This year I got to work with and/or write about some of the artists, writers, musicians, and activists who are particularly meaningful to me. Here is a roundabout round-up of published and performed work in 2018 (or you can view it in a list if you’d rather).
In January 2018 I rode around Washington, D.C. in a cab driven by Hailu Mergia, the legendary Ethiopian jazz musician, who wrote most of the songs for his latest album in his car on a portable keyboard in between fares. In February I paid tribute to Frank Perkins, who died two days shy of his 88th birthday, and to his bar Frank’s Lounge, which lives on, the heart of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I taught Michael Parker’s workshop as a guest writer of the UNC Greensboro MFA Writing Program. I returned to Standing Rock for a four-day prayer walk in honor of the Water Protectors Legal Collective and the resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline, for a story in collaboration with Mitch Epstein. Back in New York, I met up with Janelle Monáe who played me songs from an album so new it didn’t have a name then, talked about her mentor Prince, and about being a “free motherfucker.”
As the artist Nigel Poor headed to San Quentin to create another episode of Ear Hustle, I spoke to her about the trove of prison photography that helped lead her to creating the podcast (which has since won a Peabody Award and best of all, seen its co-host, Earlonne Woods, get released; this was for a story in Aperture’s Prison Nation issue). I wrote this essay about Justine Kurland’s Girl pictures and this, for Bookforum, about Geoff Dyer’s book on Garry Winogrand, and this, also for Bookforum, about Rose Marie Cromwell’s El Libro Supremo de la Suerte.
Alec Soth and I went looking for Prince, in all his places, knocking on doors of the houses where he used to live, walking in his woods, reading the letters people left him. Dear Prince, I learned to eat light because of you. Dear Prince, I see all the signs that you saw me.
Back in New York City, I knocked on other strangers’ doors for a five-part series portraying a block in every borough: on City Island in the Bronx, a block party outside Louis Armstrong’s house in Corona, Queens; dancer and writer Barbara Browning and other residents of Washington Square Village and I.M. Pei’s Silver Towers. This was in collaboration with Chris Mottalini.
In June I profiled the folklorist Bill Ferris for the Guardian. I was a guest of the Last Poets Sunday Open House workshop which has been held weekly for decades at Abiodun Oyewole's Harlem apartment, for a story published in the Guardian. (My host could not have been more gracious than when he told the room, "Rebecca has shown herself to be a real human being and someone who gives a fuck.") In July I flew to Atlanta to hang out with the artist and musician Lonnie Holley as he worked on a short film, and I came home and gave a fiction reading at one of my favorite spaces, Sunview Luncheonette, shortly after the passing of its original matriarch Bea. I wrote about Alex Prager for Aperture’s Los Angeles issue, and Jocelyn Lee for the New Yorker. For this Lapham’s Quarterly story, I found myself calling up the town office of Gettysburg, South Dakota and asking: "Was there a whole town that used to exist near here, that is now underwater?" The answer: yes.
I went back to my hometown to start uncovering all the things I’d never or barely known of it—that it was home, a thousand years ago, to the native village of Joara, that Jules Verne set a 1904 novel here, casting Table Rock Mountain as the “Great Eyrie.” Mainly I went to find out more about the late great guitarist Etta Baker for the North Carolina Music issue of the Oxford American. In Brooklyn I profiled Jordan Nassar, whose embroidered works transform a centuries-old Palestinian art into imaginative depictions of some of the most deeply contested land in the world, for WSJ Magazine. I’d lost my voice the day I interviewed Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz about Gordon Parks, Deana Lawson, for the cover of Cultured magazine (which was photographed by Jamel Shabazz). On James Baldwin’s birthday I went to the Harlem studios of Ming Smith to see her brilliant photograph of him, and stacks of others (Smith was photographed for the story by Katsu Naito, whose Harlem photographs I’d written about in 2017 for the New Yorker).
I wrote a few words for a book that deserves far more: Dawoud Bey’s Seeing Deeply. I wrote about Susan Seidelman’s debut Smithereens for the new Criterion edition of the film, made in 1982, when New York City was still very much a world where it seemed possible to escape where you were from and figure out who you really were. I showed works of short fiction in a collaborative exhibit with Dave Bryant at Testsite in Austin. I went to an incredible Feelies tribute to the Velvet Underground and a baffling and dispiriting exhibition about the band, which I wrote about for Pitchfork.
I tried to get inside a lighthouse on Staten Island and ended up in a Tibetan garden instead. I watched the New York City marathon from the steps of the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Clinton Hill and spent the first hours of Election Night at their choir practice (later at Union Pool, I saw James Brown’s bass player Fred Thomas sing Otis Redding songs and I thought, for a minute, that the world just might turn out all right the next morning).
When I moved to Austin in the early 2000s, as central to my understanding of Texas as Willie Nelson was David Byrne’s True Stories, an extraordinary celebration of strangeness. I loved writing “Everybody Has Tones,” an essay for the terrific Criterion Collection edition.
When I first read Lucia Berlin’s short stories they were a revelation. For the Paris Review I wrote about her life and work, her slipstreaming sentences, the way she allowed herself to be receptive to the possibility of the story itself, and to the dark and essential humor within. As the character Lucha says in her story “Silence,” “I don’t mind saying awful things, as long as I can make them funny.”