What I’m Reading Now… by Jennifer S. Cheng

 

Lately the weather has been palpitating between rain showers, hastily digressing clouds, and itinerant blue skies, all within a day’s cycle. Which is to say: I have been fluttering between books. On my nightstand at this moment:

* Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World, an ethnographic study of matsutake, which I’ve just started. A beautiful friend sent me an excerpt because she said it reminded her of me—looking close-up in order to think upon the larger, pressing toward complexity, precarity and possibility, she said. I love to eat mushrooms (shiitake, maitake, king oyster, chanterelle) and to stumble upon mushrooms in the woods, but more importantly the first few pages makes me think about how to live my days as such, growing wildly from underneath the earth’s soil in spite of the ruinous encroachment of capitalism. What does it mean to be unlocatable, potent, thrush in the disturbed forest? I’m interested in how Tsing intuits the inextricable contouring of aesthetics, ethics, and politics: all related by way of mystery, complexity, contradiction, plurality, marginal ways of existing and meaning-making. More and more I feel strongly about the marginal not only as ontological/phenomenological/epistemological (and, for me, my aesthetics) but also as ethical/political.

 

* Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis, which I picked up after reading a gorgeous interview between her and Nomi Stone, in which she says: “The wilderness unraveled me—those boundaries of self and the performance of the self” & “I had decided not to negotiate the wild places within me. I had decided to turn away from them, and it hurt my life to do that. And I found my life renewed when I left the idea of safety behind, and just embraced the interior wilderness” & “The wilderness was so rich with animals, so rich with things that were going to have their appetites met. In my unraveling, I wanted to discuss appetite and desire… I was thinking about what I take in—language, what I eat, what I have the right to eat, what I have the right to take in. And I really wanted to write a text that pushed those boundaries.” The timing feels fortuitous: to read these poems on wildness, on feminine appetite, as I am preparing emotionally for the release of my second book, which, though very different, somehow shares in a certain theme or directional spirit.

 

* Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang, which examines in part unbelonging and gatekeeping and (il)legibility and the mythos of belonging. I love the book’s boldness and starkness in saying what it wants to say, perhaps because it is so unlike my own tendencies (to hide, to shadow). I also love the way Chang invokes a fixed persona of cultural imagination in order to widen and challenge in surprising ways. There’s a rich built-in tension when you write into an already existing mythologized persona—you take a given set of boundaries and put them in motion.

 

* And: I’m a few pages into The Melancholy of Race by Anne Anlin Cheng, a scholarly text interested in giving language and legitimacy to the melancholia of existing as a minority person, this “racial wound” that shapes one’s sense of selfhood. Cheng observes how as a society we have perhaps provided a space for grievance but certainly not for grief; I find this concept to be especially poignant in recent years, where the need for mourning, for grief, to be visible and acknowledged is bursting at the seams and triggering all kinds of interpersonal defense mechanisms.

 

* Finally, I have been re-visiting that ridiculously beautiful book which gathers color facsimiles of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems: The Gorgeous Nothings, edited by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner. These days I’m particularly enamored with the appendices: little cloud arrangements of beige and manila envelopes, indexed according to some shared feature. There’s something compelling about our longing to assemble, (re)arrange, see and keep anew. Each index is a poem or little lyric essay.