As a difficult year winds to a close, I’ve been thinking about what books made a difference for me in 2017. What changed my mind, or opened it, or gave me language to understand and express the present moment? Here are three 2017 titles that made me see things in a new way.
by Min Jin Lee
Grand Central, 2017
Min Jin Lee, who grew up in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. at age 7, knew nothing about the Korean diaspora until hearing a lecture in college in 1989. After the lecture, she determined she would write a novel set in Japanese-occupied Korea and Japan to tell the story that so few people know. The novel took twenty-five years to write. Beginning in 1910 and spanning the twentieth century, Lee’s Pachinko follows her protagonist, Sunja, through her unwed pregnancy, unlikely marriage, and life during occupation. The novel moves swiftly through historical events, like the Pacific War and WWII, showing how these national narratives affect Sunja and her family’s day to day life while they attempt to assimilate to a hostile Japanese society in Osaka. She depicts racism as it operates against Sunja in the marketplace, and against her son and her nephew, who are bullied constantly in school for being Korean. Lee has captured the ongoing conundrum of living in a nation that changes constantly and doesn’t always reflect your own beliefs, values, or identity. “What does it mean to be a part of a nation?” writes Gary Shteyngart in his review, “And what can one do to escape its tight, painful, familiar bonds?” Written with the heat of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels, Pachinko lets the reader into a history and a life that they may well be utterly ignorant of, but will soon relate to and understand intimately.
History has failed us, but no matter.
by Tommy Pico
Tin House Books, 2017
In a year that has been stellar for poetry—Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas (Greywolf), Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce (Tin House)—Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem stands out for its brisk, funny, and heartbreaking attention to life as a queer, NDN poet in the Trump era. Pico tells the reader right away that he cannot, will not write a nature poem, though he realizes many would expect him to have some profound connection to nature as an indigenous person. Throughout the poem, he explains what kinds of nature he would like to write a poem about. “it seems foolish to discuss nature w/o talking about endemic poverty / which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about corporations given / human agency which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about / colonialism which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about misogyny.” Using stylistic tics from Internet and text message speak, the voice of his persona “Teebs,” Pico brings a contemporary, critical eye to poetic form and insists that the sometimes “aloof” poetry that circulates in popular and literary circles is “not as interesting as what’s out on the margins.” For Pico, writing book-length poems is crucial to his mission to expand Kumeyaay culture by adding to it, for, he says, everything he writes is the work of a Kumeyaay poet.
How do statues become more galvanizing than refugees
is not something I wd include in a nature poem.
by Mary Ruefle
I first heard Mary Ruefle, a reclusive poet who does not use email, read this essay at a writing workshop at Reed College several years ago. She told us without scruples that she houses a goat in the attic of her brain, and I believed every word. After she finished, instead of offering time for questions from the audience, she clicked on John Lennon’s “Imagine” at full blast and marched up the steps of the auditorium and out of the room, to lavish applause. We are lucky to have her essay, and her thoughts on imagination—she believes “there is no difference between thinking and imagining”—in print for the first time. “A woman and her imagination are one,” she writes. Ruefle’s prose moves fluidly between everyday interactions, readings of various texts and poems, and theorizing about the meaning and value of imagination. Like Renee Gladman’s Calamaties (Wave 2016), Ruefle’s prose is at once personal and abstract, revelatory and matter of fact. Gladman and Ruefle are two living writers who, I believe, can tackle any subject. And to my delight, they continue to do so. A longstanding favorite Ruefle piece of mine is her essay “My Private Property,” in which she meditates on her own love for shrunken heads in museums.
I am not even vaguely interested in the men, or the women, or any of that other stuff; I am interested in the goat, whom I love as if it were mine own, and though I don’t have an attic, I have a place in my head where it can live, and go on living, as I feed it daily with mounds of fresh cut grass.