Our Reading Lives

The Indelible Nature of Friendship & Stories

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Anne Mai Yee Jansen


Anne Mai Yee Jansen is a literature and ethnic studies professor and a lifelong story addict. She exists on a steady diet of books and hot chocolate, with a heaping side of travel whenever possible. Originally hailing from the sun and sandstone of southern California, she currently resides with her partner, offspring, and feline companion in the sleepy mountains of western North Carolina.

It was a sunny afternoon in August when I arrived home to find a package on my doorstep. I took it in with me, holding it close as I removed my shoes and dropped my bag by the door. I didn’t remember ordering anything, so I was curious about what might be inside.

cover of The Fetishist by Katherine Min

After pouring myself a glass of water, I opened the package. I was greeted by a slim paperback book with a berry purple cover, the image of a blowfish staring at me through protuberant eyes. The words The Fetishist were printed in large white letters across the blowfish so that it took me a beat to register the name at the top of the cover: Katherine Min.

Katherine was my friend. She was the first person I met when I visited Asheville, North Carolina, for a job interview eleven years ago. She picked me up at the airport and, later, took me to dinner at the Laughing Seed Café, a charming vegetarian restaurant with aged brick walls and glowy mood lighting. It was our first sustained encounter, and we laughed our way through our meal. When my luggage failed to show up, she offered to lend me a pair of pants for my interview the next day.

The book’s presence in my kitchen shook me, cracking open my heart so that the memories started leaking out. Katherine passed away in 2019, and holding her posthumous novel in my hands in a home that she had never (and would never) set foot in was both sacred and painful.

I carried the book around my house with me for the next few days. It sat on the sofa with me. It rested on the table next to my cup of tea. It lay on my nightstand when I went to bed at night, its spine facing me as I closed my eyes and fell into sleep. I wasn’t ready to open it yet. Instead, I just wanted to enjoy its companionship.

Later that week, I rummaged around in the garage — still mostly unpacked despite the fact that I had moved into this house over a year ago. I found what I was looking for and carried it upstairs. When I opened the bin, skeins of soft yarn in a galaxy of colors greeted me. I pushed past the muted hues of Noro, tossed aside the vibrant tangles of Malabrigo, and finally unearthed three skeins of Miss Babs yarn in a colorway called Zombie Prom. I purchased this yarn with Katherine at a fiber arts fair shortly after moving to Asheville. Katherine and I used to knit at a little yarn shop downtown — Purl’s Yarn Emporium, it was called. We’d sit there for hours, knitting and talking, before putting away our projects and heading down the street in search of something tasty to eat. I tried to knit but couldn’t settle on a project.

That afternoon, I opened The Fetishist for the first time. (I was feeling brave, emboldened by cozy memories of yarn and comfort food.) I read the dedication and, to my total bewilderment, burst into tears. It was such a simple and lovely dedication, and I could practically hear Katherine saying it. That was the only part of the book I read that day. I savored it like the little bonbons we used to enjoy at the chocolate shops in town, thinking about love and friendship and all the things that outlast us.

Over the next few weeks, I took it slowly. It was important to me that I enjoy the experience of reading Katherine’s book. I only get to read it for the first time once, I kept thinking. For this reason, I gave myself an entire day to let the Author’s Note percolate. (It’s that enchanting.)

Reading The Fetishist was, in some ways, like getting to steal back bits of time with Katherine. When I read the words in this book, I could hear her voice. I could recall the fullness of her laughter more vibrantly. I felt as though she was closer.

I couldn’t read very much in any one sitting. Certainly not whole chapters, but sometimes not even a few pages. There were just so many memories, little moments that floated to the surface. I lingered over them, tried to enjoy them. I usually read voraciously, consuming a book in a matter of hours; I took my time with The Fetishist. I let it stretch out across three months. An entire season.

Memories of conversations came back to me as I encountered the story. I recalled Katherine talking about one of her characters with me in the hallway outside the English Department office, the elevator bell chiming periodically as she talked about this woman who was recalling her previous lovers while in a coma. I remembered conversations we had in her office, the dim light of her desk lamp illuminating the titles on her bookshelf. I used to stare at the spine of her copy of Don Lee’s Yellow while we talked about writing, family, love.

I didn’t push away my memories of visiting Katherine in hospice. They’d present themselves right alongside memories of her playing with my daughter in the months after she was born. Sometimes, I had to set the book down for days at a time when it made my heart too sore. It was a lot to hold, this emotional whiplash.

Still other times, I would get lost in the book. The writing was so good (typical Katherine!), the story so complex.

Finishing The Fetishist was bittersweet. On the one hand, the story was compelling and interesting and, above all, a really good read. On the other hand, it was over. And in some ways, it felt like saying goodbye all over again. Sure, I can pick it up and read it any time. But that first read was the only time I’ll ever be able to experience the newness of the tale. It was a unique and moving opportunity to receive a story from a friend who can’t tell me any more stories.

Postscript: If the novel was a parting gift, the Afterword was something else entirely. Written by Kayla Min Andrews, Katherine’s talented and quietly exuberant daughter, it was a poignant reminder of the fact that Katherine may be gone, but she isn’t gone. Those who love her carry stories of her in their bones, and there are so many stories I still haven’t heard.