This year has been unrelenting. America and the world continue to face a series of increasingly horrifying crises that we are ill-prepared to manage, let alone avoid. I am struggling to believe that next year might be different. I’m struggling to feel hopeful. Instead, I most often feel frightened and powerless.
Of course, that is what we’re meant to feel. The patriarchal white supremacist power structures that America is built upon are designed to silence voices of women, of people of color, of anyone who would challenge its foundation and seek its dismantling. And this is why we must continue on, and why we must keep making art.
Reading through the writing we’ve published at The Rumpus in 2020, it is impossible not to find some hope and comfort. Our contributors shared stories, essays, poems, interviews, comics, and book reviews that investigate what it means to be alive in America today. We are honored by and thankful for all of their work.
I’ve asked my editors, the unsung heroes who volunteer their time and energy to help keep this ship afloat—and for whom I am endlessly grateful every year, but especially this year—to share their favorite Rumpus pieces from 2020. I’ve shared mine, too. Please remember that if you aren’t named below, it doesn’t diminish your contribution to The Rumpus. Your words matter to me so very much, and have carried me through each day of 2020. – Marisa Siegel, Editor-in-chief
Marisa Siegel, Editor-in-chief
I read everything that goes up at The Rumpus, across all sections. Really. Choosing favorites feels like choosing between my children (luckily I only have one actual kid, so I’ll never have to do this IRL). So, please forgive the long list that follows; I did my best to pare it down but am a very proud mama.
We launched ENOUGH in November 2017, and three years later our readers continue to give these stories attention, sharing them on social media and taking the conversation off the page out into the real world. To be able to offer this space for women and non-binary folx to share their experiences and to amplify the conversation around rape culture remains the most meaningful experience I’ve had as an editor thus far. However, this year I put ENOUGH on extended hiatus after its usual summer break; I’ve been struggling with my own CPTSD and wasn’t able to focus on the series. I look forward to bringing you more ENOUGH in the New Year, and am grateful for the patience of the many contributors whose work has been accepted.
We ran nearly a dozen installments in the first half of the year, and each is worth your attention. But I’d like to highlight two essays here: First, in “Leaving Buffalo Behind,” Amanda Oliver writes about the ways women are held accountable for their sexuality and she came to turn away from the judgements of neighbors and friends and focus on her own understanding of her sexuality and self-worth. Then, in “Beautiful Teeth,” Monica Jones unpacks her escape from an abusive marriage and investigates why our culture—and legal system—need to come to a more expansive understanding of domestic violence.
We introduced Rumpus Original Poetry as a regularly occurring series in 2017, and last year we began to publish a new poetry feature every week. To call the poetry we receive for this section of the magazine “slush” is a disservice; the bulk of the original poetry we publish is now unsolicited, and consistently impresses and challenges me each week. Here are my top picks from 2020:
Publishing four poems from Elizabeth Robinson was particularly meaningful for me because my own very first experience with The Rumpus was writing this review of Robinson’s Counterpart in January 2013. (And, if you love these poems as much as I do, check out this poem Robinson shared with us for National Poetry Month.)
I’ve returned to these three poems by Ashley M. Jones many times since they published in March. I love Jones’s unapologetic truth-telling and admire the craft in how her poems sing themselves off the page. “An Experiential and Intellectual Discourse on the N-Word” stops me in my tracks each time I read it—if you haven’t read it yet, please do.
I heard the first of these three poems by Monica Prince read aloud at our Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend event, and it made me feel all the feelings; I was honored when Monica agreed to share it with Rumpus readers. Prince weaves an investigation of the etymology of words into a larger canvas of emotion and our current reality, and the results are stunning.
Finally, we published three poems from Sadia Hassan the week of the election—the timing is not coincidental. The sharpness of Hassan’s language and line breaks gives me chills, and her message rings clear throughout these beautifully crafted gems.
Our National Poetry Month Project brings forth an abundance of magnificent new poetry each April, and this year was no exception. Kenji C. Liu’s timely poem “When I cough during the pandemic” cuts me to the quick with its haunting reminder of last spring’s terror while also insisting readers acknowledge the terrors which existed long before COVID-19. Nikki Wallschlaeger’s seemingly unassuming poem “Manifesto” is instead an expansive poem-prayer for the love and hope we all need to survive. And finally, in “The News She Does Not Give Him (Everyone Is Killing Us),” Ada Limón underscores the everyday nature of gun violence in America with terse, tense lines and masterful line breaks.
Also running twice a month, Rumpus Original Fiction had another banner year under the leadership of Karissa Chen, Dennis Norris II, Rebecca Rubenstein, and Vonetta Young. Featuring stories from established writers like Hala Alyan, Ariel Gore, and K-Ming Chang alongside notable newcomers like Ren Weber and Nadya Agrawal, there isn’t a weak link to be found. Other stories I loved include Leah Schnelbach’s “Clockwork,” Rita Chang-Eppig’s “The Bad Kind of Puppy,” and Ashley Lopez’s “Overlook”—all three of these pieces drew me in and kept me rapt throughout with rich detail, unusual narrative choices, and exquisite craft.
We run three interviews each week, and powerhouse interviews editor Monet Patrice Thomas and her assistant editors A. Malone and Janet Frishberg never disappoint (and they’re each formidable interviewers and writers, too; click their names and see for yourself!). Here are some of my favorite Rumpus interviews from this past year:
“The Right Wrong Note: A Conversation with Garth Greenwell” by Garrard Conley
“Tracing the Fractures: A Conversation with Kristen Millares Young” by Elissa Washuta
“Poetry as Archeology: Talking with Roy G. Guzmán” by Michael Kleber-Diggs
“This Is Joy: A Conversation with Gabrielle Civil” by Aisha Sabatini Sloan
“Living Memory Keepers: Talking with Alicia Elliott” by Donna Hemans
“Queering the Southern Gothic: A Conversation with Genevieve Hudson” by Leni Zumas
Our books editor Chelsea Leu and poetry reviews editors Noah Baldino and Leena Soman Navani are responsible for the awesome book reviews we publish most Wednesdays and Fridays. Some of my top picks from this past year include:
“On Love and Dogs: Cleanness by Garth Greenwell” reviewed by Carley Moore
“Queer Logic: Females and My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” reviewed by Amelia Possanza
“Justice by Seeing: Of Color by Jaswinder Bolina” reviewed by Sarah Haas
“On Loss of Land and Loss of Girlhood: Taneum Bambrick’s Vantage” reviewed by Aria Aber
“A Quintessential Quarantine Read: Space Struck by Paige Lewis” reviewed by Julie Marie Wade
“The World Is on Fire: Living Weapon by Rowan Ricardo Phillips” reviewed by Andre Bagoo
Our comics editor Brandon Hicks curates our Spotlight section and all reoccurring comics series at The Rumpus. This year, we were excited to share Kelcey Parker Ervick’s truly wonderful miniseries “Suffragette City,” and featured powerful Spotlight comics like Shay Alexi’s “Giraffe’s Midwife,” Lena Moses-Schmitt’s “Indoor Feeling,” and Eloise Grills’s “Restful Meditations for the 100% Normal, Well-Adjusted Human.”
And then there are the feature essays. I agonize over this list every year, whittling it down, somehow, to just five essays. I aimed to find an intersection between the writing that mattered most to me and the writing that felt most exemplary of the work I want The Rumpus to be publishing.
Laura Stanfill’s gorgeous, heartbreaking essay “Within the Scope” is an intimate look at the dynamics of an abusive relationship. Stanfill pulls no punches and shows us clearly the psychological damage inflicted upon her—and how it echoes through her life, even now.
In “To Pimp a Mockingbird: A Lesson Plan,” Sean Enfield looks back to his own experiences as a student as he struggles to make an impact on his students today. Enfield effectively utilizes form to underscore his important insight into how we fail young students of color in American—and into how he, and we, can do better.
Lillian Giles’s powerful “Dear Daughters” lives somewhere between poetry and prose, as many of my favorite pieces do. Its musicality carries the reader through the bleak past and present and toward a hope-filled future where Black and brown bodies are valued, are cherished.
It should be no surprise that my favorite essays are often written by poets. In “Racism Is a Reboot: Binging Battlestar Galactica at the End of a World,” Franny Choi considers how humanity repeats itself again and again—and wonders “how many more times each of us will have to reawaken” before the cycles of violence and suffering might end.
Finally, in “The Right to Lawfully Kill,” Wakaya Wells shares a stirring account of life during the pandemic, and thinks about how humans engage with nature and each other. Wells shapes their essay around a newspaper article, but their poetic sensibilities and keen understanding of the interconnected web of problems that’s led us to our current moment stretch far past this original source material.
Marissa Korbel, Managing editor
“We Love Our Sons, We Raise Our Daughters“ by Sophia Shalmiyev
Shalmiyev’s prose is like a feminist ice bath. In this gutting examination of her own complicated relationships to alcoholics, parents, and alcoholic parents, she pulls not a single punch and drops me into the icy depths so fast it makes me gasp.
“It’s a Beautiful (Toxic) Life“ by Mary Mandeville
Through Mandeville’s incredibly skilled storytelling, a simple walk with her dogs becomes the vehicle for an entire ecologic justice treatise. Beautiful, vast, and the very first COVID-19 essay that I fell in love with (which is really a compliment if you knew how many COVID-19 essays I’ve read) this essay challenges, awes, and delivers both micro and macro beauties.
“Dancing Separate, Together“ by Russel Janzen
To write about dancing, it almost goes without saying, one has to be tremendously skilled at both—even the most formidable writers who lack dance experience consistently fall on flat feet. In this essay about creative community, separateness, and the early days of quarantine, Janzen, a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, exquisitely captures the mix of corporeal love and torture that makes dance so compelling.
“The Blacker the Berry, the Quicker They Shoot“ by Shamecca Harris
I fell in love with this piece from the title onward. Harris shares her life from birth to the summer 2020 protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. It is an essay that effortlessly shows us how the political and the personal intersect in the body of one Black woman, and in so doing, reminds us that we are unique political identities and deserve political conversations that lift us and inspire us.
“Marital Piss“ by Cory Albertson
Come for the image of Justice Kennedy drinking piss from a jar, stay for the kinky sex and Albertson’s skillful dissection of queer liberation and respectability politics. This essay manages to be both hilarious and dead serious, romantic and kinky, logical and deeply of the body.
“A Photographer’s Wife“ by Rachel Somerstein
This essay is fueled by images both familiar and odd––hands holding household objects; Somerstein cleaning broken glass with a piece of challah. Throughout, the author uses the theories and the practices of photography to reflect on objectification, gender roles, and their place in the new world of everyone staying home. Parts of this essay feel deeply familiar (like, I swear I’ve thought that before) while other parts bend my brain in new directions.
“Within the Scope“ by Laura Stanfill
The tension in this essay focuses my attention so absolutely on the horror of being in a room with a gun, wielded by an intimate partner. With lines like “you can’t say no to a person who keeps a handgun under the bed,” and “the person with the gun gets to control the narrative,” Stanfill’s traumatic freeze crystallizes and transfers through the page. Each time, I hold my breath while reading this essay.
Noah Baldino, Poetry reviews editor
In “Paranoid Reality: Monica Sok’s A Nail The Evening Hangs On,” Phuong T. Vuong examines the relationship between mistrust and reality in the lives of the book’s inhabitants, Cambodian women across generations, in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime. Most notably, Vuong considers the poem “Sestina,” where Sok disorients the sestina’s traditional end-words, so that “perhaps there is a missing sister, like the missing stanza; or perhaps the words themselves must hide and outsmart violence.” Vuong’s review is as deft and complex as Sok’s collection; I hope you’ll give both a close read.
Elissa Bassist, Funny Women editor
While all Funny Women pieces are my favorite, these from 2020 are extremely my favorite:
“Math Problems for Women” by Holly Amos
Read this piece to solve for patriarchy.
“Hire Me, a Hype Man, for Your Next Zoom Presentation” by Brooke Gamble McAdam
Read this one for the best-ever email signature.
“Intersectional Literary Festival Q&A” by Elly Lonon
Read this if you’ve been to a literary event where the Q&A was hijacked by a straightwhitecisman (this is every literary event, inexplicably).
“Women Respond to Ads” by Puneet Sandhu
Read this right now to find out what color your menstrual blood should be.
“Sleep Tips from a 90-Year-Old Insomniac” by Naomi Birnbach
If you’ve forgotten how to sleep, then read this.
“The Ideal Female Boss” by Carolina Brettler
“How to Write the Perfect Fantasy Novel” by Laurel Dixon
“Official 202 Census Letter” by Vanessa Golenia
“Women from the PoV of Male Undergraduate Students” by Shannon Reed
Kate Branca, Features editor
“Acclimation” by Sofia Puente-Lay
Every time I read this essay, I am struck by its anthropology. Puente-Lay doesn’t just pose the question, “What does it mean to belong to a culture that everyone associates with eating dog?”—she examines the question with culinary, lingual, personal, social, and political lenses until the reader is fully immersed in the narrator’s experience. The final line, “‘Niku.’ He tasted the syllables and grinned. ‘I like that.’” is the ultimate finish to the piece.
“Lacuna” by Marissa Korbel
This is an exquisite examination of how we seek and dodge language that describes us. There is ecstasy in being bound—in binding—and ecstasy in escape. Fear and rapture in being discovered and in self-discovery. I am awed by the gentle revelations here, so empathetic to the narrator’s younger self, yet written with beautiful bare-nakedness.
“A Political Pregnancy” by Jennifer Case
Essays that shed new light on the female struggle to maintain autonomy over their bodies are rare, and this one shines brightly. Case frames her questions in the context of love and relationships, burrowing deeper into this divisive issue than many other essays can dare to go. It is a perspective-shifting read.
“Too Close to Home” by Ali Black
With a voice that couldn’t be more clear or confident, Black opens their door to her home and to the Black American experience of fear of violence from the first line. The prose is so vivid and persistent, it is impossible to blink its messages away. The essay finishes with one of the most potent examples of how violence has been normalized into Black youth culture in America I’ve ever come across. It will live in my mind for a long time.
“Losing Paradise” by Kyla Schuller
Climate change, a slow-moving tragedy so easily distanced from one’s personal experience, is made close and personal in this essay. By welcoming the reader into her experience of chronic Lyme Disease, Schuller invites us to anticipate the loss of our planet in a personal, visceral way.
“A Vocabulary for Apostates” by Daniel Allen Cox
Armageddon creates urgency in this coming out and de-conversion story, such that the reader can better feel the urgency so many feel to know themselves and to be accepted for their identities, as well as the stakes of leaving the families and cultures that raised them. A really compelling piece.
“Permadeath” by Marlin M. Jenkins
What is it that kills in a suicide? What is it about death that is appealing and potentially satisfying, or not satisfying? Is it possible to learn to live without the desire for suicide? Jenkins addresses these questions with tenderness, complete awareness, curiosity—and with the unlikely help of video game analysis. Truly, I believe this is an essential read for everyone on this planet.
“Losing the World” by Amanda Montei
From the start of this essay, it’s abundantly clear that the reader is being addressed by a sensitive, discerning, and incredibly wise mind. “Losing the World” addresses the difficulties of mothering effectively and honestly, without a single cultural premise or supposition. This is analysis of what it means to be human from its utter foundation, and Montei manages to make it both enjoyable to read and full of written and unwritten insights.
“Queen of That Universe” by Jillayna Adamson
Adamson is a master translator of their reality as a mostly deaf writer, daughter, spouse and mother. Not only do readers of this essay receive a humbling sense of what it’s like to live without hearing (or hearing well), but also a relatable journey through questions about belonging, naming, claiming, and taking up space in the gray areas of the world.
Cortney Lamar Charleston, Original Poetry editor
2020 has been some year, needless to say. Every aspect of life as I had become accustomed to it had been disrupted and a very serious feeling of detachment and disconnection had set in. This made it difficult to focus or concentrate on anything, so when I found art that moved me in any capacity, my appreciation ran deep, and with that in mind, I wanted to point to a few selections from our own archives at The Rumpus that gave me something to hold onto at a time when nothing else felt stable.
“My Grandmother’s Pancake Recipe” by Elliott Yoakum
Perhaps Yoakum’s tribute to his late grandmother, who lived with Alzheimer’s, was always going to strike a certain chord with me given my late grandfather’s dementia, but even considering that, this collage is a beautiful tribute to a significant and transformative impact of one life on another. At a time when the importance of our spiritual binds to one another has never been more clear, it was wonderful spending time with this poetic meditation whose heart resides in the specificities that point our greatest love poems toward something, ironically but truly, universal.
“On Dressing Shoes: A Colloquy” by Oliver de la Paz
I will forever admire a poet who so earnestly and honestly renders the realities of fatherhood, particularly as someone who hopes to one day be one while nonetheless harboring fears and anxieties about my fitness for the role, particularly should a son be left to my care. This poem is a deep vulnerability sectioned off into gorgeous articulations, something that represents the potentiality for men to model something other than violence for those who will someday grow to be men themselves. This is a poem I needed and one we need more of in the same vein.
“La Yegüita” by John Manuel Arias
Coming to know Arias through poetry, this story presented my first opportunity to read his fiction and it was an incredible treat! I found the characterization compelling, the language lush with creative imagery and the setting meticulously constructed. It’s definitely a piece that draws upon Arias’s unique cultural perspective(s) as well, which I greatly appreciated. In reading this, I was transported into a rhythm of living that has been missing far too long now.
These are just three of the pieces that continue to grip me, but far from the only ones. In my allotted space here, I also want to shine light on some of the artist whose work I’ve had the immense pleasure to be introduced to through my ongoing role as a poetry editor. These are a few folks I certainly have my eyes on moving forward and I hope you will as well: Hussain Ahmed, Threa Almontaser, Joumana Altallal, Jasmine V. Bailey, Justin Rovillos Monson, Ugonna-Ora Owoh, Monica Prince, and C.T. Salazar.
Oh, and lastly, I want to give a special shout out to the prodigiously talented Jonah Mixon-Webster for allowing us to feature a timely first installment in his immersive documentary project.
Eve Ettinger, Features editor
“Body of Nonsense” by Sophie Amado
I loved Sophie’s meditation on embodiment, aging, and lost control of perceptions of the self through the lens of Samuel Beckett’s writing. She locks herself and the reader in a room with Godot, and uses the essay to travel around the room and in and through the self before she ends the piece long enough to let us leave the room without her.
“My Kyiv” by Dewaine Farria
Dewaine’s exploration of Kyiv as a home forged by friction on the borders of his ex-pat foreignness in Ukraine and the badly drawn caricatures of what his life there must be like as imagined by those back home struck a chord with me, echoing my own experiences living in Kyrgyzstan. Questions of linguistic home, politics, race identity outside of the social structures of US, and family come together in this beautiful piece.
“My Boyfriend, His Lover, and Me” by Edgar Gomez
This essay is a beautiful meditation on what it means to love someone and know that you will eventually have to let them go, and the complicated power differentials of surviving as a queer person and how that affects your ability to envision romantic futures.
Lisa Factora-Borchers, Senior features editor
“Artichoke” and “I Use the Word Disabled” by Kay Ulanday Barrett
After their newest book of poems, More Than Bones, came out during the pandemic, Kay Ulanday Barrett offers more of their signature power in these two poems utilizing food and rhetoric to graze the soul of poetry readers.
“No Resolutions: Talking With Lidia Yuknavitch” by Marissa Korbel
There isn’t a conversation involving Marissa Korbel and Lidia Yuknavitch that I wouldn’t read, especially when it touches on my favorite topics: craft, rage, and queer storytelling.
“Others Would Tell Me Nothing Is Mine: Talking with Barbara Jane Reyes” by ire’ne lara silva
Barbara Jane Reyes’s insights about poetry are generous and wisely unsentimental. I especially love the acidity of the question-statement regarding Filipina readers who actively avoid reading texts by other Filipinas because they’re not used to the power of visibility, “What kind of a life is that, though, to live entirely unseen.”
“Does It Matter Why?” by Saeide Mirzaei
Not only is this piece a thoughtful glimpse into the lyrical mind of an immigrant woman writer in the United States, it deploys an unusual device using a repetitive question that forces the reader to more deeply interrogate their racial biases.
Darcy Jay Gagnon, Assistant features editor
“My Father’s Guide to Dressing an Elk” by Janna Coleman
Coleman takes so many risks here—second person, fragmented, hermit-crab—and they all pay off in this “instruction manual” for dressing an elk, which is about as chilling and hauntingly surreal as you would expect. As in “My Papa’s Waltz”, we are given the bloody details alone, and left to form our own opinions about the relationship between us—the second-person narrator—and this father figure in a piece that is both visceral and ambient, set in the winter woods, with all but our senses.
“Acclimation” by Sofia Puente-Lay
I have a tenuous relationship with pets, particularly with dogs, so I love the way that Puente-Lay approaches the subject of canines with such humor and narrative distance as she chronicles the way they dot her childhood, her relationships, and her Cambodian and Peruvian heritage. From her parents to her own, the voices in this piece as incredible, and the way she delivers dialogue feels cinematic, like you’re there in the car with her and her partner as they casually joke about eating beloved pets.
“Body Inheritance” by Anna Held
Through the legacy of her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother, Held reflects on how beauty in her family also inhabits these themes of both acquisition and loss, particularly with regard to age and illness: the scars gained after the breasts lost to a mastectomy; the eyebrows hairs tweezed out as a teen and the ones sketched on after the hair fell out. And of course, there is the idea of beauty inherited. There is so much to mine in this essay that, coming back to it months later, it feels refreshingly new.
Claire Rudy Foster, Senior features editor
“Dancing Separate, Together” by Russell Janzen
Janzen, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, has such a unique, nuanced understanding of bodies, spaces, and connection. His story about re-learning to dance during COVID-19, and what it means to be part of a dance company temporarily separated, brought me to tears. One of my favorite things about being a senior features editor for The Rumpus is encountering new voices, and Janzen’s is one I hope to read more often.
“If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now” by Robin Jennings
Jennings’s essay knits together her favorite film, Girl, Interrupted with her early childhood spent in a mental institution. The essay is a quiet, thoughtful exploration of what “home” means, the places we find it, and how we make sense of the difficult past. Jennings’s sense of place and time are so delicate and well written in this one: an incredibly talented writer.
Janet Frishberg, Assistant interviews editor
“Completely Embodied: Talking with K-Ming Chang” by Vanessa Chan
This interview changed the way I think about my work in progress and how I relate to it. I loved this explanation by Chang:
I give myself arbitrary word counts or tasks just so I sit with the page. If I interact with the writing in any way it helps me feel like I’m alive. It keeps me in touch with some deeper aspect of myself. It’s almost like prayer, like for one moment I am situated and aware of myself and the things that are coursing through my life. I love the idea that writing is a practice because it doesn’t have any expectation of anything complete or coherent; you’re just practicing… I try to sit down every day, even if it’s just reading over a few lines or changing a few words.
“Interestingness Is Always There: Talking with Jenny Odell” by Beth Ward
Odell’s book is probably one of my top recommended books since it was published in April 2019. It makes a great gift to anyone living in late-stage capitalism but especially anyone who is especially online. This interview is a great introduction to her thinking.
Brandon Hicks, Comics editor
“Suffragette City” by Kelcey Parker Ervick
A regular contributor to the comics section, “Suffragette City” is Ervick’s second limited series for The Rumpus, after last year’s “Welcome to South Bend.” The new series has shown a tremendous leap in quality in both her draftsmanship and storytelling ability. More inventive in her presentation, and yet more focused in her messaging, Ervick has brought us a new series that highlights both the successes and failures of American democracy during a time when it is being actively threatened.
“My Grandmother’s Pancake Recipe” by Elliot Yoakum
I’m going to go ahead and say it—formally speaking, this is a strange one. Somewhat outside of the boundaries of what I would usually call a “comic,” especially when considering something for the section, this collage-based piece nevertheless won me over with its open, personal history and painstaking attention to detail. Part biography and part memoir, the comic is presented like an old scrapbook full of recipes, and gives the reader the feeling that they are in someone else’s kitchen, opening a drawer and just digging through old their old secrets, photos and memories. A unique, affecting work.
“Indoor Feeling” by Lena Moses-Schmitt
If there is one feeling to encapsulates 2020, it’s the “indoor feeling.” Like the rest of us, the author/illustrator has been trapped in her home for much of the year, staring at the same four walls. The difference between her and us, though, is that she is able to perfectly communicate the feeling of tedium that’s been plaguing us all—staring at the same window all day, exercising, slowly beginning to notice small details of everyday minutia—and she delivers her own account of this moment in history in a beautiful, breezy short comic rendered in watercolor.
Chelsea Leu, Books editor
“Queer Logic: Females and My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” by Amelia Possanza
This review is about “two deeply queer love letters to fellow artists,” but it’s also something of a queer love letter to the authors of the two books—it’s playful, clear-eyed and deeply engaged with the questions they raise about who counts as “female” or “queer.” I love the way Possanza turns the “unreasonable” arguments these books make into compelling commentary on the equally unreasonable assumptions people have made about gender and sexuality for so long:
The assertion that everyone who loved their mother is a lesbian is absurd, but no less so than the long-held belief that everyone is straight until proven otherwise, or the centuries-long project of elision that has removed us from the historical record. The assertion that everyone is female is no less unsettling than the cultural practice of assigning babies a gender at birth on the basis of their genitalia, or the Lean In-style feminism that asks us to become male and take for ourselves the kind of power they hold.
“A Poetic Smorgasbord: A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt” by Cody Lee
What I love most about this review is how freewheeling and enthused and refreshing it is, how willing Lee is to admit the gaps in his knowledge and learn from them. But if my one-sentence description of this review doesn’t convince you to read it, just read its opening paragraph:
I guess I should start with the fact that Billy-Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body made me feel dumb. In a good way, like reading Borges or any of the fifty or so philosophers Belcourt references. To sum the book up, it’s about being Indigenous and queer, but most importantly, it’s a collection of essays focused on the future, one in which there’s absolutely no way this book, any book, or anyone could be summed up with two fucking words.
“Identity Politics and the English Language: Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times” by C.M. Mesquita
In the publishing world, overheated comparisons to Sally Rooney are thrown around like confetti, particularly for new releases by young Irish women like Exciting Times. What I admired about this review was how evenhandedly it assessed the book on its own terms, as a flawed but intelligent story about the way people’s attitudes about English reveals “one’s own relationship to class, race, and empire.” “Certainly, to be a native English speaker is to hold outsize and undeserved power,” Mesquita writes. “In the instances where my race made me more vulnerable to public scrutiny in Europe, my status as an American and a native English speaker protected me.” This kind of clear, nuanced thinking about identity feels incredibly valuable right now.
Robbie Maakestad, Senior features editor
“The Blacker the Berry the Quicker They Shoot” by Shamecca Harris
A gripping essay: Harris ties 1990s chaotic NYC violence to our present moment in 2020, examining the gentrification of Harlem, police brutality, Stop and Frisk, and today’s BLM protests. A thoughtful look back to establish meaning in the present.
“Permadeath” by Marlin M. Jenkins
An outstanding exploration of the weight of death in video games as a means of turning the lens onto depression and suicide.
“The Promise of Werfel’s Musa Dagh: Portraying Genocide in Fiction” by Aram Mrjoian
I love a good researched craft essay and Mrjoian’s checks all the boxes: Mrjoian explores the 2017 film The Promise, Franz Werfel’s 1933 book The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, and the Armenian Genocide, tying these threads together as he seeks to answer questions about writing genocide well in his own novel-in-progress.
“Father Time Is Undefeated” by Chris Ames
I grew up playing basketball, and this essay struck me from the moment I first read it: a powerful exploration of fathers and sons, backyard ball, grief, Kobe Bryant, and loss.
Ian MacAllen, Deputy editor
The year began in a rather ordinary way. Although the horrors of the current administration had grown, there was hope those horrors might finally reach their end. Last January, you might not have known of the newest lurking danger. Maybe you would have read Lillian Howan’s review of Leland Cheuk’s No Good Very Bad Asian and considered picking up the “satirical, tragic, comic, and hopeful” novel. You probably wouldn’t have realized how much of a portent to the coming year Dolan Morgan’s “Man Spider“ was. Or, maybe you just had anxiety about another year of Donald Trump, like Jennifer Case did when writing about the pregnancy of her second child.
Then things started getting weird. It was like something out of a Emily St. John Mandel novel. A deadly pandemic was spreading across the globe. The virus reached us in New York City a bit ahead of the rest of the country, and by mid-March it was clear the city was shutting down. The weekend before lockdown, I visited the newest McNally Jackson location in downtown Brooklyn. It had opened a week earlier. I bought Brandon Taylor‘s Real Life to keep me company during the expected isolation.
I started working from home. I stopped leaving the house. Book events were canceled, but I noticed people adapting. A week before the arrival of the virus, nobody had heard of Zoom and now, suddenly, writers and bookstores were planning literary events on the platform. I pitched the Notable Online column to Marisa as a temporary solution to replace our weekly roundups of literary events, expecting the column to run for a few months. Surely like Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, and other countries with functional governments, we’d all be back to in-person events by summer. Who could have predicted, nine months later, we’d still be needing a Zoom Hype Man.
The pandemic has been particularly hard on debut authors launching first books. Mary South, author of the delightful collection of stories You Will Never Be Forgotten, organized a group for authors with pandemic books. I focused on writing book reviews. Through an unexpected Twitter conversation, I agreed to write a review for Trampset of a new collection of stories, Collective Gravities, by Chloe N. Clark.
Despite the rumors, New York City has not turned into a dystopian wasteland. Not yet, anyway—but maybe by 2025 when the robot ATM machines start taking over. And regardless of how poorly Mayor de Blasio has performed, he still hasn’t ordered anyone to stop wearing clothing, like the mayor from Kelsey Norris’s flash story, “Decency Rule.”
Not everything about this year has been a disaster. My wife and I are expecting a baby in the spring. I’ve become a lot more thoughtful about parenthood, which is probably why this conversation between Makenna Goodman and Brian Gresko caught my eye. Yeah, I know, I buried the lede with this last bit of information, but hey, that’s 2020 for you.
Finally, the new year promises a lot of great new books, and I, for one, will be happy to see this year come to an end.
A. Malone, Assistant interviews editor
My favorite interviews of 2020 were (in no particular order):
“Poetry as Archeology: Talking with Roy G. Guzmán” by Michael Kleber-Diggs, discussing Guzmán’s debut poetry collection, Catrachos.
“This Off-Kilter Triangle: A Conversation with Leah Hampton” by Rachel Heng, about Hampton’s short story collection, F*ckface and Other Stories.
Lisa Mecham, Senior features editor
What a strange year all around and especially a strange year for reading and writing. For most of COVID, I’ve had a hard time with both. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to edit three powerful essays this year:
When I work with writers, I always start with a phone call. I want to hear how the essay became a twinkle in the writer’s eye, how the words ended up on the page the way they did. Sometimes, that original energy is missing when a draft gets to me; it’s been written over and around in an effort to impress the reader. But not these essays—these all came to me with the full force of their intent and I found working with Laura, Kat, and Marlin to be especially invigorating in a challenging year. A reminder of why we read and write in the first place.
Leena Soman Navani, Poetry reviews editor
I remember appreciating Emily Pérez’s thorough review of the poetry collection Build Yourself a Boat by Camonghne Felix early in 2020 when it was published, before we knew what the rest of the year would bring. Revisiting the review now, I’m still moved by its breadth and depth, the attention it pays to the craft of individual poems in this extraordinary collection as well as to Felix’s overarching themes and concerns.
Dennis Norris II, Senior fiction editor
“What Kind of Alone” by Nadia Shabaz
I loved the calm, quiet, tension of this piece, the way the details of the character’s situation unfolds. It reads like a masterclass in how and when to dole out important information. I’ll remember this piece for a long time.
“My Boyfriend, His Lover, and Me” by Edgar Gomez
This essay is completely gorgeous, enthralling, heartbreaking, and presents an unequivocally important moment in the lives of queer folx: that moment when we can choose ourselves, or we can choose others, and no matter the choice, neither option feels like the step in the right direction that we’re searching for.
“Complicating Unhelpful Binaries: Talking With Deesha Philyaw” by Nia Norris
I loved this interview, and this book, because I am incredibly well-acquainted with these church ladies in real life but rarely see them on the page. In this interview, we learn about Philyaw’s process of writing these stories, and one of her underlying truths, which is that humans are too complicated, too messy, to be siphoned into binaries as we too often are.
T.L. Pavlich, Assistant features editor
“We Do Not Belong Everywhere” by Max Delsohn
It was such a gift to edit this piece, as a trans person who has spent a lot of time considering where I and my trans body do and do not belong. Delsohn so deftly examines the idea of belonging within the queer community and clearly expresses ideas and emotions that I’ve personally muddled through.
“A Body Full of Ghosts” by Emme Lund
Lund’s essay for The Rumpus’s Voices on Addiction column weaved together the experiences of sobriety and transition against the backdrop of an evangelical upbringing, where “The Devil is everywhere” and “The world is never not ending.” The way these three threads came together to demonstrate the narrator’s growth through each ending and new beginning was a pleasure to read, paired with Lund’s wonderfully crafted scenes.
“For Now” by Jessica Wahlstrom
The way Wahlstrom addresses grief in this essay is so honest and evocative. It was an honor to shepherd this piece to publication because of that honesty. Wahlstrom discusses loss in a way that finds the details and lets them do the work. I still can’t get over the imagery of pearls Wahlstrom threads throughout this piece.
Rebecca Rubenstein, Fiction editor
I joined The Rumpus’s fiction team in April, and it’s truly been a bright spot during an otherwise dismal year. First and foremost, I’d like to shout out the stories I was privileged enough to edit, all of which are remarkable and written by powerhouse writers whose names you should commit to memory—there are big things coming from them, I assure you. “What Happens to Girls” by Rebecca McKanna, “Decency Rule” and “White Baby” by Kelsey Norris, and “Overlook” by Ashley Lopez exemplify the kinds of stories I love: they’re complicated, layered, unapologetic, a little dangerous, often unexpected, and, perhaps most importantly, they don’t let their characters—or their readers—off the hook. McKanna, Norris, and Lopez are also all writers who care deeply about sound, rhythm, cadence, and the choreographic possibilities of language and structure, which makes reading their fiction a delight. It’s immersive and tactile, inventive and new, and I hope you’ll take some time to sit with these stories and let them envelop you.
Other Rumpus fiction I loved this year, which left me feeling electrified, surprised, and moved:
The Rumpus publishes so much good work, all the time, that it would be impossible to list everything I read and loved this year without creating an endless scroll. But I wanted to give an extra shout-out to two essays that left me in awe: “Racism is A Reboot: Binging Battlestar Galactica at the End of a World” by Franny Choi and “Soft Parts” by Sarah Kasbeer. I really appreciate whenever essays approach subjects I have some amount of familiarity with—in this case, BSG and furry culture—and not only teach me something new, but adjust the lens through which I’ve been evaluating these things and completely reposition my outlook. Choi’s and Kasbeer’s essays did exactly that, in myriad, admirable ways and with stellar writing to boot, and I emphatically recommend them.
Alysia Sawchyn, Features editor
“Racism Is a Reboot: Binging Battlestar Galactica at the End of a World” by Franny Choi
I would (and have) read everything by Franny Choi I can get my hands on because she is so goddamn thoughtful and smart. “Racism is a Reboot” is a perfect mix of everything I love about the essay form: personal experience, pop culture, current events, criticism, and metacognition. Also, it’s hard to go wrong with Battlestar Galactica.
“Old Child” by Sara Martin
I love this essay so much. I have never before in my life described a piece of writing as “honest” for Various Reasons, and I am making an exception for “Old Child,” which manages to be both unsparing and funny—while describing the experience of watching someone you love die slowly. I’ll say it again: I love this essay so much.
Lauren J. Sharkey, Features editor
“Body Inheritance” by Anna Held
As a transracial adoptee with no access to my birth history or biological mirrors, I was drawn to “Body Inheritance” and its author, Anna Head. The voice of this piece was strong yet fragile, like age, beauty, and life itself. I still think about this essay when I look in the mirror in the morning, and am always thinking about the things—physical and otherwise—we inherit from the ones we love.
“Winter Baby” by Marissa Landrigan
I so enjoyed working on ”Winter Baby” because this essay not only brought to life all the fears I have about motherhood and what it means to be responsible for another person, but also because its authenticity and voice made me feel as though I didn’t have to be scared anymore.
Brian Spears, Senior poetry editor
“The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat with Ariel Francisco”
Ariel Francisco’s book really captured something significant for me about Florida, which is among the most misunderstood and caricatured places in this country in my opinion. I really loved this collection, and had a great time chatting with Ariel about it.
“Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Jennifer Perrine”
Perrine’s poems are razor-sharp, so exact in their language that you often don’t notice the blood until a minute or two after you’ve read them.
“Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Visual Poems by David Joez Villaverde”
I really loved these poems as visual works, and was also struck by the choice of Crime and Punishment as the source text.
“Revisiting and Reinventing the Body: A Conversation with Destiny O. Birdsong” by Sarah Kersey
I read Destiny Birdsong’s collection earlier this year and was just bowled over by it, so I really appreciated this conversation between Birdsong and Sarah Kersey, especially the part surrounding Sally Hemings and the poem “Negotiations.”
“Others Would Tell Me Nothing Is Mine: Talking with Barbara Jane Reyes” by ire’ne lara silva
I think Diwata was one of the first review copies I ever received as poetry editor of The Rumpus, and I was an immediate fan. We’ve been privileged to have published original poetry from Reyes over the last decade, and I hope that continues. Reyes is one of the finest poets working today, in my opinion, and this interview is wide-ranging in terms of her work and her process. It’s absolutely worth a read.
Monet Patrice Thomas, Interviews editor
We read a lot of interviews over the course of a year, which means invariably we see a few of the same questions repeated. That might seem like it gets boring, but it doesn’t because no two authors ever have the same answer. This leads me to my first choice: “Zones of Paradox: A Conversation with Billy-Ray Belcourt” by Ruth LeFaive. She asks if writing is healing and what Belcourt has to say is worth going back and reading again.
My second choice is an interview that made me feel like I’d been scolded and I mean that in the best way possible: “Building and Building: Talking with Patricia Spears Jones” by Chaya Bhuvaneswar. Patricia Spears Jones has a way of taking questions and turning them back toward the reader. And if you’re a baby poet, she leaves you with some great advice.
Kelly Thompson, Voices on Addiction series editor
Voices on Addiction had a standout year for breaking the stigma around addiction through stories. I am thankful for all who submit to this column, and their incredible guts.
Earlier this month, we featured a personal narrative around sex addiction—a much maligned and misunderstood form of addiction, often surrounded in shame and secrecy. Sue William Silverman’s “The Monster’s Matchstick Mistress” shines light on sex addiction through her own journey in rehab. In choosing my Rumpus selections, truly a difficult endeavor, given the breadth and width of so many worthy offerings this year, this one had to be on the list.
On the evening of May 16, I received an email that read: “I told you (on social media) I was going to submit an essay. I just didn’t know my brother would be gone.” I opened the attached document and the words, “My brother died last night,” stopped me in my tracks. Jennie Burke had lost her brother to overdose, as an autopsy would reveal, a deadly dose of heroin and fentanyl. Her loss echoes that of so many families, the opioid epidemic faded to the background in the midst of the pandemic. Jennie’s pain over the loss of her dear brother is rendered so tenderly on the page; he is a person, not a number. Burke’s mission is to “reduce stigma one word at a time,” as her Twitter profile reads, and she is a passionate advocate for harm reduction, which literally saves lives and demonstrates the compassion those inflicted with substance use disorder deserve. I chose “Primary Source” because of its reflection of that fierce love.
Two essays I was thrilled to publish In Voices on Addiction highlight the ways addiction affects Black and Brown lives. Sheree L. Greer’s essay “None of This Is Bullshit,” break a silence that, due to the double stigma heaped on Black families, is too often deafening. Likewise, Vanessa Mártir’s “Call Us Beautiful” underscores a national lack of concern for Black and Brown families affected by addiction. Both Mártir and Greer insist this inequality be addressed through the sharing of their personal stories, and for that reason, along with the exquisite craft demonstrated in both pieces, I’m taking another opportunity to encourage everyone to read these necessary narratives,
And, I can’t recommend Sophia Shalmiyev’s essay “We Love Our Sons, We Raise Our Daughters” enough for its honest and brutal beauty in looking at what it means to be a woman and a mother who struggles with addiction. “Drunk women are targets. Drunk men can be anything,” Shalmiyev writes. It’s sad that we still have so far to go in addressing the double standards applied to women, sad to see how those inequalities continue to cost women their dignity and rights, their very lives and being. Addiction robs us of everything; in the patriarchal and misogynistic world we live in, it is often, for women, the double-edged sword of survival.
Lastly, for its simply stunning lyricism and beauty, Hannah Hindley’s portrayal of a sibling relationship impacted by a brother’s addiction deserves mention. As her essay “The Opposite of Hallelujah” asks: Is it in you, too?
Vonetta Young, Fiction editor
“The Mother We Share” by Ilana Masad
The voice of this story kept me rapt from the beginning! There’s a breathlessness to the narrator’s speaking style that I could hear so easily, and it reminded me that, for me, great fiction makes me forget that what I’m reading didn’t actually happen and the people telling the story don’t exist. I also really liked the way the author unfolded the narrator’s backstory, so seamless and unexpected.
“The Witch House” by Ariel Gore
I adore travel stories, especially travel stories about Black women (though, to be fair, I’m only assuming the protagonist is a Black woman, likely projecting my own experience on the character, as great fiction often allows one to do). Not only did the voice pull me in here, but I felt this narrator’s frustration with her life and wanted a change for her. I was not expecting that moment of poignancy during the call at the end. That took my breath away.
Michelle Zamanian, Assistant features editor
“Racism is a Reboot: Binging Battlestar Galactica at the End of the World” by Franny Choi
As an avid watcher of science fiction television and an advocate for positive representation, this essay has been haunting me since I read it. Choi’s structure and voice propel a deep understanding of the importance of the stories we tell about each other and the ripple effects these stories have forward and backward through time. The ways other people see us and represent us deeply effect how we see ourselves. Choi drives home the importance of being able to tell our own stories, and of what happens when stories are taken out of our hands.
“When the Healing Place Exploded” by Zeina Hashem Beck
Hashem Beck writes about her brother-in-law’s account of the explosion in Beirut on August 4, and she also writes about the myriad ways in which trauma is experienced collectively. This essay captures the complicated feelings that come with being a part of a diaspora community, and of being impacted by events both near and far. What I take away from Hashem Beck’s words, and from my own life experience, is that sometimes this means raging at the events of the world which we can’t control—and learning how to live with that.
“Diaspora, Reconstructed” by Yasmeen Khan
The ways in which memory is experienced is rarely linear, and Khan has, through this essay, captured the feeling of being fragmented through different people and places that are often inaccessible. There is a profound paradox of being part of the generation that ties a family to a new country, and Khan approaches this paradox with questions that both can and can’t be answered.
Feature image by Liam Golden.
Additional image credits (in order of appearance): ENOUGH logo art by Luna Adler. “Overlook” art by Lisa Lee Herrick. “The Right to Lawfully Kill” art by Jon Peschke. “Within the Scope“ art by Lea Wells. “Sleep Tips from a 90-Year-Old Insomniac” art by Kaili Doud. “Queen of That Universe” art by Lisa Marie Thompson. “My Boyfriend, His Lover, and Me” art by Brandan Ray Leathead. “Does It Matter Why?” art by Leesa Travis. “Body Inheritance” art by Cowboy Rocky. “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now” art by Briana Finegan. “Father Time Is Undefeated” art by David Dodd Lee. “On Anger, Autism, and Blackness” art by Dara Herman Zierlein. “For Now” art by Clare Nauman. “Soft Parts” art by Alana Salguero. “Old Child” art by Meg Richardson. “Winter Baby” art by Clare Nauman. “The Opposite of Hallelujah” art by Becca Shaw Glaser. “The Witch House” by Lizz Ehrenpreis. “Diaspora, Reconstructed” art by Eva Azenaro Acero.