I recently devoured an eggs benedict with an author who wrote an erotic Ancient Mayan masterpiece. Monica Byrne was surprisingly accessible for someone who spent her leisurely time and a solid chunk of her thirties embedded in the Belizean jungle to research the spelling and pronunciations of words like Ixul and Xibalba. To impress her, I was prepared to mine all of my obscure Central American knowledge on poisonous cashews and whale sharks—normally reserved for pub night trivia during dank nights in London. But instead, we spoke about the smell of North Carolina’s pine trees, the complexities of family, and the delightful array of Aryan eye candy on display in the Hackescher Markt district of the Berlin city centre between bites of hollandaise and sourdough, which—as we both said repeatedly—was ‘like, so fucking delish.’ I’ve been blessed to enjoy many sumptuous egg dates in the past, but none with a person who possessed such meticulous knowledge of reincarnation or blood sacrifices—and certainly not over a plate of pulled pork. She refused to let me pay, despite being a guest in my city, whom I had invited to that café for the sole purpose of fangirling in her presence. And she had humoured me with no small amount of grace or kindness.
As if The Actual Star was not enough of a gift that has blessed me and anyone else who has picked it up with nearly six hundred pages of visionary euphoria.
I don’t have enough opportunities to discuss this book, because I work with a team of corporate career journalists who are jaded by the increasingly dangerous role that social media continues to play in destabilising an increasingly ignorant electorate. It’s an attitude I share, though to a lesser extent, because I spend much of my time translating German pieces into English—and that means correcting the way a major public institution, which has branded itself as ‘progressive’, describes people who are Black (‘violent’) queer (‘homosexual’) disabled (‘crippled’) or undocumented (‘illegal’). Terms that concern mostly me, and too few others. So, worrying about social media in and of itself, while a concern, feels more like a luxury that I can’t afford. I spend my mental acuity on reducing the number of potential people that may take justifiable offence over how a subsidised public broadcaster is describing a sizeable portion of its target audience.
I keep trying to figure out when journalism became so resigned. In her book In the Margins, Elena Ferrante described two types of writing—compliant and impetuous—and yet the introduction of Facebook and Twitter has led to work that’s both, at the same time. I tried to go back and reread her Neapolitan books to figure out which style they’re written in, and I can’t help but feel as if she has purposely excluded herself from this binary so that we don’t dare skirt closer to discovering her true identity. It’s the first time I’m really questioning what she’s telling me because, this time, her words are coming in the form of advice and insight rather than fragmented tales of family and friendship, turgid with such darkness and longing they could only be based on (someone’s) real-life experiences. And they feel more honest, not to mention impetuous, than the sentimental efforts to be self-deprecating that I’m reading about now—but I enjoy it nonetheless. I’d savour a dinner menu if it was written by Elena Ferrante.
I am in awe of people who continue to explore the stories that are now routinely sacrificed on the altar of likes, comments, and listicles—people like Eli Saslow, who penned an excruciating analysis of American homelessness, addiction and inequality in The Washington Post. A piece that included the harrowing story of a psychiatric nurse, so overloaded by the burden of care she was providing in an overcrowded mental health facility, that she herself was also hospitalised. I read it with deep wells of sorrow, and just a drop of professional jealousy—as the faint memory of what it means to write something meaningful for a major title resurfaced in the form of grief for the tragic lives they’re documenting in real-time.
It’s a strange feeling—to envy people who still have the luxury of telling the truth to people who still want to hear it. Even stranger to miss that while reading my team’s weekly report on hashtag circulation and YouTube views.
Lately, I’ve been obsessed with witchcraft. Specifically tricksters, tricks, and very small creatures. Soraya Palmer’s debut novel The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter & Other Essential Ghosts reintroduced me to the tales of Anansi, a mischievous spider, and Mami Wata, the half-snake water spirit that takes me down a rabbit hole of priests and priestesses who venerate her in ceremonial dress. They are cloaked in red and white garb to illustrate the duality of a deity renowned for being both lustful and homicidal—so the dress code makes sense. As I’m reading, I begin to sense that familiar undertow of connection to tiny islands in faraway places, drinking rum I don’t even like, participating in versant cultural honourifics widely understood across the diaspora—even if the languages we speak vary greatly from one another.
I don’t want to feel good about what I’m reading anymore. I want to be scathed. I want to be destroyed. I want to be flogged while laughing at the neurotic ways in which we conspire to destroy others while actually destroying ourselves. Just when I think that’s asking for too much, Rebecca F. Kuang delivers. I got my hands on an early copy of Yellowface. You’d ask me how, but you probably already know—I was impetuous (and connected). The cover is bright yellow, and the prose inside is pitch-black. I find myself gravitating more and more towards literature written with a sharpness that feels like scraping the most sensitive patches of skin against my bone with a razor blade. I’m not a masochist by any means. But I think there is something magical, witchcraftian even, that I can find a book to target even this obscure human phenomenon where pleasure meets pain and coincides perfectly at the point of race and stupidity. There’s something for everyone, I guess—but that doesn’t change the fact that I am still in awe over how well she has executed this delicate balance. Again.
At the same time, I’ve been staring at my copy of The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras for a while now. I will read it. I want to read about her grandfather who had the power to speak to the dead and predict the future, but I don’t know if there will be much of me left over when I do. I’m not sure how I draw that line or make the distinction between wanting to be destroyed and opting for total obliteration—I just know that she knows how to expertly cross it. We should always take great care with writers who wield that kind of power.
I ordered it, in part, because she too is fluent in the language of supernatural abilities passed down through the maternal bloodline—albeit, my story is fiction and hers is not. Every time I read a book with this narrative device, I laugh a little bit over how mundane we all have seemed to collectively agree that paternal ancestry really is by comparison—dull? Don’t dads of dads also possess a kind of alchemy? If magic is the protagonist then the antagonist must be an entity designed to snuff it out. What are we saying about the paternal bloodline when its absence of wizardry means that this is the position they must automatically take?
This question makes me laugh out loud to no one all over again. If I ask my friends, they’ll just sneer and roll their eyes—because they think the punishment fits the crime. You don’t get blessed with magic if your mission is to devour it. I don’t disagree.
Like everyone else, I look for myself in the stories I read. Not consciously, but I always, inevitably, find myself trying to unearth those delicate correlations between what I’ve known and the novel telepathy I’m experiencing with the writer whose words I’m letting into my mind and heart. I’m not looking for perfection, but I am hunting for exposure—some confirmation that the feelings and thoughts I usually keep to myself aren’t anomalies. Even introverts need validation. I just prefer mine to come from witches and ghosts, hybrid spiritual entities, and non-gallant ancestors—the more impetuous, the better.
At night, I’m sitting with The Loveliest Vowel Empties, a collection of poems by Meret Oppenheim, translated by Kathleen Heil. Because, after all, I’m not on an archipelago of tropical islands—I’m in Berlin. The home of socks and sandals, stern lectures from strangers at crosswalks and boiled meats in the dead of summer. But I’m embraced by the cool, hipster artistry of Kathleen’s interpretation of tactile things from decades past in Oppenheim’s words: crocodile skin, für, sequins, and somnambulance. I know that Germany has a reputation for being the opposite of poetic; the word ‘acidic’ might actually be more applicable.
It’s one of many reasons why I feel so grateful to have these words, and the words of all the writers piled up on my dining room table, sofa, next to my bed, and sitting on my lap—as a soothing balm. I can destroy myself during the day with their words, and be repaired that very evening.
Then I wake up and do it all over again.
Jennifer Neal is an American-Australian author, musician, writer, cook and occasional standup comedian (really) currently living in Berlin. One of her career highlights was working with Anthony Bourdain for ‘Explore Parts Unknown’. She works as a freelance translator and producer at Deutsche Welle, and her writing has appeared in Playboy, NPR, CNN, Gay Magazine, The Establishment, SBS, Atlas Obscura and many (many) other publications. Notes on Her Colour is her first novel.