Reading books during a pandemic

Literary event

There’s a terrible inequity in asking people to please read my new book Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories when I’ve been unable to read more than a few books since the pandemic disrupted our lives and unsettled our psyches. While many others found solace and refuge in books, my brain failed to connect with words on the page. I instead turned my harmless evening routine of doing the NYT crossword online into a quietly mad compulsion. Once I finished the daily puzzle, I would go to the archives, which contain old Thursday, Friday, and Saturday puzzles, the hardest of the week.  I would do several of these before bedtime, which normally was my book-reading time. My brain got accustomed to seeing words in a grid rather than in sentences and as responses to puns and clues rather than to fully articulated ideas and emotions.

I continued to buy books. I just wasn’t doing very well at reading them.

My inability to focus may also have been due to the anxiety and preparation around promoting my own book. Also, for seven months I had the adorable distraction of our grandson whom I was helping our daughter care for until her partner in Ecuador could get his pandemic-delayed visa and join them in the States. At the end of a day in which Ilio had been the main attraction, my mind remained focused on him, wondering what kind of world he will live in, what kind of characteristics will he have to nurture in himself to persevere through difficult times in his future. Maybe I was afraid to read books because I might be reminded of the perils humans face just by the fact of living in the world.

At a certain point though, one must always return to stories, that is, other stories besides your own that you’re trying to promote when launching a book during a pandemic. I started with flash fiction. ordering Veronica Montes’ chapbook The Conquered Sits at the Bus Stop, Waiting, winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition from Black Lawrence Press. That title is a story in itself. Or a poem. Anyone who puts words together like that makes me want to read more. These stories both steal your breath and resuscitate you with their language as they take you into the depths of their compressed heart.

A few weeks ago I took an online workshop from Veronica. Among the examples she used was a piece by Marianne Villanueva, another writer I admire. Veronica’s workshop and Marianne’s story “A Prayer Answered,” inspired the start of a story that I’ll be working on during this pandemic winter.

Another book I read was Flying Free: My Victory over Fear to Become the First Latina Pilot on the US Aerobatic Team by Cecilia Aragon. I recently did a virtual Town Hall Seattle event with her. Our books were released within a day of each other in September and I had been looking forward to reading her memoir. When one of my daughters suggested I pitch an event to Town Hall, I immediately thought of Cecilia as someone to share the virtual stage with. My collection of stories about the fictional Angie Rubio’s life lessons about being a brown girl in a world not made for her intersected on many levels with Cecilia’s account of the childhood bullying and racist treatment she received from teachers and peers. While Angie’s story did not take her into adulthood, Cecilia’s accomplishments as a pilot, computer scientist, and professor is a real-life example of the strength and resilience of little brown girls who grow up to be badass brown women. Our Town Hall conversation felt like an affirmation of sisterhood. If you missed it, you can watch it here.

Reading Rachel Swearingen’s debut collection How to Walk on Water and Other Stories made it clear to me how ready I was to re-immerse myself in reading, how much I needed this elegantly wrought set of stories. Each is peopled with characters that may seem alarmingly quirky or woefully damaged, yet you’re convinced they exist in the world because the writing touches so close to our deeply held human desires and secrets. You can tell by her stories that Swearingen is smart, a deft reader of the human condition, and a faithful renderer on the page of our foibles and wants.

Our mutual writer friend Jennifer Munro suggested we do an event together, and so it will be! Rachel and I are scheduled on December 8 for a virtual Elliott Bay Book Company conversation. We’ll talk about the short story and how it’s made and out of what sweat and magic.

There’s always comfort in books and stories even when you think nothing could possibly lift you from your pandemic-induced fractured focus.  So on behalf of the authors mentioned here, I invite you to read our books.

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