Each year, we ask a few of our friends, collaborators, and staff: what was the best story you read/heard/consumed in the year? We did this last year, and the year before. This year has been both troublesome for art (how can we focus on anything vaguely entertaining when the world is falling apart?) and absolutely in need of art, and absolutely in need of sharing our stories together. Story is essential in forming connections, fostering understanding, and planting empathy.
Please, if you can, support us in our winter membership drive and let’s make sure that those stories that need to be heard are told by the people who need to tell them, in 2018 and beyond. And as we slam the door on 2017, just like we slammed the door on 2016 thinking it was the worst it was gonna get, take a look at what our friends and staff came up with for things they loved: books, audiobooks, essays, articles, podcasts. We love them and we love what they love:
Leesa Cross-Smith is the author of Every Kiss A War and Whiskey & Ribbons and the founder/editor of WhiskeyPaper. Leesa served as judge for our first annual SSWA Literary Prize in Fiction this year.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Why: Because of lines like “She felt like every winter would kill her, and when she reached the skyless Februarys and bleak Marches, she promised herself she would book the soonest flight back to California” because same. And because it’s such a beautiful, feels-real story and bc it’s written by a black woman and has black characters but it’s not focused on race. Because it’s a story about love and regret and mistakes and forgiveness and family, etc. Because it’s funny and sweet and sad and because I carried it around with me for days and finished reading it sitting in carpool in the rain. Because it lives up to the hype and so few things do. Because it was the first book I read in 2017 and it set the tone for an excellent reading year. Because it was good luck for me because the week after I finished it, I sold my novel. Because the cover is so gorgeous. Because it shines bright like a diamond. –Leesa Cross-Smith
Marco Cerda is a senior at High Tech High Chula Vista and served as So Say We All’s student intern this spring.
A few months back, I went with several others to a friend’s house to watch a movie called “Fist of The North Star.” Mid-way through the movie, my friend’s dad recommended that we watch a movie called “Akira” after we were done with our current film. We took his advice, and were soon thrown into the dystopian world of Neo Tokyo, 2019. This movie stayed in my mind until recently when I picked up the original comic book. Everything from the art to the story is a masterpiece, and it does a good job at progression while keeping the atmosphere intact. —Marco Cerda
Hunter Gatewood writes fiction both short and long, and does storytelling, coaching and show producing for So Say We All.
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
2017. Gimme shelter. What a scary and exhausting year. I’m surprised that my favorite 2017 story was not happy escapist floof. It was Gabriel Tallent’s demanding debut novel My Absolute Darling. This is a brutal bildungsroman, like its sister Bastard Out of Carolina but sped up, stripped down, and dropped in the lush and wacky wilds of Mendocino County. The coming-of-ager is Turtle, a proud and strong 14-year-old social outcast, whose sexual maturity drives her uniquely damaged and disintegrating father in directions you can imagine, and in other directions you could never. I tore through it, all the while wondering if it was bad for me to be reading this. On one of these feverish days of reading, I was in the close confines of an airplane. I was reading what turned out to be the most disturbing scene in the whole thing. I felt that childish form of social paranoia: Everyone around me sees inside my head. They know what I am reading. They are repulsed. I wanted to lash out at this imagined judgment, lunatic-style like Turtle’s dad. I wanted to say, hey, this horrible psycho moment I’m reading right now is a crucial piece of the whole story. Every torment in this book reveals a specific type of strength, a specific flavor of stamina and survival. The whole story is gorgeous and meticulously crafted and takes you somewhere important. You’ve been warned. You will love it. —Hunter Gatewood
Jac Jemc is the author of The Grip of It (FSG Originals), My Only Wife (Dzanc Books), and A Different Bed Every Time (Dzanc Books). She edits nonfiction for Hobart teaches creative writing in Chicago. Jac taught a SSWA Master Class this fall, and read at The Foundry, our literary reading series.
Amelia Gray, “The Hostage.”
My favorite story of the year was Amelia Gray’s “Hostage” in The New Yorker. I want more work like this from the magazine: smart, unexpected, an impressive amount of action and character for a piece so brief. So painfully awkward and hilarious. When the teller makes suggestions of what the bank robber might write in his letter I guffawed. I guffawed! —Jac Jemc
Dave Housley’s fourth collection of short fiction, Massive Cleansing Fire, was published in 2017 by Outpost 19. His first novel, This Darkness Got to Give, is coming out in 2018 from Pandamoon Publishing. His work has appeared in Booth, Hobart, McSweeneys, Wigleaf, and some other places. He’s one of the founding editors and all-around do-stuff people at Barrelhouse. Sometimes he drinks boxed wine and tweets about the things on his television at @housleydave. (Barrelhouse is a nonprofit literary organization on the east coast, and a friend and inspiration of many of us at So Say We All).
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraquib
This was a hard year for reading and writing, and I wound up sinking into a lot of comfort reading that didn’t really engage with what was happening in the world around us. But when I think about the best thing I read this year it’s something that spoke very directly to the real world, as well as the world of pop music, and that’s the essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, by Hanif Abdurraquib (from Two Dollar Radio). These essays do what I think the best nonfiction does, and that’s start with the specific and then work into the personal before expanding out yet again toward other larger issues, including what fellow music writer Jessica Hopper eloquently describes on the back cover as “the true nature of life and death in America, in this moment.” I love many things about these essays – Hanif’s wise and funny and self-deprecating voice, the range of his musical interest (he covers Marvin Gaye, Carly Rae Jepsen, Springsteeen, Chance the Rapper, Notorious BIG, Fallout Boy, the Wonder Years, it goes on and on and his next topic is never predictable), the way these essays range into Actual Important Issues without feeling strained. He can start at a Springsteen show and wind up at a meditation on race and opportunity and Michael Brown (the title comes from a banner hanging over a Brown memorial) and it all seems so effortless and right. It’s the thing the best music writing does and this book is a timely reminder about how lucky we are that, right now, Hanif Abdurraqib is the best music writer we’ve got. —Dave Housley
Indira Hood-Esparza is an 11th grade humanities teacher at High Tech High Chula Vista and worked with SSWA on our semester-long collaboration, “The Power Within.”
“What is Normal?” by Thalia X. Peralta,11th grader at High Tech High Chula Vista (google doc shared with permission).
I picked this piece because right now more than ever we need to remember to have compassion and empathy for one another. I loved that Thalia was so honest about her brother and how others perceive him. It’s beautifully written with amazing usage of imagery. I hope others read it and feel the amount of empathy and love that Thalia has for her brother. —Indira Hood-Esparza
Matt Young is a writer, teacher, and veteran. He holds an MA from Miami University and is the recipient of fellowships with Words After War and the Carey Institute for Global Good. He lives in Olympia, Washington where he teaches writing at Centralia College and is the author of Eat the Apple out February 27 th 2018 from Bloomsbury. Matt taught a SSWA Master Class this year, and read at The Foundry, our literary reading series.
The National, Sleep Well Beast
My dudes. This year has been difficult to say the least—tough conversations with family and friends, constant vigilance of and calls to representatives, becoming parts of new discourse communities. All the while doing our jobs and caring for families and trying to create. Shit cray. One thing that got me through 2017 was The National’s Sleep Well Beast. I usually reserve The National and their Midwest ennui for moments of nostalgia pining after the barren cornfields and quiet snow of the fly-over state winters of my youth, but Sleep Well Beast is different than past albums. The sadness is less plotted, more manic—more raw. It’s less my home region’s musical voice and more a jumping needle of this past year’s emotional Richter Scale. The album helped get me beyond a block and got me writing again when it dropped in September, and for that I’m grateful. —Matt Young
Seth Combs is a VAMP contributor, and editor of San Diego CityBeat. He has covered the San Diego arts and music scene for over a decade. He’s also written for Spin, Zagat, and The Hollywood Reporter. He likes dogs and comic books, but is pretty iffy on your band.
What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
It had been a while since I had read a short story collection, but after hearing LeVar Burton read Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,” I knew I had to read the rest of her stories. Her debut collection has been marketed toward fans of speculative and dystopian fiction and that’s fine. Fans of those genres will find plenty to like within the loosely connected stories, most of which take place in Nigeria and the U.S. in the not-so-distant future. However, Arimah’s writing is strong enough to where it isn’t difficult to suspend disbelief. These aren’t stories about fantastical events, but rather, scenarios that could be playing out right now and told from the perspective of those most affected. The worlds of What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky aren’t otherworldly. They’re our world reflected back to us as a warning. —Seth Combs
Justin Hudnall serves as the founder and Executive Director of So Say We All, a San Diego-based literary arts and education non-profit organization. He produces and hosts the public radio series Incoming on KPBS / PRX featuring the true stories of America’s veterans, and edits the anthology series of the same name. He is excited to debut two new radio series he’ll be producing for SSWA in 2018.
Best podcast: The Polybius Conspiracy
For anyone who 1) took the “I Want to Believe” sentiment popularized by The X-Files to heart, and 2) who also loved Serial and S-Town and (the 1st season of) Stranger Things, and 3) who feels that our current times have shattered the framework of normalcy rendering all things possible and the paranoid rational, then this series is for you. Just be sure to listen to the whole series through before you Google anything about it, give yourself the gift of letting it sit with you without external comment. It’s an exciting new twist on the medium that I hope sparks new innovation. —Justin Hudnall
JULIA DIXON EVANS
Julia Dixon Evans is author of the forthcoming novel How To Set Yourself On Fire (Dzanc Books, May 2018). Her work can be found in Pithead Chapel, Paper Darts, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. She is program director for So Say We All.
Not to be a total tease, since it’s not going to be available until February, but the best thing I read this year was Black Candies: The Eighties, which I am co-editing with SSWA’s Ryan Bradford, founding editor of the series. The book, scheduled for publication by SSWA Press in February 2018, is a collection of literary horror and dark fiction, and is gorgeous, unsettling, and nostalgic as hell. The stories, we noticed, as we pored over submissions and dug in during the editorial process, often seemed to center around a glitch. In the 80s days of analog-yore these glitches weren’t terrifying in the same ways as, say, modern hacker/twitter bot/self-driving car glitches, but my god these writers (including Meghan Phillips, Henry Hoke, Aaron Burch, Lindsay Hunter, Tiffany Scandal, and many, many more amazing voices, both established and brand new) wrote such pure, vivid terror in these malfunctions, the way things fall apart, and the way machines can haunt and be haunted. Featuring 23 stories (including an essay!) plus artwork. Buckle up. —Julia Dixon Evans
Thanks for reading our lists of favorites, and we hope we’ve given you some things for your “to do” lists. And we hope you’ll share yours with us too.
We can’t wait for the stories that 2018 will bring.
If you like what we do at So Say We All, please consider becoming a sustaining member for as little as $5 per month. Details: www.sosayweallonline.com/membership