“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
SO! Where were we…? Oh, right!
Because 2018 was an absolute nightmare, I ended the year writing from a bunker in the woods surrounding Heidelberg which, as far as New Year celebrations go, was probably the best idea I’ve ever had. But when I re-emerged into 2019, I was still licking my wounds, and feeling uncertain about the year ahead. An extra confidence boost was needed. Now, I’m not a superstitious person by nature, but my comedy wife, Mimi, is. And she’d sometimes warn me about “the evil eye” being fixed on me for being too open about my success. I know, I know…it sounds silly. Myths from the Middle-East or Middle Asia probably won’t pass the scientific method test, but science also tells us that when people have been through very traumatic life events, they try to make sense of it in non-scientific ways. Some people use religion, and I was like…
And despite the good intentions of friends who offered to pray for me, I decided to give a hard pass to round two. So barring a charismatic cult leader, a little ancient myth and folklore seemed like a reasonable alternative. As a speculative fiction writer, one of my greatest sources of inspiration is ancient mythology, because of the stories–which, in case you didn’t know, inform everything from modern-day democracy to comic books and Hollywood Movies. Atheism is great and all, but a little boring when you consider that it leaves very little room for storytelling unless you want to talk about the exciting world of non-wilful scientific experimentation on ethnic minorities, women, and LGBT+ people. And I can’t help but feel that, in Germany, that subject might polarize a few people.
So when Mimi offered to send me a pendant and a bracelet in the mail to keep me safe from the evil eye, I was like…
In fact, why stop there? Since my birthday is in February, which is when I can expect my annual package from Shouko, I asked her to send a charm for good fortune from Japan, and she did–from the Suo Hanaoka shrine, right up the street from where I used to live.
My parcel from Australia eventually arrived–at the Zollamt in Marzahn, where I watched German custom officials who had confiscated Mimi’s gift because of her Syrian last name used gloved hands to handle a glass bracelet and pendant to determine whether or not it posed a terrorist threat to the communist housing blocks in the heart of a neighbourhood that voted for Germany’s rising Neo-Nazi party, the AfD. When I left the building I put them on immediately, and the fact that I got out of there without being accosted by a skinhead is, in my opinion, a testament to the power of protection that they were working already. And when Shouko’s parcel also arrived with not one, but TWO charms, I started leaving my flat in the mornings covered in my protective bling, ready to take on the year ahead like a super hero in her vibranium body suit.
All I wanted was a little bit of extra confidence. And whether it was the charms, the pendant, the bracelet, or just the love of two people who live on the other side of the world from two places I used to call home…it worked. Say what you will, but it worked. I started feeling stronger again.
But something else was bugging me–and it was me.
At the end of 2018–I think it was the end of 2018, anyway–I had a major cull of people I used to know when I lived in Australia from my Facebook page for being racist and awful. This was a theme that had been going on pretty much all year (and some of the year before). It got so bad that several people who I don’t know very well at all slid into my DMs out of serious concern to ask me what the fuck I was doing with my time, and what was it all worth in the end, if it turned my Facebook page into a circus of stupidity?
I gotta be honest–I don’t know what I was doing. Being stubborn? Sure. But I wasn’t doing anything that anyone else didn’t do–post articles that seem important, share experiences in moments of inspiration, and keeping it on my page–rather than seeking out arguments with other people on theirs. When I say that Germany is a racist country, the response is normally like:
When I say that the US is a racist place, the response is like:
But when it comes to Australia, if anyone points out racism in any way, the response is:
It’s kinda hilarious given that all three countries have employed genocide, slavery, systemic racist policies and legislation that continue to support white supremacy there (here) today. But maybe the difference is that Australia is still bound root, leaf, and twig to its colonial identity because it still cowers in the shadow of the UK as a Commonwealth, and this has created a kind of fragility that treats any legitimate criticism as an attack on its national identity. I saw that first hand splashed all over my Facebook wall. Chances are, you did too.
One person who I did delete, let’s call him G.S. (Giant Shithead) even snuck onto my LinkedIn page to tell me to remove the work I’ve done for him from my profile since “I delete people who disagree with me.” And he used fancy legal jargon that he no doubt didn’t understand to imply he could possibly take legal action against me if I didn’t. All kinda hilarious and pathetic. But mostly because the whole concept of the silo is stupid to begin with, and conveniently weaponized by people who don’t read enough to make people listen to their ignorance so that we can all be dumbed down by association.
We–all of us–surround ourselves with people who share our views and values. That goes to the core of community building. Even cave men hung out with other cave men who were equally invested in hunting a woolly mammoth for its fur and fat, because it made surviving that whole Ice Age thing just a tad bit easier. My best friends are food-loving raging feminists, well-travelled radical progressives, comedians who get high off of that new book smell, and brooding intellectuals who are deeply invested in subverting our problematic pasts to become better people–just like me. G.S.’s best friends are small, leather-faced, closed-minded, anti-intellectual racists with multiple failed businesses and marriages–just like him.
See? We all live in silos! It’s just that some have better views than others.
My friends were right. There was no point in having these discussions. But they continued to haunt me–online and off. At work, and in relationships. And for some reason, I just couldn’t walk away. I didn’t seek them out by any means, but when they came for me, I couldn’t back down. I wanted to be seen as the “good intellectual,” who could have well-reasoned debates in the hopes of enlightening people, since opponents on the right are always complaining about being “cancelled” by people on the left–another myth. But with the hysteria and name calling and insults being flung around by people who think it’s a good idea to dehumanize asylum seekers and deny rape culture, I didn’t see myself as “cancelling conservatives.” I was banishing triggered snowflakes back to their safe spaces–and that’s a language I felt they could understand.
My (new) therapist said something to me that really resonated recently. She said that compassion isn’t what we think it is. It isn’t sympathy or concern or the need to help people out of bad situations or harmful thinking. It’s the space to let people be who they really are. Not that I would call what my approach used to be “compassionate,” but it’s a conversation that applies to online arguments as well.
I know this will sound arrogant, but it’s not often that someone tells me something that I haven’t already considered. I know that I don’t know everything…like, I know that intellectually…just like I don’t know how quantum physics works, or nanotechnology, or fitted sheets, but I also know that, while everyone around me started to tear their hair out and shake their fists at the flying spaghetti monster in the sky and scream WHY WHY WHY ARE WHITE SUPREMACISTS AND CORPORATE PSYCHOPATHS AND RELIGIOUS WING NUTS RUNNING MY GOVERNMENT? I’ve been over here like…
The whoooole time.
And it doesn’t just apply to politics. It applies to your ain’t shit boyfriends, your ain’t shit girlfriends, your ain’t shit gender nonconforming fuck-people who play games with your heart like it was a ping pong ball and your Instagram inbox is the blood-coated table. It applies to your insecure bosses who make all kinds of idiotic micro-aggressions like publicly announcing in a company-wide meeting that Black people don’t need to wear sunscreen and then doubling down by sending you articles when any credible dermatologist would tell her to “No, seriously, STFU right now,” and when you confront her privately in an even, calm, rehearsed voice, she begins to blame everything except her racist thinking and cry so hard that you have to get her tissues when what you really want to do is…
…Not speaking from experience or anything. Just a random example.
And my approach used to be the same–for politics and personal matters all around. I tried reason. I tried to converse with people who have no interest in having a constructive dialogue, and when I stop to think about all the time and energy I’ve wasted along the way, it scares me. In my mind, I wasn’t trying to change anyone. I was trying to correct thinking that I saw as harmful and destructive on a wider scale…
But, it doesn’t work.
I know what you’re thinking.
But stupid people being stupid keeps me up at night. It’s called anxiety–and it’s not just a fancy word. I worry about the fate of the world, man! Particularly, because not enough people do…and that is THE reason as to why it’s in the state it currently is.
I don’t wanna sound like I’m some martyr, because I was fighting with people on Facebook, and there are real heroic people putting their lives and sanity on the line to do real, grassroots work every single day to change the world in which we live. I’m not one of them. I tried to be a good person by affecting change within my immediate community, but bad people are just as set in their ways as good ones, and no one ever really changes.
However self-destructive. However racist. However sexist. However transphobic or insecure, or selfish, or in complete denial of climate change. Or cruel. Or deceptive. Or! Invested in defending people who are any of the above. That’s who they are…and it shouldn’t affect who I am.
So, now, I won’t let it. And that realization legit had me like…
This year, a lot of good things happened (we’ll get to that) that walked hand-in-hand with a number of unexpected health issues (I’m managing, mind your business). And it just became very clear: I needed to get a grip on my anxiety.
So, I wrote a list of people, or incidents, or experiences that I felt were still negatively affecting me–be it acutely or chronically. And next to each one, I wrote an action that I can do to make it better. Something that I can do from this point moving forward, unattached to other people or their responses (a lesson learned from Buddhism). Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but on paper, in black and white, I could see that there was nothing to gain from my past approaches. Then I unfriended a lot of people, unfollowed others, removed some birthdays from my calendar, and stopped responding to invitations to hang out that just weren’t appealing because I wasn’t getting anything out of those experiences. That’s something else–I can just…not respond to people. And I don’t even need a reason! I don’t need to hate them. I can just…not be interested. And the feeling was liberating, because it was relinquishing myself of the responsibility to always be “up” to dealing with people–and I honestly rarely am.
I am the world’s biggest undercover introvert, but this year–I actually allowed myself to be. I didn’t push myself to go out while sick. I didn’t trundle out of my apartment to watch other people get smashed. I didn’t “catchup for coffees” that felt like boring interrogations. And in doing so, I was able to make more room for people and experiences that are enriching, and enjoyable, and energizing!
My new list kind’ve reminded me of an old list I wrote in 9th grade. I wrote a list of all the boys who had hurt my girlfriends. I had not yet begun to date and was therefore lacking in any authentic experiences to warrant my own hatred. Next to their names, I wrote an applicable punishment (spoiler alert–most of it involved various forms of Medieval torture). The difference between that list and this one is what I guess some people might call “growth.” But don’t worry–I’ll disappoint you by the end of this entry, I’m quite certain.
So! What led me to this conclusion to begin with? Where have I been all year? Who have I been fucking with? What’s the frequency, Kenneth?
Thanks for your patience with the world’s longest prologue. Now we can get back into it.
Heidelberg was a hoot. I wrote 1,000 words a day, went hiking, ate my weight in sausages and strudel, and drank a lot of non-alcoholic apple cider in solitude.
Then, at the end of the month, I had my annual birthday dinner with a rapidly expanding circle of friends at a Cuban restaurant in Schöneberg. It’s always a great moment for me to reflect on the friendships I’ve made and nurtured since moving here, and this group photo is the biggest one yet–and still missing some people who left early! I think we can all agree that my attendees embodied what I can only describe as collective big-dick energy.
Note, 1997 Jennifer might say the guy whose face has been smudged out should be tarred and feathered. But 2019 Jennifer hopes he gets the help he needs. #GROWTH
Then I celebrated my actual birthday in Cape Verde, my first ever expedition to sub-Saharan Africa.
It was just as magical as it looks, but with some unexpected challenges along the way. Cape Verde is a very difficult place to get to. You have to take a Portuguese airline through Lisbon that always seems to run six hours late. You have to pick an island to get to, and there are several major ones to choose from. But if you want to island hop, you have to book individual flights from one to the next, and go from there. I ended up flying from Lisbon to Sal, Sal to Mindelo, and from Mindelo, taking the ferry to Santo Antão to go hiking. All in all, very costly, and very time consuming. I spent more of my birthday commuting, than on the ground, and when I was on the ground, I was so exhausted I just wandered to the beach for the sunset and ate a plate of fish and chips with my toes soaking in the wet sand.
Another unexpected frustration were all the stares. Not mild flirtation staring. Hardcore staring right into my eyeballs like they wanted to fight me or like I had come to their country to drink all their good rum, and I was like FUCK! HERE TOO?!!?
Et tu Africa?
But someone explained to me it’s because they didn’t know me. Cape Verde is a small archipelago of islands off the coast of West Africa, and each island is tiny–most can be crossed in an afternoon by car. So everyone knows everyone, but nobody knew me. So they stared at me because they thought I was one of them, but they didn’t know my name. They didn’t know my family. They didn’t know where I lived or worked. Everyone spoke to me in Portuguese Creole, and I was like:
On the one hand, I was kinda thrilled to be treated like a local for the first time in years. In Germany, one look and people speak to me in English before German, because of my skin color. But in Cape Verde, everyone has bronze skin and high cheek bones and beautiful almond-shaped eyes. Even they needed convincing that I wasn’t from their country. A typical conversation went something like:
Cape Verdean: Are you sure you’re not Cape Verdean?
Me: Pretty sure.
Cape Verdean: *sucks teeth* What about your mother?
Cape Verdean: Eh!? What about your father?
Cape Verdean: Eh! I’m sure you’ve got it somewhere in you.
Me: Okay, but I have DNA test results that say Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal…
Cape Verdean: *cuts me off* Senegal?! Oh no no no, you’re too pretty to be Senegalese. They’re too dark. Eat more fish. Are you a model?
Me (with mouth full of fish): **incomprehensible chewing**
Yeah…colorism is a colonial off cut of racism. Thanks, Europeans.
Once I got past the staring, I was floored by the hospitality and kindness of complete strangers. People who stopped their cars and drove me into town, who drove me all around the island, who wanted me to meet their families and their children, and who wanted to show me how to cook jagacida (rice) their way. I really, really love travelling by myself because I’m more approachable this way, and end up with more authentic experiences than if I were coupled up with someone who’s more risk averse than I am. I’m not adventurous in the way that, say, my friend Shannon is. She’s ready to drop onto a billionaire’s boat and party all night at the drop of a hat. I’m ready to climb mountains and eat blowfish.
Same, same–but different.
On the most memorable of my Cape Verdean adventures, I made friends with a hiking guide, which ended up being one of my best travel memories of all time. He met me at the ferry docking gate with a sign that said my name, and when I walked up to him, pointed at the poster and said “Hi!” his response was “You’re Jennifer Neal?”
Him: “You’re…Jennifer Neal?”
“Okay let’s go.”
He was cold. Like, to me. Me! But…but…I’m so cute and friendly when I’m not arguing with people on Facebook!
And then it dawned on me…Most of the clients who go on these hiking expeditions are wealthy white Europeans, and I couldn’t help but think that me being young, single, and Black might have something to do with being treated with what felt like a little bit of disdain. I’ve seen it before. It’s normal to be hired by white people. It’s odd to be hired by another Black person–especially a Black woman hiring a Black man. There’s a lot of history to this that I won’t go into, so let’s just summarize it like this:
Even my money is considered less valuable. Y’all, I’m just over it.
Anyway, after a little while of me shucking and jiving to make him feel more comfortable, he loosened up and confessed that my suspicions had been right. And he said that, by the sound of my name, he thought I would be an old white woman.
So when he saw that he would, in fact, be hiking with a young, Black one, he felt awkward and didn’t know how to act around me. In my mind, I thought “The same way you’d act around anyone else who hired you as a hiking guide, I guess?” BUT THERE I GO AGAIN…regressing into my self-destructive thinking that logic will prevail…
Thankfully, my frustrations were short lived. He loosened up, and so did I, and we ended up going on an amazing hike (photos above). I saw the most beautiful parts of Cape Verde in an afternoon with someone cracking the funniest jokes, taking cute photos, and climbing rocks. In fact, it was more than a hike. We ended up having a crazy strong connection, and it was like…shit. Did I know you in a past life or something? He even managed to make me forget that I was on day ONE of my period, which–in case you didn’t know–is a scene from a horror movie. I use a menstrual cup now, and its the size usually reserved for women who have given birth vaginally–which is MEANT to hold all day, but I had to empty it in the sugar cane fields of a West African valley, because it was about to be a literal blood bath.
The point is–yes, you needed to know that. It’s my blog. Why the fuck are you here if you don’t want to know about my menstrual cycle?
The other point is that I was so happy, the endorphins subdued the cramps that would otherwise have had me doubled over in pain in bed sucking my thumb (which is the condition from which I’m writing this blog now). My hiking buddy and I ended up hanging out more while I was there, and he took the ferry to see me on my last night in Cape Verde, where was hung out on the beach all night. It was an unexpected and wonderful conclusion to an amazing holiday…
…Until he began sliding into my DMs with dick pics.
Men are awful everywhere.
Not long after returning, Spring had begun to sprung. One day, my editor from The Willowherb Review called me up and told me that my piece In Search of Better Skies was nominated for The Pushcart Prize–a major American literary prize with deep roots in launching writers’ careers. This was not only a major deal for me, it was a major deal for the publication, because my essay was in their inaugural edition. I wasn’t planning on really telling anyone, but it’s kinda hard to put a lid on something that big, and people at work found out through Twitter. And my boss encouraged me to share it on the work Slack channel, and I thought “Fuck it. Why not? I am proud of this nomination. Let the bells ring!” Most people were supportive and congratulatory.
But I’ll never forget what one colleague said to me. “Do you get any money if you win?”
Me: Hmmm–I don’t know, actually! But I don’t care. It’s an honour just to be nominated.
Colleague: Probably not [getting any money].
Then she laughed and walked off. And that ladies and gentlemen, is called aaaaaa:
Seriously. Shutting the fuck up is absolutely free.
I didn’t win! But I stand by what I said before. Plus, I was able to leverage that nomination for something else even bigger (but you’ll have to keep reading to find out what it is).
In Spring, Shannon–my favourite enabler–wrote to me early one Sunday morning asking me to go to Paris with her the next weekend. She had sold one of her paintings to a Saudi Royal and needed to go to France to deliver the piece. Her exact words were “Cancel your plans and come with me!” Now, I was trying to save money at this point because, as an unmarried woman without children, I’m in Germany’s highest tax bracket (40%)…So naturally I was like…
And booked my flight.
I hadn’t been to Paris since 2001 with my high school bestie Claire, where I cried at Chopin’s grave, and fell in love with an antiques salesman, so it seemed like a good opportunity to reacquaint myself with the city of love, cheese, and stunning architecture.
In May, I finally did the thing I moved to Berlin to do. I finished my book. During my winter isolation, I wrote something like 40,000 words by depriving myself of the things that people do just to get through winter, like fucking and drinking. I didn’t do any of that. I just switched off my phone and wrote.
And masturbated–a lot. But! Soberly.
So…be proud of me.
I said…BE PROUD OF ME.
Here’s something that I learned writing my first book: Most people won’t take you seriously until money is involved. A lot of people saw it as a hobby or an exotic curiosity that shouldn’t and can’t replace social affairs. But since I’m not wealthy, nor able to to pay my rent and bills with hopes and dreams just yet, that’s exactly what writing became. It replaced all of my weekend plans, all of my week night ventures, it muted my WhatsApp group chats, and it got used to disappointing people. We’ve internalized capitalism to such a degree that nothing matters unless it can be filtered into your bank account. As a result, some friendships just vanished altogether because some people just couldn’t wrap their heads around me wanting to dedicate so much time and energy to something that didn’t pay money–but to quote Saint Sophia–that’s fine by me.
So, from 90,000 words, whittled down to 83,000, I was ready to submit the finished manuscript to literary agents–which is a requirement of anyone who wants to achieve some modicum of commercial literary success. With the help and support of several friends who had undergone this journey before, I compiled a short list of literary agents who fancied my kind of writing (weird) and who had promoted work that I admired (legendary)…and submitted.
Then, I immediately went on tour again–this time to Norway, to hike through the fjords. My friend’s husband, Bror, is Norwegian, and he’d been telling me about the hiking trails in his homeland for ages–and I was finally able to go. It was good timing. I wanted to distract myself from waiting for agent responses, and being outside has always been good for me–especially as a distraction from spending years writing a completely bonkers manuscript that might be seen as physical evidence of my insanity.
I know I haven’t disclosed the plot here…and I won’t, so suck it.
But, just know that it’s insane. And I went over and over this idea in my mind before I sent it off to be judged by real industry professionals. Then I ran away to the Scandinavian countryside.
If I wasn’t sure before, I definitely am after Norway–I fucking love to hike. It clears my mind of all the mess, so that I can reach an almost meditative place where I’m not worrying about work, or relationships, or money–I’m just thinking about putting one sure-foot in front of the other, so that I don’t slip and fall. THAT’S what it takes to quiet an anxious mind.
I’m still learning a lot about myself the older I get, but more importantly…I’m unlearning all the things that don’t apply. A lot of people of color are wary of the outdoors, and I used to be one of them. But stereotypes are dumb, and I’m convinced that this one stems from a plot that white supremacists have hatched to colonize what’s left of the world’s untarnished beauty before it burns up completely. I don’t know how long we have left on this rock revolving around the sun, but I know that whatever quality of life I enjoy on it will be strengthened by the time I spend outside, breathing fresh air, and undoing all the damage inflicted by simply existing, or by working for people who care more about their bottom line than the people going on burnout leave.
That’s not what life is about.
Pulpit rock is a moderately difficult hike, but Kjerag has broken people. Literally. It has literally broken human beings. In fact, on the bus to the starting point, the driver announced over the intercom what to do in case of a fall: “It’s very windy today, so if you fall and break something, call XXX for a helicopter evacuation, but do it before 18:00, because that’s when emergency services go home.”
Pulpit Rock is a pretty well beaten path of steps made from rocks, but you still need decent hiking shoes. A lot of the steps are loose, rock can fall unexpectedly, and it’s a pretty sharp vertical ascent in some areas. Going up the cliff, I saw people in flats, flip flops, even WEDGES holding miniature Yorkies (yes, DOGS) and I thought–
“Well, someone is going to look super cute when they fucking die today.”
No one did, thankfully. One person did, however, fall off a cliff and break their neck. As tourists do, he got too close to the edge of the cliff face, slipped, fell, and had to be evacuated on a gurney by four men who carried him all the way down to the base of the mountain. And it’s worth pointing out, he was wearing penny-fucking-loafers. And you guys–that was the “easy” hike! Though it’s worth noting that coming down is always harder than going up…and by the time I got back to the base, my knees were literally shook.
The difficult one was Kjerag, which is a 6 hour return hike. The first pass is a near vertical ascent holding onto nothing but a chain bolted into the rock. The second part levels out into ice and snow that gives way to stairs, and then another rock vertical ascent. The only way to be evacuated is by helicopter, because a car or jeep can’t traverse granite cliffside. It’s all ice, and stone, and in some places snow. When you get to the top of the mountain, you have the option of standing on a boulder wedged between two cliffs, above what seems like 3 squillion meters of open air above a fjord just waiting to bitch slap you into oblivion. Some people get up there and pull fancy poses like yoga stances. Some people are up there base jumping into the fjord. One guy took off all his clothes and posed nude on the rock, because…
As my friend Mark would say, I just put some stank on those rocks instead with a dab here and there. I made it. No need to get extra. I fucking made it.
Somewhere in-between the hikes and the 50 euro fish soups and the 25 euro sticky cinnamon buns, I got my first manuscript rejection letter.
It didn’t say much–just that the agent couldn’t make it past the first few chapters, but that her opinion was entirely subjective. That was it.
And you know what? I didn’t care. It was from the agent at the bottom of my list, and the response told me that the rejection was better for me than it was for her. I actually posted this update in one of my writer’s groups:
“Just got my first manuscript rejection letter. I’ve never felt so alive!”
Then, I hopped on the bus from Stavanger to Bergen.
I’m not invincible to criticism by any means, but I have a lot more confidence in my creative abilities than in my ability to manage people. It happens to a lot of women who grow up insecure in their physical appearances–they find their confidence in other places. In my case, it was in everything my brain can do. It probably also helped that I was really, really enjoying my trip. Every muscle in my body ached–even my finger muscles hurt from flexing into rock day in and day out! And knowing how my mind works, I decided to get ahead of my anxiety by launching myself into an activity that would make me feel good regardless of the outcome of my query letters.
And the rejection was something I had prepared myself for. Every writer worth her salt will get at least one rejection letter to test her mettle. Working as a journalist for some years prepared me for this. I had workshopped my book in a class, held several public readings, been critiqued by a several close friends, and developed the story thoroughly.
No matter what, I knew that I had written the best book I could write on my own, and that someone else would see it…but it needed to be the right person. In a way, that’s how I knew that I was on the right (proverbial) path. I wasn’t deterred by rejection at all. I wouldn’t allow myself to be deterred by a hundred rejections. I believed in my work so much that I knew I would get the right agent eventually. And it was that pure, unfiltered self-belief that told me that I was finally, finally…on the way to becoming the person I was always meant to be.
In Bergen, the hiking is less challenging, but still quite beautiful. It’s a cute seaside town where hikers often go to decompress after vigorous physical ascents for fish soup and oysters, which, I mean…if I must!
Then I took the most epic 7 hour train ride to Oslo where I passed mountains with *literal* cascading waterfalls and lush green countryside (checkout the Norway highlight on my Instagram, if you want to see it for yourself) then landed in Oslo where I took a bunch of questionable photographs with pagan statue art, party crashed an art opening for the free food, ate reindeer, sticky buns, and pork ribs…
…and eventually–I returned to Berlin.
That’s when the letters of interest came.
One right after the other. From New York. From London. From Los Angeles. They came, and the discussions followed. Many discussions. I was overwhelmed, but also intensely guarded. Having been disappointed in TV development deals in the past, I solicited questions from one of my writer’s groups, which contains no less than 50 NYT bestselling authors about what questions to ask agents to make sure they had my best interest at heart. At their suggestion, I joined a writer’s union that offers legal representation and contract review and sent all the paperwork to them. I waited. I never wait! I’m terrible at waiting! But as my friend Musa says, “No need to feel anxious. Without you, there is no industry.”
Knowing your value doesn’t just apply to romance. And to be honest, I have a more intimate relationship with this book than I ever did with a partner. So it’s worth the extra vigilance.
And then…I found her. The one.
The agent who’s been working with me since July to take my manuscript to the next level. Milly. London. The moment she described my book as “glittering strangeness,” I knew that it was meant to be. And every meeting we have together only convinces me even further that I made the best decision of my writing career to date by signing with her.
I cannot wait for all of you to see what we’ve been working on together. Already, this partnership has changed everything. And the past 3 years and 4 months I’ve spent in Berlin will seem like the best and most significant investment of my life once I’m holding the book in my hands.
In June I went to Bonn for a friend’s wedding and contemplated a move to the West side, because everyone was so friendly. I’ve been wondering about where all the nice Germans go to hide, and the answer is: Bonn.
Then blah blah blah work blah blah blah, who cares! In July, I went to Sardinia with Shannon. It was my first girl’s trip since 2007 when I went to Osaka with Brooke to get my tattoo. It was pretty much all cheese and beach and nothing else. And we’ve decided to make Italy our one-stop girl trip vacation every year.
Then I changed my flight to head to London instead of immediately returning to Berlin, to meet my agent in person. We had only had Skype chats up until then, and it’s important for me to have regular face-to-face interactions to show her that I’m equally as serious about my writing career as she is. Side note: my agent is fucking amazing. Not only does she have all the right connections and business relationships, but her ability to articulate the things that are and are not working in my writing has been such an important part of the editing process. I’m not a formally trained author. My ability to tell stories comes from a lot of reading and a lot of writing, so I’m sometimes lacking the theoretical language needed to articulate holes in plot and character development and voice–but she’s been so incredibly helpful in regards to providing editorial feedback, that I feel like I’m learning at the same time as I’m writing–and it’s only invigorated me in an editing process that most writers would find exhausting.
But can I also say…she’s fucking gorgeous. Like…in Skype, you only get a certain idea of what someone looks like. In person, she’s 6’2″ and beautiful and striking and also charming and funny and brilliant and super fucking cool. So yeah…when I said that I knew the right person would come along to represent my work, I meant.that.SHIT.
Returning to London also meant that I was reunited with my Tiger Lesbians, who welcomed me back in style with a Pavlova for the motherfucking ages. I mean–it was for Kerry’s housewarming, not for me…technically.
And I came back to Berlin just in time for PRIDE, known as the Christopher Street Parade.
Did I mention I got a new hairdo?
But then, as things tend to do…everything kinda fell a part…for awhile. But…I’m slowly coming back around. At my own pace. To the beat of my own drum. Thanks to the German healthcare system, I’m going to be okay. And thanks to the German healthcare system, I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll never return to the United States to live because I like paying 40% in taxes to guarantee that everyone else can enjoy a decent quality of life as well.
God, where did October and November go? I don’t even know. What did I fucking do? Jesus…I don’t remember. It’s all just a blur of doctor’s appointments. Oh! I managed to start writing the outline of my second book.
And it’ll be the destroyer of whole, pure, Aryan worlds.
Oh! Right. In October, I threw a surprise 40th birthday party for my dear friend Musa Okwonga which, with the help of Josh, Rhea, and Jonathan, I had been planning since May. It was my third time planning a successful surprise party, and my second time pulling a 40th. But one thing’s for sure. It was my last time. I retire. I’m done. Herding Berliners are like herding fucking cats, and I was reminded that I fucking hate cats. I had to book a venue, organize catering, drinks, party favors, cakes, video testimonials, and balance a whole lot of last minute cancellations and additions. Because I didn’t learn my lesson the first time. I didn’t learn my lesson the second time. But this time?
And as for Musa’s reaction…was it worth the effort? You be the judge.
The party included live speeches, a video compilation of birthday wishes from around the world, a wall of memes dedicated to the guest of honour, and multiple birthday cakes. All in all, an amazing effort. And the memes…seriously, some of Musa’s friends are absolutely brutal. Don’t believe me? Checkout Musa’s reaction to some of them below.
In the end, I think something like 60 people showed up and partied until 3am, and I spent the rest of the following Sunday in a party planning coma. I actually woke up around 8am, because insomnia is life, made myself chilli con carne, then went back to sleep and didn’t roll out of bed util 5pm. My bones are still tired from the festivities and that was more than two months ago.
I met two of my cousins from Atlanta for the first time! Well, Joe is technically my cousin, the other is his fiance. When Kelly and I started following each other on Instagram, I saw that she was a pilot–not just any pilot–a captain (WHAT!) and instantly fan-girled out about how cool she was and told them to come visit me. Two weeks later, they were on a plane to Berlin and we were at a restaurant in Mitte eating Schnitzel.
Here’s why that’s significant: I’m strange. I’m reeeeeeally strange, and don’t always feel accepted, even and especially among family. But I felt like I knew these guys my whole life! They actually felt like family, and we ended up talking at the restaurant for like six hours straight like we had grown up around one another, and it was wonderful! Not only that, but it was really interesting to observe Joe, being the blood relative. His laugh, his chuckle, his mannerisms…he even does a happy dance when the food comes out just like I do, and I was like, “Yep. We’re family alright.” The food happy dance is a sacred blood rite.
Later in the month, I learned that I was accepted to the MacDowell Colony as a 2020 Fellow. This only sounds blah because I’m running out of steam with this blog, and I’m really tired. But this is a really, really, REALLY big deal. It’s been a creative workspace for Pulitzer Prize winners, Grammy Winners, Oscar winners, MacArthur Genius Grant recipients–artists of all disciplines. Notable alumni of the Colony include James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Jenna Wortham, R.O. Kwon, and pretty much any important writer from the past 50 years. The ironic part is that I’ve tried to get into another residency with much less money for the past three years, only to be waitlisted/shortlisted/rejected every time. And this one I get in on the first try?
I don’t get it…but I’m not exactly complaining either.
I wasn’t even going to apply until my friend Veronica pushed me to (since she had run out of men at the the Christmas market to give my number to). It just seemed downright unattainable. Like a perfect SAT score, or financial security in the arts. But the difference between established residencies and new residencies, is that established residencies are willing to take more of a chance on unknown writers if they demonstrate talent and drive. So, with my Pushcart nomination, a brand new agent by my side, and a killer writing submission, I guess I demonstrated just enough to show the selection committee that I was worth the investment.
I never thought I’d be the kind of person to be admitted to such a prestigious institution, but then again–I never thought I’d be the kind of person who researches BBQ marinade for tofu…and here we are.
So, from 1-29 April 2020 I’ll be hanging out in Peterborough, New Hampshire with all kinds of artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and poets hammering out the concept and early days of my second novel in a remote cabin at the expense of a very, very wealthy artist endowment. And you know what?
I FUCKING DESERVE IT.
Let’s rewind for a minute.
Remember that part where I talked about not engaging with people who are invested in being awful? Well, to that point, I decided that instead of trying to educate them, it’d be a better use of my time to reach out to people I admire to let them know how much I value the work that they’re doing…which is easier said than done. I don’t want to be a a weird super fan, after all. But I think it’s important, especially for writers who are producing work that many people will resist, to know that they’re appreciated by someone. I know this from experience. When I wrote my article about sibling abuse, even though it brought me a lot of extra abuse, I also read a lot of messages from people in support of what I had written, because it was a subject that no one else was talking about–and it mattered. And it helped.
So, somewhere, in the middle of it all, I reached out to one of my favorite writers–Ruby Hamad. Her article on the strategic weaponization of white women tears is a piece I go to every now and then as a point of meditation whenever I find myself in a situation where I’m exhausted by white fragility. It’s helped me to make sense out of a lot–horrible bosses, friendships I left behind, in-laws who are just plain terrible.
I wrote to her expressing my admiration for the work that she does. It was an ineloquent pile of word vomit. I was frustrated by a particular incident that pushed me too far one day, and her article brought me back into the realm of sanity, because it was another woman of colour acknowledging that my frustration wasn’t some fevered hallucination.
To my surprise, she wrote back. She did more than write back…she offered to send me a copy of her debut book, White Tears, Brown Scars in the mail, because it won’t be available in my part of the world for awhile. And I just…like.
It arrived the day before Christmas with an inscription, and already I’ve gotten up from the table and walked around the room a dozen times yelling at no one “Everyone! EVERYONE! COME READ THIS PASSAGE RIGHT NOW!”
In fact, everyone’s getting a copy of this book for their birthday next year. I don’t care how tight you think we are. I don’t care about the color of your skin. You’re getting this book. You, your mama, your step daddy and your sister. It’s perfect for Bar Mitzvah’s and weddings and divorces alike.
What else happened?
I went to Lausanne, Switzerland with Shannon (who else?) and hiked up a snow-covered mountain (by myself).
Side note–in 2020, I am wearing out these hiking boots. There has to be a study on this somewhere, that explains why I’m so anxious on the ground. When I’m climbing or hiking, I can literally feel the anxiety leaving my body and it’s like I can see clearly that everything is actually, literally fine. Maybe it’s the breathing, or the beauty, or the muscular distraction, or some combination of the above. But–now that I know how it affects my body and my mind, I’m making it a priority. If you have the time and resources and physical strength to do so, I can’t recommend nature therapy more ardently.
Finally, we wrap up 2019 with my final editorial meeting of the year with my agent in London, which we had at the Tate Modern, where I was finally able to see this absolute gem of a masterpiece.
Aaaaaand witness first-hand Britain’s inevitable decline as the Tories swept the latest national election with a landslide of conservative fervor. So yeah–the UK has its guy. The US has its guy. Australia has its guy. Meanwhile, in Finland…
That was my 2019 in a nutshell. All in all, I think my anti-Evil Eye jewellry and Japanese charms worked.
And, you know…my hard work and perseverance and self-awareness and blah blah blah…
Which brings me to 2020. And I’m walking into it with a few personal and observational realizations that I want to talk about, because they’re significant. And it’s my blog.
1. I don’t want children.
I said this maybe, I dunno, every other day in my adolescence, but then went all wobbly in my twenties, because I was in a serious adult relationship for the first time and had a series of awful jobs that made marriage and pregnancy seem like appealing alternatives to working for incompetent shit heels. But in my 30s, when I began to pursue a career that made me happy and fulfilled, I began to find meaning in my professional and creative endeavours, and then it suddenly seemed like a really crazy idea to throw that all away. My body has been through a lot, and I don’t want to put it through pregnancy. I’m not too sure I’d come out on the other end any good with all of my reproductive issues anyway. Besides, I gotta be honest…I don’t really like kids. Not little ones, anyway. They cry and they scream instead of talk, and they don’t know boundaries and they’re overrun with bacterial infections and I just…I can’t fuck with anything that doesn’t know how to wipe its own ass.
But I would like to adopt a teenager one day, I think. I’m good with older kids, and teenagers need lots of love and assurance as they transition to a merciless world as adults. I can do that. And hopefully, one day, if I have enough money, that’s what I’ll do.
To be clear, this is not a judgment on anyone else who has kids. Please keep sending me photos of your little ones, because I adore receiving them. I love my nieces and nephews. …but I’ll love them more when I can take them hiking with me.
2. I’ll transition to a plant-based diet.
Psych! Not…completely, because brisket and pork belly is life. But 5-6 days a week seems manageable (unless I’m travelling) and since I can cook, it doesn’t feel like I’m sacrificing much. The world is burning up and if I can do more to slow it down, I will. And anyone who steps to me about how veganism can reverse climate change will get a fucking backhand to the neck, because capitalism, corporate greed, and eco-fascism are to blame for the melting ice caps and rising sea levels–not my St Louis rib addiction.
3. My body is fine.
Get ready to see a lot more of it, because I’ve been working hard in the gym and still getting in my carbs and I won’t let anyone make me feel bad about it anymore. I’ve been doing HIIT training twice a week, Muy Thai, and Yin Yoga, and the result is a curvy delicious muscular lump of melanated PERFECTION.
4. Trump is gonna take 2020.
…Unless Bernie is the Democratic nominee. If it’s anyone else, you’re looking at 4 more years of the pussy grabber. Even if someone beats him in 2020 (they won’t) the fact that so many of you think he’ll willingly step down from office is pretty fucking laughable. Trump is a dictator in the actual making, and he’ll do anything to retain his power–including defy the constitution. Also, to everyone celebrating his impeachment in the House, STOP. His trial in the Republican-run Senate won’t go anywhere, and where will that take us come election time? See: November 2016 for reference.
5. I really want a dog.
My friend Jessica Lee got the cutest, scruffiest little pooch not that long ago, and I’ve been dog sitting while she’s been off on her book tour, and you guys…I’m so in love. I’ve always been a dog person, but this is just next level symbiosis. It’s not just him. Every time I’m out on the street and I see a dog, I feel like they see me too–and they know that I’m the cuddles lady. They’ll run up to me and lick me and roll over on their backs for belly pats and curl up in my lap and let me scratch them behind their ears in the subway. I just think…they know. Oh yes…they know…I am the dog whisperer. And since dog ownership in Germany is considered to be a fundamental right to a good quality of life, I think it’s time I settled down…and adopted a German shepherd puppy. I’m growing up, ya’ll. Be proud.
Here are a bunch of selfies of me and my friends from New York, Switzerland, Japan, and everywhere else visiting each other and being happy. Thank you for making my 2019 so wonderful, fam.
Articles I’ve published this year (there aren’t many, since I’ve been working on books):
Speculative Fiction and Black Feminist Thought (GAY Magazine)
Aaaaaaand last but not least, Australia is still a fundamentally racist country, and widespread denial of this basic reality along with a mind-boggling dedication to deny climate change even while the country is burning alive is why the country hasn’t moved forward as a global leader.
How’s that for growth, bitches?