Hazlitt Magazine

Green To Me

Like anything I love, I mistrust the color green down to the fingernail-edges of all the feelings it engenders in me.

My Abyss

Obsession will always be an attractive fresh hell for a person like me, a product of abandonment with a longing for attachment.

'Being a Woman is Inherently Uncanny': An Interview With Carmen Maria Machado

The author of Her Body and Other Parties on writing the fantastical, existing in the periphery and blueprints of the past. 

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‘We Do Things to Survive That Are Not Always Pretty’: An Interview with Linden MacIntyre

The journalist and author of The Only Café on violence, how curiosity sparks our accumulation of memory, and why nothing is ever new. 

Linden MacIntyre’s The Only Café is about failed attempts to forget the past, and the consequences of revisiting territory behind what the novel calls “the memory wall.” The book, McIntyre’s third novel, draws on his on-the-ground experience as a journalist in the 1982 Lebanon War, as well as his later experiences both behind the scenes and in front of the camera as co-host of the CBC’s newsmagazine the fifth estate. Pierre Cormier, one of the novel’s two protagonists, starts the novel dead—or, at least, vanished. At a reading of his will, his son Cyril discovers that his father has a mysterious connection with a bar in East Toronto called The Only Café, and a much more compelling and mysterious connection to atrocities in the not-so-distant past in Lebanon. Helped—or possibly hindered—by a supposed friend of his father’s named Ari who hangs out at The Only Café, Cyril starts to investigate his father’s past, paralleling Pierre’s own plunge into the past, a journey he made in the months leading up to his disappearance. Naben Ruthnum: I wasn’t exactly ignorant of the period of history in Lebanon—the 1982 Civil War—that forms the dark backdrop of memory that drives the action in The Only Café, but I certainly wasn’t well-informed. The novel’s story moves while signposting crucial bits of history, ensuring that this reader at least could really follow things. Was it hard to balance this information-giving with storytelling? Linden MacIntyre: [The balance] just happened, because—for someone who has been there, it’s always surprising—[the Lebanon War] has been in the forefront of my consciousness since the early ‘80s. One assumes that everyone’s been studying it in school, everyone’s as familiar with it today as I was then. I guess one of the most rewarding aspects of having written this is that it’s opening people to two things. One that this particular event, and this particular civil war, happened, and it was horrifying.  And when people become conscious of that, they become conscious that all the other horrors that are going on all around us that everybody right now knows about are part of the same continuum, part of the same dynamic. It’s not inconceivable that maybe twenty-five, thirty years from now, the ISIS phenomenon, the war in Syria, the war in Iraq—these things that are front and centre in our consciousness today—will be new to another generation. And another generation may have a reason to revisit what’s happening today, and will be further aware of this continuum of history. That was a big part of my education as I grew older: I suddenly realized there was nothing really new. It’s all part of something that was going on before. Another way you suggest that continuum of history is Pierre’s job: his current-day job working in mining engineering. There’s a violent incident involving local workers in Indonesia entering a conflict with the Canadian company Pierre works for, which projects him back to the past. This happening in the supposed “third world,” has a huge impact on Pierre, and links him to his own memories of where he came from before embarking on his new life in Canada.   I got a little worried that [that section] was getting a complicated thematically, but I realized that it’s just one theme: that violence is universal. If Canadians feel that we are exempted or that we are somehow insulated from it, then we’re deluding ourselves. The Canadian mining industry is working in some extremely violent and precarious places—this event in Indonesia (in the book) is not entirely fictional. I’m aware of a similar situation, involving Canadians. It wasn’t in Indonesia, but it was in that part of the world. It’s a very powerful and influential part of human nature, this tendency to do violent things, to betray our fundamental values and character and engage in violence. Whether it’s in the behaviour of a corporation in the so-called third world or in a civil war in a place like Syria or Iraq or in Vietnam or Lebanon, there is something in human nature that wants to create horrifying circumstances for other human beings. It’s just one theme: that violence is part of our collective and personal memory. And that violence can become overwhelming when it takes over the memory, and can lead us to very dangerous places. Pierre has managed to wall off a lot his violent memories until this incident in Indonesia reawakens it. And then a chance encounter in a little bar brings him up really close to his own particular experience, and Pierre somehow thinks “because I’ve shared this experience with this guy, the two of us have a similar and equivalent need to excavate and to get rid of the demons that it left us with.” This is a mistake, because you cannot assume that every memory, even of particular events, has any similarity to someone else’s memory. Pierre doesn’t seem to get it, and keeps pushing the memory, not realizing that what’s past for him is not really past for Ari, the guy he’s trying to draw out. The whole question of trying to explore the worst memories is usually a healthy impulse we have. But to presume that someone who shares a version of that memory is going to be in sync with you in revisiting it is a perilous proposition.  Something I feel is pretty attuned to these ideas of memory and recurring violence is curiosity—curiosity’s a prominent part of this book, and something I found to be particularly interesting in Cyril, Pierre’s son, who is working a journalism internship as he begins this plunge into his father’s past, prompted by Pierre’s mysterious will. Cyril seems like someone who had stunted curiosity about his father’s background, which is actively kickstarted in his early twenties, at the beginning of this book. What is it that makes him less curious about his dad as a child, and what gets him going once he finds his father’s will?   It’s fairly natural, curiosity—Cyril is a young guy who doesn’t have a great store of memories, and in particular he doesn’t have much memory of his father, who stepped out of his life when he was just a boy. Curiosity is where memory gets born—we become curious about stuff, and as we find things out, as we experience things, motivated by our curiosity, we accumulate memory. Part of my theory of journalism is that one of the principal assets that a journalist must have is an open-minded curiosity. So Cyril’s curiosity is normal—he’s curious about his dad, who first disappeared into another relationship. And Cyril repressed that initial curiosity by being angry and bitter. But now dad has disappeared, and the curiosity is reborn. Now it’s not enough to just say, “Oh, fucking Dad walked out on us and I’m not going to think about him anymore.” Now there’s a deeper mystery, and it’s a sharpened by the fact that Cyril deep down believes that he’s never going to get the chance to ask questions of his dad again. So that sort of drives him all the more. Because of the career Cyril’s chosen, this flowering of curiosity also seems linked to him maturing, becoming a man. I thought that was interestingly paralleled with Pierre’s, as it’s brutally phrased in the book, “chemical castration”—the end of his life, in his mind, as a functionally sexual person. There’s something symbolic about Pierre’s crisis over his health. He’s approaching middle age, and it’s bringing many things into focus about what’s important in his life. It becomes part of the healing process when he’s out on the boat—as I step back from the book and look at these characters as real people, I think that one of the great tragedies is that Pierre reaches an epiphany (toward the end of his storyline). He’s come to terms with his own physical limitations, with the toxicity of his own personal memory, with his new child coming, his great relationship, and knows that he came close to screwing everything up because of his obsession with his memory. But he’s already created his own doom, while he was pursuing this obsession with the worst part of his life. Anyone who’s ever had to confront the reality of cancer—it’s one of those moments that redefines everything. I had a character in an earlier novel say that “Cancer isn’t just a diagnosis, it’s an announcement.” Everything in your life is about to change. Whether you have serious cancer that’s going to kill you, or you have a curable cancer that’s going to draw you down and through a primal experience of survival, everything changes. As Ari says in the book, survival has no moral quality. If you survive, you go on; if you don’t, you don’t. We survive, we do things to survive that are not always pretty. We are often the products of the lives of survivors. Much of The Only Café reads like a spy novel. You’re many books into your career, but when you’re coming to a complex novel like this, with two protagonists, these deceptive and slowly revealed sources of information, and a complex timeline—do you ever go back to any model writers? I was thinking of John le Carré and Graham Greene, for example, when I was reading this. Do you think of the structures of other novels as you construct yours? Those are two of my favourite writers, actually, particularly in the way they develop character. I think I might well have been influenced by them to come to an understanding of how important it is that the characters you invent take on a reality. So that when they speak, you’re not putting words in their mouths—you’re transcribing what they say. [Le Carré and Greene] are two of the greatest examples of writers who are very good at that. Of course, working in TV for many years, I understand the importance of the human voice, how people talk, coming from a very oral culture. Dialogue, talk, the shape of a story was a key part of the local culture. I don’t know if there is a model or a place to go to learn how to structure a complicated story. [The Only Café] was a story that sat around in my brain for a long time, and I never had really sat down with a big sheet of paper and sketched out architecture. I had an idea for a story, I had an idea for some characters, for a basic situation. But I knew I was setting myself up for a lot of struggle, by virtue of the fact that it was going to be a mystery story to find out who this guy was and why he was dead. When you have a dead protagonist on page one, you’ve got a challenge. You can’t escape flashbacks, but I wanted to make them relevant, and relate them to an ongoing search by another character. I can remember a moment when I was out jogging one day, which is always a great way to think. Somehow it releases endorphins that activate the imagination a little bit, this is one of my theories. I suddenly realized that I was going to have to do this book in a fashion that isn’t my favourite form of storytelling: two points of view, two voices, two protagonists. I’m a traditionalist, I prefer one character and one voice, to make it work that way. There was never a moment in the story where I didn’t know how the next section was going to begin. The one part that was troubling was how I was going to end it—who was going to be left standing? I was surprised to find that The Only Café was a real place. I live in Toronto, but out in Parkdale, so I’m rarely out east, around the Danforth. But it’s rare to have a real-life place used in a novel where the writer has made slightly sinister associations with it in the plot. Did you run this by the owners? Do you go there? Oh yeah. I go there quite a bit, and I had those very same thoughts in my head. I asked this bartender there that I knew to set up a meeting with the owner. I sat down with the owner over coffee, and had my presentation in my head—I said, “Look, I’m writing a novel, I want to call it The Only Café.” He said that’s great, and I told him I wanted to put a lot of the action in this place. He said it was fine, and I told him I’d walk him through the story from one end to the other, just to make sure he was comfortable.  He said, “I don’t fuckin’ care what the story is. This is just cool,” drained his coffee and left.
Green To Me

Like anything I love, I mistrust the color green down to the fingernail-edges of all the feelings it engenders in me.

They brought the kudzu in to cover up the scars. We’re driving down to Savannah on the I-16, the highway that points like an arrow from the forest to the sea. There’s a thunderstorm picking up around us, and I have a warm styrofoam cup of gas station coffee and I’m sitting cross legged on the passenger seat, watching the rain whip the trees into a cacophony of green. The color seems to stain out past the borders of plants and vines and leaves and seep into the rest of the landscape, so that everything, even the billboards and pavement on the freeway stretching out in front of us, is at least a little green. The car is pointed toward the southern edge of the country, and it feels like the greens spill right off the edge of the land, curling and sirening out into the sea. Kudzu is a shocking green, like someone pushed a neon highlighter through the landscape, underlining the highways, spelling out a route on a map for a driver with poor eyesight and worse memory, so that they couldn’t miss it and couldn’t get it wrong. The plant was introduced to the south in 1930s during the Great Depression, with the newly created Soil Conservation Service offering cash incentives to farmers who agreed to plant kudzu seeds. The beneficiary of one of the great public relations campaigns in American history, kudzu was talked about in quasi-religious terms, miracle and resurrection, making barren ground live again. This is always the promise of green: The dream of rebirth, the springing hope that one could start over and be made new. But mainly kudzu was planted along railway tracks and new highways, places where industry and infrastructure had left ugly breaks in the land. Its eager and abundant green filled in the gashes and covered over the visible brutalities of progress, promising that what was profitable could also be beautiful, that the old did not have to be at war with the new, that the arteries of money were not at war with the land but one with it. It made the claim that these huge many-lane roads sprung symphonically out from the green, as wild and miraculous as the world’s natural wonders. In Bluets, Maggie Nelson asks, as the supposition that grounds the whole text, “imagine if I told you that I had fallen in love with a color.” Nelson refers to her obsession with blue, the blue of sadness and pornographic movies, the blue that haunts poetry and old jazz standards about despair. Reading Bluets, I felt intimately connected to Nelson’s obsession. Not the color blue—I feel only the usual amount of emotion toward that most emotion-laden of all colors—but the idea of having fallen in love with a color, all its figurative heaviness, its associations and its metaphors threading through my life, casting a wash over my experience of the world like an Instagram filter that slides its uniform color veil over the whole image. I look for greens, teasing them out of photos, trusting them too much when I find them, giving far too much credit to any place that will offer me the greatest possible abundance of green. Like anything I love, I mistrust the color down to the fingernail-edges of all the feelings it engenders in me. The very fact that I love it so fiercely, that it compels me so again and again toward it, makes it both suspicious and sinister to me. What are the larger forces working to make this color seem like escape and solution, like a larger and better answer than words, like the final destination and the place to hide? What is green doing that makes it seem to matter so much? * America first used green ink on money during the Civil War. The government issued paper bills as a means of financing the Union, literally printing currency, inventing money out of thin air. We had done this same thing during the Revolutionary War, but the paper money was printed at such volume that it almost immediately became valueless and useless. This failed currency wasn’t green, and though I know it’s not as simple as that, I also know that, in some ways, it is. Green is money’s blissful lie of abundance, the loving embrace of a well-made long con. Previously, state and local banks had issued their own bills, but the Union’s regularized currency branded itself by the sickly green accented color that we associate with money today. The color was the result of anti-counterfeiting measures; photography was a new technology, and required new precautions. The green on the bills wouldn’t show up on photographic copies, and therefore proved authenticity, protecting the government’s monopoly on printing money. In 1929, following the stock market crash, the U.S. government re-thought and essentially rebranded its money, shrinking down the size of the bills and standardizing the designs for each denomination. But when it came to rethinking the color, the treasury chose to keep the green, despite the fact that advances in anti-counterfeiting technology meant it was no longer necessary for authentication purposes. While the reason for keeping the green hue was primarily because green ink was plentiful and cheap, it was also determined that green represented stability and growth to people—by seeing green, they would associate a feeling of generativity and dependability with the sight of a U.S. dollar bill. American summer highways are as green as money. The two are completely different shades and yet they do the same thing, perform the same acrobatic function through the means of color. The intentional planting of kudzu to cover over the scars that highways and railroads left on the land is another version of the choice to make money green, using this color to promise stability, comfort, and generativity, making money the same color as nature and new growth, as the wild and untouched places, the very landscapes that money cannibalizes and negates. The green of money isn’t quite the green of anything else, the stain and tracery on crisp twenties or softened, wallet-dwelling ones, on sweaty cash that peels off close to the skin and sticks to tables and floors, that scatters haphazard from purses like feathers. The color of money always feels not-quite-there, like a trick, about to rub off or fade to grey or beige. It’s a green with no life in it, without any of the rebellion of the trees that crowd east coast highways. It’s closer to the desperation of hospital green, or to the deep relieved green in the heart of forests. Money is a living symbol, a thing that needs you to believe in it in order for it to exist. A system of currency functions because enough people collectively buy into a mass delusion, an agreed-upon psychosis, that the cost of opting out of the belief becomes quite literally too high. It’s a symbol that churns itself into truth, a fake that becomes real through insistence and repetition. Green meant something long before America existed or had a currency to print, and yet perhaps today green means growth, and stability, and wealth, and greed, only because money is green. The symbolism flows as much in the other direction; the things we feel about the color are things we feel because we know we are looking at the color of money. * My husband moved from the south to New York to live with me. When his parents call, they ask him if he misses green. People who don’t live here always say that about New York, green standing for all of the natural world, green as the opposite of the skyscraper. “Don’t you miss seeing green?” But green is everywhere here, as artificial as it is abundant. Nothing, not even the highways on the route to Savannah in a thunderstorm, feels as green to me as this city does. When the heart of summer flares over the landscape, all through Manhattan the trees turn green and it makes me feel like a tourist. Nothing is greener to me than this grey barren city where I live, this flattened and rebuilt, over-farmed and over-foraged, brutalized urban place. It’s nothing like the kudzu-greens in the south, and yet when I think of New York, I think first of the color green. I grew up on the West Coast, where summers bake a dry heat over the landscape and everything shrivels and dissolves. To try to flatter it, locals call the summers golden, but they’re really brown, dried out and drained of color, aridly rent of moisture. Even on the rainy days the foliage keeps to itself, hardy and resilient, refusing romance and adjectives. But in the summers, my parents and I would fly out to visit my Dad’s family in Harrisburg, then rent a car and drive to New York to see their old friends in Manhattan. On the drive between the two cities, up the winding Eastern interstates, the trees along the highway and even at the median strip burst a wet, saturated, promiscuous green. That green was the promise of another world where it was summer the way it was supposed to be summer and therefore I might be young the way I was supposed to be young and had never felt young, an unknown place where the rules might be different, where things might be generous and infinite. I wanted to get myself inside of that color, wanted to get my teeth around it, wanted to somehow change my life so I could be swallowed up by that green, so that what it made me feel wouldn’t include the fear that it would be taken away, so that green did not threaten an ending. Color of course has no human desires, no inherent morality; neither does beauty. Humans put narrative to our reactions to beautiful things until the thing and its story are inextricable, a chicken and egg problem, impossible to know where it starts. I still feel same way I did when I was a teenage tourist about the green that wreaths the long blocks around the museum by my house, that riots up and down the median strips of highways, the green that overhangs parking lots and makes a canopy when I lie on my back and the lattice of sunlight and leaves close over my face like water. But all this emotion might mean nothing more than the fact that money is green. I’ve spent a lot of my life in proximity to other people’s wealth. Growing up, my parents both worked at a small, wealthy private prep school—we lived on the campus, in a grand home that didn’t belong to us, part of faculty-issued housing, a fact I never understood until the board of trustees summarily kicked us out of the house during a legal dispute when I was seventeen. In my twenties, I worked as a private tutor for wealthy families, teaching rich children how best to sell themselves to the Ivy League. During those years I often lived in someone else’s house, travelling with the families I worked for and pinballing through airports from one home and one country to another. Green was a constant then, a spiraling, crawling, blossoming thing. The worlds of the wealthy are green worlds. The greens are lush behind walls and gates and stone fortresses, passed down for generations along the neat right angles of lawns and swimming pools that particular almost-green gem-blue that occurs nowhere in nature except in the pool in the backyard at a rich person’s house. In East Hampton, the lawns were green like the purest idea of the color, so that they softened the day, the conversation, the people, the whole apparatus of life around them, giving the place an Edenic sense of newness, as though one had stumbled through a doorway into some hidden elsewhere, untouched by the sins of the ongoing world. On the wide avenues of neighborhoods set back from the beach, trees leaned heavy green canopies over the road and cradled you in a whorling green archway, held in the gentle hands of this color that guided nighttime in slow and forgiving, all neon pinpricks of fireflies. The lawns here looked like velvet, like no one had ever heard of scarcity, of want, of the arid, scratching dirt under lesser landscapes. * Green, of course, is about water. Water is about life, and it’s perhaps the thing we who are lucky enough to have enough of take the most for granted. Dystopian stories often crucially focus on water. In Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s 2015 harrowing vision of a perhaps not very far off future, the landscape is blighted and drained of all moisture; its residents are gaunt and withered, bodies creaking like cheap furniture left out in the sun. This dying landscape is ruled over by a vicious warlord who hoards all the remaining water for himself. The only green in this world is in his labyrinthine lair, the palace he has built for himself that both shuts out and perpetuates the horrors experienced by the general public. Everything inside his walled enclave is saturated, literally dripping. He hoards not just water, and not just verdant green plants absent from the earth below, but also the fertile bodies of women: both very young girls who function as sexual slaves and incubators, and wet nurses, women with overflowing breasts, bursting with fertility. The women inside this monstrous treasure trove are currency as much as the water and the plants are; all of it is a kind of money, and it exists in the same warped, seductive, sickening way that money does in our own world, in the dragon-hordes of our only slightly less outwardly ghoulish overlords. During the car chase that dominates most of the action in Mad Max, the women who are our heroes set out to find “the green place,” a promised land like the land of milk and honey, the place beyond the desert where at last everything is abundant. They never find the green place—it doesn’t exist anymore, we learn in the film’s most heartbreaking reversal, and they must return the way they came to build the green place themselves. But green, in this figuring, represents escape, represents whatever frees us from the demands, consequences, limits, and hard truths of the world in which we live. Coloring the dream of a place that will do this green is part of a long tradition. In the final, triumphant scene of the film, when the rebels take back power, they turn a gigantic faucet on full-blast, and water rains back over the blighted landscape. The camera focuses lovingly on the color green that crawls down the side of the structure where power had been concentrated, seeming to promise that that green will soon disseminate to the people below, and then to the rest of the world. This last scene is a utopian vision of anti-capitalism: the water is money, distributed unregulated and wild to the assembled populace, everything for everyone, and everything free. Money is always green, even when the paper bills aren’t. We think, or at least I think, of green worlds as a forgiving elsewhere, the color wiping a cityscape back to the innocence of its origins, restoring what was here first. Within this dream of re-ordering and rebirth, we are capable of being lost, granted the ability to be unknown, to stay undefined, free of a rigid identity, free of binding declarative markers that map out a human fate. This, also, is the thing that green does to me when it sings out of the park a block away and bleeds a vivid stain down the edges of the highway. It seems to be promising a cocoon in which I could shed the burdens of the accumulated self and be reborn or, better yet, unmade. Green as an oblivion, as a takeover by something larger, unruly and unruled. Northrop Frye, writing about Shakespeare’s comedies, referred to what he called “the green world,” a both real and unreal space that by existing allows the action of the plays to unfold. The green world is often literal—in Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, the characters vanish into a forest on the edge of town—but also a figurative space beyond the borders of society’s strictures. In the green world, magic exists, and rules do not. Characters within the green world work out their desires and inconsistencies, their questions and their undefined selves, free of the constraints of a watchful society, of a place with laws or limits. They then, crucially, in often-overlooked and almost always tedious fifth acts, re-emerge into that society, having purged themselves of their rebellious impulses. As is so often the case, what seems like a rebirth is really only a process of grooming. Characters go into the green world thinking they are nameless and familyless; they enter despairing of love, or ready to shake off the bonds of society. They re-emerge ready to mate and marry, ready to be visible within the requirements of a patriarchal society. The lost seekers who went into the forest frequently come out having discovered that—surprise!—they’re the ruler of the city or country or society they sought to escape, their namelessness transformed into aristocracy. They run away from the law, then return as its representative and beneficiary. All of those plays in which the green world figures, the Forest of Arden and the fairy realms and the island in The Tempest, are silently about the character’s wealth. Every marriage plot is a story about economics, a parable more of social mobility than of love. The green world is a fantasy of escape, and, like all fantasy, like all escapes, it is offered only to those who can afford it. The high school kids I used to tutor frequently attended summer camp. They lived in the grand, sharp cities of the world but in the summer their parents packed them off to remote idylls, places with wood-walled cabins and horses and art and crafts and lakes for boating and swimming, enclaves in hard to find and gorgeous locations, down remote dirt roads, where green cradled the tents and the picnic tables, where green erupted and embraced imaginary utopias, green like something into which to sink backward. They spent their summers in these imaginary utopias, returning home with stories about friends whom they would only see once a year—camp was meant to be an engineered green world, a controlled wild place that began and ended at the temporal borders of a paid vacation, lifted neatly out of the real world to which it returned them unharmed and essentially unchanged. It was a way to experience something without risking anything in the experience. Summer camp serves the same purpose that a long adolescence does, and the same purposes that Shakespeare’s green worlds do: The safe rebellion, the risk that never touches consequences. The green world is a place built of money and yet it is free of money, too, and in this way it’s entirely about wealth, as the wealthy are the only ones who are able to escape from the grey and consequent prisons of money, the world in which all the corners are defined by lack. Green is a second chance, and while everyone might deserve a second chance, in truth it is often something that can only be purchased with money. * The first Dutch sailors to land on the island not yet named Manhattan called it the greenest place that they had ever seen. Maps and paintings from the time or from not-so-far-afterwards show it as a heartbreakingly verdant place, bursting with saturated foliage, all rivers full of leaping fish and trees offering generous shade. It’s endlessly debatable what the word “Manhattan” actually means, but a number of theories translate it as something close to “green place.” The same people who gave this piece of rock that name, who sighted that green land singing out off the coast of the country and scammed it away from the native people who lived there, who purchased it for the richness of its greens, promptly set about destroying every vestige or possibility of that color, carving the grey stone and wet mud of profit and business out of the green island, until that bright memory seemed impossible. Nearly two hundred years later, in 1858, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux won a contest to design a large park, in the style of London’s Hyde Park or Paris’ Bois du Bologne, in the center of Manhattan island. At the time, the Romantic notion of Arcadian parks was in high fashion—wealthy aristocrats purchased imitations of nature’s lawlessness, perfect representations of uncontrolled growth, the rigidly constructed fantasy of an unconstructed world. Central Park sprang out of this same tradition, this trend for artificially wild places. Built before the modern skyline, the park was supposed to make its visitors able to believe for a few hours that they were not in the city at all, that they had vanished to the patrician, untamed countryside, offering a fantasy of the out-of-reach luxury of escape, of relief from the city’s pace and crush and ongoings. Vaux and Olmstead repeatedly rejected suggestions that they incorporate European wrought-iron gates at entrances to the park, saying that they wanted the lack of ornate entrances to signal that in this green space “all were welcome, regardless of rank or wealth.” But the space where Central Park would be built already had residents. In 1850, the land was home to a growing community made up mostly of Irish immigrants and formerly enslaved black people. Much of the land was used for farming, and numerous small villages had sprung up around these farms, some building schools, creating their own insular functioning societies. Some of these communities had been in place for more than fifty years, multiple generations living and marrying and growing old and dying, passing on traditions and small joys and sorrows from parents to children. In 1857, the year before Olmstead and Vaux dreamed their democratic park, nearly two thousand people were evicted from the land by the city’s government under eminent domain laws. Whole villages were razed, wiped out to nothing, as though they had never been there at all, to make way for the new green world. In the subsequent building of the park, an elaborately over-budget and red-tape-strewn process from which Olmstead was fired and re-hired multiple times, more gunpowder was used to clear the space where the park would be than was used in the entire battle of Gettysburg. New York kills off its greens and replaces them with a theme park version of exactly the thing it killed. Central Park is in this way perhaps the most perfect expression of the green world, its overwhelming seductions and the lie at its heart, the dream of stability in the color of money, and the violence that that stability requires. Central Park began to decline almost immediately after it was completed; it was massively expensive to keep up, and the government in power at the time simply didn’t care, preferring to spend the money elsewhere and mostly on themselves. The park wasn’t made a priority until the 1930s, when LaGuardia put Robert Moses in charge of its restoration. Moses is one of New York City’s largest-looming villains. He is memorably responsible for tearing down the old, gorgeous Penn Station, and converting it into the grimy eyesore level of hell that it is today. But more importantly, during his long tenure in power, he did everything he could to make the city unlivable for poor and non-white residents. He presided over mass evictions and conversions of low-income housing and immigrant communities into money-making large-scale constructions that shut out those who could not afford to start over, who lacked the means for second chances. He also saved Central Park, and is perhaps more responsible than anyone else for the park as it exists in current iteration, in much the same way Rudy Giuliani is responsible for the present-day family-friendly Times Square. In a single calendar year, Moses turned Central Park from a blighted, neglected waste where greens struggled futilely through dirt and trash and broken benches to a verdant wonderland. Through a relentless militaristic campaign of green, Moses completed Olmstead’s vision. To love Central Park is to tacitly approve of Robert Moses and to approve of the politicians who evicted nearly two thousand people from their homes and razed entire, functioning communities with schools and farms and families in order to create a vision of a green world supposedly free and open to all, who, like the Dutch settlers before them, destroyed a natural world in order to buy and sell a facsimile of one. To visit Central Park and feel for a few hours mercifully free of the sharp edges and ambitions of the grey city around it, to believe in the mathematically exact beauty that this green place offers, is on some level to align oneself with Moses’ vision of the city, or with the gentrifiers who are the inheritors of Moses and of his predecessors in a line stretching back to the original developers of the park and to the Dutch before them. The green spaces are their genius, the honeyed trap they set for the unpersuaded. The park offers a vision of a verdant, utopian escape, but its green is on the side of the autocrats, not the angels. So often this is the reckoning with the green and beautiful things in the world—our idyllic escapes, our havens, were purchased with blood money, created at the expense of other people’s lives. Other homes were destroyed so that we who are privileged enough to access such things might have a temporary escape from ours. Like turning bills green to signal stability, generativity, and comfort, and like painting kudzu over the gashes in the landscape left by empire-building, money papers green over the ugliness at work in its mechanisms, and offers access to that beauty in exchange for accepting the violence that it does. When Central Park fell into disarray again after Moses’ departure, it was cleaned up when the broken windows theory of policing took hold in the mid-1980s. The green world usually has cops at its edges. * Earlier this summer, Lorde’s first big single off her new album Melodrama was the song “Green Light.” Its chorus is childishly simple and infernally catchy: “I’m waiting for it/that green light/I want it.” That last phrase, I want it, is shocking in its bold-faced brattiness, a toddler stomping her feet and throwing a tantrum, I want it I want it I want it. The green light is permission, the go sign, the yes, the open door, the starting pistol. It’s the lawless greed that the green worlds of both youth and money permit, barreling into uncertain choices heedless of the havoc they might wreak. Within the measured and artificial green world of Central Park, the place perhaps closest to this conceptual promise of utopia has historically been The Ramble, which at least once, if not now, was a haven for cruising, a place to have anonymous sex, a place where desire could exist outside of the ordered and admitted narrative of one’s own life. It’s a similar feeling, a similar want, to that glorious, addictive, sticky-fingered adolescent exclamation in Lorde’s song-of-the-summer chorus, that green light/I want it. A certain kind of sex does this, turns everything green, driving out the thoughts of rules, consciences, or good hygiene, bathing everything in a wash of color the shade of abundance and of hospitals, of freedom and of money, want thundering its false promises and drowning out the noise of the world, until everything is nothing but green. [[{"fid":"6701766","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Perhaps my love of the color green is an indictment of what living up close to others people’s money for so long has done to me, the consequences of placing myself in this same situation over and over again. I have set up shop right at the borders of the walled garden, have made myself too available to the songs the sirens are singing. I understand deeply and intimately, like a knife at the bottom of my stomach, why the color of money is green. I understand why the treasury chose to keep the color, to perpetuate the longings for the safety, the softness, the green-blanketed escapes that only money affords, the place where sound dims and recedes. I can see how this want—for sex, for money, for a small, safe permitted place outside laws and consequences—warps people’s ability to care for one another. I can see all of this and I can still desperately thirst to be let into the green, the place up in the warlord’s mountain where all the water is kept. It would be a lie to say I want to open the faucet on the waiting populace; first I want to go up there all alone, into the hoarded green world, and put my face in the water, all for me until it makes me sick, nothing but green and silence. Although I don’t know this for sure, I always imagine that green is associated with hospitals for the same reason it is associated with money and road-building: because it offers a desperate optimism, an aching hope of escape. That optimism is terrifying, like the optimism of payday, the giddy high-wire feeling of spending money without looking at your bank account balance, the split-second buoyancy when dollars rain from the ceiling. It’s the kind of blind hope that breaks people against the rocks beneath it, that ruins people’s lives. I love green things because I am scared of them and because I mistrust them. I know that I am fundamentally not allowed inside the green world and there’s nothing we love more than the door we can’t open, the light that won’t change to green, the place which would unlock all the permissions, a whole world of second chances, the secret garden, the green place.
‘Being a Woman is Inherently Uncanny’: An Interview With Carmen Maria Machado

The author of Her Body and Other Parties on writing the fantastical, existing in the periphery and blueprints of the past. 

A wife refuses her husband’s request to remove the green ribbon tied eternally around her neck. A store clerk realizes there are girls sewn into the dresses she sells. A woman recalls her sexual encounters as a plague consumes the world. The world of Carmen Maria Machado is bright and bizarre, full of magic and haunted places. Much of Machado’s short fiction centers on the unexpected, the swerve into the night vision of a woman who is really a witch and just remembered to tell you. In Machado’s debut short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, recently nominated for a National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, she weaves the real with the fantastic until the ordinary becomes sinister and the other way around.  Lyra Kuhn: When did you first become interested in fabulism? Carmen Maria Machado: I think my interest in fabulism has come to me in stages. As a child, I was drawn to fabulist writing through kid’s lit—fantasy (A Wrinkle in Time) and science fiction (Ray Bradbury) and horror (Lois Duncan, John Bellairs), cut with metafiction (Sideways Stories from Wayside School) and absurdism (Roald Dahl). As a teenager, I was lucky enough to have a particular teacher who gave me books to read from her personal library, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was my first exposure to magical realism. And I had a third, important stage right after I began grad school, and fellow students began recommending writers to me who have since become the backbone of my personal canon: Kelly Link, Karen Russell, George Saunders, Nicholson Baker, Helen Oyeyemi, Alice Sola Kim, Sofia Samatar, Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter. This final stage was the push I needed for my own work; I realized these were the types of stories that spoke the most intensely to me, and reflected something I wanted to do in my own fiction. How does your identity as queer and Latina affect your writing? I think writing is inextricable from the body; there’s no such thing as pure reason, pure intellect. My body, my identity, is a lens through which I can view the world and reflect it back in my work. This is true for every artist. Do you think the body is a source of horror? Do you think bodies can become haunted?  I do! Bodies are terrifying; they’re powerful and fragile, bloody and imperfect, uncanny, impressionable vehicles that carry our minds from birth until death. And of course they’re inherently haunted. Haunting is a kind of impression; a lingering effect from a physical act like a shoeprint or a cloud of perfume left the in air. In the same way, bodies carry trauma and choices of our ancestors. Our DNAs are blueprints of the past. Is there a particular approach you take when writing a fabulist story, an alchemical process of sorts?  Not really. Most stories come together in the same way for me—in pieces, images, impressions, and concepts that I have to gather together into something cohesive. Whether or not the story is fabulist is pretty incidental to the process. There is an image in the book that hasn’t left me for some time—when the narrator from the story “Real Women Have Bodies” first describes the disease that makes women disappear, then later realizes the terrible secret about the dresses in the shop. Where did the crux of this story come from? At the Coralville Mall, right next to Iowa City, there was a black-walled, seasonal-prom-dress store called Glam. I walked past it one day, and thought Wow, that’d be a great setting for a story. I’d been mainlining a lot of fabulism around that time—I think I’d just finished Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves—and so I tried to imagine what kind of horrors could happen there. I don’t know how I arrived at the faded women being stitched into the dresses, but I imagine it had to do with the fact that the dresses already looked like they were occupied by invisible bodies. The story unfurled from there, though it’s old enough that it was heavily rewritten on a sentence level before appearing in Her Body and Other Parties. How do you move between the real and the unreal in your stories? I don’t think of them as particularly separate; the scrim between them is barely there. So it’s not difficult: I look at the world around me and push into it, just a little. Why do you think so many women writers turn to the uncanny, such as yourself, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and so on? I think there are probably lots of reasons, but one of them is that being a woman is inherently uncanny. Your humanity is liminal; your body is forfeit; your mind is doubted as a matter of course. You exist in the periphery, and I think many women writers can’t help but respond to that state. You’ve said before that you have an obsession with lists. Could you make a list of stories or books that have had a great impact on you? Sure! Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery and Other Stories, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners, Alissa Nutting’s Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine and Vox.
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
My Abyss

Obsession will always be an attractive fresh hell for a person like me, a product of abandonment with a longing for attachment.

What I noticed first was she looked like an alien. Her mouth was full and exaggerated. Her head looked slightly too large for her tiny body. She was beautiful and I was ugly. Back then people took great pleasure in telling me how disgusting I was. I had pimples all over my forehead, coarse black hair, no breasts, and broad shoulders like a man’s. Some days I didn’t want to be alive, but my delusions and curiosity kept me around. I thought that if I loved someone beautiful, I would become beautiful, too. She claimed that she used to be ugly, that the kids in her school called her “dog.” Now she received attention for her appearance and her voice. The voice emanating out of her tiny alien body was deep and smoky. It didn’t seem right that a voice that deep and rich could come out of such a small body. She sounded like she was fifty years old. She sounded like she had been through hell. Come here, I thought I heard her say. I’ll show you how to get through hell. When I was seventeen years old, I was obsessed with Fiona Apple. This obsession was more real to me than anything or anyone in my actual life. Growing up as a Korean adoptee in the suburbs of Milwaukee I felt distant from my white adoptive parents and my two younger brothers who were also Korean adoptees. My brothers were from different biological families and the three of us looked nothing alike. We were all disgusting in different ways. This was the only beautiful thing about us. The youngest was short and stocky. The middle had a bowl cut and thick glasses. I had back acne, which was so irritated and painful I had to sleep on my stomach. I looked at my family in a detached way, the way a person who dislikes plants would look at plants. For many years, perhaps five to ten, I felt nothing for them, and I reserved all of my joy, happiness, and dread for my obsession with Fiona Apple. * The world appears brighter and sharper when you’re in the midst of an obsession. Obsession can feel powerful, overwhelming, and really fucking sad. When you’re obsessed with someone or something, you are almost impossible to locate, you are sucked down into the abyss. It was 1998. I would come across Fiona Apple’s photo in a magazine at a store and start squealing. Then I would tuck the magazine into the waist of my pants, and walk out of the store. When I read mean message board comments about her physical appearance, it felt like an attack on my very own self, and I would go into the bathroom and force myself to puke. I never thought I had an eating disorder because I was skinny. I thought eating disorders were for overweight people. I was so mean and hateful; I had no compassion for anyone. It was a particular form of hell, to feel everything in my life so intensely through the void of this person I would never know. “Do you think that maybe you are a lesbian?” my mother asked me. She was standing in my teenage bedroom and glancing around at everything. Two Fiona Apple posters were pinned to the walls: one of Fiona Apple in her underwear from the “Criminal” video and the other a giant poster of Fiona Apple gripping a microphone. I was adult enough to admit that from far away the microphone looked like a penis. “Oh my god,” I said to my mother. “I just love Fiona Apple. It’s not about sex or something. She’s really talented. And she’s almost my age.” My mother looked at me as if I were having a psychotic episode. “Don’t you think you’re talented, too?” What I said about Fiona Apple didn’t make sense to her. I wanted to cry tears of frustration whenever I talked to my mother, because she wasn’t Fiona Apple, and why was she, my mother, this non–Fiona Apple entity, talking to me and wasting my time when I could be imagining talking with Fiona Apple? It was sad. I would rather talk to my idea of a person, a fantasy ghost-person that existed only in my imagination, than talk with my own parents. Throughout this time of obsession, I would casually mention Fiona Apple many times throughout the day as if I knew her, as if we were best friends. Oh, Fiona likes that. Fiona is a vegetarian. That reminds me of Fiona. Fiona’s song. Fiona’s album. Fiona wore that. Fiona said. Fiona’s tour. A picture of Fiona. Fiona Apple riding the subway. Fiona’s OCD. Fiona’s ex-boyfriend is a magician. Fiona’s drugs. Fiona’s sister. Fiona’s real last name. My mother never understood my obsession. She had never been obsessed with anything in her life, not even a man. She lived plainly, simply, religiously, and she never told lies. It was obvious she thought I was depressed and crazy. She kept asking me if I wanted to talk to a counselor. “It seems like you’re really unhappy, Patty. Are you unhappy? If you talked to a counselor, your mood might improve.” She never said the word therapist. She always utilized the word counselor, as if the counselor were a trusted family friend. The fact that she thought I needed to talk to a counselor because I was depressed and crazy made me even more depressed and crazy. “I don’t need a counselor,” I said to her. “What I need is privacy.” * “How can I ask anyone to love me/When all I do is beg to be left alone” –Fiona Apple My teenage bedroom had a lock on the door and this was very important to me. The lock might have saved my life. Sometimes I would spend hours talking to myself. I would imagine myself starring in a movie with Fiona Apple. We would become best friends. We would fall in love and devour each other; we would live in Los Angeles and do drugs all day. Other hours were spent mindlessly bouncing a NERF ball against the walls. To this day, I have excellent hand-eye coordination. Occasionally I smoked up and listened to Tidal. I wasn’t inhaling properly. I held the smoke in my mouth, then blew it out the window. I burned incense to mask the weed smell. Instead of curtains or blinds, I attached thick beach towels to the window fixtures to blot out the light. My mother would come in during the day while I was at school and rip off the towels, which infuriated me. “It’s like you’re living in a cave,” she would say when I got home. I screamed at her and told her not to touch my things. Whenever I went into my room and noticed the towels had been taken down and folded neatly into small piles on the bed, I was reminded of how a spider works so diligently to spin its web, and then a human being comes along and tears it all away. Every day I cried. I believed my depression stemmed from my earliest abandonment: being taken to an orphanage the day I was born. According to my orphan file, the first six months of my life I was a mild, nap-loving, bottle-sucking baby. But my life as a Korean orphan, however brief it was, left a traumatic psychic and physical void that no one, not even my fellow Korean-adoptee brothers, could understand. I used to believe that. I saw everything through the eyes of my abyss. One day, I finally agreed to see a therapist and a psychiatrist. I thought the therapist was an idiot, but the psychiatrist had real power, medicinal and prescription-drug power. He left the windows of his office open in the winter. The almost-refrigerated air kept his lunch bag cool on the windowsill. I wore thick sweaters and shivered in the chair as he prescribed Prozac, Xanax, Wellbutrin, Buspar. The effects of the drugs were almost immediate; I became really outgoing and bold. I started to experiment with sex. I told my father I gave a random older man a blowjob. Strange men would call the house at night. “Marquis called for you,” said my father. “Who is Marquis?” My father said nothing could shock him because he and my mother were medical people. Then my mother chimed in that she, as a nurse working in an emergency room, had removed gizmos from men’s rectums. “I don’t care,” I said. “That’s disgusting. Why are you telling me that?” Then I ran into my bedroom and locked the door. There was a new Rolling Stone magazine with Fiona Apple on the cover. I had stolen it from the grocery store. Fiona Apple is floating in a bluish green pool and her hair whirls around above her head like Medusa. When I looked at photos of Fiona Apple, especially high, an ecstatic feeling of recognition and kinship came over me. She was a genius and misunderstood. Maybe I was a parasite because I used this feeling of kinship to keep myself alive and I did nothing for anyone else. * Ten years ago, my youngest brother emailed me. “Where did your book about heroin go? I really liked that book.” He was referring to How to Stop Time: Heroin from A-Z by Ann Marlowe. I remember being startled. I hadn’t thought about that book in years. I don’t remember much about How to Stop Time and I never asked him why he was so interested in reading it again. I told him I sold it to Half Price Books. “Alright,” he wrote. “I’ll buy it myself.” I never thought to ask why he wanted to read that book again. I never asked him anything because questions made him uncomfortable. I knew he lied about everything. He was a slippery person, a real trickster. As the years went on, his stories became more and more outlandish. He was attending the University of Chicago Law School without a college degree thanks to Attorney General Eric Holder’s letter of recommendation. “Do you know Martha Nussbaum?” I wrote to him. “Of course, everyone knows her,” he wrote back. We would see each other a few times a year. His weight was constantly fluctuating. Some visits his body was so thin, I didn’t recognize him. He had to be coaxed into eating. He ate only plain food: white rice, water, pasta. Sometimes he looked like he had gained fifty pounds over the span of a few months, as if he were rapidly acquiring a layer of fat to protect himself from the horrors of the world. He liked to tell this story about me over and over: “Years ago, you fell asleep at Thanksgiving and didn’t talk to anyone. You were really messed up then.” Before his acceptance into law school, he told my parents he was working out west, training to be a federal investigator, a position that required the utmost secrecy and discretion. “Isn’t that interesting?” my mother said to me on the phone. “He’s working for homeland security.” When I asked for more details, my mother said, “He’s secretive.” There’s a photo of my youngest brother, probably seven or eight years old, wearing a trench coat. He has a magnifying glass held up to his face, making one eye appear monstrously large. In his other hand is an expensive-looking camera, probably my father’s. When he was little he liked to dress up as a detective. That’s what he wanted to be. A detective. * My brother lied about many things, but his story about me was true. Some years after my obsession with Fiona Apple, I went to Thanksgiving in Wisconsin coming off of drugs. A woman I was dating gave me a pill, which I thought was a painkiller, and it turned out to be methadone. My relatives hosted Thanksgiving every year at their farmhouse near the border of Minnesota. They were kind people. I was the dark one. I was the void. I spent a couple days at their home locked in the bathroom, vomiting water. Thanksgiving Day I fell asleep on the couch in front of a movie or a football game. My brother was sitting next to me. I believe I said three words to my relatives and my family: “I’m doing fine.” At that point in my life, I did not identify as a lesbian even though I dated women. I thought lesbian culture was lame. I didn’t want my mother to be right. “I am not a lesbian,” I said to anyone who would listen. Many of the women I dated were ostensibly straight. I was no longer obsessed with Fiona Apple. My obsession had been transferred onto a woman in a seven-year relationship. She and I slept together a couple times and it was and it was stiff, awkward, and disgusting. It was so disgusting I was astonished. How could I be so obsessed with someone who was so bad at sex? Friends asked me that. They were right. But I couldn’t stop myself from calling them in a state of despair to tell them I was about to do something I knew I shouldn’t do. I must have sounded like a sex addict. I vacillated between two extremes: a monastic code of living to fucking anyone who wanted to fuck me. The thing about obsession is the object doesn’t matter. You can be obsessed with flowers, cars, shoes, your dentist, gambling, the NBA, whatever. Obsession is never about the object. Obsession is the yearning and attachment and dread and joy and the abyss. Obsession will always be an attractive fresh hell for a person like me, a person with a longing for attachment, a product of abandonment the day I was born into this grievous world. Among my collection of photos, there’s one of Fiona Apple from 1998 that I purchased at a CD Warehouse in a Milwaukee plaza. I’ve kept this photo of Fiona Apple with me all these years, moving from Milwaukee to Minneapolis to Milwaukee to Chicago to New York City to Los Angeles. Every time I pack up my things, I consider throwing it away. It makes me think of abject despair and isolation and my teenage bedroom. It makes me think of my life with my brother, watching NBA games in his dark cocoon of a room, avoiding the rest of our family. He preferred Tori Amos to Fiona Apple. We would argue about who was better at Christmas. He loved Tori Amos, which I thought was weird for a man. He was sensitive. No. I will never throw away my Fiona Apple photo. In 2006, I went to a Fiona Apple show in Milwaukee. I had brought a plastic bag of weed with me, mostly shake. I remembered that in 1999, Fiona Apple stayed at the Hyatt downtown. I don’t know how I knew this, but seven years after I had first acquired that knowledge, I decided to ride my bike there after her show. Her tour bus was parked in front of the hotel entrance. Fiona Apple was standing outside of it, hugging her bandmates, teary-eyed. It was the last show of her tour. I waited, and when there was an opening, I approached her. I imagined we would go onto her tour bus and smoke up together. Possibly we would have a deep conversation in which we revealed all of our hopes and fears. We would understand each other, I was certain. As I approached her, a look of confusion came across her face. It became obvious she wondered what I was doing, and why I was there. I held up the bag of weed in front of her face. “Do you want this?” I said. Our interaction ended when she took my shitty bag of weed onto the bus. The door closed. * It was difficult to talk about my obsessions with my brother, but I think he understood. Of course I learned later on that he had his own obsessions and struggles. In fact, it could be said he too was driven by obsession, that his code of living was informed by obsession and generosity and self-deletion. I never asked him about it. It was the kind thing to do, to leave him alone and to respect his privacy, to respect the lock on his door. Almost ten years ago, my brother drove his car from Milwaukee to my bullet-ridden apartment building in a rough part of Minneapolis. My rent was $400 including utilities. There was a layer of dark green paint underneath a thin coating of beige, some of the paint flaking and chipped, which imparted a sick hopelessness. He brought a few rolls of paper towels and a bottle of Windex and he helped me clean my piece-of-shit apartment. On a shelf there was a bag of weed and a glass bowl. He didn’t comment. He lifted up my TV/VCR combo and carried it out to the car. I was moving into a studio apartment in Milwaukee because I was done with Minneapolis. Living in that shit hole, I came to understand slowly that I had abandoned myself. I decided it was time to run away from my obsession and disappointment. The first part of my life was informed by it, I was determined to give it up, and a fresh start in a new city was just what I needed. My brother drove the car to Milwaukee and paid for the gas. He was always very helpful. I’ll never forget that. Everyone in my family believed he would be a successful lawyer one day. Everyone loves to believe lies that are beautiful and generous. “I’m going to help you financially,” he had said to me. “You won’t have to worry. One day, I’m going to make at least $150,000 a year, and I won’t need all of it.” When he said that, I think even he believed it. And the truth is, I never did one thing for him. A few years ago, he reached out to me one night through an email. I was in Brooklyn, walking with my partner at the time down 7th Ave in Park Slope at night. People rushed past us on their errands. I re-read his email on my phone at least three times; I could tell something was wrong. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. “This email from my brother is really weird,” I said. Then I put my phone away. I didn’t respond. We continued walking. I was so exhausted from working full-time in New York City, I told myself, “Tomorrow or the next day or maybe next week I will write back to him.” I never did. To this day, I feel a sense of shame for being such a self-absorbed parasite caught up in numerous tiny dramas that meant nothing to me or to anyone. I was too busy to write back to him, I decided, he would understand. But what kind of monstrous human being doesn’t respond to an email like that? I kept saying to myself, “I will. I’ll do it soon.” In the end, it didn’t matter, and a few days after he sent his email, there was no longer a person to write back to.
On Falling in Love with David

Is it possible to decolonize and police a thing as subconscious and primal as desire?

I need to tell you that I’m thirty-one years old and I have an imaginary boyfriend. It’s a secret that I’ve kept to myself for many years. His name is David. I met him when I was sixteen. That year I confided in my mother about him and she told my father who told me I’d better be careful—that one day I might just lose my mind completely. There are stories that get dreamt up about minds wandering from bodies. I had these dreams. Like my mind was a thing that never actually belonged to me, it belonged to my imagination—a reckless sort of demon parasite, and my parasite’s name was David. So when my parents confronted me about him, I saw it happening: I started laughing uncontrollably. My body got so hot I had to take off my shirt. My heart started racing. I felt out of breath. I started screaming back up at my Dad. I thought I sounded like a banshee: “Maybe I’m already crazy! Maybe I’m already crazy!,” I kept repeating. It was the first time I thought I saw my mind leave my body. I saw my body through the expression on my father’s face: it took on an animal form that I no longer recognized. I met my boyfriend after six years of religiously watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Originally, David was a vampire who was a lot hotter and smarter than Buffy’s love interest, Angel—though they did (and still do) have similar tattoos on their backs. David’s is a raven’s wing that accentuates the muscles on his back and shoulders when we are making out. David has been a different person in every stage of my life, each one a bit more practical than the last: in high school he was a militant anti-capitalist vampire who killed the 1% and fenced their things and gave them away like Robin Hood; in college, he was a former child actor who left Hollywood after having a nervous breakdown and nearly fatal cocaine overdose; in grad school he was a part-time model and boxer who once played Roger in Rent on Broadway; since then he’s been a drug-dealer-turned-accountant-turned-social-entrepreneur who uses his wealth to help former drug dealers like himself start businesses. But despite all the changes, there are things that have stayed the same about David: the fact that he always looks like a Calvin Klein model (meaning that he’s white, pretty, and toned), throws lavish parties, has gorgeous ex-girlfriends, and playboy charm. And then there is also the fact that I know he doesn’t love me. I don’t just doubt his intentions—I know. By the end of the fantasy, he will tell me he’s sorry, that he’s actually in love with someone else. I try to circumvent this problem by only ever replaying the first three months of our relationship over and over again. Whenever we get to the part where he means to break up with me, the fantasy returns to the first time we met at that party—the type of party a rich and gorgeous playboy would never actually attend, but which was the only kind I could imagine in high school. It has stuck with me ever since. It’s a hip-hop and spoken word party in Brooklyn. He’s outside smoking a cigarette. I’m outside absorbed in my thoughts. He asks me something about poetry. He tells me a story about how his mom died when he was twelve and how he never really knew his father—because you can’t have a fantasy playboy boyfriend who doesn’t have a troubled past to make him seem so vulnerable and complex that you excuse him from all his previous playboy antics. Two years after I met David I went to college and spent the next four years having crushes on a series of random boys and then having panic attacks every time I was alone with them. These panic attacks weren’t the same as the first one in front of my parents; for the most part I just turned to stone. A voice in my head told me not to speak until spoken to. That the wrong move could get me killed. Sometimes the boy would notice and ask me what was wrong. I was usually too paralyzed to respond. By then I had internalized a message about Black girls and love that made it impossible for me to separate sex from violence. David would occasionally reappear in these times. And with him, I found the feeling that he could kill me alluring. It’s not a particularly original desire for a woman to feel this way. But when a Black woman desires a white man to dominate her, it starts to feel a little like falling in love with your oppressor. Here’s the other thing, though: it’s hard to imagine myself in these fantasies, because in them I’m a light-skinned Puerto Rican named Eva. Eva was David’s childhood friend who dated him in high school and whom I’ve always been a little jealous of. She’s beautiful, fashionable, a gifted dancer and singer, and, most importantly, much cooler than I am. At first Eva was a secondary character in my daydreams, an obstacle I needed to overcome to get to him. But every once in a while, I would be her. Or rather, I would be me—with my personality and name—but look like Eva. I have bright red hair. I’m thin as a rail and he likes this—how he can bend me over and under into a rubber band. My legs are like elastic as he makes me do splits, pins my arms up over my head while he slides his hands up my thighs. I like to wear dark make-up that makes the paleness radiant and dramatic. Hair long and straight enough to be pulled. And when I try to fall asleep, I imagine Eva dancing in circles till I get dizzy and my eyelids start to close. I make an effort to force my own black body and face into my subconscious in lieu of Eva’s. I want to see myself as fantasy-worthy. But when I enter my fantasy as myself, I see something so crude and pornographic I try to look away. Because I can’t see myself in these scenes—hand-cuffed and on all fours—without thinking of a Black woman’s body being examined for sale. He measures the thickness of her calves with a ruler. He looks to see how far he can spread her legs apart before they twist and break. A doctor cuts her open. She seems to feel no pain. It has now been sixteen years since I first fell in love with David. In this time I have eagerly watched Lemonade and Grace Jones music videos. I have read the life works of bell hooks, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde. I have undergone twelve years of therapy, switched to natural hair, stopped shaving my legs, refused to date men altogether, fallen for Black queer womanists, gone back to dating men, dated a white man for five years, re-entered the dating world—and I still haven’t been able to get rid of David. Junot Díaz says, “We are never going to get anywhere as long as our economies of attraction continue to resemble, more or less, the economy of attraction of white supremacy,” and I wonder if it’s possible to decolonize and police a thing as subconscious and primal as desire. I mean, yes, you can make the decision to act outside of these desires, and yes, you can analyze and agonize over why you have them to begin with. But can you actually will yourself not to desire in the first place? Like I can tell you about how I used to regularly read profiles on OkCupid where men stated point blank that they wouldn’t date Black women. I can tell you how there have been several studies published by OkCupid asserting that while ninety-seven percent of users claim to be open to interracial dating, Black women are the least likely group to receive messages or replies from potential partners. White men are the most likely to receive OkCupid messages. More than seventy-five percent of white women, Asian women, and Latina women only respond to messages sent by white men. Using OkCupid’s “quickmatch” method (akin to Tinder’s swiping method), the site deduced that white men tend to rate Black women as seventeen percent less attractive than the average. Other races seemed to view Black women similarly, with Asian men rating Black women as twenty percent less attractive than the average. The only exception found was with Black men, who rated Black women as one percent more attractive than the average. I don’t know if you can understand the energy it takes to keep these messages out of your system, to not in some way believe them yourself. Sometimes the best form of escape is to go to the place where race no longer exists. Where the Pretty in Pink-like boyfriend who is rich and white and sometimes a vampire takes you away from it all and tries to convince you that he loves you over and over again. In her essay “Watching and Reading about White People Having Sex is my Escape,” Esther Wang wrote: “I love that I never experience that shock of recognition, and thus I never have to think about how someone who looks like me, with my body, is represented on the page and lives in the world. In these fictional fantasy worlds, not only does racism not exist—race doesn’t exist, at least in the ways that we live and experience it on a daily basis. There are no men who feel the need to fetishize unsuspecting young girls, no bad first dates with guys who ask you why Chinese people eat dogs […] In the world of the romance novel, your body is just a body that gets to fall in love and experience several volcanic orgasms in a row, and in this world, when you Google ‘Asian women,’ you probably would get a 404 error page instead of dozens of links on how to find a sexy Asian girlfriend of your very own.” My escape was my imagination. This was a world where I got to be Eva—the sweet innocent Molly Ringwald-type “underdog” who always got the coveted white boy attention. When I was with David, I never felt the weight of loneliness I so often felt in high school. I got to un-live years of having my hair made fun of by the boys in my elementary school. I didn’t feel the terror of waking up in the middle of the night and hearing women screaming on the street or having my bra undone by random men on my way to school. I got to live in a world where smiling was no longer my only weapon against attack. All the insecurities I felt about my hair and body type were rewarded with David’s affection—the way they always are in shows and movies about unpopular white girls who actually look like super models and would never be unpopular in real life. Girls like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink or Sixteen Candles, or Katie Holmes in Dawson’s Creek, or Lea Michelle in Glee, or Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That, or Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You—the list goes on and on. With David, I got to be Eva. There was no one else I’d rather be. * The connections made in pop culture between art and mental illness are tired and cliché, yet I do start to wonder things like: What is the difference between an overactive imagination and a break in one’s perception of reality? Can one really lead to the other? Can a person really “go” mad? A friend once described the mind of a schizophrenic family member of hers as “one that can’t stop making connections.” When everything is connected, it makes sense that you’d begin to invent conspiracy theories. Pair that with paranoia and narcissism and it becomes reasonable to assume that the whole world is trying to kill you. For me, though, it’s not so much about making too many connections—it’s about the inability to un-see things once they’ve been implanted in my brain. I can’t un-see Eric Garner begging the officers for his life as they pounced on him like a rabid dog, I can’t un-see how much Sandra Bland looked like a girl I once knew—a girl who dared to think her life and dreams and opinions might matter. I can’t un-see the Black women on television who, even in fantasy, are never allowed to be loved. Take HBO’s supernatural drama True Blood. Tara Thornton’s face from True Blood used to haunt my dreams at night. Her face as she gets rejected by Jason Stackhouse and Sam Merlotte. Her face as she gets raped repeatedly and held hostage by a sociopathic vampire named Franklin. The pain Tara expressed on her face in every episode found its way inside my brain and lived there: how visibly her lips quivered; how her face looked like it was about to explode into pieces all over the screen; how the Internet celebrated the day we were meant to think she was killed off as she willingly took a bullet for her best friend Sookie Stackhouse; how when she finally did get killed off in the final season nobody seemed to notice. The hatred for Tara’s character online was deafening. Why does she always have to be so angry? Why does she always have to be so negative? Why does she have to hate everything? the comments asked. They never asked why all her partners died or rejected her for people like Sookie or Eric Northman. They didn’t ask why we needed to see her raped repeatedly for almost an entire season. When I see my body in the mirror it does not look like something worthy of being saved. It is not the kind of body you take a bullet for. My body is not innocent. It enjoys showing skin from time to time. It enjoys frequent orgasms. It is the kind of body that gets slammed up against walls and whose mouth gets muffled without permission by men who do not know me. My body gets stared at. I get told by white men that they don’t normally date Black women, but that I’m different. They mean this as a compliment. Once my body was appraised by a white pimp in a South African club and then followed into a bathroom. Once my body had glass bottles hurled at it when I didn’t respond appropriately to a group of men harassing me on an empty street late one night. Once my vagina was grabbed repeatedly by a man in a club and I said nothing—waited for him to walk away till I told my friend; she yelled at him and had him escorted out of the club by security. I was amazed at her for doing this—that she could be that sure my body was so worth protecting. Once I was sexually assaulted by a man I was told treated his petite blonde girlfriend very well. It is hard to see my body without thinking about the fetishized expectations that come with it. When I escape my own body and become Eva, my body becomes worthy of being saved and pursued. My body gets to be romanced and serenaded and my fantasy boyfriend will never be rough unless I ask him to be. * Type the word “beauty” in Google Image Search and tell me what you see: an endless sea of white and otherwise light-skinned faces, thin and made-up, cisgender and able-bodied, ornamentalized for male consumption. Search for the words “black woman invisibility” and tell me what you see: an article about how Black women have higher rates of depression and suicide than any other identity group. A study where they ask white people to look at a succession of photos of white and Black people and then show them the photos hours later to see what they remember. “What they found,” the study states, “is that participants’ memory was worst at remembering whether they had seen a Black female face before or whether it was new. The same did not occur for Black male faces, suggesting it was something more than just the fact that the target was of another race than the participant. As the researchers pointed out, these results suggest that Black women are more likely than Black men or White men and women to go unnoticed by others in a group or social situation.” There is little doubt that I invented David as a way to feel visible at a time in my life when I was fairly isolated. I was a first-generation American with strict West Indian parents. I wasn’t allowed to go to parties and I was kept busy after school with dance lessons and math help and other opportunities my parents never had (and that I should therefore have been grateful for). I was awkward and shy and couldn’t afford clothes that didn’t come from Marshall’s that I wore years after they stopped fitting me properly in a public school on the Upper West Side. Making close friends was a challenge. To escape myself and be with David, then, was liberating: I could have the life I thought could make me happy—the life that helped me escape the reality of the intense loneliness I felt on a regular basis. The problem comes when you can’t switch it off. Like I should tell you that there are times when thinking about David keeps me from writing, from feeling like I can be present in the world, where engaging in casual conversation feels like a lot more effort than staying inside my head. I should tell you that I can’t remember the last time my body felt like it could sleep. As a matter of fact, the reason that I’m writing this essay is because it’s 4 a.m. right now and I can’t sleep. I have this hope that once I write this all down he’ll leave me alone. But I know that as soon as I close my eyes he’ll be back staring me down with eyes prettier than mine, telling me he loves me and me saying, “Prove it.” And then he does. He repeats the words over and over again until they’re no longer comforting—they’re relentless. His smile feels like an invasion inside me that I can’t make myself un-see. His deep brown eyes never close. * For most of my life, I’ve been ashamed of my daydreaming and kept it secret. Every friend I’d mentioned David to in high school was polite but visibly terrified. My sister recently informed me she used to pray for me. My first therapist diagnosed me with ADHD and then Dissociative Disorder and then depression. She couldn’t figure me out. No therapist ever could. And then a few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I’d ever heard of maladaptive daydreaming. I hadn’t. I Googled it and one of the things to come up was an article in The Atlantic called “When Daydreaming Replaces Real Life,” in which authors Jayne Bigelsen and Tina Kelley consider whether excessive daydreaming should be pathologized as a mental disorder. The term “maladaptive daydreaming” is defined as excessive daydreaming that frequently interferes with work, social interactions, academics, or general functioning. Much of the article describes me perfectly: the fact that the daydreams are often triggered by listening to music, by loneliness, by trauma. According to Kelley and Bigelsen, the daydreams show up in the brain as a literal chemical addiction—they become more pleasurable to the daydreamer the more they are repeated. The part of the brain that lights up when daydreaming is the ventral striatum—the same part that lights up when a drug addict is shown images of cocaine. I can spend six hours reliving the moment when David drives all the way to see me in the middle of the night in his Tesla to tell me that he’s choosing me—Soraya Jennalee Palmer—over the supermodel he took to that party last week. He feels so guilty about taking her that he has to drive here immediately after his plane lands in the middle of the night after just returning from doing business in Paris. I can lose a full night’s sleep reliving our first kiss on the swing bench in his backyard. He’s drinking a Corona because he’s rich, but not pretentious. He takes my hand first and asks if he can kiss me because he’s a gentleman. He pushes me up against the tree in his backyard with his hand up my skirt because I no longer want him to be a gentleman and he obliges. “When it was at its worst,” one woman who dropped out of school partly due to her excessive daydreaming says, “I felt the daydreaming was my main reality, and I’d only peek out into the main world now and then. It’s like I’m an alcoholic with an unlimited supply of booze. I can’t turn it off.” These stories about “maladaptive daydreaming” have put words to this feeling that I was crazy, but didn’t know in what way. This is not to say that I necessarily subscribe to the idea that I have maladaptive daydreaming or that I believe daydreaming should be pathologized—with pathologizing often comes stigmatizing and (in many cases) unnecessary medication. On the other hand, having a vocabulary for things you are feeling, and knowing that others are going through these things as well, can be empowering for someone (like me) who would otherwise assume they were all alone. The article, however, doesn’t explore the other layer of my daydreaming, which is that all my daydreams reinforce the feeling I hate to believe, but love to desire: that I am not worthy of love and that I should feel lucky if I get it, even when that love is tenuous and born of misogynoir. People in my life to whom I’ve tried and failed to explain my predicament have attempted to give me advice: Don’t consume so much racist media OR Surround yourself with more people of color OR Find your inner goddess OR How many people really think like that anymore anyway? But what many fail to realize is that racism works in part precisely because of how subconscious its messages are. As that OkCupid study reveals, a white person can claim to reject all notions of racist beauty standards and still only date other white people, arguing their habits arise out of circumstance rather than prejudice—that they just don’t happen to know many Black women, or that they’ve just never been attracted to any Black women they’ve actually met. Likewise, a Black girl can reject racist messages of self-worth all she wants, but when her real life experiences keep reinforcing her deepest fears of what the white world really thinks of her, can you blame her for believing it? Where does the Black woman enter and not become your deepest and most shameful secret? The thing you loathe publicly but desperately want to please and punish behind closed doors? When and how does a Black woman get to own her own body? Where does the Black woman go to escape invisibility if she can’t exist in her own imagination? Sometimes I would shudder when I noticed how black my hand appeared against my white ex-boyfriend’s palms. The reality could feel so disruptive. Because what is blackness but a conglomeration of color? I am the alien who can absorb all of your colors and private thoughts. I can feel all of your feelings. Because the truth is that I feel like a traitor to my race writing this essay. In actuality, there is nothing I love more than being surrounded by Black people and Black art and Black thought. There is nothing that gives me more energy than our Blackness, our ability to create so much magic in the midst of all our shit, how, as Warsan Shire says, “You spun gold out of this hard life.” Because what is blackness but an ocean? You go down deep enough and you see nothing but feel everything: things unnamed, things ancient, slithering and slimy. These are the things that keep you there. Because what is blackness but the spaces between us? I wish I had an answer for you. Before watching Eva dance in circles to put me to sleep at night, I used to imagine myself floating on a gondola towards Heaven. The shifting back and forth of the boat and the relaxing feel of imagining that I was in water was supposed to help me fall asleep. Only, when we would get to the gates I wouldn’t be allowed in. “Heaven closed early today,” God would say, and then my heart would start to race, I’d sweat bullets, I’d sit up in bed with a jolt and in a panic. Other times the ship would be overturned by an angry bird or a giant octopus. In these times, my mind became a character from a movie: I would watch it go into rooms I didn’t want to enter; I couldn’t figure out how to get out of my head and back into the rest of the world again. In part, I am writing this essay because I feel that maybe by writing this all down I can change it—make my fantasy into something new or kill it all together. But how do you stop a thought from coming once it’s been formed? How do you unwant your desires? How do you control the things you wished you didn’t dream about at night? In the mornings I tell myself that I’m going to alter the fantasy: Tonight when he comes, he’s not gonna break up with me, he’s gonna ask me to marry him, and I will say yes and then wait for the excitement and desire to dissolve into nothing—OR he’s not gonna break up with me tonight because I’m gonna break up with him first. His confidence will turn to arrogance. His charm will start to feel manipulative. His story about his mother will seem fake. He’ll become so boring that I will have no choice but to break up with him. But something always stops me from doing this. Because the truth is that I like having this desire. There’s a special comfort that comes with the excitement and insecurity I’ve come to expect from him. * By its very definition, “desire” implies that you do not have the thing that you want. And that once you have it, it is no longer desire—it’s either satisfaction or disappointment. If I knew David in real life, I would almost certainly never date him. The cliché of the brooding bad boy is, in reality, quite boring and emotionally exhausting, and I have always found that the best sex comes not from the charming playboys, but from those who know how to love someone and aren’t afraid to do so. But my fantasy boyfriend has always and only ever been about desire. I never actually have David in this fantasy. I only ever want to have him. I only ever want to feel pursued and sought after like the girl who thinks she’s an outcast in every cheesy teen romance. Like the girl who gets to be innocent yet sexy, shy yet opinionated and passionate without being called angry or difficult or sassy. Like the girl who, at some point in the film, gets to move from being outcast to actually being seen. But even now, sitting here writing this essay with a great job, amazing friends, and satisfying and fulfilling real romantic relationships to boot, I am still fighting away a teenage desire for a happy ending that never came. David has just told me that he loves me for the very first time. To prove it, he says I can be his date to the gala where he will announce his true feelings to the press, as well as to all his super-important work people and supermodel ex-girlfriends. He had a gown specially designed for me. He doesn’t know that this is the moment I have been waiting for all my life. He doesn’t know that he will soon change his mind. That we will have to start this all over again. Instead we stay replaying this one moment, the lead-up to the happy ending that hasn’t yet come, but still might. I walk into the gala with David in a $500 dress. People are turning their heads. I am closing my eyes. I take it all in. I press rewind and start all over again.
Evoking the Mystery of the Unknowable World: A Conversation Between Kathleen Winter and Alison Pick

The authors of Lost in September and Strangers with the Same Dream talk about the relationship between a writer and her characters, motherhood and work, and sexism in publishing.

Kathleen Winter and Alison Pick recently spoke over email on the occasion of the publication of their new novels—respectively, Lost in September, a powerful and contemporary reimagining of the story of the historical soldier James Wolfe, and Strangers with the Same Dream, about Jewish pioneers arriving in Palestine to escape violence in the 1920s, attempting to settle an already-populated land, and the dark ironies therein. The conversation has been lightly edited. Kathleen Winter: Alison, it was a wondrous pleasure to read Strangers with the Same Dream. I found myself flying with ease from the book’s bird’s-eye cinematic opening upon the early Jewish settlement that was to become Israel, to the inner hearts of the characters so intimately drawn. I felt myself hovering over then being progressively drawn into intimacy, beauty, and harrowing tension. I sense we could all use your novel’s empathic vision these days. Our external social order and our inner lives feel very far apart now. Do we hold latent compassion and softness in our human-scale souls, while externally bent on expressing polarized ideologies and hard conflict? We feel this schism acutely now, yet it is intimated in your novel set nearly a hundred years ago. Can you perhaps talk a bit about this borderland of soul and society, where our visions can soar or crash, so vulnerable? Alison Pick: I don’t know if I have an answer but I find myself agreeing with your question. As novelists, we have to be acutely tuned in to our inner lives, and I can’t help but think the world would be a better place if it was set up to afford everyone this opportunity. And yet, as you suggest, very little in our society supports the development of empathy. Capitalism, of course, is concerned with acquiring goods rather than compassion; social media, where so much of our discourse now takes place, seems lately like it’s largely about pitting groups against each other rather than finding common ground. How do we navigate a world where people of colour can be shot in the streets with no recourse, where our First Nations don’t have access to clean drinking water, where white supremacists march in the streets of Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us”? For my part, I continue to write, which feels hugely inadequate and the only thing I know how to do. On one hand, making art is a radical and political act. To carve out time for something that is not financially rewarding is in direct contradiction to what capitalism teaches us. And yet I am acutely aware of the vast—astronomical—privilege that allows me to spend hours at my desk instead of cleaning toilets or labouring in fields or sitting in an office cubicle. How should I live? How should I write? I try to keep leaning into these questions. I find, too, that the questions are intimately related. A novelist’s job, or one of them, is to infuse her characters with subtlety. We are all filled with contradictions, thinking one way and acting another, and these contradictions are part of what brings a character to life. Can we find the soft heart that you refer to for ourselves and our society as well as for our characters? Sophie in your new novel, Lost in September, seems to embody many of these traits. She is a rebel and a free spirit, a fierce intelligence, and filled with contradictions. What was it like to write her character? What is the relationship between the author and her characters in your own experience? What kinds of characters do you like to write and how do you succeed in bringing them to life? KW: Sophie, who gives the modern-day James Wolfe a place to sleep in her tent camped out in Montreal’s Parc Mont-Royal, is probably the most made-up character in Lost in September, like Thomasina in Annabel. I mean, I borrowed things I’ve witnessed or experienced—I’m married to a man who has worked at a homeless shelter as she does, and I’ve cleaned out toilets in early stints as a home care worker between freelance writing jobs and having stories published in little magazines. And I’ve based her, visually, on a couple of people I have known and can visualize. But beyond these anchors, Sophie is the most fictional character in the novel. Whereas the others are drawn from life more directly. And where I find them is in the margins. This morning I walked down by the St. Lawrence River, where I have the James Wolfe character hang out and where I do walk daily, and the city has fenced off a big section where they are going to make a beach. They’ve cut down a stand of poplars and have marked orange stain around the chokecherry trees I harvested earlier this summer for jam. Nobody can go down there now. The man who listens to his transistor radio on a big rock in my novel can’t get in there anymore. The guy with dreadlocks who takes a morning bath all year round has to go somewhere else. This was a derelict, forgotten bit of the river, where cracked cement met wild reeds, and you could go and see a hundred and fifty kinds of wild flowers. Now it’s going to be gentrified, as is my whole neighbourhood. The other night some condo developers came in and put up a big fairground tent and gave a thousand dollars worth of miniature smoked meat sandwiches and beet salads with feta cheese balls to the panhandlers and the lipstick lady and the old people on sidewalk scooters. The developers gave us all a PowerPoint presentation on the new six-storey condo with businesses on the ground floor that is going up. The developers called the night a public consultation. I wanted James Wolfe to see what has become of the Canada he won for England. I guess Sophie is his ticket to this world. He can’t afford a hotel room. I wanted him to be shown around by somebody with a critical eye and a kickass woman’s viewpoint. I wanted her to help him come out of the 1750s and into today. I wanted her to help him make sense of Quebec and North America in 2017, and to face some of the consequences of what we call history. And consequences are something I wanted to ask you about as well. To me, Strangers with the Same Dream is deeply concerned with interwoven cause and effect. The candlesticks, the tractor, the gruel—everything has repercussions and their connectedness is beautifully shown in the story. How do you feel about the way this works in life experience? I find that it takes a certain depth and repeated learning and perhaps insight to go beyond seeing events as independent, and to start feeling the weight or the possible weight of influences, which can be subtle, or largely undetected for minutes, days, years. In a way, do we maybe learn to foretell certain aspects of the future? AP: One of the gifts of writing memoir—I wonder if it’s the same for you?—is that it affords the chance to look back on individual events and see them as part of a larger narrative. The events in my memoir Between Gods take place during a terribly difficult time in my life, and yet the act of writing them down gave them meaning and infused my depression with a kind of redemption I’m not sure it would have had otherwise. Events as I experience them in the forward flow of linear time seem, as you so aptly say, independent, but a memoirist is given the chance to linger with them, examine them, and otherwise understand them anew. Which is to say, to appreciate the weight of influences, how one event foretold the next and then the next in a way I could not have apprehended as I experienced them. The other thing that occurs to me in response to your question about telling the future is the role that our bodies play in understanding things that are not necessarily logical. Despite what I might say to a classroom full of students about making sure a story lines up logically, the tool I rely on most in my own writing is a kind of embodied intuition. If a scene doesn’t feel right, I have learned to respect the little niggle and to cut it regardless of how it seems it should fit. And although it does not come as easily to me as it does in my writing practice, I try to use the same criteria for making decisions in my personal and emotional lives. To trust that there is some perhaps unnamable intelligence around us much greater than our own egos, and to listen to it. This kind of “feeling into things” is difficult to render in words, and you did it so beautifully in Boundless (as well as in both your novels). Can you talk a bit about how you transposed your inner awareness of the land you were traveling through onto the page? I am also curious, from a writerly perspective, to hear about the great success of Annabel. In a way, what happened with that novel is every writer’s dream. And yet I know from my own (more limited!) experience that success in the external world sometimes comes with its own set of issues, both in terms of the writing life itself and in terms of how one orients oneself to the world. Could you tell us a bit about what that was like for you? KW: Yes, the power of the north is something I had to try to relate in both Annabel and Boundless, and Lost in September is very much about the Saint Lawrence River, and about Quebec City and Montreal, as well as the land around Culloden battlefield and other parts of Britain—Wolfe’s homeland. It’s also set in psychic homelands of fear, war, kinship, and loneliness. I don’t know how I put territory on the page—I just try to completely feel a place in my animal body, without trying to translate it right away into words. I go down by the river and stand barefooted on its bank under a tree, and I let the whipping river, the muscle of it, hit me, and then the clouds, and the tree itself, and the vegetation and the mud. Everything is making noises or has noises in it, and the wind feels like silk in summer or like knives in December and I feel that. I walk for miles and feel the ground. The ground is important to my writing. I don’t know what I’m doing when I’m taking in the force of place, or of emotion. I do know what I’m doing later, when time has passed and I can find words. It’s like that with writing anything, isn’t it. Emotions—all life’s shocks, death, shame, lust, regret. It all starts out as a wordless Morse code between life and the body, and then we spin it into a line that we hope coheres. But any words I’ve found are a half-inked map or chart to territory I still find pretty much unknown. About Annabel—yes, Anansi published it well, it found readers, and is still finding readers. Robert Chafe, artistic director of Artistic Fraud, is turning it into that company’s first fully-sung stage musical. Deepa Mehta has optioned it for film and has been sending me exciting updates. My daughter Juliette has collected many translations so we have an archive of it in all its languages. I’m very grateful, to my publisher and to readers, for the book’s success. Still, in the quiet night, I am empty and alone, and wordless. My next book, if there is one, will come out of the same void. So, I don’t feel any new layer of self as a result of the work or its success. But I do feel overjoyed to be able to practice the only craft I know how to do. I wanted to ask you a question about transcendental passages in your writing. For instance, in chapter three of Strangers with the Same Dream, the paragraph that starts with crickets singing in the tall grass opens into a beautiful passage about a world in which everything is trying to give birth to love. Can you talk a little about writing the transcendental or sacred, and how it relates to your view of the world at large? AP: The world seems, at its core, entirely unknowable to me, and I think of writing as an attempt to evoke that mystery rather than to harness it or pin it down. And there is something, too, in the act of writing that is, for me, both transcendental and sacred. It’s difficult to talk about, of course, without falling into cliché. But I find the hours where I am fully absorbed in my writing to be the best hours of my life—when I am both fully present and also somehow absent. It’s akin to a spiritual practice in the sense that it involves abdicating the ego, quieting the mind, and listening to that intuition we were speaking about earlier. Your description of walking by the Saint Lawrence River is so gorgeous and compelling—and I could feel the fruits of that ritual so clearly in the pages of Lost in September. On different (although perhaps tangentially related?) note, I have been thinking recently about what it means to be a mid-career, middle-aged woman who writes. About the ways that everyday sexism informs publishing, and readership, and reviews, and likewise about how being a mother both hinders and bolsters my writing. Do these questions keep you up at night or have you found peace with them? How does being female intersect with your identity as a writer and with your writing practice? KW: I’ve had editors and publishing colleagues who are all powerful women: Lynn Henry, Janie Yoon, Sarah MacLachlan, Shaun Bradley. I’ve experienced frank, direct and motivating give-and-take from them. When it comes to pay parity, I share information with other authors and find out if we are being offered equal pay for similar work. I talk about money with women and men. When I get offered work without the mention of money I start the discussion about payment and get a contract settled. I decided a long time ago not to accept payment in mugs and tote bags unless I am consciously giving to a cause I want to support. I’m not saying I haven’t experienced everyday sexism. When I was a young freelance journalist I confronted it daily. But I have not to my knowledge experienced it in the book world. Reviewers have taken my work seriously. Publishers have not wanted to upholster my book covers with flowers or spread naked reclining women across those flowers. Margaret Atwood told me a publisher recently wanted to cover a book of hers in flowers and she wouldn’t let them. She made them use a crow. Motherhood and writing! Now with my daughters 20 and 28 I’d say becoming a parent blasted me open and made me spill far better words. Earlier, with small children, I had to learn how to drive so I could get in the car and use it for personal writing getaways, which I conducted parked in snowstorms at bleak bits of lands-end all over eastern Newfoundland. I was half crazy with a hunger for solitude at times so I could write. In your new novel, motherhood is called its own kind of madness. Motherhood figures largely in the story. You have a daughter as I have daughters. There are parts of my new novel that I could not have written without having my daughters, and I wonder how you feel your own motherhood has, in part, shaped Strangers with the Same Dream. AP: Motherhood has made me a feminist in a way that no other experience in my life has—both raising a daughter, seeing the way the world responds to her, and also my own challenges navigating what feel like competing desires to be a good mother and a good writer. And to enjoy the immense pleasures of each of those practices. Our society is not set up for this—a huge amount of pressure is placed on the nuclear family unit. The characters in Strangers With the Same Dream live all together on a kibbutz, one of the great experiments in communal living of the 20th century. One of the ideas behind the kibbutz was to free women so they could participate in the life of the group (in this case farming). But Strangers With the Same Dream is set in the 1920s and although equality was given lip service it was not fully realized in practice (as it is still not today). All decisions on the kibbutz were meant to be made by consensus, but there are photos of group meetings where the men were debating and the women were in the background quietly knitting. The women’s journals I was able to access through the archive where I did my research show the frustration that many of these women felt at not being equally valued. I wanted to explore the intersection between sexism and motherhood in the novel, the way that the task of nurturing children is deeply undervalued, and to show through the relationship between Hannah and her daughter Ruth the particularly profound, bottomless love that can accompany childrearing. To push these two things up against each other: being a mother is, or can be, both the most exhausting thing in the world and also the most profoundly rewarding. I could not have written this novel without the experience of being mother to my daughter. Now that she is a little older (she just turned eight) she understands my writing in a way she couldn’t when she was tiny. She’s beyond excited for my launch (which will be hosted by Ben McNally who is a legend to her—the last time I launched a book at his store he gave her candy!). Kathleen, I have an image in my mind of you in the hospitality suite at the International Festival of Authors with your daughter Juliette. It seemed so wonderful to me that she was at the age where she could accompany you, and I imagined the pride she must have felt at seeing you in your element. I’m glad to now be a little closer to that. I also remember a conversation we had in which you told me that it’s good for daughters to see their mothers as active participants in the world, as women who accomplish things and who are successful in their fields. Whenever I’m feeling guilty about being away on book tour, or about leaving my daughter to take time to write, I think about your encouragement and feel bolstered. Thank you. I’ll end with a question that I confess I don’t like being asked, but that I’m curious about when it comes to other writers: what’s next for you? Do you have a new project in mind? How are you feeling about going out into the world with Lost in September and what comes after? KW: I haven’t yet heard any readers’ responses to the new novel and try not to imagine scenarios. I yesterday received my box of authors’ copies by mail, which is always a thrill, as you know. As for what’s next, I’ve spent two years wandering around in the 18th century and feel it’d be a shame to leave it so soon. On the other hand, I’m interested in things I see happening today in my own neighbourhood in Montreal. So I have a 1700s notebook and a contemporary scratchpad in progress. I can’t say what might come out of these.
‘If You’re a Writer, Literature Has Saved You At Some Point’: An Interview with Nathan Englander

The author of Dinner at the Center of the Earth on the novelist’s responsibilities in times of political chaos, the bending and breaking of structure and genre, the shifting nature of Jewishness and identity, and his ultimate subject: right, wrong, and why we crave it. 

When I first speak to Nathan Englander over the telephone from my French phone number, he quips, “good, good, harder for the N.S.A. to track you”; when I note that he has a newspaper photo shoot after our conversation, he says, “I got my Spanx on already. Now I need a little pancake makeup, and we're good to go.” Englander’s demeanor is not what one would expect of someone whose name is frequently thrown around Pulitzer committees (he was a finalist for his second collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank), and it’s especially not what one would expect from someone whose new novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, turns on the Israel-Palestine conflict. But Englander, like his more-than-they-might-appear characters, enjoys trafficking in gray areas. Born in Long Island, Englander matriculated at SUNY Binghamton before heading to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for his MFA. From 1996 to 2001, he lived in Israel, where the plot of Dinner at the Center of the Earth began to form in his mind. Writing in the New York Times, Rachel Donadio compares the novel’s style to that of John Le Carré, but it’s more akin to something like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Englander writes in concentric circles, his plots taking place in different times and places, moving towards and away from one another, overlapping only once, on the 182nd page. His characters include an Israeli military general, a Canadian businessman, an American waitress in Paris, a Palestinian in Berlin, and an unnamed prisoner in a hidden cell—some of whom are actually the same person or far different from how they’re presenting themselves. In our wide-ranging conversation, Englander and I discussed the novelist’s responsibilities in times of political chaos, the bending and breaking of structure and genre, the shifting nature of Jewishness and identity, and his ultimate subject: right, wrong, and why we crave it.  Cody Delistraty: You wrote an op-ed in the Times on white supremacy in Charlottesville; your Twitter timeline is rife with American political news; and your book turns on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. What’s your responsibility as a novelist when it comes to modern politics? Nathan Englander: To start, I've wanted to write this book for twenty years. It's almost part of the heartbreak for me that it's still a very current story. That's the point. That's what has me pulling out handfuls of hair—the endless, obvious cycle of violence that we need to break out of. I'm very sensitive. I think it's very delicate. I think a didactic book or an author who is self-righteous or thinks they know something—if a book is a lecture, it's going to be corrupted. It's just not going to work. I just think conscious intent to convince on any subject is corrupting in literature. I think that's what makes it so vulnerable—to enter into these things is just to admit that these things are you, and these things are obsessing you. I wanted to explore the politics of it with empathy. The political part is just part of this story. For me, it was an obsession with the futility of these cycles and how to get out of them. It’s a weird political thriller woven into a historical novel with a love story that turns into an allegory that is exploring this conflict and trying to look at it with empathy. I hope that makes some semblance of sense. I know it's deeply political, but my real want was for people to enter into this story, which is literally why it needs to be character-driven and plot-driven.  Also, if you're a writer, it's because literature has saved you at some point. For me, I love that books can explore a notion. It's not offering you the answer to four plus four. It's not giving you the answer to the formula. I like that books are there to raise the question. They're interactive. That's the point. I'm not interacting with four plus four. There's only one way out of that, which is eight. (Which gets us into American politics, which now says four plus four can be seven because I said so—or eleven.) But I don't think I'm offering a singular conclusion, except maybe trying to embrace hope or optimism. The only position is that we shouldn't all kill each other. Maybe that’s a position. There is such a thing as right or wrong even if it's challenged. To say Israeli and Palestinian peace is the only option does not seem to me a radical position to take politically. Does fiction have a heightened responsibility right now, given the particularly divisive nature of politics in America? Well, first, I don't know in history if we've ever before had a president who doesn't read. But I can't answer your question as a writer. I can answer it as somebody who reads a book and takes something away. I think part of art's goal is that it doesn’t have a goal. That's the point. I really want to stay away from—have you spoken to anyone who, in three short minutes, has said “that's the point” more times?—the didactic. I think it's about shared consciousness; that’s what art does. As a reader, it broadens me. It allows me to reach outside my own world. I don't think it has a specific politics purpose in that way, but I do think people who are involved in politics, people who change the world, I do think that their only concrete action is to make people think differently or at least to share. That's shared consciousness for me, and I do think that changes us. I can answer this question in the reverse, which is to answer why totalitarian regimes and why demagogues go after writers. Who's a poet threatening? Who's a fiction writer threatening? The demagogue notices that power. It’s a subversive form that an idea of someone else, something that is extraordinarily, impossibly different from your ideas, can enter into your consciousness and be lived through a book. I think that does foment change, but I never would be so hubristic to think that that's my book's goal.  I was reading through Granta’s Best Young American Novelists issue, and there were just one or two stories that directly grappled with American politics. Is there a problem with novelists of my generation—millennial writers—when it comes to addressing politics? I always think there's a wave of something. If you look at book cover design, there will be a killer cover, and then there will be a wave of iterations of that cover. Any idea that people are staying away from politics, there's somebody out there who's doing it. I'm not worried about a shortage of political fiction in that way. You have to write what is in your mind. It’s why I'm a huge Orwell fan. Why do his books work for me? It's because they’re about what's torturing him. It's what he's engaging with. It's what he's wrestling with. That's why it reads as literature and why I feel like it can foment change or expand consciousness. It is an act of sincerity. It better come from the heart. It's not about choosing to write about politics. As you mentioned, your book is at once a political thriller, a love story, and, as I heard it called, “an absurdist farce.” What led you towards this kind of genre-mixing and -bending?  I've been wanting to write this book for almost twenty years, and it’s so huge and comes with so much baggage tied to the subject. I promise you, if you screw the book shut with a drill and hold it up for people, I promise you they'll have a position on it. There was this Baltimore rabbi who said something like, “My brother's book is a terrible book, and I'm not going to read it.” This subject is going to come with a stance even before anyone cracks the cover of it. That's why I really felt like it had to be so character-driven and so plot-driven. In terms of the political thriller part, it was a story through which to explore the conflict. I can't even tell you how those things enter into your consciousness, but when I thought of it I said, “Yes, this is the way to tell this book. This is the only way to tell this book.” I wanted for it not to be moving into the politics, but moving through a story that contains the politics. It was also twice as long. I cut it in half. I really wanted a book that people could sit down with. That's why I wanted us to just move through it. Drive through it. I can't speak for it myself, but it has a momentum built in. The novel is also written circularly, in which various stories over various timelines overlap and pass one another. What does that structural complexity add?  I always say don't lend a writer money. Don't trust them to babysit your kids. Don't lend them your car. Writers are personally messed up in so many different ways, but to write a book, a system of weights and measures where your heart is, it better be in place. I think that's what I mean. I come to this with such big positions. Yes, I wanted the story to make the decisions. As I said, I wanted those swings. You already know this—god help you, I'm glad you're taking it—but I speak in circles. I think in circles. My sentences circle. I literally write them and then unravel them so they're in the right order. To me, I think I also waited my whole life until now. Nobody ever starts. It's always somebody avenging right from a previous wrong. Things build up. There's a huge explosion. There's a loss of life. Then peace is made, and then people start to rebuild. Everybody on both sides is already preparing for the next Gaza invasion. That's insane to me. They have an invasion every few years. You know what I'm saying? The rockets will start flying. Again, that's already political. I start with the rockets, not with the invasion. That's my point. Pick a side, and you'll start the story wherever you want. To me, that's the madness of history, that it's repeating itself so mechanically. That's why I wanted the spirals through the story so that we swing back through consciousness, swing across time. You have a story told in a linear manner, but I just want to push to each edge of story and then swing back because I feel like that, to me, mirrors the cycle of this conflict. I read this interview from five years ago, and I know you aren’t keen on getting questions related to your Jewish identity, but—  That's funny. I feel like that's totally changed. I feel like I spent twenty years like that, and now it’s totally different. As a fifth-generation Jew, with my great-great-great grandparents coming over, I thought it frustrating that I have to have this identity thing. Like, why do I have to be hyphenated, you know what I'm saying? No one says “Christian novelist John Updike.” He gets to be American. Now, I’m happy to be the Jew. In the current political climate I'm wearing fifteen yarmulkes right now. I’ve never wanted to be more hyphenated; I embrace it. That was so important to me before, and it's so weird how this moment is changing all of us. I was talking to Michael Chabon about this recently too, but with that embrace of your Jewishness, do you think Gentiles ever miss or misunderstand fundamental parts of your writing? Wow, what an excellent alley-oop of a question, just the one-two punch of it. You couldn’t ask it better, but I guess the answer is that if I were to teach a class on Voltaire, someone would be like, “I want to give Candide to my friend, but he's not French. He hasn't been dead for 200 years. He's never been disemboweled like Cunégonde.” Everyone is Game of Thrones crazy. “Oh, can I give this book to my friend? She's never sat on top of the iron throne. She's never seen a dragon.” It’s a very sweet thing that comes from a good place at readings, where someone will come up to me and say, “I'm Jewish, but I'd like to give this book to my friend who isn't. Do you think they can read it?" I feel if a story is working, it one thousand percent has to be universal. I love Moby Dick, and I've never been whaling, so I feel like it's only with that hyphenated thing that we ask this question. That being said, I'm sure there are plenty of great books that are just meant for someone who's holy—that if you're not a religious Jew you're not going to get them. If you're not black or gay or French or whatever, you’re not going to get it. Every story speaks specifically. It's tailored to your individual experience. I don't even think it's about culture. I think every reader has his or her own unique experience. I love the neuroscience of it. That's the point. Everybody’s chin has to hit differently. I'm a dog lover. A dog shows up in a book, if you're dog-phobic, you're going to have a different reaction. But you say “dog,” my heart melts. What do you consider your ultimate subject? It's fun to talk to you. I feel a shape to our talk that comes in the nicest manner. I think for this question, it comes back to the whole identity thing that we’ve been talking about. When I started out on this book, I was still against the questions like “You're a Jewish writer... whatever.” But now, for me, that’s most of what I see: Jews everywhere, Israel everywhere, Jewish culture—all that stuff—and it’s led me to become obsessed with the black and white and the gray space. My subject is justice and injustice. These epical, moral questions around justice and right and wrong and my real hunger for there to be a right and wrong. We all have anxiety in these current times, but the notion of truth being deconstructed is so disturbing to me and so evil. I would say, for me, my subject is really about how we exist. You're probably like, "Even your answer is Jewish—really angsty and existential and Jewy.” But that gray space, that’s what I'm fascinated by.
Zoos of New York

The city was hot and the world was on fire. Why not go look at some animals? 

New York is a city of zoos. There are five—one in each borough. Most of them are tiny, but still: how many cities in the world can claim five zoos? (There’s also the New York Aquarium, but everyone knows that aquariums are boring.) Earlier this summer, when I took a break from the job that occupied nearly all of my waking hours, I found myself with a great deal of time on my hands, and so I decided to visit a different zoo every day for five days straight. It would be a new way to see New York, I figured; it would bring me places I might not otherwise venture. The city was hot and the world was on fire. Why not go to the zoo?  Day 1: The Staten Island Zoo On Monday, I took the forty-five-minute train ride from my apartment in Queens to the Whitehall Ferry Terminal in Lower Manhattan. Then I took the half-hour ferry ride to Staten Island. I got an enormous Miller Lite from the ship’s canteen and watched the oxidized green of the Statue of Liberty go by. When I arrived, I took a twenty-minute bus ride that deposited me in a leafy suburb. I walked down a quiet residential street, lined with two-story houses, until I got to the zoo. I picked the Staten Island Zoo first because Staten Island is a strange, faraway place. In the Africa pavilion, I stopped at an enclosure: Kenya crested guinea fowl, klipspringer, taveta golden weavers, African crested porcupine. I noticed a sign: “The African Porcupines in this exhibit have been generously donated by the Eric Trump Foundation.” My mind flashed to that infamous photo of Eric—or is it Donald Jr.? Is there a difference?—holding a up a severed elephant’s tail, his glazed, inbred face spread into a tight grimace. The Staten Island Zoo covers eight acres. A woman named Julia Hardin willed the land to the city in 1930, on the condition that it become anything but a playground. In one pen, I watched a zookeeper hose down a pair of emus, while a troop of kangaroos looked on curiously. It was a brutal, blistering day. Nearby, another zookeeper smeared a huge Vietnamese potbellied pig with Banana Boat. “She doesn’t like to go in the mud, so she burns easily,” the zookeeper explained. “We have to put sunblock on her. She likes it.” The pig lolled on her side, eyes closed, in bliss. Here are some other things I saw at the Staten Island Zoo: a massive green anaconda, its coils motionless in the water, its lidless eyes milky-white. A forty-five-year-old spider monkey, dozing upright, its head jerking back like an old man struggling to stay awake. Pale, eyeless cavefish, something Gollum might eat in The Hobbit. A mass of earth that bubbled and rippled before revealing itself to be an armadillo. A Goeldi’s monkey that put its face to the glass and looked me in the eyes for what felt like hours. I saw a fossa, a binturong, a Mangalitsa. After I left the zoo, I went for a walk in Clove Lakes Park, across the street. There, in the suburban semi-wild, were cardinals, mockingbirds, an egret skimming the surface of the lake. There was a dead field mouse, flattened by a bike tire, iridescent green bottle flies buzzing all around. Later, the sky opened up, and it poured. Day 2: The Central Park Zoo You could write a history of New York via the Central Park Zoo. In 1859, just after construction of the park began, someone gave a bear cub to a park messenger boy. He kept it at the Arsenal, the park’s imposing neo-Gothic headquarters, which, despite the wishes of the Central Park Board of Commissioners, quickly turned into a menagerie. New Yorkers dropped off animals they could no longer care for; sailors brought exotic animals back from long voyages. General George Armstrong Custer donated a rattlesnake; Frederick Law Olmstead gave three coatis. Monkeys, for the sake of modesty, were dressed in human clothing. Asian elephants, their feet chained, grazed on the Arsenal lawn. Photographs and illustrations from the time, as gathered in Joan Scheier’s The Central Park Zoo, reveal rows of cramped cages, side by side, women in complicated Victorian hats looking in, forlorn animals gazing out. In 1934, Robert Moses, that scourge of contemporary urbanism, was so appalled by conditions at the Central Park Menagerie that he ordered it bulldozed and, with Works Progress Administration help, built the Central Park Zoo in its place. The iron bars and concrete floors remained, but the exhibits were larger, with naturalistic elements like rocks and trees and running water included for a lucky few species. The sea lion pool, still in use today, became the zoo’s hub. The charming Delacorte clock, with its dancing brass animals, was installed in 1964. But by the 1970s, the Central Park Zoo, like the city around it, was in decline. Gordon Davis, the city’s parks commissioner, wrote in 1981, “The Central Park Zoo, and its Prospect Park companion, are fundamentally 19th-century anachronisms long outdated by modern zoological practices, civilization’s evolving sense of decency and our more sophisticated respect for the world's shrinking animal kingdom.” (He later described the zoo as “Rikers Island for animals.”) So then-Mayor Ed Koch, as he did with so many other persistent municipal problems, outsourced responsibility for the zoo, in this case to the New York Zoological Society. The Central Park Zoo reopened in 1988 as the Central Park Wildlife Center. The exhibits, once again, were made to seem more natural. Mesh and moats and Plexiglas replaced the bars. Most of the large animals were moved to other, bigger zoos. Only the sea lions and polar bears remained. The day of my visit, I got off the subway at 53rd Street and walked north along Fifth Avenue. Crowds of tourists lined up outside the black-rose obelisk of Trump Tower, taking pictures behind police barricades. I had been to the Central Park Zoo before, but only as a child. Every year, we used to visit my grandparents in Great Neck, and my grandfather, who worked at the New York Public Library his whole life and had an immigrant’s love of the city, would take us into Manhattan. We went up the Statue of Liberty’s crown. We went up the World Trade Center. You could still do that, then. Apparently we went to the Central Park Zoo, too, but I don’t really remember. I do remember reading, as a child, a book about animal behavior that included a chapter on a polar bear named Gus. In the 1990s, Gus, a resident of the Central Park Zoo, began to swim in obsessive figure-eight patterns, on his back, sometimes for nearly twelve hours a day. His habit was treated as a novelty—ticket sales increased dramatically—but the truth is that Gus was, like a lot of zoo animals, depressed. His zookeepers started an enrichment program, giving Gus toys and hiding food in tough-to-reach places. His habitat was redesigned. An animal behaviorist was brought on board for $25,000. Gus was even given Prozac. When Gus finally died, in 2013, he was still treated as a novelty act. “There are not a huge number of ways to become famous as a polar bear,” the New York Times wrote, by way of obituary. “Gus somehow managed to do it by behaving like a perfectly ordinary New Yorker: he was neurotic. He became the Neurotic Polar Bear.” But turning Gus into a sort of ursine Woody Allen obscures the fact that his neuroses were entirely avoidable. He was not just another scrappy New Yorker, battling alienation and overstimulation and anonymity, trying to make it in the big city. If he was indeed a New Yorker, then he was one of a different kind, with a different set of problems. He was, essentially, incarcerated.  There are no longer any polar bears at the Central Park Zoo. There are, however, two grizzly bears, which, on the day of my visit, were asleep in the shade. The zoo was crowded with people, even though it was a Tuesday. A little girl picked her nose and stared out at a snow leopard, which panted in the heat. “He wants to eat something,” she announced. Day 3: The Prospect Park Zoo The Prospect Park Zoo might be my favorite in New York. It is quieter than the Central Park Zoo, and feels more integrated into the manufactured landscape around it; the grounds are lushly planted, as if the park were slowly seeping in. I like the strange, expressive face of the Pallas’s cat, the angry red of the baboons’ butts. On Wednesday, a peacock battled its own reflection in the glass door of an exhibit marked “Animal Lifestyles.” Watching a Rodrigues fruit bat unfurl its leathery wings, I overheard a conversation between a boy and his mother. “Anthony, look at the bat,” the woman said. “Oh, look at its wings!” “I’m scared,” Anthony said. “But you love Batman,” the woman said. “I want to go,” Anthony said. As Anthony dragged his mother away, I became aware, not for the first time, of how weird it was for me, a thirty-one-year-old man, to be at the zoo alone. If contemporary zoos face some existential questions over whether they are primarily conservation operations or entertainment complexes, there is less doubt about their target audience: children. Over the course of my week at the zoos of New York, I was, at all times, surrounded by families—or, especially in Prospect Park, by black nannies pushing white children in strollers. The centrality of the child to the zoo is a relatively recent development. Early zoos, like Central Park’s, were based on the European menageries of previous centuries—symbols of royal and aristocratic status, such as Louis XIV’s famous collections at Versailles and Vincennes, where dignitaries were entertained with fights between big cats. But later, as industrialization alienated people from the animals they once met on the farm and in the field, what we now know as zoos arose as a form of popular entertainment. “Public zoos came into existence at the beginning of the period which was to see the disappearance of animals from daily life,” the late John Berger writes in the essay “Why Look at Animals?” “The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe them, to see them, is, in fact, a monument to the impossibility of such encounters.” Nowhere is this strange tension more obvious than in the “children’s zoo,” an attraction featured at all five New York zoos. This zoo within a zoo houses domestic farm animals—sheep, goats, pigs, ponies, cows, chickens, geese, ducks, rabbits—which contemporary children rarely see outside of cartoons, or their dinner plates. Children’s zoos are farms in miniature, without the hard labor or ritual slaughter—artificial slices of rural life in the more exotically artificial context of the zoo, which is itself nearly always located in an urban or suburban center. At the Prospect Park children’s zoo, I watched kids put quarters into machines and receive handfuls of brown pellets, which they fed to eager goats. I tried it myself, feeling the animal nibble at my palm. For many families, the zoo is a formative place. “The family visit to the zoo if often a more sentimental occasion than a visit to a fair or a football match,” Berger writes. In his telling, the purpose of this visit is twofold: to bring children closer to the animals they have encountered in books and films and toys, and, for adults, to recapture the innocence they remember from their own childhood trips to the zoo. But, he writes, there is a problem. “The animals seldom live up to the adults’ memories, while to the children they appear, for the most part, unexpectedly lethargic and dull. (As frequent as the calls of animals in a zoo, are the cries of children demanding: where is he? Why doesn’t he move? Is he dead?) And so one might summarise the felt, but not necessarily expressed question of most visitors as: Why are these animals less than I believed?” As a child, growing up in southern Ontario, I loved going to the Toronto Zoo. I remember the pervasive scatological funk, the naked mole rats scrabbling blindly in their plastic tunnels, an African elephant unleashing a fire hose of urine. My week at the zoos of New York was, I suppose, an attempt to recall the childlike wonder I felt back then, a wonder uncomplicated by my more ambivalent feelings today about seeing animals in captivity. I still love the sensation of proximity to wildness, to mystery, but this sensation is necessarily tempered by sadness. Even when the animals seem content, even when the exhibits seem ample and well-designed, there remains the distant ache of simulacrum, of containment: the palely painted landscapes on the enclosure walls, the sight of a clipped wing on a bird that might otherwise fly away. Today, there are no more elephants at the Toronto Zoo. In 2013, after four of them died in as many years, the last three—Iringa, Toka, Thika—were sent to a sanctuary in California. Canada is no place for elephants. Day 4: The Queens Zoo  By the time Thursday rolled around, I was tired of going to zoos. I headed to Flushing Meadows anyway. At the Queens Zoo, I walked for a time behind a developmentally disabled adult and her parents. She had a gift for description. “He’d make a nice pillow,” she said of a mountain lion. Of a great horned owl, she noted, “The color of his feathers is like chocolate cake.” Then she sprinted, grinning, into the aviary, a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. The Queens Zoo houses only animals from the Americas: eagles, elk, coyotes, bison. The Chacoan peccary, the thick-billed parrot, the Andean bear. It feels wooded, scrubby, like it’s tucked in a forest rather than in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the former grounds of the 1964-65 World’s Fair. Walking through the park afterward, I once again sensed the ghost of Robert Moses, who oversaw its transformation for the fair, and I felt like I really needed to get around to reading The Power Broker. Mostly, though, I thought of the hours and hours I spent, as a child, watching Men in Black. Day 5: The Bronx Zoo I saved the best for last: the Bronx Zoo. 265 acres, 6,000 animals, perhaps the most famous zoo in the world. I took a long 2 train north, crossed the Bronx River Parkway, and entered the zoo through the iconic Rainey Gates, which are as green as the Statue of Liberty. As I passed, I touched the head of the tortoise in the middle, which has been rubbed back to bronze by so many hands like mine.  If the Central Park Zoo offers a capsule history of New York, then the Bronx Zoo, for better or worse, offers a capsule history of zoos themselves. In 1897, the city granted a tract of land in South Bronx Park to the newly created New York Zoological Society; two years later, the zoo officially opened its doors. Although the New York Zoological Park was primarily intended to help save American wildlife threatened by hunters and habitat loss—it was founded by members of the Boone and Crockett club, a conservation organization—it also amassed a collection of more exotic animals, including, in 1902, a thylacine, a species that, less than two decades later, would be extinct. The New York Zoological Park was largely the brainchild of a prominent conservationist and man of leisure named Madison Grant, who is credited with helping save the American bison and developing the modern practice of wildlife management. Like many early environmentalists, including his close friend Theodor Roosevelt, Grant was also an avid big-game hunter and a virulent racist. He has mostly been excised from official histories of the Bronx Zoo, thanks to his 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race, a classic of eugenics that Adolph Hitler is said to have called “my Bible.” In The Passing of the Great Race, Grant combined his twin passions, aiming to save the Nordic people from extinction through a sort of selective breeding program. “Race feeling may be called prejudice by those whose careers are cramped by it, but it is a natural antipathy which serves to maintain the purity of type,” he wrote. “The unfortunate fact that nearly all species of men interbreed freely leaves us no choice in the matter. Either the races must be kept apart by artificial devices of this sort, or else they ultimately amalgamate, and in the offspring the more generalized or lower type prevails.” This does not sound altogether different from the attitude he brought to conservation: “It is of the utmost importance to preserve all remnants of the American bison without any cross-breeding,” he once wrote. It would be nice to separate Grant’s scientific racism from his conservation work were the two not so obviously intertwined: he sought to preserve both a pure white race and a pure frontier for the race to enjoy. Nor was his influence limited to the eugenicist fringe. He helped shape the infamous Immigration Act of 1924, which banned Asians and Arabs and severely restricted Africans, southern Europeans, and Jews. Roosevelt himself blurbed The Passing of the Great Race, calling it “a capital book.” The connection between conservation and racism was further underscored in 1906, during the most infamous incident in the Bronx Zoo’s history. For a few days that September, a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga was exhibited in the Monkey House. He shot a bow and arrow for the audience’s amusement; he played with an orangutan; the floor of his cage was littered with bones. “Few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions,” the New York Times wrote at the time, “and there could be no doubt that to the majority the joint man-and-monkey exhibition was the most interesting sight in Bronx Park.” But the Colored Baptist Ministers’ Conference protested, and Ota Benga’s time as a zoo attraction came to an end. As detailed in a 2006 New York Times piece marking the controversy’s centenary, Ota Benga’s story is more complicated than his brief time in the spotlight. Sold into tribal slavery by the colonial Force Publique, he was purchased by a South Carolina explorer named Samuel Phillips Verner, who had been commissioned to bring pygmies to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair. The Africans were returned home after the fair, but Ota Benga apparently asked to come back to America, where, while Verner fundraised for future expeditions, the pygmy stayed at the Museum of Natural History, along with a few of Verner’s chimpanzees. When that situation became untenable, Ota Benga moved to the Bronx Zoo. At first, he came and went as he pleased, but it wasn’t long before someone had the idea to set up a more formal exhibit. In the wake of the scandal, Ota Benga moved to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, then to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he crossed paths with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. In March of 1916, he borrowed a gun, aimed it squarely at his heart, and pulled the trigger. Walking around the Bronx Zoo, in the middle of the poorest borough in New York City, I considered the weight of all this history. Beautiful old Beaux-Arts buildings, which once held lions and elephants, surround the zoo’s stately Astor Court. You can feel the age of the zoo in these places—the sense of grandeur it was meant to project. This was an extension of the zoo’s broader project. “In the 19th century, public zoos were an endorsement of modern colonial power,” Berger writes. “The capturing of an animal was a symbolic representation of the conquest of all distant and exotic lands. ‘Explorers’ proved their patriotism by sending home a tiger or an elephant. The gift of an exotic animal to the metropolitan zoo became a token of subservient diplomatic relations. Yet, like every other 19th century public institution, the zoo, however supportive of the ideology of imperialism, had to claim an independent civic function. The claim was that it was another kind of museum, whose purpose was to further knowledge and public enlightenment.” As the colonial age ended, and ideas about animal welfare changed, this educational mission came to define the modern zoo—and, it would be fair to say, allowed it to justify its continued existence. If they could no longer be halls of living hunting trophies, if they could no longer be glorified animal jails, then zoos had to be forces for social good. That is the version of the Bronx Zoo that exists today: the one that advertises its work conserving the Amazonian giant river turtle, helping African countries implement National Elephant Action Plans and Strategies, and developing software for anti-poaching patrols. The issue with this formulation—the fact that this worthy conservation work could occur independently of the zoo—is answered with the idea that zoos instil, in their visitors, an appreciation for the natural world. That may be true, and I sincerely hope it is. But, when I stopped by the Bronx Zoo’s polar bear exhibit, I felt not concern for the retreating ice floes of the animal’s natural habitat but, instead, concern for the bear before my eyes. Tundra—the only polar bear left in New York—paced along a concrete wall in his enclosure, back and forth, back and forth. I thought, briefly, of Gus. Once, shortly after he became a vegetarian, Franz Kafka visited the Berlin aquarium. “Now at last I can look at you in peace,” he said to the fish. “I don’t eat you anymore.” That anecdote, often used as a sort of literary defense of vegetarianism, has less to say about the problem of the aquarium itself; we do not know whether Kafka, gazing in peace at the fish he no longer ate, felt some twinge of guilt at seeing those fish behind glass. My childhood love of animals eventually prodded me to become, like Kafka, a vegetarian, which I kept up for a decade. But I am not one any longer. The scope of cruelty in the world seemed too vast, my refusal to eat meat too small, more a fussy affectation than a principled political stance. It is absolutely true, though, that eating meat is indefensible. So, perhaps, is going to the zoo. I still do both, whatever discomfort they make me feel, and I will probably continue. That Friday, I continued through the Bronx Zoo. Two massive Nile crocodiles sank to the bottom of their tank like stones. A ring-tailed lemur stole a piece of lettuce from a radiated tortoise with which it shared its enclosure; I wondered what the two animals thought of each other. Later I made my way to the green, expansive, multimillion-dollar western lowland gorilla habitat, where the apes nursed their young and sat cross-legged under the trees. At one point, a gorilla approached the gathered crowd, and I watched in awe as the ape put her knuckles to the glass, as if hoping to make some connection. Her eyes moved over us searchingly. Finally, a child raised his hand to meet hers, Adam reaching out to God.
Truth in Jest?

Louis C.K. would rather ignore those assault rumours, but at this point, he can’t just let his art do the talking. 

In the fourth season of Louie, the title character assaults his friend. It happens in an episode called “Pamela (part 1).” Louie’s friend (played wonderfully by Pamela Adlon) spends the evening babysitting his kids while he’s out doing a comedy gig; after, when he walks into his apartment, she’s asleep on the couch. While he’s standing there staring at her, she groggily mumbles, “Please don’t start jerking off, I’m awake.” He offers her money for the babysitting, she declines. Then, as she’s walking towards the door, he moves to kiss her. She ducks away. He grabs her arm. She tries to leave. He holds her arm. She says goodbye, and she says no, and he won’t let go of her—and all of a sudden he’s dragging her across the apartment, struggling with her as she tries to get away. At one point, she pulls a dresser across the room in an attempt to slow him down. At another, she grips the edges of a doorframe. After he tries to tug her shirt off, but before he corners her in a doorway and forces her to kiss him, she claps her hand over his mouth and shoves him away. “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid!” she screams. “God! You can’t even rape well.” The first time I watched this scene, I was alone in a hotel room. A hot flush crept up my neck; I paused the scene after that line so I could get up and open a window. Then I sat there with the mouse hovering over the play button, trying to decide if I wanted to start it again. I did. When the scene was finished, I watched it again; then I started the episode over. Louie’s fourth season is about the ways men threaten and harm women without really thinking about it. In its first episode, creator and comedian Louis C.K.’s protagonist breaks a woman’s nose—but in the familiar style of the show, it’s all a zany misunderstanding. Over the course of the season, though, something in Louie’s familiar, bumbling, likeable persona starts to sour—or maybe it’s always been that way, and we’re just finally getting to see it. In the season’s longest storyline, he tries to push a relationship with a woman who doesn’t speak English, coerces her into sex, and then beats the shit out of a piano with a baseball bat when he thinks she’s rejected him. All of this meant something to me. I had always liked Louie, but the way C.K. positioned his protagonist as ultimately likeable no matter what had kept me at a distance. What was happening in the show now, though, felt interesting and true. The scene with Pamela made me feel a queasy mixture of comfort and fear I couldn’t reconcile, no matter how many times I watched it over. I couldn’t stop thinking about how closely it resembled a drunken struggle I’d had in my own apartment with an ex-boyfriend a couple years earlier. The edges of that memory were blurry; I’d barely ever talked about it with anyone. But the way this scene played out—the stumbling awkwardness, the danger and absurdity—looked a lot like the way I remembered my own experience. Each time I watched it, the memory played splitscreen in my mind. This, I guess, is the terrifying magic of art: a stranger makes something because it means something to them, and then skips it across time and space to fuck up a little corner of your life. I went back to watch the episode before I wrote this piece, and it turns out this stuff doesn’t go away; it stirred up exactly the same overwhelming emotional reaction in me as it did the first time I watched it. The uncanny, unsteady wonder of feeling joined somewhere you used to think you were alone. * Last week, an interviewer asked Tig Notaro about Louis C.K.’s producer credit on her series One Mississippi. “It’s frustrating, because he has nothing to do with the show,” she said. Later, she asked the interviewer whether C.K. had ever addressed the rumours of sexual misconduct first levelled against him by Gawker in 2012. “I think it’s important to take care of that, to handle that, because it’s serious to be assaulted,” she said. “It’s serious to be harassed. It’s serious, it’s serious, it’s serious.” The allegations she’s referring to are vague (Notaro herself said she hasn’t spoken to C.K. in a year and a half due to “an incident”), but about once every year or so, they resurface. The Daily Beast does a good job of summarizing them, but in a nutshell, there were two Gawker posts (a blind item in 2012 and one that named him in 2015) that claimed C.K. had a history of harassing and assaulting women, most notably by masturbating in front of them without their consent. In 2015, on her podcast, the comedian Jen Kirkman talked about her experiences with someone who was almost certainly C.K., calling him a “known perv” who “didn’t rape me, but he made a certain difficult decision to go on tour with him really hard.” She quickly deleted it, later saying that she had put the whole thing behind her. (Roseanne Barr also brought up the rumours in an interview last summer, but said she didn’t have any firsthand knowledge.)  Depending on how you want to look at all this, it’s not much, or it’s not nothing. As it stands, there is no way for anyone except C.K. and the people who made these allegations in the first place to know what’s going on. If you are inclined to believe the rumours, then the lack of concrete evidence to support them does not make them seem any less possible—it just looks like proof that C.K. is very famous. There’s no shortage of precedent for situations where a scattered number of persistent rumours about a famous man’s sexual misconduct turned out to be true. People with power silence people with less of it all the time. Conversely, if you don’t believe the rumours—or if you don’t want to—there’s no real concrete proof to convince you that you should. There are few details and no names, no police records, no legal documents, no tidal wave of public confessions. Just some off-the-record whispers from anonymous sources whose motivations for casting doubt on C.K.’s character could be anything at all. C.K. himself has only ever addressed the whole thing once, back in a 2016 interview with Vulture. In the middle of a conversation about why he hates the Internet, David Marchese asked if the comedian’s distaste had anything to do with the Gawker items. C.K. replied: “I don’t care about that. That’s nothing to me. That’s not real.” When pressed, he went on: Well, you can’t touch stuff like that. There’s one more thing I want to say about this, and it’s important: If you need your public profile to be all positive, you’re sick in the head. I do the work I do, and what happens next I can’t look after. So my thing is that I try to speak to the work whenever I can. Just to the work and not to my life. Again, the way this looks depends on what you want to see. If you think the Gawker posts were unsubstantiated rumours so baseless they’re not even worth addressing, C.K.’s refusal to talk about them is a smart way of handling a potentially explosive issue. If you think they might be true, it’s just a dodge. And if you just don’t want to think about it at all, then great, because neither does he. Whatever the truth is, there’s no denying that this is a good way to handle a toxic rumour. If you refuse to discuss something that no one really wants to think about anyway, everyone forgets about it pretty quick. And as long as they stay unspecific, sporadic and spread out, allegations like this don’t have to trouble a man’s career at all. So it makes sense that C.K. wouldn’t want to talk about them in public. As the situation currently stands, he doesn’t really have to. The first Gawker post to explicitly name him was published in May of 2015, and it didn’t slow the steady clip of his work: since then he’s released a new standup special, put out Louie’s final season, made the webseries Horace and Pete, acted as executive producer on several other TV shows (including Notaro’s), and even voiced a character in The Secret Life of Pets. Most recently, it was announced that he’ll be premiering a short film called I Love You, Daddy (parenting is one of C.K.’s favourite sources of material) at this year’s TIFF. People are looking forward to it. But something doesn’t sit right about his refusal to discuss the allegations. In that same Vulture interview in which he dismissed them, for example, he spent two and a half paragraphs chatting animatedly about how quitting the Internet has changed his (solo) masturbation habits for the better. Even if you believe the claim that he tries to speak just to the work and not his life, it’s impossible to deny that C.K.’s brand is built around the casual ease with which he blurs the line between the two, both in his work and in the public conversation that surrounds it. His insistence that none of this matters has kept the subject from troubling his public image not because this work/life argument is ironclad, but because most of the people who admire his work really don’t want to think about the rumours at all. If you’re a Louis C.K. fan, his reasoning is attractive for the same reason it’s logically dubious—because an essential part of his act is the assumption that it’s scaffolded by a moral conscience. If the structural integrity of the whole thing starts to give way, then suddenly your favourite comedian might not be your favourite comedian anymore. If these rumours were true, they would suck the life out of a lot of his best jokes, because their humour depends on the idea that they don’t end with a crime. A bit about how men are the number one threat to women doesn’t land quite the same way if the man doing it is guilty of sexual assault. It’s both easier for C.K. and better for his brand if he just keeps his mouth shut. But these rumours haven’t gone away. They’ve been floating around publicly for five years now, and regardless of whether or not he wants to address them, they’re past the point where C.K. can comfortably argue they don’t matter, or that they’re not real. Notaro’s right: it’s serious to be harassed, it’s serious to be assaulted. And even though C.K.’s career could continue mostly unaffected if he never addressed these allegations head-on, his refusal to treat the subject as if it deserves to be addressed feels unpleasantly dismissive to the people who think the question does matter. Whenever these rumours slip back into the pop-cultural news cycle, the women I know who like C.K.’s work invariably say the same things: it’s depressing, it’s disappointing, it feels like a betrayal. *  A lot of C.K.’s jokes are about digging into popular consensus until he hits the absurdity at its core. He’s good at seeing blind spots, pointing out acute moments of hypocrisy or misunderstanding that are symptomatic of bigger cultural issues, moments of willful blindness that get woven into the everyday. Privilege is a big part of his act. In recent years, misogyny’s become another. In the middle of “Pamela (Pt. 1),” Louie does a long standup bit. In it, he talks about how there are people in his apartment building older than women’s suffrage. He talks about how we’re still so comfortable with the idea of wives being their husbands’ property that there’s a kind of shirt named after beating them up. Then he goes home and assaults his friend. There’s no shortage of movies and TV shows that use rape as a plot point, or to draw up cheap tension, or to manipulate their audiences into hating a character. But you don’t see a lot of pop culture made by straight white men for straight white men that really goes headfirst into the mess of it. By the time Louie was in its fourth season, its protagonist had a lot of audience goodwill to burn, and C.K. seemed to want to do something legitimately complicated with it: to show exactly how a man who’s a loving father and a popular comedian and an ostensible feminist—a man you like so much you literally invite him into your house once a week—can also be a man who coerces women into sex and corners them when they say no and beats inanimate objects with a baseball bat when he doesn’t get his way. One of the most persistent and damaging cultural myths about sexual assault is that the people who commit it are uniquely evil—that they are not the same as the people you are friends with, or related to, or dating, or a fan of, the people that you trust or that you like. This is the same lie that says rape and assault and harassment only happen to a few people some of the time for a very particular set of reasons, and that if you think those things have ever happened to you, they should be easy to identify, fact-check and prosecute—otherwise, maybe they didn’t at all. This lie is threaded through so much of our popular culture that it seems impossible to name all the different kinds of damage it does. It makes it hard for victims to clearly process harm and trauma, and it makes it hard for perpetrators to understand exactly what they’ve done or how they might change. It keeps white, cisgender people comfortable ignoring the humanity of women of colour and trans women and Indigenous women and sex workers. It turns conversations into minefields and sex into a whole big dumb thing and the Internet into a toxic swamp of boiling shit where clicking on the wrong link scalds your soul. It makes it easy for people to comfortably ignore the suffering of others, which means that it stunts our collective cultural capacity for empathy. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. People say this kind of stuff a lot, in these kinds of broad, sweeping terms, whenever a big-news sexual assault scandal becomes a lightning rod for public comment. And those are pretty much the only times I see the people in my life who fit most neatly into C.K.’s target demographic—usually straight white men, always people who think of themselves as intelligent and moral—actively participate in difficult, uncomfortable conversations with each other about what the lie looks like and how it works. And it’s not enough! Not because you have to fulfill some depressing-thoughts quota before you get your Good Guy badge, but because if you only think about how complicated the issue of sexual assault is once a news story gets horrifically unequivocal, you are far too late. This is not about trying celebrities in the “court of public opinion” everyone’s so scared of—it’s just about giving a shit about things that might bother other people, even if they do not really bother you. If you only think really hard about the pervasiveness and complexity of sexual assault when it’s time to do triage on your tastes or perform some easy outrage on the Internet, then you will not be adequately prepared to understand how our culture’s myriad lies about it affect you and the people around you on a day-to-day basis when they come up in smaller, less straightforward ways, which is how they almost always do. You will absolutely not be ready to create any meaningful change in your own thoughts, attitudes or actions. And most of all, you will not be of any practical use to the people around you who have no choice but to carry this discomfort around with them all the time, the people whose lives these lies facet and fuck up daily. It’s a privilege to be untroubled, to stay that way. This is why C.K.’s failure to address these allegations is not a good enough reason for his fans to avoid the difficult, uncomfortable issues they bring up. If you like this guy’s work because of its ethical spine, and yet you can keep enjoying it exactly the same way once these allegations are introduced—without any traces of concern or creeping dread or cognitive dissonance or confusion or frustration—then maybe it’s worth thinking about why they’re so easy for you to ignore. This is the exact same idea that runs under C.K.’s work like a third rail, makes him seem so insightful: the moments when an issue is small enough for you to register it and then turn away comfortably are the moments when it probably deserves your closest scrutiny.  This is why I find the situation with C.K. so uniquely disappointing, why it feels more like betrayal than plain bad news. It is exhausting to live in a world where no one wants to call things what they are. My life is buffered by such incredible privilege that I only ever have to feel a fraction of the full weight of this problem—and still, sometimes, I feel like it might crush me. On good days, I can read a news story about some famous guy not wanting to talk about whether he sexually assaulted anyone, and it just feels like another depressing, ambiguous story to throw on the pile. But more often, it makes me think about the enormous difference between the way I know the world works and the way popular culture pretends it does. It makes me think about the guy who grabbed my wrists in my apartment, and the friend who pulled my hair outside the party, and the one-night stand I had with a guy who turned out to have assaulted a literal dozen of my friends, and all the dates I ever cut out of early because I felt unsafe, and all the inoffensive ways I know to say no thank you, and all the heterosexual men who have worked their way into my life by disguising their intelligence as moral character and then disappointed me by not actually giving a shit about anyone except themselves. It makes me think about all the people I have trusted and it makes me wonder why, and then it makes me feel like an idiot chump whose only options are to spend her life trying to win a rigged game or to opt out of playing entirely. It puts distance between me and the world. It fucking sucks. Art lifts this weight a little. Pop culture can make people change their minds. While a million different kinds of people can make complex and beautiful work about the space assault and harassment and rape takes up in their lives, it still seems unique and surprising and hopeful when a Louis C.K. makes a TV show or a joke about those same things. The unfortunate truth is that straight white men talking to other straight white men honestly about how pervasive and complex these issues are—about what they look like and how they work—is the only way for popular attitudes about them to really change. C.K.’s work once mattered to me because it seemed not just funny but important; or, I guess, both at the same time. Now, it makes me feel like I got tricked by another man who’s only willing to engage with this stuff at arms’ length, and only for as long as it makes him look good. If you care about this problem enough to make art about it, it doesn’t magically stop mattering once it touches your real life. If it’s serious enough to joke about, then it’s serious. Full stop.
‘The Bonds of Power Are Diffuse’: An Interview with Jenny Zhang

The author of Sour Heart on survival, memory and grace. 

Jenny Zhang’s descriptions of bodies are grotesque and explicit: they are often insomnia ridden, resplendent with open wounds, flinging off roaches with a dancer’s grace, sweaty and fumbling from childish and codependent explorations into sex and humiliation. Her characters are not written as heroes, or villains, they do not conclude their arcs with epiphanies about rising above their struggles. They are realistic and complex and artful. They are painful and sometimes kind; you can see the flaws they as narrators try to hide and it does not endear you to them but it does make them more interesting. Her debut short fiction book, Sour Heart, is a collection of stories of Chinese American girls who have grown up in poverty and have been raised through all the filth and intense love and fear it often contains. It’s a beautiful portrayal of the complexities and limitations of empathy, of family, of the lessons history can bestow through pain. Each character, all first generation Chinese girls who live in New York, is loosely connected. Many of them live, briefly, in the same shithole Washington Heights apartment side by side on dirty mattresses on the floor. Reading this book made me physically uncomfortable at times; it stares at the physicality of poverty in a culture that has tried to deny the possibility of failure at all, and it does so unapologetically. Sour Heart holds space for the failure and shame that immigrant narratives often fail to explore with nuance; Zhang’s characters see and sometimes benefit from the upwards mobility narrative we’ve all been taught and spurn it rather than try to fulfill their expected role. Jenny Zhang and I only see each other in summertime, and usually only over dumplings and complaints about our lives. The last time we hung out was in Jing Fong, a Chinatown restaurant the size of a football field. It is in Jing Fong that we met again, for this interview, a little less than a year after she read to a small group of our friends a sample from one of Sour Heart’s first chapters. Arabelle Sicardi: You wrote this awhile ago by now. It must feel like a different baby than what you remember. Jenny Zhang: It’s really embarrassing to go back and judge the person you were nineteen to twenty-one. I was nineteen to twenty-five when I wrote these stories. I think that because I never was able to get an agent from these stories, because I didn’t have any immediate success out of grad school, I didn’t have any of those markers of validations you’re supposed to get when you’ve done well. I don’t want to overplay and say I just got completely discouraged, but I got a lot of discouragement and some key encouragement. It created this thing in me where—you know how when you get rejected, your personality kind of calcifies in response to the rejection? If I stay perfectly still, they won’t notice how sad I am. Yes, and you take up the thing you were rejected for and it becomes a personal crusade? Like, “You said that I wrote things too long, too real, too unruly…” It’s not what people want out of immigrant stories, because they’re not really about a repressed woman, the woman who can’t emote or be angry. I wasn’t fitting in. So I doubled down. “I’ll be more disgusting, more gross, never write a novel, I’m going to make all my protagonists Chinese American girls because you said they limited me, so I will write every single kind of story and always use the exact same protagonist.” That’s what happened. That period was like, another period of editing. I’m using editing in the most broad sense, I was editing my soul. Editing who I was as a person. I don’t know if you do this, but not just editing the words on the page, I was taking feedback and asking myself after the anger: Am I limited, am I only writing about one thing? Do I need to write a novel? Do I have no concept of plot? I don’t think plot has to be the best thing about a story, anyway. I don’t think so either. Plot is just one variable to measure the value of writing. Some books have amazing plot and terrible language. Some have zero emotional intelligence, but are full of interesting ideas. Anything can be of value and plot is just one thing we value. I edited these stories each time I got rejected, and then at some point I just stopped working on them. I was writing nonfiction, and then when I published that BuzzFeed essay that went viral about literary yellow face, that was the first time I got a lot of attention from agents who wanted to represent me. And can I ask, were the majority of them white? It was mostly white and maybe one non-white person. Mostly white and almost all of them asked if I had ever thought about writing a memoir. Isn’t that the trap of the theory of the young girl? Everyone wants us to have memoirs by the time we’re twenty four. Why won’t they take our fiction? Why are our imaginations not interesting enough?   And maybe this is crude to talk about, it’s not even that I don’t want to write a memoir. Beyond that, do you understand how vulnerable it makes someone to call something nonfiction? Not just emotionally vulnerable but financially vulnerable, do you realize someone that makes $40,000 a year cannot be hit by a lawsuit by some angry ex who objected about a chapter about him? Some guy sees one line about him, missing thousands of lines not about him. That's why celebrities are the ones who write memoirs. And even then, they have ghostwriters and huge teams. People write memoirs when they’re really old not because they’re really wise, but because they are writing about people who are dead. The living do not like to be written about, especially if you’re writing about really difficult things, like violence, trauma, and abuse. The people involved in that are not the nicest people. And in the way we think about memoir, we see the responsibilities we saddle onto women. We want them to regurgitate the horrible things that happen to them, but then we aren’t there when they do that and they get flack, pushback, criticized, or attacked. They want women to bleed out and say it was vindicating.   Like, “You were so dumb, why write about something they didn’t have insight on?” Because they wrote one single thing about their personal lives! And then they get asked to write a book! About that one thing! Only about the time they were raped! And then the fact-checking process after writing trauma or ugliness. Yes, fact-checking is not neutral. I’ve had people fact check me who have “meant no harm” but were still like, “Yeah, can we call your grandmother about this thing that happened that you mention in one line?” And no! She lives in China, she doesn’t speak English, you don’t have anyone on staff that speaks Chinese, and no, she’s not interested in rehashing or being a source for this line where she mentions something in which she had to go back to horrible things that happen. I wish they would explain that process before asking people to write. And there are assumptions made on socio-economic backgrounds that play a huge role. It always reveals their blind spots. Like, I get it, you have never been around as many Chinese people that I have. You going to McDonald's to get a breakfast sandwich, I’m never like, does this really happen? But to you, this white editor from this specific class background, you question almost everything that I say because you just think it’s that odd. It really wears me down.   And you’re writing about poor Asian-Americans, poor Chinese immigrants, and in a way that hasn’t really been written about. People who don’t understand often expect us to be embarrassed about things we can’t help. Totally. It definitely worries me. And you and I have talked about this before—the idea of honor, having honor connected to shame. I try not to create clear conclusions in these stories because it’s complicated. If there is anything that should be shameful, it should be capitalism. Capitalism is shameful. The kind of horrible globalization of capitalism and imperialism is shameful, they create situations where huge masses of people are forced out of their homes and into a place that is not welcoming to them. It is never the individual who has to take the brunt of the responsibility even if it’s often the individual who in that moment causes someone else to feel pain. One of the things I think is so hard about writing the complexity, is that so little is known about the reality of Asian Americans. There’s so little real discourse, and we kind of pop up in the smallest amount and it’s usually East Asians, usually used to validate some model minority myth and anti-blackness. And so there’s no room in that realm to talk about the reality. The huge complexity of what it can contain. Also the stories that maybe even support the bad ideology. I didn’t want to write about immigrants who come to the US and think well of people of color. In fact, they think so poorly about other people of color. I was going to ask you about that. How did you navigate that while writing it in the work? A lot of the criticisms will probably be about even including it, acknowledging it exists, even though you aren’t condoning it by writing about it. It was realistic. I wanted there to be space. If you have some kind of terrible anxiety, or terrible darkness in you, the worst thing you can do is pretend it’s not there and try to repress it and ignore it. The performance of: “my life is perfect, I love everything about my life,” or another thing, “my life is terrible, and I am a victim of horrific things and I have never in any way dominated others but I am endlessly dominated.” Whenever you see that, I don’t know. Is there a word for the weird feeling in your soul when you see that performance? To be either a pure hero or pure victim, purely happy or purely unhappy. It’s never that simple. It never is and everyone in the past, future, present, has loved someone who has hurt someone, was someone that hurt someone. The bonds of power are diffuse. I didn’t want anyone to read these families and feel pure pity. I didn’t want them to look at these stories like it’s a National Geographic anthropological study where you just pity a group of wretched people. I wanted people to feel pity but also show people ways in which they act badly in a lot of ways. I wanted to show that it takes a lot of resources to act well and pure. It’s so easy to be bad!   Yeah. Survival takes a lot. I like these stories because you showed everyday acts of cruelty in ways that were unflinching but not unkind. I appreciate the idea that you can find empathy with people who do bad things, because we love people who do bad things, we can’t always remove that love when thinking about the act. But there’s always that space to be reckoned with between what we love about them and what they’ve done, and as long as you witness that space, how dense it is with things you don’t understand or accept fundamentally, it does not make it better but it makes it clearer. I agree. I think there’s a little of me that’s writing specifically about being the child of people who lived through the Cultural Revolution, and grandparents who were in very high up cadres in the Cultural Revolution. I heard so many stories about it, read so much about it. They lived in a vacuum, which was created just by eliminating all art that didn’t pass an extremely rigid test of purity. It was a time when people could hide behind the righteousness of saying something wasn’t communist, when really they didn’t like a person for a very personal reason. Being a product of people who lived through that time made me really see all the ways in which I’m a product of a generation who didn’t talk about the really bad things they did. That’s part of the reason why my grandparents and parents are going to die with this pain; they can’t talk about the really bad stuff they saw, did, participated in, condoned, encouraged or ignored. It is a pain that hopefully I won’t have as intensely. I wanted to be, at the very least, a chronicler of those things and not only write about things that would make me sound heroic and ideologically pure. That intention of discomfort comes across in how you write about bodies, the huge connection between physical and emotional processing. Like the girl who couldn’t stop itching. The way body discomfort and intimacy with parents intertwined as a way to show love, and she felt like she had to be embarrassed by it, but wasn’t actually. It was so sincere. I read somewhere that when you’re treating Asian Americans for mental health, one of the things that is very common is they won’t say, “I’m sad.” Rather, they’re like, “I have this horrible headache that hasn’t gone away in two months.” A lot of AA immigrants I know find it so hard to emote that I start to literally see it on their skin. I have friends whose skin has literally started degrading and rotting because they’re so unhappy. But they never say. I’ll ask, are they stressed, do they need to talk. And they say, “No, I need a miracle cream.” “I need to jade roll the pain away.” Yeah, and I’m like, maybe your pain is not only skin deep. Especially poor immigrants—I don’t think any of the people I grew up with knew what therapy was. I didn’t know what the word for depression was in Chinese until I was twenty-four. I still don’t! And I didn’t know the word for queer in Chinese until I was, like, twenty-three. Really?! I love realizing what words we can’t say and realizing the difference between the culture you live in and where you’re from. There’s never a direct translation. Yeah, there’s so many blanks in your memories and so many blanks of words. Some of them are the most important words you use, the ones you use all the time with your friends, and it really says something when you can’t articulate the ideas you think about so often. It means something that my family never uses those words, and that I wouldn’t be able to say those words to them. So the body becomes a site of expression. You had a line that reminds me of this act of expression and failure. “There was no beauty in shaking them off, though they strove for grace, waving their arms like ballerinas.” I wanted to know what you think the difference between beauty and grace is. That's really interesting! In that line, not what I think, but what the character is positing, is that beauty . . . has some kind of salvation, and grace doesn’t. Grace is that stiff upper lip you want to have because a trembling lip looks so “ugly.” That's what the narrator thinks. But I don’t know what I think. I think grace is something you had to work for, something you had to labor and learn, and practice. And I thought beauty was something inherited. It’s your birthright or it’s not. That’s why I was against beauty for a while—why should something so randomly doled out to some people be of any value? But then, maybe I’m in captivity to a very bland dominant cultural idea of beauty. Why do I think beauty is what people with money and power say are beautiful? I really like your whole thing. I learn so much from you talking about beauty and terror. What do you think the difference between beauty and grace is, by the way? I don’t think beauty has to have anything to do with grace, it can contain it. Simone Weil wrote so much about both and she thought about grace as this holy thing that you sacrifice to, her idea of beauty had entirely to do with God, sacrificing our bodies to this obliteration upwards. She didn’t value her body, and the more she put herself in horrific situations, the more she felt graceful, and vindicated, closer to what beauty truly was, to what everything humans are not. And that’s all just the exact opposite of what I think. I don’t think suffering helps you transcend. Sometimes pain is just pain. You can learn how to be different people through it, but there’s never one way out. That’s what I like about the characters in your stories—you can see how trauma is inherited in all of these families, and all of the characters work through it differently. They react differently, use it differently. I don’t really like narratives that justify or look for justification for suffering. I hate when people are like, ‘’well it was all worth it, because. . . ’’ When I was editing these stories I went through this period where I kept looking for stories of people suffering from the minute they were born to the minute they die. These girls I wrote don’t have that life. They don’t live miserable lives without end. They are close to people who either have known or have lived lives of unending misery and they see what that does to a person. And one of the sad things is, it doesn’t make them like that person. When someone has lived with unending misery you want to think they’re worthy of love and forgiveness, but in these stories the girls are saying, “get away from me.”   So as I was writing, I was reading stories of people born into captivity and I asked myself, “What am I doing? Why am I obsessed with this?” I guess I needed to remind myself I don’t need to justify. I don’t ever need to be like, “and so there’s a moment of beauty.” There doesn’t have to be a moment of beauty in every story. Beauty doesn’t save. Yeah. Sometimes a life enters and exits this world and it’s hard to say what is it for or how anyone could have intervened and made it better because no individual is responsible for the structural destruction of people. That's what I was trying to show, you feel like you must save yourself and others as individuals, but like, you can’t. That was a hard thing to get across but it was what I was interested in. Jesus christ, we’re really getting into it. [both drink]
The First Time I Ate Pistachio Pudding

The fear of one day losing touch with Chinese culture compels me to shout my heritage just a little bit louder than my husband’s—including resisting things like casseroles and Jell-O.

My husband has always expressed an affinity for Jell-O products, which is hardly surprising. They were a staple in his household growing up. The first time I met his family, Jell-O snuck its way into every meal we ate, from “salads” made of orange Jell-O, marshmallows, Cool Whip, and mandarin oranges, to sauces made of blended red Jell-O mix and canned pears. I did the best I could to be gracious and polite to my in-laws about dinner. It wasn’t hard—the buttery mashed potatoes and baked chicken smothered in mushroom sauce were hearty and comforting. But when it came to the Jell-O dishes, I had to hang my head in shameful defeat, furtively sneaking my bowl of pear sauce to my husband under the guise of being too full. I tried, I really did. Three bites in, though, I knew I had maxed out on the amount of artificial sugar my stomach could consume without rebelling. I instantly categorized these strange concoctions as “white people food,” a list I’ve been mentally keeping track of ever since my fish-and-rice packed lunches got their first stink-eye in the grade school cafeteria. Growing up in Chicago, I certainly ate my fair share of burgers and spaghetti, but my immigrant parents made sure our weekly dinners reflected food from their own childhoods, and these Jell-O based dishes were not nearly ubiquitous enough to have punctured through my Chinese family’s knowledge of white culture. My husband also experienced a bit of a culture shock when he came over to my parents’ house for dinner for the first time. My grandma insisted that my mother cook traditional Chinese delicacies like chicken feet and pig ears, just to see how he would react. I could sense his trepidation when he picked up a foot with his chopsticks and saw the little toenails still attached, but to my surprise he quickly devoured them. He marveled at the feets' sticky sweet skin, and at the crunchiness of the ears, even asking for seconds. When it comes to dinners in our own home, he approaches my Chinese cooking with the same enthusiasm, gamely trying any new Chinese ingredient I introduce to our meals, like mu er (wood ear mushrooms) or bamboo shoots. Since he knows how much I love to cook and generally isn’t very picky with what we eat, he is happy to let me take the lead in meal-planning. But there are times when he mentions the word “casserole” and I instinctively hesitate. For one thing, I’ve only made casserole maybe once in my life, for Thanksgiving, and the mushy discolored green beans didn’t exactly make a good impression. More distressing is the idea that in my mind, casseroles are synonymous with “white people food.” Besides its foreignness, it also ushers in the fear of losing what little bit of Chinese culture I have managed to retain from my parents by succumbing to the ubiquity of white culture around me. I know how easy it was for me to assume the traditions of white America when I was growing up, from the food to the holidays, from the pop culture to the English language. This, despite having parents who were both born and raised in China, who tried their best to impart their memories of home to their children. The shame of not making more of an effort to embrace their history and the fear of one day losing it completely compel me to shout my heritage just a little bit louder than my husband’s—including resisting things like casseroles and Jell-O. Any concession feels uncomfortably like a betrayal to the first half of my hyphenated identity. * This is probably why I was able to live a full 27 years of life without ever knowing about the existence of Jell-O Instant Pistachio Pudding, until my husband one day spotted a small package of the pudding mix while grocery shopping. While he excitedly recounted the times he would eat it on St. Patrick’s Day as a child, all I could think was, who was the lunatic that decided pistachio was a flavor that needed to be expressed in pudding form? When it comes to dessert, my feelings of disdain stem partly from my own childhood memories. Dessert back then was most often associated with a platter of fruit—usually orange or watermelon slices, sometimes a spread of melons and berries. Chinese treats usually came in the form of lightly sweetened red bean paste, whether it was in a bun, a mooncake, or a dessert soup. We snacked on haw flakes, little thin wafers of dried hawthorn berries, in the school cafeteria while our peers ate chocolate pudding. Our birthday cakes, always from the local Chinese bakery, were simple affairs: eggy sponge sandwiched with a light whipped cream and topped with a mound of glistening strawberries. I now genuinely find most American desserts too sweet. I can barely get through a frosted cinnamon bun. One bite of a cheesecake brownie is enough to send me running for a pitcher of water. I scrape off frosting from store-bought cakes, and my favorite item to get from the bakery will always be the cute little tarts loaded with fresh fruit. My proclivity for all things “not too sweet” helped me sit on my high horse of healthy eating, encouraging my reluctant husband to do the same. It was my perception that it was healthier that made me fiercely tout my Chinese dessert palate, but also because it was just that—Chinese. Still, I remembered how my husband attacked those chicken feet with gusto all those years ago, a simple gesture that stayed with me for a long time. Somehow, without feeling like I’m diluting my fragile Chinese identity, I know I should respond in kind. And that’s how I found myself putting a small box of Jell-O Instant Pistachio Pudding mix on the checkout belt. Was it the gnawing sense of inevitability that one day he will wear me down and a floodgate of white people food will be unleashed on me like a tide? Perhaps. I think I was just tired of being the naysayer. We went home, and he made the pudding in the kitchen while I waited in the living room with apprehension. A few minutes later (no cooking required for this pudding, apparently), he presented me with a bowl of pudding, pale green and wiggly, dotted with brownish specks of what I assumed were real pistachios. When I saw that it wasn’t the radioactive color I imagined it might be, I started to feel a little optimistic. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad! I touched a tentative spoonful of the stuff to my tongue. No such luck. It was horrible—worse than I imagined it would be. Any thoughts of rich, silky pistachio ice cream vanished, quickly replaced by an acrid flavor I couldn’t quite identify. It definitely wasn’t pistachio, that’s for sure. I reluctantly ate another mouthful of pudding, needing to be sure that what I tasted wasn’t just my own bias. But with the saccharine goop came an unexpected helping of hypocrisy, because I suddenly remembered that one of my favorite Chinese desserts, in fact, contains jello. Xing ren do fu, literally, almond tofu, is a classic Chinese dessert comprised of cubes of almond milk jelly usually mixed with tropical fruit from a can, served cold in a bowl. Those bowls of jello and canned fruit, I now realize, could be ripped straight from my “white people food” list (sans the Cool Whip, of course). Sure, the almond jello isn’t as overtly sweet as American jello, but it was a reminder that our two cultures, while seemingly so disparate, might be able to find common ground after all, in little blobs of gelatin. One bowl of pistachio pudding was enough for me, but I did buy my husband a few boxes of the mix as conciliation. I’m hoping he’ll eat them slowly and over time; for his sake, and for mine.
‘There Are Universal Human Roots for Every Problem’: An Interview with Zinzi Clemmons

The author of What We Lose on identities, the inability to be cured of grief, and abortion as a debate between something and nothing.

What does it mean to live at the intersections of your specific identity, and to love with your specific heart, when living and loving are both permanent until they aren’t? What does it mean to lose? Those are the stories that change lives. In the debut novel by Zinzi Clemmons, we learn about the stories that change Thandi’s. I had known of Clemmons, who grew up in Philadelphia and traces her roots from Trinidad and South Africa, for years, through her work with Apogee Journal, which she cofounded, and Literary Hub, where she is a contributing editor, but I had never read her fiction. What We Lose takes a look at multilayered loss. Thandi, the novel’s protagonist, is in her early twenties when her mother dies. While she lives through what it means to be without someone so fundamental to her personhood, the novel sifts through racial constructions and stereotypes, and dynamics of love, family, and friendship. Thandi seeks out her own significance through other people. She measures herself through those she loves and the way they love her, and knowledge of the places her family comes from. Thandi is a character, but to those who actually live, this may be a familiar rendering. Written in vignettes, with photographs and nonfictional interludes peppered throughout, What We Lose pushes at the limits of what it can mean to write literary fiction. It’s a novel that gave me new cause to consider what has been lost for certain people in my own life. Abigail Bereola: One of the things that I love about this novel is that it feels like scenarios in a life. The vignettes recall memory and how different aspects of our lives resonate at different times. How did you decide on the structure for What We Lose? Zinzi Clemmons: I hate to say this. It’s cheesy. It’s kind of a truism for writers, but it’s sort of just my voice. It’s not anything really specific to the book, except that it does work very well for the subject matter, I think. You know, when you’re talking about loss and grief and memory, the way that your brain makes these thematic associations and jumps—it fits with that style very well. I think it was a confluence of different things that made it work, but it was something that I was always doing. How did you decide to write this book in particular? I didn’t really decide it intentionally. I was actually writing another book that was more linear, because I figured I had to write my first book in a certain way. But it didn’t end up working and that was because my mom was actually going through what I described in the book. She was very sick and I started writing these little passages that were just reflections about what I was seeing. There’s probably a handful of them that are about what happened in a hospital. Just these really short, kind of pithy reflections on grief… Those somehow made their way into the book and my agent read it and she was like, “Yeah, this book as a whole is not working very well,” and she was right. But those parts that were about grief were what I started with. So, I basically threw away the rest of the novel and just started working from those pieces, and I realized that I was kind of avoiding what was going on in my life, but that I needed to write about it. I think once I got that permission from my agent and I realized that I did have a lot to say and it started coming out very easily, that was when I realized that I had a good story, but it definitely happened by degrees. It wasn’t like I sat down and thought about what I was going to write and then wrote about it. I studied abroad in South Africa while in college and many aspects of the book felt familiar to me, even if I’m not as well-versed as I could be in the daily realities of South African politics or lives. But one thing that struck me was the mutability of race within the novel—how Thandi’s mom is colored in the South African sense, but in the United States, she becomes black. And while the family seems to revere blackness for the most part, Thandi’s mother still believes that beauty only comes from straight hair, as opposed to kinky hair. And she also believes that because Thandi has light skin, she will never have true friendship with darker-skinned women. Why did you decide to create that juxtaposition? Their community is really rooted in blackness, but there are still these proliferating ideas. I’m glad you asked the first part of the question about the mutability of race and how different it is from over there and here. I have a fixed identity that’s very real in the United States. I have a fixed identity that is very real in South Africa. But I never identified with it at all, I guess partly because I’m from America—I spend most of my time here—but also because I did understand the history of where these racial divisions came from. This might get me in trouble. In the case of the coloreds, I always thought it was really weird. I guess that’s informed from my American perspective because we don’t have a race for mixed race. But I also felt like, to a certain extent, the colored race was this sort of arbitrary division and I didn’t like—and I never did and I still don’t like—when people essentialize and fetishize themselves around race. And so, I guess I always really rejected that, especially when it comes to mixed race identity, to be honest. I think a lot of people have done really wonderful writing about what it’s like to be a mixed race person, but I think that there’s not enough acknowledgement of how much privilege mixed race people have and that’s always really bothered me. So, I’d say in the same breath that any mixed race person says, "I don’t fit in anywhere," they need to also say, "But I have it a lot better than a lot of other people." I’m getting off-topic. The contradictions part, that has just always been such a huge experience for me of race. What always struck me in South Africa were the conversations that I would have with other colored people when no one else was around. I don’t think I’ve been able to experience that to the same degree in the States, in that people are extremely racist toward other groups and also toward their own people. And so, with that discussion about colorism, that’s what it is with the mother and with those kinds of really bothersome statements. I wanted to show that that is really real, that racism toward people in your own group who look a little bit different than you is something that, especially as women, I think we have to really navigate all the time. It is extremely harmful and it’s extremely omnipresent… So, I guess this is a book where I try to look at racism in all its forms, coming from all directions, and I just see that as a very big part of it. The internalized racism that we have and how we can use that against others. I think that’s a very big part of the picture. What significance does putting nonfictional work into a fictional story have? Yeah. Well, again, this is a feature of my writing. You could call those parts and the style of book collage, which incorporates, usually, original and found components. It’s just kind of a part of my language. I think that I tend to—and everyone does tend to—consume media and incorporate it into a part of your inner monologue. So, whenever I think something or even say something, I tend to switch registers in order to indicate that this is something that I’ve heard and I’m repeating back, and then for my own voice, I speak differently, but it’s always this polyphonic voice that is really how people think and communicate for now. It was really important to me that Thandi’s point-of-view was pretty close to my own, so that part was totally intentional, and that was because I felt like it was really important that this character, who is a black woman, is constantly deconstructing the world around her. And that’s one of the ways in which she does it, to internalize and parrot back these different outside sources. I think those parts for me really show the degree to which Thandi observes what’s going on around her, that she reads, that she can interact with different kinds of media—difficult sources—in a sort of advanced way. And usually the way that that happens is when you position them as part of your language and your discourse. You could call it postmodern, but I think it’s just the way that I see people express themselves, and it felt true to me. I think a lot of the cues that I got when it comes to the form of the book were from more experimental stuff. I think probably the most popular books that are sort of in that vein are—Maggie Nelson’s pretty close and Jenny Offill is sort of similar. She might be the most mainstream, but Claudia Rankine does this very often. Citizen actually came out when I was almost finished with the novel, but I think there are a lot of touchstones there in terms of using found material and things like that. There’s a few and it’s not super prominent. I guess what’s unique about me as a writer is that I’m pretty omnivorous, so I do borrow a lot of subject matter and ideas from really disparate sources from which I borrow aesthetic influences, so I don’t think that it’s a very simple roadmap. I’d not seen anything done like that either and I was totally surprised when my publisher decided to publish it in the way that I wanted. I never felt certain that it would be published and most of it was because of the form. I guess I was very happy and grateful that they took the project on as-is and I hope that more innovative work continues to be published because it is out there. It’s just not always published by mainstream publishers, but it’s fun and people like it, so it should be. Thandi discusses the process of applying to colleges and how the white students in her school believed that she only got into a good college because of affirmative action. This really resonated with me, but I also appreciated how it was more of a passing note as opposed to something that really became internalized in her psyche. Why did you want to include this, in juxtaposition with the feeling that Thandi went from being extraordinary to being ordinary while in college? I think that whole experience of being an exceptional young black person, that’s something that I definitely experienced, but it’s also something that I saw all of my friends experience. I’m not surprised to hear you say that you identified also. You know, when you’re black and you do well, it’s like a burden in some ways, especially if you’re also a woman. I think that you’re constantly forced to explain yourself to many people and not to make them feel bad or else you would set off something like that reaction that I wrote about. I always felt like you’re just playing inside this very small box and if you go out of it, the consequences can be really upsetting. Another thing that I saw and that I read about quite a bit is students of color tend to drop out at much higher rates, even the ones who have gone through programs like [Prep for Prep] in New York City. We had [A Better Chance (ABC)] in the town where I grew up. I was in ABC. Oh really? Yeah. Where are you from? Or where did you live? I’m from California. Oh! Okay, cool. I’m in California now. So yeah, you know what I’m talking about. You can be in these programs that I think do tend to work for people and give you a lot of support, but when you get to college, through a combination of cultural experiences, or cultural dissonance, or what I saw, because I went to a public school and then I ended up at an Ivy League, is that students of color tend to come from public schools for the most part and when you get to these really elite institutions, you’re suddenly surrounded by people who went to the fanciest of private schools and who were having family dinners with the editor of The New Yorker. For me, going to college was really, really difficult. That was when my self-esteem really faltered, because of that. Because I felt like I had achieved this big thing and then I got there and I couldn’t handle it as well as I thought I should be able to. As far as I can tell, that’s pretty universal. That was just, again, something that I saw and I felt like it was important to write about. When the novel begins, Thandi’s mother has died. Throughout the novel, Thandi is grieving and learning to live without her mother’s physical presence. She also explores the different ways that people grieve—how some people believe that the spirits of those who have died still influence the lives of the living. For Thandi, her mother’s death seems to bring both an everpresence and a lack of presence—she feels her mom in nature, she appears in her dreams, she can hear her cry, but at the same time, her mom is gone. Did you research grief at all while writing this novel? Yeah, I did. I think those were some of the parts that actually came from notes. Some of them are from books. There are three quotes that are paragraph-length quotes from books and one of them is about a durian fruit and that’s actually from Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s a very influential, very famous Buddhist monk and writer. He’s written lots of these kinds of books that are sort of self-helpish. Some of that stuff that came from notes was just things that I was genuinely reading and helped me understand what was going on in some way. And so I think that kind of dissonance between feeling the trauma and shock of someone you just lost, which means that you’re thinking about them constantly in a really acute kind of way, so they’re present—totally—in your mind. But at the same time, they’re completely out of reach and you don’t even know—especially for me because I’m not religious—you don’t know where they are and to think that they might be in a heaven or something is a very disconcerting thought as a nonbeliever. That was the slippage or sort of the intellectual difficulty that I had with it and I really did seek out books that helped me with it and it ranged from books that talked about loss, to mathematics and theory, and the idea of the sublime was a very, very big one. Those were things that I was thinking about independently and I think that they just kind of fit because they felt like they illuminated a concept that is very difficult to explain and articulate. Could you elaborate on the idea of a loved one being in a heaven of sorts as disconcerting as a nonbeliever? If you don’t want to, that’s okay. I’ll try. It is difficult. When I was growing up, my parents were not extremely religious, but they were the type that went to church every week. I think my parents were in it for more of the community aspect, which is, I think, good. I’m deeply suspicious of most religion because when I was in middle school or something, I was actually pretty devout in that middle school way where you’re just obsessed about being obsessed about stuff. I ended up reading the whole Bible and I would go to church all the time and I was totally there. I was like Born-Again. And I became disillusioned because I noticed that all of the people who were most involved with the church were the most terrible people I’d ever met. I was like, "Well, I like reading the Bible and I think there might be something there, but I cannot get down with any of this other stuff." And also, at the same time, I started to read a lot about science and about philosophy and I guess I felt like I had to pick one or the other. Maybe I didn’t have to, but it was a very conscious decision on my part, to basically become a skeptic and there was a lot about my own identity that went into that decision to reject what I’d been taught. Part of that was political because my family’s from Africa—I cannot ignore the many terrible things that were done to people in the name of Christianity. So, it was a very conscious decision for me and I do think very often about spirituality and what is beyond, and I think I made a really conscious decision to say I’m not going to think about it in that way. I think there’s maybe something out there, but the way that people talk about religion turns me off and I think is besides the point of what we’re really trying to get at. So, given that, when you have something like somebody very close to you passing away in a very difficult way, there is a huge temptation to fall on religion and spirituality, and for me, I think I always really tried to resist that because I would have seen it as being completely hypocritical for my stance. And so, I was always constantly feeling pulled toward religion and spirituality, at the same having to check myself and being like, well, you don’t believe that and you never have, so don’t start getting seduced by it now. It would just be easy. I would be a fair-weather Christian, you know? A person who, when the end is coming, they repent. I never wanted to be that person. So, when you’re dealing with something that’s that emotional or that devastating, the temptation to say, I know what’s happened to them, they’ve gone to this heaven that’s a really nice place, is very strong. And having to say I don’t buy into that means having to say I don’t know where my loved one is, I don’t know what’s happened to them. They could have just disappeared into thin air. It’s that sort of contradiction there that is the really hard part. The way that my personal beliefs that are mostly intellectual but very important to me—how does that undercut my desire to know that my loved one is safe and in a good place? And I was just always really struggling with that. Thandi has a couple of romantic relationships with men throughout the novel, leading up to her relationship with Peter. In previous romantic situations, she has become easily consumed, but with Peter, despite the acuteness of the feelings she feels with him, she is a little more calculated about being with him. In many ways, it is a continuous choice. Her mother’s death plays a role in her relationship with him though, as she would never be able to see them get married or offer advice on a fight or even tell Thandi what she thinks of him. Even in this—I won’t say all-consuming, but this bright, hot, white love, Thandi cannot be cured, so to speak, of her grief. Can you talk about this? This is something that I observed in my own life, although the relationship there is not based on mine. I think, as often happens, it’s something of a composite, but nothing approaching what happened between Thandi and Peter happened in my life. But what I did identify with and what was sort of the jumping off point for that relationship is that when you lose a parent, especially around that age—Thandi in the book is a little bit younger. I think it’s like early twenties or something and for me, it was mid- to late- when my mom died. And what happened is that those questions about your own family suddenly become very, very big. I think it’s partly because you have people asking you that. You have a lot more family around you and they’re kind of concerned about you, especially if you’re single. And so, they’ll be like, "You should date this person." You know, as families do. So that’s one part of it, but the other part of it is you start to think a lot more about parenthood and motherhood. And I think maybe it’s a mix of hormones and all of these things, but these questions about how you would be as a parent and, I think, just a general desire to start another family when your own has been shattered, at least in the way that you previously thought about it, becomes very big in your life. And again, this is something that I’ve seen in other friends who have gone through the same thing. For me, personally, that was when I started to really think more seriously about starting my own family. And the other thing that I saw in myself and saw in other people who also lost parents around that age is that they were very quick to attach themselves to someone else because of this increased desire. And so, I think with the relationship with Peter and Thandi, originally I had them in some happily ever after kind of situation and I decided against it because I think it is pretty true that when you go through something like that, like any kind of trauma really, it can lead you to make these decisions, very often, too soon. To attach yourself to people out of loneliness and anxiety for the future. So that was where that came from. Abortion comes up in the novel and it’s a battle of something versus nothing, politics versus feelings. When Aminah, Thandi’s best friend, has an abortion, Thandi tries to convince her that nothing is being lost, and yet when Thandi is faced with the same option, she can’t choose it. Why did you choose to juxtapose these experiences? Because in the book, Thandi finds out that she’s pregnant and then it’s back to when she is accompanying Aminah— Yeah, it’s a flashback. Well, interestingly, it wasn’t intentional to juxtapose them and make some kind of statement comparing the two. I had actually written the abortion scene first and I don’t know why I wrote it. I think it’s just something that happens when you are a young woman and you live in a city. Honestly. It wasn’t that much of a statement. But I think what you said is right. I like how you phrased it as it being nothing versus something. I knew people would latch onto it in the book. I guess it’s maybe a little bit controversial but this is how I thought about it. This is, I guess, why I wrote about it in the way that I did. When I was in college, one of my best friends, and still one of my very good friends, is a guy who’s a pretty devout Catholic, but—I’m going to put this distinction in—in a community way and not in an I’m-going-to-tell-you-what-to-do way. He would always have this really funny habit—maybe funny’s not the word. Whenever we were sitting around, particularly when we were meeting new people, he would always just go right in and ask them what they think about abortion. And I went to Brown University, a very, very liberal school, and it was just such an odd thing to have this Catholic guy come up to liberal people and ask this question that is basically about self-flagellation because what are they going to tell you? That was always the funny thing for me, is that he was very earnest about it and sometimes he did end up with good conversations, but it’s like, well, nine times out of ten, people are going to say, "What’s wrong with you?" I always felt that issue—I had to stop myself at a certain point because that is just the reaction that you’ll get from liberals: it’s okay, we don’t question it at all. It’s almost like if you start to kind of go down that path of "Well, maybe I’m not okay with it," people get really mad at you. And I said this in an interview I did that was on LitHub—I think it’s very important to give the disclaimer: I, personally, think that every woman should have the right to have an abortion. At the same time—and I think this is probably a pretty good message for what’s going on today in the political climate—there are universal human roots for every problem, and I think it’s really important and hopeful to our political arguments. I’m assuming left-leaning, but I think it’s very important to those political arguments that we can acknowledge some of that discomfort with these issues, because we can say, this is a right that needs to be protected at all costs, but I think people should also be allowed to say, "It’s not something that I want to do, it’s something that I’m scared of. It’s fine for anyone else but something about it makes me uneasy." I think that when you start to acknowledge those contradictions that are at the root of all of these highly polarized issues, you kind of start getting closer to the other side’s argument. And that’s not because we owe them anything—we don’t at all. But that is how you engage in debate, really, is to really look at every issue. And so with that passage, it was almost like a thrill for me. I wrote it really early on and I felt like I wanted to talk about all of the scary parts of it. I wrote that scene based on what a friend had told me about her abortion and some other research that I’d done, and I felt like I just wanted to write it and present it in a way that was not completely positive or completely negative, just in the way that I feel most women actually do think about this… They don’t want to go to the place because of how other people act about it. It’s scary to undergo any kind of medical procedure and the isolation that you face when you do it is part of how hard it is. And then there’s a part of you that, especially when you’re a certain age, has a connection with it and thinks about what could be. And that’s also very real. What I’ve seen myself is, around the age that that happens to Thandi, it really does take a toll on relationships, especially romantic relationships. A really big part of that to me is, yeah, when you’re a woman and you have to make that decision, all of these things come into it and make it really, really emotional and difficult. And I just wanted to acknowledge that, the totality of that experience and how contradictory it can be. It’s really important to speak about it honestly. I appreciate what you said in the beginning, that it wasn’t meant to be a statement. Because it is just something that can happen and can be what it is sometimes. Yeah. This is going to sound nuts, but I didn’t really think about it that much until around publication or something and I had this fear that people were going to say, "Oh, you’re anti-abortion" or something. In the way that people do always look for a positive or a negative way to attack something like that, and I was really afraid that people would interpret it as a political statement. And they still may, but I guess it also does provide an opportunity to talk about it in a more nuanced way… Yeah. And I do think—kind of like you said—that you either have to be like, "it’s not a person and this isn’t doing anything or hurting anything" or "of course it’s a person and of course it’s doing something or hurting something." Politics, I guess, doesn’t really allow for anything in between because then all of a sudden you’re undermining your position, you know? Yeah, exactly… For me, it goes back to this question of unknowability and that’s how it connects to grief. What I was talking about before is, well, the way I actually feel is I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s a person. I don’t know if it’s a cell. I have some ideas, but ultimately, I don’t think anybody knows. And I think that’s actually the part that you have to accept that is very difficult for me—you’re doing this thing and you don’t know. It might be really bad. It might be fine. But I think if people could accept that is true, that people don’t know, and work from there and think well, this might be something bad, but it’s something that is necessary in our society so that we don’t have unwanted children and so that women can go to school. Or women don’t kill themselves or self-induce and then die. Exactly! This is why I really appreciate hunting and slaughtering animals. Because there’s an acknowledgement there that life is brutal, you know? Humans are brutal and violent, and if you can acknowledge that we sometimes do really brutal and violent things in order to make life better for some of us, maybe we wouldn’t be having this kind of argument. One person thinks that they’re totally right and another person thinks, no, there’s probably something in the middle here that’s going on, and let’s speak calmly to each other. So, I don’t really have a question with this and I was having problems framing it, but I’ll just say it. At the end, it was really sad to me when Thandi speaks Afrikaans to her son and he asks why she’s speaking funny. And I don’t know, it just made me think about the idea of losing culture generationally… Maybe Mahpee would grow up and decide to learn Afrikaans in college or study abroad in South Africa, but for now, it just felt like another form of loss related to her mom’s passing. But then, also, Thandi comes from these two different, but maybe related, cultures, but Mahpee has more added. This gets kind of convoluted, but if he has kids with an Asian woman, then, you know? Yeah. Yeah, I get it. And I didn’t think about it in this way, but it is heightened because she has a partner who is from a totally different culture. As I see it, there are two levels of grief that I tried to write about, but maybe aren’t as strongly present in the novel as I would have liked. There is the loss of the person, and then I experienced a second loss, when you start to lose memories and you start to lose things like language. And you kind of forget what their voice sounded like. I had a really traumatic moment when I had a bunch of voicemails from my mom. I had them on my phone and I meant to record them but I was in the process of figuring out how to do that, and I went to a nightclub and lost my phone. And I lost all of my voicemails from her. And that was really, really hard. And so, that moment for me, in the same way that in the prologue, I talk about the different kinds of food that she used to make and when she died, they were buried with her. Those things that really are as much a part of your loved one as they were, as their physical bodies. And when you start to lose those things, you really do go through another wave of grief. And then yeah, just the idea that—and this goes along with the urge to make family—when you lose someone, that they’ll never be able to meet that person. That you can see so much of them in that child, but they’re not around. It’s just another really, really difficult part that you have to deal with. While reading, I felt like depression and anxiety were present throughout the novel without ever being explicitly named. Do you feel that way? I think that’s a very astute observation. In some of the reflections, there was probably very strong melancholy and depression. And then the parts about flying, I guess that’s probably the most directly that I addressed anxiety, but I think given that Thandi’s point-of-view is very close to mine, I think just the way that I wrote the book is pretty indicative of depression and anxiety, in how deliberative it is. This is clearly somebody that overthinks as a narrator. Was it a choice not to name them or was it something that you didn’t really notice because it’s so part of your world? No, I didn’t consciously decide "I’m not going to name them." I hadn’t honestly thought about it until now, what difference it would have made in saying this is a character with anxiety. Maybe that would have been more helpful for people. I don’t know. I feel like people can make of it what they want in the way that it is, but what I thought, not necessarily at the forefront, but it’s how a lot of these things, particularly for African immigrants or the descendants of African immigrants, how it’s not named or it’s not really considered to be a thing, and so you’re experiencing these things and it is your worldview and maybe you know what it is— But you’re totally not going to talk about it. Right. It’s just how you live. Or you’ve been actively discouraged from talking about it. Yeah. And I think, implicitly, I wrote about it in the way I’m used to experiencing it. I think that anxiety is inherited and I think I did inherit a lot of anxiety from my mom and part of where it comes from is witnessing the things that she saw, and even that I saw, in South Africa. Just having to deal with trauma and not knowing how to process it in a healthy way leads to that anxiety, and I think that’s something that I was always raised with. And I think it’s also probably pretty common for people who have parents who have come from embattled countries. You do have this kind of nervous existence always. And you don’t really know why. When I was growing up, we lived in a town that’s very similar to the one in the book—it’s very safe, it’s middle to upper-middle class, almost completely white. And both my parents always insisted on having an alarm system in our house, and they were obsessive about locking the doors, and about safety. So, if I went to my friend’s house after school and I didn’t tell them, my mom would call all of my friends, extremely worried, and then all of my friends would make fun of me because my mom was crazy. Well, you know why she’s crazy? Because she actually had a lot of friends who went out and didn’t come home and people would break into the house and kill people. There are reasons for that. And I think the ways in which immigrant families are sort of isolated from their communities, a lot of it is because they’re still living in their minds in their old country. There’s no relation between the two, but we never left our door open at all. There’s no crime in our town. But it’s real—that’s how it is. I did want to say, I don’t know if you read Margo Jefferson’s Negroland or read about it. I haven’t read it, but I’ve read a little about it. One of the things she does in that book that people talked about is that she does talk about her own mental illness issues, I think mostly depression. And she talks about being suicidal and she does actually name it. I think that is incredibly important. It does kind of give people permission to talk about these things more so. And I think it’s really important when that does happen and I think it’s a good thing to point out and think about. In the novel, “What We Lose” is actually the name of a pamphlet published by a hospice about learning to live with loss. Thandi turns to it, almost as a source of guidance and comfort as her mom is dying and after she dies. In naming the novel after this pamphlet, do you want the novel to do the same thing for readers that the pamphlet does for Thandi? I think that’s a really good way to describe it, that it provides comfort and knowledge, really. Comfort in knowledge. I think you could almost say that’s one of the messages or takeaways from the book is that I do—or at least tried to—really investigate every topic from an emotional and intellectual angle, and I think that does provide support for people who are going through similar things. Who do you write for? When I actually sit down to write, I totally wall myself off and I have to tell myself that nobody will ever read what I’m writing. And so, there’s usually not a specific audience in mind except myself. But I think that’s a really important decision that I’ve made and a very good one that I made early on when I started writing. I think it was Phillip Roth who said he was never in competition with other writers, he was always in competition with himself. And for me, it was really important in writing the book that I did not hold back, because when I think about writing for myself, I think about not hiding from myself and not hiding anything from who will be reading it. So, if I write something and it doesn’t feel true to me or I feel like I could easily disprove it, I will change it because it has to be up to my own standard of reading. I guess to extrapolate, who I write for is somebody like me. I think it’s important to acknowledge that and that writers do think intentionally about that, especially when you’re a black woman. It was important to me that Thandi was a critical thinking, funny, sensitive person. But very heavy on the critical part because I don’t think that that exists enough in literature—black female characters who are like that. And so, I would say I wrote it for myself, but really, who I was writing for is people like me: young people, people of color, who are really concerned about politics and equality and the things that they see around them, and also are intellectual and interested in some way in making the world better. I think that’s probably how I’d describe the reader.