Why I Started Reading Fiction Again

It was the end of summer and time to return to graduate school. I had spent the previous months in a bit of a daze, hopping from plane to plane, from bus to bus, with a backpack full of clothes and a handful of books. I had become obsessed with 19th century Brazilian writer Machado de Assis’ unassumingly brilliant storytelling, which I gobbled down as I made my way awkwardly from Peru down to Chile then to Brazil and back to the United States.

It was my first South America trip, that most writerly of experiences, which I attempted to complete with a single backpack. I had a sore throat throughout the entire summer and was perennially exhausted, but continually dragged myself through winding streets and from cultural landmark to cultural landmark, a curvy woman of color alone trying to emulate the experience a slim white dude would have.

In a random bookstore somewhere in Paraty, Brazil, my eye caught the spine of a book huddled between many others. It was slim but it was colorful, and it was love at first sight. It was Lydia Fagundes Telles’ short story collection Seminário dos Ratos (Rat Seminar), and for the rest of the trip I was mostly unable to put it down.

This had always been my love affair with going outside: I would travel to places that seemed impossible to the child I once had been — the north of Sweden, Lodz in Poland, some small German town where a friend lived, the Sacred Valley in Peru — and just frantically search for a place to sit down and disappear inside a book. Growing I had also been that girl, shy and introverted, dreaming of boys and of having the courage to conquer my crush, but ultimately much more comfortable and at home with a book in my bed.

I am not sure where that young girl went. During grad school, as I was pursuing a translation and interpretation program, our professors strongly encouraged us to keep up with “current events”. I had never been really good at that aspect of being an educated person, always preferring 19th century literature or American science fiction. But I was sacrificing my whole life on my graduate degree, and so I needed to do everything they said.

I gave up my previous New Yorker habit, for instance, and subscribed to The Economist, which I did my absolute best to read from cover to cover. It was boring, of course, but I went at it like the dutiful, disciplined student that I was. It was better to read The Economist every night before going to bed imagining the key to my future financial stability hid somewhere between its hundreds of thousands of pages than to think about what may happen once I was done with school and my student loans became due, and what if I could not find any work?

I read that magazine, and books about economics and about translation theory, and I read also The Open Veins of Latin America. The novels I tried to read fell by the wayside throughout the entire semester. By the end of that summer, I put down my Brazilian storytellers and again transformed into the dutiful student who read The Economist and watched Democracy Now! every evening.

After school, I spent six months down in Gainesville, Florida, where my partner had found a job. It was a strange place, a world both too big and too small, and thoroughly alien to me. I dreamt of moving to San Francisco, it was all I could think of back then, and a small town in Florida was the last place I wanted to be. My only delight in that place was the public library.

There I read random books, books I had been meaning to read for a long time (No Logo) and continued to watch Democracy Now! It was the summer of 2011 now, and the Occupy protests were raging throughout the country. Reading Klein’s book gave me a strong social justice foundation that allowed me a better understanding of the world in which I had grown up.

By the end of that year, I finally made it down to California, and settled for an apartment in Oakland, near Lake Merritt. I watched the last remnants of the Occupy protests from the office window of the place where I worked, as the last few stragglers with cardboard signs still showed up on the sidewalks of the Financial District.

I grew appalled at the growing homeless population, at how this city was not quite what I imagined it would be, at how achingly difficult it was to find an affordable and acceptable apartment. My six years in the San Francisco Bay Area shaped both me and my partner. We went from being mostly disinterested in politics to becoming fully immersed in them, almost as if our very survival depended on what was happening in the political spectrum. I kept watching Democracy Now!, eventually unsubscribed to The Economist. I read less and less fiction, more and more memoir, history and investigative journalism.

It is not that I didn’t read any fiction during those years— I certainly did. I binged on Margaret Atwood and Dave Eggers for a good while. But when I was younger, I could not imagine myself reading anything but fiction. I used to love science fiction, fantasy, any literature that I could really get my hands on, in translation or otherwise, from any time period. But over the years I lost my taste for that, to the point where I could not stand reading any fiction for most of the year.

Sometimes I read things that seemed interesting (The Emperor of Scent, The Goddess Pose), other times for research about a topic (The Devil in the White City), yet other times to understand my own pain (Unbearable Weight). I read and read in an effort to feel I had some grasp on a world that grew ever more painful and dangerous.

This pandemic summer, as the BLM protests erupted, I promptly began the required reading that I had been meaning to do for a long time. White Fragility, How to Be an Antiracist, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I floated then to Manufacturing Consent, a to-do on my reading list for ages. I began getting through The Second Sex as the first stop in a scheduled survey of existentialist writers.

And then, one night, I reopened the copy of Stephen King’s It I had purchased on Kindle last year when the second chapter of the latest film adaptation came out. A warmth fell over me. It is not one of the great works of literature, and I read it when I was around 19. But it’s familiar, like a soft cake or a warm freshly baked cookie. It’s safe. I don’t feel guilty about my progress in the book, or about falling asleep everytime I read a few pages. I disappear into that world, and suddenly I feel okay. It may be a story set in a world of horror, but perhaps there is no horror quite like the lived reality of an adult in the middle of a global pandemic. It provides a door into another world, much unlike the non-fiction I had been reading previously.

It is a beautiful reminder of all our dimensions, all our facets and ways of being. I am not only the person interested in politics, language and history. I am also a fan of the horror genre, someone who has watched more trashy horror movies and read more Stephen King novels than I’d care to admit, and who enjoys falling asleep listening to stupid YouTube videos. These moments of reprise, of disconnecting from reality, are also necessary, absolutely essential even. I only hope I can swim in and out as the need may be.

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