2020 Year in Review (or, I Survived)

Hello! I’ve been meaning to blog about some recent writings, but you know how it is: There’s a pandemic raging, you’re working in a corner of the living room trying to tune out the sirens and police helicopters, your nation’s democracy seems to be hanging on by a thread, and … what’s that smell? Did I leave the stove on? Nope, it’s just the forests burning because of a gender reveal party.

(The fact-checker in me feels compelled to point out that the gender reveal party only torched about 45,000 acres, give or take. The rest was climate change and people who had never gone outside before.)

Anyway, among all that I somehow did some writing. Much of it was in forms that were new for me, or at least new in terms of publishing. A larger portion than usual was in print and not at all online, which means you’ll need to buy the magazines and books below if you want to read the pieces. Sorry, but print is good for your brain.

The Nondescript (fiction) // The Ghastling

I’m back to writing short fiction again. Sometimes it has elements of horror, although I think “suburban surreal” may be a more appropriate name for the place where my imagination dwells. This story sprung from a series of prompts I laid out for myself circa 2017 that were all about islands. (I have a lot of notes on strange islands from world history.) One of the prompts was “the island of deaccessioned artifacts.” Deaccessioning is the process by which museums sell or give away items they no longer want, whether because they no longer fit the curatorial purview in some way or the institution has run out space. I wasn’t thinking about it directly, but I’m sure this prompt was also informed by my interest around human remains in museums and how the ethical standards on those have shifted. But the artifact I write about here is not a part of a human. (OR IS IT???)

I was over the moon when I got word The Ghastling had accepted my submission. They were the first place I tried—indeed the first place I’ve sent pure fiction in well over a decade—because I like their sensibility, particularly the focus on quiet horror and folk horror. The magazine is one of the few things I’ve been able to read during the pandemic where I feel completely enveloped by the fictional worlds, where I can shut out the sirens and the wildfires and the death counts and everything for just.two.seconds.

Thank you so much to Rebecca Parfitt for picking me out of the slush pile! You can buy Book 12 of The Ghastling here.

Possessed (fiction-essay hybrid) // The Happy Reader

One of the things I’d hoped to do in 2020 was return to New Orleans and work on a research project. Of course, I didn’t get to physically travel to New Orleans this cursed year, but I jumped on the opportunity to research the writer Lafcadio Hearn’s time in that great city for The Happy Reader. Who is Lafcadio Hearn? Let’s just say that if you enjoy Western retellings of Japanese ghost stories or ideas about New Orleans as a “haunted” locale, you’re following in his footsteps. I’d say more, but if his name is new to you, read Andrei Codrescu in The Paris Review. Then, of course, buy issue 15 of The Happy Reader (here), which has a number of articles and essays all about Hearn’s life (see table of contents above). All of the pieces are great, but I particularly recommend “Resurrected” by Moeko Fujii.

My piece is also about an imagined meeting between Hearn and Marie Laveau. I relied heavily on the scholarship of Carolyn Morrow Long for my account of Laveau, particularly the book A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau. Of course, no one knows if Hearn and Laveau ever met, but their time seems to have briefly overlapped—Hearn in the early days of the city he likened to “a dead bride crowned with orange flowers,” and Laveau at the very end of her famous life.

Writing a fiction-essay hybrid is risky. So let me say this: all of the details at the start of the piece are real, but when Hearn starts out on those long nocturnal walks, that’s where it becomes fiction-informed-by-research. Thanks so much to Seb Emina for inviting me to contribute to this very special project.

Gray (essay) // Wildsam Field Guides, Seattle edition

The wildfire smoke was at its worst when this was taken. It wasn’t the kind of gray I had in mind.

Here’s a little fact about me: I’m fascinated by colors. Not so much wearing or surrounding myself with them (I only like to wear about three colors), but their natural and cultural history; how we learned to make them from animals and minerals and plants, why we call them the names we do, what they’ve been supposed to mean at various places and times. I think of them like stones that can skip across the waters of history. (This is also how I think about words, which is maybe the better analogy).

Several years ago I started thinking about gray as a non-color, and its many cultural associations—gray zones and gray hair and Gray Ladies and Grey Gardens and even gray aliens. I started writing something that was partly about gray in cultural history and partly about my experience of it in the Pacific Northwest, but I was in Brooklyn then, and I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted the essay to go. Fast forward a few years and the wonderful editor James Ross Gardener was helping to put together the Seattle edition of the travel guides-miscellanies-anthologies known as Wildsam. With his encouragement, I wrote more in the essay about Seattle history and Seattle gray, and explored my thesis that we need gray—we need its subtlety and nuance, its liminality, its sometimes lunar shimmer. I’ve admired the Wildsam guides for years and I’m so glad the essay found a home there. You can buy the Seattle edition of Wildsam here. I still have a lot to say about gray, so I may return to it, and other colors, down the road.

Uncertainty Bootcamp (essay) // Seattle Met Magazine

What to say about this one? My illness is by far the most frustrating experience of my life, and one that continually tests my will to survive. But I think I can say I’m doing significantly better than I was a year ago, so that’s something. (Please do not email me with your miracle cures.)

I wrote this essay toward the start of outbreak in the Northwest. As I saw the able-bodied folks around me freak out about their lives upended and plans derailed, I thought about what it meant for me to have lived with such variable health for the past six years or so. Basically, a lot of the illusions of control healthy folks enjoy have been punctured for me. I’m sure that my interest in mortality awareness has helped soften the blows of this, just a little.

This one was a bit of a balancing act: I didn’t want to lean in to the treacly illness-as-teacher metaphor, which can become very problematic very quickly. I’m not at peace with my illness, but I am grateful for how it’s made me a more compassionate—and yes, better—person. I don’t take anything for granted anymore. And I wonder if a number of us will come through the pandemic having had a similar experience. I know that after all this I will never take peaceful neighborhood strolls, clean air, or my lungs for granted again.

This one you CAN read online! It’s very short—I initially wrote much more—but that’s probably for the best. Thanks so much to Stefan Milne for his patient editorial work on this one.


I also wrote many other things this year, a good deal of it unbylined content in the trivia and education space, which is how I survived. I’m grateful to work with wonderful editors, and very grateful to have flexible work. I also researched for a whole stack of podcasts, some of which you may be hearing more about in 2021. I’m cautiously hoping for a much better year. But of course, years are not magical units of time with some kind of inherent essence; they take the flavor and hue of the events that the humans alive during that year lend them. It is always up to us, together and singularly, to work for a better future for everyone.

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