Hazlitt Magazine

With a Whimper

Even in the wildest bush, beasts sometimes huddle for warmth.

'We Take These Words to Empower Ourselves': An Interview with Kristen J. Sollee

The author of Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive on intersectional feminism, modern-day witchcraft, and defining occulture. 

The Death Strobe of EDM, or Daft Punk at Coachella for Dummies

The could-be-true story behind the rumored what-have-we-done-to-deserve-this Vin Diesel/Steve Aoki EDM collaboration.

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Anger is an Ally

After I was run over by a car, getting mad helped me find my way back to myself.

There’s not much I remember about 2009 besides getting run over on my bike by a drunk driver. It counts as run over if you hear they had to pull your unconscious body out from under the car.Almost seven years later, I still think about the accident. I wonder what else it touched, beyond the initial injuries. I get migraines that radiate out from the scar where my head hit the pavement. My memory sometimes pivots to places I’d rather not be. I wonder about the wiring in my brain for grief, happiness and anger—have my triggers changed with age, did something get shorted, or do we all, eventually, coax our responses into new constructions, albeit usually less violently?It was foggy, one of those warm flukes of a late November night, and I remember saying goodbye to some friends and pushing off the curb and out onto the street to start for home. It was maybe three and a half minutes from Koreatown to my apartment by bike. It was routine. My brother lived in the neighbourhood and I did the ride between our apartments at least once a week.I was reminded of the fact that it was foggy—the elevated importance of water droplets vibrating in air—much later, during the legal discovery process, one of the driver’s insurance company's many attempts to undermine how it was I got hurt. Fog really makes it anyone’s game, I found out: it can blur the rationale of why a sports sedan was tearing down a 40 km zone at upwards of 60 km. It can make hazy what should have been the one clarifying fact: that the driver would blow over the limit when he was breathalyzed at the scene, just after my body had been shuttled away in an ambulance. Fog seemed like a get-out-of-running-over-somebody-free card. The low lying cascade of tiny, warm water particles that, otherwise, make the city seem magic suddenly meant a lot more trouble for me.After the accident, I was forced to move back in with my parents for most of the winter. I couldn’t walk for a couple weeks, both of my eyes were swollen shut, my body was a mash of colour. As the swelling in my brain went down and my head trauma began to heal, I had the most lucid and terrifying dreams of my life. Road trips from when I was a kid extended and played out languidly over a dream-span of months: a hurricane that went right by a motel my family was staying at in South Carolina once, as if it had seen a NO VACANCY sign lit up and kept on down the highway. Or the time I accidentally locked myself in a gas station bathroom somewhere in New Hampshire and had to climb on the toilet tank to bash the window out with the conch shell that was the doorstop ‘cause I was sure my parents wouldn’t notice and leave.Some of the awful stuff seems canned now: monsters cobbled together from whatever I’d seen that day while being shuttled between doctors—a CT machine with teeth, or being stuck in a scene from Speed, a favourite I’d been comfort-watching. But the really bad dreams were vivid in how plainly my regular fears were played back to me—losing family and friends to almost inane accidents or watching them just keel over and die in front of me, in the middle of grocery shopping. It was all part of the process of my brain repairing itself, my doctor told me. The dreams got less terrifying over time, but the lucid, near tactile quality has never toned down.My waking anxiety was worse. People urged me to pursue legal action against the driver, secure some retribution if I could, but my sense of fight was flattened—I couldn’t bring myself to give a shit. Whether it was the wringing my body had been through or the mental unpacking my brain was still teetering toward, it felt like the visceral switch that would propel my next move had shorted.Rage inverted goes bad pretty quick—it festers fast into fear, then numbs further into apathy, which feels like a big, dulling cloud coiling around your brain. That November I felt muted in the gloom of grey days melting together, happy to live between the blankets in my parents’ guestroom. What fished me out was my friends. One flew across the country; another called me every day and when she finally saw me told me how crazy I looked, which was a relief—at least we were laughing again. More made the trip to the end of the subway line to haul me out of bed and to my parents’ couch, where my dad would insist on showing them the photos taken the day after the accident, pointing out all the colours that formed on my face. It was jarring and I needed it. To tell the story as far as I knew, over and over again, to be questioned, to hear things I wasn’t conscious for, like how the driver tried to speed away while I was trapped beneath his Honda Civic and the crowd rushed over to block his path. That someone was instructed to collect my ruined bike and put it behind my brother’s apartment. That I wouldn’t stop calling one of the emergency room doctors Shia LaBeouf when I woke up to my clothes being cut off me. Armed with everything I’d forgotten or that had rocketed out of my brain, my friends were magpies of the accident, giving me a narrative, something to reconcile.With this information, I was finding my way back to my anger. I decided to press charges. My dad and I went to the first scheduled hearing of my case at Toronto’s Old City Hall the following spring. I’d moved back into my west-end apartment and was back at work, not yet back on my bike. At the court house, no one showed up—not the the police on the scene, not the driver. My dad went hollering down the cavernous hall, calling out the names we knew only from the police report that was left with me at the hospital the night I got hit. When no one answered him, I felt the dull and heavy cloud still slogging around my brain, the last remnant of the accident’s fog, start to vaporize in defense of my father, incredulous that he had to do this.The anger I’d sidelined in exchange for detachment returned—that zeroed-in feeling of an eye-narrowed and razor-sharp awareness I recognized, once used on a runaway horse I stopped by standing still right in front of its bolting body. Or the sudden surprise at the calm that can come couched in anger, once a steady hand on my back that helped me to finally turn tail and walk away from a screaming, gaslighting ex as he backed me into an alley for another fight prompted by—at that point—just about anything. Anger can quietly highlight how the spectacle of a scene simply requires your removal from it, or it can stir you from a temporary state of suspension. At Old City Hall that day the damp lethargy I’d been content to live in like some swamp creature dissipated, and anger shot up in me like flares out of fog. I’d found it.*Anger takes energy. It takes energy to form, to maintain, and, most of all, to control. Dr. Brad Bushman, a professor of Communication and Psychology at Ohio State University and a member of Barack Obama’s committee on gun violence, has studied human aggression and violence for over twenty years. Despite the average brain being about the size of a grapefruit and accounting for only two percent of our body weight, it nonetheless consumes about twenty to thirty percent of the calories we digest. “It’s a very demanding organ,” he said. “And the part of our brain just behind our forehead, the prefrontal cortex, is in charge of executive functions—and one of those functions is emotion regulation. And the emotion people have the most difficulty controlling is anger, and the brain needs fuel to control anger.”We are programmed to avoid anger: it often indicates a threat, from which we as a species like to create some distance. Even on a cellular level, anger is uncomfortable. “If you think about anger on two axes,” said Dr. Bushman, “one axis being pleasant/unpleasant and the other being passive/active, anger is unpleasant and active. Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure increases, your skin conductance increases—it activates you to respond. People don’t like it and usually want to get rid of it.”But what do you do with it? Psychologists like Bushman classify anger as an approach motivation, meaning that people don’t like it when they’re angry and want to fix it. There’s no doubt that anger has been the motivator behind tragedies too numerous to name, its energy harnessed with intent to harm others. Without channelling it into something productive, it can dissipate, becoming as noxious as an airborne toxin, accelerating prejudice into fear and worse.But at its best, anger is also a conduit. “Probably every [social] movement in history was fuelled by anger,” Bushman told me. “Civil rights, getting women the vote—all these movements are fuelled by anger. It motivates us to approach the problem and do something about it. Attack the problem if you will.”This has to do with what triggers our anger. It’s what some psychologists consider a “moral emotion,” a feeling associated with moral transgressions. Specifically, anger is linked to violations of autonomy. So when guarded and deeply personal notions such as justice, freedom, fairness, individualism, individual choice and liberty are threatened, anger lights our brain up like a pinball machine.For Zoe Dodd, a Toronto-based harm reduction worker and anti-poverty activist, anger is a reliable resource where money, social support and political leverage have oftentimes proved scarce. In Toronto, during John Tory’s first winter as mayor, the city would not call extreme cold advisories even when the temperature plunged, a record number of times, below minus-30 degrees Celsius. Without the advisory, emergency shelters could not open, and marginally housed and homeless people started freezing to death on the streets of the city. Still, emergency shelters didn’t open. It was the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty—and Dodd—storming the mayor’s office and refusing to leave until the advisories went out that finally pressured the mayor to make the call.“I work with people where it’s life and death, it’s not a joke,” she told me. “I don’t want to be polite about it. It’s why you organize. It’s powerful—you’re unleashing power. That becomes a common bond and thread between people, especially people that are feeling incredibly oppressed, to come together and take on power with their anger.”Maybe that’s the difference between outright rage that obliterates and the driving energy that anger, thoughtfully directed, can provide—anger meant to bind, rather than rage that fractures. For women, for people marginalized, anger can be cause to accomplish much more and sustained to ration, to tide over. These are modes familiar to anyone who hasn’t been afforded the resources to know what it means to budget with what you have—and if what you have is anger, what are the limits?When New Brunswick’s Morgentaler clinic, the only private abortion clinic in the Maritimes, closed in July 2014, it was after a twenty-year battle with the provincial government for funding. “What do you say when someone asks for help accessing safe abortion services, and you have no answers?” said Jaden Fitzherbert, a former volunteer escort at the Morgentaler clinic. She remembered the desperation of women who contacted her when the clinic closed, a young mother of two who admitted to taking pills that were supposed to induce a miscarriage. “I was horrified. I was just so angry that people seeking abortion services were being forced to take pills and hope for the best. I was always pro-choice, but with the clinic closing, I suddenly found myself thrown into abortion rights activism.”Fitzherbert and other volunteers at the clinic, along with women in the community, all of them angry as hell, quickly organized. “When we decided to crowd-fund money,” she said, “we were really motivated by the utter disbelief that we were essentially crowd funding money to provide basic healthcare, something that the provincial government should have been doing the last two decades. We wanted to be perfectly clear: we were doing the government’s job, because they weren’t prepared or even willing to do it.”Morgentaler closed, but the money raised enabled a new private clinic to open with inclusive mandates driven by the community that fought for it.*Male anger so often seems to be reactionary, seething at the surface in anticipation of something it can contend with, conquer, emotionally lay waste to. Female anger has, conversely, learned to wait, to pick its moments carefully, to gain strength and rally in the interim by nature of its suppression. As women, we are conditioned to minimize it early on, to not argue, to lessen our reactions, and later, as self-protection, to deescalate, take the blame when it may not be ours. Dr. Ursula Hess, a psychologist who specializes in the communication of emotions and the social factors—such as gender—that influence the process, recalled a study where women and men were asked to rate how much they trusted strangers they were paired up with based on their expressions. Men were found to be trustworthy whether smiling or showing anger—in some cases moreso when they were perceived as angry—whereas women showed a “significant drop in trust” when they displayed anger. “Anger was as positive as happiness when it comes to inspiring trust in a man, but it failed to do this for women, who were trusted more when they smiled or showed a neutral expression.”To be an angry woman is to already be seen as somehow suspect, implicitly radical. An angry woman is emotional, over the top, out of control, bitter, shrill, crazy, should calm down. In my own cross-examination during the trial for my accident, I was urged by my lawyer to keep a straight face against any accusations or cloying attempts at camaraderie. When it was over he practically hooted—I remember how thrilled he seemed with the notion that I had scared them, made them uncomfortable, all because I had buried my feelings so deep there was no way for them to be dredged up by twenty minutes of interrogation. In being absent of reaction I became a more convincing victim. Anger, maybe the most honest reaction I could have had, would have been my undoing in that situation. Our anger is caricatured back at us in order to mitigate it, and in the process, perpetuates the notion that women can’t just be angry. It becomes another thing mired in qualifiers.Undermining like this is meant to be negative, to strip anger of its usefulness, but it’s in this warping that it becomes something greater than the inherent spark that first created the sensation itself. Women’s anger should be seen as something greater than the sum of its pissed off parts—the rules applicable to our playing field shift so much that winning mostly means having to prove it over and over again. By the time we do, the result is something so concentrated, “anger” alone may not cut it. It’s a force, focused and active and sure of its footing—female anger gets shit done.But because women’s anger is seen as suspect, it is more often than not met with questions meant to shut it down, rather than dig to its root. We saw this with the Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby cases, the women who’d come forward in each forced to present better reasons to be believed than their bodies alone. Pain, trauma, violation, poisoning—when projected on a female body, these often do not automatically equate to proof of harm. We see this in campus assaults across Canada and the United States, men with high tuitions, who we are told hold so much promise—are just ensconced in promise—supported and shielded by their institutions, afforded time and privacy to build their retaliation on the backs of the women they’ve harmed, women who bear both the brunt of media attention and institutionalized scrutiny because they threaten the antiquated systems that allowed their abuse. We see it in the continued appointment of judges who treat cases of sexual violence as opportunities to exercise tired tropes that do more to defend the perpetrators than give the victims opening themselves up any sense of equal footing from the outset. We see it in the walking caricature currently holding the highest office of power, the President of the United States.And when forced suppression of a woman’s anger becomes overwhelming to her because that woman won’t accept being complicit in her own erasure, there seems to always be an unspoken understanding that things will be made more difficult for her.*Tanya Tagaq, the Inuit throat singer and Inuk advocate, has spoken out candidly and frequently about Indigenous erasure. For this, predictably, she has been called loud and labeled angry. She has also been lauded for these same qualities. “I’m one of the angriest people I know,” she agrees. “And it’s finding a way to harness that without acting on it. And at the same time it’s very hard to think about peaceful revolution because usually, when things happen in nature, outside of nature, change comes through some act of violence.” Anger can be an ally that binds with deft hands the wounds caused by the caustic claws of lunatics.“The mountains are carved with giant glaciers," Tagaq says. "That in itself is an act of violence in a sense. A caribou gets killed by a wolf, that’s an act of violence, and humans, we’ve managed to pervert violence in a really obscure way. But social change, if you look at examples of it all over the earth, people don’t get violent over human rights unless they’re completely cornered. Inevitably when you try to cut off somebody’s mind from their heart there’s going to be a fight.”There are levels assigned to anger. Tied into the notions of white supremeacy, anything other than white anger becomes a stigma, something to be curbed outright—and if it can’t be, then lessened. Perverted this way, the natural response of anger gains warped qualifiers that impede women of colour and marginalized women in the freedom they have to access and wield it with the same visibility a white woman might. “People can only speak to their experiences unless they’re greatly empathetic, and I find what happens a lot when Indigenous women are trying to voice their opinion is when other women hear it, they want to see themselves as compassionate and forthright people that are fighting for their own rights. And we end up fighting for our rights like dogs fight for scraps, when in reality those events are not mutually exclusive,” says Tagaq.Scholar, activist, and author of “I AM An Angry Black Woman: Black Feminist Autoethnography, Voice, and Resistance,” Dr. Rachel Alicia Griffin, agrees. “When people of color express anger, the potential of our anger to fuel, inspire, and motivate is often lost because interpretations of our anger are confined to the dominant white imagination, and typically via white privilege white people experience our anger as only threatening and dangerous.”Part of what can make women’s anger so powerful is the different layers that form its intent, and the pressure it probably took to distill. And while anger may not be the ideal source, it’s not exactly in short supply. “There’s a never-ending pool of it,” Tagaq says, “from getting beeped at when you walk down the street to the refugee crisis.” But like any raw source, it needs to be refined. “If you can learn to siphon anger into something productive, you have an endless supply of gasoline for your vehicle.”*The anger I found that day, listening to my father shout his way through the courthouse, replaced my anxiety, and it was staying angry that steadied me through getting a lawyer and the process that followed. My anger worked like rations that fueled my resolve. Which was good, because nothing happens like on TV, and the back and forth between lawyers—cross-examinations, discoveries, inquiries, all nice ways of describing the process of buying more time for the prosecution to dig up what they consider to be dirt on you—takes a long time.Anger braced me against the personal attacks meant to smear my character, make me less reliable, a bad victim. Suddenly, riding horses since I was a kid had become the reason for the spot in my lower back where the vertebrae in my spine now tilted closer together, never mind that the surface bruising in the same area after the accident matched the front of a car’s bumper exactly. And the two classes I was finishing by correspondence following the accident? I failed them because I hadn’t ever given a shit about school—something the driver’s insurance company would argue after digging up some old transcripts, ignoring the opthalmologist’s post-accident report that advised me not to rule out the possibility of my retinas detaching due to head trauma, and that it might take some time for words to stop blurring into fuzzed blocks, or for me to even read again. Most of the physical reminders of the accident were gone by the time the legal process started, save for the scar on my forehead that would take plastic surgery to reduce. But every new allegation, every picture pulled off of social media since the accident—regular stuff like hanging out with my roomates or literally leaving the house—meant to rewrite my narrative completely, was a poke or prod right to the guts, still tender. Even the most self-assured person put into that situation would start to feel the tricky unraveling power of doubt’s deft fingers. But throughout it all anger was an ally that always showed up in the back of my head, lending reassurance that I wasn’t going crazy, that I knew what had happened to me.At its most simplified, anger provides us with information that something is happening that we don’t like. Like a divining rod your body can wield to home in on something deserving of your attention, anger can become a tool. For me, it was a spile to access power from a source in myself that let me stare steady back into the eyes of these lawyers who looked at the spot where my skull had split open and saw fault in the deep lines now scarring my forehead, who blamed the accident on me.I remained resolute, and we won.
‘We Take These Words to Empower Ourselves’: An Interview with Kristen J. Sollee

The author of Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive on intersectional feminism, modern-day witchcraft, and defining occulture. 

“As a kid, I was obsessed with the character Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, and I’ve always been attracted to the villain: the dark and demonic, or the ‘demonic feminine’ character,” says Kristen J. Sollee. “Darkness that doesn’t have to be construed as evil, or what patriarchy views as evil. I always wondered, ‘why are these women perceived as so scary?’ so I think all these interests are aligned in some way.” In her book, Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, Sollee examines how women who practice witchcraft have created a culture that empowers, not ridicules, mysticism. She defines witchcraft as an accumulation of a variety of occult practices practiced by a ‘witch:’ an identity that was once was thrust upon women to demean, shame and persecute, but has been transformed into a cultural symbol that promotes sex-positivity and feminine power.After poring over dense historical documents on the history of witches and various practices, Sollee wrote a book that is a hybrid of sorts. She wields her journalism background in her careful application of feminist academic scholarship for important theorization on race, gender and queer studies. It also contains a concise account of the complicated history of witches from the medieval to the modern age, including Q&As with current practitioners. “I feel like a curator in many ways,” she says of the book’s unconventional structure. “I wanted other voices to speak loudly, and I don’t think you can do that when you simply incorporate quotes into a narrative.” By referencing recent political events, such as the 2016 U.S. election, Sollee traces the experiences of contemporary pop culture notables like LA Slutwalk organizer and model Amber Rose to demonstrate the lineage of witchcraft to contemporary feminism and sexuality.In 2011, Sollée co-edited the anthology Can I Play With Madness: Metal, dissonance, madness and alienation, and has published several academic articles on heavy metal, sexuality and gender play. When she isn’t running Slutist, the online portal for sex-positive, popular culture and feminist criticism she founded in 2013, she teaches in the Gender Studies department at The New School in New York City and curates the annual festival The Legacy of the Witch, featuring sex-positive musical and performance artists and occult practitioners. “I must add that this book is about a community that is bigger than me,” she tells me over lunch at a Brooklyn diner. “I really wanted to take a step back and be as objective as possible and keep my personal asides to a minimum.” While she notes that she is telling a story that has gone on for several thousands of years, “I’d like to think that I offer different ways in approaching these issues.”Laina Dawes: In addition to your childhood fascination, and your work as a feminist, what made you buckle down and write a book on witches? Kristen J. Sollee: Well, I’ve always worked in the realm of gender, art and culture, whether it be visual art, music or fashion or film as a freelance journalist, but I’ve always been fascinated by the occult and my mother is a witch. She doesn't use that word, but she is intuitive, and I’ve experienced a lot of mystical occurrences because of her. My dad’s a staunch atheist, so their marriage didn’t last very long! There are a lot of people in my family on my mother’s side who are Catholic and they have their own secret practice, but they would never use that word because it is very sensitive/pejorative to them. So growing up, I had that interest and an interest in the aesthetic surrounding it.I showed your book to one of my students, a young black woman. One of the first things she asked me when she saw the cover was about your definition of feminism. Just to elaborate on how you were careful about how you inserted your opinion within the book, I thought It was important that you made it clear that feminism was defined in Witches, Sluts, Feminists as intersectional. That was central and of the utmost importance to me. Obviously, I was limited to my personal experience—I am a white woman—but there were so many witches, feminists and theorists of color that were extremely important to me and my continued growth as a feminist, so how could they not be part of the story? Within the history of witches and witchcraft, you cannot separate them. There was even a hashtag created: #Solidarityisforwhitewitches. I think that a lot of the aesthetic out there that focuses on what witches looked like in relation to Salem—even though we don’t really know, there is this notion that witches had dark hair, pale skin and blue eyes, even on Instagram if you look at the images within the common witch-centric accounts. But that is not the history.Look at Beyoncé’s pregnancy photos and her music videos, and then there is Azealia Banks, who has publicly stated she is a practicing witch. Currently there are no white women doing that. On the feminist side and the witch side, it is very necessary right now to acknowledge women of color, as they are the leading activists in both realms. To write this book and not have it be as intersectional as I could make it would be illogical. I must say though that the book is not marketed as being an intersectional feminist book and race is not included on the back cover, because that is not for me to define. I think that doing so would be problematic—to position yourself as the arbiter of intersectionality.The first time I heard the term "occulture" was in your book. What is your definition and how does it differ to what we consider as identity politics?Well, occulture describes the how the occult is perceived within popular culture and the culture that has developed around that, in relation to witchcraft and intuition that can be considered in both theistic and nontheistic ways. This was also something I wanted to ensure was in this book, as there are a lot of people who don’t believe anything beyond science that are witches, and then there are the more spiritual witches that skeptical people would call “woo hoo” witches. I wanted the book to be open to all thoughts about the occult. There are many sects within occulture, different belief systems and ways of thinking about witchcraft: there are Wiccans, voodoo practitioners, fairies, satanists, the O.T.O (Ordo Templi Orientis, an international fraternal and religious organization influenced by the Early Witchcraft Movement) and ceremonial magicians. I do think it does function similarly to identity politics, in the sense that there are all kinds of fractures and infighting, so what I was trying to do was not to focus on one singular practice, but instead the community that can hopefully envelop all of them under this goal to demystify and to destigmatize the witch as how it is related to women.This book is a continuation of your work as a lecturer of fourth-wave feminism. Yes.My understanding is that fourth-wave feminism is defined, in part, as feminism in the age of technology. As queer and trans women and women of colour often experience marginalization within “real-life” communities and are more likely to join online occultures and other niche communities, would occultures fall under the fourth-wave feminist umbrella? Absolutely. Despite me teaching a class on on fourth-wave feminism, it’s still a debate as to what it is. It’s so nebulous, but really it acknowledges the Internet as a driving mechanism and force in feminist analysis and thought. It’s messy, but there has to be a shift as feminist discourse, and as it stands now, is different than it was in the 1990s, which is referred to as third-wave feminism. In 2008 Jessica Valenti wrote that the next wave of feminism is online, and I think she was one of the first people to acknowledge this shift. Within the book, I discuss digital activism and digital mystics that use the collective consciousness to promote their social justice activism.That’s why it's interesting that the young women of colour I know who identify as witches are totally reliant on online communities and finding information online in order to find a community. Technology definitely helps in people finding out about the history and historical practices of witchcraft. And yes, a lot of this is totally self-directed (through online interactions). I feel like the witches that are the most influential online are queer women of color. Right now the website The Hood Witch is, in my opinion, the biggest witch “portal” which really crosses race and gender lines. It speaks to the age bracket of 18-40 and maybe older, but it hits that Instagram, millennial generation.Your discussions surrounding how the term “slut” signifies empowerment were illuminating, but I still felt some hesitance in introducing it as a descriptor in defining myself in a sex-positive way. You do mention how racialized sexism and sexualized racism do alter how “slut” is perceived, particularly among women of colour.The reason I added it was because of the years of conversations I’d had with organizers of the various Slutwalks around the country. Women of colour in particular often acknowledged the difference between me and them being called a slut—similar to the difference when someone calls a transwoman versus a cis woman a slut. For identities that are more marginalized and more likely to be victims of violence, it is much harder to claim a word that in some ways seems like it gives permission for this violence to be acted upon you. That was another point in which I tried to look at all the angles, because for some people, using the word is simply untenable. You simply cannot use the word in a positive way. Maybe in your mind—but in reality, it is off the table.But I felt that it was important to put it on the table. Sexual violence is so prevalent that it’s almost irresponsible not to note how this word is still so oppressive to certain groups more than other groups. So, let’s not be naive about it. There is so much more ability for white women to work within that realm (in the empowering usage of that word) than for others. And that has been one of the criticisms of Slutwalk. I have all of my students go online and read all the critiques of it, because I want to ensure that they see all of the angles to this activism, but there is still great power to be had when we take these words to empower ourselves.However, there are plenty of women of color who freely use slut to define themselves—they are sex workers, burlesque dancers and other artists who are proud to be defined as that, so again, it’s also not fair to essentialize the usage as being negative for all women. And there are white women who are also opposed to reclaiming it.You mention the book The Malleus Maleficarum, written in 1486, and describe it as “ye olde medieval BDSM erotica” because of the depictions of the sexual interactions between witches and incubus devils. You write that since that book was published, stereotypes about the deviant sexuality of women who do not fit into conventional societal categories still exist. Erotica for the sexual stimulation of the readers is commonplace, so is the stigma around such materials. Do you ever see that changing within your lifetime?Well I hope within my lifetime—maybe in sixty years if I’m still alive! Obviously right now we are living in a really interesting moment, where there is an admitted sexual assailant in the White House, and I don’t know how far back that has put American society. On the other hand, there is pushback against that, and conversations about sexual assault are more commonplace than when I was growing up. That is what is great about being a young woman today, as they are participating in all of these great discussions to really understand what behaviour is not okay, which is a lot better than I could say when I was their age.And they are given more of an allowance to say “yes” or “no.” To give their opinion.Yes! I didn’t even know that saying “no” was okay when I was a kid. There are more open conversations about consent.In popular music culture, including rock n’ roll and heavy metal, it's always been questionable as to whether the occult is used as a marketing tool in offering provocative imagery or whether the artists are channeling their spiritual beliefs through their music. A lot of that discussion is centered on the male occultists, like Aleister Crowley, all of these male figures, but really the female or the gender non-conforming or anyone who doesn’t fall under the gender binary are more powerful. Women and queer folks are using real rituals and their actual practices are being infused into their art, which is different than what bands, such as Motley Crue were offering in their early years. However, some metal bands, like Watain, are real Satanists, and actually do rituals onstage. From what I know and from friends I know who tour with them, they are serious. But you would never really know, because there are so many bands in which it is used as shock value.In terms of the visual imagery and whether it’s authentic, you could say the same thing about Beyoncé’s [use of Yoruban deity imagery for her pregnancy photoshoot] outfits.Definitely. What was interesting to me was the response from black folks who had challenged her “wokeness.” It seemed like those Instagram pictures legitimized her blackness. Well, some people did call her out, like Azealia Banks, who accused her of using the aesthetic of her religious practice to make money, and I saw some other people of colour who are witches who also questioned her look, as Beyoncé is super-Christian. But it could possibly be that she is getting rid of that and turning to a spiritual practice that better suits her, so who knows? I feel that there is still a lot of doubt within the music scene—outside of heavy metal —which is, “is this for real?” But because of the number of Internet communities that are discussing the occult I hope these questions will be answered.
With a Whimper

Even in the wildest bush, beasts sometimes huddle for warmth.

The Oversights began two years ago in response to undisclosed “threats from beyond the settlement borders.” The initial bans were so minor hardly anyone protested them—townsfolk were no longer allowed to take specific hallucinogens that would lead to mouth or bottom purges, to carry certain brands of Boomboxes or to belt certain guilty pleasures in the presence of certain strangers. Gradually they were banned from drawing, painting, or collaging bodies in specific acts of combat (Olympic wrestling, Thai kickboxing), and then from screaming, crying, or complaining about migraines, tooth aches, gastric cramps, influenza, or muscle ruptures. The Lions aim to distinguish the residents of Parádeisos, a well-manicured resort town, from their neighbours to the north, occupants of a freewheeling city called Kir. And today, April 14, 2017, the Ultimate Oversight is coming into effect.“We must hold all liquids and feelings inside,” the Archon Lion said last night in an interview on the town’s one television station, of which he is the sole owner and stakeholder. “We are the elegant sons of Parádeisos. We don’t want to be like the scum of Kir, with their fat, unchecked libidos, fornicating and peeing all over their own countryside.”So overnight it was carved into every lovage lawn in town, painted on every bus shelter: Intimacy will no longer be tolerated. All speech not considered by the Lions to be “small talk” will be punished via the Shallow Awl, that, when inserted into the offender’s temple, pilfers one insightful thought from his or her brain forever. Touching of any kind will be punished with proportionate electrocution and/or “Act-outs.” In these, a Strategos Lion, one rank below the Archon, is tasked with recreating the sin to an extreme with its perpetrator.Antera is sixteen. She grew up reading romance poetry and play-fighting with her older brother, George. This new world, forcing through her television speakers, through her father’s squad radio, is not one in which she anticipated her adulthood unfolding.She etches If I had known into a Posture Bench at the town waterpark. It’s July, and she has taken the neighbours’ girl and boy, Kardiá and Méllon, there to play. Before this summer, pocket money was always in abundance for the daughter of a police officer. But she accepted this job when it was offered because the idea of safety and security, even for well-born, faithful people, is now being eroded. And the neighbours are hiding a handsome young exile in their attic.I would have gone to Eudaimonia and swallowed every plant with neon blooms. I would have tongue-kissed every boy who looked at me. I would have walked on lithium fire.All exhilarating rides in the park have been shut down; the only ones still operating are the flume ride, at half speed, and the lazy river, its inner tubes slightly deflated. The others hulk, ghostly, beside unplugged first-person shooter games and gyro stands that only serve pita and beef, no hot sauce, no onion, no tzatziki. Despite this, the park is crowded.Kardiá starts to scream, and when Antera looks up from her wood poetry she sees a streak of red coming from the child’s downturned nose, darkening the plunge pool. Antera knows these two are too young for the waterpark, but if she doesn’t take them now they may never have the chance to go. And she will have to hold the guilt of that lost opportunity forever.She runs to them, her left anklebone hissing with Enforcement Static. She is breaking two rules: Townsfolk must not sprint in public except for sanctioned athletic competitions, and townsfolk must not come to the aid of weaker civilians. Reaching the edge of the pool she calls for the children to swim to her, and her lips spray orange static into the water.Antera lifts the children out of the chlorine and deposits them onto the blistering pavement. All three crouch like toads. She asks Kardiá, “Are you in pain?” and the girl looks confused. This would once have been an answerable question to Antera, but to a four-year-old girl the only legal response is “No.” Méllon comes to put his arm around his sister, making her look even smaller. For a moment Antera fantasizes about drowning these innocent creatures right now, in the sun, before things become intolerable.Instead, she tells the boy, “You need to keep your hands to yourself. Someone might see you.” I would have gone to the Mageía Forest and hunted an elk with a longbow. I would have roasted the thickest cuts with amaranth oil and offered a basket of offal to my dear parents.Antera sees a Hoplite Lion plodding toward them. He is holding up a golden flag, meant to signal an infraction. “I want to go home,” Kardiá says, the line of blood now reaching her chin’s indent. Antera longs to wipe the girl’s face clean, but the Hoplite Lion is standing over them. He commands that they stand, too. His mask is made of papier-mâché, declaring him a new recruit, and this frightens Antera more than a titanium mask would have.“I’m a very nice man,” he says. “So I’m going to pretend I only saw that last breach.” He puts his arm around Kardiá as an illustration, and turns to Méllon. “Do you know what happens now, son?”In the mess of papier-mâché, Antera sees eyes demanding privacy. And right now she can only lessen the boy’s suffering by doing what she is told. “There’s a high-diving show on the mountain later,” she says to Kardiá. “Do you want to watch the swimmers set up?”The girl tidies her wet, lemon hair into two long fishtails and smiles with all her temporary teeth. “Watch how brave I can be,” she whispers to Antera, and then, as if coached to do so in an emergency, she says to the Hoplite Lion, “Thank you for taking your job seriously, sir.”Antera turns once as they walk away and sees Méllon’s little body flare white and enlightened, holy as an unwilling saint.Beside the mountain, Antera spots the handsome young exile. He wears a leopard-print swimsuit and is older than she is, at least twenty-five. Antera is used to men like her father, dense and woolly, and is startled by how lean and greased this one is. From her parents’ heart-to-hearts across the kitchen table she’s gathered he’s an illegal runner from Kir. Why would anyone choose to come to this colourless place? She imagines the rest of the world to be full of women pulling blushed apricots from softwoods and jungle cats tearing across meadows made of green silk.The illegal runner bends to tug a copy of the town paper, The Democratic Times, from the beak of a mechanical bird in the water below the mountain. The paper is soggy and it tears without a struggle. The bird suddenly seems sentient; it ascends from the water and muzzles the runner’s bronzed neck, then widens its wings in a gesture of intimidation before attacking.Causing damage to any government-owned property, including every ride and adornment in this waterpark, has been banned by Oversight, so the runner can’t fight the bird. He huddles down, using his spine as a bone shelter. Blood blooms through the splinters in his back, the gashes on his hamstrings. Wandering past this chaos is a group of vacationers gleaming with Liberty Glitter. For the price of four high-end steak dinners, or bail after a Loose-Speech arrest, visitors can buy this body salve to protect them from a variety of minor Oversights. A few of the vacationers scream painlessly as they notice the bird attacking the runner. Antera covers Kardiá’s ears, not wanting to explain this particular inequity.The runner faces Antera. His eyes cut clean lines toward her, but he does not move. His expression becomes blanker, and as it does the mechanical bird’s attack slowly grows less violent. When the runner’s face is completely inert, so too is the bird.Antera asks Kardiá to wait in the dark-spill of a mastic tree. She walks over to the runner and raises her sweaty, teenaged palms to hover beside his cheeks. “I’m your neighbour,” she says, choosing her words carefully to avoid the Shallow Awl. “It’s nice to meet you.”The runner introduces himself as Alp. He seems friendly, so she asks if he wants to come to her house for dinner. “My mother cooks game, and my father brews table wine,” she says.He doesn’t think about it. He tells her no. Antera moves her hands away from his cheeks and hides her red face in them. “I’m sorry,” he says, more softly. “But that would be a very bad idea.”Antera feels like the whole warring world has suddenly congregated in her belly. Nauseous, heavy, she can’t stand in front of this handsome man any longer. She staggers back to the mastic tree and lifts Kardiá into her arms without thinking. Shockwaves rocket up to her heart. “We can go home now, sweet thing,” she says, reluctantly letting go of the child again.“What about the high-diving show?” the girl asks.“We have no time to wait.” Antera storms to the Post-Punishment Office at the waterpark gates, making sure Kardiá is following behind, and there she collects a sniffling Méllon. His white shirt now has holes in it the size of cigarette burns, but she is in no state to offer comfort. She casts her shadow on the children as they walk down the dirt road into the dipping sun.Antera is lying on her single bed later that evening, in a pressed crepe nightgown and plain weave socks, while the sounds of a horsemeat dinner party fluster the floorboards. Her mother is playing the lavouto and her brother, George, is crooning a sanctioned ballad to the neighbouring family—the two parents, Kardiá, Méllon. Antera has been listening carefully and has not heard Alp’s low voice, although that could be a testament to his stillness and not to his absence.Antera told her parents she was ill, attributing the heat of her sunburned forehead to a tropical fever. George fixed her a plate of wafers and mandarin preserves, and it rests untouched on the bedside table. Below her he is singing, For if I ever step foot on faraway soil, it will be because the whole ocean has boiled, it will be because every road has coiled. She wets a wafer on her tongue, then turns it into paste against the roof of her mouth.She lets herself imagine escaping with Alp, tying his hands with wire, gagging him with dishrags, hitchhiking. Shivers map the insides of her thighs. These thoughts, are they intimate? Or would the Lions consider them Harmless Individual Fantasies? The Oversights make no specific mention of anything carnal, associating those words with the crude sons and daughters of Kir. Antera makes a bold guess as to what is permitted.In the dark, she remembers the man’s face. She pictures herself kissing his lips, his coconut-oiled collar bone, the animal tuft above his swimsuit. She reaches under her nightgown and unbridles her fantasies, urgently, until her desire is material in her hand. For a beat she feels elated. And just as suddenly she is a phoenix, her body in violent flame. Of all the pains she has lived through, she has never experienced one this caustic. She wants to scream for her mother’s help, but her shame would be far worse than the physical distress.A knock at her door, clearly audible. Antera rises from bed and goes to find out whose hand she is hearing. There is Alp in a pair of dirty flannel sweats, lanky over bare feet. He grips a jar of table wine. “Take this,” he says, handing her the drink. “And swallow it very, very quickly.”Antera is careful not to touch him as she accepts the jar. Her body hisses with pent-up static. She has a thousand things to say and no voice to say them with. So she starts to glug the alcohol. When she tries to take a break, Alp puts his hand on the bottom of the glass and pushes it to her lips, some of the wine spilling down her chin, some spurting up into her nostrils. He only drops his hand when the liquid is gone.“Why did you do that?” Antera whispers, between whitecaps of nausea.“I heard something on your father’s radio.” Alp grabs her hairbrush from her nightstand, along with a compact of powder foundation and a handful of brass barrettes, and places them in her open palms without grazing her skin.Antera begins to tidy herself as she envisions which punishment might be in her near future. Despite the queasiness, she longs for more wine to drink.Half an hour later, Antera’s home takes on a state of shapelessness. She descends the stairs, still in her nightgown, to see her mother running back and forth between the open door and the woodstove, her breasts striking time under her Chantilly dress. George is in the entranceway, filling the house with locust clouds of forbidden words, while her father smokes a cheroot by the window. The neighbours have left.And young Antera. Planted at the bottom of the staircase, her hair in four plaits, her cheeks still pink from pleasure despite the powder caked on top. She is watching her body; she is not living in it.Outside the house is a fuss of sirens. Absurd in this intimate town, where every criminal can be identified by sight, if not smell––the lavender thief, the ghost pine predator, the gasoline felon. But the trucks are on her lawn, driving donuts into her mother’s fertilizer. George looks through the peephole. “Eight beasts by my count,” he says. “And they’re in full dress tonight.”They kick down the front door, hooking George out of their way and taking over the foyer. Beyond the papier-mâché masks, they have beaded blue manes and chrome gowns with fire opal trim. They wear six-inch platform boots made of cork and spiral shank nails. These outfits tell her they are complete novices, and insecure ones at that.Smoke from her mother’s horsemeat feast still heavies the air, but the Lions slice into it with their batons. “Sweet thing,” one of them says, cuffing Antera by the back of the neck, “you’re ours for the rest of the night.”Antera forces all her thoughts into a toenail on her left foot. She does not cry, because she would be punished with electrocution. Her mother quietly opens the linen closet and pulls out a military cardigan, one of the ones given out by the Strategos Lions at Modest Clothing Day. She offers the arm-holes to her daughter. “We’re still proud of you,” she says, as Antera buttons the sweater.Two Lions clutch her by the biceps and drag her out the door, while George tries to pummel their chests, trip them, tear off their masks, and ends up convulsing with voltage on the limestone tile. Her father has turned to look out the window, the smoke of his cheroot painting long veins across the glass. She meets his eyes only once she is outside. The smallest Lion forces her, palm on skull, into one of their monster trucks, panelled in wild auburn pelts. As they start to drive away, she looks in the rearview to see a tall frame filling the neighbours’ doorway. Antera is thinking: I would be a better woman if I had no desire.“Show me your hands,” the Strategos Lion says from across the table. He is wearing a cape made of blue velvet and barbed wire, and when he looks at Antera the light between her legs turns to shadow.She has never sat at the Culprit Desk. In school, she wins awards for her extraordinary marks in Conscience class, for her dominance in the town’s Hestia Homemaker Competitions. Still, she refuses to offer the Strategos Lion her dirty hands—she sits on them instead.He takes out a fret saw and holds it up to reflect fluorescence from the overheads. “I will cut them off if you don’t show them to me,” he says.Antera is alone with this man in an interrogation room lined with rock wool. The eight Lions drew bulgur stalks to see who would have the career-boosting chance to perform the Act-Out, and this Strategos pulled the longest one. The others went to their haunt next door, a tavern owned by a friend of her father’s, to throw back black salt cocktails.“Usually this is a job,” the man says, standing to pry Antera’s hands from underneath her. “But with you, it will be a genuine pleasure.”She feels the hands on hers become lethal, choking her wrists limp. He releases her just long enough for him to untie his cape, and she feels the neon joy of blood returning to her arms. Once the barbed wire clinks against the ground, he starts to remove his gown, his fingers feral on the fire opal closures.“I’m sorry for what I did,” Antera says.He tears the buttons from her military cardigan using a seam ripper, then slices her nightgown down the front with shears. What happens next is not at all like her harmless, searing exploration earlier that night. The Strategos Lion instructs her to bite down on a chew toy he has brought with him, rawhide in two tense knots. Through the sting of contact, she bites, and grinds, and gnaws; through the dry scorch, she uses her canines. By the time she feels him finish, her teeth have worked the leather so intensely her head is pounding.He lifts his cape from the ground without pricking his skin on the barbed wire. “You’re free to go,” he says, fixing it delicately with a knot around his neck. He looks at the Culprit Desk instead of at her. “But, little girl, next time someone thicker will do the punishing.”Antera has never felt so calm. She kisses him on the throat, and in the electricity that rushes from that touch, she is blind to her own intention—to hurt him or to hold him—because after all she is here and sixteen and mercurial, because even in the wildest bush, beasts sometimes huddle for warmth.In the lane behind the Lion’s Den, Antera vomits into a puddle. Wafers and mandarin preserves splash their acid onto her cheeks. She bunches her torn nightgown in her fist and squats to pee on the pavement. The dull burn between her legs turns suddenly acute, like a flame in the town crater during one of the weekly Blue Movie and Belles Lettres Bonfires.The sun is pinking the sky. Antera shakes the wetness away and rewraps herself in her cardigan. Around the corner, her father’s friend is accompanying the other Lions out of his tavern—she knows this because she can hear them laughing, listing all the stiff drinks they’ve had. She hears the Lions tramp into their Den and wills her father’s friend not to turn the corner, knowing the shame would be intolerable if he did. But then the door to the tavern closes loudly behind him, and she wishes more than anything that his familiar eyes would see her, even exposed, even in a lake of her own waste.Exhausted, she rests on the street, and before long falls asleep. She wakes up again at mid-morning, as around the other corner Kardiá and Méllon and their mother appear, on their way to the waterpark. The two children are wearing matching shorts and tank tops, their hair neatly combed. “Antera! What happened?” Kardiá yells, and then, confused, she starts to sob.Before their mother can turn them around, Méllon pulls out a reading stone from his back pocket and starts to inspect the puddle. “Mandarins,” he says. Their mother tears the stone from him and puts her hand over his eyes, shuddering with an electric jolt. With her other hand she tugs Kardiá close, burying the girl’s tears in her skirt.Her children’s vision blocked, the mother looks at Antera. Her blank eyes offer no comfort nor judgment. They are two paperweights, two glass eggs, two reading stones, and though they refuse to uproot Antera’s suffering, they show her, simply, that she is not a ghost.“Mama,” Kardiá forces out. “Antera should come with us to see the high-diving show!”Antera wants to wrap the children in her cardigan and ferry them to a long, lush forest, where they can live untouched. She wants to martyr her ruined body. When did it get like this? Just yesterday she was running with George through the endless town meadows. He was a golden jackal and she was six years old, and they were tackling each other and laughing until their sunburns hurt, and when they came home stained with bluegrass their parents scrubbed them and shared lullabies from the insides of conch shells.Lullabies, leopard print, Chantilly, lazy river, bone shelter, love, and love, and smothered love.Where is Antera? Why is everything around her so dazzling, but dazzling in the black colours and the rust colours and the sounds of an orchestra tuning? Where in this tiny big town is Antera?Kardiá’s voice drags her back to her violent country. “The show wouldn’t be the same without her, Mama,” she says. “She’s the one who told me about it in the first place.” And all the other babble of a young girl’s mouth, one that hasn’t yet learned the kinds of trouble it can get her into.The children’s mother says, “I’m sorry, honey. Antera is not feeling very well. She’s worried it might be contagious.”Antera looks at the mother’s plain eyes as her own grow mistier. Without making a sound the children can hear, she mouths: I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I should have done something to stop this. I had no idea things would get this bad for your children. She’s unsure if the mother has understood, because her expression does not change. The mother gestures toward her rucksack with her neck, and from it, Antera pulls a grey sundress. She wipes the flecks of vomit from her face using her shredded nightgown and dries her privates with the cardigan; close to human, she slips into the dress.The mother moves her hands from her children’s faces. Kardiá is no longer crying, though her round cheeks are dappled in red. The four of them head toward the waterpark, past hornet nests strangling from jacaranda trees and rye gone unruly on each of the lane’s sides. A hound is barking a few buildings over. Antera hears the firm sound of a smack, followed by silence. Then the barking starts again.By the mountain, Antera spots Alp, his body swaying in the steam lines. As they get closer, she notices he has shaved his face. He seems especially unattainable, clean as he is. The children cheer when they see him, but softly, aware of the threat of Enforcement Static.He pads over on his bare feet. “You came to see my show,” he says, giving individual attention to everyone but Antera.“Of course we did, honey,” says the mother. “We’re your family.”A Hoplite Lion steps in front of them, waving a flag in the mother’s direction and holding up four fingers. They all know what this means: In four hours, she will be punished for exceeding the bounds of “small talk.” She fixes her spine straight. “We’re going to find a seat,” she says, formally, and leads the children to a nearby Posture Bench.Antera needs to speak on behalf of her profligate heart, but her body is too weak to risk more punishment. So she looks at Alp and says, “Thank you for the wine.”He smiles. It’s not nothing.In her periphery, she can see that the high-diving show is starting. Turning, she feels a different kind of surge, one she once knew intimately. It is not desire or longing, but excitement, the thrill of observing something both new and beautiful.Five athletes perch at the top of the mountain. Gracefully, they swan dive through the shards of sunlight. They pull silk streamers behind their falling bodies, man and material a single streak in the sky, then slip through the water’s surface without even dousing the ground. Antera feels a crescendo of fear and exhilaration at the crowd that has started to form around her. She turns in a tight circle, not knowing who or what she is looking for, just knowing she is surrounded.The divers climb back up the mountain, using its synthetic footholds, and this time Alp is with them. He winks at her from that great height, proud and lofty in his animal print. He licks his thumb to the rising north wind, and then, without hesitation, they all jump.
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
The Death Strobe of EDM, or Daft Punk at Coachella for Dummies

The could-be-true story behind the rumored what-have-we-done-to-deserve-this Vin Diesel/Steve Aoki EDM collaboration.

In early May, Billboard announced—citing an excerpt from a Los Angeles Times profile—that brofessional multi-hyphenates Vin Diesel and Steve Aoki had collaborated on a “monster” dance track, featuring Diesel’s vocals. Aoki and Diesel declined to play the track for the reporter, or even reveal its name. But Aoki was clearly pumped: "What Vin brought to the table, I've never experienced before." Diesel, who recently appeared on Kygo and Selena Gomez’s track “It Ain’t Me,” hooted: "I'm gonna get a Grammy before I get an Oscar!” Be that as it may, it was clearly a pivotal moment. With the EDM youth-cult bubble already on the verge of popping, here was the pinprick we’d been awaiting. This had to be where the circus tent deflated to a mere pup. One could imagine Aoki and Diesel hopping in the 1993 Mazda RX7 from the original The Fast and the Furious and driving the whole molly-poppin’ pageant of underage savagery off a set-designed cliff in a ginormous Abu Dhabi blood-money warehouse.This was the Death Strobe of EDM…March 18, 201610:30 p.m., Lincoln Road, South BeachMiami, Florida“Let’s go for a little ride.”Vin Diesel, the man born Mark Vincent, known to his mom as Mark Sinclair, and internationally recognized as Xander “XXX” Cage and Dominic “Fast and the Furious” Toretto, strides pecs-first out of South Beach sushi citadel Doraku. Diesel spins the keys to his 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner around a meaty digit and a smirk traverses his pan-ethnic hardman visage. The car, which appeared in the 2006 The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, was airlifted in for the day, per Diesel custom.“You’re the boss, bro,” says his sidekick for the night, eternally leaping EDM mogul/really-a-DJ Steve Aoki, who had been patiently waiting outside. Aoki turns his face to the right and then launches his trademark, straggly mane over his left shoulder.Inside Doraku earlier, the duo had met for dinner pre-Ultra Festival, the fêted dance-music debauch invading downtown Miami that weekend. They held court at a long table, joined by Doraku owner, Aoki Group macher, and Steve’s brother Kevin, who learned the restaurant hustle at the knee of the boys’ boldly ingenious father Rocky, a mustachioed Lothario, Wrestling Hall of Famer, powerboat racer, hot-air balloonist, backgammon world titlist, porn publisher, deep-sea treasure hunter, and founder of Benihana, the chain of Japanese-American chophouses that, well before Salt Bae, brought knife flipping, produce tossing, and catching shrimp in one’s hat to eager American carbo-loaders.Though raised in California, Aoki was born in Miami and has been given to exclaiming, “Sprinkle my ashes at the Fontainebleau pool, South Beach lives in my heart forever.” But he’d arranged a sitdown with Diesel—and flown him in via the private “Aoki Jet” from the Dominican Republic where the actor/producer/director/writer was shooting xXx: The Return of Xander Cage—because Aoki was in a sketchy, potentially expensive bind with some notorious locals. Not all his doing, but that was irrelevant now. He needed immediate counsel and his old pal Vinnie would know best practices.So, they went for a little ride.“Where are we headed exactly?” asks Aoki, trying to sound casual. He’s dressed in a Camo Gingham button-down, billowy white slacks, and Chipkos flip flops.“God is my co-pilot, bruh,” bellows Diesel, wearing a snug Margiela white tee. “Evolution is a spiritual process.”When Vin is geeked, Aoki just nods like he knows what his friend is talking about. For instance, when he was going on about being a “saga visionary,” then immediately switched to his theories about anti-aging stem-cell experiments, and how crushed frangipani blossoms were excellent for the skin. Life comes at you fast with Vin.The general itinerary, as Aoki understands it, is to meet some “extremely qualified individuals” at a condo downtown, near Bayfront Park where the Ultra Festival is located. Admittedly, Aoki had made some feckless mistakes. But this type of activity was worked out all the time, right? No need for violence or gunplay. Or so he hopes.Only thing was, he’d read the front page of the Miami Herald this morning and an incident had really jostled his nerves. Typical Miami exotica, but still. It was a story about a dude named Ticky Holcomb, jailed for fraud, who had unexpectedly committed suicide in his cell. Just prior to his demise, he’d moaned about stomach pains and begged to go to the infirmary where he’d gulped a half-pint of Pepto-Bismol and claimed that he was cured. But while in the clinic, Ticky had snatched a long coil of intravenous tubing and sneaked it back to his cell. No one checked on him for hours until they found him cold and dead. Fashioning the tube into a noose, Ticky had managed to hang himself from a water pipe. Naked, of course. When the sergeant on duty was asked why none of the other inmates had alerted anyone to Ticky’s wailings, the sergeant said diplomatically that the scrawny white mechanic from Okeechobee was “just not all that well-liked.”Sure, Aoki was an opulently wealthy, splashy star, but unlike certain people in his orbit, he had a conscience and didn’t engage with EDM’s seamier quadrant—the brand extortion, the trafficking (you name it), the short selling, the infamous Glow-Stick Massacres, the rendition sites. He also didn’t have his dad’s outrageous confidence verging on self-destructive nihilism. Sometimes, Aoki did doubt himself. Was he just a “prancing lapdog for American fuccbois,” like Afrojack once said while they were wakeboarding in Ibiza?Aoki mutters to himself, “Yeah, where’s Paris Hilton, you simp?”Meanwhile, Diesel maneuvers through the jammed-up Venetian Causeway like a Formula One kamikaze, waving at fans to let him cut in. “Thanks, babe,” he shouts at a woman in a Ferrari convertible. “My God, you’re so beautiful, I don’t know how I’m supposed to drive. You are, like, wow! Tell me something, Stevie, look at this girl, oh my God, she’s so fucking sexy!” He pulls the Roadrunner ahead of her and moves on to his next conquest.11:10 p.m., Four Seasons Residences, Brickell Avenue“It’s go time, boys,” announces Diesel with a fresh seriousness, as he no-look passes the Roadrunner’s keys to a valet. Briskly swerving left through the marble lobby to the elevators, they ascend to the penthouse of this brightly shining, azure blue tower. Upon entering the apartment, they pause, and share a wry chuckle. On a cylindrical wooden platform in the middle of the main floor sits an absurdly oversize champagne-bottle sculpture, bathed in soft light, which leads the way to a vast wine collection. There are enough bathrooms to take care of the Miami Heat starting five, plus one for sixth man James Johnson.Unfortunately, the twosome have wandered into the middle of an argument. A woman who looks uncannily like Aoki’s auntie Kiko drifts slowly across the living room to a wet bar in turquoise, bejeweled slides. Aoki is drawn to her, the way she moves, the way she raises her hand to brush her hair from her face. But as the voices of the two men in the room become more agitated, he nervously glances at Diesel, who shrugs uneasily.“Baby, you don’t any more know what my business is than they do!” one of the men yells at the woman. “Make me a goddamn vodka tonic, princesa!”Vodka tonics had been auntie Kiko’s favorite drink. When she’d had a few, she liked to reminisce about Miami in the golden days, when old retired people from New York sat on hotel porches wearing hats, their noses painted white. Now it was the “hip place” to be in South Florida, she would grouse. Guys with sunglasses in their hair posing skinny girls on the beach. No place to park anymore on Ocean Drive.Another woman walks into the room—a dark-haired Cuban stunner in a leotard and severe heels. She has a majestic sort of authority. Is she the one in charge? She certainly seems more sure of herself than the other two: “Max, que pasa, papi?” She sits down on the white sofa and Aoki can see that she has two guns resting on the cushion on either side of her. Unassuming little guns, but nothing guileless about them.Max slowly pulls a black and yellow stun gun from the back of his pants’ waistband and points it at the enormous window overlooking Biscayne Bay. Then he pushes in the plunger and the plane of glass instantly explodes. The shards fall with a weirdly deafening tinkle. Everybody freezes, except the woman on the sofa, who picks up one of the guns and blasts out Max’s legs. As he screams, two more men emerge from a back room and the other woman ducks behind the bar. Diesel is motionless, a statue. Aoki shakes him, and they both turn and run, escaping to the hallway and the bank of elevators.“Fuck, bro, what the fuck, Vin?!?” Aoki, yelling and quivering, looks over his shoulder as the elevator opens. They step inside before anyone emerges from the apartment. Diesel is silent. Aoki’s mind is frenetic, racing back to auntie Kiko’s elaborately frightening Miami stories—the secret fundings, the carcass of a tiger strapped to the front of a limo, the conspiracies tucked under conspiracies, an alligator in a pool behind a house on Star Island, the Mariel boatlift, floating human body parts, the plot to assassinate the Costa Rican ambassador as a pretext to military intervention, the U.S. government’s plausible deniability.She always said, “Spanish is the language of power in Miami.”Diesel is coming around, but he still looks dazed. He finally turns to Aoki and says, “You know, man, I love to sing in the car. Me and my twin brother Paul, we used to drive around New York and listen to Britney Spears songs. This is back in the late ’90s, right? Two thirty-year-old dudes shouting, ‘Hit me baby one more time!’ like fourteen-year-old girls.” His eyes loll, and then he looks away. “Views are overrated, man,” he muses. “It's light that counts. I have an apartment on South Beach, but I get tired of looking at the ocean. Even that view gets old after a while. Sunlight streaming into a room—that never ages.”“Goddamnit, Vin, snap out it, man!” Aoki is angry now. They exit the hotel, jump in a cab to the Park, as he nervously twirls his hair around a finger and tries to imagine what his father would do in this situation. Then Aoki immediately clears his mind.11:45 p.m., Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne BoulevardAoki directs the cab into an Ultra Festival side entrance to the VIP zone, where he hopes they can hide out in the artists’ lounge while deciding what to do next. Diesel has regained his senses somewhat, but he’s surprisingly unconcerned about what just happened. “Only a glitch, man. We’ll get this sorted, Stevie. Relax, enjoy the music, vibe out.”DJs, managers, corporate sponsors, et al., filter through the docked yacht that houses the lounge. Skrillex strolls by, geeked as always, earnestly charming. “You know what's special about Miami?” he chirps. “It’s the collision of cultures, the Cubans and Nicaraguans and Hondurans and Salvadorans, the café con leche and guava pastries and Calle Ocho and the pachangas mixed with the white sand and palm trees.” He’s jumping from one foot to another, swinging his inky hair around. “And the celebrities, I mean, I’m not good at star-spotting, but the energy, the atmosphere. It’s like post-apocalyptic Barbie world, rebuilt after a tsunami. Everywhere you look is pink and people in crazy sunglasses, warehouses with sick parties where girls are covered in spikes and black leather. It's a different world, man.” And just like that, he bounces off like a tiny emo Tigger.Aoki is still stressed and edgy, stroking his goatee. Somehow, everything just got a thousand times worse. How did he get into this mess? It all happened so fast. The gambling, it’d been like an unseen hand controlling him. And the rush, he’d never felt anything like it, which he knows is ridiculous coming from a dude who’s been a party brofessional for twenty years. A guy who gets onstage in front of more than a 100,000 people and hurls birthday cakes at kids for a living. A man who rides inflatable rafts and lounge chairs across crowds of Molly-coddled teens. A dude who has turned taking pictures of himself jumping in the fucking air into an unstoppable social-media gimmick. Yes, that guy had never felt a rush greater than a slot-machine jackpot or a thousand-dollar double down at the blackjack table. For him, it’d felt like all the unfairness and injustice that everybody spends every day denying, the same world our fellow citizens see as normal, just to survive, all of it poured out in those fluky victories, those breathtaking confirmations of pointlessness. It wasn’t about beating the system, it was about beating the everloving shit out of reason and sanity.“Stevie, you know what we oughta do? We oughta make a track together!” It’s Diesel, suddenly energized, speaking at breakneck speed, eyes alight. He’s gulping water. “We could get Devon involved [mentioning Steve’s actress/model sister who appeared in the Diesel-free 2 Fast 2 Furious], or my cousin Kwame, you know, the polka-dot rapper dude that Biggie merked, remember him? Hey, you still bros with Lil Jon? Listen to this line: ‘It’s sweaty in Miami, but my diamonds keep me cool.’ That’s my shit, that’s the hook! This could be so dope, bro. So dope. We could drop Easter eggs for my film about Dungeons & Dragons. You know I’m a total D&D head, right? Maybe we should call J Balvin; I was just kickin’ it with him in the DR! Did you know I used to rap? I can’t believe we didn’t do this already. You know those Fyre Fest fuckwads who said, ‘Let’s be legendary?’ Fuck that shit, dude. Let’s be fucking historic!” Sweat pours off Diesel’s pate.The roar from Martin Garrix on the main stage is at peak blast. Diesel bangs his head, pumps his fist, and mouths the words: “We. Are. The. Fuckin’. Animals.”Aoki’s not listening. He already knows what he’ll do with the track. Blaze up, let Vin sing and rap and screw around with some beats on his laptop. Then he’ll chop the shit up and make it sound like Daft Punk at Coachella for Dummies. It’ll be historic. It’s always historic. We’re always making history. Every moment. Every incredible, breathtakingly pointless moment. Unless you’re sleeping. Or dead. No regrets, kids. No regrets.Special thanks to Joan Didion, Carl Hiaasen, and Frederick and Steven Barthelme.
Losers’ Utopia

Both baseball and politics invite delusions of more perfect ways of living—but some fantasies seem more attainable than others.

Paint the Corners is a monthly column about baseball.President Trump could have delivered his denunciation of the Paris Climate Accord a few weeks back in starker White House environs befitting his grim, paranoid tone—the Treaty Room, the Oval Office, the main floor of the residence—but no. It was a beautiful day, so he went with the Rose Garden, 7,500 square feet of geometric horticulture and lovingly tended grass. Standing amid chalk-white columns and a cocktail jazz band, Trump repeated the dreary conservative recitation of who’s exploiting us, who’s profiting unfairly off of us, who’s getting a free ride on our straining backs. “We don't want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore,” he explained. “And they won't be. They won't be. I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Notably, this headline-ready phrase had nothing to do with climate or the economy, Trump’s ostensible justifications for leaving the accord. Instead, this was Trump proudly declaring his tribal close-mindedness. There is no global community. A man cannot care for two cities at once. All interactions are zero-sum. Stop laughing at us.The mayor of Pittsburgh quickly leapt in to defend his city against this cynical exploitation, noting, along with many others, that Steel City hasn’t been a steel town for decades. It employs tens of thousands of people in world-class research universities, art museums, and alternative energy companies. In 2016, Clinton outperformed Obama’s margin of victory in Allegheny County. And since this is baseball season, it’s worth pointing out that the Pirates, who have wallowed near the bottom of the NL Central all summer, are nevertheless modeling the worldly, boundary-less future of the game more than most teams.In one week in late April, the Bucs improbably called up the first Lithuanian player and the first African-born player in Major League Baseball history. Dovydas Neverauskas pitched the final two innings of a blowout loss to the Cubs, giving up one run of the 14 that the Pirates surrendered that evening. As described by Pirates beat writer Stephen J. Nesbitt, this unremarkable performance was the culmination of thirty years of family history. Neverauskas’ father grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Vilnius, playing on the first Soviet baseball teams that were formed in the late ’80s in anticipation of the game’s Olympic debut in 1992. He knew absolutely nothing about the sport prior to reading a translated rule book in his local library. “For balls, they filled (and refilled) tennis balls with water,” writes Nesbitt. “For bats, they grabbed anything made of wood. For mitts, they employed a few hockey goalie gloves.” Neverauskas eventually bought real equipment from Cubans who were playing in St. Petersburg, then played for a few years in Moscow himself before becoming a coach.Dovydas went with his father to America when the older man coached summer teams. He saw his first MLB games in Oakland, then played in the 2008 and 2009 MLB European Academies in Italy, part of professional baseball’s concerted effort to explore the talent bases outside the Americas. Once drafted, he traveled the typical minor leaguer’s tour of tucked-away American outposts, playing for Pirates affiliates in Bradenton, Altoona, and Indianapolis.In the latter, playing for the Triple-A Indians, he was teammates with Gift Ngoepe, a twenty-seven-year-old infielder who grew up next to a baseball field in suburban Johannesburg. Ngoepe’s mother worked for the team, and their home, in Ngoepe’s telling, “was very small—almost like the size of a big closet here in America—but it was home. The kitchen was in that room. As was the living room. It wasn’t big enough to divide up into separate living spaces. It was all just one room, and we had a mattress on the floor.”Ngoepe was in Italy in 2008 as well, where he received transformative fielding instruction from legendary shortstop Barry Larkin. He was signed to the Pirates by Tom Randolph, the same international scout who signed Neverauskas.In Pittsburgh, Ngoepe and Neverauskas joined a team with a higher than average number of Venezuelans, all of whom were anxiously following the deadly famine and unrest in their home country and struggling to formulate a response. In mid-May, catcher Francisco Cervelli took the field with “S.O.S. VENEZUELA” scrawled in white on his eye black, a uniquely forthright gesture in a sport that tries mightily to ignore politics altogether. In collaboration with the Brewers’ Hernan Perez, Cervelli brought most of MLB’s seventy Venezuelan players together in solidarity to plead on social media for the violence to end. His own Spanish-language Instagram video, featuring thirteen players, has been viewed nearly 40,000 times.These aren’t political statements per se, just human displays of empathy and concern. But that’s enough to make headlines in MLB, and enough to sit comfortably in the tradition of socially conscious Pittsburgh baseball players. The largest figure in Pirates lore is Roberto Clemente, a pioneering Latin American ballplayer and the man for whom Major League Baseball’s humanitarian awards are named. This is also the team of Dock Ellis, the renegade black pitcher whose blunt talk about race during the ’60s and ’70s drew comparisons to Muhammad Ali. It is also currently the team of outfielder Andrew McCutchen, previous winner of a Clemente Award and attentive steward of the Make-a-Wish foundation, who has been more willing than most to speak out about the racial and economic disparities at work in baseball’s wider youth and recruiting structures.As a business, Major League Baseball recognizes and supports this kind of global-mindedness. They happily shared the news that Opening Day 2017 featured the largest number of foreign-born active players in the sport’s history, and reporter Jon Heyman has heard rumors of a forthcoming expansion into Mexico. Once Neverauskas made his Pittsburgh debut, commissioner Rob Manfred traveled to the city to take in a game and tell reporters, “When you have one of your athletes playing… that’s the best way to grow the game in that foreign country.” In baseball, too, Pittsburgh deserves more than catch-phrase infamy.*Sadly, few teams are less rewarding to watch than the 2017 Pirates. They arrived in Baltimore in early June, by this point lacking both Ngoepe and Neverauskas, who had been sent back to Indianapolis. On each night of a two-game series against the Orioles, they gave up early leads and lost by extra-inning walk-offs. My Orioles have fallen far from a commanding first month of the season, having drifted in and out of last place in the AL East within the previous two weeks, but they looked like warriors beside the wobbly Bucs: they hit six home runs in two nights and ended each game under a celebratory spray of water around home plate.I was there on the second night, a cool Wednesday following a stretch of warm days. Rain threatened all afternoon, though the sky was bright and gorgeous by first pitch. But certainly those midday clouds, the relatively low temperatures, and the prospect of a weeknight interleague contest against a cellar-dwelling team kept many people away. There were huge swaths of unoccupied seats, especially in the upper deck.Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened twenty-five years ago, when I was younger than my fourth-grader is now. I suspect I’ve seen more than 100 games there over the years, including plenty that were even more sparsely attended than this no-stakes contest. For almost half my life, from 1997 to 2012, the Orioles were hapless and, frankly, depressing to follow. There were whole years when the upper reaches of Camden Yards were a good place to get some undisturbed reading done. The stadium, a palace of ivy, red brick, and forest green accents that buried the ’80s tendency towards multi-sport colosseums and fake-grass domes, felt like a blemish by the highway. Ten years ago, the summer I moved back to the city after college, the Orioles endured a historically lopsided drubbing by the Texas Rangers: 30-3, a damn football score. And if I made a list of the most demoralizing days of that fifteen-year journey in the wilderness, that might not even make the top five.Nevertheless, Camden Yards is the closest thing I have to a favorite place in the world. Nowhere makes me happier to enter. Nowhere makes time stop in quite the same way. For one, not all the memories are bad. Despite the fact that the park has hosted a sub-.500 team for more than half of its existence, it is still a baseball stadium, meaning that glory can spring up at random. A poll of the greatest games in its first two decades included everything from come-from-behind late-season victories to Eddie Murray’s 500th home run and the overwrought, astounding 2,131 game. I was there the night before, when Cal Ripken, Jr. tied Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games record, just as I was in 2012, at the first Baltimore playoff game in fifteen years. The communal mania of a historic baseball game is one of the great experiences available to human beings, and Camden Yards is a venue that does justice to it.When the Polo Grounds closed in 1963, Roger Angell likened that creaking, crowded icon to a New York neighborhood of its own, and the same is true of any decent baseball stadium. Certainly Oriole Park is the most diverse of Baltimore’s many neighborhoods; I have shared luxury boxes with tie-wearing lawyers and I have sat in the upper deck next to shirtless dirtbags from distant rural Maryland counties. I have bought beer for white female elementary school teachers from Gettysburg and hugged an older black gentleman whose final construction job involved pouring cement for Oriole Park itself. Baltimore is a direly segregated place, racially and economically, but in Camden Yards you can walk among the full range of humanity and the full range of people who root for this city, even if only under the guise of black and orange.For the game against the Pirates, my two friends and I started in the upper deck behind home plate. The crowd being so sparse, we moved down through the lower concourse to left field, a prime home-run-catching spot. We caught nothing, alas, and as the game dragged on and the Orioles fell farther behind, we moved toward the visiting dugout on the third base line.From this vantage, close enough to the field to hear the slap of fastballs against the catchers’ mitts, we watched the Orioles mount a comeback in two movements, both of which were animated by rookie outfielder Trey Mancini. First, Manicini stepped in as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning and launched a two-run, game-tying homer into right-center. In the eleventh inning, he hit the three-run rocket that sent the few remaining witnesses into a grateful tizzy. No fates were changed that night, but Mancini’s feat was only the eighth time ever that a pinch-hitter has hit two home runs for five RBI—exactly the kind of unforeseen minor statistical miracle that you hope to see anytime you watch this game.A midseason baseball stadium, at least one as beautiful as Oriole Park at Camden Yards, offers a glimpse of earthly utopia: the pristine grass, the dewy night air, the instant, temporary camaraderie of people screaming and eating overpriced food in matching colors. Even the field itself, so doted upon and photogenically lit, is Edenic, a vision of what the world might look like if only we cared for it properly. Watching this year’s Pirates play in Baltimore, I felt I was getting a glimpse of a better, saner civilization: people from all corners of the earth working together, focusing on the task at hand while keeping a concerned eye on the crises brewing at the periphery. In this world, the grass is beautiful and the unlikeliest people are capable of heroism in the unlikeliest moments.That’s a tidy fantasy, but so is a Rose Garden party to celebrate one’s own ignorant rejection of the wider universe. And as far as fantasies go, I choose the utopian one. I choose the delusion that uniformed men can come together and delivery history all summer long. I reject fear. I choose baseball.
The Nanny as Audible Ambien

Who could possibly fall asleep to the sound of Fran Drescher’s voice?

For the past three years, I’ve stuck to a nightly ritual: I get in bed, queue up some episodes of The Nanny on YouTube, dim the lights on my screen, and schedule my computer to shut down within an hour. I’m a man prone to habits born of anxiety, but most of them are tame and ordinary, from nail biting to running my fingers through my hair. This one’s somewhat odd by comparison. Others may gravitate towards Bach or old episodes of Friends to fall asleep to each night, which makes my choice of white noise too bizarre to rationalize. Who, after all, could possibly fall asleep to the sound of Fran Drescher’s voice?A lullaby, by definition, soothes; it is an adjuvant to the day’s stresses and horrors. Drescher’s voice, popular consensus suggests, is both stress inducing and horrifying; it has prompted some to draw the tired “fingernails on a chalkboard” comparison more than once, while Roger Ebert, rarely the kind of critic who relished in taking cheap shots at a performer, surmised that her voice “is like having ear wax removed with a small dental drill.” Drescher’s particular, peculiar way of speaking is a consistent joke throughout The Nanny, the ‘90s sitcom wherein Drescher plays the titular character (also named Fran), a bridal shop employee from Queens who accidentally becomes the caretaker for the three children of a rich Manhattan widower (Charles Shaughnessy). Drescher is divine in the show: a lithe and supple physical comedienne, contorting her face balletically to match any mood, be it dour or delighted, bemused or besotted with grief.Crucially, though, she is endowed with a voice that pitches and yaws like an airplane lifting itself from turbulence. Or, as Andy Meisler of The New York Times described it upon the show’s premiere in 1994, Drescher’s voice is “[t]he sound of a Buick with an empty gas tank cold-cranking on a winter morning.”The subject of Drescher’s pinched, high-larynxed voice is fodder for most of the show’s humor. In one episode, she’s held hostage during a bank robbery, and she shouts from the bank’s interiors that she’s okay. “That’s no megaphone,” her boss explains to a police officer, half-proudly. “That’s my nanny!” When she visits a sushi restaurant and unknowingly downs a gob of wasabi, unaware of its potency, her nasal passages clear. The moment is staged as something of a small miracle—that is, until her voice jolts back up to its braying, whiny default seconds later. Drescher’s voice is too nasal to be remedied by a decongestant, too intense to register on the Richter Scale. This running gag in the show has become a larger cultural aphorism: Even when Sofia Vergara parodied Drescher’s voice in a Saturday Night Live episode in 2012, her interpretation almost seemed too mild.Friends and acquaintances, I’ve found, are sheepish and reluctant to recognize any greatness in Drescher’s work on The Nanny, precisely because they can’t perceive anything past that trademark voice. (But she was nominated for an Emmy—twice! I mutter to myself, quietly aggrieved, in response.) There’s a certain futility in assigning logic to my affinity for the pleasures others might chafe at or actively try to shame me for. This almost increases my desire to hold these thrills closer, to revel in them with joy, to indulge in them when no one else is looking.For Drescher’s voice is her most vital, and intolerable, instrument, and the way she wields it is an act of self-preservation. When she began acting in The Nanny in 1994, the voice wasn’t quite there: Drescher came off as timid and warbly, almost uncertain in the manner she was going about her characterization, as if she wasn’t going all the way with the shtick. Over the course of the second season, she eased herself into her voice rather incrementally; it became more robust and round. By the third season, Drescher embraced the act thoroughly. There was no sense of gurgling tension or unease with the voice. It was fully hers.*I’ve never considered myself the kind of gay man who likes his dames grand. I have little patience for Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958); I find Mommie Dearest (1981) dry, colorless, neither funny nor moving. My track record might suggest that I couldn’t find anything humorous or sympathetic about Drescher, the broadest of broads, but here we are.The Nanny was an uncredited extra in my childhood in the same way Cheers or Full House had also been: I was vaguely aware of its existence, yet I hadn’t watched it concertedly until its syndication afterlife on Nick-at-Nite in the late aughts. I don’t know if it’s quite a coincidence that my mother and I are the ones who began watching The Nanny together, yet we watched it with quasi-religious fervor. My mother found Drescher irresistibly appealing in the show.This was a household in which my mother’s voice constituted its own punchline. My mother’s voice remains unconscionably loud, muting all other elements in the room. It is a statement. My late father and I often made fun of her for how loudly she spoke, and she participated, like Drescher, in this pile-on. She wasn’t simply in on the joke; she encouraged it. My mother knew she was loud and didn’t quite care, for she saw no shame in having that voice.*I started watching The Nanny on YouTube shortly after graduating from college three years ago. The activity began as a way to pass time in the lonely hours before bed. Yet it grew, without my realizing it until much later, into a fierce bid to fight my longing for my mother’s company, a yearning that had somehow grown intense after I’d left school. Call it self-infantilizing, but watching the show was a leisurely pursuit I’d long engaged in with my mother. Besides, my first apartment didn’t have a television.Episodes of The Nanny tend to drift on and off YouTube, subject to copyright law. As a way to circumvent this law, some uploaders have taken to adjusting the pace and pitch of the show, making Drescher sound easier on the eardrums. Her voice slows down to the rhythm of molasses or gets quick, fussy, almost Chipmunk-like. These versions are unwatchable. They forfeit what I consider the integrity of the show’s DNA, contained in Drescher’s incorrigibly loud voice. Her voice overreaches; it is extravagant. But the point of indulgence is to find pleasure, and to give others permission to access it.I’ve long felt wary about grafting some imagined “queer sensibility” onto my reading of the female performers I love, for it seems too dangerous a position to defend. I am a man, after all, and this decisive fact hinders my identification with the experiences of women, and the way certain female performers give themselves to the screen. I’m tempted make an exception with Fran Drescher, for I hold her close to my heart in the way I do my best friend, my mother, the woman whose loud voice I’ll hear in my head long after she dies. What others may find about Drescher’s voice to be deliriously displeasing is my audible Ambien, massaging my worries into the oblivion of the night, as soothing as the sound of a mother singing her son to sleep.
The Eternal Becoming of Sofia Coppola

Like so many of her heroines, the director seduces to control.

Charlotte Rampling, 1973, nude, sits atop a wooden table at the Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus in Arles in the room in which matadors once dressed for battle. Legs ajar, wine in hand, body turned away, she squares her unsmiling eyes with the camera (and Helmut Newton behind it), as if to say: “This is not for you.”To Sofia Coppola, this is what it means to be a woman. As a girl raised in Napa on a rambling ranch, her world-famous father travelling the planet, her mother alongside him,11“Why can’t we just be normal?” Sofia asked. this girl, the one who has always been defined by her style before anything else, considered fashion magazines her “link to the rest of the world.”22Vogue, 2003 She covered her walls in their images—mostly thin, mostly beautiful, mostly rich white women. The photo of Rampling came from a 1974 issue of Vogue. Sofia wrote about it for the magazine in 2003 and kept it into her 30s; deep into womanhood, she was still reminding herself who she wanted to be. Even today, more than a decade later—with six films behind her and two children in front—we still sense that photo watching over her, still sense her incipience. “Is she an eternal adolescent because she’s always primarily read as her father’s daughter?” asks Fiona Handyside, author of Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood. If she is, her heroines come by it naturally. The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring and her most recent film, the Cannes-lauded Beguiled, are all coming of age tales featuring young, privileged white women—pre-adolescents, actual adolescents, delayed adolescents—none of whom ever really come of age. To Coppola, the image of Rampling is, after all, just that, an image, the ideal that can never square with reality. “Girls are seen as really special and exciting and full of potential,” Handyside says of Sofia’s cinema, “womanhood is this thing that closes that down. So why would you want to grow up?”*To hear Eleanor Coppola tell it, her daughter was a typical adolescent who denigrated her mother and deified her friends. Sofia has said herself that she was “a little too cool to be a teenager,” that she wanted to grow up, felt more suited to adulthood. When she wasn’t traveling with her family, her youth was occasionally caught on film. In her first pubescent role—Tim Burton’s 1984 monochromatic short Frankenweenie—she is a gangly pseudo-teen credited as “Domino,”33She also used the pseudonym for her father’s film The Cotton Club that same year but has never explained why. who wears a long, blond obvious wig, a bow and a gingham dress—the platonic ideal of the American girl. She is also the only girl, a Dorothy type surrounded by munchkin boys, who exercises side by side with her Barbie doll (Barbie, naturally, being her one female friend). Two years later, 15-year-old Coppola acted through braces in Peggy Sue Got Married as the girl scout sister of Kathleen Turner. “Teenagers are weird and you’re the weirdest,” she says, her lackadaisical delivery already secured in place.Around this time, according to her mother, Sofia became a fixture at her friends’ homes, claiming her own no “fun.” This teenage rebellion culminated in her flying off to Paris at 15 to intern at Chanel over two summers.  “Every inch of her wants to break out of an ordinary routine,” Eleanor wrote in her diary. And she did. That same year, Sofia abruptly stopped being a teenager, though not of her own volition. Twelve days after her birthday, her oldest brother, Gian-Carlo (“Gio”), died unexpectedly at the age of 22 in a boating accident.  “[W]hen my brother died, my teenage years got interrupted,” Sofia told The Hollywood Reporter. Later, when the family was organizing Gio’s things, Sofia slid into his white silk jacket. “It smells like him,” she said.A little while after that a dude named Dave Markey became a sort of surrogate older brother to Sofia. Three years before he became known as the director of The Year Punk Broke, Markey was an underground filmmaker. When they met through mutual friends in the late '80s, Sofia was a fan of his low budget teen-girl-runaway-rock-band extravaganza Lovedolls Superstar, which featured early-days Sonic Youth. “She had already seen some of my work and was really into it so it was very flattering for me at the time,” says Markey, whose band stayed at the Coppola ranch. Sofia looked up to Markey, who was in his mid-20s, and he turned her onto “psychotropic cinema,” escorting her to Laemmle’s Monica Premiere Showcase (as it was then known) in Los Angeles to see Carnival of Souls. Herk Harvey’s only film, a goth-cult horror from 1962, is about a beautiful blond organist who exists in a sort of post-car-accident limbo—“I had no place in the world, no part of the life around me,” she says—and is drawn to an abandoned amusement park. “I remember that left a really big impression on her,” says Markey. “She was really blown away by that film.”But several months later Sofia had no time for rep cinema. At that point, she was handed the biggest responsibility of her life so far: taking Winona Ryder’s place. Her father, Francis Ford Coppola, by then a well established New Hollywood force having helmed the mobstalgic Godfather franchise, had based the role of Mary—mafia alum Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) daughter—on Sofia. So when Ryder, who had already headlined several films, fell ill, Sofia was the obvious understudy, despite having never actually studied acting. In her first scene in The Godfather Part III, sitting in a pew with a scarf on her head, an enigmatic smile on her face, Sofia looks every drop the Virgin Mary. But internally she suffered from a severe case of impostor syndrome and overworked herself to the point of tears. Sofia knew she was not welcome. A Paramount executive disputed her casting, the other actors did too, and people advised Eleanor she was abusing her child. Mary folded under the pressure. In the film, Sofia’s delivery is flat, almost bored, her lines overlapping those of others, her weak presence only underscored by the power of Pacino’s. After Mary is fatally shot, she falls to her knees and says, “Dad?”44This is the second time Francis killed off his daughter on screen—the first was when she was gunned down as a street urchin in The Cotton Club. It ended up being a metaphor—she trusted her father and the critics killed her for it.That same year, 1990, Sofia appeared in Markey’s music video for Sonic Youth’s “Mildred Pierce.” He shot her on Super 8 in front of Hollywood’s Max Factor building one afternoon after she designed her own costume and applied her own makeup—thick brows, black lips, Chanel—her exaggerated wide-eyed sneer reminiscent of Cry Baby’s Hatchet-Face. “I just had the concept to dress up Sofia as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest,” Markey says. “So she’s actually channelling Faye Dunaway.” Around that time Sofia also befriended Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon, whose fashion label, X-Girl, she would soon join. “Kim inspired me because she tried all the things that interested her,” she told Elle. “She just did what she was into.” As for herself, Sofia wasn’t sure what she was into. It was an embarrassment of riches. Fashion, maybe? She was in charge of the outfits on a film called The Spirit of ‘7655She had previously designed the Chanel jr. costumes for “Life Without Zoe,” her father’s maligned Eloise-like segment in the 1989 film New York Stories, which Sofia also helped write. and at one point considered studying costume design. “She was really into that,” says Markey. But a year later Sofia was onto a third college and other interests. “I want to take photography and painting and learn more skills,” she told her mother. So she studied art history and co-founded a clothing company, Milk Fed, in Japan. “I became a dilettante,” she told The New York Times. “I wanted to do something creative, but I didn’t know what it would be.”[[{"fid":"6700856","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Sonic Youth - Mildred Pierce","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The one thing Sofia didn’t study was film—she figured she could ask her dad anything—and it wasn’t until her late twenties that she started talking about directing. “I’m gonna make a movie, it’s gonna be fun, I’m so excited,” Markey remembers her saying. The movie was Lick the Star (1998) and it lasted no more than 15 minutes, but it would become the prototype for her entire oeuvre. Co-written by best friend Stephanie Hayman, this black-and-white sliver of Heathers-style precociousness sees a bunch of high schoolers poisoning their male harassers (the title inverts their motto, Kill the Rats). “Everything changes, nothing changes, the tables turn and life goes on,” the queen bee scrawls on a scrap of loose leaf and sticks into An American Biography. Adolescent torpor, slo-mo saturnalia, gendered spaces, in her first film Sofia had already hinted at what would become her signature tropes.66Her two previous music videos—Walt Mink’s “Shine” (1993) and The Flaming Lips’ “This Here Giraffe” (1996)—also touched on these motifs. “Movies incorporated all the things I liked,” she told W. “It was the first time I felt like something clicked professionally for me.”*A redhead lies on her back in the grass, her arms outstretched like an exhausted Christ, orange hair matching the orange in the sun-soaked green, the blossoms on her borrowed dress nestled in the ground. Barely clutching a camera in her left hand, the girl’s right arm reaches out of frame, perhaps searching for something to hold onto. She is in a sort of rapture. She smiles, maybe.William Eggleston’s 1975 image of a young woman on Quaaludes was one of the many works of the time—alongside Bill Owens’ Suburbia and Sam Haskins’ Playboy portraits—that inspired Sofia Coppola’s first feature. From the beginning, she used a mood board to set the stage, which is why her films, if nothing else, are as eternally moody as a prom at midnight. Her 1999 adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides languidly embraced a quintet of teen sisters from suburbia whose burgeoning sexuality is stifled by their Catholic parents’ clapboard take on gothic seclusion.[[{"fid":"6700786","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"288","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Born in 1971, Sofia’s aesthetic is largely nostalgic for the decade of her prepubescence, so it follows that her first film would be set in the same era. She understood the Virgin Suicides’ feeling of alienation and loss—of time, of innocence, of relationships—having felt the same way in her nomadic youth. “I liked that the story seemed to capture what it was like to be that age,” she told Interview, “something that I haven’t seen many people get right.” Coppola captured the impulsive guilelessness of adolescence by hiring non-actors she found on the streets of her Toronto set, directing one of the neighborhood boys in the film to dine with the Lisbons for the first time, for the first scene, script free. Writes producer Julie Costanzo, via email, “she opted for him to experience the bewilderment and discomfort.”For Lux Lisbon, however, the sister who is ardently pursued by the local rake and then just as coolly dropped, Coppola chose a professional. Kirsten Dunst, around 17 at the time, was picked for her liminality—“She’s really a kid,” said Coppola in Combustible Celluloid in 2000, “but she’s also womanly”—thus began the director’s trend of casting white (often blond) former child starlets. Dunst was followed by Scarlett Johansson was followed by Elle Fanning was followed by Emma Watson, all actresses who, despite their advancing ages, eternally invoke youth. Sofia based the look of the girls on her childhood best friend’s sister, Leslie Hayman, the freckled towhead she eventually cast as sibling Therese. “[W]hen I was in high school, the pretty girls were blonde and perfect,” Sofia said. “Those were the girls the guys were after.” She was not one of them. Even Coppola’s own mother wrote of her, “She is beautiful in an imperfect way.” Having broken her nose in junior high during a ball game, Sofia remembers appreciating Anjelica Huston’s promise that she would grow into it. The advice was particularly stark coming from the fellow daughter of a famous director (John Huston) who had an equally miserable first experience working with her father. [[{"fid":"6700791","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"281","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]While the male gaze defines Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides, in Coppola’s film the girls exist beyond it. As such, she explores the “imprisonment of being a girl” but also its potency. “I really loved how the boys were looking at the girls and the girls had this kind of power and mystique over them,” Coppola told Rookie, “and I was interested in how girls could get stuck in lives that were too small for them.” In the Lisbons’ presence, the boys are virtually emasculated, mere subjects in the girls’ home, under their spell even in their own car. Not even Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the magic man, has command over the younger Lux, who unbeknownst to him has his name branded on her underwear (he is already where he wants to be but only she knows it). “I often thought of Sofia’s style and assuredness as more about identifying the absence of what was transpiring in a scene, rather than the presence,” says producer Julie Costanzo. So Lux owns Trip, until he owns her, disappearing while she slumbers post-coitally, the guy who is objectified refusing to be, as the girls joke, “They’re just going to raffle us off.” But they refuse too. By killing themselves, the Lisbons reject their restricted lives. “What do girls have? Well, they have their bodies,” says Handyside. “That’s [their] weapon, that’s the thing that [they] can possibly use or indeed withdraw.”[[{"fid":"6700796","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"281","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Sofia Coppola might have withdrawn herself had the press responded to The Virgin Suicides as they had to The Godfather Part III, but after a warm reception at Cannes, she was reborn. The 28-year-old director was no longer merely Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, she was an individual. Emboldened by the response in France, she turned further inward for her next film.Lost in Translation was, of course, about loss, too, but of a different kind. A young married philosophy grad finds herself aimlessly wandering the halls of Tokyo’s Park Hyatt, crying long distance to a “friend” back home who doesn’t seem to hear, her absentee husband equally oblivious. When she first visited Japan, Coppola told The New York Times, she “felt like teenage girls were running the whole country,” which makes it an apt setting for a delayed adolescent like Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson was in fact only 17 during filming). The overgrown, subdued Eloise soon comes across a famous actor (Bob, played by Bill Murray) in the midst of his own midlife crisis. They karaoke, party, sushi, watch late night movies. “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be,” she tells him, before he tells his own wife, “I’m completely lost.” The first time they see each other, in an elevator packed with locals, Charlotte and Bob catch each other’s eye and share a smile—they are each other’s compass. “To me that’s like the most comforting or best thing in life,” Coppola told The Guardian, “when you have a little connection or you both find something funny, and it makes you feel not alone.”[[{"fid":"6700801","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"320","width":"576","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Though the press speculated about how autobiographical the film actually was, Coppola responded in Filmmaker, “There’s a part of me in that character.” The truth is, for a long time she was as lost as Charlotte. It is thus unsurprising that her most autobiographical work would be vocal about its search for personhood, a leitmotif that permeates all of her films (without, however, the oft-associated finding of it). “I always like characters who are in the midst of a transition and trying to find their place in the world and their identity,” she told Rookie. This was the all-encompassing theme of her life for about a decade, when she was afraid that, like Somewhere’s Johnny Marco, she would end up a nothing, a nobody—it’s a fear she reflects on screen over and over again. “To me, the films are about how everyone has to decide how they want to live their life,” she told the Boston Phoenix, “as opposed to how they’re supposed to.” Supposed to. For young women the expectation becomes even more loaded. And Marie Antoinette is the biggest supposed to of all.Based on Antonia Fraser’s biography of Madame Deficit, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette follows the Austrian dauphine from the age of 14, when she is sent to France to become queen at a time when she knows more about pugs than politics, to the French Revolution. The director told Vanity Fair she could identify with the 18th century royal, “coming from a strong family and fighting for her identity.” The moment Sofia was born, bestowed upon her was what Handyside refers to as “a simultaneous burden and privilege.” Barely out of the womb, she was cast as a baby boy in The Godfather, cast, in a sense, as heir to the Coppola dynasty both on screen and off. The way her image was co-opted by her family, Antoinette’s was by Versailles (though at least Sofia’s uterus remained her own). “I think there is a sense in which she is debating her own past,” says Handyside of Sofia’s films, “and the way she was commandeered as image.” Each of her heroines are found in a role they have not really chosen, the confines of their lives symbolised by their entrapment within houses, hotels, schools, castles. “I think there’s an element of the female experience that you have certain boundaries,” Coppola recently told Film School Rejects. But her mother thinks it might be more personal. “Perhaps Sofia is part of all these women,” Eleanor wrote in her diary. “Growing up she was in a way a princess in Francis’s kingdom. On his sets she was treated as the adored daughter of the boss, a child of a celebrity. She was not seen as a thinking, feeling person with her own identity and acute perceptions.”As an adult, Sofia erects gothic edifices within the construction site of contemporary feminism. Her films interrogate a reality in which women are told they are equal, yet know they are not. Without an alternative, says Handyside, “you repeatedly get these fantasies as the answer.” The moments of acedia in her films—on pillows,77“Nobody throws girls on pillows like Sofia Coppola,” Nathan Lee wrote in Film Comment. in grass, on each other—the confetti-fuelled fetes, the forlorn looks out of fishbowl windows, the sly winks that shatter the fourth wall, the floaty sojourns—Petit Trianon, underwater tea, travel snaps—all luxuriate within the bounds of femininity. As Handyside puts it, “it’s just killing time,” a suspended reality as you yourself are slowly killed. In Modernism, Feminism, and the Culture of Boredom, Allison Pease writes that modern literary depictions of boredom are “an acknowledgment of the profound dissatisfaction of a group of people who found themselves on the wrong side of agency, interest, and meaning.” Sofia’s “girliest film set” thus focusses on Antoinette’s teen years—“the earlier, fun days,” according to the director—icing the merry monotony in a “cookies and cake” palette. “You’re considered superficial and silly if you’re interested in fashion,” Sofia told Vogue. “But I think you can be substantial and still be interested in frivolity.” Frivolity itself speaks volumes, Antoinette’s tight corsets, for instance, are tight for a reason—privilege means more even when you want less. Though the Queen of Versailles is the quintessential symbol of white privilege, Sofia believed she deserved as much of a voice as she did, particularly considering the din of public perception. Hence the scene in which Marie Antoinette is appalled by the rumour (which persists to this day) that she scoffed at the poor, “Let them eat cake.” Handyside believes Sofia is drawn to ostensibly unsympathetic women like Antoinette and the girls of the Bling Ring because, regardless of their means, “we’re all in a culture which doesn’t have answers” for women.[[{"fid":"6700811","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"552","width":"1024","style":"font-size: 13.008px;","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Spent after Marie Antoinette, Sofia took time off to bring up her first child. It was her daughter who inspired her to write her second original screenplay, Somewhere, about a prominent actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), and his relationship—or non-relationship—with his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). This is Sofia’s first male hero, but, aside from his gender, he is not so different from her heroines. Sure, he objectifies women—“[Sofia] has a lot of sympathy for male foibles,” says Handyside—but he feels as lost as his predecessors, once again within a rambling palace (in this case, the crumbling decadence of the Chateau Marmont). Johnny bides his vague time falling asleep on the women he is with, texting the ones he is not, otherwise sitting constricted in a plaster mask recalling Antoinette’s girdles and crying on the phone like Charlotte to an unsympathetic listener. “I’m fucking nothing,” he says. “I’m not even a person.” His future, like everyone else’s, is unclear as he leaves his car behind in the middle of nowhere and yells to his daughter under the chop-chop-chop of a helicopter, “Sorry I haven’t been around.” But his words are only for show. Only the audience hears them—they are not for her. This as opposed to the final confidence shared between Lost in Translation’s Bob and Charlotte, which we are not privy to, but which somehow equips Charlotte to face the future. In Cleo’s case, there is no roadmap, she is as lost as Charlotte was.[[{"fid":"6700816","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"576","width":"1024","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Coppola designed Cleo as “a kid in this grown-up world” who in the end is as adrift as her father, crying over her absentee mother, abandoned by both of them. Her happiness can only fluorish in the interim, prior to this epiphany, within the ignorance of innocence, “where being a girl is wonderful and it buys you this space of transcendence and evasion from adult problems…but the price is that you’re never allowed to grow up,” says Handyside.  There is nothing worth knowing beyond this, the end being the refusal to continue—to die, to walk away, to be escorted off the premises. “I think the feminism in the films,” Handyside adds, “is precisely that there is a refusal of what womanhood means.” The way her father is nostalgic for the old country, Sofia is nostalgic for youth—an idealized sanitized notion of youth, anyway—in which you don’t have to know who you are, decisions don’t yet have to be made, and there are only feelings and experiences and being. This is why she always chooses the girl’s potential—an eternal becoming—over the woman’s reality. Because how do you commit to adulthood when you don’t know where you stand?Coppola wasn’t planning on another film about kids. But then along came the Bling Ring, a group of privileged California youths who burgled celebrity homes in 2008 and 2009 and stole about $3 million worth of possessions. As Coppola told Indiewire, “there’s kind of just the universal teenagers getting in trouble and wanting to be part of a group—that part I could totally relate to.” This film parts ways with the rest by depicting adolescents who are not trying to get out, but instead trying to break in. Versailles is what they want, that sparkling assembly line of shoes and clothes and money. Their homes are a uniform affluent fawn—a peach-hued image of Calabasas the inspiration—but the ones they breech are rich in technicolour. “We had so many beautiful gorgeous things,” says the character Marc in the film.[[{"fid":"6700821","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"478","width":"680","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The Bling Ring was a comedown after Somewhere, which had won the Golden Lion at Venice. The film was particularly criticized for erasing Diana Tamayo, a Mexican immigrant who did not have U.S. citizenship and was threatened with deportation over her involvement in the Ring. Though Tamayo was reportedly small enough to get through the doggie doors of celebrity homes, in the film it’s the character Nicki’s sister (Georgia Rock) who accesses Megan Fox’s abode this way—Tamayo, and the fact that her conviction could have lead to her expulsion from the country,88She plead guilty and received three years’ probation instead. did not appear on screen. Korean-American Katie Chang, who played the character of Rebecca Ahn in the film, based on the real-life Rachel Lee, remains the rare exception in Coppola's parade of pale patrician faces. “I think Coppola seems to be suggesting, you don’t have to necessarily be white, but being white really helps,” says Handyside. It certainly hasn’t hurt her. As a teen, Coppola had thick dark eyebrows, a long mahogany mane and a pronounced nose, but as she got older, her hair got progressively lighter and shorter, her eyebrows thinner, her makeup and clothes more discreet. “If you think about Italianness, it’s associated with excess, with sexiness,” says Handyside. “She’s almost reinvented herself as a wasp.” Sofia is not Versace, she is Marc Jacobs, and her characters follow suit, often dressed in powder blue, often blanched out to make them even more alabaster than they are, the kind of women who Helmut Netwon might have photographed had they been old enough to qualify.Those who do not pass, do not make the cut. The Beguiled is the latest example. The second adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s Southern Gothic novel unravels during the Civil War at an all-girls boarding school that is disrupted by the arrival of a wounded soldier. The plot is largely preserved, the convalescent, McBurney (Colin Farrell), seducing three women—Nicole Kidman’s commanding head mistress, Kirsten Dunst’s shy teacher, Elle Fanning’s student temptress—who choose not to fight amongst themselves, but to unite against the sybarite. In so doing, the controlled, civilized, quiet confines of their school erupt into a chaotic, barbaric mess of carnage. “Control, civilization, quietness, they’re about femininity,” says Handyside, “they’re also about very strict classical WASP norms of femininity.” The operative word being WASP.[[{"fid":"6700851","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"268","width":"477","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Sofia’s Beguiled excises the shrewdest character in Cullinan’s story—the school’s slave, Mattie (played arrestingly by blues singer Mae Mercer as Hallie in the 1971 adaptation)—with the film’s only nod to the Civil War’s racial foundation reduced to “the slaves left.” Coppola has said in several interviews that her focus was specifically on the power dynamics between men and women. She told The Hollywood Reporter that she wrote Mattie out, “because I didn’t want to treat that subject lightly,” adding more recently to BuzzFeed that Mattie’s was “a really interesting story, but it’s a whole other story.”999“I would love to have a more racially diverse cast whenever I can,” Sofia told the site. “It didn’t work for this story, but of course I’m very open to stories about many different experiences and points of view.” Presumably that is also why she turned the book’s biracial teacher, Edwina, into Kirsten Dunst. But Edwina’s whitewashing is particularly puzzling considering her background would have been perfectly positioned within Coppola's oeuvre-wide theme of identity. In Cullinan’s novel, Mattie surmises that the reason Edwina is so isolated from the rest of the school is “because she don’t know who she is—she don’t know what she is.” In the film, we are meant to believe that it is simply Edwina’s oppressive timidity that has separated her from the faces that look exactly like hers. But you can’t help hearing the strains of Beyonce’s “Sorry” when you see Fanning on Instagram recreating a scene from Lemonade—The Beguiled shot on the same Louisiana plantation1010“I didn’t see Lemonade, but I saw the chair and it was explained to me,” Sofia told The Los Angeles Times.—casting herself as Beyonce and Dunst as Serena Williams, both of these white actresses clothed in antebellum cotton.*Sofia Coppola, 2017, sits on a winding staircase surrounded by femininity, pre-pubescent to middle aged. Drenched in light, dressed in pale ruffled ankle-length frocks, frozen in place, the seven girls and women around her gaze out from their cramped quarters with various conflicting expressions. The director, 45, is in the middle, white shirt, black pants, white runners, androgynous, the contemporary center of control around which all these females orbit. Coppola is as quiet in this photo as she is in real life. She is so soft spoken that her mother regularly had to strain to hear her when she was a teenager. And when her father commanded her to speak up on set, she did not. Neither do her heroines. Even Marie Antoinette, as loud as she is in dress, often holds up a fan to obscure her mouth. “There’s a sense in which they are saying, ‘You know what? You don’t have to shout,’” says Handyside. Sofia pushes silence, privileging imagery over dialogue, her scripts sparse, her visuals abundant. When I interviewed her at the end of 2010, her sentences would trail off, dissipating into the ether, often unsatisfying—too brief, too superficial. I described her then as “disconnected,” and there continues to be a sense that she keeps herself disengaged from the world (even outside the media). “I think it’s a survival strategy,” says Handyside. “I think sometimes she gives people enough rope to hang themselves with just by not responding.”It is also a way of performing femininity. Coppola will play the submissive, placating her male actors in particular, but inevitably obtaining from them what she wants, sometimes to the point of objectification. “It’s just like my fantasy to get him to sit there and dress him exactly how I want him to be and do everything just exactly how I want,” she said of Bill Murray on the set of Lost in Translation (he nicknamed her The Velvet Hammer). She quietly inverts the male gaze, in Lost turning John Kacere’s painted portrait of a woman’s rear into a moving image that barely moves, laying it across the screen a spell too long, prompting us to question our own gaze. In Somewhere a bed-sprawled Johnny Marco is surrounded by naked gyrating women but sees none of them. In The Virgin Suicides, a muscular demigod floats in a pool of electric blue, in The Bling Ring it is the un-sculpted boy who is self conscious. In The Beguiled too, we see McBurney’s body—caressed by the light, like a Roman statue—immobile, entirely under the power of the women around him.1111“Colin was a really good sport about being our token male,” Sofia told Vanity Fair. “He knew that he was the object.“Like so many of her heroines, Sofia Coppola seduces to control. She learned this, no doubt, being surrounded by men—father, brothers, cousins—ensconced in an industry guided by their sex. She says she was indulged growing up but it was an indulgence stemming from a stereotypical notion of femininity. Her father, his physical presence almost as overbearing as his psychological girth, is ubiquitous in behind-the-scenes footage of her first three films, manspreading on set, making suggestions even after his daughter has already secured an Oscar. Even filmmaker Wes Anderson, an old friend of Sofia’s, told The New York Times, “You want to look out for her. She turns everyone into her big brother.” Of the more than 20 people I contacted about Sofia Coppola, less than a handful agreed to speak with me. In the wake of The Godfather Part III, this is how she likes it. This is her own story, why would she not want to direct it?Her own story, the way she tells it, repeatedly returns to adolescence, those years which were abruptly taken from her, which she continuously reclaims on screen. To Coppola, womanhood is imprisonment, girlhood is freedom, and her feminism lies in her refusal to compromise the latter. She will not, for instance, adopt the “feminist” label, despite her constant devotion— albeit a devotion that is blind to intersectionality—to female identity. When she became the second woman in the history of Cannes to win best director for The Beguiled (a film with a set in which, according to Variety, women outnumbered men), she thanked another feminist icon, Jane Campion, the only woman to win the Palme d’Or, for “being a role model and supporting women filmmakers.” But her inspiration was Jo Ann Callis, specifically her 1977 image “Woman with Blue Bow.” The photo shows an angelic blond with curly hair, her head thrown back, only her neck and nose visible. Around her throat sits an aquamarine satin bow which connects to her lacy white strapless dress. Look closer and it seems the ribbon is forming a groove in her neck, as though it is a fraction too tight. Behind her is water coloured wallpaper of blue leaves, three golden birds flying around her as though she is some kind of S&M Cinderella. “It reminded me of the feeling of femininity and frustration I wanted to achieve in The Beguiled,” Sofia said.“Nous sommes des filles”—“We are girls”—say the students in the film as they conjugate the French verb but do little more to project their gender. Sofia chose to re-adapt The Beguiled in order to express “the women’s point of view,” but the story does not really change. The women remain pale specters cut off from the dark war raging outside. In their decrepit estate they have become arrested in time with only McBurney to remind them of the outside world, one which promises excitement, but also brutality. To preserve their innocence, they must destroy this man, though in so doing they destroy their own prospects. Like a caged beast, McBurney trashes his bedroom after losing his leg at the hands of the women. In protest, he screams, “I’m not even a man anymore!” but it is a mere storm in a teacup, the same one that brews inside these women. To little effect. The film ends where it starts, with a girl searching for sustenance, with the women dragging a man in and then out of their coven. Sofia’s heroines have tried to get out and tried to get in, but this is the first time they simply choose to stay put, a sort of cynical acceptance of their lot. The last scene of The Beguiled shows the body of McBurney outside the closed gates, behind which the women watch from the steps of their crumbling institution, ashen and still, in a sense as dead as he is; yet, even then, nowhere near as free.
Anxiety at the Gates

Why did I go to work for the TSA? To try to connect with my father? To soothe various concerns as a new father myself? Was I researching a book? Having a midlife crisis? All of the above?

1.It was my first shift of Transportation Security Officer on-the-job training at Albany International Airport’s only checkpoint and I was told to shadow Steven, a fast-talking, big-bellied former car-salesman. We started our rotation at “divestiture,” the Transportation Security Administration’s term for the place where you surrender your belongings. I rehearsed the script about emptying all pockets, putting laptops in their own bins, and removing shoes, jackets, and belts. After fifteen minutes of that, it was onto the next task. We moved from bag search to the walk-through metal detector to document checker to exit to the scanner, then back around to divestiture. Steven pattered advice my way as we circled the checkpoint. “Carry extra gloves in your back pocket,” he said. “Make sure they’re not too tight. And remember, you’re in charge. This is your house.”It didn’t feel like my house, which I’d left at 4 a.m., tiptoeing out so as not to wake my wife and three-year-old son. And despite my brand new, titanium blue uniform, complete with patches, epaulets, and a shiny nametag, I didn’t feel in charge at all. While I listened to Steven, I scanned the checkpoint for my fellow TSOs-in-training. Eight of us had just spent two weeks downstairs in a heavily air-conditioned, windowless classroom together. In our civilian clothes, we’d listened to lectures, learned how to read x-ray images, practiced pat-downs, and passed various tests. I caught sight of one of my classmates: Nina, a bubbly, former schoolteacher. She was bouncing on the balls of her feet as she worked the walk-through metal detector. She didn’t look in charge either, but the crisp new uniform leant her an undeniable aura of authority. She gave me the thumbs-up and I returned the favor, remembering my pre-dawn drive to the airport. A slow cover of “Feeling Good” had been playing on the radio as I pulled into the employee lot: It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life. I’d walked toward the terminal with the music still buzzing in my ears. Red lights glowed out on the tarmac. Under the layers of asphalt and concrete, there was marshland. Along the chain link fences, cattails still grew tall, rustling in the wind. They were stiff from the cold and I listened to them brush like bamboo against the fence, an odd but soothing windchime.Steven thumped a hand down on my shoulder. “Come on, man,” he said. “Focused attention please!” The lines around me at divestiture were backing up; suddenly there were two passengers in wheelchairs, another two passengers requesting pat-downs to avoid the scanner, and a young woman with a Siamese cat in a small carry-on. I struggled to recall the SOP for pets. I had to keep the lines moving. I needed to continue repeating my script about liquids, gels, aerosols, jackets, and laptops. As TSOs, we were supposed to Create Calm and demonstrate Command Presence, but I was starting to sweat and my voice didn’t sound confident to me and I wasn’t sure exactly what I should be saying into my walkie-talkie. I was grateful that Steven was there to help me out. Clearly, it would take a little longer to establish authority.Just a few rotations later, Steven and I were at the scanner when a familiar voice shouted, “This guy is an impostor!”I looked up and saw Gene, a friend and retired UAlbany professor, about to enter the scanner. He was old enough to keep his brown loafers on. I was already nervous enough. I feared I was now moments away from being fired.But I was the only one who flinched. I helped Gene through and quietly told him we’d talk another time. I watched him reunite with his wheelchair-bound wife—she’d been sent through the metal detector instead of the scanner. I heard her ask him the obvious question: “What’s Ed doing here?”Again Gene spoke at full volume, as if the checkpoint were his lecture hall, though I knew his wife had perfectly good hearing. “He’s researching a novel!” Gene shouted.The supervisor did not rush over to apprehend me. Steven was unfazed. “Is that grandpa a friend of yours?” he asked.“He’s a sweet guy,” I said. I expected him to ask for more details, but he was already focusing on the next passenger. Still, for the rest of the shift, and for many shifts to come, those stubborn questions stayed with me: What am I doing here? Am I an impostor? Am I researching a novel?2.When I sent in my application to work for the TSA, my father was on the brink of eighty and I was struggling to communicate with him. Too often, when I talked about him with my own son, I told stories about my childhood that were laced with resentment. I emphasized how many chores and rules there were around the house, how my father was often on the road (he was a traveling textile salesman), how he had a talent for finding flaws in whatever I happened to be doing, from setting the table to stacking the firewood to filling the water pitcher.My father never went to college. He went to work for his father after high school and, aside from a brief stint in the Air Force Reserves, he worked in his father’s business for almost his entire life. Those two Schwarzschild men shared a dank, basement office for decades and then, after my grandfather died, my father had that office all to himself for a few decades more. In other words, he was a grinder. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him truly relax. If pressed, I’d say the closest he ever got was when he was in the basement of our house, in the workroom he shared with the furnace and the hot water heater. He could sit in there for hours, painstakingly assembling and painting model airplanes.He loved to fly. When he’d signed up for the Air Force Reserves, he’d hoped to become a pilot, but his eyesight wasn’t good enough. He became a paratrooper instead.Whenever he flew on a commercial flight, he’d bring home one of the plastic emergency cards as a souvenir. He kept them in folders he could clip into three-ring binders. He encouraged his family and friends to help him enlarge his collection if they happened to be traveling. Over the years, I brought him dozens; they made him, for a moment, smile with approval. After decades of collecting, he had a shelf or two of binders, all of them filled with brightly colored illustrations of emergency exits, seat belts, and inflatable slides gently delivering passengers from planes to open water. Many of the airlines no longer exist. If you’d like to see the entire collection, along with the model airplanes, they now sit on display at the Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum in Horsham, Pennsylvania.Which is all a way to say that maybe if I worked a grinding airport job for a while, I’d come to understand my father better, and resent him less, before it was too late. At the same time, sometimes I thought applying for a job with the TSA was evidence of a mid-life crisis. I was closing in on fifty, my son was three, and I’d been working as an English professor for seventeen years. Every day offered evidence of how little control I had over the world around me. Call it the mid-life crisis of an authority-seeker. Instead of speeding around recklessly in a shiny red sports car, I’d take an entry-level, rule-bound job, work the 5-9 a.m. shift, and learn how to divest tired travelers of their plastic water bottles. Then I’d race over to the university and bring a whole new perspective to my classes in contemporary literature and fiction writing.The fact that I’d become a father myself also drew me to the job. What does it mean to be a parent during the “War on Terror”? I felt as haunted by the collective tragedy of 9/11 as anyone, but I was also haunted by the ways daily living in the United States had changed from 9/12 forward. I bristled at the bunkering of public buildings (like the state capitol buildings a few blocks away from my house), the pervasiveness of surveillance and searches, the sudden expansion of airport checkpoints. When I used to fly home to Philadelphia from St. Louis or San Francisco or elsewhere, my father would be there at the gate, waiting to embrace me, eager to hear details about the flight. When it was time to leave again, he’d walk me to the gate and wait with me, waving farewell as I boarded the plane. My students were growing up in a very different world, as was my son. These days only those with tickets can be with us as we board and deplane. Our farewells and reunions usually take place in the shadow of a checkpoint.3.Day after day, shift after shift, I kept trying to feel in charge at the checkpoint. I found that, in some ways, my time as a writer and professor provided good training for most duties of a Transportation Security Officer. Years of grading papers meant I could check documents at a good clip. Thanks to a specialization in film studies, I’d spent a good deal of time examining images on screen, searching for unusual, hidden, crucial details—fine practice for working the x-ray machine. And my first teaching position, right out of graduate school, took me to a small Southern women’s college, where I learned a certain genteel politeness—politeness that served me well as I searched through bags while harried passengers stood by, scowling and impatient.No part of my teaching experience, however, prepared me to perform pat-downs.Back at that Southern women’s college, I’d learned that the only really acceptable form of student/faculty physical contact was a high-five. On rare occasions, there were fist bumps, but these risked the perception of violence. Now, every morning, as part of my job, I was supposed to run my hands up and down the legs, torsos, and arms of my fellow citizens. I was supposed to do this in such a way that no one would feel groped.My fellow rookies and I practiced on each other first, patting each other down multiple times. There was nervous, lighthearted banter about touching junk and how much worse it would be in North Korea and why the men finished practicing before the women did. Our cheerful instructors offered guidance. They said the procedure was clinical. Exert the same pressure you use to spread peanut butter on a sandwich. Say clearly what you’re going to do and then do it. We’d grow numb to it before long, they assured us.As we practiced, a few lines from Bob Dylan’s “George Jackson” kept running through my mind: Sometimes I think this whole world/Is one big prison yard/Some of us are prisoners/The rest of us are guards.How could I put my hands on someone else like this?And yet, was there a better way to keep our airplanes safe?Whitman’s “A Song for Occupations” offered this: Neither a servant nor master I…I will be even with you and you shall be even with me.But how could I perform pat-downs in such a way that they’d foster both security and compassion?I remembered Newjack, Ted Conover’s book about the year he worked as a Corrections Officer in Sing Sing. Day after day, he’d had to do much more than the TSA’s standard pat-down and he voiced his worries about the consequences of his actions:“Leave it at the gate,” you hear time and again in corrections. Leave all the stress and bullshit at work; don’t bring it home to your family. This was good in theory. In reality, though, I was like my friend who had worked the pumps at a service station: Even after she got home and took a shower, you could still smell the gasoline on her hands. Prison got into your skin, or under it. If you stayed long enough, some of it probably seeped into your soul.I didn’t think I’d be able to work a year at the checkpoint, but I wanted to stay at the job long enough to understand more fully what had drawn me to it. I hoped my soul—as well as the souls of all the passengers I encountered—wouldn’t be stained. I knew airport checkpoints were disturbing, dehumanizing, and frightening places for many people. And these days, more than ever, it becomes almost impossible to pass through an airport without thinking about how many people are detained on their way. How many have their property confiscated. How many leave feeling violated. How many are forced to leave and forbidden to return. But, back then, I tried to reassure myself: Albany’s checkpoint was a bright, airy, high-ceilinged space. I hadn’t witnessed any inappropriate behavior. Technically, as TSOs, we weren’t even allowed to detain people—that was police work.My professorial intellectualizing didn’t help much the first time I had to shadow a TSO named Lance, a hard-working bodybuilder so thick with muscle he had to walk through the scanner sideways. He showed devotion to all the rules, held at least one other security job, and went to night school. When he wasn’t working or studying, he was watching cop shows, preparing himself for the latest threats. In other words, he was a true believer with big aspirations in the security field. Only a fool would have tried to get in his way. When he watched me perform a pat-down, I flubbed my lines and forgot to check the passenger’s feet. Lance was not impressed. “That being-nice stuff,” he said, “you have to let that go.”The next time I was paired with Lance, he focused harder on my pat-down technique. Again, he was not impressed. “Have you been practicing your verbiage at home?” he asked.“Not really.”“It’s a yes or no question,” he said.I felt like a student woefully unprepared for class. “No,” I admitted.He shook his freshly shaved head and went over to speak to the supervisor. When he returned, he led me off to the side of the checkpoint and told me to practice a pat-down on him. A few of the other officers and officers-in-training glanced our way. I noticed a few passengers watching too.“Do the whole script,” Lance said.“Can you see your belongings,” I began, “or would you like me to bring them over here?”“You need to enunciate better,” Lance said.“I’m going to use my hands to pat down the clothed areas of your body. I’ll use the backs of my hands on the sensitive areas, the buttocks and the zipper line. I’ll be clearing your collar and your waistline with two fingers. And I’ll be clearing each inner thigh, sliding up until I reach resistance.”“Say it like you mean it,” Lance said. “You need to do pat-downs like they mean what they’re supposed to mean. Every pat-down is done to make sure the person in front of you is not a risk, right?”I nodded and went on, nervous, wondering if my job was on the line. “Do you have any internal or external medical devices? Do you have any painful or tender areas on your body? Do you have absolutely everything out of your pockets?”“This is your house,” Lance said, echoing one of Steven’s opening lines.“A private screening is available if you’d prefer. You can request one at any time.”“Go ahead,” he told me.So I did what I said I was going to do and, as was the case with every pat-down, eventually I was on the dull brown airport carpet, on my knees. I cleared Lance’s big feet, his legs, and I went up until I met resistance.“That’s better,” Lance said. “Remember, if you’re not doing a pat-down properly, then you’re doing it improperly, and isn’t your whole Mr. Nice Guy thing about not doing anything improper?”When I stood up, the rest of the checkpoint was still humming along as usual. Was I being hazed? Humbled? Embarrassed? Schooled?All of the above, of course.Later in the shift, while we were working the bag search position, a young woman lost the backing to her earring. She seemed willing to let it go, but I knelt on the carpet again and managed to find it, a small speck of silver amid the brown strands studded with dust.The woman beamed at us as she reattached the earring. “My day is going to be much better now,” she said.That pleased me, and it pleased me even more when Lance, smiling, looked my way and said, “You got a hawkeye or something?”Just forever seeking the approval of my father, or father-figure of the moment, I could have said.Security. Homeland. Fatherland. Maybe my motivations for seeking a job with the TSA were simpler than I thought.That night, at home, while my family slept, I made sure to study my verbiage.4.If this were a tabloid exposé or a steamy roman a clef, you might expect to hear tales of corrupt, inept, mean-spirited TSOs screwing in family restrooms, smuggling drugs, stealing laptops, and tormenting the elderly, all while failing one critical Homeland Security test after another.I’ve read those stories. I’ve spent time on websites like Taking Sense Away, where a former TSO not only wrote about the failings of the system at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, but also periodically published e-mails from other TSOs around the country eager to share their own critiques of the system. I closely follow coverage of the TSA in the news and it seems clear that far too many officers abuse their power. Toddlers are patted down. Cancer survivors are forced to remove their prosthetic breasts. The list goes on.I have no desire to be an apologist. Also, I held the job during Obama’s presidency. The job and the way airport work is done seem likely to keep changing drastically as Trump continues to make appointments and sign executive orders. Who can say at this point what sorts of orders TSA employees might be compelled to carry out in the months and years to come?A mantra I heard throughout my training helped me understand my time on the job: If you’ve been to one airport, you’ve been to one airport. While I can’t speak to what happens at other airports or what might happen in the future, I can tell you what I experienced and observed during my time at Albany International. It’s not a particularly sexy or edgy reveal. I saw a diverse group of men and women of all ages who sought TSA employment because it offered a combination that seems scarce these days: entry-level positions with real health benefits, job security, and the possibility of career development. For all its supposed faults, the TSA is an opportunity for thousands of people who want to help keep their finances and/or nation secure. I watched Steven and Lance and Nina work hard every day. Some were more skeptical about the mission than others, some were more crass in their conduct than others, but everyone I saw performed the job they’d been trained to do as best they could.I’ve held other entry-level jobs over the course of my life: kennel cleaner, dishwasher, waiter, gardener, gravedigger, office temp, lab assistant. Working as a TSO-in-training was as challenging as any other work I’ve done, including writing and teaching. At the checkpoint, we were often urged to practice focused attention, hour after hour, shift after shift, and it could get exhausting. We rotated from station to station, repeating our scripts, studying documents and images, searching bags, and we were supposed to perform each task as if our lives and the lives of everyone around us were continuously at stake.In my best moments at the checkpoint, however, I came to feel that security done right could be downright peaceful, even uplifting, a way to rise above our world of constant distractions. In this context, it’s revealing that the TSA lingo for passengers is actually PAX. The PAX passed by, pulling their rolling bags, poking at their devices, chatting with other PAX and non-PAX in distant locations, and there was an odd, pulsating beauty to it all. Peace, PAX. We’re all PAX of the world, just a swirl of souls. We pass through airports to lift off and land, like so many drops of water, bound for our time in the clouds. We’re carried aloft for miles and then we descend back to the earth’s surface. The world spins and we spin upon it; it is, like almost everything else, beyond our control. The tickets can say whatever they say. Everyone knows the person who arrives is not the same person who departed. Whoever we are, we won’t be for long.5.The application process to join the TSA was complicated and lengthy, involving forms, tests, physicals, and months of waiting; the resignation process was surprisingly swift.After I’d been on the job for a few months, a group of people started leafleting the checkpoint, encouraging PAX to opt out of the pat-downs. The story drew local media coverage, and when I read the article in the Albany Times-Union, I noticed it had been written by a friend of mine. He could’ve easily seen me while reporting, and then I would have become part of the story. And if it wasn’t that friend, it would eventually be a student of mine, or a parent from my son’s school, or someone else. Gene’s day-one moment of recognition hadn’t attracted anyone’s attention, but I probably wouldn’t be so lucky next time. I didn’t want to become the story, at least not until I figured out for myself what the story was.So, the day after I read the Times-Union article, at the end of my shift I went downstairs to the HR office, right across from the windowless classroom where I’d been trained. I told the woman behind the desk that I wanted to talk about resigning. She asked if working afternoons instead of mornings would help. She said if I was interested, it might be possible to take some time away and get re-instated later. Her kindness caught me off guard. I considered changing my mind. Then I told her I’d made my decision. She handed me a pen and a blank sheet of paper so I could write a short resignation letter.“Do I need to say anything in particular?” I asked.“Just that you’ve decided to resign. Also include the date, your name, and social security number.”While I wrote a sentence or two, she prepared a few forms for me to sign. She asked for my DHS ID and told me to drop my uniforms off within forty-eight hours.“That’s it?” I asked.“We’re used to turnover,” she said. Then she told one of her assistants to escort me out to my car. I wondered if I was making a mistake. The assistant didn’t talk to me as we walked and he stopped at the employee lot gate to wait for me. Alone in my car, I took a long look at my TSA ID and parking pass. Then, when I pulled out of the lot, I lowered my window and surrendered the pass and ID to the unsmiling assistant.From the airport, I headed south on the thruway toward the university and parked in the faculty/staff lot. I grabbed my backpack, which was stuffed with books and a change of clothes. On the way to the Humanities building, my uniform hidden beneath my winter coat, I walked among crowds of students, thinking, again, of my father. Instead of going to college, he’d covered his own father’s territory, hawking textiles his whole life. Over the years, I’d come to believe that his obsession with rules and his inability to relax stemmed from the ways that job compelled him to serve others. His salary was completely determined by the commissions he made on each sale. In other words, as he travelled the northeast corridor, lugging sample cases from office to office, his success depended upon pleasing and winning over one boss after another. I sometimes simplified it this way: Serving as a paratrooper in the Air Force Reserves compacted his body; working as a salesman shrank his soul.I climbed the three flights of stairs to my office. I needed to prepare for class. I needed another cup of coffee. It was a relief to be down to one job again.Before I changed out of my uniform for the last time, I wondered again what it would be like to work as a TSO year after year, to remain in the TSA while my wife and I continued to raise our son. Would my soul shrink or expand? Would I come home from work most days feeling powerful or powerless? Could my work at the checkpoint be just as significant to me as my work on the page, or in the classroom?When I think about those questions now, in these early months of Trump’s presidency, I’m even less certain of the answers. It’s so easy to slip into despair about the seeming ineffectiveness of—and opposition to—writing and the arts under the current administration.But Trump wasn’t on my radar back then. I carried my questions into my office with me. I closed the door and started to change out of my uniform. As I traded the titanium blue TSA shirt for an English professor’s simple white button-down, I thought about something that happened a few days before I resigned.I was working the document checking station, reaching for the next person’s ID and boarding pass, when I found myself face-to-face with another former university colleague. Judith and I had never been close, but we’d worked together and, when she retired, it so happened that I wound up moving into her office. We’d chatted a few times about whether or not she wanted the two pink wingchairs she’d left behind. We’d also bumped into each other once at the local food co-op. “Well, you better get on back to my office,” she’d joked. But at the checkpoint, she didn’t really see me. My face was still my face. My last name was printed on the silver nametag pinned to my chest, and there aren’t too many Schwarzschilds in Albany. I looked at her and wished her a nice trip when I returned her documents. She stepped away, oblivious, because from where she stood, I fit in. The checkpoint was my house and I was guarding the gates of Pax Americana. I was not an impostor.Sure, I was slightly hurt she didn’t recognize me. But, more than that, I felt strangely proud.
Along Came Harvey

My father defaulted on his dreams, abandoned his daughter, and resigned himself to living on a futon in his parents’ living room. Then he bought a two-foot-tall stuffed rabbit.

I was twelve years old when my father, sitting next to me in his Cadillac outside my school, looked at his hands, calloused from hours at his electric guitar, and informed me that I was an adult, that I no longer needed him as a parent. He’d be leaving tomorrow, he told me, to drive down to Vegas to become a professional poker player. He was good at poker, had taught me everything I knew about the game, late nights skipping homework, betting pennies on the floor of his apartment from the age of eight, when he and my mother had divorced.My father never made it to Vegas. He drove five hours to his parents’ home on a stark suburban street in Ottawa, and stayed there, on a futon in their living room, for twenty years. It didn’t make sense to me at the time: he was a gambler, an adventurer, a man with an insatiable thirst for life. These were all the impressions I had as a child, and all, save that he was a gambler, were false. My father had never lived alone. He was afraid of travel, of flying, and was not, as a gambler, equipped to take care of himself, let alone a child, financially. So his mother and father took him in. Perhaps out of the same strange sense of obligation I felt towards keeping him happy. More likely, I think, they felt they owed him. My father’s own childhood, from what I’ve heard, had it’s own extreme hardship between the war, the depression, and a father who swung between domineering and outright abusive. Together, perhaps unconsciously aware of this dynamic, they lived in an insular, isolated world, making their weekly trips to the casino, and to the Denny’s up the street for weekend brunches. This was their life, and as far as I could tell, they were content with it.He would call once a year or so, around the holidays—or, rather, would have his mother call me and then pass him the phone, so adamant was he in his resolve to never again hear the sound of my mother’s voice. He and my mother had fought on a regular basis, sleeping in separate bedrooms and keeping opposing work schedules until they finally decided to get a divorce. The divorce resulted, as many do, in a vicious court battle, and in rages within my father that would manifest as statements, during otherwise calm mornings, about how he would like to shoot my mother between the eyes or drive her off a cliff.I began to wonder, after he left, if part of what prompted his departure was my increasing resemblance to my mother. He’d gone almost instantly from the central figure in my life to a near-stranger. I flirted with suicide, withdrew socially, and took up hours of lying on the floor listening to ’90s grunge. He, meanwhile, had defaulted on his dreams, abandoned his daughter, resigned himself to a futon in his parents’ living room surrounded by craft supplies and Dollarama knick-knacks. It was during that first year in Ottawa that my father bought Harvey.*Harvey is a stuffed white rabbit, about two feet tall and cuddly, purchased from the gift section of a local bookstore. Harvey wears a black tie on special occasions, and is rarely left alone. My father would sit Harvey on the futon next to him during movie nights with his parents and carry him around in the local shopping mall during weekly outings with his father. He loathed his father, the war vet with a bitter disposition who, following the three strokes and tracheotomy, could express himself only in hisses, grunts, and seemingly random pointing.He and my grandmother put up with Harvey, though, both handling the stuffed rabbit with the tired resignation of those who knew well the stubbornness of their son, and no longer had the energy to fight it. During weekend brunches, my father would sit Harvey in the chair next to him, order him a coffee, and smile at the waitress with unwavering confidence in the charm of his quirk. On the rare occasions that I was invited into their world I would glimpse this ritual, sitting across from my father and Harvey with a blank expression, a daughter too fixated on keeping her father’s love to display anything other than total compliance. There was such pride in the way my father presented his eccentricity to the small world around him. He had inserted himself into his parents’ life with success. He could do as he pleased. Now, with Harvey beside him, he’d upped the ante, proving to himself that he could take these little impositions to another level. Everything about him—the way he smiled in his cowboy boots and black cowboy hat; the thinning ponytail that crawled down along the back of his neck like a snake; the quickly aging and ratty rabbit—served to confirm his status as a man who could do whatever he wanted, regardless of how those around him might feel about it.*My father’s obsession with Harvey began with the Jimmy Stewart film of the same name, in which Stewart portrayed Elwood P. Dowd, a lovable anti-intellectual with his own Harvey—also a rabbit, though his was six-foot-two, invisible, and a bit of a smart-ass. From the time I was six or so, my father and I would watch the film annually, and he would transform into a child, eyes wide and mind open, receptive. He saw Stewart as a guru, mouthing the words as he said them: “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for thirty-five years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I’ve finally won out over it.” This quote, I would realize years after his departure, was the key to my father’s approach to life.Having grown up with a rigid, controlling father through the Depression, and having known nothing but poverty and perhaps frequent acts of aggression, I imagine my father’s interest in reality was beaten out of him at a fairly early age. My grandfather fought overseas in the Second World War. While he was gone he forbade my grandmother from working to keep the family well fed, and when he returned, he brought a warring aggression that unloaded itself almost exclusively on my father. I wonder if, for my father, part of the appeal of moving in with his parents was the reversal he might have felt, suddenly a strong and imposing force in his now sickly, silenced father’s life.In the film, Dowd’s sister is desperate to be married, and his mother desperate to marry her off. His insistence upon parading his imaginary companion scares off friends and suitors alike, leaving the women in his life at a loss. Eventually they come to a sort of resigned realization that this invisible rabbit is important to Dowd in a way that overshadows them altogether.*My father was conflicted, he once confided in me, about Jimmy Stewart as a person. How, he wondered, could he play a hero such as Elwood P. Dowd in one film, then turn around and play a detestably selfless communist in another? The selfless communist he referred to, with notable disdain, was George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. During the four years in which I lived alone with him for three days a week, between my parents’ divorce and his ultimate exit, he refused to let me watch that film, claiming it was communist propaganda that aimed to undo everything great thinkers such as Ayn Rand had worked so hard to achieve. My father didn’t read much, but when he did, without fail, he read Ayn Rand. He carried her books like bibles, quoting from them, much as he did Harvey, with an earnestness, a devotion, that seemed to me unwavering. My father was rarely an angry man, generally blissful in his willful neglect of the needs and demands of others, but when he talked about It’s a Wonderful Life, he became something almost frightening, shut off, righteous. It was a trait I’d known he carried with him always, hidden beneath the easy smile, and knowing about the trait is what kept me good. Knowing it was there meant knowing the maintenance of his cheery disposition depended upon me, on my ability to maintain my “good girl” status, to stay obedient, easygoing, to accept and embrace whatever it was he wanted to give, including Harvey.For those four years, we did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. I learned not to want much, not to ask for meals or to go out for a few hours to visit with a friend. I existed to keep him entertained; together, we went to his favourite horror movies, or to the pool halls and racetracks at the outskirts of Mississauga. He didn’t think about things like washing my clothes or cooking me meals, and I was so eager to be loved that I learned quickly not to push for such things. While he stepped into the full glory of his most selfish, most imposing self, I shrank proportionately. I stopped knowing how to even begin to think about what I might want or need.I was thirty when I finally saw It’s a Wonderful Life. I’d barely spoken to my father in a decade, save for the odd birthday text or holiday greeting card. That was how long it had taken for me to feel free enough in my autonomy to do something I knew would displease him. By the end of the film I was crying the way I wouldn’t allow myself to even when my father announced he was leaving: loudly, sloppily, and with uninhibited dejection. It was a beautiful film. It exhibited a Jimmy Stewart who cared about the people, the state of the world around him. Here was a version of manhood my father had so ardently hidden from me, protecting me from the knowledge that one could be generous, and giving, and that it could benefit those around him in profound ways. I, of course, knew how to be giving, having been trained well as a child. What I didn’t know was how to receive, the way those around George Bailey did, the benefits of such generosity. I was crying because it was heartwarming, but more than that, because while I’d cried plenty for the loss of my father, I’d never cried or even properly acknowledged the loss of wellbeing I’d suffered while in his presence.*The last time I saw my father was February of last year. He called out of the blue from a number I didn’t recognize to tell me he was dying. I agreed to see him one last time before he started a rigorous treatment of radiation and chemotherapy for stage-four lung cancer. They’d taken a chunk of his brain, where the cancer had spread, and the scar was still fresh, a Frankenstein’s monster gash across the right side of his head. He had, in addition to a flesh and bone wife who fixed us tea while we made small talk, a family of Harveys now. The rabbits sat in a pile on the couch, some smaller than others, some brown or beige, dressed with scarves or hats, some naked. He washed them monthly, he said, in the machine. His wife adopted the Harveys as though they were her own, and fretted about their comfort: was the temperature right? Were they dressed warmly enough? Did they have enough space? Did they feel loved?I hadn’t seen my father since his own father’s funeral. Harvey wore a black silk tie for that occasion, and when the family went to Red Lobster afterward, he sat between my father and me. My father leaned over Harvey and opened his wallet in front of my face. There was a photograph, a little school photo of me when I was ten years old. You could see the meekness, the awkward way I held myself after the divorce. The year this photo was taken, my parents were engaged in a vicious court battle, I had just been diagnosed with a supposedly insurmountable learning disability, had been held back in school, and was generally on the verge of suicide. To my father, though, as I’d been well trained to please him, I was a smiling, obedient girl who enjoyed the horror movies and casinos and pool halls he brought me to. In showing me this old photograph he believed he was showing how much he loved me. I looked at the photo, saw in it the desperation of our two realities, and told him I had a more recent photograph he could have. I’d just finished graduate school in New York and had a smiling headshot, black cap, red lipstick and all. My father shook his head, folded up his wallet again, returned it to the back pocket of his black.“No thank you,” he said. He told me the photograph represented the time when he loved me most. Sure, he still loved me now, he’d offered, in a way, but it was different. My father moved a glass of water a little closer to Harvey’s face, I suppose to make it easier for him to drink should he suddenly become animate and thirsty. I sat silent, waiting for the ordeal to be over, for freedom, again, from my father’s reality.
Mourning My Dad, the Identical Twin

The fact that I’ve always had an exact replica of my father, with a startlingly similar voice, mannerisms and, well, face, never really struck me as exceptional until he passed away.

In 2011, my father died. Technically.Let me start again. My dad, Tony, was an identical twin. He and his brother Tom were tall, blonde, thin-legged and blue-eyed with a surprisingly Italian last name. They typed terse emails with their index fingers and loved The Godfather movies. They shared bad senses of humour, ice cream dependency, discomfort with long phone conversations (save for with each other), and business acumen.Tom is still alive. My dad isn’t. The fact that I’ve always had an exact replica of my father, with a startlingly similar voice, mannerisms and, well, face, never really struck me as exceptional until my dad passed away.As is custom, the funeral was bleak. In the memorial line up of family members, seeing my uncle exacerbated the strange reality of loss. A few guests were unfortunately or hilariously caught unaware that Tony had a twin brother. Reactions to Tom ranged from shock to clinginess. People insisted on reminding my uncle of his uncanny resemblance to my dad. Tom responded, patiently, way too many times: I know.In the ’80s, the only feature that distinguished my dad from Tom was a thick, blonde cowboy moustache. One day, well into a confidently moustachioed decade, after much urging from Tom, my dad shaved. The twins then tried to confuse my cousin and I about who was whose father—It’s me, your daddy, one of them insisted—and neither my cousin nor I could distinguish. They were that identical. This experiment ended in tears. My cousin and me: paralysed and afraid. Betrayed? I was about five years old at the time.I’m not sure what the fear was. Was I worried about making the wrong choice and losing my dad’s faith, failing a test of some kind? Or was it that I couldn’t be clear about what made my dad my dad?*Tom and Tony’s likeness went deeper than their appearances. A particular freaky twin thing happened during a summer in the ’90s when my parents brought my brother and I to a little hotel on Prince Edward Island. We went for a walk into the charming town to marvel at, I don’t know, the gables and the red clay beaches, probably, when my dad stopped on the sidewalk and said something like I think Tom’s here. Minutes later, we heard a car horn and turned to see my uncle cackling out the window. The twins had, without knowing, booked the same vacation, at the same hotel, for the same damn week.Coincidences like this are called tacit coordination—the phenomenon that people can successfully coordinate their decisions without communication. Though it can happen in many social contexts, identical twins in particular enact synchronous behaviours or decisions frequently, and have a high incidence of tacit coordination. The social bond between identical twins has been described as among the closest and most enduring of human social relationships.The genetic commonality of identical twins may underlie their similarities and social intimacy, and the perception of physical likeness can cause others to subconsciously reinforce similar behaviours.While my dad and uncle were growing up, people could never be sure who was who, so each twin was often called TomTony. One word. The twins would answer to each other’s names; they were so wrapped up in each other and indistinguishable that to be recognized as an individual might’ve been expecting too much. And really, how could you maintain any behavioural or psychic distance if you share everything, including your name?Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, in a family of nine children, the twins were like their own unit. As my Uncle Tom puts it, they kept each other company and, as far as I can glean from second-hand stories and my own experiences with their hard-ass Canadian Auto Workers union activist parents, protected each other amongst the chaos.I called my uncle recently and asked about some of his twin memories. He said one of the hardest times for them was when my dad failed grade 7, which meant that Tom and Tony would no longer be in the same class. The twins cried over their report cards outside the school; the repercussions were overwhelming—separate grades, separate classrooms, Tom would start high school a year sooner. They were devastated at the idea of being apart. On their walk home from school the twins formulated a plan: Tom promised to intentionally fail grade 8, leaving Tony enough time to catch up so that they could be together again. Of course, when their hardline parents caught wind of this, the twins were scared off from following through with the scheme.I wonder, if they’d followed through, if their relationship would’ve been different. Maybe my dad’s 13-year-old follies gave the twins enough distance in their education to grow some independence, to maintain their bond, but who knows, maybe into their adult years they still would’ve preferred to have been synched up. Still, they went on to work the same jobs at A&P grocery, eventually becoming twin co-managers, and put themselves through business school at the University of Windsor, one year apart.My uncle got married in August of 1977. Following a job offer, he and his wife moved to the Toronto area after the wedding. It was the first time Tom was away from home, and the first time in their lives that the twins wouldn’t share a room. The twins were distraught and crying as the reception wrapped up. My uncle’s wife stepped in to get Tom on the road to their honeymoon, prying the twins apart.My uncle’s family were the only LaSordas who moved out of Windsor. Most of my life Tom’s family has lived across the border in Michigan. When our families would visit, the twins were giddy. TomTony essentially reverted to being little boys. They matched each other. One exception was the development of my uncle’s slight American accent, notable on words like dah-lers, which my dad hated. If one twin lost weight, the other would try to lose weight too. Haircuts. Glasses. Clothing. They’d explained their constant evaluation of each other as disciplining themselves so they could still look alike. They wanted to.Tom and Tony have their differences, however subtle. My dad, minutes younger, was more outgoing. He’d starred in a middle school production of Our Town, and brought up his glorious moment of stardom on the regular. He dated a few women before he met my mother. Tom, on the other hand, married his high school sweetheart. In their careers, too, Tony was preoccupied in creating, and Tom was interested in contributing; my dad started his own marketing company while Tom worked at high level corporate for auto companies. Both twins were blind in one eye—Tom’s left, Tony’s right—one of the only physical attributes in which they were the inverse of each other.As a non-twin, I think all of the blurred identity stuff sounds annoying. When your self is so tied up in another person’s, I assumed there’d be a longing for that sort of individual distinction, maybe some resentment at having a persistent and dizzyingly close model for comparison. Instead, my Uncle Tom explained that being mistaken for someone else or someone not being sure what name to call him made him feel special. With every milestone or piece of good news, Tom says he and my dad were never jealous or competitive in any negative sense. If anything, the twins felt as though they were achieving vicariously, maybe even taking credit for it by genetic association.As Tom remembers, in Windsor, Ontario in the 1950s, identical twins were rare. Everyone around them seemed to reinforce their twinness; together, they were magnetic. “People stared, stopped us on the street, asked us questions,” he said. “We were rock stars.”*My dad died suddenly, after what should have been a routine heart surgery. He was too young—everyone I knew made sure to say so, as if confirming that this loss was indeed tragic. His death shattered me. I went through unnerving phases like eating only comfort food. I threw away a manuscript I’d “finished,” adopted a kitten, never talked about his death, and then sometimes talked about it.It’s only recently that I’ve considered how deeply and distinctively his death must have shattered his twin. I think of my uncle witnessing my dad being extremely ill, struggling, and dying; it would be horrific in ways unique from my own experience. Losing a life partner and a best friend is its own grotesque and crushing blow. But with their resemblance, my uncle could’ve been glimpsing himself in such a state, not unlike a Dickensian spectre of what-is-yet-to-come.[[{"fid":"6700756","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"2448","width":"3264","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Kinship genetic theory suggests that our ratings of grief intensity will increase proportionally with genetic relatedness to the deceased. Several twin-specific bereavement studies have found direct association between the degree of gene similarity (which is highest in identical twins) and anticipated grief. Using a rating system called the Grief Experience Inventory (GEI) selected aspects of twinship—preoccupation with the co-twin; disruption of shared birthdays; reactions to meeting or seeing other twins—were significantly associated with high GEI scale scores.In terms of experiencing grief for a co-twin in comparison to another sibling, my uncle can speak to both. Two younger LaSorda brothers passed away in the twins’ lifetimes: one at age of 16, and one at age 39, both unexpectedly. Of course these were tragedies that my uncle grieved, but when his twin died, he said the loss felt completely different.Twin researchers Nancy Segal and Thomas Bouchard have found that the mean grief intensity rating for twins was higher than for non-twin siblings, and significantly higher than that for spouses. My uncle echoed this finding: “A twin is more like a wife or a husband,” he said, “but bigger than that, because with a spouse, you could maybe meet another one. You can remember a time before. A twin leaves a void that’s always, always there.”*Tom and Tony have left their children a legacy of similarities, in a way. My cousin, Jackie, and I are the first-born kids of the twins. We share some physical traits (kind of tall, kind of blonde, fast walkers), but the parallels in our behaviours are what I find most striking. We both move around a lot (too much). For several Christmas holidays in a row we’ve chosen the same gifts for our mothers. We’ve both gone to university and later pursued two Master’s degrees: one academic and one Fine Arts each. We are intensely self-deprecating, solitary, and we were given the same prescription antidepressant.Oh, did I mention we’re both writers?As the children of identical twins, Jackie and I share 25 percent of our genes instead of the usual cousins’ share of 12.5%. Biologically, we’re half-sisters, not cousins. An identical twin parent is as closely related to his own children as to the co-twin’s children. At first I was surprised by my cousin’s grief when my dad died, but then again, I’d feel the same way. Our dads are our favourite people for the same reasons.*What I struggle with is the question of whether grieving my dad is made easier or harder by his twinship. You hear it all the time when someone loses a loved one: what I’d give to see them one more time, to be able to call them, hear their voice, hug them. I have that option, sort of. This father-clone.Since his death, I attempt to formulate my dad’s opinions about events that unfold, about the arc of my life since his absence, even thoughts about former tensions in our relationship. I hold on to my metaphorical grief suitcase. I can get insights from my uncle, though I rarely consult him; in part because I worry it’s painful for us both. When I called Tom the other day and asked for advice, I can say with confidence that what he told me is exactly what my dad would’ve said, down to the idioms and the nervous, excited laughter when answering the phone. So, in a way, the twin thing is a privilege.In another way, I can get petty. I see my cousins enjoying their lives with their dad. I watch Jackie grow annoyed sometimes, probably the same way I was, by her dad’s conservatism (maybe born out of the vehement working-class socialism they were raised with), his struggle to talk feelings, or his crippling awkwardness at drive-thru windows. I also see how my dad would’ve aged, how a few more years would’ve softened him.On the phone with Tom, talking about my dad, I was nervous. My uncle relaxed, and recounted story after story of his favourite twin memories. I jotted down Tom’s words in my notebook for over an hour—a shockingly long phone call for one of the twins. Tom and Tony were excellent baseball players. One season, they were placed on separate teams and pitched. Both made it to the finals—Tom’s team won. The Windsor Star featured a small clipping with a photo of the indistinguishable twins facing off with their uniforms and gloves, but the caption stated that Tony’s team won. Tom jokes about demanding a retraction from the paper, but the reality is neither the championship nor the headline mattered: their wins and losses were vicarious. As I listened, I began to step back and recognize that Tom is whole—a person who can offer me a distinct relationship and a perspective on my dad that I could never otherwise access. I stopped fretting about the upsetting parts of their identicality, because those exist in the similarities and the differences. I’m sure I’ve overlooked a lot of sparkling individuality while hunting for what I needed from my uncle, which is my dad.
‘Sadness Sharpens Into Anger Very Quickly’: An Interview with Pasha Malla

The author of Fugue States on upending Diaspora clichés, disingenuous narrative arcs, and dharma.

I first saw Pasha Malla speak in 2008, at a packed event at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto, for the launch of his debut collection of stories, The Withdrawal Method. Instead of a customary reading he presented a slideshow which included a series of doodles he made as a kid in London, Ontario while fascinated by the Nazis: swastikas, guns, fighter jets and tanks. Each drawing was accompanied by self-lacerating commentary on his childhood psychology, and if I remember correctly, he didn’t read a single story from his book that night.This lite deviancy left me enthralled at 21—who was this funny brown dude treating his own book launch with irreverence? I scooped up the stories and was engrossed with the tender rage he presented in the collection: brothers full of love unable to talk to each other, absurd imagery that stretched and collapsed. The book was funny. Like, funny-funny, but then the stories would detonate in unexpected ways and leave me reeling; it seemed impossible that someone could make stories twist and feel with such precision.Since The Withdrawal Method Malla has published a collection of poetry, found poetry focusing on post-game interviews with athletes, an art book riffing on Frank Capra’s Why We Fight, and an experimental novel, People Park. He has taught at the University of Toronto and mentored a wide range of authors, alongside writing a regular books column for The Globe and Mail, and contributing regularly to The Walrus, Newyorker.com and others.Last year I was fortunate enough to work with Malla on a project of my own. I was a little scared to meet someone I knew only through their work and my own admiration, but my fear was needless. Malla greeted my writing and me with a relentless generosity, rigor, and seriousness. While I spent the summer floundering with the state of my own work, ambition, and relationships, Malla—unbeknownst to him—provided a kind of anchor and model of what it meant to live a life in the arts, one built on dedication to serious thinking and a devotion to craft free of pretension.His new novel Fugue States follows Ash Dhar, a thirty something radio interviewer and author, spiraling outwards from the recent death of his father. The book is ambitious in its scope—at once a comic farce, serious in its psychological searching, while also delicately taking apart the conventions of the realist novel. It manages to be a page turner and provocative simultaneously, asking from the reader as much as it gives.We talked over Skype; Pasha in his book adorned office in Hamilton, Ontario, me in my balmy room in Toronto. He laughs often when talking about basketball or something personal but shifts gears quick when speaking on writing. We were interrupted only once, near the end, when his big bushy dog burst into view. We spoke mostly about Fugue States, how it came to be, and the responsibilities he felt towards it and by the end of the interview he was back to recommending me books for my own work.Adnan Khan: What was the process to get into Fugue States? One of the things that’s curious to me is that this is very much a realist novel, but at the same time there are some elements of it that feel like you’re poking at the genre a little bit. Pasha Malla: Oh yeah, totally. The intention is that it dismantles the whole structure as it goes.I think I set out to write a realist novel and then what I wanted to write about and talk about kind of required me to disobey the conventions. It’s so weird, I started writing this thing six or seven years ago, and you have to try to remember where it started. And I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been saying things…I dunno if any one of them is true or it’s a combination or I don’t know.I was just interested in trying to write a realist novel that was about a chronological story that takes place in space and time, where, you know, people do things that people do.To me it seems like the easy sell for this novel is that it’s a comic, Diaspora psychological realism novel, and then as you read it, you see it sort of turn inside out. I’m curious to know why you did that, basically. Lots of reasons. I mean there are reasons of my own accountability to the material. Like, I don’t feel like I’m the guy to write a novel of Kashmir, you know? Those aren’t my stories to tell, there are already plenty of writers who are writing about that place, better than I can, people who live there, people who speak the language, people who are on the ground getting shot in the face with pellets and shit like that. So, yeah, I did not, I really wanted to, not take that one. Not appropriate it, I guess.At the same time, I thought that there was something interesting in that tension of having this tenuous cultural heritage, from this place, being a piece of who I am, and so actively resisting it for ten years of having a writing career, because of that concern. Because of that concern and because of how that shit gets commodified and how in some ways writing about it is adhering to a market expectation and how easily that becomes packaged.It’s interesting that you say that—to explore that tension—because re-reading The Withdrawal Method, there are a few stories where there are certainly brown characters, but it’s not central to the story. Someone asked you in an interview why in The Slough, the first story of The Withdrawal Method, you named a character Pasha, and you talked about responsibility and not wanting the character to get away with something. The Slough is almost a foreshadowing of this novel, in the way that story also inverts upon itself. The point of that inversion was more exclusively literary and the points of the inversion in this book are, for lack of a better word, political. Or at least, I’m trying to—by sort of dismantling the structure and by setting up one kind of story only to subvert it I hope that I am—asking some questions about how we create narratives: political narratives vs. narratives of masculinity vs. narratives of purpose.One of the things that came up was this idea of responsibility. It seemed to me very much about responsibility, about whom is responsible for whom and not just who cares for who—but who is responsible, that sense of duty. Yeah, duty is—I mean, dharma.And it comes up in The Withdrawal Method, there are at least two stories about care giving and that sense of duty. I’m also curious to know, because the Kashmiri question comes up, there’s a point where Ash directly addresses this—when he discovers his father’s manuscript, he asks something like “why would I write this book, is it my story to tell?”He says explicitly that the character had written this kind of silly book and then felt the weight of doing something political, and wanted to write about Kashmir and then just couldn’t find a way in and felt disingenuous or manipulative or in some way advantageous to his own career to write about a very serious trauma.Is that cynical? Maybe I’m being cynical, maybe I’m being naïve, but even your willingness to engage with that question…I don’t think that if you publish this book and you take away all those questions about who can write about Kashmir, I don’t think anyone would say to you: you can’t write this. I think they would say, “You’re half Kashmiri, your father is Kashmiri, go nuts.” I think it’s just a personal resistance—I don’t really care what other people say. It’s just a personal thing, especially having gone there with my dad and feeling so outside of that culture. I went while I was writing the book. Basically I’d written drafts of the first two sections and I was like, “Okay, well, I’ll go there with him and then I’ll be able to write the third part where they actually go” and it did not go how I was expecting. I did not come away from that trip with any sort of better understanding of the things that I wanted to write about but a whole different set of questions that I thought were worth pursuing.What did you go there wanting to pursue? I thought I would just go there and get some answers. Just see the place and breathe the air and some way innately understand it. I hadn’t been there since I was four and I have no memories, or very, very small little flashes of sensory memory of ever being there.I thought, yeah, I had expectations of that trip, that it would sort of be like a birthright trip or a homecoming or something and I would suddenly be within my people. It was, like, not like that, at all.It’s a decimated place. It’s really not what it once was. Infrastructure is crumbling, people are suffering, the large proportion of the population no longer lives there, and 40,000—probably more than that—people have been murdered. It has kind of a shell shocked feeling of a place. It’s still beautiful if you look up, but if you look down, it’s degradation. And it’s not what it once was—at least, what I’d been told what it was.The story then became about the idealization of what it is to people, to exiles, and how the place can never be what people want it to be, or how it’s remembered. They remember in this idealized sort of way.I think that the character in the book, Ash, has inherited this idealized version of what that place will be and has this innate suspicion that it is not that so I think he knows that if he starts to write about it, he will be writing about a false version, and then, he resists going because he doesn’t want to know the truth, and then he gets there and forgets why he’s there!Why is care giving, or duty, so prevalent in your work? Ash does go to India for Matt—there’s an underlying sense of taking care.When I was writing The Withdrawal Method my step-mom was really sick and my dad just dedicated his life to taking care of her. I mean, he talked about dharma all the time—it’s like, I’m not doing anything good, I’m just doing what has to be done. Not out of obligation—but this is what you do. And, you know, I like that idea.I like to think about the various degrees of loyalty and what that means in friendships and how Matt’s idea of loyalty is built into this code of what he imagines it means to be a man and a friend and whatever else, that the book kind of dismantles. And I think that, you know, ways that men in this novel, like Chip is the sole caretaker for his son, who has cerebral palsy, and it’s just a relationship that Ash cannot fathom.I wanted that relationship to have an irony to it, where we see how hard this guy is trying to take care of his kid, as a man, he’s doing his best, and there’s something kind of innate to how he’s been culturally limited to do it right—or at least, how he feels he should be doing it right. Struggling with it and whatever else. You know, you don’t read a lot of books—I don’t anyway—that apply that care-giving role to men, or caretaking. How men take care of each other and family and friends and everything else. And also how they fail.There is this undercurrent of menace through the book; Ash’s father is very angry, Ash is morose, but then there’s this comedy throughout. Even Matt—who is this incredibly destructive force for most of the book—is quite funny. I wanted to make their characters multivalent, so they’re not all just struggling with a kind of masculinity. Whether it’s bro culture masculinity that Matt feels like he has to live up to, or some sort of paternalistic culture the father needs to live up to, or whether the son feels like he has this male inheritance.But the way that North American male culture is built, that sadness sharpens into anger very quickly and the way that it manifests outwardly as hostility, violence, anger, aggression, and for the three of those characters. You know, Matt is physically violent, Ash is linguistically violent.And I think for that to work and the kind of tone I wanted—I didn’t want it to just be a book of menace, because that would create a kind of monotone that didn’t work for this. I think it works for something like Blood Meridian, where that tone is crucial to how that book operates, but I wanted for that to be not the dominant strain, but an undercurrent that is inevitable, especially when it rises up and becomes so prevalent.It’s very unsettling. The Matt-in-India stuff is terrifying. And he doesn’t know! I kind of wanted a certain, it’s hard to create expectations for what you want from the reader, but I liked the potential for the character—the people who find him innocuously entertaining and have some sympathy for him, I think that’s good. But I also wanted to turn that into a kind of complicity, where his bumbling is such a symptom of a certain type of privilege. And that this kind of behavior actually wreaks a lot of havoc.I think that my intention was to try and create a character that feels potentially dangerous but is innocuous enough—at least in the first two, maybe the first part of the book and then starts to shift in the second and then really shifts in the third—that if you’re entertained by this guy, then suddenly you’re like “oh shit, I kinda got sucked up in this character.” To some people I think he might be charming, or sympathetic; and certainly some people would find him repulsive. That’s fine too.I was also interested in the relationship between Ash and Sherene. It’s sort of set up initially that Ash is very needy towards her, and kind of longing for her, but then it comes out that it’s a friendship. You see that Sherene, a woman, is the only place where he can express that longing for intimacy. Whereas Matt, who is desperate for it from Ash, never gets it from Ash. Yeah. And they have an intellectual intimacy. There’s nothing really romantic there. There’s a kind of longing of certain kinds of friendships that will never be consummated in any way, except trust, and a sort of emotional dependency.You said complicit, and that struck a chord because that’s something the book does. Not only playing with the very typical Diaspora storyline—I’m pretty sure the father dying and the boy going back home is what happens in The Namesake—I mean, I’m not gonna name names, but it’s cliché, and the book is full of cliché, but I hope that, it kind of upends them. The main character is aware that he is a cliché.And that self-awareness comes through. I remember when you outed Chip and Sherene as being Asian—do you want to talk about that a little bit? I love things that make me feel that sort of shame; because in the book you introduce them and then later on we learn that Chip is Korean and Sherene is Persian, and in both those moments I was like, “Oh, wait a minute, I was definitely thinking that these dudes were white.” It’s just a little game. It’s a game to play with expectations and racialized characters have to be identified as racialized. I had a clear idea of who these people were from the beginning and then I was like, why do I need to explain it? If they were white I wouldn’t explain it. I hope that you know, the reader’s response to that is to make them question that expectation, that unless specified, a character is read as white.Talking about those ideas of what is common in Diaspora literature is this heirloom—Ash finds his father’s manuscript; this is what his father has left behind. Exactly, it’s another cliché.It also provokes a lot of questions about memory, about what’s left behind, and that ties in really well with a lot of the political stuff. You ask, how much responsibility does Ash have to Kashmir—what was the decision behind that, that you wanted to explode that? Explode what in particular?This idea of heirlooms, because it’s an unfinished heirloom. That caught my mind particularly—when someone comes from another country, you have to decide what to leave behind, and Ash’s father is this man of intellect and he decides to write the Great Indian Novel. And then Ash, viewing himself kind of as a failure, kind of not, sort of steps into his father’s shoes by retyping this novel and seeing what he can discover. And using that novel to engage with his dead father. It doesn’t go anywhere though, right? It’s a process that I think we see in fiction as being kind of rewarding, as a path to the self, I just feel like it’s a little bit disingenuous. Does life really work that way? I don’t know, it’s a question. I don’t know. But at least, in this book, the manuscript never goes anywhere, and then that sort of gets transmuted into the reality of the book, eventually. But Ash’s process of working on it doesn’t go anywhere either.The riskiest thing to me about this book is that you withheld the epiphany. Yeah, well, kind of.You withhold the epiphany with a capital e. I struggle with that tendency, among, let’s say, North American writers, to sort of take that cultural heritage and cultural inherited trauma and use it for self- discovery. It’s so weird. “I don’t know who I am, I’m going to dig up all this stuff about X genocide that happened to my ancestors to get a better sense of myself.”The level of solipsism in that is insane! So it’s something the character is aware of, and it’s something that I was thinking of when writing this book. I could spend a year in Kashmir talking to people and living there, but I think that the instinct to then use that to better understand myself is crazy. Like, I grew up in London, Ontario, you know what I mean? So it’s like—the resistance, the way the book sort of sets that up, is a kind of garden path, like he’s going to use this to sort of discover something about his dad and then discover something about himself, but is very conscientiously a dead end, I guess.I don’t know if there are epiphanies that are withheld. The coda that’s at the end of the book is supposed to lead the reader to a realization that the character’s had, you know, this theme of time and memory that’s sort of been threaded throughout the whole book, that there’s something still within that, there’s something that’s still worthwhile. And that the act of storytelling and, you know, fiction, and the process of engaging with these questions is, in itself, even though they don’t go anywhere, is worthwhile.I don’t think it’s an entirely cynical and nihilistic book. I feel like though it’s resisting a lot of these things, it’s resisting a lot of tropes and things that I think are themselves cynical. I think that, you know, approaching storytelling as a kind of teleology that will lead you to an end point of understanding is this thing that we’ve developed as a way to talk about fiction, to me, it’s like, is that what life is like?
It’s the New (Old) Thing: When Post-Punk and Literature Meet

From Pissed Jeans inviting Lindsay Hunter onto a song to Lynne Tillman writing for Y Pants to Kathy Acker performing with the Mekons, there’s a unique energy and catharsis in these collaborations.

So let’s begin with Pissed Jeans. From the eastern side of Pennsylvania, they tap into a grimy, visceral strain of music, have one of the most evocative names of any currently running punk band, and put on a gripping live show. Their latest album, Why Love Now, was released by Sub Pop at the end of February, and right smack in the middle of it, prime sonic real estate to disorient discerning listeners, is a song called “I’m a Man.” Like many of their songs, it delves into the grotesque and the menacing: over booming drums and frenetic guitars, a voice declaims a narrative of toxic masculinity that would make the misanthropic protagonist of your average Shellac song blush.“I’m a man, Miss Office Lady,” the narrator says, and proceeds with an unsettling and over-the-top method of seduction, using a tone of voice that’s both highly exaggerated and frequently sinister (“I’ll take the milk and the cow. That’s you. You’re the cow”). But the voice heard here isn’t that of Pissed Jeans vocalist Matt Korvette. Instead, those words were written and read by author Lindsay Hunter, whose books—including the novel Ugly Girls and the collections Daddy’s and Don’t Kiss Me—involve a host of similarly oversexed, comic-yet-sinister figures. Hunter blends in so neatly with the band’s sound and attitude, it’s almost a surprise such collaborations don’t happen more frequently.[[{"fid":"6700721","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Pissed Jeans - I'm A Man","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Which isn’t to say they never happen at all. Earlier this year, Water Wing Records out of Portland, Oregon, reissued Beat It Down, the first full-length from No Wave band Y Pants. Originally released in 1982, the album offers plenty of archetypally post-punk moves: left-field instrumental arrangements, haunting vocals, and a general sense of aesthetic unpredictability. The phrase “don’t be afraid to be boring” is repeatedly intoned on “Obvious,” the album’s first song, with connotations that sound alternately liberating and ominous. In other words, it’s par for the course for that particular musical moment in time.Where does the literary side of things come in? The song’s lyrics were written by Lynne Tillman, who went on to become an iconic writer among iconic writers, nominated for National Book Critics Circle Awards in both fiction and criticism. On its own, “Obvious” seems of a piece with the rest of the album, whose songs deal with alienation, flawed interpersonal connections, and subcultures, but its lyrics also fit nicely in with Tillman’s bibliography, the components of which frequently disconcert, experiment with form, and often bring artistic disciplines together. It’s not the only literary nod on Beat It Down, either: the lyrics to “The Fly,” the eighth song on the album, are adapted from Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -.”In his 2008 book on the genre, Marc Masters pointed out that artists identified as No Wave had little in common—except for, in the case of many, a brief existence. “Did the bands sound the same? Did they think the same? Did they all get along? No. There is perhaps only one question to which No Wave offered a Yes: is there anything left when you start by saying 'No'?” All of which, then, makes for a subgenre that’s fairly open to collaborations, perhaps moreso than most. Why not bring in a writer to work on lyrics? Why not collaborate with someone outstanding in their own field but without formal musical training?The moment in No Wave history from which Y Pants emerged is important to keep in mind. In his introduction to the 2006 anthology Up Is Up But So Is Down: New York’s Literary Scene, 1974-1992, editor Brandon Stosuy set the stage for the literary world that the book encompasses. Stosuy notes that the experimentalism of that scene had a greater aesthetic similarity to the punk bands with whom those writers frequently shared art spaces than more traditional concepts of experimental writing from the same time. “All in all,” he writes, “these writers have more in common with Reed and his Velvet Underground, the tight three-chord anthems of the Ramones, or the jagged sounds of Suicide and DNA than baroque Pynchon and his V-2 missiles.”As tends to happen when likeminded creative figures congregate, disciplines began to overlap. Stosuy’s anthology is particularly useful in the way it showcases a cross-section of a particular scene, noting not just the punk ties of literary figures like Tillman and Dennis Cooper, but also the literary efforts of those known for their work in other fields, such as Lydia Lunch and David Wojnarowicz. Barbara Ess, best known for her innovative photography, is represented in the anthology as both a writer and designer, but has also been involved in several musical groups over the years, the aforementioned Y Pants included.The same spirit of collaboration and the motif of punk and literature borrowing from one another—what Stosuy refers to as “the fusion of power chords and words”—persisted beyond the initial heyday of postpunk and downtown experimentalism. One of the most prominent writers mentioned in Up Is Up But So Is Down is Kathy Acker, who collaborated with the long-running group the Mekons on the album Pussy, Queen of the Pirates. Now might be a good time to mention this live footage of the collaborators performing on television, in which Acker dramatically reads from her work before segueing into the Mekons at their most catchily new wave, while everyone dances across the stage dressed as pirates. It is an amazing sight to behold. But more importantly, it suggests, like Lindsay Hunter taking the microphone on a Pissed Jeans song, that the overlap by a pair of artists with roots in the avant-garde can be surprisingly cathartic and ecstatic. It’s another way for musicians already taking their music in unexpected directions to go in an even more unexpected direction. In the case of Hunter and Pissed Jeans, for instance, this is twofold: adding a literally different voice to the band’s music, and folding in a representative of a new artistic discipline along the way.[[{"fid":"6700726","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"The MEKONS & Kathy Acker ~ Live ~ Pussy, King of the Pirates ~","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Pussy, Queen of the Pirates shares its name with a book by Acker, though the two works are distinct from one another. In a 1996 interview for the zine Carbon 14, Acker talked about how she had sought to explore questions of race through writing the book. Her answer, however, ultimately explores larger questions about the nature of collaboration and the work that can result:“When I start it, I have no idea where it will end up. The same thing with the record with the Mekons. I didn't know it would end up the way it has. I was using material from the book, but I think it's also partly something else. Something you get from the record itself, or from the live performance.”That sense of “something else” isn’t easy to quantify. Some of it might be the notion of taking a listener (or a reader, or a viewer) by surprise; some of it might stem from the friction that emerges from the best collaborations (and is entirely absent from the worst). It does seem notable, however, that plenty of those collaborations maintain a connection, even now, to the same downtown scene from which Acker played a part.The producer of Pissed Jeans’s Why Love Now is, in fact, Lydia Lunch (who has herself worked across multiple artistic disciplines). A significant amount of the press the band did follow Why Love Now’s release delved into the band’s working relationship with their two high-profile collaborators. In the case of Hunter, that came via vocalist Matt Korvette’s admiration for her writing.“I’ve just been a fan of hers and I reached out and we became friends,” he told writer Sarah Rose Etter in an interview for Fanzine. “I just love her writing. I wanted her to write something for the insert initially, but then I wondered does anyone even read inserts?” And so the band and Hunter worked together to create “I’m A Man,” which both feels like a natural extension of their sound and a necessary counterpoint to it. In an interview with the music website CLRVYNT, Korvette was asked about Lunch’s reaction to the finished song. His response? “Oh man, she was moshing to it. It was great!”There are, of course, such collaborations whose lineage can’t be traced directly to that New York scene of yore. The Philadelphia-based poet, musician, and performance artist Camae Ayewa makes music under the name Moor Mother; her album Fetish Bones was released last year by Don Giovanni Records, best-known for being the home to music by punk artists ranging from Downtown Boys to Screaming Females to Alice Bag. In her introduction to her interview with Ayewa at Pitchfork, writer Jenn Pelly wrote that “she’s posted some 100 recordings to Bandcamp, with samples ranging from children’s hand games to Fugazi’s ‘Waiting Room’ bassline to the poets Maya Angelou, June Jordan, and Ntozake Shange.” Here, too, there’s a juxtaposition between the literary and the musical; here, too, the result is nearly impossible to classify, but frequently gripping.Trying to force cross-disciplinary collaborations can backfire in a host of ways. But the upswing in these sorts of punk/literary collaborations feels organic: the increased presence of writers at music festivals suggests a move towards increased overlap, and as writers have embraced more performative readings, some have also gotten attention for that side of their persona—author Amelia Gray, for one, has recorded two sessions for the online music archive Daytrotter. A number of DIY performance spaces are also taking a cue from bygone days and hosting multidisciplinary work: the calendar for the Brooklyn DIY space Silent Barn shows readings and zine events alongside a host of punk and experimental artists. The result, often, is thrilling and unexpected: artists of different stripes challenging and complementing each other, and forging new ground together in the process.