A Year in the Life: 2019

Roxane Gay’s year of reading

Roxane Gay
Feb 5, 2020 · 8 min read
‘Piles of French Novels’ (1887) by Vincent van Gogh, oil on canvas. Credit: VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

This was a year where I felt like I didn’t get anything done. I didn’t write much and when I did I wasn’t very happy with what I wrote. I didn’t read much. I travelled too much. Toni Morrison died and I reflected on her legacy. I wrote a comic series called The Banks about a family seeking vengeance and a payday that will change their lives. I had a great meal at Little Dom’s. I wrote about how I have to steal time to write these days. I profiled Melina Matsoukas on the eve of her film debut. I profiled Kerry Washington. I wrote a short story called “Immediate Family.” I made some but not enough progress on a YA novel and my next nonfiction book, How to Be Heard. They are coming along, I guess. I co-wrote a graphic novel that will be out in October 2020. I started no fewer than thirty essays and short stories that are in various states of disarray because the words simply aren’t coming these days. I have to grind everything out and worry that all my best writing is behind me because I can’t seem to connect to that magic that usually carries me on the page.

I taught a class at Yale on writing trauma and worked with some incredible students. I wrote a lot of recommendation letters. I presented Jordan Peele with an award and after the ceremony Beck started playing some songs and Chris Martin was randomly there and he jumped on stage and was just really feeling Beck and he had a tan. I received a couple of honorary degrees. I worked on a lot of projects that may or may not go anywhere. It often felt like I was just spinning my wheels. I worked in a couple of writer’s rooms and learned that when you work in a writer’s room you get free lunch. I wrote forewords and introductions for anthologies. I co-created a podcast with the inimitable Tressie McMillan Cottom and there were some growing pains, but we’re getting the hang of it, supported by an incredible team of producers. I started a magazine that allows me to publish thoughtful and thought provoking writing. I judged a cookbook contest. I judged a short story collection contest. I guest-edited Stylist magazine. I endorsed Elizabeth Warren for president. That woman I started dating last year? The fast walker? She still walks incredibly fast. She loves stairs and kombucha and New York. We got engaged in October on a boardwalk at the beach and the sun was setting and it was a whole thing. I went to Italy and France for the first time and ate incredible food and walked more than I ever thought I could. I went to Hawaii for the first time. I went to Norway and Denmark and Australia and Switzerland and Singapore and each time I visited a new place I was grateful beyond words for how the world is opening up to me as my body changes.

I baked a lot and sometimes I did well and sometimes I did not. Croissants have gotten the better of me but I persist. I saw a lot of plays and musicals and most of them were daring and terrifying and uncomfortable and messy and I can’t get enough. I made mistakes where I was insensitive or thoughtless or rash but I also apologized and tried to make amends. I continued to nurture enmity for my nemeses. I started playing a stupid phone game called Two Dots and suffice it to say, In-App purchases are… a problem. In June, my fiancée and I learned that Maria, a woman who was most a mother to her, had Stage III pancreatic cancer. A mere three months later she died. During those three months we were reminded of just how broken the healthcare system is and how inequitable it is to those without means. Maria spent her final days at home surrounded by love and care and it was a true blessing to be able to give her that. She loved dogs and children and hated most people and loved smoking and Popeyes and Diet Dr. Pepper and didn’t take shit from anyone but if she loved you, she loved you completely and unconditionally. We miss her every single day. A month later, on my birthday, I learned that my mother has Stage IV lung cancer. Her story is her own and she is doing as well as can be expected but my world has spun off its axis. I don’t know if it will ever be set right.

As I do every year, here is my reading list…

My favorite book:

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

The ambition of this novel, the inventive structure and syntax, the grand scope, all make for the most absorbing book I read all year. The characters are so richly drawn, so intimately known by Evaristo, and so perfectly rendered on the page. This novel is a master class in storytelling. It is absolutely unforgettable. When I turned the final page, I felt the ache of having to leave the world Evaristo created but I also felt the excitement of getting to read the book all over again. It should have won the Booker alone. It deserves all the awards and then some.

My second favorite book:

Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky

Dermansky is one of my favorite writers. I inhaled Very Nice in a matter of hours. It’s a vicious novel, full of terrible people behaving terribly and I could not get enough. It was also incredibly sexy in its own way, so full of yearning and selfish indulgence and recrimination. What I loved most is that Very Nice wasn’t trying to be universally loved. It offers a specific point of view and a distinct voice. You will either love or hate this book but you won’t be indifferent.

The other best books of the year:

  • How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones
  • The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
  • The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
  • Severance by Ling Ma
  • In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
  • The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
  • Queenie by Candice Carty Williams
  • Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Sexy, charming romance novels that were well-written, smart, wildly implausible but absolutely absorbing

  • A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole
  • Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole

A memoir that broke my heart because really, nearly everyone in Whitney Houston’s life failed her:

  • A Song for You by Robyn Crawford

A book of poetry I struggled to make sense of but that was experimental in interesting ways:

  • Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed

A book many people loved, that was critically acclaimed, but I did not care for it and it made me want to never see a tree again but I also recognize that it is well written:

  • The Overstory by Richard Powers

A book that was very long, ambitious, sprawling, visceral, an overwhelming read, and also many people lied about reading it all the way through:

  • Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James


  • Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

An exquisitely written novel that I wished would never end:

  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor

A warm, absolutely charming novel that felt like fuzzy socks, a roaring fireplace, a good glass of wine, and a soft hand to hold:

  • Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

Excellent poetry collections:

  • Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
  • If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar
  • Magical Negro by Morgan Parker
  • How to Build a Boat by Camonghne Felix
  • Felon by Reginald Dwayne Betts
  • Soft Science by Franny Choi

A poetry collection that reflected incredible growth from an already talented writer:

  • Homie by Danez Smith

Books I read for a project about Audre Lorde that reminded me of why she is canon:

  • Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
  • Zami: A Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
  • The Collected Poems by Audre Lorde

A great novel about an irredeemable man and the family he nearly destroyed in pursuing his desires without remorse:

  • All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

A novel about marriage and ambition and what men take for granted and how people in a relationship sometimes know nothing about each other or themselves:

  • Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

A book that will reassure you that the kids are going to be okay:

  • Tell Me Who You Are by Priya Gulchi and Winona Guo

An action-packed, bloody novel that involves a fairly convoluted plot and a bad ass young girl:

  • She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper

A book of cultural criticism where the essays ran too long but still I respected the work and effort that went into crafting each essay:

  • Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Wypipo stories:

  • Pure Hollywood and Other Stories by Christine Schutt

A sexy novel from one of the most talented romance novelists in the game right now and honestly, I will read everything she writes:

  • The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory

A surreal novel about a meat quarry and a girl with a knot who wants to be seen and loved by a ferociously imaginative writer:

  • The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter

A collection from that writer who wrote that one story I didn’t like and the collection didn’t really work for me but one of the stories was so fucked up I think about it at least once a week so something was working here:

  • You Know You Want It and Other Stories by Kristen Roupenian

A book that exemplifies what children’s literature is at its best:

  • How to Be a Pirate by Isaac Fitzgerald

Books I enjoyed but don’t quite know how to describe:

  • The Toni Morrison Book Club by Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, Piper Kendrix Williams
  • Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias

A book that was too, too beautifully written:

  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

An essay collection by a promising writer that I blurbed and I look forward to seeing what she does next:

  • The Pretty One by Keah Brown

An impressive debut novel that made me want to clean every character and their living/working spaces because it all seemed quite grimy and unwashed:

  • Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

A book I found deeply unpleasant to read:

  • The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Roxane Gay

Written by

I write. I want a tiny baby elephant. If you clap, I clap back. Books.: Ayiti, Untamed State, Bad Feminist. Difficult Women, World of Wakanda 1–5, Hunger.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Roxane Gay

Written by

I write. I want a tiny baby elephant. If you clap, I clap back. Books.: Ayiti, Untamed State, Bad Feminist. Difficult Women, World of Wakanda 1–5, Hunger.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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