New Publication: “Different Love”

Thanks to Mary-Kim Arnold at The Rumpus for publishing this essay, “Different Love,” on queer identity. I wrote it in a fever the summer I turned 50 and married Arline.

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Conjuring Zora


Fort Pierce, Florida

When loved ones die, we think of them, talk to them, ask their advice out loud and in our dreams. We conjure them, not only because we miss them, but because we need them.

Alice Walker needed writer Zora Neale Hurston, and in the famous essay that appeared in Ms. Magazine in 1975, “Looking for Zora,” Walker imagined her back into existence after much of the world had forgotten. Walker visited Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida, and found her unmarked grave in Fort Pierce. She ordered a headstone, wrote the essay, and sparked a reappraisal of Hurston’s work. What Walker had needed was an ancestor, a literary ancestor who, as she says in an American Masters documentary, could show her what was possible. Hurston, she says, wrote of black people “as complete, complex, undiminished human beings.” I can imagine how crucial it was for Walker to find Hurston’s work.

Thanks to these efforts, I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in college about seven years later. Ever since, I have retained an image of the opening scene: Janie, whose truest love has just died, saunters back into her former town in overalls, her long black hair “unraveling in the wind like a plume.” And I have remembered Hurston’s unusual story: she left her small-town Florida life for an education at Howard University and Barnard College, worked with Franz Boas, became an anthropologist, and traveled the Caribbean and the South, collecting music and stories. She wasn’t a major influence on my writing, but she was a vision of a daring, literary, independent woman, the kind of person I wanted to be.

So when Arline suggested we visit St. Augustine, Florida, during our winter break, I was eager to make a Zora Neale Hurston pilgrimage. We didn’t make it to Eatonville, her hometown, but we stopped in Jacksonville, where Janie marries Tea Cake in the novel; found the house in St. Augustine where she finished her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road; and took the tour of Fort Pierce that can be taken virtually on the city’s web site.


Garden of Heavenly Rest, Fort Pierce, Florida

In Fort Pierce, informative kiosks mark places like the library named after Hurston, the school where she taught, and the office of a newspaper for which she wrote. The cemetery has changed greatly since Walker waded there through waist-high weeds to find the grave-sized depression that suggested Hurston’s burial place. Now, two pillars with copper impressions of her face mark the path to the grave. The grass is cropped, the headstones tended. Arline and I stood quietly, trying to imagine the living woman as she might have been. A wreath and dried flowers on the grave testified to her continuing existence in someone’s memory.

The house of a friend of Hurston’s was poignant in a different way. Most of the marked sites on the tour are in modest residential neighborhoods of small, concrete-block houses. This is where Hurston lived, worked, and died, so poor late in life that she had to move to the county “welfare home.” But the friend, white artist A.E. Backus, lived in a large gabled house, and, as we drove east from the other sites toward this last stop on the tour, it was clear we were crossing to the other side of the tracks. Hurston told great stories at his parties, Backus said, and the kiosk in front of his house claims that she “must surely have enjoyed the lively and stimulating atmosphere.”


House of A.E. Backus, Fort Pierce, Florida

I don’t know much about Backus, a self-taught painter. But I know the street is now named after him and a museum nearby sells his works. What I’ve read online suggests he didn’t die in obscurity and his reputation didn’t have to be revived. I wonder what it was like for Hurston to walk from her tiny concrete-block house to his house and studio near the ocean, where the salt air wafted up the avenue. And walk back home.

Still, Zora Neale Hurston is larger than life now. She has been conjured back into existence for all those who might need her.


Zora Neale Hurston Library, Fort Pierce, Florida


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New Publication: “What to Pack”

Deep into a revision of The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, I wrote a short essay about my struggles with introducing my partner, Arline, and myself as the book opened. The result is “What to Pack,” which has now appeared in Waxwing, a gorgeous journal whose mission is to promote “the tremendous cultural diversity of contemporary American literature, alongside international voices in translation.” My gratitude to editor Erin Stalcup, who made a great suggestion for improving it.

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New Publication: “Testimonial”

Thanks to Jennifer Niesslein at Full Grown People for publishing my essay, “Testimonial.” This online journal is full of great essays about the “sometimes glorious, sometimes messy, stuff that comes with adulthood.”

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My Oregon Trail


Green Lake Heron in Winter

Most every morning on sabbatical for the last three months, I’ve crawled out of bed after Arline has left for work. I’ve put on my sweatpants, ground coffee, and set up the iPad on the dining room table to read the news (confession: Facebook news first, newspapers second). After coffee and oatmeal, I slide my slippers over to the computer to read or write or do research. At lunchtime, I stop to check email and get some exercise. Then I’m back to the project.

It’s relatively quiet here in the co-op where we live, although city workers are often blasting leaf blowers at the bike lanes by 7:30 in the morning. Children come from the day care down the street many afternoons to play in the park. Tethered to each other by hands and string, they shriek and laugh down the path on the way to the playground. Sometimes a door opens and closes in the hallway, and footsteps cross the floor above me.

Mostly, these sounds are comforting backdrop to work that has been far from comforting. I’ve been reading U.S. history I never knew and writing about white privilege. One of my first questions was about my great grandparents, who homesteaded in Montana in the early twentieth century. Whose land were they occupying? I wondered. Turned out it had belonged to the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation. This led me to a memoir by Alma Hogan Snell, who grew up learning the stories and skills of her grandmother, Pretty Shield, and to a book of Apsáalooke history by Joseph Medicine Crow.

This example set the pattern: I would start with an ancestor and use that person’s time and experiences to launch my research. I used to make a family tree, and one of the first surprises was that a set of great great grandparents had taken the Oregon Trail. I read a history of white-Indian relations along the trail and diaries by women emigrants. The recently published Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States gave a broader context. Along the way, I found the story of George Bush, a black man who took the Oregon Trail with his white wife, and, denied the ability to settle in Oregon because of racist exclusion laws, turned north and settled with friends and family in what was then the Washington Territory and is now Thurston County. Even then, he had to get a special provision from the government to own the land he was homesteading because noncitizens couldn’t homestead, and African Americans weren’t citizens.

Bush’s white friend, Michael T. Simmons, helped Bush get approval to own his plot. He was one of many whites I found in my research who were sympathetic to people of color and who actively challenged racist laws and policies. Many more whites actively engaged in racist behavior, like William Boeing, founder of our famous aircraft company, who had an explicit whites-only hiring policy until World War II and who included a covenant for his housing development in Shoreline that excluded people of color, unless they were domestics working for whites.

I kept wondering, as I read: Where did my relatives lie between these poles – just and unjust, racist and anti-racist? My Oregon Trail ancestors were following in the literal footsteps of hundreds of thousands who had walked westward before them. Did they think about the damage the migration was doing to Indian communities? Did they see their complicity in reducing independent Indian nations to colonized subjects of the U.S. government?

What I was really asking was this: How complicit am I? What is my Oregon Trail?

The days have grown shorter and gloomier since my sabbatical began in September. Something inside me is gloomier, too, facing this history and the realization that there is so much more I still don’t know. At the same time, the work has kindled an urgent need to act. I just read a book on the Japanese American community in Seattle before World War II. The author quotes Aki Kurose, famous for her teaching and activism, on her community in what is now called the International District, the only area in which Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and African Americans were allowed to live when she was a girl in the 1920s and 30s: “My dad loved to bake, so every Friday evening he’d make jellyroll and then all the neighbors would come in to have jellyroll and we’d just have a good time, listening to music and just being social….And the neighborhood was very diverse. And there were many Jews and a Chinese family, and several black families, and we went in and out of each other’s homes all the time.”

As I read about this family sharing jellyroll with their neighbors, I felt the dread of what was coming: in another decade, Kurose and her parents would be imprisoned. What, I thought, did white people do to stop imprisonment then? What more can I do to stop the injustices now?

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A week ago, I browsed a used bookstore at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. Artist Pablo Helguera had hauled shelves, armchairs, table lamps, rugs, and thousands of pounds of old books into the gallery space. Called “Librería Donceles,” the installation conjures the experience of wandering through a used bookstore, but because all the books are in Spanish, it felt for me both familiar and strange.

When I was an adolescent, one of my favorite places was Shorey’s Bookstore in downtown Seattle. As I’ve described in The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, it occupied multiple rooms over several floors of an old building, and the rooms were always hot, the radiators steaming, the windows cracked open to the Seattle rain. Meandering through the stacks, I felt alone and unknown — a good feeling. No one knew exactly where I was and that meant I was free.

I still have some record albums from Shorey’s — one is Ralph McTell’s “You Well-Meaning Brought Me Here”  — and my copy of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America may have come from there as well; the pencilled price of $1.25 on the first page has been crossed out and “1.00” written below.

At Librería Donceles, I scanned the shelves, some of which indicated they held novels or poetry, some of which had funny labels, like “aburridos,” the boring ones, and “Marxism trasnochado,” which seems to mean something like Marxism for sleepless nights. The dim lighting, the jumble of books on shelves and tables, and the sense of rummaging through castoffs in search of one amazing tome made the experience familiar. But I felt off-kilter as well. On many Spanish books, the title on the spine is written in the opposite direction of titles on English books. Perusing a shelf, I had to tilt my head left instead of right to read the spines. My intermediate Spanish helped me understand only about half the titles. I recognized translations of books originally published in English, and sometimes cognates helped; Relaciones Mexicano-Sovieticas on the aburridos shelf is not hard to figure out.

My visit to the bookstore was part of an afternoon event called Books Bridge Our Senses/Los Libros Conectan Nuestros Sentidos. Poets Claudia Castro Luna, Catalina Marie Cantú, and Raúl Sánchez read poems and essays inspired by books. The readings kept me off-kilter as well, reminding me of both connections and disconnections between my experiences and those of the writers on stage. Castro Luna, for example, told the story of her family’s emigration from El Salvador in 1981. Most of what they packed were her father’s books. At that moment in El Salvador, books were dangerous; they attracted the attention of the death squads. Avoiding violence, her father had previously hid his books in the ceiling and buried them in the backyard.

My family, too, had many books, and as we moved from house to house, which we did many times until I was thirteen, we were always packing them up in boxes, unpacking them, and arranging them again on shelves. But we feared no one coming to our door to see what we were reading. We did not need to protect ourselves by hiding them. In fact, my mother told me I could check out any book from the library that I wanted; no books were off limits.

Still, it would not be fair to say that in the United States we are free to read whatever we wish. Parents challenge books assigned in schools, and school districts back them up. At my college, an instructor assigned Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and one student’s parent took a black magic marker and obliterated sentence after sentence. At a systemic level, editors choose not to publish certain books, so we never get a chance to read them. Reviewers are more likely to evaluate books by men than women, so we may not hear about books we would want to read. In that sense, it might be argued that books by women, by people of color, by queer poets like Ginsberg, are dangerous, if by dangerous we mean upsetting our dominant mythologies of whose ideas, stories, and words matter.

At the gallery event, we each got an index card to exchange for one book in the store. I started by perusing the novels, but they looked too hard for me to read. None of the children’s books appealed. Finally, under a table, I found a guide to Panama, Arline’s home country. Here’s me reading the first sentence: The privileged geostrategic something of Panama, the singular relationships of its geology, something, ecology, history, and socioeconomics have made this nation one of the grand crossroads of the world and a vital American center. Not bad, huh?

Arline and I have one of those old library bookcases with glass doors. It holds our most treasured books: old volumes by Tennyson and Longfellow, wrapped in soft leather, that belonged to my grandparents; books of poetry by Guillén and Machado; signed copies of works by our friends; favorite books from our college and graduate school years. Sorted by size to fit the shelves, the titles don’t scan easily. I have to tilt my head right, then left, then right and left again. Nevertheless, our books connect us. Arline gave me García Lorca, and I gave her Martín Espada. We pilgrimaged to Neruda’s house in Isla Negra and to Brautigan’s camp site near Stanley, Idaho. This December we will make a pilgrimage down the Florida coast to honor Zora Neale Hurston.

Books bridge our senses. They do. In the moment of reading, I am living in the world the writer has made on the page, smelling, tasting, hearing what she feels. They can also disturb, sending a rumble of earthquake beneath my understanding of the world. Connection and disconnection; the familiar and the strange; the bridge and the abyss. We sit in that dusty armchair in the corner of Librería Donceles, crack the spine, and wonder where this book will take us.

“Librería Donceles” is open through January 3.



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Review in LA Review of Books

Jayne Guertin has written a thoughtful review of Ghosts. I spend so much time working by myself at my desk that it’s always a surprise — and an honor — when someone reads my work so carefully. Thanks to Jayne and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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