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.

Announcing “The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home”

front cover

New book alert: The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home, edited by Laura Anderson Barbata and Donna Wingate, with contributions by me, Jan Bondeson, Grant Hester, and others, is out now.

Julia Pastrana was a 19th century indigenous Mexican woman and a gifted singer and dancer who toured Europe and the United States billed as “The Ugliest Woman in the World.” She was born with what we now call generalized hypertrichosis terminalis and severe gingival hyperplasia, conditions that covered her body in thick hair and gave her an overdeveloped jaw. Several prominent doctors of her day testified that she was part-woman, part beast (although others were well aware of the truth—she was entirely human). After her death due to complications from childbirth in 1860, Pastrana’s embalmed body and that of her infant son were exhibited off and on for over a century, appearing as late as 1972 in United States fairgrounds. They later spent decades in storage in Oslo, where they were vandalized and her son’s body destroyed.

In 2013, after nearly a decade of efforts, artist Laura Anderson Barbata succeeded in having Pastrana’s body retrieved from storage in the Schreiner Collection at the University of Oslo and repatriated to a cemetery near her birthplace in Sinaloa, Mexico. There, Pastrana was buried in a secure tomb amid a Catholic ceremony and thousands of flowers sent from all over the world.

Our new book covers Julia’s story from a variety of angles, including what we know of Julia’s life and discovery in storage (Jan Bondeson), what she has to tell us about our responsibility to the dead (Grant Hester), the ethical dilemmas stories like hers present for museums today (Nicholas Marquez-Grant), her story as viewed through the lens of feminist and disability studies (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson), how the repatriation was accomplished (Barbata), and other bodies with similar tales still stored in museums today (me).

While Pastrana’s story may seem like an isolated case, I believe it has important things to say about how far we’ve come—and how far we have to go—in terms of viewing all members of the human family as equally worthy of respect. I hope you’ll check it out.


back cover

Love and Indignation

It’s been a difficult week. Late Tuesday afternoon, I posted on social media about how I would soon be able to say I had voted for the nation’s first Black and then first female president. I noted that what I found even more moving than casting my vote was the diversity at my polling place in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where a whole crew of people once excluded from the voting process (people of color, immigrants, women) were working, helping one another, and helping me, do our civic duty. For a moment, it felt like as messy and fucked-up as this country can be, maybe it would all be ok.

Fast forward a few days, and we have a hollow buffoon with misogynist, racist, looney tune tendencies as the president and there’s a swastika at the park in the town where I grew up. I’ve been having so many conversation with friends who are shocked, alarmed, and angry—as we should be. To be clear, these are not sour grapes because “our side” lost. Outrage is a valid response when a leader who threatens basic human rights—the right to safety and dignity regardless of ethnicity or country of origin, the right to a free press, the right to worship as we please, love as we please, to have control over our own bodies—is elected. I heard one person say, “I refuse to be angry, because anger is what got us into this mess.” That’s like getting food poisoning and then saying “I’m not going to eat ever again, hunger is what got me into this mess.” Vomiting is sometimes the body’s response to a toxin; anger can work similarly. And righteous anger can be transformative.

I could go on for days, but I can’t say it any better than the words of the ACLU’s executive director, Anthony D. Romero. He wrote:

“President-elect Trump, as you assume the nation’s highest office, we urge you to reconsider and change course on certain campaign promises you have made. These include your plan to amass a deportation force to remove 11 million undocumented immigrants; ban the entry of Muslims into our country and aggressively surveil them; punish women for accessing abortion; reauthorize waterboarding and other forms of torture; and change our nation’s libel laws and restrict freedom of expression.

These proposals are not simply un-American and wrong-headed, they are unlawful and unconstitutional. They violate the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and 14th Amendments.”

In my discussions with friends, many people are looking for ways to act and are unsure what to do next. Giving Trump a chance to lead is not what to do next—he has said enough for us to know what he is capable of. For right now, here are some basic things you can do:

  • For those with the means to donate, consider the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, or any of these organizations.
    • Is an important birthday, anniversary, or other special occasion coming up? Why not make a donation in honor of someone instead of buying a gift? I just did this for some family birthdays—people old enough to buy their own presents, who don’t really need another tchotchke from me. I’ve also set up recurring monthly donations, because guaranteed amounts help organizatios plan.
    • I know this might sound extreme, but what if we cancelled Thanksgiving and spent the money we were going to spend on an elaborate meal as a donation instead? My family’s across the country, and so I was considering a fancy restaurant meal; now, I want to donate that money and find a place where I can volunteer. (I will probably still find a way to eat some pumpkin pie, though.)
  • If money is tight, many of those organizations have sign-up sheets for volunteering your time. Remember that you have the chance to impact people’s minds with every conversation in daily life. Be proud, be strong—you have a right to your opinion, and no one, certainly not the president, is exempt from criticism. Never let anyone tell you that criticizing elected officials is disrespectful or un-American. It’s anything but.
  • Protest. If you think “protesting doesn’t do anything,” consider the civil rights movement. Perhaps you might google Gandhi? He was kind of a big deal.
    • The Million Woman March on DC in inauguration day one protest to consider. All genders are welcome, vaginas not necessary.
  • If you witness harassment or discrimination, stand up for the vulnerable. Here’s a great comic that demonstrates one technique for how to do so, and applies regardless of the type of harassment being enacted. I used this technique on a train a few years ago, and the harassing man was so flummoxed it worked like a charm.
  • Exercise your critical thinking skills at all times. When you see a news article, check the source and date right away. If you’re unfamiliar with the source, try to see how long it’s been around. Brand-new? Could be a red flag. Look for an “about us” section. There are a few other good tips at the bottom of this NYT piece.
  • Be skeptical about attempts to commodify your dissent. The wearing of a safety pin might make you feel good, and that’s not nothing this week. But the symbol may not register to those you’re trying to protect, and if you’re spending more than a second and a few cents on it, your effort is probably better spent elsewhere. Please do not buy the $300 14k gold safety pin necklace as a gesture of solidarity.
    • On a related note, while self-care is critical for self-preservation, please don’t treat your pedicure like a political act. I mean, just don’t.
  • Read, and read some more:

At the same time, I’m drawing courage from my freedom-fighting family members, like my ancestor Owen Lovejoy, who worked hard to end slavery in D.C. and lost his brother to the cause when his abolitionist printing press was torched. I take comfort in knowing that even Abraham Lincoln thought Owen Lovejoy was “too incendiary.” But I bet Owen knew which side of history he was on.

And yet, not everything is dark. In the Union Square subway station, the street artist Matthew Chavez has set up a wall of compassion (that’s what I’m calling it), featuring one of my favorite inventions, the Post-It note. I took a brief video of it:

And there is still poetry. I went searching for one of the poems I loved most in my twenties, by the surrealist poet and activist Mary Low. I leave it with you now:


The Inscape Building’s Dark History

The exterior of the Inscape building in 2012.

The first in what I hope will be a series of short columns in Seattle Met magazine on the darker side of local history is now online. This story profiles the Inscape building, once a local immigration processing center and prison, now remade as artists’ studios. Read it here. Next month: Congressman Marion Zioncheck and the suicide (or murder?) that haunts one of my favorite places to drink downtown.

Elena Rzhevskaya: The Woman Who Held Hitler’s Teeth

Today I discovered Elena Rzhevskaya, a Russian writer who worked as a translator with the Soviet team who identified Hitler’s body after his death in 1945. She was entrusted with Hitler’s teeth during the search for a dentist who could identify them, and thus prove that the Fuhrer was really dead.

Rzhevskaya’s “Berlin Notes,” published in the Russian literary magazine Znamya in 1965, provided the first detailed account of the discovery of Hitler’s body. This information had long been suppressed in Russia because Stalin wanted to nurture a myth that Hitler was still alive.

During my research, I kept hearing that these “Notes” were grotesque, literary, not concrete enough for Western researchers. So of course I wanted to read them. But it does not appear that either “Berlin Notes,” or Rzhevskaya’s later book Berlin, May 1945 have been fully translated into English. I hope I’m wrong. Otherwise, this seems like a gap that needs to be addressed.

Here’s some more information about Rzhevskaya, pulled from a variety of sources:

By the will of fate I came to play a part in not letting Hitler achieve his final goal of disappearing and turning into a myth. Only with time did I finally manage to overcome all the obstacles and make public this ‘secret of the century’. I managed to prevent Stalin’s dark and murky ambition from taking root – his desire to hide from the world that we had found Hitler’s corpse.

–From Rzhevskaya’s page at her literary agency, which also includes her bio and more photos.

The fact therefore remains that the first time the world learnt the full story of how the Russians found and identified the corpses of Hitler and Eva Braun was when, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Third Reich, Yelena Rzhevskaya published in Znamya her Berlin Notes.

The Death of Adolf Hitler: Unknown Documents from Soviet Archives by Lev Bezymenski, review by: R. Ainszte in International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), Vol. 45, No. 2 (Apr.,1969), pp. 294-295

A work that combines the documentary method with personal memoir is Elena Rzhevskaya’s Berlin, May 1945 … A translator with the Soviet Army as it took Warsaw and advanced to Berlin, Rzhevskaya was present when Hitler’s charred body was found outside his bunker (and was entrusted with the Fuhrer’s teeth, which she carried in a box for two days during the search for dentists who could identify them). Her eyewitness account of the taking of Berlin, reinfornced by her extensive archival work done decades later, is vivid and detailed.

The last years of Soviet Russian literature: prose fiction, 1975-1991, by Deming Brown

Yelena Rzhevskaya, the interpreter with the Smersh group, later recounted how on the evening of May 8, when Soviet troops prepared to celebrate the German surrender, she was given a box covered in red satin and told to guard it with her life. She described it as “the sort used for cheap jewelry.” The box held Hitler’s jaws. Rzhevskaya was given it because, as a woman, she was considered less likely to get drunk that night and lose it.

— “Hitler’s Jaws of Death,” Anthony Beevor, a NYT Op-Ed

In the smouldering ruins of Berlin, Elena Rzhevskaya stooped by a radio to hear the announcement of the Nazis’ final capitulation, a small box clutched to her side. It was 8 May 1945 and at Karls-horst, on the edge of the city, the German high command had surrendered to Russian, British and American forces.

But the young interpreter from Soviet military reconnaissance was subdued as her comrades across the city broke into wild celebrations.

Tucked in the satin-lined box she was clutching were the flesh-specked jawbones of Adolf Hitler, wrenched from his corpse just hours earlier by a Russian pathologist.

A burnt body thought to be the Fuhrer’s had been found by a Red Army soldier near his bunker days before, but Joseph Stalin ordered the discovery be concealed.

‘Only two officers knew what I was carrying and I had to keep my tongue,’ Rzhevskaya, 85, told The Observer in a rare interview at her Moscow apartment.

…On 8 May, as Soviet soldiers in Berlin’s streets shouted with joy at the news of German surrender, Rzhevskaya poured wine for her colleagues with one hand – while clamping the little box to her side with the other.

‘Can you imagine how it felt? A young woman like me who had travelled the long military road from the edge of Moscow to Berlin; to stand there and hear that announcement of surrender, knowing that I held in my hands the decisive proof that we had Hitler’s remains.

The Guardian 

Read an excerpt from Berlin, May 1945 on p. 48 of Germany, 1945-1949: a sourcebook on Google Books here.

There is also a somewhat odd video put together (I think) by her literary agency on YouTube below: