900 Miles by E.J. Runyon

I was first introduced to E.J. Runyon as a writer via her 2012 short story collection, Claiming One. I was a big fan, then, and I remain a big fan today, having just completed my first read of her new novel, 900 Miles

One of the things that first impressed me about Runyon’s writing style is her ability to capture voice. It is impossible for me to enjoy a story that cannot manage to get its characters’ perspectives right. I found Runyon’s adroitness at this especially apparent in Claiming One because each story’s distinct narrator had a clear and unique voice. I think this is one of the most challenging things for writers to do and is much of the reason why short story writers, in particular, often succeed or fail as storytellers. When we read ten or twelve or however many stories in a single collection, often binging a few in a sitting, it becomes very clear which writers can create disparate narrative voices and which ones simply rely too heavily on their own. Runyon has the knack. 

I was immediately drawn into the story 900 Miles tells because of the perspective of its narrator, Christina. It is remarkable to see such growth in an individual character, one whose presence remains the majority of the story itself from start to finish, develop in such a short period of time. I’ve read some trilogies that don’t quite manage this, and yet what Runyon does for Christina is not only believable, it is a privilege to witness. In the span of a couple-hundred pages, Christina’s life changes. The event that causes it is momentous, but the way she reacts to it, with caution and care, allows her to experience the kinds of living opportunities she had to that point forfeited due to poverty and self-consciousness. I’ll admit that I was worried about the striking nature of Christina’s change in fortune, and about how early it comes in the narrative, but that’s just a lesson: trust the author, especially one as precise as Runyon! 

Another element I found interesting about this short but thoughtful novel is its design. The chapters are separated into mini-portions, somewhat like vignettes. This took me back to my first experience reading Justin Torres’s We the Animals. Part of why I loved that short book so much is because it unfolded in moments, in flares of color and passion. Christina’s story, too, in 900 Miles, is both slow and fast. Everything changes in an instant, and yet Christina doesn’t allow that instant to change or define her. Instead, she embarks upon an arduous journey of self-discovery. As she gets in touch with her feelings, her desires, her limitations, she relays those to the readers in bursts of awareness. These vignettes propel the story forward but they also help us experience Christina’s moments of movement, to literally notice the changes as they happen, one at a time and then, holistically. 

There is as much about 900 Miles that is sad as there is about it that is happy. And yet, that’s life, isn’t it? Our journey, be it 9 miles or 900, often unfolds behind us. We recognize it only in memory, in retrospect. The beauty of a book like this is that it reminds the reader how special it can be to slow down just a little bit and breathe our moments as they come. 

Note: I received an electronic copy of this title from the publisher, Inspired-Quill; however, I still can’t manage to get through a damn ebook. So, I bought a print copy myself. No regrets. 

Thoughts: The Tradition

My “no pride without Black lives” month of reading continues with Jericho Brown’s incredible poetry collection, The Tradition

I have been following Jericho Brown on Twitter for some time, now, and I have read various of his poems in other places, but this is the first time I’ve picked up one of his complete volumes. Somehow, I ended up with a signed copy, which was wholly accidental but perhaps one of the greatest surprise gifts.

I was floored from the very first poem, “Ganymede,” where he writes, “Grief sounds as good as the gallop / Of an animal born to carry those / Who patrol our inherited / Kingdom.” The poem looks at myth “this way,” luxuriously and deceptively, to remind us of how we’ve convinced ourselves to see the rape of a people, their enslavement, from a slanted perspective. We need to be careful not to memorialize it in our memories the way we have so many other truths-turned-legends, lest we turn the ultimate pain into a fantasy. 

The collection contains three parts. Running through all three is a series of poems all of which are titled “Duplex.” Each one grows considerably sharper and more poignant, more pressing, as the collection roars forward to its conclusion. Somehow, Brown creates beauty where none should exist. His poems make explicit the horror we have grown accustomed to in our daily lives, but they do so in the way “Ganymede” promises from the outset. When he asks us, who doesn’t want to be loved by God, we see the answer in the very craft of the poetry. Everyone, everyone. And what have we sacrificed for it? 

“I begin with love, / hoping to end there” Brown writes in one of his “Duplex” poems, and I have to cheer him for succeeding. This collection and every poem in it, whether it is tackling issues of rape or terror, mass shootings, workplace struggles, or the intimacies of the bedroom, is filled with love. Crafted with love. Expressing love in every word and line, in every syllable and caesura. I’ve been reading poetry more regularly this year, but I haven’t been as moved by a complete collection since Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. In both cases, we have a queer poet of color singing the rhythm of his life. I find that Jericho Brown’s rhythm, like Vuong’s, both harmonizes with and dances away from the lyric of the great American life; a life that both men, perhaps, have felt has never fully included them in its promise or its machinations.

These are poets of power and critique, of eros and of deep pain. And the songs they sing, though remarkably individual, will resonate deep in the soul of the collective American psyche. Jericho Brown is one whose voice I hope to become more and more familiar with; his is a song that, once heard, cannot be forgotten. 

Thoughts: Felix Ever After

I have said many times that the best kind of book, even those within a genre we often dismissively label “pleasure reading,” is the book that teaches while it entertains. Perhaps not surprisingly, Young Adult novels tend to fall into this category. They make for lovely and usually simple reading, perfect for stressful times when we need escapist leisure (hmm… why is that so appealing right now?). Yet, they are also often quite instructive; at least, the really good ones are. Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After is a good one. 

The protagonist and narrator, Felix Love, has never been in love. And, as he states at the beginning of his story, he is quite aware of the irony, thank you very much. He has an adoring best friend, though, and a father who, despite awkward and annoying mistakes, tries his best to accept Felix for the young man he is. Unfortunately, Felix also has some baggage. A mother who disappeared when he was young. An ex-girlfriend who is, let’s be real, a pretty lousy person. And an arch-rival who is not only gorgeous, but also rich, and brilliantly talented in the same field as Felix; and let’s not forget, he’s also vying for the same scholarship and single space at the same university. Oh, the humanity! 

So, yes, there’s drama in the land of Felix. There’s also love when it is least expected. Who knew that a boy so desperate for love could find it in the two unlikeliest of places?

The balance of these tensions throughout is handled well, though if I’m being honest, I’m getting farther and farther away from being the “target audience” for young adult fiction. My patience for the drama and the perhaps inevitable character failings in young casts is wearing thin. I’m also always put off by characters that speak about things that seem, to me, well beyond their years. I understand the argument that this is often intended to give young readers a pathway toward learning, toward expanding their own knowledge, awareness, consciousnesses, and heck, even vocabularies. I think that’s an admirable goal, but I also think it can cause characters to seem unrealistic at times. All that being said, my two minor irritants (an ignoble narrator and a sometimes too-erudite group of kids) aren’t nearly problematic enough to take away from the goodness this story has to offer. It is well-paced, complex, sometimes dangerous, and often surprising. And best of all? It is edifying even for those of us who think, fallaciously, that we’re “beyond” its audience. 

Here’s an example of what I mean. Have you heard of the term demiboy? Maybe you have. I haven’t! Or, I hadn’t until I read this book. Now, here I am, neck-deep in LGBT Studies and queer theory, in queer pedagogy, and intersectional feminism. And here am I, learning something new about my own field of study from a young adult novel. I love that feeling. I love that reading young adult fiction keeps me in touch with what is current in the world today. There is always and will always be a place in my heart and on my shelves for great YA novels if for no other reason than this. It is instructive and it keeps me grounded. 

Felix’s story, the story of a young queer (trans) black man, is a particularly important and powerful one right now. It is a story that needed telling. Kacen Callender’s book, and voice, has entered the conversation in exactly the right moment. How very lucky we are to have it and how happy I was to read it.   

Thoughts: Citizen, An American Lyric

The first half (give or take) of Claudia Rankine’s poetry collection, Citizen: An American Lyric, actually felt to me like a collection of short, flash fiction. It wasn’t until about that midpoint when the full force of Rankine’s work hit me and I suddenly understood what she had been doing. And it was powerful.

This collection hits particularly hard socially, right now, given all that’s happening with the Black Lives Matter movement. But it hits hard personally, too, because for weeks on end I’ve been unable to get Trayvon Martin out of my mind. I know we have lost a lot of young black men and women, and a lot of transgender black women. No, we haven’t lost them. They’ve been taken from us. And each and every one deserves justice. But it has been young Trayvon that I think about every day. The tribute Rankine pays him in this collection, the tribute she pays to so many, is hard to describe. It is a visceral experience even more than an emotional one, though of course the two go together. And Rankine’s genius is in the slow building momentum of her work, the kind that meets us where we are at the beginning and builds with us as we take in more, as we press forward despite the discomfort, as we too rage and cry, distraught, in the end. And she ends where perhaps a professor must: with a lesson. 

I think what I found most moving and profound about this work is the way Rankine weaves together the most mundane, seemingly innocuous acts of “everyday” racism with the more noteworthy ones. In the very beginning, for example, she includes alongside one of her poems a simple picture, as if taken glibly from someone’s cell phone camera. The photo shows a beautiful day in a beautiful suburban neighborhood. Near-center in the frame is typical street sign, bright green, at the crossroads of a neighborhood intersection. The sign reads, “Jim Crow Rd.” This is how Rankine works. She finds the most subtle, insidious reminders, the kinds we, most of us, might pass by day in and day out without much thought, and she drags our focus onto it, damning us and damning it together. And we deserve it because we’ve allowed so much to go unnoticed, unattended, uncorrected. 

Later, Rankine explores the more popular arenas, such as the spectacle of sports. Her love for tennis comes through in the way she writes about it, with such passion and such knowledge. But in her love she is forced to expose the deep faults and fatal flaws of a blatantly racist pastime. She takes us into the experiences of the Williams sisters, the mockery, the abuse, the psychological damage they faced for simply existing on the court and for being good. For being better than they should have been in a place where they shouldn’t have been. 

She connects these racist news events and these racist monuments and these racist pastimes with the personal moments of her life. The days at the office, the outings with her friends and colleagues, where even the pleasantries are miscast. She ponders freedom and language, memory and faith, life and death, with such careful precision that one feels the sting of the arrowhead’s penetration before we have even noticed Rankine drawing her bow. It is a difficult read because it is so effective, but it is an important read for the same reason. Rankine exposes us to ourselves.

“Words work as release,” she writes. “Occasionally it is interesting to think about the outburst if you would just cry out — / To know what you’ll sound like is worth noting–” (69). Rankine’s cry is somehow beautiful in its heartbreak and its rage.

What is ours? 

Thoughts: How to Be an Antiracist

I’ve noticed there’s a fun(?) little trend happening this year about playing the “bingo card” of life. Murder hornets? Deadly kissing bugs? Global pandemic? It seems every few weeks, there’s something else to worry about, some new extravagant nightmare to “check” on one’s bingo card. Well, if you happened to have a square that reads, “Adam is reminded how to practice Buddhism by reading about antiracism,” bingo to you! Honestly, the experience of reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist right now was wild and humbling, and here is why.

For the last year or so, I’ve been beginning my Buddhist practice. For the most part, that has meant reading about Buddhism and Buddhist practice from a variety of sources, as well as taking one of the Great Courses in Buddhism. Something I’ve learned is that Buddhist practice is very much about checking one’s ego. It’s really much more about the process of unlearning than it is about learning; it’s about accepting what is and living in the moment rather than hoping for something or wishing for something. Enter Kendi’s book. Going into it, I thought I’d see myself and applaud myself, really. I thought I numbered among the enlightened few. I know how arrogant that must sound, but the truth is important. I’m an ally, a strong one, and I thought I knew what that meant. I thought I knew, mostly, how to act, how to stand up, how to speak up, what to say and not say, what to think and not think, and what to do and not do. My ego was large and glorious, and as it turns out, maddeningly obstructive. Maybe even destructive. 

You see, more than anything, Kendi’s book made me face my contradictions. It exposed me to thoughts that were antithetical to the ones that were at the core of my (seemingly) anti-racist identity. Kendi teaches his reader about the damaging effects of color-blindness, something which I only learned recently. He teaches his readers the difference between what seems helpful and what is helpful. For example, in one chapter he explains that black people can be racist and that the idea that “those without power cannot be racist” is a harmful fallacy. This particular revelation shook me to my core because, for a decade, I had been learning this very sentiment, that racism is a one-way street and those in power are the only negative actors. Kendi explains that, no, to think this way means to reinforce the idea that only one group of people has any power and that individuals cannot have power; that right there is the racist thought. If we excuse any person in a position of power, even a “minority,” from acting for the benefit of anti-racism (or worse, if we accept their actively racist actions as unavoidable or non-racist because they happen to be a “minority”), then we are reinforcing the false notion that black people, women, the differently-able, people of color, etc., cannot be powerful. And that’s not just a lie, it’s an attack. As he writes late in the book, “the problem of race has always been at its core the problem of power, not the problem of immorality or ignorance” (208). In other words, we are not racist simply because we are bad people (good people are racist) or because we are stupid to the facts (we can be racist even while knowing better), but because we–those in power–understand, either implicitly or explicitly, that our racism has its benefits and we want, consciously or unconsciously, to maintain those benefits, that power, at all costs. This pertains to any individual in any position of power and the choices that make at any moment. 

Of course, I don’t do justice to the way Kendi is able to explain antiracism, and there are so many more remarkable examples in the book that cover a range of perspectives, including his own struggles with homophobia and sexism, for example. I found these chapters a welcome surprise, too, as a scholar of gender and sexuality. His admissions, his willingness and ability to share how he too was wrong, and how he went about the long and arduous journey of changing, is an inspiration to any reader, and perhaps most of all to the reader who thinks she or he was already enlightened, was already doing the work. After all, those who believe they are doing the good work without reflecting on how they might be doing it incorrectly, are perhaps the bigger danger. It reminds me of the way the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season” (King 1963 para. 1). 

Professor Kendi asks us to be courageous, both in reading this book and hearing it, but also in the steps we take after reading it. Being antiracist means thinking and acting in ways that are sometimes contradictory to what we have been taught by our parents, our schools, our workplaces, our places of worship. And being antiracist also means thinking and acting in ways that are sometimes counter to what we thought were our own best practices. “‘Racist’ and ‘antiracist’ are like peelable name tags,” Kendi writes, “that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other” (23). Just as the Buddhist knows he only exists from moment to moment, that the “self” today is not the “self” tomorrow, and therefore cannot be defined as a permanent identity, so too is the antiracist always a work in progress, always an identity of action and of choice. To claim to be an antiracist means to be doing the work every day, in every way, and to admit when you have failed. 

Every chapter in this book, from “Power” and “Biology” to “Body” and “Survival” has a powerful story to tell and fulfills a crucial function in learning how to be antiracist at one’s core. Taken together, the chapters–the book as a whole–provides the reader who is open to learning with a pathway to taking her first steps on what must be a lifelong walk.  Through use of dichotomous definitions, deep history, and clear examples, not to mention his own personal experiences, Kendi helps the reader understand the many ways, large and small, personal and systemic, that racism is perpetuated. Some of these are hard to read. Some are hard to understand. But hearing and seeing and accepting each piece is necessary for learning how to be truly antiracist in every moment. To make the choice, continuously. I am beyond grateful to Dr. Kendi for his courage and clarity in offering everyone a map. 

Notable Quotes 

“This is the consistent function of racist ideas–and of any kind of bigotry more broadly: to manipulate us into seeing people as the problem, instead of the politics that ensnare them” (8). 

“But crime bills have never correlated to crime any more than fear has correlated to actual violence. We are not meant to fear suits with policies that kill. We are not meant to fear good White males with AR-15s. No, we are to fear the weary, unarmed Latinx body from Latin America. The Arab body kneeling to Allah is to be feared. The Black body from hell is to be feared. Adept politicians and crime entrepreneurs manufacture the fear and stand before voters to deliver them–messiahs who will liberate them from fear of these other bodies” (76). 

“Some of us are restrained by fear of what could happen to us if we resist. In our naivete, we are less fearful of what could happen to us–or is already happening to us–if we don’t resist” (124). 

“Goldwater and his ideological descendants said little to nothing about rich White people who depended on the welfare of inheritances, tax cuts, government contracts, hookups, and bailouts. They said little to nothing about the White middle class depending on the welfare of the New Deal, the GI Bill, subsidized suburbs, and exclusive White networks. Welfare for middle- and upper-income people remained out of the discourse on “handouts,” as welfare for the Black poor became the true oppressor” (154). 

“They define capitalism as the freedom to exploit people into economic ruin; the freedom to assassinate unions; the freedom to prey on unprotected consumers, workers, and environments; the freedom to heave the tax burden onto the middle and lower classes; the freedom to commodify everything and everyone; the freedom to keep poor people poor and middle-income people struggling to stay middle income, and make rich people richer” (161). 

“[T]he power of the spoken word is in the power of the word spoken” (167). 

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