How freedom and responsibility seem opposite, but how both are necessary. I hope you're well.
Thanks, and take care.
#MatteredToMe - April 10, 2020: Meal Planning, Lean Economics, and Twitter Joy
- I have often found over the years that I am most comforted by poems that acknowledge darkness, but choose to turn toward the light. Ross Gay's poem "Sorrow Is Not My Name" does that.
- Lydia Kiesling wrote about meal planning, in a piece which is also about gender roles, and parenting, and the stress of isolation, and, I think, a certain grace in surrender. I think a lot of us will find it relatable.
- Anna Watkins Fisher's essay "Nothing to Spare" is about the precarity of lean production, and how running the government like a business undermined our infrastructure. It's not comforting, but it is illuminating, I think.
- This Twitter thread by Mary Neely, in which she reenacts moments from her favorite musicals, is hilarious and utterly delightful. Being a former theater kid, it really hit me exactly perfectly.
- Last night, my friend Cecily sang us all a little lullaby on Twitter—the song "The Dimming of the Day," which I know as a Bonnie Raitt song—and it was so beautiful it made me cry a little.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. It's been a strange and difficult time for most of us. If you're upset, just know: it's okay to be upset when things are upsetting.
Thanks, and take care.
#MatteredToMe - April 3, 2020: History, Cheer, Mending, and Surprise Joy
- Danny Ghitis posted a little "quarantinetet" to IG recently, and I thought it was such a jaunty tune, such a lovely little performance.
- William Meredith's poem "The Cheer" has such a warm-heartedness to it, I found it quite buoying. "The cheer / reader my friend, is in the words here, somewhere. / Frankly, I'd like to make you smile."
- This season of the podcast Scene On Radio has been exploring the history of inequality in America. They did a bonus episode last week showing how the themes they've been exploring of capitalist exploitation and anti-democracy are showing up in the current crisis. It underscores for me the importance of understanding history.
- Lyz Lenz wrote about growing up in an apocalyptic evangelical culture, about leaving that culture only to be faced with crisis after crisis, about offering what you can and taking time to look away. The last sentence, especially, meant a lot to me.
- Finally, this video from a 2009 Swell Season concert (courtesy of Stephen Thompson on an episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour this week), in which Glen Hansard pulled a singer out of the audience for an impromptu duet, was so wonderful and cathartic, and, yes, it made me cry.
As always, this is just a portion of what's mattered to me recently. I've been thinking a lot about what I need versus what I want. I hope that you're getting what you need right now. What's mattered to you lately?
Thanks, and take care.
#MatteredToMe - March 27, 2020: Quiet Beauty, Grief, and Hope
- Clint Smith's poem "When people say, “we have made it through worse before”" articulates something about the grief and fear and weariness of crisis—and not just this crisis—that is heavy, but the recognition of it feels like a breath.
- These photographs by Abraham Votroba have a quiet beauty to them that is just lovely.
- The breathlessness of David Baker's poem "Checkpoint," how birds and papers and interrogations and nature all run together.
- Cseslaw Milosz's poem "Hope" was on Poetry Daily yesterday. It showed me something new, a new way to think about hope, and I appreciated it for that.
- Finally, Lisel Mueller's poem "Things." At the beginning, the anthropomorphism feels funny, almost ridiculous. And yet that last line says something profound, I think, about why we do it.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I hope some peace finds its way to you today. Tell me, what's mattered to you lately?
Thanks, and take care.
#MatteredToMe - March 20, 2020: Gorge, The Two Princes, Tranquillusionist
Many of you already know this, I imagine, but every Friday that I can manage, I post a little list to Facebook and Twitter of things that I read, watched, listened to, or saw that mattered to me. It's just a small thing I do to help me focus on gratitude, to tell creative people that I cared about their work, and to try to share things that others might enjoy. I've been thinking for a while that it would be nice to include these in my newsletter, and this seems like as good a time to start as any.
So, here are some things that mattered to me recently
- I liked how Dion O'Reilly's poem “Gorge” keeps correcting itself, and how it layers and mixes different kinds of desire. Or maybe they aren't so different.
- I've been listening to Gimlet Media's audio drama The Two Princes this week and it is a fun, funny, and heartwarming queer coming-of-age fantasy adventure. I like it a lot.
- Finally, Helen Zaltzman made a special episode of The Allusionist this week, which is just 10 minutes of her reading words submitted by her listeners that they find soothing. It's such a lovely and gentle bit of generosity from a podcaster I admire. I got pretty emotional listening to it, honestly.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. It's been a little challenging for me to keep up with everything lately, but that's okay. I'm trying my best, and I know you are, too.
Thank you, and take care.
If You're Stuck at Home and Need Something to Listen to
It occurred to me this morning that in the near future—or perhaps already—some people may find themselves stuck at home for an extended period of time, looking for something to do. And that, if that were the case, some podcast recommendations might be welcome. If that sounds useful to you, well, here you go: 36 podcasts that I find bingeable or otherwise suitable for long listens, organized roughly by genre. I'll try to include content notes where appropriate.
Audio Dramas/Audio Fiction:
Most of these are either limited run shows or have defined seasons/arcs that make them very bingeable. A couple are ongoing shows that I still find good for back-to-back listening. In alphabetical order:
- I have been a humongous fan of The Adventure Zone for years now. It's an actual-play RPG show by the McElroy family, and it is both funny and engaging, with delightful characters and excellent storytelling. So far there have been two complete arcs (each arc is a complete and independent story) and a third is ongoing, and there have been several mini-arcs and one-offs. I recommend starting from the beginning. (Content notes: strong language, comic violence)
- Mermaid Palace's audio drama Asking For It is an adaptation of the Goldilocks tale, a story about a young queer woman, music, and the cycle of abuse. Excellent writing and voice acting. (Content notes: intimate partner abuse, drugs, strong language, explicit sexual content)
- The Big Loop is an audio drama anthology, with almost all of the stories told in the first person. Includes both speculative and realist fiction, and really well done. So far, my favorite ep is the SF story "You." (Content notes: some episodes include strong language and mature themes)
- George the Poet's show Have You Heard George's Podcast? combines hip hop, spoken word, and audio drama to deliver both insightful musings about creativity and incisive social commentary. Sounds unlike any other show I know of.
- Ross Sutherland's show Imaginary Advice includes experimental audio fiction, poetry, and occasional audio-blog-style episodes. There's a playfulness to the writing and sound design that I love, and it's consistently surprising in the best way.
- LeVar Burton Reads is just what the title says: in every episode, host LeVar Burton reads a hand-picked and excellent short story. There's a heavy emphasis on speculative fiction, and Burton is a master storyteller. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language and mature themes. See individual episode descriptions for specific notes.)
- In Mija, a young Latina woman from NYC tells her family's story of immigration. It's well done and very immersive, often feeling more like a docuseries than fiction.
- James Kim's MOONFACE is about a young, closeted Korean American man who struggles to communicate with his immigrant mother, because they literally don't speak the same language. It's a beautiful and moving story about identity, queer relationships, friendship, family, and podcasting. (Content notes: strong language, explicit sexual content)
- Murmurs, by BBC Sounds, is a Twilight-Zone-esque anthology show. Each episode is a different horror/SF story about worlds bleeding into each other. The sound design uses glitching and distortion to delightfully eerie effect.
- Kaitlin Prest's audio drama The Shadows is about the arc of a relationship, beginning, middle, and end. I was completely drawn in by the performances, which are viscerally real. Amazing show. (Content notes: strong language, explicit sexual content)
- Tin Can Audio's audio drama The Tower imagines a world in which a seemingly endlessly tall tower exists, and follows one woman's haunting journey as she climbs it. Reminded me of Borges or Ted Chiang. The way that the story is told through a series of phone calls works really well—it's eerie at times, but the conversations between characters are also quite intimate.
- Finally, I'm very proud of my own audio fiction anthology show, LikeWise Fiction, in which I read excellent short stories from many genres, all written by women, nonbinary authors, authors of color, and LGBTQIA+ authors. In the first season I've featured stories by writers including Chaya Bhuvaneswar, Kat Howard, Rachel Lyon, Celeste Ng, JY Yang, and more. I'd love if you had a listen. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language and mature themes, see individual episode descriptions for specific notes)
These are all either limited-run shows or they have discrete seasons that can be listened to like a miniseries. All are strong narrative nonfiction.
- Closer Than They Appear is a 2017 show by Carvell Wallace about race in America, with a mixture of interviews and personal narrative that I found quite compelling.
- Another show by Carvell Wallace is Finding Fred, which is all about Mr. Rogers, both looking at the work he did and asking what we lessons we can take from him to help us live in the often scary world of today.
- The Washington Post's Lillian Cunningham has done three excellent series on American history. The first, from 2016, was Presidential, which looked at each US president from the beginning through today.
- The next of Cunningham's shows was 2018's Constitutional, which is all about the US Constitution and how it came to be what it is.
- And then most recently, Cunningham did Moonrise, an excellent narrative documentary about the space race and moon landing, showing a lot of the darker parts of the story that most of us don't learn about in school.
- Another excellent show about the US Constitution is Radiolab's special series More Perfect, in which each episode is a breakdown and history of one of the amendments.
- For me, the granddaddy of history podcasts is Mike Duncan's The History of Rome, which, over the course of 179 episodes, charts the history of Rome from its pre-republican era through the fall of the Western Empire.
- I also very much enjoy Duncan's current show, Revolutions, which is all about different revolutions throughout history. Each of the show's 10 seasons covers a different revolution, including the English Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, and more. The current (and final) season is covering the Russian Revolution, and it's excellent.
- Finally, Scene On Radio is, in my opinion, a must-listen. Season 2 is about the history of race and racism in the US, season 3 is about the roots of misogyny and toxic masculinity in our society, and the current season is about inequality in America. Informative, engaging, and excellent.
These are all ongoing shows, so they're not necessarily great for bingeing, but they all have great, long-form conversations about books and literature, and are excellent for a long listen. In alphabetical order:
- David Naimon's Between the Covers has long-form interviews with authors across many genres, including literary fiction, SF and fantasy, and poetry. David is an excellent reader and has some of the best questions of any interview I know.
- Rachel Zucker's show Commonplace features "conversations with poets (and other people)." Rachel gets to deep and intimate places with her guests, and I'm always impressed by what a close rapport she establishes in her conversations. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language.)
- Maris Kreizman's The Maris Review always feels like two pals having the most interesting conversation, it's great. This one includes a lot of excellent memoir and creative nonfiction, much more than other lit shows I listen to.
- The Poet Salon is interviews with poets, and what I love about it is that it manages to have insightful and profound conversations while also showing how fun poetry can be.
- KUT's This Is Just to Say is another excellent poetry show. The host, Carrie Fountain, is herself one of my favorite poets, and I love how she gets her guests to talk not just about their own work, but also about other poems that they love. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language.)
- VS is hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi, two of my favorite poets. Their interviews are top notch, and I also just love the way their friendship is so evident when they talk to each other in the intros and outros. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language.)
- Courtney Balestier's show WMFA is another favorite of mine. She's talked to a wide variety of writers but with a heavy focus on fiction, and I like how she focuses on craft. I also quite like the minisodes she posts during off weeks, which are short personal monologues on creativity.
- Finally, I wanted to mention my own show, Keep the Channel Open, which is a series of conversations about art and creativity with people working in all different creative fields, including writers, visual artists, podcasters, curators, and more. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language.)
Last, but not least, here are some shows that didn't fit into the other categories but which I love and which I think are great for extended listening. In alphabetical order:
- Helen Zaltzman's podcast The Allusionist is all about language, and what makes it so great is that it is fun. A lot of the episodes are humorous, many are deeply empathetic, all of them are entertaining and informative.
- Maggie Tokuda-Hall's show Drunk Safari is, sadly, no longer in production, but it is still available to listen to! Essential animal facts as brought to you by dilettantes. This show is the very definition of "delightful." (Content notes: strong language)
- Ear Hustle is about daily life inside prison, and what makes it unique is that it's told by and made by residents and former residents of San Quentin prison. It's a really well-made show, and it shares stories that many of us don't hear often enough. (Content notes: some strong language, references to violence.)
- The McElroy Brothers Will Be In Trolls World Tour is a hilarious faux-documentary series that the McElroys made as a way to sort of scam their way into getting cast in the movie. Honestly, it is the reason I am excited to see that movie. (Content notes: strong language [I think?])
- Of course, the McElroys' flagship show is My Brother, My Brother, and Me, "an advice show for the modren [sic] era." (Each episode opens with the disclaimer: "The McElroy Brothers are not experts, and their advice should never be followed.) I reckon many of you already know this one but it consistently makes my day better when I listen to it, so I couldn't not mention it. (Content notes: strong language, crude humor)
- My Friend Chuck, is by comedian McKenzie Goodwin and erotica author Chuck Tingle, and it's one of my new favorite shows. Each week McKenzie reviews one of Chuck's books, they talk about movies and local news, and they prove love is real. It's very funny and deeply decent. (Content notes: sexual content, some strong language)
- Only Here is a show by the San Diego NPR station, KPBS, and it is all about the unique culture of the San Diego-Tijuana border region, the things that happen only here.
Obviously, I do hope that, wherever you are, you and the people you love are staying safe and healthy, and that this crisis passes quickly. In the meantime, I hope this list is useful to you.
In This Post, I Am, Unfortunately, Talking About Electability and Joe Biden
Before I say anything else, let me make something clear: if you like Joe Biden and are happy to be voting for him, I’m not trying to talk you out of it. In fact, I’m not trying to talk you out of voting for him even if you’re not happy to be doing so. I don’t know what you value or how you arrive at your decisions, but I do think those decisions are yours to make. What I am going to do here, though, is talk about why I’m not going to vote for him. If that sounds like something you’d rather not read, for any reason or no reason, that’s fine and there are no hard feelings.
Because the people in my life know that I am politically active, there is a thing that’s been happening to me for the past six months or so, which is that basically any time I go to a family gathering or large social event, people will approach me and ask me who I’m voting for. And, more often than not, those same people then talk to me about Joe Biden.
“You know,” they’ll say, “I don’t really like him that much. In any other election, I’d probably vote for somebody more like who you probably want to vote for, Mike. But we can’t mess around this time. We have to beat Trump, and I really think the only person who can do that is Biden.”
I’m not really sure exactly what kind of a response people are looking for from me when they have this talk with me. Maybe they want to be confirmed in that choice. Maybe they want me to talk them out of it. Maybe they know that I disagree and are trying to convince me. So far, I don’t think any of these conversations have wound up satisfactory for anyone involved.
But I want to talk about this particular form of tactical voting for a little bit, because I honestly do believe that if Joe Biden gets the Democratic nomination, then Trump will be re-elected.
As I understand it, the argument for Biden goes like this (and I’m going to do my best not to misrepresent this perspective): Progressive candidates like Warren and Sanders are too far to the left for most American voters, and they will scare off too many centrists. On the other hand, a centrist candidate like Biden will bring in those centrists, and progressive voters will still show up for him because they know how awful Trump is. Also, Biden has the best chance of bringing back those swing voters who voted for Obama in 2008 and then voted for Trump in 2016.
To understand why I disagree with this reasoning, we have to look at the 2018 midterm elections and the so-called “blue wave.” If there is one lesson we should take away from 2018 it is this: turnout wins elections.
In 2018, the Democratic Party had a net gain of 41 seats in the House of Representatives. That coincided with the highest midterm voter turnout in the previous 104 years. Moreover, even in elections they didn’t win, Democrats made incredible showings in elections in 2017 and 2018 in a number of deeply red districts. These wins and near-wins did not happen because Trump voters in those districts decided in large numbers to change their minds. As far as we can tell, most people who voted for Trump in 2016 are pretty satisfied with him and will likely vote for him again in 2020. No, what drove the blue wave was convincing people who stayed home in 2016 to show up in 2018. That’s an entirely different proposition.
In 2016, about 69 million people voted for Hillary Clinton and about 66 million people voted for Donald Trump. But about 95 million voting-age citizens—about 40%—didn’t vote at all. Of course, when we look at those numbers it might be tempting to lay the blame on the two candidates’ unpopularity—and, according to polling data, Clinton and Trump were the two most unpopular candidates ever recorded. But it must also be noted that voter suppression, disenfranchisement, alienation, and general apathy also played a role in turnout. And we also have to note that turnout rates were about the same in 2004, 2008, and 2012, and were even lower for the previous 30 years’ worth of presidential elections.
Still, the path to a Democratic victory in 2020 is mainly going to come down to not winning back moderate Republicans but at how effective both the Party and the grassroots are at getting people to the polls. Turnout is key in any election, but in order to surmount the Electoral College, voter suppression laws, and active foreign interference, it’s going to take a rise in participation that the United States hasn’t seen in over a century, since the period we now call “the Progressive Era.” Getting that many people to vote is going to be difficult under any circumstances, but I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s going to be more difficult without a candidate that actually excites people.
And here’s the thing: I don’t know anybody who is actually excited about voting for Joe Biden. As you’d expect, given my own political leanings and the activist circles I move in, I know a lot of people who are excited about Sanders and Warren. But I also know a lot of people who are excited about other candidates. I have talked to people who are thrilled about Bloomberg. I know people who talk about how much they like Buttigieg. I know people who are all-in for Yang. I know people who love Klobuchar. And before they dropped out, I heard from a lot of people who were excited for Harris or Booker or Castro or Gillibrand or Inslee. But, so far, every person who has talked to me about why they’re voting for Biden has made a point of talking about how they don’t actually like him, but that they feel they have to vote for him. I don’t think that a candidate that people feel not excitement for but only obligation can drive new voter registrations and get people to show up on Election Day in the numbers that we need. I don’t think that Joe Biden can win.
I could be wrong, of course. One person’s anecdotes about the conversations he’s had is not the same thing as reliable data. I live in one of the most reliably Democratic-voting states in the country, and I work with an openly progressive activist organization. So, yes, my experiences may not be representative.
Moreover, it’s also quite possible to look at the 2018 blue wave and come away with the conclusion that centrism works—certainly the majority of the freshman House Democrats are moderates. We can argue about how progressive candidates would have done in any of those districts, but in most cases it would just be speculation. And it may be that beating Trump is enough of an incentive to get historical turnout numbers in 2020, even without a Democratic nominee that people actually like.
Ultimately, each of us is going to do what we think is best. We’re going to make our decisions for our own reasons and on our own terms. I’m certainly not going to tell you who to vote for in the primaries, and if Joe Biden wins the nomination, I will do my best to get out there and get people to vote for him in November.
But what I would like is for each of us to try to look past what we fear and try to figure out what we really want, what we think will actually make this country and the world better. Because I really do believe that voting for what we actually want is not just the idealistic thing to do, it makes good tactical sense, too.
50 Things That Mattered to Me in 2019
Today is the last day of the year, and it has become a bit of a tradition for me to send out my year-end list on this day. Year-end lists are, of course, always at least a little bit controversial, and I do dislike the idea of being exclusive, or of trying to say that one thing is deserving of your attention and another is not. For me, though, making a list like this is really just an opportunity to reflect on my own year, to look back and remember what moved me and think about why. It’s something I find useful, and I appreciate having space to do it out loud. So, here are fifty things that I experienced in 2019 that mattered to me, in roughly chronological order:
- Christina Xiong’s poem “The Cup in the Sink” puts venom and tenderness side-by-side in a way that is so beautiful and so true.
- Helena Fitzgerald’s newsletter Griefbacon has been a favorite of mine for years, and it has sadly come to an end as of today. One of my favorites from this year was from January, when she wrote about Jenny Lewis and the phenomenon of the Sad Hot Girl Singer.
- Lydia Kiesling’s novel The Golden State had in it perhaps the best depiction of the feeling of parenting a toddler that I’ve ever read. I also loved how it engaged with a part of my home state that’s often overlooked (even by me).
- Hannah Stephenson’s poem “SHOO” is about the difference between “nice” and “kind,” and I loved it.
- Esmé Weijun Wang’s essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias was both intense and nuanced, an intimate and affecting look at mental illness unlike anything I’ve read before.
- The late Stanley Plumly’s poem “At Night”, which was published only about a month before his death, is about memory and mortality. It’s profound, I think, and all the more so for its quietness.
- All My Relations is a podcast about Native issues, hosted by Dr. Adrienne Keene and Matika Wilbur. I found the first season interesting and educational, and I’m looking forward to what’s yet to come.
- Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay collection Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest was some of the best music writing I’ve ever read, giving both historical context and deeply personal reflections on one of the most influential hip-hop groups of the 1990s.
- M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem “Discourse on the Logic of Language” is remarkable for how it makes English strange, revealing and inverting the colonial gaze.
- In their essay “Impostor/Abuser: Power Dynamics in Publishing”, Sarah Gailey talked about how impostor syndrome can keep you from recognizing and taking responsibility for the power you have, and how that can be dangerous.
- The poems in Ilya Kaminsky’s book Deaf Republic were kind of terrifying, in the most necessary way.
- I listened to Scene On Radio’s two podcast series Seeing White and MEN, which go deep into racism and misogyny, respectively. If you want to understand the fundamental tensions of our time, these are essential listening.
- This interview between Carmen Maria Machado and Theodore McCombs is one of the wildest things I read all year, and the less I say, the better.
- Literary interview podcasts are a mainstay of my listening, and a new favorite which started this year is The Poet Salon. The conversations are engaging and smart and a lot of fun. If you, like me, are still missing The Poetry Gods, this goes a long way toward filling that hole.
- This episode of The Cut on Tuesdays is about the friendship between Nicole Cliffe and Daniel M. Lavery, and listening to it just made me happy.
- Cathy Ulrich is one of my favorite flash fiction writers. Her story “The Hole in the Center of Everything” has this haunted quality that she does so well.
- Engaging with masculinity was something of a theme for me this year, both in understanding how masculinity can be toxic and in looking for healthy forms of masculinity. One essay that stood out to me was Mark Greene’s “Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendship of Boys?”
- This song (and video) by David Sikabwe was just so adorable.
- When I started reading Rakesh Satyal’s novel No One Can Pronounce My Name, I thought I knew what it was going to be—another harrowing story of immigrant trauma. I turned out to be wrong in the most delightful way. What a wonderful, funny, big-hearted, lovely story it turned out to be.
- Maggie Tokuda-Hall wrote about fertility and violation and baking and control and it was beautiful and heartbreaking and enraging. (CW: sexual violence)
- I liked Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach’s poem “The moon is showing” because it is about butts, and because of the way it moves from emotion to emotion, from humor to sensuality to shame to transcendance.
- Emma Hunsinger’s New Yorker cartoon “How to Draw a Horse” is so sweet and lovely, gentle to her younger self.
- Jonny Sun, who many of us know for his particularly wonderful Twitter presence or for his book Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too, gave a lovely TED talk this year about loneliness and vulnerability and connection.
- Yanyi’s book The Year of Blue Water resists categorization—it’s poetry and it’s essay and it’s both and neither. I appreciated how the book is confident in being wholly itself.
- Sarah Gailey’s novel Magic for Liars is a detective story set in a magical high school, and it is so good.
- One of my favorite literary podcasts, Storyological, had its final episode this year, which I was sad about, but which was also perhaps the best possible conclusion to a show I loved.
- Katie Ford’s poem “Sonnet 31” has this feeling of ambivalence to it, by which I mean not that it is apathetic but rather that it is pulled equally in two directions, and it is that tension in which we live, I think.
- Natalie Eilbert’s poem “Crescent Moons” is about the aftermath of sexual assault, and it is breathtaking in its immediacy and potency.
- I got to see more movies this year than I had gotten to in a while, and probably the one that has stuck with me the most is The Farewell. To me, this film was quintessentially Asian American in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced before, and it was wonderful getting to see it.
- I’ve been enjoying US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith’s podcast The Slowdown for a while now. Over the summer, she read A. A. Milne’s poem “Spring Morning”, which has this lovely innocence to it, a sense of wonder that I recognized and that I try to hold onto when I’m out in the world.
- In her poem “Litany”, Chloe N. Clark writes “maybe what I want most is to grow / back into exclamations,” which is one of the things I want, too.
- CJ Hauser’s essay “The Crane Wife” is about self-erasure and leaving a bad relationship and finding her way toward herself.
- I think the book that I loved the most this year, the most beautiful book I read, was Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s time-traveling, lesbian, spy-vs-spy, epistolary novel This Is How You Lose the Time War. That description, while accurate, cannot contain how simply gorgeous this story is.
- Sarah Rose Etter’s novel The Book of X is about a woman born with a literal knot in her body. The writing is so physical, and the story is surreal, grotesque, even gross at times. For all that it is a fantastic story, though, it is one that embodies truths about being a woman in the world that resonate deeply.
- Danez Smith’s poem “acknowledgments” has in it the lines “& how many times have you loved me without my asking? / how often have i loved a thing because you loved it? / including me.” It’s one of the poems about love that felt most true and memorable to me this year.
- In her debut essay collection, The Pretty One, my friend Keah Brown discusses disability, pop culture, representation, and her own journey to self-love. I’m so happy that this book is in the world.
- Tommy Pico’s fourth “Teebs” book, Feed is perhaps my favorite of the tetralogy. It has all of the fire, humor, and insight that the previous three have, but it also has certain sweetness to it that complemented the other emotions, rounding it in a way that felt authentic and complete.
- There has been a lot of good music this year, but the album that I have listened to the most was without question the Steven Universe The Movie soundtrack. Partly this is because it’s music I can listen to with my kids, partly it’s because I like to sing along. But mainly it’s because that show and the movie are just wonderful portrayals of friendship and family, and I love the way it makes me feel.
- In September, Mother Jones published an interview between an anonymous staffer and her mother, about the mother’s abortion. I don’t think abortion is a topic that ever will be an easy topic, and maybe it shouldn’t be. The way this conversation humanizes the discussion is, I think, necessary.
- There is a moment in Lucy Dacus’ cover of "Dancing in the Dark where everything pauses for just a brief second of silence, and it was probably the most transcendent moment of music for me this whole year.
- I got to read an advance copy of Brandon Taylor’s forthcoming novel Real Life, and it is everything that I would have dreamed a Brandon Taylor novel would be. It is a campus novel, a story about what we ask of each other, how we do and don’t see each other. It’s brutal at times, intimate at others, and beautiful throughout.
- One of my favorite narrative podcasts for the past few years has been the McElroys’ role-playing show The Adventure Zone. Their second big series wrapped up this year, and, yes, the finale did make me cry.
- Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s poem “If In Its Advance the Plague Begins to Fiercen” stretches language but the message is still quite clear.
- One of my favorite new podcasts and a consistent source of joy lately has been McKenzie Goodwin and Chuck Tingle’s show My Friend Chuck. It’s funny, generous of spirit, inclusive, and just decent. Just two buckaroos proving love is real.
- Ross Sutherland’s experimental audio fiction podcast Imaginary Advice released its fifth anniversary episode this fall, an audio version of a novelization of the 1995 Jackie Chan film Rumble in the Bronx. It is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds, and it is also truly sublime.
- As I do every year, I attended the Medium Festival of Photography this October. Of all the work I saw at this year’s festival, it was Anna Grevenitis’ series Regard that has stuck with me the most. In this series, Grevenitis makes images in collaboration with her daughter—who has Down syndrome—inverting the gaze and challenging the viewer, exerting control over the image and the perspective.
- What’s Good, Man? is a new podcast by rappers Guante and tony the scribe in which they discuss masculinity, and particularly ways that men can engage with healthier forms of masculinity. We so often hear that men need to have these conversations more often, so it’s nice to see two men doing this work, and doing it well.
- One of the most talked-about new audio dramas in the past few months (at least, that I’ve seen) has been James Kim’s series MOONFACE. The series starts in media res in a sex club, so you will know right away whether or not it’s for you. For me, I thought that it was brilliant in both concept and execution, telling the story of a young gay Korean American man who literally doesn’t speak the same language as his mother, and who is struggling to make something out of his life.
- I’ve mentioned masculinity several times in this list already. Well, one of the people I’ve looked to a lot recently as a role model for a gentler masculinity is Mr. Rogers, and so Carvell Wallace‘s new podcast Finding Fred has been wonderful for me. In this series, Wallace looks at Mr. Rogers’ life and philosophy, and wrestles with how to apply those teachings as an adult in the world today. It’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about lately, and what I needed to hear.
- Finally, just this week I listened to the full 7-episode run of the audio drama The Tower, which follows a woman’s journey as she climbs a seemingly endless tower. I thought the writing and performances were top-notch, and I found the story haunting. I just love the way podcasts are continuing to grow as a medium, and this is a great example of what’s happening right now.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me this year. If you’re reading this then you got through 2019, and that matters to me, too. I don’t know what 2020 will bring, but I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that our work pays off, that we can find respite and joy, and that we all get what we need. I hope that you—you—get what you need.
53 Things That Mattered to Me in 2018
It’s been a hell of a year, hasn’t it? But then, it seems like we say that every year nowadays. The last few years it has felt not just that things are awful but that the rate of awfulness has accelerated. It is exactly that feeling that makes it all the more important to me to spend time thinking about the things that were good, the things that mattered. Here are some things that mattered to me this year. Please note, this list only reflects my own limited, incomplete, personal experiences. I didn’t see everything that could be seen this year, and not everything that I saw this year was released this year. These were things that stood out to me in 2018; I’d love to know what stood out to you, especially where our lists differ.
- One of the first things I shared in my weekly round-ups this year was this Steven Universe-inspired ballet piece, with dancer Juliet Doherty. I remember showing it to my dance-obsessed daughter, six years old at the time, and the way her eyes lit up as she watched.
- Amal El-Mohtar’s poem “Thunderstorm in Glasgow, July 25, 2013,” beautifully illustrated by Molly Crabapple. When I first read it, what struck me was how language informs identity. Now, I see too how it shows the separations between people, the barriers and the otherness.
- I read Erin Horáková’s 2017 piece “Kirk Drift” in February, and it did something I would not have expected after a lifetime as a Trekkie: it changed the way I think about Star Trek.
- Natalie Eilbert’s book Indictus was a searing collections of poems about trauma. It was so alive, so kinetic in its language. Troubling, but in a deeply necessary way.
- Everything Devin Kelly writes, whether essay, poem, or story, has at its core this searching, longing, tender quality. He wrote a piece about Goose from Top Gun that was also about his father, and about masculinity, and which I loved.
- L. D. Burnett, a historian and professor, wrote a piece called “Keeper of the Stories,” examining both the struggles of her Dust-Bowl-migrant family, and their complicity in the Japanese American Internment. It’s the kind of honesty in history that I still find to be unfortunately rare, but that I think we desperately need more of.
- 2018 was my year of superhero movies, the year I decided to finally catch up on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. I watched 18 MCU movies this year, and there were a lot that I liked quite a bit, but Black Panther stood out in that crowd for a lot of reasons, not least because it had characters saying things I’ve never heard in a blockbuster before.
- Rivers Solomon’s 2017 debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts was intense and amazing, both an excellent example of a long science fiction tradition and something that pushed the genre in new directions.
- I think I started listening to The Adventure Zone’s “Balance” arc last year, but I finished it in March and it has remained one of my favorite pieces of fantasy I experienced all year. God, I just love those boys.
- Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel Pachinko was both grand in scope and intimate, deeply empathetic, and taught me about a community I knew very little about before: Koreans living in Japan.
- I've read a lot of poems about injustice and our nation's disregard for black lives, but I'm not sure I've read any quite so tender and haunting as those in Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead.
- It’s been really wonderful reading so much speculative fiction by writers of color this year. One that stood out to me was Elaine Cuyegkeng’s 2017 story “These Constellations Will Be Yours,” about colonialism and forced servitude and revolution.
- Like just about everybody, I loved Paddington 2. Not just because it was a respite from the stress of the world, but because it was unabashedly itself, a children’s movie for children in an era when darkness or sarcasm seem to be more the rule in kids’ entertainment.
- I just adored Hannah Stephenson’s new chapbook Cadence, a collection of poems about new motherhood and all of the wonder and anxiety that comes with the care of a new life.
- Maggie Nelson’s 2015 memoir The Argonauts was by turns vexing, hilarious, troubling, heartbreaking, and throughout so deeply intelligent. Nelson insists on complicating every narrative, every system, every way of being. Perhaps this could be a lonely thing—it is for me, at times—but reading this was so affirming as well.
- Brandy Jensen’s “How to Poach an Egg and Leave a Marriage,” especially for this line: “Chasing the egg around the pot will only remind you of how often you run away from things, only to eventually coincide with yourself. You will wonder if it’s the running or the coinciding that makes you most miserable, and before you know it the eggs will be overdone.”
- I thought Franny Choi’s chapbook Death by Sex Machine was so interesting, both formally inventive and thematically resonant. Using artificial intelligence as a metaphor for the otherness of race and gender is just so, so smart.
- The most consistently entertaining and hilarious podcast I started listening to this year was definitely Drunk Safari. As host Maggie Tokuda-Hall puts it: “Essential animal facts as brought to you by dilletantes.”
- Another podcast I started listening to this year was Commonplace, and by far the episode that has most stuck with me was “Inside Commonplace.” Getting the behind-the-scenes conversations about the show, as well as the conversation between host Rachel Zucker and her husband, really showed me a lot about what an interview show can be.
- Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel wasn’t just beautiful and insightful—though it certainly was those things. It was also the single most inspiring book I read all year, the kind that helped me keep going.
- In May, Laura Turner wrote about being pregnant after three miscarriages, about the anxiety of it. It was a beautiful piece, I thought.
- Then in August, she shared her son’s birth story. That was beautiful, too, and made me so happy.
- Probably my favorite album of the year was Lucy Dacus’s Historian. I came back to those songs over and over again, particularly the song “The Shell” and its line “You don't want to be a leader / Doesn't mean you don't know the way.”
- Jerry Takigawa’s “Balancing Culture” photographs, about the Japanese American Internment, won the Curator’s Choice Award from Center Santa Fe this year, which is how I found them. I love them for their strong visual compositions, and for the personal nature of the exploration.
- Kathy Fish’s poem “Collective Nouns for Humans In the Wild” was published in 2017. It’s just as heartbreaking this year.
- Many of the poems in Ada Limón’s The Carrying have a heaviness to them, but there’s a core of resilience in them as well, and Limón passes that feeling along to us, showing us the reasons to keep carrying on, showing us how.
- I’m not going to be able to sum up Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries in just one or two sentences. It has in it trauma and mental illness. It is a Native story. It is about writing your way towards yourself. But it’s more than any or all of that, too.
- One of my absolute favorite podcasts is David Naimon’s Between the Covers, and I was very happy to see his conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin be turned into a book. I particularly enjoyed the introductions David added to introduce each section, which provided context and deepened the experience.
- I’ve been heartened to see a number of pieces this year engaging with complicated topics with a lot of nuance, acknowledging the messiness of the questions involved and the lack of clear, simple answers. One of those was Connie Wang’s “I've Written About Cultural Appropriation For 10 Years. Here's What I Got Wrong.”
- R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries was utterly gorgeous in its prose, and I found it resonant in how it looked at the ways in which we form personal narratives, both how we attempt to invent ourselves and how we see (or fail to see) the others in our lives.
- Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know is without question one of the best and most personally important books I read this year. What an amazingly honest, open, full-hearted story Nicole has given us about adoption, about heritage, about self-understanding, about family, and how families are both made and inherited. I’m just so happy this book exists.
- Kirsten Tradowsky’s “Time Echo” paintings really interested me. I find the finished paintings aesthetically interesting, particularly in their gesture, but I think that the process behind them is what really nails it for me, the way that Tradowsky blurs details mirroring the way memory blurs details.
- I have to admit that I never listened to Superchunk before this year, but What a Time to Be Alive was a great place to start. I’d describe the songs as “defiantly joyful,” I think.
- I often find myself thinking that Fred Rogers’ existence is proof that the world can never be all bad. Watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? made me cry a lot, of course.
- Brandon Taylor’s piece about his mother was so moving, so beautiful. I’m so grateful for him.
- Lyz Lenz’s essay “Why Writing Matters In the Age of Despair” was a potent reminder of the necessity of documenting and commenting on these times.
- Innuendo Studio’s video “Lady Eboshi Is Wrong” was really good. It’s about the difference between empathy and agreement, a particularly important distinction right now, I think.
- I really like Mikey Neumann’s Movies With Mikey videos. I think they’re some of the most insightful film criticism out there right now. His video “Get Off the Floor” showed us more of himself, shared his personal story, and that’s something that more and more I’m finding to be admirable and even necessary from cultural commenters.
- Crazy Rich Asians showed me just how much I needed a movie like this, where Asians and Asian Americans get to just be people.
- A story that has stuck with me since I heard it on the podcast The Other Stories is Mary J. Breen’s “Pieces of String Too Short to Be of Any Use.” There’s something about the idea of a story that engages with regret but refuses nostalgia that feels very right to me.
- The movie Eighth Grade was just about the perfect encapsulation of the most awkward part of adolescence. It’s such a strange thing, too, to be able to connect so deeply to both sides of the teen/parent struggle.
- I love how José Olivarez’s debut poetry collection Citizen Illegal encompasses both fire and tenderness, poems about race and place, but also about love in many forms.
- Gretchen Felker-Martin’s essay “You Called for Me” showed me something new about the classic anime Akira, which I first watched when I wasn’t too much older than my son is now. Teaching him how to process his emotions, how to avoid the isolation that masculinity so often demands of boys and men, is something that’s important to me, and this essay gets at just why it’s important.
- I always love when Noah Cho writes about food, and his “Bad Kimchi” column at Catapult is just great. I particularly loved the first installment, “The Love of Korean Cooking I Share With My White Mother.”
- Sarah Gailey’s short story “STET” grabbed my eye at first for its experimental form, but what made it stick was the potency of its emotion.
- I heard The Heart podcast’s 2017 series “No” when it was rebroadcast on Radiolab in October this year. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything that engaged with the concept of consent in such a concrete way, and I really think that it’s something everybody should listen to.
- KangHee Kim’s “Street Errands” photographs are so weird and just love them so much. I can’t stop thinking about them.
- I don’t know who Noah and PJ are but their first wedding dance just made (and makes) me radiantly happy.
- This Ask Polly column from November about shame and art and treating yourself well and being where you are was just wonderful, I thought.
- I did not expect after the first chapter that I would love Sarah Rees Brennan’s YA fantasy novel In Other Lands but by the end I really, really did.
- Shivanee Ramlochan’s book of poems Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting was pretty amazing. Not just for how it blends together the myths and religions and folklore found in Trinidad, but for how it makes something powerful out of traumatic experiences.
- Before last year I really thought I was done with Spider-Man movies. And then after last year I thought that there was no way I’d be able to love a Spider-Man movie more than I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming, especially not another origin story. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse proved me utterly wrong. The climactic scene where Miles Morales takes his leap of faith was breathtaking in every way.
- A while back, maybe two or three years ago, I had this idea to write a story set in a fantasy world but using the conventions and themes of literary fiction. I never wrote it, of course. But reading Kelly Link’s short story collection Get In Trouble, I feel like I don’t have to, because she’s done it so much more brilliantly than I ever could. I don’t understand how these stories do what they do—it just feels like magic. Which is fitting.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me this year. I saw how many people worked so hard this year. I’m hopeful for how that work will bear fruit in the new year.