What am I looking for, exactly?
September 3, 2008 was a Wednesday.
It was less than a year into my marriage, two months before Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, and five months before the newspaper where I happened to be working at the time closed for good. I was happily newlywed and gainfully underemployed (the copy-editing gig was temporary and part-time), almost at the end of a career that had barely started and desperately looking to do something with myself.
So I started a blog and I called it “Words, Searched.” The blog wasn’t about anything in particular. I just needed something to do, and writing into the empty void of the Internet seemed as good a thing as any other. “Words, Searched” was an awkward title but a fitting one. Writing in a way that literally anyone in the world could see felt scary right up until the moment I remembered that almost nobody would.
This was what I wrote to get things started:
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
September 3, 2008 | Uncategorized
Fourth grade was the first and last year I rode the bus to school. The bus driver wasn’t very nice. She had a helmet of curly red hair, and the shrill way she used to yell “SHUT your mouth!” still rings in my ears whenever I think of the experience. The seat we chose the first day of school became our assigned seat for the rest of the year or until whenever the driver let us pick seats again. Somehow, I always got stuck next to a kid named Provard, whose nose was always runny. I don’t know if Provard was his first or last name, but I remember how loud he was and the yelling matches he would get into with some of the older kids sitting in the back. Cue the driver, “SHUT your mouth!”
To pass the time, I would do word searches. (Let there be no mistake: I was a nerd.) Mom would buy me books of them at the grocery store and put them in my backpack. It was impossible to tune Provard out, but they made it easier to ignore him.
I hated the bus and intentionally missed it more often than my mom would like to know. The next year — at my behest and to save herself from having to leave work to come pick me up at home and take me in — she bought a house two blocks from my school.
Still, I can look back now and call it the beginning of something to do with me, words and cheap newsprint.
Today is February 3, 2021. It’s a Wednesday.
I am thirteen years and a few months older, still married, now a mother. Still in search of words. Still searching in them for something. Still wondering why I thought “Words, Searched” for a title was a good idea but still committed to it because sometimes you just have to work with what you’ve got. As a title, it’s still awkward but also still fits. I have a job that’s very different from the kind of work I did before, and I still can’t shake that feeling that it’s not quite everything. (I’ve also reached the age at which you begin to understand that no job really is.)
Back in September 2008, I was searching for a new career, among other things. This time around, I’m just searching, in tune and at peace with the knowledge that I will always be searching. Writing is the magnifying glass, the flashlight in the unlit hallway of things I don’t quite know. I’ll be writing about what I’m reading, for the most part—books, magazine articles, tweets, you name it. No doubt, I’ll write about other things too, but language and words and the various media by which those two things travel are what I always circle back to, what I am always looking for and looking to. I hope to post updates a couple of times a month or so, with a book review or recommended reading in between, as inspiration strikes.
Thank you for coming, friends. Let’s see what we find.
February Book Bites
Capsule Book review
Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros - finished in 2011 - It's an enjoyable read, but it doesn’t stay with you like work by other Latina writers (like Achy Obejas, for one). The House on Mango Street is more engaging in half the pages.
Currently on my nightstand
These books are essentially about the same thing—kings and successions. They’re also both fantasies in a way, although only one includes actual fantasy creatures. And, they’re both loooong. Martin is a victim of his own success. As happens with writers of popular series, his editors have quite simply given up. Still, he’s entertaining. Mantel is, too. Perhaps her words feel more important because she’s using everyone’s real names, whereas Martin just took the Wolf imagery and ran with it. Both take getting through. I’m at the end of Wolf Hall, but have many miles to go with Storm.
What the kids are reading these days
From the Desk of Zoey Washington by Janae Marks - I’m reading this one to my 3rd grader, who is well past being read to, but still needs encouragement to take on books beyond the worlds of rainbow fairies and guaranteed happy endings and into real life. Her current favorite is the Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew, our favorite girl detective for the young reader set. In this version of things, there’s not always a bad guy since the mystery is not usually a crime, merely something without explanation. I’m pushing my kiddo a bit away from her preferred escapism with Zoey, a 12-year-old black girl in Boston who begins to correspond with her father, in prison for a murder he says he did not commit. If you’re looking for a way into a conversation about Black Lives Matter with your kid, this is a good one. Zoey is smart and thoughtful and loves to bake—all things true of my kid as well. The book is also low-key an excellent source of music recommendations.
Not Quite Snow White by Ashley Franklin - My kindergartener got to know this book at school and asked for it for Christmas. She loves it and so do I.
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour - Jenna Bush Hager’s January book club selection, an intriguing premise and (because I do often judge books by their covers) a hell of a cover design.
The Color Purple - Among the classics that I’ve always had on my to-read list but somehow never got around to.
Last summer, when the protests for social justice were at their peak and everyone was reading nonfiction about racism and its ills in America, I shared on Facebook a list of recent fiction by black authors that I have enjoyed the last few years. Here’s are three from that list, along with the 5-star reviews I posted on Goodreads (friend me!), in honor of Black History Month.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones - Talk about a book that will rip your heart out. This is the story of a marriage shaken by the very things that shake our country (the title is apt, folks): racism and dreams of advancement, both socioeconomic and emotional. There are many takes on the effects of false imprisonment and of the incarceration of black men in America, but this one gets to the individual heartbreak of what happens after injustice and what it means to try to make yourself whole. Just beautiful.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi - This book is hard and beautiful. There were times when the reading of it was almost physically painful the way holding back tears is painful, not just because the series of lives depicted encounter so much cruelty, but because its truths are so gorgeously rendered they make you wish for peace in these lives that you know is not going to come. In these racially charged times, this is an important work, but saying so feels a bit reductive because in the end, the book is not merely about racism, or society's continued discomfort with addressing its ills. It's about these characters, who exist for their own sake, and about the spirit that ties them all together, which haunts them but also keeps them going and brings them home.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward - This book really packs a punch. There's so much in every word, every sentence, and so tightly woven, that it sometimes feels like poetry. The characters here—a black family in rural Mississippi—are immersed in the kind of poverty that stretches back centuries. They are haunted by addiction, disease, and racism, and live in prisons, both real and imaginary, forged from all of these. Ward shines a light on a piece of America that has been grossly neglected and gives it meaning and majesty without pretending that survival is assured or even expected. This is an unvarnished, truthful portrait of poverty and the dark stain of racism that does not pity its subjects or fool its readers, and one that left me hungry for more of whatever Ward has to give us.
Note: The links under recently purchased and recommendations will take you to Mahogany Books and Semi Colon Chi, two black-owned book stores I’ve been giving my business to lately.