In April 2016, eight family members were slain in their homes in Ohio. Nine months later, the killer or killers are still on the loose, and the town has all but forgotten the crimes.
The poet and MTV columnist on witnessing, mapping grief and joy, and The Wire.
Some women have trouble wanting, but my instincts were indistinguishable from my cravings. My wanting was the leash that pulled me through my life. Until one day the leash was off.
In order to find purpose and affirmation, Black artists rethink time and space as we know it to find a place for themselves.
In September 2015, Kyle Lydell Canty of Rochester, New York, travelled to British Columbia. He hadn’t planned to stay for long, but after two days in Canada, Canty decided to apply for refugee status. He appeared before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada in October of that year with the argument that Black Americans were “being exterminated at an alarming rate.” As proof, Canty alleged that he had been harassed by the police in six states in which he held offenses, such as jaywalking and disorderly conduct, that he claimed he never committed. Although the Board ultimately rejected his candidacy on the grounds that Canty would not be subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment” upon his return, Ron Yamauchi, an IRB member, did find that the actions of the American police “raise a question about [Canty’s] subjective fear,” a fear that, according to the United Nations, is rooted in historical and racially terroristic acts, such as police killings and “state violence.”In 1838, after a failed attempt that led to his incarceration, twenty-year-old Frederick Bailey used his nautical knowledge while working at a waterfront to disguise himself as a free Black sailor and boarded a train from Baltimore to New York where he then changed his last name to Douglass to avoid suspicion.James Baldwin could not reconcile himself with America. He travelled and lived in places such as Istanbul and Paris in the 1960s, where, according to a 2009 essay in The New Yorker by Claudia Roth Pierpont, he would not be shamed for the color of his skin or his sexuality. Nina Simone revealed in her autobiography I’ll Put A Spell On You why she left America for Liberia in the 1970s: “I had arrived in Liberia with no idea of how long I intended to stay; after a few hours I knew it was going to be for a long, long time—forever.” When she returned to the States for financial reasons, “I flinched at every noise, expecting terrible events that always hit me when I arrived in the country that disowned me ... I ... longed for Liberia …”The desire to escape endures within many Black Americans. It manifests in literal attempts at relocation, as in Canty’s case, but also through our art. “I think to be born Black in America,” said the video and performance artist Lex Brown, “is to be fully in touch with, one, the universal existential crisis of being human, two, the crisis of carrying on the body of an un-chosen evidence of the fundamental hypocrisy of America (i.e. home of the free, land of the slaves) and three, the impossibility of escaping or delaying crisis number one because of number two.” Our perpetual lack of belonging fuels our desire to flee, but where do you turn when there seems to be nowhere to seek refuge?*Sarah Yerima, a Rhodes Scholar studying sociology at the University of Oxford, has been moving between countries for five or six years, from the United States to Brazil to the United Kingdom. “I’ve been trying to find some peace and it’s all terrible. No matter where I am, the anti-Blackness is pervasive. However, the arts give a kind of comfort.” In 1977, The Isley Brothers released “Voyage to Atlantis,” in which lead singer Ron Isley croons to an unnamed woman about sailing to a “paradise out beyond the sea.” That same year, DC Comics released issue #452 of the Adventure Comics series, in which Black Manta, a Baltimore native turned supervillain whose nautical and birth origins are reminiscent of those of Frederick Douglass, seeks to take Atlantis from Aquaman, a blonde-haired, white superhero, by killing his son. In a standoff, Black Manta says to Aquaman, “This city ... shall ... be a new empire over which I alone shall rule! ... I had recruited enough of my own people to serve that purpose …”“Your people?” Aquaman responds. “You mean ... surface dwellers?”“No,” Black Manta says, “I mean exactly what I said, ‘My people.’ Or have you never wondered why I’m called Black Manta?” Black Manta wanted to create an underwater colony in which African-Americans could rid themselves of a white-dominated surface world.In the packaging for Outkast’s 1996 sophomore album ATLiens, the artwork features Big Boi and Andre 3000 as freedom fighters against censorship and population control; Atlanta is re-pictured as the lost city of Atlantis. These artistic renderings of a Black utopia present a hopeful future—places where we can live in all of our complexity and without oppression.“If you think about how American planning has worked, it has always pushed towards a utopia. New York, Chicago—all major American cities—as violent as they were, were utopic visions,” says Jess M., a student and researcher of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. In designing cities deliberately to oppress people of colour, she says, “planners believed that if Black and brown people didn’t exist, then these utopias would.”This racism has led many Black artists to reimagine fictitious nations, such as Atlantis, or develop new mythologies altogether through Afrofuturism, a literary and cultural aesthetic that blends historical components, along with science fiction and fantasy, in order to center Black people.The musician, philosopher, and filmmaker Sun Ra was one of its pioneers, creating what Ytasha Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture calls, “sonar sounds for the space age in the ’50s.” In the 1970s, the Afrofuturistic sound began to expand. Combined with sci-fi elements in works such as “Spaceship Lullaby” and “Africa,” in his 1974 film Space is the Place, Sun Ra, playing the protagonist, seeks to transport African-Americans to occupy a new planet in outer space he discovers with his crew, The Arkestra.Sun Ra’s influence continues to be felt. George Clinton and the Funkadelics incorporated Afrofuturism into their works through electronic instruments, space costumes, new mythology, and mind-boggling wordplay. Janelle Monae’s android aesthetic is a direct descendent of Sun Ra’s innovation. Contemporary artists Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski and Sheena Rose depict black women as goddesses, mythical creatures, and arbiters of their universe. As Stephanie George, former curatorial fellow of New York’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, puts it: “You have to disrupt temporality.” In order to find purpose and affirmation, a Black artist must undermine time and space as we know it to find a place for his or herself.*Since the 1800s, refuge and relief from racist violence and oppression has meant any number of things: escaping to the North, fleeing to a different country altogether, or staying put physically while moving forward in one’s imagination to create a world where Black people are uplifted and able to live as multidimensional human beings. Many of the greatest African-American works of art have been the products of times of oppression. Our art is a form of resistance.So now, days away from the inauguration of a president whose platform was praised by the Ku Klux Klan, what happens to that art? Will there be a new renaissance or simply a continuation of established genres? Geraldine Inoa, a playwright at New York’s Public Theater, says that disturbing events like the Trump inauguration often inspire people to “retreat” to other artistic movements. “But because this art exists in this reality under this president, it will be different. Trump is rather unique in that he has risen during new a technological world that has changed the way art is created and shared. We will see a new renaissance based on the current reality that combines the modern tools artists have their disposal.”Or, as the queer femme writer and editor Myles Johnson puts it, “there’s going to be a renaissance and we can’t help it. Black people have never not been creative.”
Before I read The View from Saturday, I saw anger as a luxury, a way to take up physical and emotional space that I didn’t think I deserved to occupy.
Anger has always mystified me. My natural inclination is to observe the world and myself from an objective distance rather than dive into a messy free-for-all of emotional expression. I don’t fight with people or punch walls, or do anything that might betray the equilibrium that I try to maintain out of habit. But a few years ago, I got into a fight with a college roommate. When she yelled at me, I yelled back. I was terrified, but also felt a foreign rush of power and relief. I tried to explain the gravity of my actions to my friends when I recounted the incident, and it was hard to keep the smile off my face. To this day, I remember how good it felt to be heard, something I’ve been striving for my whole life.When I was younger, I was fixated on the idea of being normal, a fantasy in which no one would ask me where I was from or what I was. When other people at school asked if my name was Eggo-waffle Schifellite, or commented on my food, “Burfi? More like BARF-I!” I never got angry out loud. Instead, I asked my parents why people were so mean—as if understanding their motivations might erase the feelings of rage and shame that come from feeling like you don’t belong. Even adults who asked me what languages I spoke at home were trying to label me before they knew me. Being a self-reliant and suspicious child, I didn’t trust that expressing my frustrations with the adults around me would change their behaviour. Instead, I decided to let people put their labels on me as if I were a blank canvas, to give up in the face of constant, implicit demands to justify my existence. I strived for neutrality and calmness on the outside, thinking I didn’t have the luxury of an emotional outburst; it was hard enough to get people to look past my face and see a person rather than a curiosity. This became a natural state for me, but when I wanted to express anger, I didn’t know how to do it. As a preteen, I looked to feisty heroines such as Ramona Quimby and Sammy Keyes in my search for guidance on how to feel out loud, but my role model for anger, then and now, was Nadia Diamondstein in E.L. Konigsburg’s The View from Saturday.Konigsburg’s 1996 Newberry Award-winning children’s novel tells the tale of a group of four sixth-grade nerds in the town of Epiphany, New York. It’s an oddball group and Nadia, the only girl, is a smart, cherubic redhead who has deep convictions and a fierce attachment to her dog, Ginger. I was initially drawn to her because, like me, Nadia is mixed (“Half-Jewish; half-Protestant,” she says, a combination I found exotic in its tameness). In the book, she’s spending her first summer back home in Florida with her father after her parents’ divorce. Her father has moved into a “swinging singles” apartment building and her Grandpa Izzy has gotten married to a woman named Margaret, whose primary pastime is working with the Department of Environmental Protection to help monitor the spawning sea turtle population in the Sargasso Sea. Despite her cool demeanour and tendency to intellectualize the world around her, Nadia is very, very angry. When she learns that Margaret was the person who helped her mother get a job in upstate New York after the divorce, she’s overcome with rage. “There is no worse feeling in this world than the feeling that someone knows something about you that he has kept to himself,” she narrates. “My heart was pumping gallons of blood up to my face. I could feel my neck throb.” But, she is careful to say, “I controlled by voice so that it would not quiver.”When I encountered Nadia on the beaches of Florida, I had had a lot of practice rationalizing my anger into submission, and I thought I was pretty good at it. But when I read The View from Saturday, I realized my well-honed coping strategies weren’t as effective as I had imagined. I was in awe of Nadia’s honesty with herself; she doesn’t self-censor, or talk herself out of things, or deny her anger when it becomes too big to ignore.Nadia erupts at her father as they sit trapped in his condo during a violent tropical storm, and the fight is a propellant—a new beginning. Instead of brushing her off after their argument, Nadia’s father finally hears her. And her anger also propels her into action: in expressing it, she realizes she can either exist alone in her fortress of solitude, or help to save hundreds of baby turtles from being swept out to sea. She chooses to help, and in doing so finds that she has also asked for help in a tough situation.Nadia analyzes her feelings of despair and pain, but ultimately it’s her anger that helps her speak up for herself, to articulate what she wants and to not apologize for her feelings even if they seem illogical. Nadia slowly realizes why she’s angry, reflecting on the helplessness she's felt since the divorce and her move across the country—“No one seemed to think that it would matter to me where I lived,” she says. Konigsburg never implies that Nadia’s anger is invalid; rather, Nadia’s anger is the momentum that drives her forward, that forces her to spring into action when the turtles, and her own family’s happiness, are in danger. Konigsburg also gives Nadia the room to reach the end of her journey on her own terms and in her own time, indulging in the character’s grappling for a methodical answer to a messy problem. Konigsburg is patient with Nadia, and from that I gathered that maybe the world would be patient with me, too.When I revisit The View from Saturday for a hit of nostalgia and cultural comfort, I’m reminded all over again about the simple, essential lessons I learned from Nadia. It seems obvious as an adult, but before encountering Nadia, I saw anger as a luxury, a way to take up physical and emotional space that I didn’t think I deserved to occupy. Afterwards, I saw it as a show of strength, in Konigsburg’s portrayal of a bookish kid trying valiantly to keep a leaking raft afloat. When Nadia finally realizes she can’t feel better all by herself, nor does she have to, something clicked for me too. I think of Nadia when I’m marching in a political rally or arguing with my boyfriend instead of pretending that I don’t care about what happens to me. She taught me that I deserve to have my voice heard. Through Nadia’s story, Konigsburg shows us that silence may be an effective weapon for shutting people out, but anger can help bring them in.
The poet and MTV columnist on witnessing, mapping grief and joy, and The Wire.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a punk rock bard from Columbus, Ohio (the east side, he specifies), who writes full-lung prose poems, reduxes of the classical ode, and updates and riffs on Frank O’Hara and Virginia Woolf. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is his confident, vulnerable, slim but feisty debut. A columnist for MTV News, his interest in pop culture knits the collection together, with epigraphs as wide-ranging as Josephine Baker, Whitney Houston, Pete Wentz, and a CNN transcript of an interview between Nancy Grace and the parents of Michael Brown. I thought the collection’s title was a nod to the James Baldwin’s line: “your crown has been bought and paid for. All you must do is put it on,” but I stood corrected.I spoke with Willis-Abdurraqib before the 2016 presidential election. In the dank fog of an America awaiting its next president-elect and parting with its first African American one, Willis-Abdurraqib’s collection has taken on a different insistence, and our conversation now feels tinged with something of the prophetic. In the hollow hours following the election results, he wrote “The Day After The Election I Did Not Go Outside.” The poem is peppered with ampersands—little swirling punctuation marks insisting on kinship, on affinity, on introspection when the world feels full of thoughtlessness. As an antidote to the murky times ahead, the poems of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much can be held in the palm of your hand like a string of prayer beads, taut in protest but with an unrelenting tenderness. Reading Willis-Abdurraqib is a balm, and, if ever the act of reading was in the service of self-care, I believe it is here and it is now.Julia Cooper: You write for MTV as a columnist. Do you find it hard to jump between registers? Poets have traditionally been working men and women, because poetry doesn’t necessarily pay the bills, but do you find it hard to switch between the two forms?Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: Not really, I think a part of that is that MTV is so great at letting me write the way that I write, so they’re not trying to make me into a different writer than I am. In my prose and in my long form work I use poetic elements just because that’s the way I write, and they don’t try to strip that down.Some of the poems in this collection feel like they had been brewing in your mind for a while. Was that the case? What’s your process like?A lot of my writing process takes place in my head before it ever gets on paper. I think that I am someone who attempts to be thoughtful, but a lot of my thoughtfulness is driven by anxiety about my ideas and my ability to execute those ideas. If it feels like some of the poems had been brewing for a while, that’s the case entirely. I wait to commit things to paper. I know a lot of poets and writers are into running into the writing and then sorting it out later when everything is on the page, and I think that’s really admirable, but I don’t have the emotional capability or the confidence to do that outright. I need to take fully formed concepts, narratives, and ideas to the page, and that takes a lot of internal brewing.Is the title a reference to Baldwin?No, the title is a reference to The Wire, which is not Baldwin, but could be. I like The Wire a lot, and I was struggling for a book title really early on. The working title for the first draft of it was called The Greatest Generation, because I did not know there was a book already, like a huge book, like Tom Brokaw wrote it or something. I love the band The Wonder Years and they have an album called The Greatest Generation, and I thought this book spoke to that album a lot. And I was passing my book around and people would come back to me and say, “You can’t call your book this because there’s a really famous book called this,” and it came out in 2012 or something. And I was like, Well, shit.So in The Wire one of the characters says: “The crown ain’t worth much if the nigga wearing it always getting his shit took.” I thought about it, and thought about what themes the book had rattling around it, like themes about displacement and gentrification, and the claiming of space— people having things taken from them that they held close.I’m wondering, who else should I be reading? Who are some other young or lesser-known poets who you think deserve some due?Nate Marshall is a poet from Chicago who I don’t think I could have finished this book without. I think his work is stunning and important and talks about place and home in a way that’s really great. Ariana Brown is a poet from Boston who is gifted. And I think Morgan Parker is really important; she’s right at the edge in pop culture and race and what it means to be a black woman in America in a way that’s stunning and brilliant.I read that you look for poetry that deals in “the art of witnessing.” Do you think witnessing is always painful?No, I don’t think so. I think that a big thing I’m trying to do now, especially with The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is dealing with something that is really rooted in joy. I think the things that are most accessible to us are pain and grief, or fear. Like we can watch—we’re in a time where we can watch someone be murdered on a social media feed. While that is witnessing, witnessing is also sitting on a rooftop after a really good, long hard day and watching the sun go down. Or witnessing someone you love excel at something. I want to invest in that a little more, because I think once I detach myself from the pain of what I have witnessed, I need to find something to replenish myself. And I think finding joy to both witness and write about is really important.I like this idea of investing in joy. I like that image. I was reading that you don’t have any formal training in poetry, which surprised me, but led me to wonder, is your love of music and therefore rhythm and cadence, is that what drew you to write poetry instead of prose?I think so, yeah. The thing is—whenever I talk about how a lot of my peers have MFAs and really intense formal training, that is—I always wrote. I think often times, the narrative around the book is, “Oh, he didn’t go to school for poetry, so he just like stumbled into this, that’s wild.” But I wrote, I was writing music journalism, and I wrote in a very intense way that drew me close to language and the way words moved. Though poetry wasn’t natural, it was a reachable, touchable thing for me that I knew I could access and play out into something greater.I was wondering if you found it hard to write publicly about some of your most intimate losses. Making yourself vulnerable—were you were worried about that? Was it cathartic? It was hard, but I think not nearly as hard as grief without an outlet, grief with no map out of it. For me, although the poets I love write about sadness, their own sadness, very bluntly, they find a way to reckon with it and come out on the other side a lot cleaner, and happier, and freer. I think grief is work, in the same way that I think speaking about joy and trying to find joy is work. Grief sits on our bodies and works on us. And we don’t have to seek it out, it’s just there. So for me, the work of whittling it down is worthwhile. The work of writing about it, chipping away at it, and putting it out into the world where people can read it, and it can hopefully help people chip away at their own—I think that’s vital and important.It was replenishing to read someone else’s grief so bluntly on the page. I don’t want to talk about death all the time, I don’t want to revel in death, but at the same time, I’ve witnessed and suffered through a lot of deaths at a young age. What that did for me was make it real. It made death something that I understand as an inevitability, and it makes this brief, bright collection of hours that I have while living something that I am so thrilled about. Which doesn’t mean that I’m never unhappy because I’m so happy to be alive, but I have an understanding of death that won’t allow me to waste my time. I have an understanding of death that won’t allow me to be complacent and not give all of myself to the people I love and care about while we’re all still present. And I think that’s a real gift, and I think part of my writing about that in the book is not necessarily to bum people out, though I’m sure it happens occasionally, but to kind of say: I lived through this, and through that living I found an incredible clarity. I found this joy about understanding that I have limited time here, and I’m lucky that I have people who would miss me if I were not here anymore. I think the book is partly about that, about how I am trying to be better at loving and living and fighting for the things I believe in while I’m still present.
Some women have trouble wanting, but my instincts were indistinguishable from my cravings. My wanting was the leash that pulled me through my life. Until one day the leash was off.
One of the many things adulthood hasn’t brought me is certainty. I’m the oldest I’ve ever been and I’ve never felt more opaque. “Age doesn’t necessarily bring anything with it, save itself,” Maggie Nelson writes in The Argonauts. Brutal; true.I wasn’t always rudderless. I grew up cognizant of the inexplicable luck that supplied me with direction even as a child. Through no effort of my own, I was coherent; I was consonant with the world, or at least as consonant with it as any of us can be in spite of its meanness and horror. I didn’t like activities I didn’t do well, so being bad at them didn’t matter to me. I liked doing what came naturally—reading, writing—which meant there was no need to establish a boundary between recreational endeavors and intentional work. (I still don’t really understand the idea of a hobby.) My parents were not overly affirming and I wasn’t often the best at anything, even in the small, exurban classrooms of my childhood. But I believed in myself. I believed I would excel and that there were a variety of fields I could excel within. And I did.Meanwhile, my brother never knew what he was good at. Whether for work or for fun, his enthusiasms seemed optimistic but arbitrary and consequently brief. For him, it was as if every pursuit came just as hard or as easy as the next. I couldn’t fathom it and I didn’t have to.I’m not saying life wasn’t hard or there wasn’t pain. I’m saying there was momentum. I like a challenge, but I at least want to be suited to the attempt. Some women have trouble wanting, but my instincts were indistinguishable from my cravings. My wanting was the leash that pulled me through my life. It kept leading me to the right things.Until one day the leash was off. I can’t identify what occasioned it, I don’t think it even works that way—with a single, switch-throwing moment—but at some point in the last year my urgency to sustain or possess something (an emotional state, a relationship, a milestone of financial success) evaporated, and my me-ness along with it. I can still put one foot in front of the other, but without conviction. I recall what goals used to be important to me—making a home in a city I love, establishing myself as a writer, arranging a life of regular adventure—but those lures aren’t baited anymore. I am radically disincentivized.Women are so stuffed full of bad prescriptions: what we should want, what we should do. Anything to do with selves, with The Self, leaves women doomed because her self cannot be the self, the universal, the correct.For me, motivational fogginess isn’t merely inconvenient or tedious, as prolonged indecisiveness always is. It is a crisis. The best metaphor I can use for describing the change that rendered me a cavity is that my pilot light went out. “Selfhood,” writes psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in Intimacies, is “constituted through prior and assured knowledge of what [the self] desires.” I like to think about my decision-making in an expanded context, within a network of explanations that give my actions a narrative frame, but I can’t approach the question of why I want when I don’t even know what I want.*“Know thyself” is one of the Western world’s most enduring aphorisms but women living by this maxim are usually dismissed as narcissistic navel-gazers, selfish neurotics who fail to engage meaningfully with society. Because women are still treated as the exception to men’s rule, our self-scrutiny is superfluous. The fruits of a man’s soul-searching are presumed to be insights into the whole of humanity but a woman’s self-insight is useless to the herd. It is banal, indulgent. It does not escape her boundaries. “Impossible to conceive a female life that might extend outside itself,” writes Chris Kraus in Aliens and Anorexia. “Impossible to accept the self-destruction of a woman as strategic.”Maybe self-insight is precluded by femaleness; maybe there is nothing of substance there to investigate. “Most women have no character,” wrote Alexander Pope and he could be right. We’re so stuffed full of bad prescriptions: what we should want, what we should do. Anything to do with selves, with The Self, leaves women doomed because her self cannot be the self, the universal, the correct. But nor can our originality be useful, or socially permitted because we don’t operate in integrity or wisdom. Our stumbling is the stumbling of the lower order, of beasts, of non-human animals.Is it too banal to admit that once my absence of desire registered as something long term, I started thinking about dying, as in dying on purpose?*Here was my primary concern about killing myself: what if I kept living, and the pilot flame came back, and I thought I’m so glad I’m still here? This is a tricky mental game to play because if you’re dead, you’re not bothered by what you would have missed if you hadn’t been. No one is more insulated from hypothetical futures than the dead.But I wanted to check, just in case. I kept trying to know myself—if I still had a self, if I’d ever had one, if I was more than a lump of matter hauled around by an invisible hand. Was there something behavioral, circumstantial, that I could adjust to revert to my factory settings? Was there something new in my situation that had upset my equilibrium, like when someone switches to a new detergent and finds they are beset with a rash? Perhaps choosing death now was akin to buying new glasses while the “lost” pair was perched on my head. Surely there must be something obvious I was missing.I started listing things I was grateful for at the end of every day, which felt like throwing a penny into the Grand Canyon. (A funny email from a friend, an editor’s encouragement, a town-building phone app I played with humiliating frequency, general freedom from physical pain, my pets.) I journaled, trying to propose meaningful changes, but instead I often only wrote clueless laments:I can’t see any way to improve or eliminate this sadness, nor do I have the energy to. What matters to me anymore? What do I care about?What do I want? What would make this better?The other concern(s): drugs have no appeal, not even music holds power.One entry reads, in its entirety:That your despair is inaccessible and unintelligible to othersThat the confusion you live inside cannot be alleviated or improved uponThat you are beyond making repairs to yourselfI am the “you”; my self is speaking to my self.In Repetition, Rebecca Reilly quotes a survivor of a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge: “As my hand left the rail I thought, I can fix everything in my life but this.” I was moved by this when I read it in 2015, when I still considered suicide as personally unnecessary and irrelevant as vaping. But when I thought of this line now, it simply didn’t apply. The greatest pleasure I’d known had been the pleasure of fruitful effort, rewarded focus, accretive success. It was the pleasure of purpose and it had deserted me.I didn’t need to fix everything, I just needed to fix the only thing. And not only was I ignorant of how to fix myself but I didn’t see the value in it. In other words, I didn’t want to.*Years ago, in my twenties, when I was deep in a yoga phase and earnestly studying or at least considering every piece of “Eastern” wisdom that trickled down to me from an almost inevitably white instructor, I wondered how to balance prioritization of self-familiarity with my sense that truly good and urgent application of the self should involve service: supplying direct empathy and care to others. The first limb of yoga concerns interpersonal conduct; it testifies to the importance of truthfulness, non-violence, and so on. But I didn’t find many teachers who were especially concerned with that, at least not enough to explicitly address it. I, along with many others, was told to stay present inside myself, to notice my reactions and impressions, to minimize engagement with the external. “Studying ourselves is pretty much all we do in here,” one teacher once said, offhanded and honest.Theoretically this internalized attention leads one to become more gentle and thoughtful in their actions, but I wondered about the possibility of falling down a rabbit hole of ever mounting self-preoccupation. At what point were we just a bunch of assholes fascinated by our own egos, giving ourselves permission to neglect responsible participation in the world? Wouldn’t part of self-knowledge be recognizing avoidant tendencies, the grand excuses made to stay self-absorbed? Shouldn’t part of self-honesty be saying “enough with myself already?”This dilemma is an old one: can we ever transcend the vehicle of the self? Anne Carson details a particular flavor of this question in Decreation with the examples of Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil, two women who each expressed “a need to render back to God what God has given to her, that is, the self.” Carson quotes Porete: “I cannot go towards God ... without bringing myself along.” And then Weil: “We possess nothing in this world other than the power to say ‘I.’ This is what we must yield up to God.”This was the only question that remained: I said I wanted nothing, but did I want to die?To work with yourself to erase yourself, negate yourself—this is one interpretation, perhaps, of what asana addicts and dilettante Buddhists like myself hoped to do, even as we nodded our heads when told there was no goal, no vector, just the constancy of an imperfect, or always perfect, practice. It’s plausible to me that the best thing a person can do may be removing themselves from the world, folding themselves away into a cave where they create minimal disturbance, tax few resources, and risk little disruption. Remove yourself as one more chaotic element in the world that inflicts unintentional yet inevitable suffering on others. The ultimate commitment to that, surely, is a voluntary death.*Unlike Porete and Weil, I had no god to melt into. I remembered what it felt like to be wildly animated by my desire but to re-experience that seemed impossible. I did not even want enough to want to want again. It was like being stranded on an empty shore and watching everything I cared about on the deck of a departing boat as it receded to invisibility against the skyline—and feeling nothing. No, even better: imagine the shore is without waves, without lapping water. No ocean sound, no wind. Imagine it is a shore as still and empty as one frozen in a snow globe.I worried hysteria and insensibility would be assumed by anyone I confided in, like I needed to be restrained or soothed or dissuaded or worse, that I wanted to be. I didn’t want anything, that was the whole point. I hated the idea of someone trying to convince me not to do it—the inherent, unavoidable condescension in that. It was a response too insulting to risk. I might have lost my verve but I wasn’t suddenly incompetent. If I decided I should be dead, I would be.When I was a young adolescent reading soapy teen books, I delighted in the rhetorical power of suicide, suicide as punishment, as demonstration: this is how much you hurt me. What a remarkable weapon to have in one’s arsenal, the relational equivalent of a nuclear bomb. Those scenarios are all about what Jenny Zhang calls “reap[ing] the joys of being mourned.” But there was no reaction I hoped to provoke, no attention or apology for which I angled. This contemplation wasn’t about other people. It was a possible solution—practical, efficient—to a problem contained inside me. (“Impossible to conceive a female life that might extend outside itself... ”)I understood why a sort of maternal distress was the most likely reaction, though. What options do you give your friends or loved ones when you tell them, I think about being gone, on purpose; I think about it a lot? They’d take it to be evidence of an emotional extreme and yes, sometimes I was emotional. Once I ran thirty minutes late to meet a friend during her lunch break and then broke into tears the moment I arrived. But mostly I felt empty, the equivalent of the artfully bundled cloth stage actors must pretend is a baby. I couldn’t watch people I care about try to calm the empty fabric.The self requires desire, and I had none. I still functioned but I couldn’t find a reason to function anymore.So I didn’t talk about it.*Ever pragmatic, I sketched out strategies in my head of whom I’d leave in charge of this and that, how I’d time my requests of them so as to neutralize whatever preventative action they could take, what I could do in advance to mitigate the bureaucratic burdens of my existence. I should make it as painless for everyone connected to me as it could possibly be. (Could the discovery of my body by someone who loved my body, for instance, be circumvented? I thought yes, I could die at home and still figure out a way.) I imagined some people who were particularly close to me would be devastated, and I would have liked a way to convey to them that they shouldn’t be sad because I wouldn’t be sad, that against the background of a meaningless universe, my coming and going was deeply meaningless too. But I knew they wouldn’t understand.I was pretty thorough in my plans. It was an easy project to apply my imagination to. Let this be the last desire I execute cleanly, if it is the only desire left to me.This was the only question that remained: I said I wanted nothing, but did I want to die?*“If it doesn’t break today, it will break tomorrow,” writes the Thai monk Ajahn Chah. “If it doesn’t break tomorrow, it will break the day after tomorrow.” It doesn’t matter what the “it” is; the “it” is everything, anything. All the elements of life that we wish we could control or protect. For a long time I didn’t understand how we’re supposed to live with the impossibility of anticipating our most convincing whims. What if you don’t want to bear a baby until you’re too old to conceive? What if you sink all your money into a home in a town you immediately want to escape? What if you desire freedom and flings in your early years only to find yourself elderly and alone and wishing you’d coupled? I still don’t understand how we inoculate ourselves against regret, but at least now I recognize: what grace to have a whim at all. Regret is a luxury. The real fate to fear is being devoid of the urges that let regret whirl up.The problem with desire is that it predicts nothing, guarantees nothing, and it is necessary. For me anyway, it is necessary to live, to be alive. That’s what I know about my self.
The author of Uptown Thief on sex work myths, fetishizing cash and the new golden age of television.
Sex work is defined by isolation. American sex workers, particularly women of color who work as prostitutes, are criminalized, stigmatized, moralized, stereotyped, and misunderstood. It’s hard to find community, and it’s even harder to find complex representations of your life that aren’t played-out metaphors for victimization (first person shooter games like Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption), luxurious transgression (The Girlfriend Experience) or redemption (Pretty Woman).Genre fiction is like sex work in this way. Crime, romance, erotica, and thriller books are not seen as “real art” in much the same way that sex work is not seen as a “real job.”Aya de León’s novel Uptown Thief is a savvy marriage of this form and function; she uses socially denigrated genres to tell the story of a socially denigrated profession. De León directs the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley, and has been published widely in print and online. Uptown Thief’s protagonist is Marisol Rivera, who funds her Lower East Side women’s clinic with a series of tightly executed heists, stealing the wealth of corrupt businessmen. Her diverse team of women robbers also hustle an escort agency for rich clients, offering the option of making tax-deductible “donations” to the clinic. It’s a frothy page-turner that contains a topical subtext about wealth distribution, urban health services, and the ways disenfranchised women support one another. The patriarchal revenge allegory feels all the more satisfying for the book's tastier pleasures. I recognized parts of my life as a sex worker—such as the way women fight double standards of whorephobia with humor and care—that I never expected to find in a book that was also so much fun.Uptown Thief is about the power of sex worker solidarity, and it’s also a tool for the same thing. It’s not a book full of cheap thrills. Like its characters, it knows what it’s worth.Tina Horn: In advance of the release of Uptown Thief you wrote an essay for Bitch about feminist heists in popular culture. What inspired you to use genre fiction to explore those social and critical themes?Aya De León: The thing that many feminists get wrong about sex work is that they aren’t looking at the big picture. The problem isn’t sex workers or their clients. The problem is men’s financial domination of the world. Men have nearly all the resources and women need to find ways to access those resources. The only ways women can access them are to earn money as salaried or wage workers. A miniscule portion can inherit wealth, if their family has money and is willing to give it to a daughter. We can marry men who have money. Or we can exchange sexual services for money.Sexual labor for cash is stigmatized and criminalized. So part of the heist for me was starting with a group of women who are already criminalized. I wouldn’t say they had nothing to lose, but they haven’t had the luxury of operating inside the law. I could easily imagine them losing their patience of going the good girl route—begging foundations and submitting grant proposals—to just decide, “fuck it. We ‘bout to get this money.” Character-wise, it felt really true to me. Also having worked in many non-profits, there comes a time when you’re tired of begging for money to pay you to work too hard.One of the things about the heist genre is that it’s about individuals becoming wealthy. That was another thing that I wanted to interrupt and have a Robin Hood heist. So it wasn’t an individual or a group of people getting money, but about a group of people radically redistributing wealth to a community of women—so the heist becomes about getting justice. Hence the series name: Justice Hustlers. Money is moved from people who have acquired wealth by immoral and illegal means. So we see this group of women robbing wealthy corrupt men in New York City who have exploited other people. And it was also important for me that they not only use the money to support their own community in New York, but that they send some of the money to Mexico as direct reparations for the Mexican women they had exploited.Uptown Thief demonstrates a highly nuanced understanding of the emotional lives of sex workers in contemporary NYC. What were your resources in portraying a community that so many people get so wrong?Although I’m neither a current nor a former sex worker, there were sex workers in my family. They had different relationships to being out and proud about it. But what that meant is that, throughout my life when I would see depictions of sex work in media or meet sex workers, I never had the perspective that this is separate from me. So it sets up a really different filter for all the distortions I’ve seen about sex work over the years. I always had real people to compare it to. Plus I’ve had friends who were sex workers and spent many years working in the Harm Reduction community, and met lots of powerful sex worker activists.So when I went to write the book, I was aware of the movement for justice for sex workers and committed to honoring that community and movement. I wanted to do the work to get the sex worker politics right. And that meant consulting with sex worker activists. I couldn’t count on my family’s history in the sex industries from the 1960s to inform my sex worker characters in 2016. So I did my research. I read $pread magazine (RIP—but buy the book!), and researched online by reading the work of sex worker activists. I also had both paid and unpaid sex worker activists read my work and give me lots of critical feedback about what needed to be changed—from plotlines to prices to industry logistics—so it would ring true. I had a mostly West Coast network, but I got consultants from NYC as well. I was also very intentional about presenting a spectrum of attitudes toward sex work, from “this is a great job” to the brutality of trafficking and being pimped.Speaking of pimping…I think most non-sex workers who write about sex work are exploiting people’s fascination with sex work and women and sex without honoring the women who do the work. I was determined to do my homework and support the movement.Many literary institutions have, traditionally, such classist, sexist, racist notions of what constitutes high literature and what kinds of books are trash. How are perceptions of genre and pulp changing?I enthusiastically blame television. We are in a golden age of TV, where powerful complex and flawed women are increasingly taking center stage, with high-drama and pulpy shows that are also smart and politically nuanced. Before Scandal, Orange Is the New Black, and Empire, there wasn’t even a context to explain a book like Uptown Thief to an editor. Now they understand the brand. So there’s more room for this kind of story now that, through the magic of television, it’s proven that it can attract a large audience. And for me, this breaking down of class barriers in literature is also part of a strategy to dismantle classism.Often these kinds of thriller/romance/erotica/crime novels are treated more like products than literature. There's less critical focus on the author's craft and more of a commercial drive to crank 'em out as long as people are buying them. I'm thinking about my mom's endless mystery paperbacks checked out from the public library, or the much (probably unfairly) maligned "mommy porn" boom. Are there women besides yourself bringing depth to these genres (without sacrificing fun!) who people should know about?One writer I would shout-out here is Sofia Quintero, who also writes under the pen name Black Artemis. She's been in the game a long time, and always had an explicit political agenda.Uptown Thief has such a rich and dynamic ensemble of characters. Do you have any dream casting in mind for a movie adaptation?I would LOVE to see it hit the screen, although more likely the small screen as that's the place where complex female characters live these days. Andrea Navedo from Jane the Virgin would be great as Marisol. My current choice for Tyesha is Meagan Tandy. Maybe Song Hye-Kyo as Kim. Margot Robbie as Jody. Possibly Adam Rodriguez as Raul. Michael B. Jordan as Woof. Eva is really hard to cast because well-known Jewish actresses in her age group are all too thin...Sex workers struggle to tell their full stories, because when we include sometimes ugly truths of abusive backgrounds, cycles of violence, boyfriends who become pimps, the humiliations of stigma and so on, these dimension are instantly weaponized against us. Uptown Thief includes all of those violent elements and more, including classic john types like the billionaire who wants what’s “not on the menu,” and the rap star who’s so impressed with his own masculine myth that he gets drunk and passes out. Yet none of the negative things that have happened to these women are used as cautionary tales to redeem them or punish them. How careful were you about that? I was very careful to present a spectrum of relationships to sex work. And ultimately, how well sex work was going would be directly proportional to three things: The level of choice and agency the women had in entering the sex industries, the quality of the working conditions they encounter in the industries and the level of trauma they encounter before and during their work in the industries.Some stories offer characters a comeuppance for moral trespasses. But my value system sees men who exploit women as the ones who need to get the comeuppance, which is why I write heist.All of the protagonists are female, with male characters is supporting roles. Can you describe how you mapped out some of the male characters in terms of your political allegory?I wanted a spectrum of men, as well. Raul, the love interest, was originally too much of a boy scout, and my editor made me dirty him up a bit. So now he has a really shady moment that feels more authentic. On the other end are Jerry, a sociopathic misogynist pimp, and Marisol's uncle. It was also important to me that these were all Puerto Rican men. So if I showed Puerto Rican male monstrosity, I was also showing male heroism in the same community. There are several white male characters, and none of them are particularly heroic, but I do attempt to paint them as having redeeming moments. As someone who has written a lot about hip hop, I am particularly attached to my rapper character, Thug Woofer. Just a heads up, he appears in Book #2 of the series, The Boss, and we get to see his character develop a bit more. With both Raul and Thug Woofer, I am really interested in making men of color love interest characters who are more than yes-men to strong women of color. I try to strike a balance between letting them struggle in the ways men need to struggle when caught between their conditioning to always be in control and the joy of loving a strong woman. Part of the fun of writing these guys in the romance genre is knowing that their love for these strong women is gonna win.Marisol commits some acts of violence, some in self defense, some more on the premeditated side. And her relationship to sex is mercenary at times. How did you decide what kind of moral compass to give her?Marisol's character is forged by her need to protect her sister through a brutal childhood. She doesn't seek out violence, but will strike when cornered. Her original heist MO is not to use guns. In part because it's more of a legal risk but also because she doesn't want to hurt the burglary victims. She just wants to take their money. But as the economy pushes her closer to the edge, she gets more ruthless. Once she no longer needs to protect her little sister, she proceeds to use her powers to protect her community. She is a badass because she's the one who's willing to stand up to the schoolyard bully, in this case, these corrupt corporate CEOs and billionaires, and take back what's been stolen from her community.In bed, however, she's a bit less heroic. She has serious control issues in her sex life. In that arena, she's a bit of an unreliable narrator. Her PTSD is making her sexual choices in the earlier part of the book. And in that arena, Eva becomes her moral compass. In her sexual history, Marisol has been deeply wounded and disempowered. And I believe that when we are injured early on in life in ways that disempower us, we act that out until we heal. Marisol is acting it out here. I thought it was really important to give Marisol—a woman of color raised poor in the US—an arena in which she was able to identify a small instance of power and misuse it. It's funny because I don't see her thieving as dishonorable at all. I see it as noble. But I see some of her sexual choices as shady because of how she leverages power dynamics with immigrant men.You relish the finer details of business and financial theory. It’s not something you see in a pulp novel very often. Was this something you knew a lot about, or decided to research? Why are these details important?I am playing with the cliché of the "Puerto Rican hooker." What if she was really a financial genius? And how might that play out if she was pressured into sex work and later grew into the financial genius part? I liked the idea that early on, when she had a pimp, she would have ideas about how to improve the business, but he didn't respect her business potential. But later on, working in the non-profit sector, her hustling and business ideas could be put to work. I did have to do some research, because I don't have a strong business or economic background.A sex worker friend of mine was recently telling me how much cash, physical cash, turns her on. There are as many scenes of cash fetishism as actual sex in this book. What is so exciting about cash? As Bey says, is paper the best revenge for women of color?I think in this book, the cash that's fetishized is generally stolen, which makes it secret. Therefore, the moments where anyone is looking at that cash are really intimate. I went back and re-read the scene from the gala fundraiser where there's a bunch of cash. It doesn't have the same flavor, because there's no intimacy. They're just openly counting money at the end of an event.In capitalist imagery, cash is often featured alongside other luxury items like expensive cars, houses, yachts, alcohol, designer clothes, shoes, and jewelry. But in this book, the cash represents survival—for the characters and the clinic. So in that way it's different. This crew isn't going on a shopping spree. They're not interested in the lush life, they're down for their people. I think Marisol would say that her best revenge is the fact that gentrification can't move her from her home spot—the Lower East Side. Because as long as New York City continues to be an epicenter of capitalism, it will always attract people of color and need service workers. But very few of us can afford any of the real estate. Marisol has that one building and is fighting to keep it. It's her home, and the clinic makes it a home for the sex work community, as well. If she can get the cash, it can be home to another generation.
Growing up with the goddess figure as part of my South Asian tradition means I have a complicated relationship with repurposing the term as a symbol of female empowerment.
I grew up praying to the goddess daily. Every evening, around 7 PM, my father, a devout Hindu, would ring a tiny bell. It was the signal for the family prayer sing-a-long. Although I didn’t yet know I was an atheist, and disliked the daily drudgery of singing monotonous hymns in praise of the Hindu gods that decorated our home altar, it was an escape from the even more mundane math and writing exercises that my father assigned every evening.Of the two main prayers that we sang, Om Jai Jagdish Hare and Jai Ambe Gauri, I was definitely drawn towards the latter. The first one was in praise of the Lord of the Universe, Vishnu. The second was in praise of the goddess Gauri, another name for Durga.I was enthralled by the idea of singing the praise of a female deity. I didn’t understand all of the Hindi dialect used in the hymn, but I got the gist of the verses.The song speaks of a goddess with bright eyes and a golden-hued body decked out in red who wears earrings and a pearl nose-ring, and is radiant like many suns and moons. She rides a lion, holds a sword and skull in her hands, and is called upon by men and gods to get rid of their grief. Shiva, the lord of destruction himself, dances to her tune.The image of Durga, trident in hand, astride a lion, smiling serenely while killing the demon Mahishasur is commonly found in many Hindu households, as well as places of work and worship. It’s used to represent strength and capacities of a woman. Kali, also known as the Dark Mother, sprung from Durga’s brow is a little less ubiquitous but popular with feminists. She is depicted as dark-skinned, her tongue sticking out, long black hair loose, scimitar in one hand, a decapitated head in another, one foot on the chest of Shiva. Her iconic imagery is often used as shorthand by South Asians to suggest an awesome, in the true sense of the word, female power.To a young woman growing up in a relatively conservative household, chafing under the constant don’ts that accompany being a teenager, the hymn to Gauri sounded radical. Anytime I, or other women I knew, flew into a rage, it was said, somewhat jokingly, Usse Devi chad gayi hai/The Goddess has possessed her. The myths of goddesses such as Durga, and Kali, told stories of fierce women whose help is sought when men, and even the male gods, couldn’t do the job. I held on to those stories, full of vivid descriptions of impetuous and headstrong women, which seemed to mirror my own mini rebellions against what I had generally labelled the patriarchy.*A similar thought process was behind the Goddess movement that became popular in North America, parts of Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s, and continues today in many manifestations, sharing rituals with neo-pagan traditions such as Wicca. The Goddess movement grew as a reaction to a patriarchal worldview, centring its practice instead on goddess worship. There’s no central belief system, and followers usually find their own preferred goddess and rituals to practice.Carol Christ came to the Goddess movement after spending much of her academic life studying the Hebrew Bible. Even while she was attending graduate school in theology at Yale in the late ‘60s, she was uncomfortable about how she was treated—as a young pretty thing in a mini-skirt, she says. Reading theologians such as Thomas Aquinas didn’t help either.“That whole man had a larger rational capacity, that a woman was of the body, it didn’t sit well with me,” says Christ, over the phone from Lesbos, Greece. An adjunct professor at the California Institute for Integral Studies, she’s also the director of Ariadne Institute, which offers annual goddess pilgrimages to Crete. “I was preparing my dissertation for my PhD and one night, it was late at night, I laid down and it just poured out of me. In my mind I was thinking, God, how could you? Why are women always secondary, why do we get raped and abused? Why didn’t you send us a prophet? Why didn’t you intervene?The goddess is, ultimately, an unattainable paradigm. She’s a source of strength, yes. But steeped in symbolism, she is revered as a myth, not sought out in reality. “And in my mind, I had the answer. That in God there is a woman like yourself. She shares your suffering. That history had been stolen from her.”Christ’s involvement in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements also took her further away from the idea of God as an old white man in the sky, sitting on a throne, a warring figure who ruled over men, women and nature. Neither was she impressed by Hindu or Greek Goddesses, who were also warrior figures, “sword in hand, fighting against demons.” Instead, Christ gravitated towards the idea of the goddess as a nurturing figure, giving and sustaining life.The proponents of the Goddess movement borrow from the work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, famous for her research of prehistoric societies of Old Europe. In her book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, Cynthia Eller, professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University, looks at the relationship between Gimbutas’s work and the spiritual feminist movement. Gimbutas directed several excavations in southeastern Europe, writes Eller: “Among the artifacts that these and other excavations uncovered were a wealth of female figurines which Gimbutas identified as goddesses.” Gimbutas’s theories are referenced by feminist matriarchalists as scientific proof that “prehistoric societies were woman-centred and goddess-worshipping, and destroyed only recently.” The many reinterpretations of this narrative also inform the writings of secular feminists such as Gloria Steinem, who have also made note of a “gynocratic age” that was eradicated by patriarchy.A similar resistance to patriarchy also drew Vivek Shraya, author of She of the Mountains, to the goddess figures in the Hindu tradition. Shraya, a trans woman, was raised as a boy in a Hindu household in Edmonton. She was first drawn to male Hindu deities such as Krishna, with his long hair and many female friends, because of their gender ambiguity.Over her career as an author and singer, Shraya has consistently tackled ideas around Hinduism. However, it wasn’t until writing She of the Mountains, which was conceptualized as a bisexual love story, that Shraya really engaged with goddess figures.“I wrote a section called Parvati’s Song. For some reason, that image came to my mind, of Parvati creating her son Ganesh from her own body....I started exploring it more, and then I started thinking of all these stories I had heard of goddesses as secondary characters. And I wondered if we can write about the goddess through a feminist lens; not as a mother or a consort. Can we write about Kali on her own?”Using the goddess figure to challenge societal norms is certainly an attractive idea. But it has its limitations. I have to admit, having grown up with the goddess figure as part of my South Asian tradition, I inwardly roll my eyes most times I hear casual references to goddesses as manifestations of female power in pop culture. The goddess is a powerful force in the Hindu tradition, but she is also seen as a maternal and sexual figure. She is Uma, the mother of Ganesha, wife of Shiva. She is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, but more importantly, the consort of Vishnu. She is also Mohini, a female avatar of Vishnu, an enchantress who tricks the demons out of the nectar of immortality.She is, ultimately, an unattainable paradigm. She’s a source of strength, yes. But steeped in symbolism, she is revered as a myth, not sought out in reality.In her critique, Cynthia Eller points out that claims to a matriarchal prehistory, suggesting that ancient, peace-loving cultures that worshipped the goddess until they were wiped out by warring, god worshipping invaders, do not serve a feminist agenda. Even if one overlooked the historical inaccuracies around the research used as the basis for these interpretations, and acknowledged that myths have their own powers, this version of the matriarchal prehistorical societies primarily saw the role of women as maternal, nurturing caregivers, celebrated for their feminine qualities. Eller further notes that “the conditions that we can reasonably imagine having existed in prehistory—foraging economies and goddess worship—do not necessarily produce societies in which women are honored and respected.”That observation certainly hits home for me, as someone who has grown up in a culture that venerates the goddess. You’d think it would be easy to view the world through a feminist lens, given the many temples dedicated to Durga, Kali and Bhadrakali (another fierce manifestation of the Shakti, the female divine energy in Hinduism) that dot the Indian landscape, with devotees performing daily prayers that herald their divine powers to wipe out evil forces.And yet, as Tracy Pintchman, professor in the department of theology at the Loyola University of Chicago, and author of The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition says, “Nobody names their daughter Bhadrakali … Even in [the Indian province West] Bengal, a primarily goddess worshipping society, women are not necessarily seen as being in charge.” While Indian feminists regularly make the point that women don’t want to be deified, and instead would like equal rights, in reality women are seen as distinct from goddesses, adds Pintchman. “[Goddesses] don’t menstruate, they are seen as childless. Human women cannot be real goddesses.”But I can also understand how Shraya sees reclaiming the goddess fits into her own feminist and brown agenda. She recently emailed me a New York Times photo essay on Mayana Kollai, an annual Indian festival in a fishing village in South India, where transgender women transform into the goddess for 10 days.“I was so immersed in the patriarchal narratives of Hinduism, that it felt important to undo some of that for my own self. It feels very basic, but also very important,” she says. “Maybe it’s naive. Despite its problematics, people celebrating their inner goddess feels infinitely better than the opposite. At least we are not keeling over god. Because that’s what the goddess has given me. In rethinking the goddess, I have been able to rethink myself.”As for me, I still sing the hymn to Gauri, whenever I get a chance. Recently, when my daughter Mallika discovered an image of Kali in my father’s altar and asked who she was, I told her the story of the fearsome goddess and her awesome power. My son Dax, too young to understand a story about warring demons and gods, wandered off. I am sure I will recount the stories of Lakshmi, Durga and Kali regularly to my kids for years to come, as we celebrate Indian festivals such as Diwali and Dussehra/Durga Puja that propitiate these goddesses.But I’ll also tell them about other women who are symbols of power in their own realms—Beyoncé, Serena Williams, Frida Kahlo, Malala Yousafzai and Indian activists such as Vrinda Grover, Nivedita Menon and Flavia Agnes. I hope the stories of these mortal women will be just as inspiring as the immortal ones.
As artists are pushed out by skyrocketing rent, the city’s drag culture is threatened.
In fall of 2014, Heklina, a drag performer and owner of the San Francisco club Oasis, visited Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Joined by local queens and politicians, Heklina sought to challenge the social-media giant’s “real-name” policy, which determined account authenticity based on the use of legal, rather than chosen, names.“One of the head cheeses of Facebook was on a video screen talking to us, and we had a tour around the campus,” Heklina says. “There was lots of talk about, ‘We’re going to change this,’ and then it didn’t change.” Soon after, she and the other queens found themselves lobbying against the policy at San Francisco City Hall. Facebook finally relented, issuing an apology to the frustrated LGBTQ community.This battle over recognition was hardly an isolated incident. Rather, it’s an emblem of the complex dynamic between the historic San Francisco drag scene and the behemoth tech industry that’s gripped the city's socioeconomic landscape.*In the early to mid-nineties, San Francisco was the centerpiece of the alternative Zeitgeist. Armistead Maupin’s novel series Tales of the City—fueled by tropes of pot, sexual fluidity, and faded hippyism—had been adapted into a television miniseries in the UK and US. The Real World: San Francisco, the third series of MTV’s reality-show franchise, presented the first televised same-sex wedding (between cast member Pedro Zamora and his partner, Sean Sasser), while chronicling Zamora’s battle with AIDS. Beloved for its identity as a queer- and sex-positive artistic breeding ground a generation before, the birthplace of performance-art collectives such as the Cockettes and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence was in the midst of a pop-cultural renaissance.“When I was growing up, I wanted to know about gay culture,” says Heklina. “I read Tales of the City and all that stuff. I was very aware of the huge gay history of [San Francisco]. That’s why I moved here.” Originally from Minneapolis, Heklina found an apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in 1991 for $500 a month. Drag started as a hobby, and she worked side jobs to fund her performances. A few years later, Joshua Grannell, then a recent Penn State graduate, moved to the city at the urging of John Waters, whom Grannell had met while hosting a film event.“I had no money, a one-way plane ticket, no job, no place to live,” says Grannell. Shortly after, he began to perform as Peaches Christ in Heklina’s inchoate weekly drag show Trannyshack (which, with the more trans-sensitive moniker Mother, has persisted into the present day). Risk-taking was orthodoxy for Trannyshack in its mid-nineties infancy; then, San Francisco drag was a fringe phenomenon. In one show, the performer RunRig suffered third-degree burns after cooking Jiffy-Pop on a hotplate affixed to his head; in another, Metal Patricia channelled the Reverend Jim Jones, re-enacting the 1978 Jonestown Massacre with a mass-suicide simulation at gunpoint on stage.By the mid-to-late aughts, however, such stunts would become nearly foreign. A wave of burgeoning tech behemoths washed over the city, the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, and Uber at its crest. In the wake of this pall of technocratic nouveau-riche prestige, the city's rents began an unprecedented climb. Soon, the modest but sustainable life to which Heklina, Peaches Christ, and their contemporaries had grown accustomed would become nearly obsolete.*Throughout 2015 and 2016, media outlets have ranked San Francisco the city with the highest rent in the nation—a title owed primarily to the influx of the aforementioned multi-billion-dollar tech darlings and the venture-capital firms and enterprising engineers seeking to birth the next unicorn.In the wake of these conditions, the drag community has been unsurprisingly vulnerable to displacement. “I’ve lost a lot of people to Los Angeles. I’ve even lost friends to Sacramento. One had to move back to Chicago to live with his parents. A lot of friends lost their living situation and couldn’t find anywhere. One of them answered a Craigslist ad, and the room was actually a kitchen pantry,” Heklina says. “A lot of it is about the white-blending of San Francisco. A lot of people of color have had to move away.”“Most of us that have remained—not just drag queens, but I’d say any bohemian creative type—probably have a rent-controlled apartment, because otherwise it’s just unsustainable. Thank God for rent control. Thank God those supervisors had the vision to realize that this was something that could happen,” Grannell says.Despite the tenuous housing situation, the precedents performers like Heklina and Peaches Christ have set have encouraged a new generation of queens to move in or near the city. At clubs such as Oasis and The Edge and historic theaters such as The Castro and The Victoria, younger performers foster their nascent careers—but not without the fortunes of a steady living arrangement and income. A considerable portion are Bay-Area or Pacific Northwest natives.Lavale-William Davis, who moonlights as Coco Buttah, hails from the small Bay-Area town of Pittsburg and now lives with roommates in the neighboring city of Oakland (whose rents have also soared with the migration of priced-out San Francisco denizens). To fund his three-year-old drag career, Davis works full-time in a medical office and forgoes the expense of a car in favor of public transit.Laundra Tyme and Scarlet Letters, two queens in their mid-twenties, began performing around the same time as Davis. Originally from the Bay-Area city of San Mateo, Tyme owns a wig business and evaluates companies annually for Fortune, while Letters, from Portland, works as a server and coat checker at Oasis. Tyme and Letters live with fellow queens in a rent-controlled apartment in the Sunset district. “I happen to have been struck by lightning,” Tyme says of securing the place. “If we got a notice from our landlord saying, ‘You have to move out in a month,’ there would be zero chance of staying in the city.”“Most of our friends leave the city because they can’t afford it. Every month, so-and-so moves away,” Letters, who’s from Portland, adds. “This is a conversation Laundra and I sat down to have. Do we stay here for the next five years and watch the city gentrify to the point where all of our friends move away? We agreed we’ll do the long-haul thing.”Adam Lash, who’s been performing as Terri Twatwaffle for a year and a half, has lived in San Francisco for four years. Lash, who started performing “later in life,” has an advantage few nascent queens enjoy: he owned a real-estate information company in Oregon prior to his move (which he now operates on a part-time basis), providing him with the funds to live and work in San Francisco.“Performing absolutely does not pay the bills. Most of us make enough money to pay for our eyelashes, and that’s about it,” Lash says. “Some of us are riding the Muni trains in drag from one venue to the next.”*San Francisco drag is venerated for its transgressive history. At one time, it was a realm in which performers ate worms, vomited fake blood, wore dresses made of seaweed and dead fish, and set Christmas trees ablaze. Now, as RuPaul’s Drag Race sparks interest among the uninitiated and the city ushers Twitter employees into the seats, many performers enjoy the surge in popularity but bemoan that audiences have grown more tepid and less aware of the city’s storied social fabric. Queens have no choice but to compromise.“There are a lot of different drag scenes depending on what neighborhood you’re in. [Scarlet and I] try to do all of them—between the SoMa’s art drag versus the Castro’s glamour drag versus a corporate event,” Tyme says. “In the divey leather bars in SoMa, they let us do whatever we want onstage and we won’t get pulled off or arrested. If I tried to do the same thing in the Castro, they would pull me offstage and kick me out of the bar.”To accommodate greener audiences, performers also neuter their pre-existing repertoires. “I take things that are popular and put the irreverent, outrageous spin on them. It’s kind of like luring a child in with a piece of candy or something,” Grannell says. “We’re going to put on a drag tribute to the Spice Girls, but this isn’t the drag tribute where a man dresses up as Liza Minnelli and does a flawless cabaret number. This is going to be the Peaches Christ treatment, where Baby Spice wears a diaper and shits in her pants.”Despite the pressure to self-censor, performers are still willing to protest the cultural shifts and economic disparity around them. Queens hold onstage funerals for the old San Francisco or destroy cities made of cardboard, lampooning tech-propelled gentrification. Tyme and Letters play Summer-of-Love-era folk singers, representing a previous incarnation of the city while suggesting a pall of disillusionment with an inexorable 2010s economy. The queen Persia’s songs “Google Google Apps Apps” and “Stop Being Poor” satirize the local powers that disenfranchise and drive out queer people of color, echoing chants like “I just want to be white!” and “My wealth is stupendous. You starve? What a bore.” Evoking the anti-industrial critiques of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, Lash laments the dreariness of the monolithic gray office buildings and work-centric culture that have come to define the New San Francisco. “Who’s going to entertain me when I’m old? What’s San Francisco going to be like in ten, twenty years?” asks Grannell. “I worry about it, but amazingly enough, where there’s a will, there’s a way.”“I see these people in these compartmentalized lives. [One of my goals] is to break them out of that just a little bit. Break out of that and be yourself for a second because what you’re doing in your job—being a robotic, monochromatic zombie—is you’re killing yourself,” says Lash. “Honestly, I feel bad for them. It’s such a bland and sad existence. I’m around them all the time.”Perhaps Lash's sentiment is best expressed in a scene from one of Terri's Oasis performances. Equipped with a computer and keyboard while donning a blouse, pencil skirt, and pearl necklace reminiscent of a '60s secretary, Terri channels a local white-collar employee. She examines her rapidly mounting email inbox, Bjork's robotic “Pluto” swelling in the background. As the tally reaches hyperbolic heights, Terri takes a hammer to her keyboard in a fit of rage. She wraps a coil of entwined computer cords around her neck, displaying a sign reading “8 BILLION New Messages.” Seconds after pulling the cords from above, she bows her head, standing inert as the song reaches its decayed conclusion.
I’d been walking around in a literal haze, but deep down I thought buying contacts might be the faint victory I’d been seeking.
What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.If you’ve ever been inside a Lenscrafters, you know that it smells like a heady combination of toxic perfume and cosmic vacuum. The mirrors are shiny, the floors are shiny, the optometrist’s hairs are shiny, all working in concert to form a gossamer commercial enterprise promising you a life in high-definition.Two weeks ago, I walked into one for the first time. For the last ten years, I’d worn glasses intermittently—I wasn’t legally allowed to get behind the wheel of a car without a pair. But I hated how they looked on my face, so much that I chose instead to wander through the world in a blur. This has lead to some awkward encounters: walking by my longtime boyfriend on the street, ignoring a group of friends as they gathered in a bar to celebrate my birthday, taking a wrong turn on a hiking trail that led me four hours out of my way.That day at the optometrist, I thought for the first time about the extreme sensitivity of my eyeballs when I was blasted in the right eye with a puff of air from a machine resembling an early ‘90s Mac computer, by an equally shiny-haired optometrist’s assistant. “Keep your eye open as wide as possible, please,” she repeated over and over. It took a few tries. How did people do this? I wondered, as my eyelid fluttered spastically. Later, I sat on a shiny stool, balancing a tiny half moon made of plastic on the tip of my index finger. I looked at it, a pool of solution collecting in the bottom like a puddle. Life was about to begin anew.I don’t know if you’ve ever worn contacts but learning how is a laughably infantilizing experience. It took me an hour to slide those little suckers in. Struggling under the blazing white light, every clogged pore illuminated, I looked plaintively at the assistant, who sat on a stool opposite me and popped contacts in and out with nails so long they should have been illegal. Once I’d finally managed to clumsily put them in came the Herculean task of pushing them to one side and peeling them out, a concept my fingertips could not grasp. “One guy took six hours,” she told me as I grabbed my right eyelid for the seventeenth time. I did not believe her, and I still don’t.“I just can’t get a good grip on them,” I said, confused until I finally cheated and pinched one with my nails, threatening my cornea but getting my contact the fuck out of its liquid prison. Still, that day in December, I walked out of the Lenscrafters wearing my contacts feeling like a new woman. The world glowed brighter than it ever had. “I can see the outlines!” I wanted to scream at everyone on the streetcar. My eyes were open wider than they’d ever been, I knew it.*It had been a long couple of years of not knowing where to look. I’d moved back to Toronto, something I’d sworn to myself I’d never do, to take a job I'd wanted for years. In this city, my addiction, which burns softly under the surface most of the time, turns to full-on flame. So when the opportunity arose to move into a little apartment on an island a quick ferry ride away from Toronto, I said yes.I thought of it like I was quitting the city, an attempt to keep myself out of bars, keep myself in the trees. The last nightly ferry, which left at 11:30 p.m., provided a useful curfew. I’d always been attracted to unorthodox ways of life: I’d lived in a van in Yellowknife for a little while; I’d spent a few months camping alone in Patagonia. But I knew toying with isolation for too long could do more harm than good, so the island seemed perfect in that close-enough-but-far-away kind of way.My little apartment, the top floor of a house on a tree-lined street that looked like it had sprung from a Wes Anderson film, was on Algonquin Island, population 229. It’s one of a string of islands in the middle of Lake Ontario, an unlikely refuge that’s eschewed development through an extremely complicated land-lease system that protects the residents, descendants of a tent city that sprung up on Ward’s, another island, in the 1880s and that eventually morphed into the cottage-like creations that exist there today. On the island, whimsy is king. Orange doors look more orange, and the adventures of a cat named Six Toes dominates the not-infrequent email chain most residents belong to. Residents aren't allowed to keep cars—if you need to bring one over, it costs more than a hundred dollars, it has to happen during weekly business hours, and it has to be a licensed business vehicle, so I moved with only what my mom and I could carry over on the boat one day. And there are no stores—the only places to buy food in the fall, winter, and spring, are the Island Cafe, open intermittently once the summer tourism mania quiets, and the Rectory Cafe, a restaurant just over the bridge from my home that closed most days at 5 p.m. My workout regime adapted to include my daily sprint to the ferry and lugging my groceries on foot then on boat as I made my winding way home.For a while, it really did feel like little birds dressed me in the morning and carried me down the sunny garden path to the boat I took into the mainland every day, a breezy ten minutes on the Oniagara. I’d run my fingers along the keys of the piano in the little hut by the dock, and wave to the sailor who’d sweetly helped me carry all of my possessions over by boat one Saturday afternoon. On weekends, I padded along the sandy beach on Ward’s Island, or sat reading on the bench carved from a tree behind the Algonquin Island Association clubhouse. Just before last Christmas, I sang carols in a packed chapel. I thought to myself that I hadn’t felt connected to God in a long time, but that warmth in that church felt like something I could believe in. If it sounds perfect, that’s because for a while it was, a trick I played on myself to think I could slug it out in a city I’d left brokenhearted so many times before. But perfection is a fleeting abstraction. I couldn’t help but think, a few months later, as I walked down the icy path to the boat that by then was coated with treachery, that all I wanted to do was live in a place where I could order a pizza.*My year was filled with micro-failures. I blew every deadline I set for myself, and most that were set for me. I neglected my credit-card bill for nearly half a year. Interest piled up, and so did my dirty dishes. I stopped talking to my mother for several months, for no better reason than I couldn’t muster up the energy to weather the emotional strain that seemed to come with every conversation. I stopped being on time; I stopped making it. I felt like I’d run out of everything: money, chances, luck. My depression manifested in decreasingly cute ways as the year progressed. In January, I bought myself a waffle iron and ate waffles for dinner in the bathtub nearly every night. After three years of sobriety, I started drinking again. Drinking turned into dabbling with drugs. (Pro tip: A great second-date idea is doing ‘shrooms for the first time and crying on your prospective lover in front of a group of bikini’d beer-crushing teens—casting call for this Labatt ad from hell coming soon.) The job I moved for was slipping away and, with it, my sense of self and purpose. The feeling of falling behind grew more acute in the summertime when I turned 31 and my youngest sister got married. The autumn brought with it my middle sister’s engagement news. By late fall, I realized I had to quit my job, that I had come untethered. I wasn't keeping up with work or with life, and my health was shouldering the burden of stress. I needed some help and some time, I thought, as I handed in my resignation letter and broke up with my dream. I just needed to find a way to ask for it, to explain that I’d ended up hating everything I was supposed to love and I didn’t know how to adjust. I moved back to the mainland. After my boyfriend suggested multiple times that I go to the eye doctor so at least I’d be able to see what my life looked like as I tried to figure it out, I finally acquiesced. We joked about how long I’d been walking around in a literal haze, but deep down I thought this might be the faint victory I’d been seeking. Who says you can’t buy clarity?*My right eye was too sore to touch—I looked like I’d been stamped in the face with a red bingo marker and, by then, my eyeball had started to ooze. I sat in the corner of the emergency room at Toronto Western Hospital, in a row of green chairs that I assumed they reserved for kids who’d swallowed their Lego blocks to make a point, and me.The night had descended so quickly into catastrophe. When I’d walked home from the optometrist earlier I was proud and tall, feeling like even my posture had somehow improved since I’d placed tiny plastic lenses over my eyeballs. I was amazed—the world had literally never looked so good and I was sure this was the first step in the excellent new high-definition life that had begun the moment I slid on those imperceptible little eye coats. But no one told me that putting in contacts for the first time on three hours of sleep was inadvisable, until I called Telehealth after I’d spent two hours trying to peel off my right eyeball. I stood in front of my mirror, eyelids certain that my impending fingertip meant death and destruction and freaking out accordingly. And so it went, for hours, my body parts at war with one another.Finally, after a series of frantic texts to my best friend (who responded with the genius medical advice to “remember if they ask what number the pain is to say TEN, ALWAYS TEN”), I decided to go to the hospital. Four hours of contact retrieval had beaten me. I was quitting, and this time, resignation felt good.I arrived at Toronto Western and explained my plight. The intake nurse immediately went into mother-hen mode. The wait would be several hours, she said. Couldn’t I just do it myself? I looked wearily at her, and she grew quiet, kind enough to spare me the indignity of repeating that I’d rather wait long into the night to have someone else perform a simple action that ten million Canadians could do on their own.Half an hour later, I was lying on a gurney, a doctor with a smile too big for an emergency room after midnight standing over me, squirting mystery juice into my eye from a squishy green bottle. All in, the procedure took three seconds, one one-thousandth of the time I’d sat, miserable, in the waiting room. And as I walked out, putting the year to bed, I felt relief of a different kind. I had quit everything this year, all things I should have loved but didn’t. But that’s what beginnings are for, right?I know now that people get tired, that asking for help can feel good. That a little bit of water always feels better. That eyeballs heal pretty quickly, and so can your own expectations. I am more sure of this now than I’ve ever been.
Practicing self-care by telling white people about themselves, calling in Black to life, delighting in Black art? That was Black as shit.
What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small. “If you don’t understand us and understand what we’ve been through, then you probably don’t understand what this moment is about.”– Master P, “This Moment” (from A Seat At the Table)I spend a lot of time thinking (and writing) about the ways in which we, Black people, have been fucked up and fucked over in this great United States of America, so much so that I’m actually haunted by a lot of my work. Most of my nights are filled with dark, unidentifiable figures lurking in the shadows. Days, waking nightmares of my brothers and father getting shot. I woke up in tears once because I dreamt some white dude was trying to kill me in a movie theater.Hazards of the job, I guess.In 2016, Black Lives Matter and Black Twitter continued to prove they have the power to move mountains. Solange invited us to sing along with her and tell white people not to touch our hair. Issa Rae helped us get over our insecurities, and Donald Glover let us be absurd in Atlanta. Barry Jenkins illuminated our Black skin in the moonlight. There’s a huge Kerry James Marshall retrospective on display at The Met. I got box braids for the first time since I was eight. I was really looking forward to stepping into the light and writing about the year in peak Blackness.And then election day came: Trump won, and all of a sudden I wasn’t sure how to write proudly about Blackness while living in a claimed white supremacy. I knew that Trump’s victory happened because scores of Americans buy into the idea that their path to liberation lies in whiteness. I knew those people wanted us to be sorry for having recently been, by their estimation, so very Black.That knowing really got me down—to the point where the only good thing white people could do on November 9 was leave me alone. I spent the day listening to Solange, writing long Facebook posts (“Dear white friends and fam…”) and using capital letters (“STAY AWAY FROM ME!”), making fun of white liberals more invested in their Marxism than my safety. The email I sent to cancel the interview I was supposed to conduct basically amounted to, ”Sorry, I got the nigga flu.”Despite not being a big drinker, I spent two virtual hours getting drunk in the middle of that day with my girlfriend Terri, one of the smartest people I know. Blackademic bae, she calls herself. It’s a fitting title.“I’m in this pantsuit, but I’m a fucking snake!”we laughed over FaceTime. After a little whiskey, mocking the fifty-three percent of white women voters who actively chose to put a known pussy-grabber in office made us feel a little better. Simply spending time with Terri was like salve to a generations-deep wound. We were having a conversation I couldn’t have with my white girlfriends, many of whom are lovely but, at this point, grandfather-claused into my life. They were sad, too, they said. Some were texting me, wanting to know just how this could happen. How could any woman vote for him?They clearly didn’t know their own history. Terri and I did.“Why you think we this color?” she asked. It was a rhetorical question. Terri and her people can’t point to a single white person in their family line, but they’ve got brighter skin than me, the mixed one. Light enough to maybe even pass. “Because on big house plantations, white women consistently turned a blind eye to the bad behavior of their no good, piece of shit, abusive men.” Plantation mistresses knew about all the rape slave women endured at the hands of their husbands, they just chose not to do anything about it. “They basically handed us over, choosing whiteness instead of human decency. And then, yesterday, they went into those voting booths, and did the same damn thing. They decided they hate people of color more than they love their woman-selves.” I couldn’t disagree.We weren’t surprised, just pissed off, and tired of being hurt. One of the most painful things about being despised in this country is being told you’re nobody, and the prevailing message on November 9 was “You ain’t shit.”Later, I thought about asking my editor if I could refocus the essay; I toyed with writing “The Year in White Tears” so I wouldn’t have to pretend to be proud when I felt so defeated and just wanted to, literarily, rage. But then it hit me: Practicing self-care by telling white people about themselves, calling in Black to life, delighting in Black art? That was Black as shit.*“All my niggas in the whole wide worldMade this song to make it all y'all's turnFor us, this shit is for us.”– Solange, “F.U.B.U.” (from A Seat At The Table)In the beginning of this year, before her sister Solange blessed us with A Seat At The Table, Beyoncé released “Formation,” and then performed the song live during the Super Bowl halftime show in Black Panther costuming. Racial tension in the States had already reached fever pitch, and although Bey doesn’t typically display real interest in Nina Simone-ing her platform, she has always been Black. “Formation” was her I may be an international superstar but let me remind y’all who I am song. The lyrics themselves are pretty mild, as politically charged music goes. She likes her baby hair with baby hair and afros, prefers her negro nose have Jackson 5 nostrils, but the music video? All Black dancers. Graffiti that reads “Stop killing us.” A little boy dancing in a hoodie before a line of cops in riot gear. It definitely sends a message, but that message isn’t new. The woman’s name rhymes with fiancé, for god’s sake. Her husband is Jay-Z.Still, Beyoncé publicly asserting her identity threatened the Beckys, who added #BoycottBeyoncé to their #AllLivesMatter tweets, apparently forgetting that they had already helped launch her fame far beyond the reach of their grubby, un-lotioned hands. The boycott tweets were pugnacious to a level of several hundred percent over the appropriate degree of response—you boycott buses because of Jim Crow, not Beyoncé for being Black—but clear indicators of how fragile whiteness is. Police in several cities refused to work security for her concerts.I myself was working for an online women’s site when “Formation” dropped, and would sit at my desk, blogging vigorously about Black death and Black Girl Magic, while listening to the song on repeat.“You listened to it seventeen times in a row,” my coworkers told me one day.“Oh,” I said, smiling. I had just spent a solid two hours trying to get Beyoncé tickets instead of writing.When I left that job to become an editor elsewhere, I was miffed to find that we mostly published stories accompanied by images of white women. I complained to my white boss about it immediately.“Here are some stock photo companies that feature people of color,” I wrote the editor-in-chief. She told me those companies “sucked.” I should have quit right then and there, but stuck it out in the interest of making real change from the inside. Rocking natural hair and Timbs, I focused on commissioning work from Black and brown women writers. When a white freelancer wanted to interview the only Black cast member from that cycle of The Bachelor about her experience of being, well, the only Black cast member, I sent an email to my superiors explaining why I wouldn’t publish that kind of work. I was getting in formation, but they didn’t get it. I started freelancing full-time soon after that.Earlier this year another nigga, Colin Kaepernick, publicly asserted his Blackness by way of the football field. If you’ve ever been to a sports game in this country, you know the singing of the national anthem is a part of all the pregame pomp and circumstance. Beginning in preseason, then continuing into full-fledged regular season, Kaepernick knelt every time the national anthem was played. He was supposed to stand and salute to show his solidarity and support for America, but didn’t, because he said the song didn’t inspire him to be patriotic. And why should it? It was written by some white guy back when it was cool for people to own us and the lyrics—whether or not they support that institution; arguments have been made on both sides—identify us as slaves.By kneeling, Kaepernick said, Look. I’m Black, and America don’t love me, so fuck this song. (What he actually said was, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.”) Today is December 23 and Kaepernick’s yet to stand for the anthem once this entire football season.His protest has inspired all of the expected conservative condemnation. But it also reignited a tired conversation about how we define Blackness and who, exactly, should claim it. “Kaepernick” lacks the plantation ring of a surname like “Johnson” or my own family’s “King,” but the biracial ball player was adopted. Still, there are plenty of people who have disregarded how he self-identifies. They see right past his African ancestry—recent enough to nap his hair and brown his skin—and look to the white couple who raised him as if to say, Didn’t you take his Black Card away? (In the next breath, he’s a nigger who should go back where he came from.)Clay Travis, a white sports journalist from the lovely state of Tennessee, tried to discredit both Kaepernick’s protest and his Blackness on the grounds that he was raised by two white parents after his own birth parents weren’t willing or able to raise him themselves. (Funnily enough, Tennessee was the first state in the nation to write the one-drop rule into law, in 1910.) But Kaepernick hasn’t let the likes of Clay Travis get to him. Now, he rocks cornrows and afros. He started a Black Panther-inspired youth camp in October.*To hear Donald Trump tell it, Blackness is defined by poverty, poor schools, no jobs, and a 58 percent youth unemployment rate.But Donald Trump can, metaphorically speaking, kiss my whole Black ass, because he’s wrong. Blackness isn’t defined by stereotypes or statistics (and our youth unemployment rate has been in the twenties for at least a year). It’s defined by the rich, shared worlds we’ve built for ourselves out of necessity. Back in the day these worlds were architected by early generations of enslaved people who, after being stolen from their homes and stripped of their identities, kept themselves alive by building new homes and crafting new identities. I wish I could tell you how they did it, but I don’t know myself. Donnell Alexander, dude who wrote that ubiquitous Might essay “Are Black People Cooler Than White People” in 1997, has identified the alchemy America’s first Black people practiced as the birth of cool—”when the first plantation nigga figured out how to make animal innards—massa's garbage, hog maws and chitlins—taste good enough to eat.” The whole point of Alexander’s essay is that Blackness begets cool because only constant oppression could give rise to such a phenomenon. Today, that same Black cool, our common ability to make something out of nothing, is codified in Black girl magic and Arthur memes. It’s all the same shit.Yesterday, I sent a text to my little brother asking what Blackness means to him.“Cool AF,” he replied.I was proud of the little nigga for giving such a Black-ass answer. 2016 must have had an effect on him, too.
The spread of plagues is the beta version of “Congratulations, you played yourself.”
What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.There is a warning frequently issued to writers to “avoid clichés like the plague.” The joke being, of course, that the warning itself contains a famous cliché. Until 2016, I largely ignored this advice in my own work because I find clichés useful, universal, and more artful than they are given credit for. Until this year, it was the cliché part of the warning that bothered me. Now, it is the plagues part that does.To “avoid like the plague” is meant to convey the intensity with which you ignore something because it is so detestable, but it fails to convey that it is the avoidance of plague itself that causes ordinary, containable illnesses to reach plague-like proportions. The spread of plagues is the beta version of “Congratulations, you played yourself.” Sicknesses don’t become plagues unless people avoid them, ignore them, and try to outrun them instead of stop them. To avoid something like the plague is to almost guarantee that it will show up on your doorstep, often more vicious and viral than when you last saw it. In 2016, our years of avoidance and denial of certain pests meant they came back to our doorsteps as outright pestilence.*Categorizing 2016 as a plague year might, at first, seem ill advised. The resurgence of Ebola subsided over the last twelve months. HIV and AIDS related deaths are down. The Great Disneyland Measles Outbreak of 2015, which spread as rapidly as it did due to low vaccination rates, did not recur in 2016. But, as of October, there were fifty reported cases of acute flaccid myelitis, a polio-like illness that causes paralysis, in twenty-four US states according to the Centers for Disease Control. Over ninety percent of the diagnoses were in children. The dispersal of the outbreak suggests it could be that patients are all spontaneously experiencing the same complication of several different viruses. It could also be because kids are insufficiently vaccinated. It could also be due to hygiene. We simply don’t know. A CDC spokesperson noted that cases are still rare, with fewer than one in a million contracting the illness.Over a July weekend this year, there was record heat in Siberia. Permafrost melted and anthrax spores were released from a carcass killed by Siberian plague seventy-five years ago. The anthrax killed 1500 reindeer and hospitalized thirteen humans. After lying dormant for the better part of a century, the heat activated the latent microbe in the permafrost and unleashed its lethal contagion on the life in its tracks. Russian scientists had already warned in a 2011 study, “As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.” The zombie apocalypse, it seems, will not feature reanimated human bodies but reanimated bacilli.In May, the presence of the mcr-1 gene was confirmed in the case of a Pennsylvania woman’s bacterial infection. Mcr-1 enables the passage of plasmids on ultra-resistant “superbug” bacteria that can resist colistin: the absolute last resort, break-glass-only-in-case-of-emergency antibiotic in the world. Mcr-1 was first detected in pigs and humans in China last year. The Pennsylvania woman had not traveled in the last five months. "The medicine cabinet is empty for some patients. It is the end of the road for antibiotics unless we act urgently," said Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC. Frieden described colistin as an antibiotic used only for "nightmare bacteria." A study published in May in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy states that the first Mcr-1 case, "heralds the emergence of truly pan-drug resistant bacteria."Frieden said in May, “We risk being in a post-antibiotic world." Mcr-1 made its second US appearance in Connecticut in June. The risk became a reality more quickly than many might have hoped.*It is difficult to discuss the concept of plagues without exoticizing and anthropomorphizing them. “One feature of the usual script for plague: the disease invariably comes from somewhere else,” writes Susan Sontag in AIDS and Its Metaphors. Sontag explains how syphilis was sourced to France by the English, to Germans by the French, to Neapolitans by the Florentines, to the Chinese by the Japanese, and notes, “But what may seem like a joke about the inevitability of chauvinism reveals a more important truth: that there is a link between imagining disease and imagining foreignness.” The illnesses that emerged in 2016 were largely homegrown, gaining their lethal potency from the grim and ever-changing landscapes of both physical homelands and human interiors. Harder still than recognizing plagues that are locally harvested is overcoming a sense that these plagues emerge with actual malevolent intentions.In the same text, Sontag warns against both the cavalier use of plague metaphors and the word “plague” itself. And while I recognize the limitations she puts forth, I don’t have her adeptness with metaphor to look at the current sickness of the body politic in my country and beyond and not see its emergence as plague-like in its features. Vile racism spent years operating quietly in systems designed to obscure bigoted intentions. But this year, events like Brexit and the resurgence of a vocalized, virulent white supremacy in Donald Trump’s campaign and in the hate crimes his supporters committed in the wake of his election made clear that the virus had mutated to make several vehicles of hatred more effective.*What the physical outbreaks of this year do show us is that plagues are not instruments acting on malice, but on memory. The plagues in the permafrost remember the damage they did in centuries past, they must simply wait out the cold to have another chance at it. The bacteria that are mutating beyond the recourse of antibiotics remember what killed their ancestors and they are evolving past it into new and improved versions thereof. We would be wise to follow their examples, to reimagine what constitutes a mortal threat to humanity and to evolve aggressively to meet those threats. Our response to social plagues will necessarily be more complex. In them, we find not an innocent human host to a deadly sickness but hostile, self-aware forces that do not simply remember the ills of the past, but ache to return to them.We should come also to respect the disregard of these plagues for borders: we must look to foreign lands as global partners in combating plagues. 2016 can be the year we commit most rigorously to the idea that health and hope can be spread across borders too. It can be the year we realized that scientific progress is not to conquer mortality but to manage it with more quietude and peace by stopping illness before it becomes epidemic. It can perhaps be the year that we look back on in shame, seeing our failure to contain and cure what we had taken for granted as long dead. And we can use the bitter medicine of this memory to know that though some sicknesses never quite die, we’ll be damned before we let them become reanimated.
When you’re depressed, you learn all of the angles inside a half-empty apartment. You become a student of the ceiling.
What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.After moving to New York at the end of last year, I took a dozen photos of my new room, not for sentimental reasons but legal ones: The ceiling was sagging at a corner, like half-dried clay, and moisture would occasionally seep from that crease to leave faint streaks behind. I imagined the entire floor crashing down, my bewildered upstairs neighbour still sitting in a bathtub, followed by the proper authorities stretchering me into housing court so I could get appropriate compensation for my IKEA bed, the dresser with a broken drawer, etc. The landlords never quite got around to fixing it. When a different real-estate company bought the building several months ago, they announced that all of us with expiring leases would have to move out, ostensibly for renovations. Cheap irony, at least in one sense of the phrase.In 1971, barely out of her teens, the director Chantal Akerman left Belgium for Manhattan, working various jobs and wandering around the city—she stole money from her cashier gig at a gay porn theater to buy celluloid. That experience was inverted by the 1977 film News from Home, with Akerman reading her mother’s old letters over footage of Hell’s Kitchen and the Times Square subway station. It’s deliberately out of sync. According to the mythology, ‘70s New York was a razor-strewn playground. Through Akerman’s lens, its tunnels and streets look serene in their melancholy—compositions often dwarf any stray human figure. Her final ten-minute-long shot pulls away with the Staten Island ferry, watching lower Manhattan sink into the fog behind. Seagulls fly past the smudged fingers of the World Trade Center. At one earlier moment, Akerman films another subway passenger’s reflection, her own image faintly visible near the corner of the window; when the train enters a station, bluish light covers them in walls of tiles.I spent many hours this year watching and rewatching Akerman’s films, a forlorn compulsion, because all the screenings were posthumous. No other director understood as she did the anxiety of enclosed spaces. A long sequence at the beginning of her first feature Je tu il elle shows the main character performing repetitive tasks in a lonely apartment, looking out the window, looking at the walls, looking at herself. She endlessly rewrites an unmailed letter to her ex-girlfriend. There’s some bleak comedy as she eats sugar from a paper bag, dumps it onto the floor, then spoons it back. The camera rarely moves in the middle of a shot, preferring to explore desaturated stasis. When you’re depressed, you learn all of the angles inside a half-empty apartment. You become a student of the ceiling.After losing that place in New York, I found what seemed to be a new one, until the landlord reneged the day we were supposed to move in. I spent most of the next twelve hours pushing all my possessions around the closest storage space on a rusty metal card, although it felt strangely comforting to realize that they could fit a 5 x 10 cube. I thought of Akerman’s later film Tomorrow We Move, a farce aspiring to be narrow rather than broad—the ending involves a jaunty song about a baby with two moms. The central figure Charlotte is supposed to write an erotic novel but can’t, partly because her mother, newly arrived in the same living space after dad’s death, has a distracting amount of stuff. Akerman emphasizes cluttered framing and overlapping planes; even birds smack against glass. There is something to be said for maintaining an escape route.As oppressive as your own interior space sometimes becomes, there are also intimacies in seeing how other people live—that moment when a new friend or lover invites you over to accompany their rhythms. “If I have a reputation for being difficult,” Akerman once said, “it’s because I love the everyday and want to present it. In general people go to the movies precisely to escape the everyday.” Her movie Golden Eighties demonstrates that affection: The musical takes place almost entirely inside a shopping mall, complete with Greek chorus of shopgirls. Young lovers meet beneath artificial moonlight. Characteristically, one character is a Holocaust survivor, as Akerman’s parents both were; the more universal sense of displacement evoked by these films could be grimly specific for her. “I’m Jewish,” she told an interviewer. “That’s all. So I am in exile all the time. Wherever we go, we are in exile.” Like Leonard Cohen, Akerman had a way of transposing history’s atrocities. They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track…I’ve been lingering in certain places I adore, like the Lincoln Center subway station, where jeweled opera divas decorate the walls. For a month I was bouncing around, sleeping in spare rooms, no fixed address. I looked after the cat of two friends in Lefferts Gardens, riding their building’s shuddering Rosemary’s Baby elevator. In Providence I crashed at another friend’s collective house, the kind of setting that brings to mind a YA novel about an eccentric adventuring family. They had mounted an enormous purple hippo sculpture; a warning over the basement door read “WE EAT CHILDREN HERE.” Down the road there was some post-industrial building, its tip like a ruined Faberge egg. I’m trying to make a record of unreality. I wish I could pass through rooms as Akerman’s camera did, poised against the sweep of the wrecking ball.No Home Movie, the last film Akerman completed before her suicide, hides a double meaning in its title. She follows her elderly mother around the latter’s house, Skyping her from the road, a presence anticipating absence. “You’re in Brussels and I’m in Oklahoma,” Chantal tells her laptop screen. “Look, there is no more distance in the world.” Akerman Sr. gives the maternal response: “You have always such ideas! Don’t you, sweetheart?” She peers into the glass more deeply. “When I see you like that I want to squeeze you in my arms.” Akerman segues from this to images of the desert, a place where nothing can be interior, and that is what I am thinking about now, those wastelands seen from a speeding car, how the wind clung to each frail tree.