Hazlitt Magazine

Who Gets to be An Atheist?

Some non-believers are working to combat white male dominance within the movement and make room for everyone to explore secular community.

Behind the Closed Door: Remembering Edward Albee

Notes on two afternoons with the playwright who gave us Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Zoo Story.

'There Has To Be Less School': An Interview with Nicholson Baker

Talking with the author of Substitute about an educational system at odds with learning, seduced by technology, and ripe for reform; the vanishing awe of teachers; and the madness that is lunchtime.

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‘We Can Only Do Our Poetry Because We Are Also Fighting Back’: An Interview with China Miéville

Talking to the author of The Last Days of New Paris about applying a video game sensibility to fiction, redeeming and finding inspiration in the politics of the Surrealists, and when to add demons.

In the alternate-history 1950 of China Miéville’s newest novella, The Last Days of New Paris, Germany won the Second World War and Paris is an occupied city where members of the radical resistance thread their way through a city stalked not only by Nazis with bullwhips, but also bat-winged businessmen, giant, rolling eyeballs and wolf-tables with fangs and claws. These strange manifestations—“manifs,” the locals call them—are Surrealist art somehow mysteriously brought to life. Oh, and there are devils, too.Miéville is known for writing weird fiction that, at its best, is both what he calls “a ripping yarn” and also an exploration of the subjects that fascinate him: linguistics, leftist politics, cephalopods, the trauma of living in a divided city. New Paris is on the lighter side for Miéville, playful and pulpy and visually delightful: “The chimneys of Paris are buffeted by ecstatic avian storm clouds. Bones inflated like airships.” I probably could’ve finished the novella in an afternoon if its extensive endnotes hadn’t kept sending me down various Wikipedia rabbit holes in search of more background about the unfamiliar (to me) Surrealist figures who populate New Paris, such as the magician-poet-painter Ithell Colquhoun and the avant-garde Resistance fighters of the Main à plume.I talked with Miéville over Skype from his home in London. He speaks thoughtfully, in long, complete sentences. He has a tendency to make a statement and then immediately anticipate the argument he imagines other people might make against what he just said—or, sometimes, what he is about to say.I have a poster of Dorothea Tanning’s 1944 painting Birthday on my living room wall. In it, a topless woman stands before a corridor of half-open doors; at her feet crouches a dark, winged creature—one which, incidentally, makes a brief appearance in New Paris. As Miéville spoke, I kept glancing up at the creature’s claws and wings and big sad eyes, this domestic demon of unclear meaning but clear significance.*Rachel Monroe: I was told that the idea for the novella started out as a video game.China Miéville: Yes, it's a tie-in to a video game that doesn't exist yet, and may or may not ever exist. That's why it's a much more playful and lighter book than a lot of the other things I've done. I've long had this idea, for this setting for an open world, a sandbox game, and I was working on the world bible and the history [for it]. [The book started out as] a novella that was set within that world.The shape of the narrative is an absolutely classic video game shape: a kind of looking around for things leading up towards boss battles. That's, if you like, the un-reconstructed element; then there's a reconstructed element. I'm not very good at video games, but I like playing them sometimes, and one of the things that frustrates me is the extent to which there's actually very little genuine randomization. There are the ways that you should play the game, even the ones that are designed to be highly customizable.Within about two days of any role-playing game being released, there are sites online showing you how to optimize your character. I find that really sad. That's why I was interested in the kind of cross-fertilization with Surrealism—because Surrealism is so predicated on the automatic and the dreamlike. It’s no coincidence that one of the key characters in this is an exquisite corpse, which is, at its heart, something that you cannot build, something you cannot plan. It is intrinsically created in a kind of random interaction.I liked the idea of [the story] being both an homage to the classic video game shape, but also something of an argument about the desirability of a truly randomized, anti-build mentality.When did you first become interested in Surrealism?When I was probably perhaps eleven or twelve, I saw Max Ernst's picture, “Europe After The Rain” in a gallery. It's enormous, and there was something about it that completely stopped up my breath. From then I became very interested in Ernst, but also the whole of the tradition.Before that, as a very young child, I'd always gravitated towards both monsters and the monstrous, the dreamlike. What that meant was that a lot of the images that I was liking were in fact proto-Surrealist images.There's a line fairly early on in the book where the manifs are described as provoking a sense of recognition even when they look very strange. What do you think is being recognized in those moments?I think maybe this gets to the [distinction between] the specificity of chance and the automatic, as opposed to the merely random. Although there's clearly a lot of Surrealist techniques that do use genuinely random elements, “random” implies a sort of completely kooky arbitrariness. The idea of the automatic brings in some notion of, if you like, the non-random random. That's partly to do with the process of post-facto interpretation, and also to do with a sense of channeling.Some of these images very quickly and very powerfully become heuristics, ways of thinking about things and relating to things, kind of embedded metaphors.Some of these images have a semiotic fecundity that is very, very good to think with, and good to feel with. That's why some work is immediately very powerful, though it's difficult to express or to explain why. In a way that's the heart of what Surrealism, when it works—because some of it is crap—but when it works, that's what it does. Something that you can't possibly recognize, yet that you really do feel as if you recognize it.Did you use any chance operations or other Surrealist techniques to create the book?I did, but at quite an early stage, in some of the the maps, the nomenclature, the creation of the characters and so on. I suppose I have to cheerfully own the fact that by virtue of being a narrative shape and also being quite cheerfully part of a kind of pulp tradition, the novella is a clash of two different traditions in a way. It follows a certain set of protocols, which in a way is antithetical to the chance and the randomized. That oscillation between a kind of systematicity, a formal shape, and the eruption of chance is a productive tension that I've been interested in for quite a long time.Many of the real-life figures who pop up in the book were completely unknown to me.[The novella] is partly an attempt to perform an act of archaeology on certain very brilliant artists, writers and activists within that tradition, who I think have been neglected. This was an attempt to create a specifically radical and insurgent Surrealist canon, and to take that opportunity to honor some very powerful, and for me, very formative artists who I don't think necessarily get the respect they deserve.Your endnotes point to a lot of the different historical figures and artworks that you’re referencing in New Paris—but I was wondering if there were any secret influences on the book.There are certainly Easter eggs. Thinking of this as a video game, one would have all kinds of opportunities to stop the game to investigate sources. For the novella, many of the art pieces are explicated or referenced explicitly in the endnotes, but some of them are not. Some of them because I think that they're pieces of art that are already very well-known, and some of them because people always enjoy clocking things that aren't necessarily spelled out for them.The Surrealists in the book aren’t just artists; they’re deeply engaged politically, too.If the Surrealists, our protagonists here, are the goodies, that places them violently opposed to certain of the traditional Hollywood goodies: certainly the French government and the Americans. The cynicism about the supposed forces of liberty and freedom is inextricable from the aesthetic.I think there's a great condescension towards [the Surrealists]—that these were a bunch of effete, silly artists who liked fucking about on the Left Bank, but who weren't serious political activists. There's no question that that's true of some of them, but I think it's a gross misrepresentation of what, to me, is the most inspiring of that current. These are people who are striving to make the best and the most powerful Surrealist art they can in a context of fascist occupation, against which they were fighting in ways that will see them sentenced to death. These are people who risked, and in some cases were subject to, death sentences. To them, it wasn't just a question of there being no contradiction. If you like, it came from the same pot. Their politics and their aesthetics were inextricable.I do get quite angry about the idea that these were people playing around while the real politicos got on with the dangerous job. That's just, in many cases, grotesquely disrespectful. There's that beautiful line, which I quote [in the book], where [the Main à plume] confront the people who are saying, "Poetry is superfluous at this moment." Their response is, "The superfluous presumes the necessary." To them, we can only do our poetry because we are also doing the necessary, and the necessary means fighting back. That I find deeply inspiring.How did the occult element become part of the world of the book?Part of the pleasure of creating a world like this is its plenitude. In this moment in time you've got the very real obsession of certain wings of the Surrealists with the occult, and you've also got the very real obsession of certain wings of the Nazis with the occult. These are both completely real traditions. That overlap was aesthetically titillating.I also didn't want it simply to be goody art versus baddy art, and that meant that there needed to be a third force. Once you add a third force, things begin to get much more messy, because otherwise, if you have your goody art versus baddy art, it starts to feel like this is a simplistic allegorical lesson, and I wasn't so interested in that. Given the complete obsession with deviltry that certain wings of the Nazis had, why not? It's fascinating, it's absurd. It has teeth, if you will. Taking that relatively well-worn idea, and cross-fertilizing it with the idea of the living art was a way I hoped to invigorate the world, so it had a certain messiness to it.Once, having put demons in it, then the game becomes what can you do with demons that is not exactly the same thing everyone else has always done with demons? Can you introduce certain new elements to them, while still enjoying the fact that you're using the classic old image of a demon? How does it cross-fertilize with the art? What would it mean? How would they relate? That, ultimately, became part of the backstory, part of the highly absurd explication for how the world ended up taking the turn it does, as well as being part of the furniture of the city.A lot of people I know have recently become more interested in Surrealism. I feel like people are suddenly always talking about Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, people like that. But maybe that’s just who I’ve been hanging out with. Does it seem at all to you like we’re having a Surrealist moment?I've been very happy to see this upsurge of interest in [Leonora] Carrington in the last five to six years, although because I'm a bad person, I have that little flinch where something that you thought was your special thing that other people weren't into suddenly becomes trendy … but that's very ignoble, and one fights it.I feel like Surrealism is one of those movements that is so ripe for appropriation, commercialization, banalization … sometimes with the active participation of the people involved as well, let's not be precious about it. Anything that anyone ever discovers that's aesthetically radical and interesting, they tend to think, "This time, it's unappropriateable. This time, it's going to keep its radical edge,” whether it's drum and bass or doom metal or whatever.Surrealism was one of the earliest of those, and it's a kind of object lesson in the opposite: It could be commercialized and appropriated and, to my money, banalized almost from the get-go.I suppose I see constant waves of interest [in Surrealism] since the ’20s, and there are constant appropriations and banalizations, and I can't tell whether it's an aspiration or a belief or something between the two, but my aspiration/belief, melancholically, is that there is also a surplus and a specificity to Surrealism that kind of appends to every moment of banalization. And yet there is still something.
Banner for Maurice, Son of Noah Part 1 by Roman Muradov for Hazlitt
A User’s Guide to Shirley Jackson

The author wrote what she knew, but also what she believed, what she feared, and what she was constantly trying to run away from.

“Every copy of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery has been checked out from the Springfield public library,” says news anchor Kent Brockman on an episode from the third season of The Simpsons. The prize is up to 130 million dollars, and people are obsessed with the prospect of winning. “Of course the book does not contain any hints on how to win the lottery. It is rather a chilling tale of conformity gone mad.” Cut to a frustrated Homer Simpson watching TV from his couch, chucking his copy of The Lottery into the fireplace.I learned about Shirley Jackson through The Simpsons a decade before I was assigned an essay analyzing the symbolism in The Lottery in a high school English class. Discovering her through a satirical animated sitcom feels retroactively all too perfect; she was a smart writer with genre appeal. Time magazine once described her as “A Virginia Werewoolf amongst the scéance-fiction writers,” a moniker that her husband, a literary critic, would resent for its dismissiveness. She could be deeply funny, and not in the “dark irony that comes with living in modern society expressed through an acerbic wit” way but in a “here are my jokes, look at my jokes, I am clever in ways you can only dream of being” kinda way. Her abilities to terrify and delight and then terrify some more lend an evergreen quality to her books, most of which were written in the 1950s.Shirley Jackson would be turning one hundred years old this December had she not passed away in 1965, at the age of forty-eight. In time for her centennial comes A Rather Haunted Life, an excellent new biography out this month by Ruth Franklin. (Judy Oppenheimer’s 1988 book, Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, is frustratingly out of print.) The list of Jackson’s own work currently still in print includes six novels, three short story and essay collections, and two memoirs. No detail in a Shirley Jackson story is put there by accident, as evidenced in the lectures on writing she gave, collected in the posthumous collections Let Me Tell You and Come Along With Me. I myself tore through her works voraciously, as if all the secrets of surviving this world were hidden somewhere on the last page. She would write about how things were, but not how we got there; a town with an annual ritual sacrifice of one of its own was a given, with readers left to fill in the blanks with their own experiences of, well, conformity gone mad.Women frequently get the shaft in Shirley Jackson’s stories. It’s not that her men are never victims, but the women are the ones who truly seem to suffer. They’re also the prime antagonists—the ones who judge their neighbours, control their daughters, whisper and gossip about anyone who crosses their paths. They’re the ones who know, way better than the menfolk ever will, what it takes to sacrifice yourself to be a person in the world, and they’ll be damned if anyone else gets away scot free. They hurt, and so they cause hurting in turn.Jackson herself suffered in life, from her overbearing mother, from her unfaithful husband, from trying to carve out time away from raising four children for her creative work, writing stories for publications that frequently asked her for more light-hearted tales. She omits the darker parts of her life in her two memoirs, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, lighthearted comedies based on her children’s misadventures. The darker truths she saved for her fiction. Shirley Jackson wrote what she knew, but also what she believed, what she feared, and what she was constantly trying to run away from.She experienced severe agoraphobia later in life, rarely leaving her home. She was obsessed with houses. They were her ultimate muses. She liked ‘em big and spooky, and she liked the narratives behind them. They’re a frequent motif in her books, integral to the plots of We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Sundial, and serving as a character in The Haunting of Hill House. Both her jovial and her horror stories took place in domestic spaces. Jackson understood firsthand what it was like to lose parts of yourself in order to fit in with expectations from others, and her fiction was a way to explore that, taking stifling social obligations to their dramatic conclusions. Like Mrs. Hutchinson in The Lottery, Jackson often had little room to dissent against conformity in her day-to-day life. She did, however, have her writing.We Have Always Lived in the Castle“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”Starting with Jackson’s last completed novel is a bit like eating dessert before dinner but that’s okay; she would approve of that. This novella, told in poetic prose from the point of view of an eighteen-year-old trapped in her prepubescent mindset, is Jackson’s masterpiece.Mary Katherine Blackwood—Merricat—lives alone with her sister and uncle in a big empty house, six years after the rest of their family was murdered via arsenic in the sugar bowl. The murder is technically unsolved, but the book’s not really a whodunit. Constance’s agoraphobia leaves her housebound. Merricat is a dreamer, imagining a celestial life for her and Constance in which they wear feathers in their hair and rubies on their hands, speaking a soft, liquid tongue and singing in the starlight, looking down on the dead dried world.Every sentence is filled with this type of elegance, of terror told delicately and cobwebs spun into gold. Merricat’s narration is a nimble highwire act: naive but not innocent, observant but dreamlike, present but a million miles away, somewhere on the surface of the moon. On a regular day, Jackson could provide scares, but at her best she could quietly unsettle. Merricat is an outsider, ostracized from everyone except her sister, but it’s her inviting view of the world contrasted with the harshness of the townsfolk that slowly becomes the only thing that makes sense.The Haunting of Hill HouseLong before she was invited to participate in a study of the supernatural at the notorious Hill House, Eleanor Vance was trapped. She is maddeningly lonely, having spent most of her adult life as the caretaker for her dying mother before living under the thumb of her domineering sister and brother-in-law. Eleanor is a bit of an introvert, the type made famous on your Tumblr dashboard, but more than that she doesn't know who she is—she hasn’t had the freedom yet to develop a personality. So when the opportunity comes up to steal her sister’s car and run away to an allegedly haunted house with a bunch of paranormally inclined strangers, Eleanor’s inclination is to go, “Cool, where can I stop for gas?” This is how she ends up at Hill House, a place where monsters and metaphors hang out all night on a never-ending slumber party. (The book was adapted into a movie in 1963, and again in 1999 as a Razzie nominated gore flick starring Owen Wilson. I haven’t seen it, but I can assure you it’s terrible.)Hill House is disorienting and claustrophobic, and though all of its residents are thrown off by its winding hallways and disproportionate dimensions, Eleanor seems to be affected the most. She’s the one the voices in the night call out to, it’s her name that shows up on the walls in blood. The house seems to physically manifest all her anxieties, isolating her from everyone else and singling her out as a current for deviance. The Haunting of Hill House is, perchance, a straightforward horror novel, but only because it’s built on a foundation of paranoia and self doubt, where the line between real and imaginary is blurred. Whether the house is actually haunted or Eleanor is simply losing her mind, both options read as pretty terrifying.Hangsaman and The Bird’s NestIf she was at all ambiguous about the unreliability of the narrator in Hill House (I mean, if you wanted to take a very literal reading), Jackson downright torpedoes the idea that anything can be trusted at face value in these two books. Her second and third novels, written in 1951 and 1954 respectively, follow female heroes who endure unacknowledged trauma and suffer the mental consequences.Natalie, the teenage protagonist of Hangsaman, lives very much in her own head, mostly as a way to deal with her dysfunctional family. The day before she leaves for college, she is maybe sexually assaulted—an incident that is maybe based on Jackson’s real life. While at school, Natalie isolates herself from the girls at her dormitory, but forges a friendship with Elizabeth, the alcoholic wife of one of her teachers—two characters that are maybe based on Jackson and her own husband, who worked as a lecturer at a university. Then things get weird.Elizabeth, the mousy twenty-three-year-old protagonist of The Bird’s Nest, lives a mostly quiet life spent working at the museum. There are things happening in her life she can’t explain: mysterious headaches and fatigue, gaps in memory and time she can’t piece together. Her uptight aunt forces her to see a psychiatrist, the perfunctory Dr. Wright. Through hypnosis, he makes a remarkable discovery: within Elizabeth are no fewer than three completely distinct personalities, each vying for their chance in the spotlight.Whatever DSM-V classifications might be given to Natalie and Elizabeth today—PTSD, dissociative identity disorder—Jackson was working with the information they had at the time, falling back on her metaphors. It’s after being forced into a state of repression that both Natalie’s and Elizabeth’s subconscious come out to play with little regard for anything else. The science in these books is ambiguous, but the social conditions that require in women a state of submission are anything but.The Lottery & Other Stories“The Lottery,” which closes out this story collection, is by far Jackson’s most famous work—thanks, Kent Brockman. After it was published in The New Yorker in 1948, it received a record number of letters to the editor, ranging from the hostile to the befuddled to the even more hostile. People demanded explanations for the story, or mistook it for non-fiction.“The Lottery” draws readers into a false sense of security within the first few paragraphs. It opens on a small town, where everybody knows each other’s name and gathers together for an annual tradition. Sure, there seems to be an unspoken chill in the air, but what small town doesn’t have one of those? Everything is perfectly fine and normal, until the lottery is drawn and the mob is formed and the readers of The New Yorker are forever changed.The rest of the book includes stories that start off like romantic escapades but quickly devolve into parables about the Devil, tight social satire you may have to read twice in order to fully grasp the critique of anti-Semitism, and creepily uncanny depictions of Americana.The SundialAs far as Jackson’s female characters go, the women of The Sundial are especially brutal. The book opens on the Halloran Estate, after the funeral of Lionel Halloran. His wife, Maryjane, believes that his mother, Orianna, murdered Lionel to inherit the estate. His young daughter, Fancy, in turn offers to push Orianna down the stairs. There are other family members and live-in help present, none of them equipped to be in the same room together. This is page one of the book.When wandering in the garden, Aunt Fanny (Orianna’s sister-in-law) has a vision: the end of the world is coming, and only those in the Halloran house will survive. The family quickly accepts their fate as the chosen few, and soon starts to prepare for life in a new world where they account for the entire population. Shirley’s comedy is pitch black here; if a funeral brought out the family’s ugly side, the apocalypse warps them into funhouse mirror versions of real people. The end of the world is just another social obligation.The Road Through the WallJackson’s first novel is an excellent deep cut. It follows the residents of Pepper Street in small-town California, and the social dynamics that keep everyone in line. It’s the Seinfeld of middle-class suburban ennui: a book about nothing and therefore about everything. Jackson once said that the first book you have to write is to get back at your parents, and The Road is her big two-hundred-page middle finger to her own suffocating California childhood. Once she got that out of her system, Jackson was ready to take on the rest of the world.
Featuring Namugenyi Kiwanuka
Embracing your accents (9:12), little voices yelling things (14:25), and the high cost of telling your story (17:47).
Behind the Closed Door: Remembering Edward Albee

Notes on two afternoons with the playwright who gave us Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Zoo Story.

In Edward Albee’s first play, The Zoo Story, an anguished wanderer orates on pornographic playing cards: “When you’re a kid, you use them as a substitute for a real experience,” he says, “and when you’re older you use real experience as a substitute for the fantasy.” Albee was one of the major literary heroes of my high school years, and when I watched the movie adaption of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with my first girlfriend, the witty, vindictive warhorse couple of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton seemed both aspirational and abject, like looking into a doomed but beautiful future. Being young enough to aestheticize cruelty with no moral remainder, we used Albee’s plays as a substitute for real experience—how glamorous to be professors, to drink and to hate each other. Now, some fifteen years later, I actually teach at a college; my fantasies rarely involve charged banter with a drunk wife.Two years after that first viewing, though, in a third-floor bedroom decorated with paperbacks and cigarette-stuffed wine bottles, I watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? again. I was in university by then, and the room was filled with the full cast of that era of my life, English majors or people, like me, who were too snobby about books11“No one understands books less than critics” —nineteen-year-old me to be English majors, but who treated literature like a competitive sport all the same. Most of the people in that room would go on to fuck and fuck over one another—we hated and loved each other with equal force, and it struck me as appropriate that we were watching this strangely dull classic. Pace the entry-level No Exit, but with the possible exception of Scenes from a Marriage, the prison of other people has perhaps never been more relentlessly wrung than by Albee, and has certainly never been as funny. “My wife’s in the can with a liquor bottle, and she winks at me—winks at me!” says the young buck in the midst of his first real marital meltdown. “She’s never wunk at you?” says Elizabeth Taylor, totally deadpan, to this sweet, beautiful idiot. If there’s a patron saint of smart people being mean to each other, it must be Edward Albee.I persisted in being smart and mean for several years after that, but I stopped thinking about Albee for a while. I don’t think he would mind if I admitted I assumed, back then, that he was already dead. Despite his contemporary rhythms of speech, his plays seemed to issue from an irretrievable past. After university, I wrote two plays, Albee not crossing my mind, but his syntax and sensibility shot through both of them. I didn’t understand theatre, though, and my scripts disappeared into Dropbox. I had more success with prose, and in 2010 I relocated to Alabama to pursue an MFA. In the winter of my second year, I sent a short story called “A New Place” as my application to an artist residency in Montauk, New York. That April I received a letter informing me I’d been accepted. The residency was sponsored and managed by Edward F. Albee, who I now realized was alive, and the welcome package said he resided there in the summers, and hand-delivered residents’ mail to them each morning. I did a little dance in my living room on 7th Street.This man had already done so much for me, but he had not brought me my mail.I flew into LaGuardia and took the “Montauk Jitney,” an anachronistic-sounding bus service that transports mostly an uncanny valley of people rich enough to be going to the Hamptons but too poor to not take a bus. Roy, the groundskeeper, a gentle curly-haired man, picked me up and drove me to “The Barn,” as it was called—an actual huge, drafty barn where four other people and I would live together for six weeks—a stark, weird, minimal setup not unlike the premises of an Albee play. I had previously known Montauk only as the place Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet meet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I now saw it was a fishing village on a beach with a Momofuku Milk Bar.During my time there, I organized hundreds of old emails for an autobiographical novel I never figured out how to structure, carried bags of groceries along the well-kept country roads between The Barn and the town, posted videos of my residence-mates’ hair products to YouTube, and did everything but write. In one of my many breaks from not-writing, I found the Paris Review interview with Albee in the Fall 1966 issue that just happened to live at eye level on one of The Barn’s bookshelves. I brought the magazine out to the lawn chair under the large tree beside the picnic table near the back door. In the interview, Albee talked about writing his first play when he was twenty-nine, after giving up on so much else. I was then twenty-nine myself, and every day felt like giving up. I was lying in this man’s lawn chair. The light came down through the leaves a little at a time.This man had already done so much for me, but he had not brought me my mail. I wanted to meet him. It felt gauche, but I have never had good manners, and so I pestered Roy about it. “He wants to come out,” said Roy. “Maybe next week.” Next week turned into next week into next week, though, and then the five of us had a bonfire on the beach and then it was time to go.Roy was going to drive Michael from Utah and me to the train station, and while we were waiting for Michael I asked Roy whether, since Albee hadn’t been able to make it out, I might somehow be able to visit him in the city. I’d written a play I wanted to discuss with him. Roy gave me Albee’s assistant’s email address. On the train into the city, Albee’s assistant asked for the play and my phone number, and said Edward, if he was up to it, would be in touch.I stayed in an empty apartment in Williamsburg and for a week worked mostly on the play. On a Thursday, at 3 p.m., my phone rang.“Hello?”“Hello, is this Stephen Thomas?” Low growl, hard to make out.“Sorry?”“Is this Stephen Thomas?”“Yes,” I said. “Who’s this?”“Edward Albee.”“Sorry?”“Edward Albee.”Edward Albee confirmed I was interested in a visit, and a week later I was on the street outside his Tribeca apartment.The door opened, and I was greeted by Edward’s boyfriend, Alex: twenty-four, very skinny, very tight black jeans, black hair. He led me into what seemed to be a private elevator. We went up one floor. The door opened. Edward Albee was standing in his living room, waiting for me. He looked like a marmot.“Stephen Thomas, I presume?” he said.“Edward Albee, I presume?” I said.“Awl-bee. Awl-bee,” he said.“Awl-bee,” I said.Alex went to make tea and Edward invited me to sit. He complimented me on my story. “I liked how it sort of fluttered around. It felt very loose and free. Have you tried to publish it anywhere?”Two things: I was very flattered, and I realized there had fully been a fuck-up. Edward had received “A New Place,” the story I’d submitted to get into the residency, not the play, called Dogs,I was hoping to discuss. Somehow we managed to get past this, and, after Edward graciously invited me to come back with the correct text before I left New York, we settled into conversation.I thought that if this was an Edward Albee play, I would stab him with the pointy head of one of his African sculptures, or stab Alex, stab someone at least, or stand up and narrate a long story heavily implying I was about to, or had already, in some metaphysical past. He asked me about my life, where I’d grown up, my parents, how I’d gotten into writing. I felt the glare of the spotlight illuminate my pre-packaged soundbites as the bits of sitcom dialogue they were, and I kept trying to turn the conversation back to him. He would gently non-answer, though, and deflect, and deflect. A little flustered, I asked him what he was working on now, thinking this would be the polite way to phrase it, but as soon as the words left my mouth I realized my error. Anger darkened his face for a second and his bushy brows seemed to spell out his crossness in a way that felt fatherly. This was all in less than a second, and then his marmot face was inscrutable again, and old.22“My sacks are empty, the fluid in my eyeballs is all caked on the inside edges, my spine is made of sugar candy, I breathe ice; but you don’t hear me complain. Nobody hears old people complain. [...] Old people are [...] twisted into the shape of a complaint.” —Grandma, The American Dream. Evenly, and without recrimination, he said he’d been recovering from open-heart surgery, but he was getting better.I said I was glad to hear that.He continued to interview me, during which I felt increasingly fraudulent. He drew the conversation back to my story, and quizzed me on my favourite writers, which seemed most interesting to him. I hate talking about writers I like and tried to choose as neutrally and blandly as possible. I said I liked Tolstoy. That seemed fine to Edward. Alex came halfway down the stairs and asked if we would like more tea. Edward, without turning around, or asking me, said we were fine. Edward caught my eyes and asked, “Does writing fill you with fear or joy?”I had long since stopped trying to extemporize witty apothegms, which I’m not good at anyway, and, after thinking about it, I said, honestly, “A little bit of both.”Edward walked me around his airy loft. It had maybe a hundred thin-faced African sculptures of the kind I’d seen through a dusty window in a locked shed up a hill at The Barn, crammed in beside the leftover art supplies of Jonathan Thomas, Edward’s partner of thirty-five years, who died in 2005. Alex came down the stairs again and joined us. We came to a piece Alex had done. It was mixed media flattened onto a canvas and shellacked, and something about it reminded me of what I’d seen of Jonathan Thomas’s work. Edward asked if I liked it.The next day, I dropped a copy of my play at the foot of the door of the elevator outside—there was nowhere to actually put it. Edward called again, and the day after I was back in his apartment. We talked about my play, and Alex was much more present this time. Albee thought one character wasn’t real, and Alex took up my cause, saying, “It’s normal these days for not all the characters to be people.” Edward wasn’t convinced. “I think you should see it on a stage. See what you think.” I asked him outright if he could help me do that. He gave me the name of a director in Toronto, but, ungrateful brat that I am, what I wanted was the name of a director in New York, and I thought that if this was an Edward Albee play, I would stab him with the pointy head of one of his African sculptures, or stab Alex, stab someone at least, or stand up and narrate a long story heavily implying I was about to, or had already, in some metaphysical past. Instead, I thanked him obsequiously and got up to leave.What was the real experience of meeting Edward Franklin Albee for two afternoons in his Tribeca loft at the age of 84? He was generous with his time. He was interested in new people. He wasn’t easily swayed from his opinions by some rando, or by his boyfriend. He seemed a little vain, but I’m sure the world invited him to be so. He was dating someone a third his age. He kept his old lover’s sculptures around. I learned, I think, from a very brief moment of access into his intimate daily life, almost nothing—that as a human with a personality he was very normal, and he behaved exactly the way anyone in his position would. He had successfully sold his thoughts for money and was now living well. When you’re older you use real experience as a substitute for the fantasy.On my way out of Edward Albee’s apartment for the last time, he reminded me of The Barn’s policy of acquiring one copy of any book published that had been worked on at Montauk free of charge, and I said I would be honoured to send him a copy of anything I published. I did publish a book six months ago that I worked on there, but a copy still sits on my shelf with a Post-it note reading “Albee” that he will never receive.
Who Gets to be An Atheist?

Some non-believers are working to combat white male dominance within the movement and make room for everyone to explore secular community.

When Amanda Knief was nine or ten, a group of Methodist missionaries visited her Iowan church on a fundraising circuit. Fresh from Africa, they showed slides of their recent trip. “I remember a picture of three missionaries, who were whiter than white, and they had all these little black children in front of them in uniforms,” she says. To Knief, as a child, Africa was a large, undifferentiated place in crisis aided only by this particular group of missionaries. The situation was simple: if these missionaries didn’t raise more money and return, the children in the picture would starve.Later that day, it was Knief’s turn to light the candles in the sanctuary before the service. She’d been thinking about the children all day. She approached one of the elders. “So the missionaries told us that if they don’t get back there, some of the kids are going to die from starvation,” she said. “God knows it’s not their fault they didn’t know about Jesus, right? And they’ll still get to go to heaven?”The elder sighed and put his hand on Knief’s shoulder. “No,” he said. “They wouldn’t.”Knief looked at him and replied, “God sucks.”Today, Knief is the Legal and Public Policy Director for American Atheists, a not-for-profit organization “working for the civil rights of Atheists.” Many people experience the crisis of faith that she described, but not all of them become the face and the legal counsel of one of the most prominent atheist organizations in the world. Especially if they identify as women. Knief holds a particularly challenging position at a moment when the male dominance of organized atheism has become a hotly debated topic, both inside and outside the movement. In 2012, a number of high-profile incidents of sexual harassment brought attention to the problem of sexism within the movement. Rebecca Watson, an atheist blogger and speaker, cancelled her appearance at a popular annual skeptics’ gathering called The Amazing Meeting (TAM) because, she wrote, she “didn’t feel welcomed or safe” after being “constantly” disparaged with gendered slurs, threatened, and groped at previous events. The Washington Post reported on the controversy, noting that atheists were sharing “stories of unwanted sexual attention at nontheist gatherings, including propositions for sex and unwelcome touching” and that, following Watson’s piece, at least two more bloggers announced that they wouldn’t attend TAM. At least two prominent male atheists—Richard Dawkins, and DJ Grothe, President of the James Randi Educational Foundation and TAM organizer—dismissed their concerns and, ironically, blamed the complainants for scaring other women away. Resultant media coverage tended to come in the form of a question and answer: Why aren’t there more women in atheism? Because of shit like this.According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of American Christians (fifty-four percent) are women, while the majority of self-identified atheists and agnostics (seventy percent) are men; however, when researchers phrase the question of belief to allow for the possibility that spirituality can be important when one’s religious affiliation is “nothing in particular,” nearly as many women as men check the “nothing” box. The gender disparity in self-identification, community involvement, and subjective faith experience is more complex than it seems.Many nonbelievers first became aware of the current iteration of atheism as a collective and a political movement through books written by the four men who first achieved mainstream prominence, nicknamed “the four horsemen of New Atheism”: Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. Dawkins’s populist blockbuster books on genetics and evolution paved the way for the runaway success of The God Delusion in 2006. Hitchens, a British journalist and intellectual, wrote the number-one New York Times Bestseller God is Not Great in 2007. Dennett is a cognitive scientist who researches free will, cognition, and evolutionary biology. Sam Harris is infamous for his vitriolic criticisms of Islam and public debates with young earth Creationists.In many parts of the North America, in-person atheist groups are difficult to find. Consequently, most nonbelievers first connect with other atheists online. Knief says that while the Internet initially provided connection and visibility, the culture and limited access of the early-2000s online community privileged educated, science-oriented white men, especially those who could match the combative, self-assured personalities of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris.Among atheists, white people are overrepresented. While LGBT people are almost twice as likely to be religiously unaffiliated as the general public, this is not reflected in the makeup of the movement’s most prominent faces. The rhetoric and narrative of the movement has ultimately focused on the experience of white men of Christian heritage.Knief says that if those involved want the atheism movement to grow, “it needs to recognize that it has a problem reaching marginalized groups.”In 2015, a volunteer response demographic survey of Reddit users revealed that eighty percent of respondents were men and eighty percent were between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. Reddit is where atheism as a movement really took root and blossomed, says Ashley Miller, a feminist writer whose PhD in Communications focused on intersectionality. “Male-dominated spaces in general have a completely different dynamic than gender-equal or women-dominated spaces. Those environments tend to be toxic towards women. Men treat women like this, women drop out. Women show up, there’s no other women there, they leave.” Miller was one of many women who came forward with sexual harassment complaints against Michael Shermer, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society and columnist for Scientific American, for the 2014 BuzzFeed article “Will Misogyny Bring Down the Atheist Movement?”*The separation of church and state is the primary actionable concern for most major atheist and secularist organizations. Regular battles and satirical responses to prayer and nativity scenes on public property form the core of atheistic political engagement in North America. Most recently, the Centre for Inquiry Canada called on Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall to end opening prayers in the legislature as well as explicitly religious Christmas messages from government officials. CFI Canada is concurrently starting a petition to repeal the law that allows the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools.Amanda Knief was first motivated to get involved with organized atheism after starting a job at the state legislature in Iowa, when she learned that both chambers opened session with prayer, led by a Clergy of the Day. “They got compensated at the same rate for their mileage as the legislators did, and there was a Clergy of the Day parking spot. And it was a better parking spot than I got,” she laughs. She was stunned that none of her colleagues seemed bothered by prayers being piped through the building, and went in search of others who shared her irritation.For other women nonbelievers, though, organized atheism’s focus on the separation of church and state can be alienating or unimportant. “At the end of the day, who cares what your religion is if you’re making seventy-seven cents on the dollar and have no ability to progress in your career and are never going to see somebody like you in the White House?” asks Miller. “All of those things feel a lot more real. The same issue happens with ethnic and racial minorities, where it’s like, ‘Yeah, I don’t believe in God, but why is that a big deal for me?’”Furthermore, the social and economic costs of leaving a church community can be particularly high for women. “Let’s say you’re from Columbia, South Carolina, like I am,” says Miller. “Every charity in Columbia is a religious charity.” Churches fund scholarships, feed families, and provide free daycare and summer camps. “If you’re a person who’s making $25,000 a year and raising three kids, it’s a big deal. For women especially, because they make less in the first place and they’re usually the ones responsible for raising the kids. Why would you care about atheism when your whole family goes to church together and it makes your life easier?”“One of the things I remember learning early was how Christianity was forced upon slaves on arriving in the United States, and how it was an imposed religion."Knief echoes this sentiment for her native Midwest. “For women, especially women with children, if you move to a new town, the first thing you do is find a church,” she says. “You have choir, you have study group, and they know all the people in town. People on the city council. People for work. Where to get your hair cut. If you get sick, if you need your electric bill paid, if something is going wrong, they will help you. And when you are a single mom, especially, the church is your lifeline.”Soraya Chemaly is a well-known writer, feminist, and panellist for Women in Secularism. “For me, there’s such a clear correlation between gender equality and secularism,” she says. “In the United States, we have the poorest maternal health within peer countries. We have high levels of religiosity because women really depend extraordinarily on the safety net that religion can provide.” Chemaly points out that in many regions there is no alternative to Catholic hospitals and relief systems, where women “very clearly” receive care that is compromised by religious belief.Chemaly says that women will continue to drive religious participation until they have workplace support for childcare and healthcare and are economically free to leave abusive spouses. “Men are freer to go explore their nonbelief,” she says, “because frankly, they have women at home doing all the other stuff.”Religion has been a tool of oppression, used to colonize nations, entrap and vilify women, and persecute queer people, and many people question their faith for exactly these reasons. Chemaly left the Catholic church because of its systematic misogyny. At the age of eleven, she wanted to become a priest. Nobody could give her a satisfactory explanation why she couldn’t. “I actually think I asked the priest, ‘You mean because I don’t have a penis?’ And I thought, well, that must be wrong. So I studied it and I studied it and I studied it.”Chemaly eventually wrote her undergrad thesis on heresy and feminist threads in heretic thought. “I was at that point ten years older, and I’m like, yeah, that’s pretty much why. Nothing is convincing me that this isn’t sexism, and corporate bodies that are made up of all men are profoundly unethical and epistemologically skewed, and so, sorry, I’m leaving now. That was pretty much it.”From this perspective, it’s astonishing that atheism isn’t dominated by women. “Women in the United States are subjected to other people’s religious beliefs to a shockingly high [degree],” Chemaly says. “Reproductive justice, women’s health, ideas about shame, body shame—those are so deeply religious.”*Zinnia Jones started making YouTube videos about atheism seven years ago. YouTube was her community and primary hobby, and as she began to transition, she continued to make videos, broadening her focus from atheism to issues of gender and identity. “I’m going to Women and Secularism III this weekend,” Jones says at the beginning of one video. Her head is partially shaved, and her blue tank top reveals a tattoo of the trans symbol on her collarbone. “I feel like this is a good time to get into something relevant,” she continues, “my experiences as a woman in the secular community.”Viewers often write Jones to tell her that her videos helped them come out as atheist and as trans. But Jones also receives so much negative feedback on her work that the anger and insults are beginning to blur. “I’ve had my content posted on Reddit many times in the atheism section, and the reaction I get is some mixture of homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, and general hostility towards effeminacy,” she says. “A person will look at that kind of community and say, ‘Is this really a place where I can belong? Is this really a group of people who I can work with on shared goals and objectives, together?’ And the answer to that clearly would be, ‘No, this is a space where I am not welcome.’”Jones points to a simplistic “science fanboyism” that mobilizes the language of science to bolster pre-existing assumptions about gender, biological sex, and gender dysphoria among transphobic atheists. “This is what happens when the banner of science is adopted for a form of social signaling—signifying group membership and an endorsement of group values—rather than a direct interest in obtaining and seeking truth,” she says.Ashley Miller says that part of the problem is that these skeptics are misusing science as a moral framework and an identity—the role religion is meant to play—rather than as a method of investigation. “With skeptics, it’s like: ‘I believe in the scientific method and questioning things,’” she says. “Which is a great way to answer questions and a horrible way to interact with other people or to see where they’re coming from.”These skeptics confuse a lack of belief in God with total impartiality, Miller continues. “They’re like, ‘My only worldview is that I question things and examine them with the scientific method,’” she says. “And that’s actually very much not true. You have assumptions about the world, and those assumptions were built by a million different things. And if you don’t acknowledge the fact that you even have a worldview, how can you try to discover what other people’s worldviews are and how they got to them?”*Mandisa Thomas was born in New York City in 1976. “I was raised at a time where there was a lot of revolutionary thought on the table—a pivotal time in the Black community,” she says. Thomas’s parents made the decision not to raise their children in the church. Instead, Thomas says, “We were raised with the Black Nationalist mindset, with the conscious community.” For Thomas’s family, Black Nationalism’s independence from white culture included the active rejection of Christianity. “One of the things I remember learning early was how Christianity was forced upon slaves on arriving in the United States, and how it was an imposed religion,” she says.The first time Thomas attended an atheist meet-up, she had what she says is a common experience among Black atheists. The group was predominantly white. “I was talking to one woman. We were having a good conversation, but then she said, ‘I’ve never met a Black atheist before.’” Soon after, a second Black person entered the room, and the woman Thomas was speaking with offered him her seat. Thomas laughs recounting the story. “I was like, ‘Oh, you know, I don’t know him.’ That blind assumption is very interesting.”The new person, Benjamin Burchall, began to discuss his experience as a Black, gay atheist. “There was a couple at the table who immediately got defensive,” Thomas says. “One of the gentlemen said, ‘Well, we go through things too.’” Thomas outlined for the couple how marginalized identities intersect with atheism and face different challenges—what it means to be one of the few people of colour in a room, for example. “‘You’re more represented at the table than we are.’”Burchall and Thomas went on to found Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta. “That backlash, that lack of understanding—we decided it was important for us to form this organization,” Thomas says. “I said, ‘There has to be more of us out here.’ There has to be people who are sitting in their churches, and they don’t know that there is a secular option for fellowship and community, and it’s time for us to build it.” Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta became Black Nonbelievers Inc., a national organization of which Thomas remains president.While Thomas acknowledges the church’s historical importance after Reconstruction and during the civil rights movement, when fewer alternatives for Black community existed, she contends that the modern church plays a predominantly toxic role. “The doctrine of suffering that was pushed during slavery—you won’t get your heaven until you die—has really, really affected our community for generations now. There’s still this idea that the Lord is going to save us through all of our problems. We are still relying on divine intervention to save us as a community.”Materialism and sensationalism have overtaken social issues within the Black church, Thomas asserts. “The Black church has generated billions and billions of dollars, yet our communities are still in a state of despair.”We interviewed Thomas on the first day of Black History Month, and she pointed to the way Black history is usually contextualized. “The Black community seems to think that the church has always been the only sense of support that we had, and I would argue that it isn’t.” Thomas points to freethinkers such as Carter G. Woodson, founder of Negro History Week, which grew into Black History Month, authors Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry, and humanist A. Philip Randolph, one of the key organizers of the March on Washington.Moreover, Thomas pushes back against the idea of the church as a benevolent provider of charity and social support for its members. “There may be options for childcare, especially during church services, but I think that overall the church is actually taking more from the community than it’s giving,” she says.*While working at the state legislature, Knief co-founded Iowa Atheist and Freethinkers. She says that she noticed, right away, that more men than women showed up to the group’s meetings and events. Men who were married with children always came alone, Knief says, “because someone had to stay home and take care of the kids. And they didn’t usually trade off, like, one week the men would come, one week the women.”“It wasn’t that the women were less interested in atheism,” Knief says. “It’s just that the type of meetings we had were not as interesting to them.” The group began to organize family-oriented events. “And they were hugely successful, when kids were welcome, when whole families were represented. But church does that automatically. Church is for the whole family. And I think that’s something that the atheist movement has not grasped yet.”Over the last four years, Knief has gone from being the only woman on staff at American Atheists to one of three women in a five-person staff. The first year she was in charge of organizing the national conference, she sought out speakers and vendors that represented and were owned by people of colour and LGBT groups. “If you want your audience to be diverse, having diverse speakers is the best way to do that,” she says. She’s pushed for gender neutral bathrooms at conferences as well as talks that address raising children in an atheist household; she also says the organization has become more conscious of who’s writing for and being profiled by their quarterly magazine.Knief and others have worked to ensure that atheist conferences have codified harassment policies and third-party mediators who can investigate conflicts and make recommendations without a vested interest in movement personalities or politics.The rejection of religions that have been oppressive to women, colonized nations, and queer people logically connects atheism with feminism, anti-racism, and anti-homophobia. Zinnia Jones argues that the organized atheism movement needs to embrace these connections and make them explicit. “It’s not just about holding a belief and having conferences about it. It’s about how we put those beliefs into action, how we act ethically, what we do for our society, and what atheism should implore us to do for humanity as a whole,” she says. “The atheist community should stand for something concrete.”
‘There Has To Be Less School’: An Interview with Nicholson Baker

Talking with the author of Substitute about an educational system at odds with learning, seduced by technology, and ripe for reform; the vanishing awe of teachers; and the madness that is lunchtime.

For decades, I’ve longed to live in Nicholson Baker’s world. It’s a warmer, funnier, more generous place than the one I normally inhabit. His oft-autobiographical fiction, from The Mezzanine to Traveling Sprinkler, is peopled with affable, cheerfully curious narrators, and famously overflows with uncannily precise, refreshing observation (and often an unbridled, playful sexuality). His non-fiction, borne of a related empathy, and which includes the pacifistic study of World War II, Human Smoke, hums with a quiet outrage. They are uncommonly poetic polemics.His sixteenth book, Substitute, is also non-fiction, though the membrane between the two categories can be thin. Baker the narrator—wry, intimate, sometimes hapless—sounds an awful lot like the narrator of Baker’s last two novels, the fictional poet Paul Chowder. But Substitute is Baker’s first foray into first-person, participatory journalism. In 2014, in an attempt to better understand the American public school system, Baker got a job as a substitute teacher in his home state of Maine. Over the course of twenty-eight days he teaches every grade level, from kindergarten to high school—though, as he quickly learns, no one expects him to really teach: He’s there to entertain, distract, babysit and enforce the rules of an education system he soon realizes is capricious and punishingly misguided. Baker sees his role somewhat differently. “I figure my job as a substitute is to give people a little more latitude,” he tells an eighth-grader, “because on the days when Mr. Monette’s here, they don’t get any.”What unfolds over this lengthy chronicle—the book clocks in at more than 700 pages—is a highly detailed account of those exhausting, maddening, messy, rewarding days. Baker grapples with new digital tools—every student, it seems, has been given an iPad—and a thicket of arcane acronyms (STAR, CARE, SMILE). He suffers through an attempt to teach conflict in literature—a comical moment for anyone who’s read Baker’s plot-averse novels—and deals with the very real conflicts induced by overmedicated students. There are teachers who know less than he does and students who know more. A shy, sensitive fifty-nine-year-old, Baker repeatedly tries to keep a lid on the noise in his classrooms. He repeatedly fails.Frustrated and overwhelmed though he may be, Baker is a gentle presence throughout the book—each day is punctuated by the mundane details of his arrival and departure from various schools and what he has for lunch. But Substitute largely belongs to his students.The churn of their comical, strange, surprising, endearing voices—which Baker captures with characteristic accuracy—makes up the bulk of the book. For Baker the writer, the rhythm and originality of their language is a delight. For Baker the educational reformer, it’s evidence of a system that needs rethinking.I spoke to Baker over the phone in early September, when, on tour for the book, he was in a Boston hotel room. I was in Toronto.*Jason McBride: It was my son’s first day of kindergarten today. I wonder if you have any advice for us as we embark on this scholastic adventure?Nicholson Baker: I would just say enjoy it and try to keep it light, and not get sucked into the homework Bermuda Triangle, trying to enforce assignments that you might not necessarily believe in. That's the part that was a little tricky for my wife and me as parents. You want your kid to do what the school demands, but honestly I don’t believe that there should be any homework in elementary school. I don't know why there would be. The school day is long enough, and life has so many delights in it.Good to know.That’s a long way away but it isn’t as long as you think. These kids that I was teaching in first, second grade were taking home homework. Totally unnecessary and really counter-productive. If parents would just essentially go on strike against elementary school homework I think we'd start to get somewhere.You had some trouble with that, too, as a substitute. There were certain lessons that the schools wanted you to convey to the students that you took issue with.Well, you know, my job was—and I did do it as conscientiously as I could—was to pass out worksheets, and to try to cajole kids into making some progress on them. But the teachers didn’t really believe that the substitutes were going to get much out of the kids, so in some ways it was a ritual. Nobody really believed in the worksheets that students did on days when the teachers weren’t there. I just did my best to fumble through. Sometimes the worksheets were okay. There was one I liked a lot where we had to read aloud the story about a certain kind of insect, and the story was filled with interesting facts about the insect. What was the name of it? It was a shield bug, or something like that. We really had a great time with it. Kids want to learn, they want to soak up things, they want to be surprised. The problem is worksheets are the polar opposite of surprise, mostly. I would sort of sigh inwardly sometimes, or maybe even sigh outwardly, as I handed these things out.We can come back to that, but can I ask you some questions about the book’s construction? Did you set out to teach in order to write this particular book, or did the book emerge as a project after you had tried teaching for a while?The idea for the book came out of being a parent first. And also being a student myself at an alternative high school called School Without Walls. The school that I attended was very, very permissive, and I didn't really have to do anything I didn’t want to do. So I had some theories and thoughts about education and I filled many, many pages with my thoughts and then I realized I was a complete impostor. It really is presumptuous to say what should or shouldn’t happen in a classroom if you haven’t put yourself in the vulnerable position of trying to teach something. So I thought, “How could I do that?” I could try to get my teaching certificate, but that would take years. Also, I don’t like those courses that you have to take and it just would be a whole huge production. Then I saw that Maine, like many states, had an almost desperate need for substitutes, because nobody wants to do it. Then I thought, “That's kind of interesting.” It’s interesting to enter a school as the lowest ranking person. Then, as soon as I started doing it I realized that that was the book, and not the theory. What we need to know is what goes on in classrooms. We need a better idea of that, and that was what I was trying to supply.Did it ever concern you that people might want more than that theory? Because the book is almost completely reportage with some reflection for sure, but no real overt analysis and obviously no concrete solutions.It was something that I had done in Human Smoke. For Human Smoke I also had certain thoughts when I started to work on the book and then I took myself out of it as I wrote the book. In both cases what I felt was more interesting was to listen to the voices of the participants in the experience I was describing. I have written books that are very first-person, as you know, and I love doing that. I maybe love it too much, but sometimes it’s really exciting and illuminating to listen to how other people think out loud. In this book, the way the kids talked and what they wanted to talk about and how they wanted to disrupt the class, or how they wanted to help me do the right thing in the future was what I really loved about it. If they weren’t there to help me in my fumblings I would have crashed and burned even worse than I did.Did you really crash and burn? The kids seemed so charmed by you throughout the book. I would have loved to have you as a teacher.Some of them liked me, and I was so moved. There was a very smart, wise principal who gave a talk in the training sessions, who said, “There’s no greater pleasure at the end of the day than when a kid says, ‘You're my favourite teacher,’ or, ‘I hope you’ll come back.’” She was so right. Not everybody liked me. But what I did offer them was a break from their routine. The entertainment value of the substitute is, I would say, eighty percent of the whole experience for the kids. Here’s a new person, he looks totally different, he’s going to say the wrong thing, he’s not going to know where anything is in the class. The class is going to have to adapt to this new person. I think a lot of the kids really enjoyed that in different ways. Some knew that it was time for chaos, and some kind of took pity on me and gave me pointers.I imagine you had to inform the schools that you were writing about them, but did you not use their real names? Or the teachers’ real names, or the kids’ real names?Right.Were you ever worried that some of the students, or teachers, or parents might know who you are and perhaps be concerned about the sexual nature of some of your work?I certainly made no secret of the fact that I was a writer when I applied for the job, but I don’t think there was any interest in what I wrote. I have written all these different kinds of books. Once in a blue moon a kid would ask, “What kind of books do you write?” And I would generally stress the non-fiction. I would talk about the World War II book because people, in high school especially, people had to study World War II. Or I told them that I’d written about a guy who gets on an escalator and has to go out and buy a replacement pair of shoelaces, that kind of thing. Each book has its own gravitational field, so sometimes it’s better to not let worlds collide.Were you carrying around a digital recorder through your days? Or furiously scribbling notes?I recorded what happened every way I could. I used a little mini recorder as a backup and I wrote notes when the class was off on recess or at lunch. I typed notes, I didn’t scribble. Sometimes I just wrote notes if a computer was unavailable or something. At the end of the day, the most helpful thing was to stop on the way home, when I was really exhausted, and ask myself what had gone well and what hadn’t gone well. What interesting things had kids said? What stuck in my mind? I think, especially in the case of people who are figuring out how language works, who have just learned it, the interest lies in the specifics of how they talk. I felt I had a real responsibility to be as faithful to that as possible.There’s a lot of talk, obviously, in the book. A lot of talk.What do you think? Too much talk?No, no, it’s just remarkable, especially when you’re with the youngest kids.I do have a few thoughts sprinkled in the book here and there. I try to let the policy suggestions pop up when they came to me naturally, rather than start with a bunch of bullet points: “I think we need to do this…” But, of course, I have some conclusions. I don’t think there needs to be so much work, and I don’t see why all these elaborate vocabulary lists in all subjects are necessary. I think the school day could be cut in half, I really do, because nobody gets anything done after lunch. Lunch is really, really hard. Lunch is just pandemonium. What I didn’t really grasp before I started this is the level of endurance a child has to have to go through this level of regimentation and noise for this many years. The schools are loud. Children are loud. They're not just loud in my classes, they’re loud in all classes.In order to keep them under control they have to be punished in various ways. There’s a lot of endurance and a lot of suffering going on. I think there has to be less school. I think teachers should be paid more. I’m not saying substitutes because I really had no training and I was perfectly happy to be paid anything, because it was such an enormous privilege and pleasure to be part of what was going on, but the teachers—it’s an exhausting job, and they deserve to be paid better. That’s a very simple thing, but kind of essential. I don’t think there needs to be so many required subjects in high school. I think mainly what you need is for kids to be able to read. Forcing kids to write elaborate, literary critical essays about writing doesn’t really help them to be better writers, so I would just toss the standard essay form out the window. If kids had real problems reading, I would have them listen audio books and podcasts.Would you toss out the iPads? I haven’t been in a classroom in years and I was shocked, in the book, at the prevalence of them at all levels. That seems to get under your skin a lot as well.Many times I was grateful that there were iPads in a classroom, especially in the remedial classes where some of the students were essentially on strike. They had decided not to do any work in that class that year. What are they going to do? Otherwise, it’s sort of enforced idleness, so the iPad was a window on the world of things they were interested in—trucks, shopping for clothes, whatever it was. That’s not a bad thing because in the old days they would have just, I don’t know what. I remember paperclips and rubber bands, using paper clips as weapons. I got hit in the nose with a paper clip, left this sort of weird C shape on my nose for awhile.In some ways the iPad is great, and in other ways it’s used as a punishment. They say if you fall behind in your assignments we’re going to take this thing away from you, or we’re going to restrict it, we’re going to make it less fun for you. That part seemed not right. And of course, with any piece of machinery, it breaks down, the Wi-Fi goes down. All in all I would say it’s not a bad thing. I don’t think it’s the end of the world to have glowing screens in classes.The whole thing is so much more complicated now. YouTube has changed the way kids behave—there’s no particular awe of a teacher now. There’s no feeling that teachers hold this preserve of knowledge within them that only they can impart because if you want to learn anything, you can just learn it. Somebody’s explained it on a YouTube video, there’s a book that’s downloadable, there’s dozens of e-How things written. iPads are part of that, but we’re right at the moment where the ice on the river is cracking and teachers don’t really how to balance themselves on the floes.You say near the beginning of the book that the idea of being in front of a class of kids scared you. What scared you?Being in a class with that many young people, and being physically there in front of them is an intimidating thing, because you know they’re judging you. They have nothing to go on except that they happen to know that substitutes don’t make very much money and are kind of ridiculous. They’re the fools of the educational system; that’s their role. They're there to cause laughter. It’s a difficult position to put yourself in, but that’s the challenge. How do you become real before this class in a way that they might find there are things that I tell them that they’re happy to know. There were a couple moments where I thought, “Oh god, I’ve actually taught them something.” Not something that was in the sub plans. I think it was in kindergarten. I talked about [how] rocks became shiny? I just explained how a rock tumbling machine worked. They were really, really interested in that.That girl had her rock book too, which I think everyone loved.Yeah, she was so happy to have this possession. That was the other thing that struck me over and over again—how deep the need was that each kid have something special. I really felt sorry for some of the kids who just—like this one kid who said, “I suck at everything.” As somebody who doesn’t have a singing ability, or reading ability, or a joking ability… If you feel you have nothing, school is just about the hardest experience anybody could imagine.The book’s very funny and very buoyant, but at the same time there's a subtle current of threat, even violence, that runs throughout. There’s the high-school boy who had been in juvie, the kids that have been over-medicated... And that kind of reaches a sad crescendo in the last chapter. Did you feel that the schools you were in were more dangerous than the schools that your kids attended? Or were the students more fearful, or more on edge, than you might have expected?I think that the district I taught in was a pretty typical borough district. The kids were by and large incredibly nice, even the bad ones. There were some kids who have been to juvie, or had emotional troubles. I think some kids were being driven a little nuts by school so then the parents panicked and they thought, “This is anxiety,” and they’ve taken their kid to a doctor, and the doctor then prescribes a powerful pill, and that pill then becomes part of the problem. It’s just the nature of parental over-involvement, but it’s all because school is requiring too much. Requiring more mindless work than they’re willing to do. They look at this long list of key vocabulary words or math exercises and they say, “No.” That is not an irrational response. That is a rational response, but it gets them into terrible trouble, and they begin to be resentful. I just wish that the schools would relax a little and run headlong in the other direction.Do you have hope of that? Is that even possible?I just think that what the world needs is more lived-through sense of what these days are like. That’s why I wrote the book the way I did. I don’t expect that anyone will read it all the way through because it’s a long book, but maybe your kids are in elementary school, so just read the elementary school chapters. Maybe your kids are having trouble in high school, so read those, and then ask yourself, is this really what is best for my child? I’m not saying that my book will do a huge thing, but I just feel that it might be a contribution to the general swirl of debate about all these policies. The debate is happening without listening to the kind of interesting chaos that is actually going on in the classroom. The constant interruptions. The PA system. The jumping from class to class. The pulling of kids out of class to be tested. I think the only way to talk about what should happen is for people to feel their way through what is happening.At the end of the book, there’s a giddy paragraph in which you talk about how much you’ve loved the experience and the kids. Would you go back and teach again? Even as a sub?I would love to teach again. I just don’t know what people will think, having seen I’ve written this book. But sometime in the future I would love to teach. I have a hard time teaching college kids because they basically want me to teach writing, and I’m very private about writing.You’ve never taught creative writing, right?A little bit. I taught a writing class in Singapore this year. I also talked to people in Singapore about their school experiences, and it’s not the direction that we necessarily want to go into in this country. They were up until one in the morning doing their homework—it’s ridiculous.How did you end up in Singapore?I was invited and I went. I was invited to be writer-in-residence at Nanyang Technological University.I imagine you’ve been invited to lots of places to teach writing?I have been invited, and I don’t normally do it because I think it messes with a writer’s head. Writing is so personal, so I’ve avoided it, really. But this Singapore opportunity seemed really interesting because it was a whole different culture, and I didn’t know what kind of English they would speak. There’s something called Singlish, and it’s a very multi-lingual society. All that interested me so I decided to do it. I’m hoping I’ll be able to teach K-12 again, somehow, because I’ve learned so much. I learned about life in this intense way that I’m so grateful for. I understand why teachers become teachers. It’s because every moment is unpredictable. What a child will say is just completely from left field, and delightful. Partly I’m reliving some of the pleasure of being a parent. It’s a lot of fun to see people grapple with the most difficult thing any human being will ever learn, which is how to speak a language. They mostly have learned it outside of school. But then these schools kind of glue on all the rest of the learning, and codify it and test for mastery and all that.I think anybody who wants to make a policy recommendation should work as a substitute teacher. First of all, they’re needed. You know you’re providing a service. If you have an opinion and you want to write an op-ed piece, become a fourth-grade substitute teacher and come back and start talking. I’d love to hear it.
New Ballgame

Pitch is a feminist-minded mainstream show about the slow, meandering game of baseball. There’s a great deal riding on it, and a great deal working against it.

In 2014, Mo’ne Davis became the first girl to earn a win and pitch a shutout in Little League World Series history. In 2015, French U-18 junior national team shortstop Melissa Mayeux became the first known female baseball player to be added to Major League Baseball’s international registration list, making her eligible to sign with a major league team. More recently, we’ve seen professional baseball’s first all-female battery, a combo that debuted this July with the independent league Sonoma Stompers. (The team, which has made a deliberate project of including women on their roster thanks to the investment of director Francis Ford Coppola, just won its first league title.) For those who have been rooting for women’s inclusion in baseball at its highest level, the idea of a weekly, dramatized version of that dream is certainly an attractive prospect.Enter Pitch, Fox’s new prime-time television offering, a show that feels pretty self-referential in terms of depicting the crushing burden of widespread expectation.San Diego Padres pitcher Ginny Baker (played by Hamilton, Ontario–born Kylie Bunbury) has just been called up from the minors, and is about to make her debut at Petco Park to a boisterous sell-out crowd of 43,000. She’s the first woman to compete in any of the four major North American professional sports leagues, a player who has slogged it out in the Padres system for five years before getting her groundbreaking start on the mound. She wakes up on game day to a hotel room full of congratulatory flowers and fruit baskets, and a card from Hillary Clinton. “I’m a little partial to someone trying to be the first woman to do something,” reads the signed note from the presidential candidate.Ginny’s determined morning walk from her hotel room to the limo, and from the limo to the clubhouse, is fraught with further anticipation. The television in the elevator features a sports reporter suggesting she may be less Jackie Robinson-esque legend and more flash-in-the-pan. Enthusiastic fans beg for her autograph. An adorable little girl holds up a sign that reads, “I’m next.” (Admittedly, that was the point where I got choked up.) In a mere four minutes of well-crafted television, it’s clear that a lot is riding on this woman, just like there is a lot is riding on this show.“I’ve been ready my whole life,” says Ginny.Back in May, when Fox announced that its fall lineup would include a fictional drama about the first female ballplayer in Major League Baseball, the reaction was a mix of joyous fervor and predictable sports-related sexism. A good swath of baseball fans were ecstatic they’d finally be getting their own Friday Night Lights, long confused as to why the small screen hadn’t seized on the dramatic romanticism they saw every time they went to the ballpark. Female fans in particular were buoyed by the show’s innovative and timely subject matter, seeing Pitch as a chance to open up a conversation about sports culture representation as it exists not only on the field, but off of it as well.Then, of course, came the typical poisonous chorus of sexism. Standard online trolls questioned the believability of the premise, likened the concept to fantasy or science fiction, and swore they’d never tune in. Predictably, that toxic digital soup rejected the very concept of a female pitcher outright, and was not afraid to be blisteringly cruel about it. These were the same folks always eager to declare every aspect of baseball a man’s domain, from media mastheads, television news desks and event panels to front offices, umpire crews and announcers’ booths. That group was more than happy to write Pitch off before the trailer was even released to the public.As a result of all this buzz, both good and bad, Pitch has—perhaps unfairly—a great deal riding on it, and a great deal working against it. Before the first episode even aired, the character of Ginny Baker became a stand-in for anyone, fan or professional, who has felt excluded from male-dominated realms. Women, tired of being under or misrepresented in primarily male-driven sports media and culture, were anxious that maybe Ginny be nothing more than a poorly formed female stereotype, vapid and emotional, or apt to find romance with a male teammate. Worse, if the show wasn’t any good, it had the potential to fuel the already raging fire of derision, and discourage future support for female driven dramas, especially those with sports-related subject matter.If the pilot is any indicator of what’s to come, it’s only the sexist status quo that need be worried.*Pitch has attempted the near impossible task of making a feminist-minded mainstream show about the slow, meandering game of baseball, and so far they’ve managed to pull it off. This is in part because they’ve taken the notion of authenticity seriously, shooting at MLB locations and using MLB equipment, staffing themselves with knowledgeable MLB consultants, and even recruiting numerous sports personalities to play themselves. (The first episode comically features a cynical report on Ginny’s pitching from real-life Fox reporter and MLB Network Insider Ken Rosenthal, and a blistering takedown of Ginny’s detractors from Garbage Time’s Katie Nolan.) The baseball scenes themselves are certainly emotionally manipulative and nothing short of mesmerizing—no small feat when working with actors instead of athletes, and when depicting what is often accused of being a low-action, boring game.But most of the credit for how compelling Pitch is goes to the performance of twenty-seven-year-old relative newcomer Bunbury, who plays Ginny with the nuance necessary to make the showaddictively appealing under such intense scrutiny. Her character is navigating a world that either doesn’t want her, or sees her merely as a profitable, gimmicky commodity, and that weight is subtly communicated through every scene. Somehow Ginny is rendered as both heroic and vulnerable, happy to fiercely stand up to detractors, while still revealing her natural frustration and self-doubt.They’ve been careful not to allow the feminist undertones of the project to devolve into the offensive “pink it and shrink it!” merchandizing and “Girls Night Out” and “Baseball 101 for Women” events MLB is currently criticized for. In a lot of ways Pitch will be familiar—even formulaic—to baseball fans and television junkies alike. It is, at its core, a pretty typical underdog story peppered with the usual baseball suspects, and takes full advantage of the classic swelling music moments sports drama is known for. At its centre is the defiant, hardworking, overlooked athlete who triumphs over widespread disbelief. Her father, who looks like he will loom large throughout the series, is obsessive, overbearing and abusive, seemingly more intent on “raising a ballplayer” than being a good dad. Then there’s Ginny’s pain in the ass (and ass-slapping) egotistical star teammate (Saved By The Bell’s Mark-Paul Gosselaar) who initially dishes out a hard time, but later warms up to the rookie he’s catching for. Baseball fans will also recognize the curmudgeon of a manager who, despite his hard façade, really cares, the out-of-touch owner who talks private jets and million-dollar price tags, and the slick, pretty GM who is always charming, flirting, and schmoozing. Even Ginny’s personal manager, played flawlessly by Heroes’ Ali Larter, is the ball-busting, pencil-skirted bitch-type that screens big and small love to serve up time and time again.What’s fascinating is that even with all these well-worn pop culture signposts and easy sports stereotypes, and some clumsy baseball exposition thrown in along the way, Pitch still manages, as promised, to be revolutionary. (Besides, that roster of professional baseball caricatures is actually tons of escapist fun for beleaguered fans beat down by real-life pennant races.) Pitch has a genius strategy for broad success: dress groundbreaking subject matter in an easy to swallow, glossy weekly format that your average Thursday night viewer can get behind. You’d probably have to be a legitimate monster not to be rooting for Ginny to succeed, and for this show not to succeed.*If the Ginny Baker #43 bobble-head that arrived on my doorstep is any indication, the marketing team behind this show knows exactly how important it is. They’ve organized various screenings at ballparks across the US, and have been careful not to allow the feminist undertones of the project to devolve into the offensive “pink it and shrink it!” merchandizing and “Girls Night Out” and “Baseball 101 for Women” events MLB is currently criticized for. On September 4, the LA Dodgers hosted a “Take your Daughter to a Game Day” in partnership with Pitch, a family-friendly (and apparently gender signifier-free) event where kids got a personalized trading card and an opportunity to watch the premiere in advance of its airdate. Further, Fox offered up a video where children were interviewed about the idea of the first female MLB player, underscoring not only how sexism is ingrained from a young age, but also how inspiring the show’s concept is for girls and boys alike.Last week, when a New York Times tweet asked, “How will Pitch cater to the hard-core baseball fan expecting authenticity while still appealing to women?” the immediate online reaction revealed the very foolishness of the question. According to a 2014 Nielsen study, women make up thirty-five percent of sports fandom across professional sports leagues, and yet, as indicated by mainstream questions like this, they’re still at best considered a fringe category, and at worst totally disregarded. These women took their disdain to social media in droves, creating a #thisiswhatabaseballfanlookslike hashtag, and posting pictures of themselves and their daughters at the ballpark. The impromptu action became a kind of accidental grassroots marketing campaign for Pitch and evidence of the show’s cultural importance, proving the hunger for a product that speaks to the exclusion women face at every turn.Representation matters in both truth and fiction, and sadly it’s sometimes the fiction that has to come first. The fact that the story of Ginny Baker is being broadcast into North American homes every Thursday night means a great deal to a lot of people—athletes and otherwise—who have long been battling to find a place in the exclusionary world of professional sports. The people behind Pitch clearly know all this, and are taking the pressure seriously—both in the quality of the show, and the culture they’re building around it. If the story of Ginny Baker can find excitement and success in the face of so much casual derision, it’s certainly a starting point, and one that I’m happy to cheer for from the stands.Pitch premieres Thursday, September 22 at 9 pm ET/PT on Global.
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That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

When you have a hateful demagogue on your talk show, or taunt a man for his father dying on 9/11, or hire Ann Coulter to be a human punchline, you flatten out evil.

We're all mad at Jimmy Fallon. And why shouldn’t we be? This twerpy hack-Leno-in-the-wings has long been a hair-tousling buffoon coasting on the always-funny-but-don’t-get-me-started-on-her-inability-to-find-Afghan-actors-for-that-goddamn-movie Tina Fey’s writing and Lorne Michael’s amoral largesse. But Fallon fully realized a higher state of being a feckless schmuck by having Donald Trump on his show last week. Donald Trump, serial racist and dangerous fool, has been long and correctly hated by anyone with skin in the game or with an iota of sense about the world. He was a loathsome heft of self-aggrandizing bigotry when he called for the lynching of the Central Park Five and has never, not once, done anything but suck value from our cultural existence since. He never should have gotten a reality show and he never should have been on SNL and he sure as shit shouldn’t have been invited on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. But he was, and Fallon, in a suckdog caricature of himself and his pathological need to be ingratiating, strived mightily to be America’s sweetheart of all lives mattering. It was collaborationist pageantry, unsubtle by Vichy standards, and it’s only in trying to avoid an entirely scorched earth essay that I will say I pitied Norm Macdonald and The Roots for their hopefully contractual failure to boycott.But hating on Jimmy Fallon feels a lot like hating on his forebear Leno, a never entirely satisfying act of muscle memory. He was, after all, seemingly following an unspoken dictum by NBC to soft-pedal Trump and the neo-dork fascists/drunk-aunts-on-Facebook/safe-space-for-anime-avatars crybabies that support him. There’s certainly a long precedent for “all is fair in this mode of communication we call jokes”—even Colbert danced with Kissinger like it was no big thang. But comedy has, as of late, been especially wild in its kissing the vicious on the mouth hard.Rob Lowe’s Comedy Central Roast was, like most comedy roasts, equal parts funny and soul-crushing. I’m as easily amused as anyone. When comedians stop me on the street and ask if I like to laugh, I usually think, “for sure.” I hate “The Borowitz Report” not because I hate comedy but because I, in theory, love it. Give me a “Defend Comedy” shirt with a jaunty AK-47 under the text and I’ll happily wear it bottomless to bed. Love to laugh, me. So I laughed a few times at the Rob Lowe roast; I don’t remember at what jokes, as none of them were particularly good. But that wasn’t the point of the thing: the point was empty-headed nihilism, the lazy void-fucking that comes when a society finds empathy square and “politically correct.” There were many jokes about the comedian Pete Davidson’s firefighter father who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Said jokes were, in a moral throwing up of hands reminiscent of the excusing of any ’70s (… ’80s … ’90s … current …) musician’s cruelty, subsequently listed in “Best Jokes from the Roast” articles in places like Rolling Stone. I am a fogey. I know. I’m tedious and self-righteous. But I understand using humor to explore darkness and I don’t pretend that the downing of the towers exists on a higher level of trauma than horrors that occur world-wide every day. September 11 jokes are not off the table. Gilbert Gottfried’s infamous 9/11 joke, while yes yes “too soon,” seemed like a genuine attempt to work through something. The jokes at the roast were not. It comes down to the laziness, the pointless inhumanity and, along with presence of Ann Coulter, the flattening out of cruelty.Nihilism as a comedic ethos is, of course, pretty popular, and I'm loath to disavow it completely, as I realize it's probably a generational thing and possibly a pot thing. And I, in theory, love the kids and think drugs are fucking great.I am not a relativist nor, despite my targets here, as far to the left as many of my peers. I believe in evil as a force (no matter how esoteric its form) to be combatted against, actively. I also believe in a justice that is perhaps based on a higher innate reasoning (I hope), but one that is malleable to social norms. When you have a demagogue on your talk show, when you taunt a man for his father dying in the towers, when you have a virulent racist like Coulter on a show only to discuss at length her hairy pussy, you flatten out evil. If we actively behave as though it’s all equal, that we can embrace racists and bigots in the name of “jokes,”11And, yes, calling Coulter horse-faced is embracing her: it normalizes her, makes her sympathetic. She was right not to laugh because none of that shit was funny. then we are saying both critical thinking and compassion are strictly the province of saps and squares—those who don’t “get it.”*Nihilism as a comedic ethos is, of course, pretty popular, and I'm loath to disavow it completely, as I realize it's probably a generational thing and possibly a pot thing. And I, in theory, love the kids and think drugs are fucking great. Rick and Morty is my favorite show on TV and I don’t know that I could explain in a court of law why it’s brilliant and Family Guy is trash—aside from the fact that references aren’t jokes, but that’s beside the point. So I’m nervous about discussing Sam Hyde’s new Adult Swim show, Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace—nervous mainly because I don’t want to be hacked by fifteen-year old (or the developmental equivalent thereof) Nazis (a fear seemingly shared by the usual big boys of leftist irony Twitter who like to pile on obscure preachers but seem averse to taking fellow potential ironist Hyde on … I get it, though), but also because I’m not sure of what to make of it. I don’t find it funny at all, but I’m not sure if anyone does or if we’re even supposed to. It’s part of a lineage that includes Tim and Eric and The Eric Andre Show, absurdist sketch shows that at their best can be bracingly grotesque and at their worst can be exercises in pulling wings off flies, with audience and performer both serving as the insect. Sam Hyde’s cast is clearly capable of being amusing but usually opts not to, instead going for non-sequiturs, insider outsider humor, and self-flagellation. Occasionally an actual joke slips out in World Peace and the performers seem vaguely embarrassed that they let such a sellout move taint the proceedings. Not being a pot smoker, I don’t have the propensity for giggles that I think is required to enjoy the humor (or “anti-humor,” which is so wildly elitist a concept that I’m surprised it took people known for their contempt for huge swathes of the marginalized population this long to embrace it) and, not being one of their fellow travelers, I’m not a big enough appreciator of alt-right signifiers to get … whatever else is going on in World Peace.Hyde, a newly semi-famous avant damaged prankster/sketch artist/inspirational figure to goons who gained prominence doing an inspired fake TED Talk and repeatedly being named on Reddit/4chan as a mass shooter, has an online persona (or actual personality) that is pretty terrible, full of J. Edgar Hoover inter-office memoranda rehashed in a way that’s comprehensible to young men equally concerned with white genocide and ethics in gaming journalism. But I’m unclear if it’s a put-on or just a tedious continuation of the Gavin McInnes effect, where hipsters surround themselves with the absolute dumbest leftists, knee-jerk react viciously, then consider themselves brave and iconoclastic. Hyde has defenders like the Dane Cook of All Things Harambe, Brandon Wardell, who, while exceptionally pretty, doesn’t seem to have any fondness for any master race proselytizing. And he was a Bernie man. But Wardell, a gifted and arguably more popular comedian of the young, newly woke (both in ironic usage and non) MTV/VICE set, is also largely a proponent of the, “If it’s funny it’s good—isn’t ‘intersectional’ a funny word?” view of comedy. His refusal to grapple with, you know, the human soul/body politic or whatever is more of the Seinfeld variety, but replacing “what’s the deal with?” foibles with knowing a lot of rappers’ names. So who knows what vouching from him means. For his own part, Sam Hyde is definitely part of the McInnes school of aggrieved manhood and ahistorical Western Civilization bootlicking. I used to know Gavin. He was always nice to me and, perhaps because I badly wanted to be liked by VICE types, I failed to see or understand what he was. He seemed smarter than me but not quite as smart as he thought he was. Surrounded by coked-out electro-clash deejays and sycophants and avowed leftists like David Cross (whom he’s apparently still friends with, which is … not my problem), he was rarely challenged in any meaningful way. If you only argue with the dudes in bands, a worldview can be reified in a particularly unhealthy way. I naively thought he’d end up as a sort of PJ O’Rourke character, a funny conservative to be occasionally indulged like Mallard Fillmore, so his descent into fringe John Birch cosplay and, on his garish and embarrassingly Spike TV-esque Rebel Media shows especially, DayGlo Hot Topic racism has been dispiriting to watch. Both he and Hyde subscribe to an entirely gnarly bullies-(or in this case, feminists)-kick-sand-in-our-face Charles Atlas ad view of manhood. McInnes even has an organization, Proud Boys (lol), that serves as a sort of paleo diet philosophy club. Even the readership at that bit of New York Press detritus, Taki, doesn’t seem to take him seriously as a proper fascist. His facial hair has never felt like more an affectation, a plea to be grizzled.It’s not an intellectual exercise when Gavin McInnes gleefully and with deliberate cruelty denounces Aziz Ansari for the most mild advocating for his parents’ civil rights.Hyde seems to also suffer from the parallel crisis of having attracted a fandom that consists of Red Pill geeks who talk about sexual politics like it’s an exhausting mixture of Wall Street and American Psycho, a corny gaggle of self-improvers whose congenital emotional weakness will probably only be cured by the grave. What’s the merit of being serious with such profoundly unserious men? Maybe it’s easy for me to be glib here—I’ve been punched and punched people, been occasionally brave and occasionally been a total fucking coward and lived with it, and I’ve never had trouble making friends with other men. (I mean, Jesus, how many guy friends, or friends at all, do these dudes need? I hate to be a video game alarmist but I do fear it’s stripping some boys of the capacity for a satisfying inner life.) Anyway, I don’t see my masculinity as a unicorn to be courted. It just is. (Or isn’t. Who fucking cares.) My fiancée watched World Peace and, despite being of a background that Hyde often targets in his online blather (which, it should be noted, she has not read), didn’t want me to be too mean. “Aw,” she said, “it’s just a bunch of boys who have a hard time meeting girls. Let ’em have a show.” Honestly, maybe I’m being naïve, but it’s hard to not feel sorry for men who worry this much about manhood. The Western Civilization stuff is of course more pernicious. To use a problematic framing Hyde will hopefully appreciate: Richard Pryor and Bob Newhart are Western Civilization, worth saving, our Shakespeares, penicillin, our first Cro-Mags albums; World Peace is Yu-Gi-Oh! syphilis hentai writ small as a Worldstar Vine. The show, if not the online ravings, is inoffensive enough but not really a book I’d fish out of the fire at Alexandria either.The words “dangerous” and “important” are thrown around with abandon, for clicks, to win arguments. But some things are dangerous and some things are important. Hate crimes against Muslim Americans are up seventy-eight percent over 2015, and this does not occur in a vacuum. Comedians like Fallon, provocateurs like Hyde, human blow torches of contempt like McInnes all believe that words matter, or they wouldn’t bother doing what they do. What they advocate and who they make common cause with matters. I have future family members, children and babies, the most precious wide-eyed rug-rats you can imagine that my fiancée has helped raise from birth, with names like Omar and Amir, who will be bearing the brunt of the hate and the violence inspired by the words that these men, in their desire to provoke and subvert and yet be no more free than their skin color already guarantees, spew. It’s not an intellectual exercise when McInnes gleefully and with deliberate cruelty denounces Aziz Ansari for the most mild advocating for his parents’ civil rights, and it’s not a small thing when he and Hyde both endeavor to convince the barely and rarely inconvenienced, their fan base, that said impressionable fans are actually the oppressed, that their historical angst at no longer being the best and most handsomest boys in the world is equal to the pain of those whom we rain bombs upon and systematically imprison.And of course these assholes have the right to espouse whatever nonsensical backwash they wish. To them it’s just entertainment, an extension of alt-comedy discomfort and outré ’90s ’zines like ANSWER Me! with no real stakes to be seen, at least within their social circles. Gavin has children. A whole bunch of them. I bet they’re cute as hell. I hope they are happy and successful. But I wish he and his ilk could, for even a moment, want the same for Omar and Amir. That, however, would require being able to look past their fear of the passing of white ascendancy, past their denial that invading and occupying other countries might have consequences, and conceive even briefly of others’ humanity.At this juncture, my sympathies even extend to the makers of South Park. As the Big Mama Thorntons of Libertarian anti-PC persecution complexes, it must be vexing seeing their big hit, “Why Can’t I Say What I Want To Anyone At All Times, Feelings Be Damned,” taken to the mainstream in others’ hands. Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham, if recent interviews and/or perpetual online defensiveness and overreliance on the term “outrage machine” is any indication, share at least components of a mindset with all these people (I doubt they’d want to be grouped in with Hyde and nameless roasters, but I don’t make the news). The people who for whom “comedy” may as well be a matter of faith—for whom taking issue with jokes, expecting humor to explained, is akin to flushing the holy text down the toilet. Rock n’ roll, religion, comedy: the three bad boys of self-justification, never beholden to mores or morals of man. And just as Tom Lehrer retired from satire after Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, what purpose does a South Park serve when Donald Trump, right before the election, appears on Jimmy Fallon? How do you skewer a vortex of truly witless celebrity and an evil no less banal for its orange glow, a Libertarian Cthulhu wet dream, minus only the Primus opening credits? Pity faux-subversive comedy, no longer vapid or cruel enough, now left behind. Light a candle in the window for Rosie O’Donnell jokes long time gone.*I have no idea if we’re living through a historical bottoming out, but I have no loyalty to what has come before in that regard, especially when, “well, such-and-such era was worse” is used to excuse cruelty today. And I don’t know if comedy has a responsibility to “punch up” or whether, like any mode of human communication, it’s basically neutral. But I know that systematic oppression, a rising far right, a wholesale dismissal of our complicity in worldwide suffering are only rhetorical points if you remove yourself, either through nihilism or, yes, fuck it, privilege, from the world as it is, and the responsibilities one is born with to not be a complete cancerous prick.This year, this week, right now, the practitioners of humor seem more intent on defending their right to make jokes about rape, 9/11, and Syria; to mingle with those who’d facilitate more rape, more 9/11s and more Syrias; to occasionally throw a self-satisfied jab where it can do the least damage by calling Chris Christie fat or Ann Coulter ugly or pronouncing “Trump” as “Drumpf”; to pretend that they’re a class to themselves and by extension an oppressed one; to be about nothing, for nothing, just inanity and depravity with nobody at fault and nothing at stake at all, nothing at the core but weakness and spite, a burnt out bowl and a laugh track, a laying down of arms to the darkness, a trowel of bullshit and the blinders to go with it.I do, however, still really like Billy on the Street.
Brave Dispatches

My response to sexual abuse and trauma had made people wonder. But the same response in the Ghomeshi complainants made people condemn.

This past spring, former radio personality Jian Ghomeshi was tried for the sexual assault of three women. During the highly publicized trial, observers seemed confused by the alleged victims’ expressions of pain and injury. Complainant Lucy DeCoutere wrote to Ghomeshi after he’d allegedly choked her one night in June 2003: “I love your hands,” she’d said of the very hands she’d claimed had hurt her. A photograph of her sitting close to Ghomeshi in a park after the alleged assault, clinging to him and looking happy, seemed a visual counterpart to the letter. Complainant Linda Redgrave emailed Ghomeshi a photograph of herself in a red bikini after the alleged assault. Questioning the women’s interactions with Ghomeshi and each other, many onlookers wondered if the complainants’ pain wasn’t hiding pleasure instead. The sentiment was familiar to me: A decade earlier, people had suggested that more than twenty young boys, myself included, hadn’t been assaulted by our former teacher, Douglas Ian Brown, but had really, in the words of one of his friends, “just wanted our willies pulled.”In 2004, Brown went on trial for the sexual assault of children that began weeks, if not days, after his arrival in 1975 as a teacher at Upper Canada College, a private boys’ school in Toronto where I was a student for all but two years between 1970 and 1981. As one of his victims, I testified against him, becoming part of a highly public scandal and court case.Brown was a serial predator who had visited at least twenty of us in our beds to repeatedly assault us. Police arrested him in 2001. In the intervening years between my assault and his arrest, my actions strongly paralleled the Ghomeshi Three’s emails, letters, photos, and slips of memory. I’d written letters about the abuse in which I minimized what had happened, letters I had no memory of writing; I’d even claimed when the police first interviewed me in 2000 that it hadn’t really been sexual abuse, hoping, I suppose, that labelling it as minor made it so. For years, I’d managed to forget the abuse altogether.As I watched these three women being attacked for behaviour that felt so familiar, and found myself defending them from the criticisms of my online friends, I thought of Hanya Yanagihara. A photograph of a grimacing young man, who looks caught between pleasure and pain, graces the cover of her 2015 novel, A Little Life. The author had to fight for the image, titled "Orgasmic Man." Her editor felt that everyone would know that the man was having an orgasm, but Yanagihara defended and valued the ambiguity of his expression. Given the mystery of the inner world of the victim Yanagihara paints for the reader, the almost inevitable confusion of the observer is apt. As she told Kirkus Reviews, men she knew often couldn’t place the feelings they experienced; appropriately, the photograph evoked a male “helpless[ness]” in the realm of emotion. Yanagihara’s agent said the image “makes you pay attention—it makes you look, it makes you wonder....”I spoke out against the scorn for Ghomeshi’s alleged victims because of what I myself had done before and during the Brown case. And as I explained to friends what trauma could do to your good sense and to your memory, I realized how wrong it was that the narrative I’d presented during the Brown trial—despite its gap-filled vagueness and hesitations, despite my ridiculous letters and denials—was somehow seen as more credible in the eyes of the law than these women’s words, brave dispatches from their own traumatic pasts. My response to trauma had, to use the words of Yanagihara’s agent, made people wonder. But the same response in the Ghomeshi victims made people condemn.*Redgrave was the first complainant to take the stand against Ghomeshi. She was cross-examined by his lawyer Marie Henein over the kind of car Ghomeshi had been driving when he allegedly assaulted her. Redgrave misremembered the model of the car—confusing two yellow Volkswagen models Ghomeshi had owned consecutively. Judge William B. Horkins, who presided over the trial, gave great importance to the fact that Redgrave had gotten this wrong, writing, “This demonstrably false memory weighs in the balance against the general reliability of L.R.’s evidence as a whole.” This would be one of many things the judge would cite as cause to acquit Ghomeshi. All three of the women seemed to have forgotten significant details of the alleged assaults, and to have failed to disclose the extent of their post-assault contact with Ghomeshi to the police and the Crown. The women were pilloried, not just for their failure to disclose post-assault behaviour but also for inconsistencies in their statements to media, to police and in court. But the perceived contradictions were only truly surprising to those unfamiliar with the swerves of abuse narratives.It would take eight years, and a crisis precipitated by the ending of my academic career due to my crippling anxiety, before I was able to face up to what had happened to me.Judge Horkins returned repeatedly to these moments in his judgement, saying the Ghomeshi complainants’ testimony undermined their credibility. But as Daniel Reisberg remarks in The Science of Perception and Memory: A Pragmatic Guide for the Justice System (2014), while common sense tells us that inconsistencies matter, science affirms the opposite. Science suggests that though memory and perception are “incomplete” and can be distorted, they yield a “generally accurate” picture of events. In other words, the inconsistencies are simply artifacts of what wasn’t noticed, or was filled in by inference—they don’t nullify the accuracy of the recollection of the central event. But still, Christie Blatchford, a newspaper columnist and prominent commentator on the trial, reported after the verdict in a broadcast from the steps of Toronto’s Old City Hall—activists’ chants of “We believe survivors” in the background—“The women in this case, two of whom were wholly discredited, Lucy DeCoutere and the third complainant, did it to themselves by editing their memories. This is not trauma. Trauma messes with your memory perhaps, but it doesn’t see you only take out the stuff that reflects poorly on you. ...” With what one defense lawyer I spoke to called “unnecessary harshness,” Blatchford went on to conclude, “... I think it was a good day for justice, a good day for adult women who want to be treated like any other complainant in the criminal justice system, and I say ‘hurray’ for Bill Horkins, the judge.”*In 2004, Blatchford covered the Brown trial for The Globe and Mail. In her reporting, she noted that among the victims, only I was present in court to hear Ontario Superior Court Justice Harry LaForme read his decision and find Brown, in LaForme’s words, “implausible, untrustworthy and unreliable,” while we victims were “reasonable and believable,” not to mention “intelligent, articulate, and forthright.”I believed a boy I’ll call PT when he’d told me he’d been assaulted in 1975, while both the school and Brown denied it and his father insisted he mustn’t make things up. He’d phoned me one day late in 1992, and though we hadn’t spoken since the ’70s, when he asked me to guess why he was calling, without thinking, I blurted, “Mr. Brown.” The day I’d believed him had been the best day of his life, he told me, when we met soon after for a lunch of burgers and beer. He recounted what Brown had done to him, not just once or twice, but for years, and as we sat there, I started to have flashbacks. It was then that I began remembering events, feelings, sensations; and as my brain’s circuits, my neurons fired in recognition, I automatically began to think of new ways to deny and avoid that I’d been attacked.Yet I agreed to write PT a letter, ostensibly for his therapist, to confirm that he’d immediately reported the assaults, and that I’d been assaulted too. Soon after, PT took that letter to the school to demand compensation, and two months later, having moved to England for grad school, standing in a brightly lit phone box in a dark field in Kent outside my residence, I was forced to respond to calls from the principal and the school’s lawyers who were eager to discuss my letter and my intentions.We are, statistically speaking, a population that too easily blames victims of sexual assault.In early 1993, with the trial still more than a decade away, I spoke to friends and family about the trouble that was already unfolding. The counsel was that Brown’s assaults hardly merited the name, since what trace had they really left, after all? I was told that I should distance myself from the whole sorry mess and not go to the police, and that I should write a second letter denouncing my first one. Desperate for distance from this unpleasantness, as I then saw it, I wrote a second, terrible letter saying that I wanted nothing more to do with it, that I hadn’t been damaged by Brown, and that since Brown and PT had continued their “relationship” for years, it had been “consensual.” It’s difficult, now, for me to admit that I thought and said those things.The school then began an investigation that led to Brown’s dismissal, with severance and without informing the police. It would take eight years, and a crisis precipitated by the ending of my academic career due to my crippling anxiety, before I was able to face up to what had happened to me.I shuddered in recognition when I heard Linda Redgrave testify that she couldn’t remember if she’d allegedly been “pulled” or “thrown” to the ground in Ghomeshi’s house, when she couldn’t remember whether she’d worn hair extensions or if her head had banged on the car window, and when the judge said she couldn’t have forgotten sending an email and the bikini photograph. My testimony had been rife with memory lapses and inconsistencies, too. I didn’t remember that Brown had often worn jeans and Greb boots rather than the usual teacher’s uniform. As I was testifying, I didn’t remember being pressed against the wall by Brown in my bed one night, and then, after a lunch break, I did; I didn’t remember being in Brown’s apartment and being fondled by him and then I did. In the years following the writing of the letters, I completely forgot they existed. I contradicted my claims of injury and denied I’d been abused, several times. I was not the ideal victim. No one is.In the Brown case, Mr. Justice LaForme discerned “inconsistencies” and “confusions” in our stories, but said the repetition of certain details came to give a kind of solidity to the whole. Here, then, is where LaForme demonstrated his understanding of traumatic memory as not so much a coherent narrative as it is a reservoir of “images, sounds, smells, physical sensations and enactments,” which is how it’s described by Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk, a researcher in trauma at Boston University.The stories we heard from Ghomeshi’s alleged victims had the same echoes and resonances as ours did. Ghomeshi attacked his victims violently and without warning, the three complainants alleged vividly, depositing indelible images within us, as did the multiple others who confided in journalists. It wasn't enough.*According to Jennifer Temkin and Barbara Krahé’s Sexual Assault and the Justice Gap (2008), Canada scores high on the Attitudes towards Rape Victims Scale (ARVS) that rates critical views of sexual assault victims, higher than the UK, Germany, and the US. We are, statistically speaking, a population that too easily blames victims of sexual assault.After sexual assault legislation reform undertaken in 1983 by the federal government in response to feminist lobbying and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a woman’s sexual history could no longer be used against her in court. This change sparked a search by defense lawyers to find new ways to undermine complainants, as professor of law, Lise Gotell, writes in her article, “The Ideal Victim, the Hysterical Complainant, and the Disclosure of Confidential Records.” “Probing complainants’ private records for evidence of inconsistency in order to create the appearance of faulty memories and motives to lie,” Gotell says, “has provided the key mechanism of attacking complainants in Canada since the 1990s.”Why, if the discrediting of complainants in sexual assault cases is a perennial problem, hasn’t more been done about it? Law professor Kathleen Mahoney wrote in 2015 that Canada, especially after the retirement of Justice L’Heureux-Dubé in 2002, the second woman Justice on the Supreme Court, is no longer a leader in judicial training, no longer seriously fighting the bias against women in the legal system. Indeed, too few said about the Ghomeshi case what Mahoney reports L’Heureux-Dubé took from her own legal experience: that the stubborn problem in sexual assault trials “is the deeply embedded understanding of fairness in criminal trials that has always focused on the accused, not on the unfairness caused by the use of sexist stereotypes.” In Maclean’s, Anne Kingston noted the stereotypical assumptions Judge Horkins made during the Ghomeshi trial, such as when he emphasized the danger of false accusations in his decision’s conclusion, when the reality is that perhaps as few as two percent of women complainants lie about sexual assault.*In her book, Aversion and Erasure: The Fate of the Victim after the Holocaust (2010), scholar Carolyn J. Dean writes about our “resistance” to victims, which is often joined to an aggression that “minimizes” and ultimately “erases” their experience of victimization; complaining about victims leaves it “unclear how victims can ever offer a genuine rather than ideologically suspect response when they are debilitated by their injuries.” Dean asks us to consider that “lucidity takes other forms than objectivity,” at least, insofar as we usually understand objectivity to involve clarity and emotional restraint.What would this other sort of lucidity sound and look like? This alternative model of the victim, clear in her “confusion,” might sound like the Ghomeshi Three on the stand, or look like Yanagihara’s cover photo, puzzling and demanding further attention and thought from observers.Since 2001, I’ve been in therapy to work through the consequences of Brown’s abuse. My therapist, a woman named Dr. Lori Haskell, is a clinical psychologist, an expert on violence against women and children, and an educator of frontline support staff, police, Crown Attorneys, and judges. She is the second person I’ve spoken to who has used the word “harsh” to describe the events of the Ghomeshi trial, telling me how shocked she was by the cruelty of the verdict—her clients’ wariness, she said, has only been magnified by Ghomeshi’s exoneration.Linda Redgrave and I both have PTSD nightmares. Redgrave told me she doesn't feel she’ll ever leave the abuse properly behind, but she’s become an activist, recently creating a website for sexual assault victims, www.comingforward.ca, and she had plans to do more when I talked to her in May—to support, for instance, a complainant who was coming to Toronto from B.C. to testify in a rape trial.A Crown Attorney friend kindly sat with me that day in the courtroom in 2004, her grip on my hand anchoring me in the enormous room in the courthouse, while the judge’s welcome words radiated through me, buoying me. I was especially sorry that PT, whose anger, suffering and indignation had driven the case against Brown, wasn’t there to hear himself singled out as first among equals for the quality of his testimony.
Just Browsing

“The time of brows feels like it is expanding.”

Eyebrows: a discussion.Scaachi Koul: I would like everyone to describe their brows and their power and their majesty, to begin with.Arabelle Sicardi: I have anime protagonist eyebrows. They’re stick straight with no actual arch and kind of a begrudging curve at the end that often just peters off if I do not insist on them doing what I want via brow gel and the slightest amount of filling in. I think this is the perfect example of my eyebrows when they behave and are allowed to live their best life—I look like the cold science nerd in an anime team who only speaks when they’re suggesting a life saving scenario. I have my mother's eyebrows. They’re straight up Taiwanese.Natasha MH: Right now, they still have eyeliner from yesterday in them, because I decided to use my eyeliner pens to do my brows, as opposed to brow gel. So, they’re somewhat … severe, stained an inky black at the moment. They’re not shaped into anything in particular. They’ve got a bit of a curve—not much of a dramatic slope. Shapeless, sparse overgrowth is what I call them. I shaved them all off as a nine year old, and they just kind of grew back this way. There was a period where I was waxing them because I wanted them to look like a combination of Maleficent and Audrey Hepburn. Sadly, my brows were made for more delicate things. And for that, I will never forgive them. Although, with enough product, I can wrangle them into a messy Edie Sedgwick- (I know, I know—enough with the makeup reference cliches!) styled brow. Demented, imprecise—product sloughed on with an unsteady hand.Gabby Noone: My brows are currently the bushiest they’ve been since I was a kid. Last summer, I had a realization that, after years of going by that old lady’s mag rule that you should stick a pencil next to your nose and tweeze your eyebrows off at the point where it hits, that I should actually stop tweezing the middle area between my brows. So I’ve been working on growing out that area and I think it makes my face look a little more dramatic. Periodically, I got them threaded throughout the year, but I haven’t done that in like five months now. Usually I fill them in with NYX brow gel to make them look bold and uniform. When I don’t do that, you can sort of notice the areas that grew back a little less thick after my middle school era of tweezing them into tadpoles. Both my mom and sister had these naturally really thick brows, but they tweezed them out of recognition for years so I am the one who stopped while I still had the chance! I like to think my brows are the only part of my body that I feel I don’t have to work on or maintain constantly to look good, but then again after typing that all out it sounds like I actually do put quite the effort into them.SK: This is a true varied group of brows. Mine are thick and arched and pretty manicured; I don’t like leaving them alone because I still remember being teased as a kid for my thick brows—I was (and am!) A Brown so naturally my eyebrows are either very much in season or incredibly tacky. Depends on the year, I guess. I too use a few NYX products to keep them in line but I guess luck is on my side right now that full brows are IN and people want to TALK ABOUT THEM and the thing that made me feel marginalized is now SOMETHING FOR SEX.GN: One of my best friends is really into early 2000s aesthetics and the other week she was like to me, “Thin eyebrows are going to be in soon at this rate.” And I yelled at her like HOW DARE YOU? This is definitely an irrational fear of mine. Like, eyebrows are fashion right now, but then what if they’re not. I used to loathe my brows and get made fun of for having them for years. Then the first time I filled them in a few years ago someone was like “Wow, you look like Cara Delevigne!” (Debateable, but, like, thanks for comparing me to a supermodel!!! Also, Cara Delevigne making brows “in” is a whole ‘nother can of worms). I also get really worked up anytime a magazine editorial decides it’s going to be totally conventional, BUT with BLEACHED BROWS this time. Which isn’t to say bleached brows are bad. It’s just, like, really goofy to me when it’s like a normal Kim Kardashian photoshoot, but with bleached brows and she’s like “We went with something edgy this time.”[[{"fid":"6696966","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":"350","width":"579","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]NMH: I weirdly love bleached brows, and really want to try them. Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, and, like, FKA Twigs are what really tipped me over the edge there. It’ll be tricky because of my skintone to get a bleached brow that I won’t hate, however—because while I do like that just-bleached, peroxide blonde brow on olive/darker skintones, I feel like it wouldn’t quite work on me, at least the way that I’m imagining my “ideal” bleached brow to look, where it appears more like a disappearance of the brow, as opposed to like committing to another colour. When done right (similarly to shaved brows), it draws my attention to the brow bone/the place where I feel like the nose “begins.” I pay more attention to the space between the inner corner of the eye and the nasal bone, in a way that I wouldn’t normally. Mostly because I deeply enjoy beauty looks from Medieval Europe for some odd reason. Partially because outside of certain fashion circles, I feel like some Medieval beauty looks are a little off-putting when contrasted against the dictates of current beauty standards.  The high forehead, and the plucked out brows, as if there’s nothing there to frame the eye, or distinguish the face from the forehead. Because as much as we talk about how eyebrows frame the eye, they seem to also be one of the ways to frame, and separate, the forehead. Playing with hairlines and brows is something that I’m starting to really want to experiment with … but it could go really bad, really fast.There’s that meme, celebrities without eyebrows, where—aside from showcasing Photoshop jobs of varying quality—the whole joke is “we would look so weird without eyebrows.” It’s supposed to feel off somehow, like a bit of mindfuck—an apparently humorous mindfuck, but a mindfuck nonetheless. Yet, when I’m thinking about disappearing brows, I don’t think it’s particularly “weird,” or “ugly” to be without them, on account of the fact that, like, aside from the fact that beauty ideals change constantly,  sometimes you can get sick and as a consequence, your eyebrows can fall out. Brows also can thin out as you age. It’s absolutely not weird, or ugly, or something to be ashamed of to lose your eyebrows, just something that is. And the fact that it is, is one of the reasons why I can find it beautiful. However, I need to be careful with this line of thinking because, like, you don’t want to do the whole “glamourize an illness/ oh look at that consumptive beauty” thing, because even if something may be perceived as aesthetically pleasing either because it feeds into, or goes against the current norm of beauty, this doesn’t automatically mean that it FEELS good, or that it is necessarily good for you. Beauty and health are such minefields for me, especially if you think about how illness can become beautiful whether it’s in this “affliction-is-the-path-to-grace-suffering-for-your-metaphysical-fashion” sort of way, or like the Victorians being all: “consumption-is-chic-now.”Browlessness seems to have this relationship (in ~*hai fashun*~, at least) with, as Gabby said, “edginess,” “weirdness,” and “oddness,” the kind which either consciously, or not, can be defined against whatever “normal” beauty is. It looks cool because it’s not something that you necessarily would see out on the street every day in most cities. Consider all the times on America’s Next Top Model, when during the Tyra makeovers at least one contestant has a beauty team disappear their eyebrows. So that they can look like an “alien.” That’s strange, because there’s nothing particularly “alien” about not having eyebrows. I feel like part of the reason that browlessness is such a novelty is because of how we expect a “healthy” face to look. As soon as faces deviate from that, it’s either comedy or tragedy or something that only a very particular sensibility can “appreciate” as beautiful.AS: I’ve done every color of the rainbow on my hair but I haven’t done bleached brows and I don’t think I will? They’re way too high maintenance and that is coming from me, a person who regularly spends 24 hours at a spa and has a ten step skincare routine I do even when I’m super drunk. Even me!!! It’s too much!!! There’s a limit. I do think thin brows will probably come back maybe because I can see that the late ‘90s-early aughts beauty routines of pop stars are constantly being referenced and replicated. All things return. I said lip gloss and brown lipstick would return three years ago and now Kylie sells her lipkits in like six seconds and it’s all broooooOOOWWWWnnnnnnn.SK: Oh god, is bleached brows becoming an actual thing? That stresses me out. I cannot carry that. The eyebrows are the bra of my eyes, I feel very comfortable with them, I want them to be very dark and very mean looking. I’VE SPENT SO MUCH TIME ON THEM, I CAN’T BLEACH THEM NOW, I’M IN TOO DEEP.AS: Yeah just, the time! The time of brows feels like it is expanding. You got the instagram fade, you have people getting brows tattooed on, you have fiber brow mascara, you have brow gel...tattoo things, the temporary brow tints? Bleached brows require rebleaching every 2 weeks or something like that, not to mention the toning you may need to do. And the constant PLUCKING. Violence!NMH: I feel like the plucking could be soothing at times? I am kind of curious about that relationship between pain, pleasure (both visual, and like … sensory) and beauty rituals like plucking your brows, or popping a zit. Not to mention the soothing quality … that in some cases, I’m not sure is pleasurable—I mean, define pleasure here—but kind of gives you something, whether that’s a way of calming oneself down, or something else entirely. I feel like that might be a different discussion, however -- but it’s definitely related to how we begin to think about the relationship between beauty and pain. Well, the work of beauty/beautification too.GN: I just want to say here I absolutely love plucking an ingrown hair. It is like winning the lottery.SK: I find beauty standards that are linked with hair so complicated and so unpredictable. I feel like I think about this a lot, at least in recent weeks, because I’m noticing that all the hair trends that I was told were wildly unattractive on my body, my brown body, are now considered more and more attractive. Women are growing out their armpit hair and growing out their brows and letting their unibrows grow in a little bit—for me, there’s obviously a racial element but I’m still never clear on what we’re currently considering physically acceptable.AS: I mean it’s very clear that hair is linked to white supremacy, I feel like we have a content farm circle jerk of cultural appropriation discussions surrounding Kardashian wigs et al all the time. I do think the armpit thing being linked to feminism is a distinctly retrograde idea of body politics and freedom and whiteness. And even a particular kind of whiteness, the risk of letting your hair grow out is so much “less” when it’s pale and fine and no one sees it. But if you have dark hair and are hairy, you’re seen as something else, and it’s, you know—its own thing. I think beauty is all about rewriting power and narratives; I don’t find it unpredictable, I just find it scary. There’s a Bataille quote I gnaw on a lot: "Beauty is desired in order that it may be befouled; not for its own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it."NMH: OMG BATAILLE. I literally have Eroticism (the book that contains his chapter on beauty) on my bedtable. Let me go get that. What he was really getting at there (partially anyways) was that relationship between beauty, cleanliness, and uncleanliness. My crappy super simplification of that essay: He’s talking more about beauty as it relates to sexuality/sexual taboos—and how eroticism transgresses all that. Why your reference to Bataille really interests me is because there is this relationship between hair and uncleanliness/disease/general foulness … because I feel like quite a few of our cosmetic rituals find their bearing in both health, and a culture’s view of the cosmos (whether it’s religious, superstitious, etc.) and that delineation between the “pure” and the “impure”—the impure being that which can cause illness or disturbance of a physical, or more spiritual sort. I’m thinking here of Ancient Egypt (I was reading this great intro of cosmetics in Ancient Egypt last night, so that’s been stuck in my brain) where the application of oils/ shaving the body, etc. helped to prevent against lice and what have you, but Egyptian priests would remove ALL of their body hair (not sure about the brows though) to present a “pure” image for the gods.To try to bring this all back to brows/the topic of hair removal in general, I want to return to Bataille on beauty again. He writes that “any suggestion of the animal in human form is unquestionably repugnant … [and] that the erotic value of feminine forms seems to me to be bound up with the absence of the natural heaviness that suggests the physical use of limbs and the necessity for the framework of bone: the more ethereal the shapes and the less clearly they depend on animal reality or on a human physiological reality, the better they respond to the fairly widespread image of the desirable woman.” I sort of roll my eyes whenever I read that, for fairly obvious reasons. However, Bataille makes me think about a fairly pervasive line of thought wherein humans CONSCIOUSLY try to distinguish themselves from animals, and use one’s relationship to “animality” in terms of justifying all sorts of strange power relations and social classifications. That becoming “human,” or rather … becoming “civilized” is a matter of cleansing, plucking, erasing all trace of the animal in you. It’s a bit hilarious that this is the way that some people have chosen to run with this, considering the fact that animals have their own grooming behaviours particular to them … but whatever, humans are special broody snowflakes, let us carry on. How all of this relates to hair itself, however, I’m thinking a lot here about fur vs. skin and the protective/vulnerable qualities of each. Fur and hair ARE there to protect from the elements, as a barrier against diseases/insect bites, but they also can attract things that as humans, we’ve defined as not so great, whether it is B.O, trapping dirt and oils,  or being a place for parasites and insects to hide in. In short, reminding us that we have less control than we think we do over the way our bodies interact and react to the world.At this point, human hair feels more ornamental than anything else given the fact that clothes exist, as do forms of shelter, and technologies that regulate temperature (if we are so lucky). It exists as a statement.  It’s here that I wish that I knew more about the biology of fur/skin and how these things evolved, so that this point would feel more grounded, less speculative. The way that we talk about “civilization” as this movement away from “nature” (which feels very much like a Eurocentric way of going about it, to be completely honest, and like the MOST impractical way of relating with the world/earth), it’s as if shedding your hair … or styling it (giving it form, structure, a reference point, and order) is the way you define yourself AS human. But where we move from “just a person” to “beautiful” is when one seems to escape/transcend the body as much as one can while still being housed in it. However, that’s a sense of the beautiful that seems to take beauty as too good to be “of the world” which, frankly, perplexes me a bit. It’s here where I start thinking about things like physiognomy and phrenology, where one could make these judgements about a person’s character, intelligence, or predisposition towards crime vis a vis their body/ their face/ the size and shape of their skull. I’ll try to keep it brief: If you look at old drawings/photographs of who was considered a “good person” vs. a “bad person,” you can see relationships between heritage, character traits, perceived attractiveness, and how a face can resemble an animal’s. It’s “the beautiful as the good” in this irritatingly myopic, and literal way. Under such a system, ugliness is the province of beasts and beauty is dictated by the powers that be.  To be “ugly” under that mode of thought is to be unnecessarily hairy. It’s here where I think about where we inherit the words “highbrow” and “lowbrow” from those practices; those with “higher” browlines were seen as intelligent and sophisticated, whereas people with “lower” browlines were idiots. Even today, there’s research being done on how we register trustworthiness in faces, and it found that those with high eyebrows are ranked as more trustworthy than those with low eyebrows. One paper in particular looked at how the amygdala processes social information/ social cues in terms of how we vet faces even before we have consciously perceived them … which again, makes me think a lot about that relationship between beauty and goodness, the pure and the impure, the safe and the unsafe, and how that translates to people and how we choose to classify and categorize them … often against their will, or without them having a direct hand in the creation of such meanings.As an aside: like, I don’t know what it is, or why it is, but a lot the Disney villains have the BEST eyebrows. Ursula has that drawn-in, pencil-thin swoop that was modelled off of the drag queen, Divine, but is something you see on a lot of deathrockers and Goths who were influenced by that look. Or Cruella de Vil who has that Joan Crawford waxing crescent moon of a brow. Or Maleficent with those arches. Even Scar. Almost always, Disney villains have better eyebrows. Better outfits, and better eyebrows. There’s something rather imposing and delightfully evil about a well done arched brow wielded by someone who knows how to use it. Or a brow that looks like it’s angry, even if it’s just a thin, diagonal line.[[{"fid":"6696981","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":"386","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]SK: I mean, it is predictable in that it’s still about whiteness of course, but maybe I’m not quick enough to catch what part of my body—and namely, my hair—is going to be considered beautiful, which was once considered grotesque. I remember when thick brows started to come back and I got really irritated because all this girls who used to be terrible to me in junior high because my FACE will not stop GROWING THINGS, were now very nice to me because my thick lashes, my thick brows, the darkness of my lower lashes were all considered beautiful and now, now I was worth talking to about my beauty routine. (Which is almost nothing, my hair is just rude and plentiful.)AS: RUDE AND PLENTIFUL! What a delight, though, what a combination of things to be.SK: Thank you; I am very bushy.GN: This is something I am grappling with because I am like, ok, yes everyone loves thick brows but do they love sideburn hairs, chin hairs, my mustache? Like, maybe one component is trendy, but not all at once. Did your guys’ moms ever use those tools for removing face hair that are like lowkey sand paper? Do they still make those? I got in trouble for rubbing one all over my mustache because I saw my mom do it. I always saw removing facial and body hair as this maturity thing. Like, the height of elegance and glamour. Maybe I should blame the Skintimate shave gel or Nair commercials which looked like so much fun. But at the same time it’s all so risky! One time in middle school I tried the Nair at-home wax strips on my mustache and brows and then had to go to school with band aids on my face from the burns they caused me.AS: Yeah, they still make them. My mom doesn’t have body hair, she’s Taiwanese, she was also a tomboy so she would yell at me when I wanted to start shaving my legs in school and didn’t get why I was so adamant about it. Me and my high school freshman best friends would gang up on my other best friend to pluck her eyebrows. Vanity and enforced femininity as bonding and power! We wanted to “save” her into beauty. It was gross and when she cried I would smile. Sorry, Abigail.SK: My mom is a wolf so yes, I am familiar with literally all hair removal processes. When I first started shaving, my mom told me I would have to shave every day and I was like, “Ho ho, okay, Mother,” but no, she was right, I too am Wolf. But, I’m fine with it now, just takes some time to get over the inevitabilities of your sideburns and wispy neck-hairs.NMH: I never really inherited any beauty rituals from my mother, I never really SAW her do beauty. She’s pretty private like that. I have more memories of my dad shaving his beard, and hanging out while he did that. Beyond Haircare (on your head) 101, she never really taught me anything—I just figured it out from reading the internet/being interested in style from a very, very young age/figuring it out for myself. For me, beauty has always been this very solitary, experimental activity that is just influenced by the sheer amount of STUFF that’s out there.SK: My mom passed down a bit of anxiety about body hair. Leg hair, armpit hair, facial hair all needed to be tended to, like it said something about your character if you let it grow. I think she’s unclenched a bit on it as she’s gotten older, but perhaps because after four decades of tweezing and plucking, her hair doesn’t come back as thick as it used to. But I’m still pretty dedicated to hair maintenance. I find it soothing, somehow, maybe not necessarily powerful but predictable. Like, I know this is what I have to do to feel okay about my body. I know this is the routine. My eyebrows are part of that, I suppose, because I know that I have to separate them and clean up the edges. That will make me cute. It’s the least I can do.GN: I think certainly my mom tried to put off me removing my body hair and tweezing my eyebrows because she was so aware of the maintenance factor of keeping it up once you start. But I was so eager to begin because I was the hairiest girl in my elementary school (which, obviously, this is RELATIVE, it was because I was...Italian...in a sea of blondes). Also, the makeover montage scene in The Princess Diaries I think profoundly influenced (maybe even traumatized?) me as a child to think bushy eyebrows and frizzy hair were something to be dealt with. Like, “If Groucho Marx and Brooke Shields had a baby, she would have your eyebrows” as an insult in a Disney movie! But then the “mainstream” thick brows trend was becoming a thing when I was in high school, so that’s when I feel like I started to take heed of warnings from my mom and older sister of being careful when I pluck. But it’s also like, what were they so afraid of? What would happen to me if I messed up my brows? Ruin my face maybe?AS: Yeah I think beauty is so much about inheritance: from mothers and sisters and people who have been left behind, and the people who had power over those people, and on and on.
‘If You Don’t Have Hope, Then Why Go On?’: An Interview with Colson Whitehead

Talking with the author of The Underground Railroad about knowing when the time is right to write a book, schools skipping over slavery, and why Sonic Youth made his acknowledgments page.

Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Underground Railroad, tells the story of Cora, a girl born into slavery, as she escapes from the plantation with Caesar, a new friend and fellow escapee, while Ridgeway, a slave patroller, obsessively dogs her in pursuit as she makes her way along the titular tracks. Whitehead takes the slave narrative to new territory, however, by answering the question: what if the underground railroad was a real railroad?Station masters offer help and guidance at stops along the way. Lumbly, a conductor on her first train, tells the pair that “[every] state is different. Each is a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you’ll see the breadth of the country before you reach your final stop.“ Whitehead’s story takes Cora through several American states as each one grapples with slavery’s presence and legacy. And in each, she experiences that state of possibility—not just of what America is and what it could be, but also who she is and who she can be.It is a beautiful, jarring and compelling story—no surprise that it has quickly become one of the most talked about books of the year. Among its many accolades, including making its way onto President Obama’s summer reading list, it’s an Oprah Book Club selection. It was illegal to teach slaves to read and those slaves who could risked their lives; in the novel, Cora values deeply the ability to read and learn. I can’t help but be struck that we’re in a moment in time in which a Black woman is such an influential player in the literary world.I spoke with Colson Whitehead by phone.*Vicky Mochama: I want to start at the end of the book. In the acknowledgements, you cite Prince, Sonic Youth and David Bowie. What role did music play in writing this book?Colson Whitehead: [laughs] I started writing fiction about twenty years ago. When I work I play a loop of my favourite 200 songs on a playlist. It goes from the Ramones to David Bowie to the Lounge Lizards. Whenever I finish a book and I get to the last day of writing the first draft and I only have two pages to go, I put on Purple Rain and Daydream Nation. That’s my ritual. Whenever I put those albums on back to back, I know I’m in the home stretch.What was it like for you to this year lose those artists that were fundamental to your process?I guess you never contemplate Bowie gone. And then I did the acknowledgements and Prince passed away. There’s always the music. It’s a great loss. When Bowie died, I played my children (who are two and eleven years old) loops of his old music videos. Now, when I take my son into bed, I have to play him “Silent Night” and “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie, so I end up singing it every day. One day he’ll ask what a junkie is because that’s one of the lines in “Ashes to Ashes,” and I’m not sure what I’ll say, but we’ll get there.Talking of your process, when did you sit down and think you could actually write this book?I had the idea sixteen years ago and didn’t feel ready. I came up with the premise of exploring that childhood notion that the underground railroad is an actual subway. I kept putting it off. I didn’t want to tackle the enormity of slavery. I didn’t feel emotionally ready and I didn’t feel mature enough as a person. As a writer, it seemed very daunting. Every couple years, I’d go back to my notes and think, “Am I ready?” and the answer was always, “No.” But finally, about two years ago, it seemed I was afraid of doing this book and it was time to confront why and just take the plunge.What did you find out?We walk around with different ideas of what slavery was, but to actually read the testimonials from former slaves and hundreds of slave narratives, there’s no escaping the brutality of the system and, in my case, what my ancestors went through. It was a consideration of who in my family didn’t make it out.I think as Black writers there’s always a sense that we don’t want to talk about the things that are meant to define our communities. Did you have any doubts about writing a slavery book?Mostly in terms of ability and wanting to do the idea justice. It had a lot of possibilities in the premise of the book, so I waited until I was ready. The hardest part was once I’d done the research and realized how many terrors I’d have to submit my protagonist and her friends to—that seemed very hard. The reality is that in the book she’s sixteen years old, and by that time she’s probably suffered some form of sexual assault or one of the terrors of slavery. So having to put everybody through the horrors of that first chapter was difficult to contemplate.The book extends the childhood notion that the underground railroad is possibly a real railroad. I was talking to my sister about this and she said for a very long time, even as an adult, she thought there were real trains.It’s a fairly common mistake that people make when they’re young. If you search for “the underground railroad” on Twitter, high school kids are making fun of friends, saying, “Sarah thinks the underground railroad is a real railroad smh.” The image is very powerful and informs our idea of how things work.What was your research process for the book?I tried to do enough research to get going. In this case, there are a few histories of the underground railroad. The one that I came to first that was most useful was called Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich, and that was very comprehensive. And really, just slave narratives. There are the big ones: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass—Harriet Jacobs, who spent seven years in an attic, informed the North Carolina section. The U.S. government during the Depression hired writers to get people back to work, and the writers interviewed former slaves: eighty-year-old, ninety-year-old people who’d been on the plantation when they were kids and teens. Some of the accounts are just three paragraphs and are about farming life. Some are ten pages long and contain someone’s whole biography. There’s hundreds and hundreds of them. I was able to get a log of details about people living in different plantations in Tennessee versus Georgia versus Florida, sugar versus cotton. It was my introduction to the variety of the slave experience. As a writer, it was just a really rich source of material.How does it feel having done all this research in order to write the book and then to see people take issue with statements like Michelle Obama saying slaves built the White House?I’m fairly well educated, and the true scope of the depravity of slavery was unknown to me. I hadn’t thought about it in a while. The research really opened my eyes. In terms of the reaction to Michelle Obama, I don’t think we teach the truth of slavery. I don’t think we teach in our schools a tenth of the reality. In general, we skip to the Civil War and Lincoln and then slavery was done. We don’t talk about Reconstruction or Jim Crow. We fast-forward to Brown V. Board of Education, which ended segregated schools; we go to Martin Luther King. In schools, we skip to the good parts. Most people are coming from a place of ignorance. But also, who wants to talk about their great-grandparents’ culpability? Who wants to talk about how their great-great-grandparents were abused? It’s a natural reaction to shy away from the true horror of it. I’m not excusing it, but it is a lot for the mind to handle on top of our ignorance and not wanting to think about the past.Did you write this book to explore how you felt or understood slavery?Not so much slavery, but slavery and American history and this character. I think all books are an exploration of the world in different ways and trying to figure out how the world works. The Underground Railroad, because of its structure, allowed me to talk about different aspects and phases in Black American history—whether it was the Tuskeegee syphilis experiments, which make an appearance, [or] the commonality of the immigrant experience and the despised other, whether you’re hated for your Blackness or your Irishness or your Italianness. Certain books allow me to discover how I feel about things and then there are other books that allow me to make sense of how the world has come to be what it is.A couple of the characters express the idea that if God didn’t want the Africans to be slaves, then they wouldn’t be. I feel like that’s an idea you see currently in many different ways. Were there moments that you could see contemporary life reflecting things that you were writing in the book?There’s a policy called Stop and Frisk in New York City which allowed any cop to stop anyone and on the barest pretext search them and check for ID. It’s had different names over the years. It’s an echo of early police enforcement during slave times—there was no police force, and the people who stepped in to keep order were the slave patrollers. They could stop a Black person, go into any Black person’s home—whether it was on the plantation or a free person’s house—and demand to see their papers. Those kinds of parallels aren’t hard to force into the book. The world was pretty racist 150 years ago and it’s pretty racist now.One of the books that Caesar reads is actually a Gulliver’s Travels book. Was it intentional that the book would mirror that kind of a road trip?When I first came up with the idea that each state would be a different state of possibility, the immediate comparison is Gulliver’s Travels. I’m not a Jonathan Swift fanatic but that structure became a convenient way to talk about the book with other people. It is an episodic adventure story in a certain kind of a way: it’s The Odyssey, Pilgrim’s Progress, Gulliver’s Travels, so that structure was an early decision I made and allowed me a lot of creative play.The character of Ridgeway is reflective of an attitude held by poor whites——and rich whites. He’s a voice for the American philosophy of “might makes right,” “if you can keep it, it’s yours,” and, “if you can’t keep it, why not destroy it?” It’s an imperial philosophy that plays out around the world and in different phases of history even today.At one point, he elaborates on his theory of the system, and as you’re listening to him explain it the logic starts to fall apart a bit, but he says, “It’s an imperative I have to refuse”—that imperative being to allow the system to break down. Is that at the heart of the difficulty of addressing racism now?I think you want to preserve your power. If you talk to a lot of Trump supporters, they’re upset that people of colour and women are in power, and white men have lost their stranglehold on possibility. When you have something good going, you definitely want to protect it. That’s definitely what Ridgeway fears. That’s what people in contemporary America fear: what place they have in the future when the people they’ve subjugated for centuries are coming into their own.So what do you envision when it come to America’s future in dealing with one of its original sins?I think things improve and progress quite slowly. Certainly, I never thought we’d have a Black president. For most of my life, that seemed inconceivable. For some people, it seems inconceivable that we’ll have a female president. Growing up with Margaret Thatcher [laughs] it didn’t seem that impossible. I have two kids who don’t think it’s odd at all that we have a Black male president and a female candidate, so that is obviously an advancement. I can vote, I can publish; obviously, I’m not living under the yoke of slavery. Things improve slowly—not fast enough, because old systems die hard, but I certainly have the hope that my children and their generation are moving into a better world. Cora, when she takes that first fateful step off the plantation, believes that there’s a better world out there. If you don’t have hope, then why go on?