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.
In Other Lands (But Mostly My Own Insecurity)
(Just a quick note: there will be some spoilers for Sarah Rees Brennan’s novel In Other Lands in this post.)
I finished reading Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands last night, a novel that made me just radiantly happy. That was not, however, the reaction I expected when I started the book.
About twenty pages in, I took to Twitter to ask the two friends who’d recommended the book to me whether the protagonist would get less obnoxious, or whether I’d be stuck for the entire story reading about a character I hated. Said character, Elliot, is a snide, condescending teen boy, instantly and needlessly cruel to those around him, constantly pitying himself while simultaneously telling himself (and others) how much better he is than everyone else. Both of them told me that his arc would wind up being satisfying, so I stuck with it. I was skeptical, though, because I was fairly certain by that point that I already knew what his arc would be—Elliot would be shown to harbor a deep pain, his abrasive behavior would turn out to be a defense mechanism, and he would ultimately be redeemed, learning to become vulnerable and to be a good friend. And that is, indeed, more or less what happens.
Thinking about that character arc made me viscerally uncomfortable there at the beginning of the story. I wanted to put it down and go read something else. The thing is, we've had so many stories about the inner struggle and ultimate redemption of misunderstood young men. Misunderstood men of all ages, really. And this is both a consequence and a reinforcement of how privilege and power work. Through the choices of which stories we tell and which perspectives we tell them from, we are given every opportunity to empathize with and understand characters who represent the mainstream, the privileged, the default. The people who most need more empathy, those who are kept at the margins of our society, are the people whose stories are less often told, and certainly not in their own voices.
Do we really need another story about a shitty boy? I asked myself. Yes, he has his pain, but so does everyone, and not everyone chooses to deal with their pain by inflicting it on those around them. I didn't want to empathize with this kid. I just wanted to read about somebody else.
I'm glad I didn't, though. In Other Lands turned out to be a sweet and tender story, one that surprised me in how maturely it presented sexuality and boundaries and consent and violence, all while being fun and funny, too. The day before I started reading In Other Lands I tweeted “I want to read something happy. Or beautiful in a way that isn't painful. Or at least in a way in which the pain is not enraging or despairing.” And it was that. And I was happy reading it.
About two-thirds of the way through the book, it occurred to me to look at my initial reaction more closely. Not because the reasons for my discomfort were invalid, but I wondered if they were incomplete. I wondered if it might have to do not only with my desire for justice in the world and in art, but also for my unwillingness to let my younger self off the hook. At the beginning of the book, Elliot is thirteen years old. At thirteen, he is wounded and sad, and he hurts the people around him in order not to let them hurt him. He treats everyone like they're stupid, all the while also telling himself that he is fundamentally unlovable. It's not too far off from how I was at thirteen.
Something I've been thinking a lot about lately is my relationship to success and ambition. Over the past couple of years of therapy, I've come to realize that being of service is one of the most important things to me, that I want to be able to help others. And in the past month or so I've had the thought that if I had a bigger platform, I'd be able to do more for more people. But this is a thought that makes me profoundly uncomfortable.
It's not that I think that in a fair world, no straight, cisgender, able-bodied men would be successful or powerful. It's just that in the real world, such men have had such a disproportionately large share of success and power that any time a man says “Yes, but I'm different,” I become skeptical. And that includes myself. The privileged classes take up so much room in the world, and maybe the best or even the only way to make more space for marginalized people is for those who have privilege to choose to step aside.
I think this is all valid reasoning. Yet, here again, I have to pause and wonder how much of my feelings are driven by a positive desire for justice and how much is just sublimated self-loathing. I think it's important and necessary to be willing to look at oneself honestly and critically. But it's also worth considering that beating yourself up can also be a form of narcissism.
Here's where I'm trying to get toward: that I can make room for others and lift them up and be helpful and useful, and I can do that while also pursuing my own successes. That I can recognize and atone for past mistakes without letting those mistakes define who I am and who I will be. That it's good for me to remember I don't deserve more than anyone else, but that's not the same as saying that I deserve less. That everyone can have their needs met, including me. I'm not there yet, but I'm working on it.