In my mind, I hear the title of this issue of Unlikely Stories in comedian Lewis Black’s gruff voice of complaint, a slight stutter on the first “F” and a triumphant upturn at the end, accompanied by a righteously ironic, painfully exhausted shake of his fist. Fuck Florida!
Because Florida is a fucking problem. I have a bone to pick with Florida. Let Black, King of Rants, set the scene with a vintage riff set in an IHOP. It might as well be in Florida. You can already taste the boysenberry syrup that Black claims to be guzzling, after finishing a stack of pancakes and a carafe of coffee, when he hears a young woman behind him utter what he believes to be history’s stupidest sentence: “If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college.”
Black can’t get this line out of his head. It intrudes on him for days, forcing his brain to analyze it for meaning, picking it apart, conjecturing on what one thing has to do with the other until it threatens to drive him mad. Still he thinks about it. He says that doctors don’t know what causes brain aneurysms, but he does. It’s hearing this sentence and trying to make sense of it, which you can’t do, and then a week later, they find you dead on your bathroom floor. Florida is this sentence.
Fuck Florida. Here’s why. First of all, Florida stole my little cousin. This once-wise woman grew up in Europe and moved to Florida when she was 17. She loved poetry and philosophy. She was sure the U.S. was nothing but a giant Jerry Springer Show into which she didn’t want to get sucked. In Florida, she finished high school, went to college and graduate school, settled down and started a family. Now she’s 40, voted for Trump, and believes in QAnon. Her children aren’t vaccinated against anything at all. Her husband is a full-blown conspiracy nut. She brings up Trump and her wild beliefs in the middle of conversations about our shared experience of cancer—mine thyroid, hers breast. She doesn’t understand how she got it because she ate all the right things to prevent it. She ate so many tomatoes, she says. Fuck Florida.
And Florida, fuck your Don’t Say Gay law. Technically, you’re still allowed to be gay in Florida, but if you’re a student in Florida with gay parents, reading about your own family is forbidden. If a picture book has one white parent and one black parent, then it’s double forbidden, because even depicting interracial relationships has inspired people to challenge a book’s appropriateness for minors. Literally just knowing that gay people exist is now considered harmful to children of all ages when presented in the medium of literature. God forbid there’s a young adult novel that references or includes gay sex; gay people aren’t even allowed to be in children’s books doing innocuous, mundane activities like eating ice cream or sailing or playing with kittens. “It’s illegal for children to read about gay people in school” is a profoundly stupid sentence that could rattle around in your head until it kills you, unless maybe you eat a truckload of tomatoes. Seriously, fuck Florida.
I’m writing a memoir about my difficult childhood and life of chronic illness that sweeps in my family’s Jewish immigrant history and covers some pretty sensitive topics. If it gets published in this weird, conservative climate, it has the potential to get challenged and/or banned for any number of reasons in the Sunshine State, and other places they’re banning books, even though I’m not writing it for children. I read grown-up books all the time when I was kid that were far less graphic than what I was going through in real life. Books written for kids were gritty too. I read about the Holocaust, chattel slavery, Irish-American indentured servitude, civil rights, teenage runaways, disabled foster kids, tomboys discovering their adolescent femininity, boys with leukemia who wanted to be doctors, and girls being molested by their fathers. Books taught me about the world. They offered me camaraderie. They taught me empathy. They offered an escape from my crazy family through time travel or space travel or living in the forest with a community of elves.
I couldn’t tell my secrets to people in real life, but the characters in my books understood me. Now, kids in Florida don’t even have the full range of fictional characters to turn to for solace or kinship or just basic entertainment that isn’t stripped of everything potentially interesting. Worse, they might not even find out that reading offers such a thing. Fuck that fucking state for taking books away from kids. Books are love. Florida is taking love away from kids.
Here’s a sentence that Lewis Black would have no trouble understanding: If it weren’t for my books, I’d never have made it to college.
Fuck you, Florida.
Jennifer Levin is a freelance arts and culture writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is working on a memoir about intergenerational trauma, called All the Girls in Their Cages.