Dear Human Family,
I’m here in Iowa City, writing in bed with my Persian cats, Cous Cous and Fable, cozying up to me. I keep forgetting that we are only in mid-March because already this year has felt so long—fires burned in Australia, presidential candidates debated and dropped out, and personally, I’ve traveled so much. I had job interviews in Georgia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Missouri. I took fourteen flights in February alone, and in that month’s final week, I had to fly home to New York to be with one of my oldest and dearest friends, Melissa, because her brother, Kofi, suddenly and unexpectedly died. I landed at LaGuardia, and two hours later, I was in a rental van with three friends from high school, one of their partners and baby, headed the four hours to Virginia for the memorial service. That trip felt cinematic to me—I mean dense with meaning, I mean it was as if my life had become a dark comedy, my high school friends making decade-old jokes, my mind returning to the question of my professional possibilities, and the whole time never forgetting the occasion of our reunion. I couldn’t help thinking of the novel I’m working on, a project concerned with the ethics of travel, but at its essence is about a group of black friends who go on a trip together.
The memorial service was the most profoundly sad thing I’ve ever had to bear witness to. I thought about what it means to know someone for a long time, as a sibling of a close friend. I remembered how all of our siblings were on the periphery of our friend group, stories about them retold through grievance and tenderness. Afterwards, my friends from high school returned to their lives and jobs in New York, and I stayed in Virginia with Melissa and her family. Later that night, she and I went grocery shopping. I remembered years earlier, in my early twenties, visiting her in Richmond, where she blasted My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy over and over again in the car. This was before she moved to Germany and then back to New York, and before I moved to Iowa City for graduate school, staying longer than I imagined. That night after the memorial service, we played UNO with her other siblings and their friends. I roasted a big chicken with herbs, lemons, and garlic for a midnight meal. The next day, we headed back to New York, stopping in DC to return one of the rentals, my first time in the capital, and driving through Delaware, another place I’ve never been to. I was dropped off at my mother’s place in Brooklyn, where I tried to rebuff her questions, saying very little about the memorial service because my brother is a twenty-eight-year-old black man, like Kofi was, and she already worries too much. We watched the debates together.
The next day, I visited my sister and her children in rural Connecticut. She is very religious, where I am doubtful; she’s a homeschooling wife raising three sons, and I am queer, unpartnered, and childless. It’s easy to forget that she is less than two years my senior. I talked her ear off about the academic job market—I had expected it to be brutal and time consuming because everyone says so, but I hadn’t expected it to feel so personally draining. In job talks, where you’re asked to discuss your writing process, I talked about my family because my family is my process. I talked about my family’s relationship to whiteness as immigrants in New York. We cleaned for white people and took care of their children, an intimacy with whiteness and a power dynamic and socioeconomic distance I put language to in my fiction. When I talked about this, every time, and to my surprise, I found myself vulnerable, tearing up in front of a room of white academics, with the power to accept or deny me into a system that wasn’t built for people like me.
The day after that, Melissa and I cried over lychee martinis in a Thai restaurant in downtown Brooklyn. I’d slept on her couch the night before, and in the morning, for reasons I can’t remember, we talked about our dual consciousness: the ways we are American, and the ways we are daughters raised by immigrants in the Caribbean diaspora of Brooklyn, and how these two consciousnesses push and pull against the other. I thought then, as I often do, how lucky I am to be known—and by known, I mean understood—by people I call my friends. I’m often having to contextualize myself and people like me, and I have to do it in every kind of relationship, whether professional, romantic, or as casual an interaction as a grocery store conversation. In the midst of all this, my job rejections started to roll in. I headed back to Iowa City, where to my disappointment, a romantic entanglement dissolved. (Possibly, I’m always too romantically hopeful—I’m an Aries sun, Pisces rising, and Gemini moon, if that explains anything.)
So, I share all this to say that the pandemic and our dire need to self-isolate is happening at a time when I feel cut open and lonely, especially living where I live, so far from family and friends. This year, I feel that I’ve been everywhere and nowhere at once. I’m experiencing a challenging emotional multitasking—the political landscape, the status of my personal and professional life, and now, a pandemic. But I’m comforted knowing that I’m not alone in this multitasking. We are looking into the unknown together.
I’ve been thinking a lot about grieving, what it means to fail, and what a life ultimately amounts to. I’ve also been thinking about how we as people, as a human family, can take better care of each other. I’m reading and loving The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, who I’m to interview later this week. I’m thinking of people who are most vulnerable right now: undocumented people, freelancers and low-income folks, folks without health insurance, LGBTQ+ college students who don’t have safe homes to return to, Asian-American business owners, small business owners, healthcare workers, the list goes on. I’m really worried about family and friends who are financially vulnerable, and I’m worried about my ability to help them. I’m working at being gentle with myself, nurturing with long phone calls to loved ones, texting silly memes to friends, burning incense and sage, eating chocolate, cooking Jamaican meals, re-reading my favorite books, working on my novel, and admiring my cats. I hope you and your loved ones are taking care. You are all in my prayers.