Hazlitt Magazine

'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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‘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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Featuring Namugenyi Kiwanuka
Embracing your accents (9:12), little voices yelling things (14:25), and the high cost of telling your story (17:47).
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?
Another Thing To Be Paid For

“You already have fucked up my whole life.”

1It is light when he leaves the hotel. Light. Primordial sunlight disclos­ing empty streets, disclosing form with shadow, the stucco facades. And silence. Here in the middle of London, silence. Not quite silence, of course. Never true silence here. The sublimated rumble of a plane. The burble of pigeons courting on a cornice. A taxi’s busy rattle along Sus­sex Gardens, past the terraced hotel fronts, from one of which he now emerges.He feels that he is leaving London unseen, slipping out while everyone else is still asleep, as he walks, with his single small holdall, to the square where he left the car. The square is hotel-fringed, shabby. A few benches and plants in the middle. Sticky pavements. The car is still there, surrounded by empty parking spaces. It is not his. It is someone else’s. He is simply delivering it. Slinging his holdall onto the passenger seat, he takes his place at the wheel.He sits there for a few seconds, enjoying a feeling of inviolable soli­tude. Solitude, freedom. They seem like nearly the same thing as he sits there.Then he starts the engine, which sounds loud in the silence of the square.He is aware now that he does not know exactly which way to go. He looked yesterday and it all seemed simple enough, the way out of London, south-east, towards Dover. Now even finding his way to the river seems problematic. He tries to picture it, the streets he will need to take. When he has formed some sort of mental picture of where he is going, and only then, he pulls out.He waits at a light on Park Lane, some posh hotel on one side, the park on the other, staring sleepily straight ahead.When he gets to the river there might be a problem. He hopes there will be signs for Dover. The possibility of getting lost makes him mildly nervous, even though he would not be in any serious danger of missing the ferry. He has plenty of time. It is his habit, when travelling, always to allow more time than he needs.He went to sleep very early last night. The previous night, Friday, he had been out late, with Macintyre, the Germanic philology specialist at UCL. And then he had had to get up early on Saturday to take the train to Nottingham and pick up the car from its previous ‘keeper’, a Pakistani doctor. (Dr N. Khan was the name on the documents.) He had done the whole thing on a hangover, which had made the day pass over him like a dream—made it seem even now like something he had dreamed, the time he spent in Dr Khan’s front room, looking through the service history, while the doctor’s cat watched him.He swings around Hyde Park Corner, the sun pouring down Picca­dilly like something out of Turner, the palaces opposite the park half-dissolving in a flood of light.He squints, tries to push it away with his hand.Macintyre had not been very helpful. He was supposed to have looked at the manuscript, the section on Dutch and German analogues in particular. They had talked about it for a while, in The Lowlander. Macintyre, with a suggestion of subtle mockery that was entirely typi­cal of him, always insisted on meeting there. The early modern shifts in German pronunciation, for instance. The way some dialects . . .He has to focus, as he flows through them, on the layout of the streets around Victoria station.The way some dialects were still impervious to those shifts, after more than five hundred years.The traffic system pulls him one way, then another, past empty of­fice towers. He looks for the lane that will throw him left eventually, onto Vauxhall Bridge Road.There.No, Macintyre had not been as helpful as he might have been. Ob­viously, he was holding back. Professional jealousies were operative. He did not want to give too much away about what he was working on now. That was why he had wanted to talk about other things. Kept steering the talk away from shop. Wanted to know, when he had had a few Duvels, about his ‘sex life’. ‘How’s your sex life, then?’ he had said.Well, he had mentioned Waleria. Said something about her. Some­thing non-committal.The lights halfway down Vauxhall Bridge Road start to turn as he approaches them and after a moment’s hesitation he stops.Macintyre was married, wasn’t he? Kids.The lights go green. Unhurriedly he moves off. A minute later – the Thames. That exhilarating momentary sense of space. The water, sun-white.Then streets again.In south London he feels even freer. These are streets he does not know, that may be why. Strange to him, these sleeping estates. These hulks, slowly mouldering. He has a vague idea that he needs to find the Old Kent Road. Old Kent Road. That insane game of Monopoly that happened in the SCR once. He thinks of that for a moment, and imagines the Old Kent Road to be liveried in a drab brown.Signs for Dover draw him deeper into the maze of south-east London. The maze marvellously unpeopled – the low high streets with their tattered shops. The sun shining on their grubby brick faces. Dirty windows hung with curtains. Only at the petrol stations are there signs of life. Someone filling up.Someone walking away.He has so much time, he thinks he might make the earlier ferry. His own ‘sails’, as they still say, just after eight. So yes, he may well make the previous one – it is not yet five thirty and already he is in the vicinity of Blackheath, already he is merging onto an empty motorway, its surface shining like water. Speed. There is a tangle of motorways here. He must keep an eye out for signs.Yes, Macintyre has several kids. No wonder he seemed so threadbare and fed up. So tetchy. Some little house somewhere in outer London, full of stuff. Full of noise. He and his wife at each other’s throats. Too worn out to fuck. Who wants it?Canterbury, says the sign.And he thinks, with a little frisson of excitement, This is the way Chaucer’s pilgrims went. Trotting horses. Stories. Muddy lanes. And when it started to rain – a hood. Wet hands.His dry hands hold the leather-trimmed wheel. Through sunglasses he eyes the wide oncoming lanes. He has the motorway to himself.Wonderful to imagine it, though. The whole appeal of medieval studies – the languages, the literature, the history, the art and architec­ture – to immerse oneself in that world. That other world. Safely other. Other in almost every way, except that it was here. Look at those fields on either side of the motorway. Those low hills. It was here. They were here, as we are here now. And this too shall pass. We don’t actually be­lieve that, though, do we? We are unable to believe that our own world will pass. So it will go on for ever? No. It will turn into something else. Slowly – too slowly to be perceived by the people living in it. Which is already happening, is always happening. We just can’t see it. Like sound changes, spoken language.‘Some Remarks on the Representation of Spoken Dialect in “The Reeve’s Tale”’.The kick-ass title of his first published work. Published in Medium Ævum LXXIV. Originally written for Hamer’s Festschrift– Hamer who had supervised his doctoral work when he first turned up at Oxford, that first year. A tall, bald man with spacious elegant rooms in Christ Church. Would literally offer you a sherry when you arrived – that old school, that English. The author of works such as Old English Sound Changes for Beginners (1967). Professor Hamer lived, it had seemed, in a fortress of abstrusity. Asleep at night, he must have dreamed, so his young foreign pupil had thought, sipping his sherry, of palatal diphthongisation, of loss of h and compensa­tory lengthening.And he had envied him those harmless dreams. Something so pro­foundly peaceful about them.Something so profoundly peaceful about them.Everything so settled, you see. It all happened a thousand years ago. And the medievalist sits in his study, in a shaft of sunlight, lost in a reverie of life on the far side of that immense lapse of time. The whole exercise is, in its way, a memento mori. A meditation on the effacing nature of time.He likes the little world of the university. Some people, he knows, hate it. They long for London.He likes it. The fairy-tale topography of the town. A make-believe world of walled gardens. The quietness of summer. The stone-floored lodge, and the deferential porter. Yes, a make-believe world, like some­thing imagined by a shy child.Somewhere to hide.Dreaming spires.Sun sparkles on wide motorway.It is just after six and he will be at Dover, he estimates, in an hour.Yes, he likes the little world of the university. He likes its claus­tral narrowness. Sometimes he wishes it were narrower still. That the world of the present was even more absent. He would have quite enjoyed, he thinks, the way of life of a medieval monastery – as a scholarly brother, largely exempt from manual labour. He would have enjoyed that.With, naturally, the one obvious proviso.Without noticing, he has pushed the car well into the nineties. It manages the speed without effort. He eases off the accelerator and the needle immediately starts to sink and for the first time this morning he feels sleepy – a mesmeric sleepiness induced by the level hum of the engine and the monotonous, empty perspective in front of him. It seems, for long moments, like something on a screen, something spew­ing from a CPU. Just pictures. Without consequences. He shakes his head, moves his hands on the wheel.Yes. The one obvious proviso.Last year, during the Hilary term, he had done the thing he had long wanted to, and had an affair with an undergraduate. It had been something he had had in view since his arrival in Oxford to finish his doctorate. It had taken years to achieve – and the affair itself, when it finally happened, was in many ways unsatisfactory. Just two weeks it had lasted. And yet the memories of it, of her youth . . .He was sad in an abstracted way, for a day or two, when she ended it with that letter in her schoolgirl’s handwriting, that letter which so pathetically overestimated his own emotional engagement in the situation. And he understood that he had also overestimated her emotional engagement in it. As he had been intent on enacting his own long-standing fantasy, so she had been enacting a fantasy of her own, in no way less selfish. Except that she was nineteen or twenty, and still entitled to selfishness – not having learned yet, perhaps, how easily and lastingly people are hurt – and he was more than ten years older and ought to have understood that by now.Only when he saw her, soon after, in the arms of someone her own age – some kid – did he experience anything like a moment’s actual pain, something Nabokovian and poisonous, seeing them there in the spring sunlight of the quad.And by then he was already mixed up with Erica, the medieval Latin scholar from Oriel. That didn’t last long either.The days he has just spent in London have exhausted him. Not only the meeting with Macintyre. He also had a meeting with his publisher. And a symposium on Old English sound changes at UCL, for which he was one of the speakers. Various social things. He had seen Emmanuele, the short, snobbish, scholarly Italian who had fin­ished his DPhil a few summers ago and was now a lawyer in London. Emmanuele had asked after Waleria, what was happening there? It was at a party of Mani’s, last September, that he had met her. ‘I don’t know,’ he had said. ‘Something. Maybe. We’re seeing each other. I don’t know.’*Solitude, freedom. There is that feeling, still, on the ferry. This in spite of the other people; they are transient strangers, they do not fix him in place. They know nothing about him. He has no obligations to them. Sea wind disperses summer’s heat on the open deck, hung with lifeboats. The floor see-saws. Is sucked down, then pushes at his feet. England dwindles. The wind booms, pulls his hair. Inside, in the sealed warmth, people eat and shop. He wanders among them, nameless and invisible. Sits at a table on his own. His solitude, for the hour it takes to travel to France, is inviolable. He stands at a window, golden with salt in the sunlight. He watches the playful waves. He feels as free as the gulls hanging on the wind. Solitude, freedom.*As soon as he has driven off the ship he puts on the A/C and Vivaldi’s Gloria – pours into the French motorway system with that ecstatic music filling his ears.Dum-deeDum-dum-dum-deeDum-dum-dumThe asphalt glitters. It is Sunday morning. Farms lie in the flat bright land on either side of the motorway.And he knows this motorway well. It follows the so-called Côte d’Opale, towards Ostend. To the left as he drives are the windy dunes.Welkom in West-Vlaanderen says the sign.And now it is like he is driving through his own past, through a landscape full of living nerves, of names that are almost painfully evocative. Koksijde, where he went once with Delphine and her mother’s dog – the small dog digging in the sand among tufts of wind-flattened grass. Nieuwpoort – where they spent that summer, he and his parents. The smell of the sea finding its way inland, up little streets – and at the ends of the streets, when you walked down them to meet the sea with your plastic spade in your hand, a milky horizon. Roeselare, where they would visit his father’s parents – the suburban house, with hop fields at the end of the neat garden. Though the memories possess a jewel-like sharpness they seem surprisingly small and far away, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope. It has been years since he was here, on this flat tract of land next to the ship-strewn sea, and that his own life has been going on long enough now for things like that windy day at Koksijde to lie more than ten, more than fifteen years in the past is somehow a shock to him. He was already an adult then, more or less, and yet he still thinks of his adulthood as something that is just getting under way.Feeling a little shaken, he stops for petrol.Holding the nozzle into the tank he stares at the motorway, the thin Sunday traffic.That desire for everything to just stay the same. That day at Koksijde, stretched out over a whole lifetime. Why is the idea of that so appeal­ing? Or today, this very moment, the hum of the flowing petrol, its heady sickening smell. The motorway, the thin Sunday traffic. Here and now. The pallid heaven of these hours. Solitude and freedom. Stretched out over a whole lifetime. That desire for everything to just stay the same.The tank is full.Walking back from the till – where it felt strange, somehow, to speak his own language with the woman there – he finds himself enjoying the sight of the luxury SUV in which he is travelling. He feels pleased and proud to take his place in it, to start the engine with the touch of a button. Stan´ko is trusting him to hand it over, to sign the papers that will transfer the ownership. And though he does not know him very well – has only met him once, in fact – Stan´ko has every reason to think that he will hand it over.Stan´ko is, after all, a policeman. The senior policeman of Skawina, a town in southern Poland, nowadays a suburb of Kraków – tractors farting in fields of potatoes next to a multiplex showing the latest films.You don’t fuck with Stan´ko. Not in Skawina or the neighbouring townships, in Libertów or Wołowice.It is easy to picture him in this car, moving through the banal land­scape of his beat, his wallet abulge.How that brooding ogre and his ugly little wife produced something as lovely as Waleria . . .Well, maybe she wouldn’t age well. It was worth thinking about, though he feels no inclination to long-term thoughts. He still doesn’t see things that way. It still feels new, this situation, even somehow pro­visional. There was a sense, for some time, that they had no obligation to each other, that they were free to see other people. He didn’t. (Unless you include Erica the Latinist, who was still, last September, just about extant.) Whether Waleria did or not he doesn’t know.He has turned inland, passed Bruges.Later, Ghent, where he did his undergraduate degree. English and German. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Parzifal.After Christmas last year he spent a few days in her parents’ dayglo orange house. A scalloped balcony over the white front door. Snow dis­figuring all the garden ornaments. Waleria met him at Kraków airport, and drove him to the house, which was near a petrol station on the edge of Skawina.Every day while he was there, they went skiing at Zakopane. (‘Do you ski?’ she had asked him, making small talk, when they first met, at Mani’s party. ‘Do I ski? I’m Belgian,’ he had deadpanned. It made her smile.) She was an excellent skier. Warily, he had followed her down the stiffest slopes Zakopane had to offer.As he approaches Brussels, clouds close over him in the sky. Wind moves the trees at the side of the motorway. There will be rain. Shafts of hard light pick out the distant prominences of the city as he passes. He knows the way without having to think about it – the leaky under­passes, the glimpse of Uccle (those tree-lined avenues, where he was once a bookish schoolboy who lived in a big flat), and then out on the E40 towards Liège, as the rain starts to fall. He feels for the lever that sets the wipers swinging.Since then, since Christmas, they have seen each other every few weeks. A sense evolved that they were in some way together, a sense of mutual obligation. He wouldn’t put it more strongly than that. Sometimes she visits him in Oxford, or they spend a weekend in London, or somewhere else. They meet, for the most part, in the neutral spaces of hotels. There was Florence in February. There was, at Easter, a week in the Dodecanese, island-hopping, the windy deck of the hydrofoil in its world of vivid blues.Slowly, they are finding each other out. ‘You,’ she said, ‘are a typical only child.’‘Which means?’‘Selfish,’ she told him. ‘Spoilt. It never occurs to you,’ she said, ‘that you might not be the centre of the universe. Which is what gives you this personal magnetism you have . . .’‘Now you’re flattering me . . .’‘It’s nerdy,’ she said. ‘Still, it’s there.’She was shuffling her cards, her tarot pack. That was a surprise. It seemed she had this New Agey side to her – it wasn’t, he told himself, fundamental to who she was.‘Okay. You’re going to take three cards,’ she said. ‘Past, present, future.’They were lying on his bed. Oxford. It was Saturday morning. Last month.‘So.’ She offered him the pack, fanning it out. ‘Take one.’Humouring her, he prised out a card.‘Ace of Wands,’ she said. ‘Past. Take another.’‘The Tower.’ She made a face of mock alarm. ‘Fuck. Present. Last one,’ she instructed him. And said, when he had taken it and turned it over, ‘The Emperor. Future.’‘That sounds good,’ he suggested, looking pleased with himself.She was studying the three cards, now lined up crookedly on the sheet. ‘Okay,’ she said, provisionally. ‘I think I understand.’‘Tell me.’‘It’s time to grow up. That’s the headline.’He laughed. ‘What does that mean?’‘Well, look at this.’ She was pointing to the Ace of Wands. She said, ‘It’s obviously, you know . . . it’s a phallic symbol.’It did seem to be. The picture was of a hand holding a long wand, which thickened towards the top into a fleshy knob, a divided hemisphere.‘Yes,’ he said. ‘So it seems.’‘Well, that’s the past.’‘What – so I might as well kill myself now?’‘Don’t be silly.’ It was difficult to say how seriously she took this. She looked quite solemn. ‘The present,’ she said. ‘The Tower. Some kind of unexpected crisis. Everything turned upside down.’‘I’m not aware of anything like that.’‘That’s the point. You won’t be, until it hits you.’‘Unless it’s you.’She ignored that. ‘Now let’s look at the future. The Emperor – worldly power . . .’And he made some silly remark about how that sounded like him and started to fondle her nipple, to tease it into life. They were naked.She said, ‘I think these cards are suggesting that you should maybe stop thinking about your . . . thing all the time.’He laughed. ‘My thing?’‘This.’She put her finger on it.‘What it means,’ she said, looking him in the eye, ‘is that your skirt-chasing days are over.’‘But I don’t chase skirt. I’m not that type.’‘Oh, yes, you are.’‘I promise you,’ he told her, ‘I’m not.’*It is ideal, he thinks, the set-up they have. He is unable to imagine any­thing more perfect. He is unable to imagine living more happily in the present.The huge sheds of the Stella Artois plant at Leuven, its steaming stacks, are half-obscured by the drenching weather.How well he knows this stretch of motorway, its different surfaces, the sound of the tyres shifting suddenly, dropping in pitch, as you pass from Flanders to Wallonia. How often, in the years he was studying in Ghent, did he drive it, and how insignificant a distance it seems now, as part of his longer journey – he is already halfway to Liège and it feels as though he has only just left Brussels.And now here it is, Liège – the place where the road plunges down into the valley.Pines start to appear in the woods as he mounts the heights on the other side, overtaking trucks in the slow lane.Suddenly fresh, everything.He needs to finish the piece for the Journal of English and Germanic Philology; he was hoping to have it done by now. The question of whether, in the pre-West Saxon period, æ sometimes reverted to a – or whether in fact the initial change from a to æ, postulated for the West Germanic period, that is to say prior to the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, never in fact took place at all. The principle evidence for the former hypothesis was always the form ‘sle-an’ – if that form could be shown to be anomalous, then the whole venerable thesis would start to look very questionable. Hence the importance of his proposed paper, already accepted in principle by the journal, ‘Anomalous Factors in the Form “Sle-an” – Some Suggestions’.He had used some of the material, teasingly, in his talk to the UCL symposium last week. Quite a stir. (The look on Macintyre’s face!) Yes, this might be it – the thing he has been looking for, the thing that makes him, in the world of Germanic philology, a household name. Something everyone in the field simply has to have read. Worldly power. So he must take time over it – seclude himself with it for the rest of the summer. Stop thinking about his thing all the time.He is eating a chorizo sandwich, drinking Spa water.Sitting in a huge Shell services with a Formula 1 theme. Francor­champs is nearby, somewhere in these forests.There are not many people about. Even though it is high summer – the second week of July – the weather is foul, and there is little to do up here in the woods when the rain is just steadily falling, seeming to hang whitely against the dark slopes of pines.With cold hands, he puts more petrol in the car. He has an idea that it is cheaper here than in Germany. He isn’t sure. Stan´ko is paying for the petrol anyway. He tucks the receipt into his wallet with the others as he walks out again into the rain.This is where he leaves the road he knows – the motorway running east towards Cologne. He looks, sitting in the car while the rain falls, at the printed Google map. An indistinct line drops diagonally down from where he is into Germany, just missing Luxembourg. The E42. It ought to be easy. He folds the map and sits there, in the rain-pelted car, finishing his coffee. Luxembourg. Never been there. Like Surrey was a country. Silly. Anomalous. Like ‘sle-an’. A household name. He just needs to devote himself to his work. Stop thinking about his thing. Time to grow up. That’s the headline. He had liked the way she said that.The windscreen is a mass of trickles. Summer. Still, there is some­thing romantic about the rain. There are not many people about. It was her idea to meet at Frankfurt airport. Not the Frankfurt airport – Frankfurt-Hahn, a no-frills-type place deep in the countryside, and nowhere near Frankfurt; Frankfurt doesn’t even appear on his Google map, even though the little pin indicating the airport is almost in the middle of it. They are used to airports like that, these lovers. Sleepy places next to a village with twenty flights a day at most. They have been in and out of them a dozen times so far this year. In and out. In and out. It was her idea to meet there, and finish the journey to Skawina together, taking their time, spending a night or two on the road.*2The airport is harder to find than he thought it would be. There is more driving, when he leaves the straightforwardness of the E42, on narrow twisting lanes, more following tractors. A hilly landscape. The day is grey and humid. There is insufficient signage. He passes through a village, starting to worry that he might be late after all, and then quite suddenly it is there. Soon he is moving among parked vehicles, looking for a space, in a hurry now.He finds a space.And then it happens.There is a loud ugly metallic noise that for a moment he does not understand.Then he does and his heart stops.When it starts again he is sweating heavily.She looks up from her magazine, smiles.‘Sorry I’m late,’ he says.‘You’re not late. The plane was early.’‘Everything was okay?’She is putting her magazine in her bag. ‘Yes. Fine. You must be tired,’ she says, looking up at him. He appears pale and shaken. ‘You’ve had a long drive.’‘I’m okay, actually,’ he says. ‘Probably it will hit me later.’‘Do you want something to eat?’‘Uh.’ He thinks about it. He was hungry, half an hour ago. He has had nothing to eat all day except a pain au chocolat on the ferry and that chorizo sandwich, up in the rainy Ardennes. Now, however, he isn’t hungry. In fact, he feels slightly sick on account of what has happened to Stan´ko’s luxury SUV. ‘Maybe I should,’ he says. ‘Have you eaten?’‘I had something.’‘Maybe I should,’ he says again.‘Okay. Are you okay?’ she asks, suddenly sounding worried.‘Yes. Yes,’ he says. ‘Fine.’They speak English to each other. His English is more or less native-speaker standard. Hers is only slightly less perfect.He queues at some sort of food place, one of only a few in the air­port. The airport is shabby and unexciting. Modest improvement works are taking place behind plastic sheets and warning signs. He or­ders, in flawless German, a ham sandwich, a double latte.‘Look,’ he says, sitting down next to her. ‘There’s something I need to tell you.’To his surprise, her face instantly tightens. She looks frightened. ‘Yes?’ she says.‘I had an accident,’ he says, taking the plastic lid off his latte. ‘With the car. In the car park. Here. There’s some damage. To the paintwork.’She doesn’t say anything.‘I hope your father won’t be too pissed off.’‘I don’t know,’ she says.‘Do you want any of this?’ he asks, offering her the sandwich. ‘I’m not really hungry.’ When she shakes her head, he says, ‘How was the flight? Okay?’‘Yes, it was fine.’‘From Katowice?’ he asks.‘Yes.’‘We’re staying tonight in a place called Trennfeld,’ he says, soldiering on with the sandwich. ‘It’s a couple of hours’ drive from here. Accord­ing to Google maps anyway.’‘Okay.’‘Gasthaus Sonne,’ he says.Though she smiles at him, something seems to be wrong.‘Okay?’ he says.She smiles at him again, and he wonders if it’s just him – is he just imagining it, or does she seem nervous about something?‘Let’s go?’ she says.He takes her little suitcase and they leave and walk to the car park, where she inspects, without passion, the huge scuff on the side of her father’s new car.He sighs theatrically.‘See?’‘M-hm.’‘I hope your father won’t be too pissed off,’ he says again.It starts to rain as he walks to the machine by the chain-link fence and pushes euros into it to pay for his stay.When he comes back, she is sitting in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead.There is some trouble about getting back to the E42 towards Frank­furt. They spend some time lost in dung-strewn lanes, the dull farm country.When they are finally on the motorway, they travel at first in silence, as though hypnotised by the movement of the wipers, which are strug­gling to keep up with a downpour.He is still thinking about the damage.About how easily it might not have happened. If he had only arrived a few minutes earlier or later, for instance, he would surely have found a different place to park. There was one slightly tricky space near the entrance that he had almost taken – then he kept on looking, though the space he ended up in, after a few minutes of irritable prowling, was even tighter.He had needed a piss. That might also have played its part – the way it made him still more impatient and unfocused on what he was doing. And he was tired and hungry and in a hurry and had been stuck behind a tractor for ten minutes while he tried to find the airport. And all of these factors, all of these individually unlikely or indecisive factors had united in the fateful moment, had placed him exactly then and there, and the damage was done.And what will happen about it?He will have to pay to have the fucking . . .‘There’s something I need to tell you, Karel,’ she says.He doesn’t quite understand the emphasis, has forgotten that he used the same phrase himself, half an hour earlier, in the airport.‘What?’A long silence.He is still thinking about how much the paint job will be, and whether Stan´ko knows someone who can do it for less than the usual price, when he notices that the silence is still going on.‘There’s something I need to tell you,’ she had said.And the number of things she might have to tell him shrinks, as the silence extends, until there are only one or two left.One part of his mind takes that in; the other part is still energetically fretting over the scraped wing.She is either about to end their little affair, their succession of tousled hotel-rooms, or‘You’re pregnant,’ he says, throwing the indicator lever, moving out to overtake in a tunnel of spray.He hopes that she will immediately negative this.Instead the silence just prolongs further.Outside, a wet, grey world unfurls around them, wind-whacked trees huddling at its edges, pouring into peripheral vision.Part of him is still doggedly preoccupied with the prang. That is starting to drift away, though, as if into infinite space.‘Are you?’ he asks.Those moments when everything changes. How many in a life? Not more than a few.Here, now, the moment. On this rainswept German motorway. Here and now.‘That’s shit,’ he says, still searching the road ahead with agitated eyes.Finally she had spoken. ‘I think so,’ she said. And then, ‘Yes.’‘That’s shit,’ he says again.The prang is far off now, though he is still just about aware of it, like some object far out in the darkness.His whole life seems to be out there, divested.What is left? What is he to wrap himself in, now that everything has floated off into space?It hangs out there, in the darkness, like debris.She is, he notices, shaking with sobs.It takes him by surprise.And then she starts, still sobbing, to hit her own forehead with a small white-knuckled fist.‘Please,’ he says. ‘Stop that.’‘Stop the car,’ she says through tears.And then screams at him, ‘STOP THE CAR!’‘Why?’ His voice is shrill and frightened. ‘Why? I can’t . . . What the fuck are you doing?’She had started to open the passenger door. Wind noise roared at her. Cold air and water were sucked momentarily into the civilised leather interior.‘Are you fucking crazy?’Her tears redouble and she says, piteously now, ‘Stop the car, stop the car . . .’He stares more frazzledly at the oncoming world. Suddenly it seems unrecognisable. ‘Why?’ he says. ‘Why?’She has started to hit her forehead again, her fist knocking on the taut pale skin with a sound that inordinately upsets him.And then an Aral station’s lit pylon looms out of the rain – the blue word ARAL high above everything – and, indicating, he slows into the lake of the exit lane.As soon as the car stops moving, or even a moment before, she is out of it.He sees her, through the still-working wipers, walk away, hugging herself, and wonders numbly what to do.He had just stopped on the apron of tarmac short of the petrol station. Now he lifts his foot from the brake and the car moves on at walking pace, under the huge canopy that protects the pumps from the rain.He has lost sight of her.One of the parking spaces in front of the shop is empty and he slides straight into it. With his thumb he shoves the button that kills the en­gine and then just sits there for a few minutes. That is, for a fairly long time. The life of the service station swirls around him, as if in time lapse. He is staring at the stitching of the steering wheel, the elegant leather. There is a temptation just to drive away – drive back to his own life, which feels as if it is somewhere else.There is no question of actually doing that, however.Instead he discovers he has tears in his eyes.Tears just sort of sitting there.Tears of shock.Inside the shop, he peers about, looking for her. He hangs around outside the ladies for a minute or two, as if she might emerge. He tries her phone.He starts to worry that she might have done something silly. That she might have taken a lift from a stranger or something.He is in the car again, moving slowly through the acres of parked trucks along the side of the motorway, when he finds her. She is still walking. Walking with purpose. She must have been walking, all this time.‘What are you doing?’ he shouts through the open window, keeping pace with her.She ignores him.He overtakes her and pulls into a space among the trucks some way ahead. He sits there for a few seconds, fighting a furious urge to just drive away. Instead, getting out of the car and hunching his shoulders against the rain, he takes his umbrella from the back seat. It bangs into place above him, and immediately fills with sound.As soon as she notices it – it is very large and has ‘University of Oxford’ written on it – she turns and starts to walk the other way.Only for show – he is able, with no more than a slight quickening of his pace, to draw level with her, and take hold of her arm.A truck lumbers past and he drags her out of the way of its spray, into the puddled alley formed by two other, stationary trucks.‘What are you doing?’ he says. ‘Where are you going?’Her face is twisted into an unfamiliar tear-drenched ugliness.This whole situation, this awful scene among the trucks, has taken him totally by surprise.He waits for her to say something.Finally she says, ‘I don’t know. Anywhere. Away from you.’‘Why?’ he asks. ‘Why?’It has been his assumption, from the first moment, that there will be an abortion, that that is what she wants as well.Now he starts to see, as if it is something still far away, that that may not be so. It is initially just something that his mind, working through every possible permutation in its machine-like effort to understand, throws up as a potential explanation for what she is doing. She does not want to have an abortion. She is not willing to have an abortion.In a sense this is the true moment of shock.He fights off a splurge of panic.She has not said anything, is still just sobbing in the noisy tent of the umbrella.He asks, trying to sound loving or sympathetic or something, ‘What do you want to do?’‘You can’t make me have an abortion,’ she says.He wonders, Is she a Catholic? A proper Catholic? She is Polish, after all. They have never talked about it.‘I don’t want to make you do anything,’ he says.‘Yes, you do. You want me to have an abortion.’This he does not deny. It is not, after all, the same thing.He says again, ‘What do you want?’And then when she says nothing, ‘It’s true. I don’t think you should keep . . . Fuck, stop!’She has tried to pull away from him, to leave the shelter of the um­brella. He is holding her arm now, tightly, and saying to her, ‘Think about it! Think about what it would mean. It might fuck up your whole life . . .’She shouts into his face, ‘You already have fucked up my whole life.’‘What?’‘You have fucked up my whole life,’ she says.‘How?’ He asks again, ‘How?’‘By saying that.’‘What?’‘What you said.’‘What did I say?’‘ “That’s shit,” ’ she says.His face is a mad mask of incomprehension.‘You said that!’Yes, he did say that.She is sobbing again, violently, next to the towering snout of a truck. Droplets hang on the truck’s snout. He sees them, hanging there, white. They shake, and some of them fall, as a moment of fierce wind hits everything. Some of them fall. Some of them don’t. They hold on, shaking. He says, loosening his hold on her shaking arm, just wanting to end this awful episode among the trucks, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry I said that.’*It seems so smooth, the way it moves on the endless tarmac. Whispering wheels. It is quiet. No one seems to have anything to say. Not even the weather now. For some kilometres a light mist comes off the motorway, and then it is just blandly dry.Pearl-grey afternoon.At Mainz, they cross the Rhine.He knows Mainz as the city where Gutenberg invented printing, and thus ended the Middle Ages; that was what they decided, any­way, at a seminar he attended at Bologna University some years ago, The Middle Ages: Approaching the Question of a Terminal Date. He was asked, afterwards, to write an introduction to their transcripted proceedings.He finds himself thinking about that, about the terminal date of the Middle Ages, as they pass across the Weisenauer Rheinbrücke, the water on either side a sluggish khaki.Modernity was what happened next.Modernity, which has never much interested him. Modernity, what’s happening now.It started here in Mainz.And the Roman Empire ended here – from here the legions tried to outstare the tribes on the other side of the demarcating waterway, where now there is the Opel factory at Rüsselsheim, and a little further on Frankfurt airport, the actual airport, an enormity flanking the motorway for five whole minutes.And the weather darkens again as they leave the airport behind.What has been said in the last hour?Nothing.Nothing has been said.Pine forests on hillsides start to envelop them on the east side of the Main. And fog.Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vitaMi ritrovai per una selva oscuraChé la diritta via era smarritaWell, here it is. Dark pine forests, hemming the motorway. Shapes of fog throw themselves at the windscreen.Finally someone speaks. He says, ‘When did you find out?’‘A few days ago,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to tell you on the phone.’‘No.’A few more minutes, and then he says, ‘And is it mine? Are you sure it’s mine? I have to ask.’She says nothing.‘Well, I just don’t know, do I?’ he says.*Sex happens, surprisingly, at the Gasthaus Sonne in Trennfeld. It’s what they always do – hurry to the hired space to undress. It’s what they always do, and they do it now out of habit, not knowing what else to do when they are alone in the hotel room. This time, however, he makes no effort to please her. He wants her to dislike him. If she decides she dislikes him, he thinks, she may decide that she does not want this pregnancy. He is hurried, forceful, almost violent. And when she is in tears afterwards, he feels awful and sits on the toilet with his head in his hands.It took them an hour to find Trennfeld in the fog – a village of tall half-timbered houses on a steep bluff above the Main. Every second house with a sign saying Zimmer Frei. A few more formal inns – with parking space in front and paths down to the river at the back – in one of which they have a room.He had told her, as they picked their way through the fog, that she should not assume, should she decide to keep this child, that it would mean they would stay together. It would not necessarily mean that. Not at all. It was only fair, he said, that he should tell her that.She said nothing.She had said little or nothing for the last two hours.Then she said, ‘You don’t understand.’Sliding across a mysterious foggy junction, he said, ‘What don’t I understand?’‘That I love you,’ she said drily.Well, she would say that, he thought, wouldn’t she. Still, his hands took a firmer hold on the wheel.A sign at the roadside told them, then, that they had arrived at Trennfeld.And there it was, the picturesque street of half-timbered houses. The Gasthaus Sonne. The low-beamed reception area. The narrow stairs with the Internet router flickering on the wall, up which the smiling Frau led them to their room.She had a shower and found him lying on the bed, on the grape-coloured counterpane, waiting for her.Later, when he emerges from the bathroom’s rose-tiled box, she is still crying, naked except for the coverlet that she has pulled partially over herself. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, sitting down on the edge of the bed. It does not sound very sincere so he says it again. ‘I’m sorry.’‘It’s just,’ he says, ‘this is such a shock. To me.’‘You don’t think it’s a shock to me?’ There is a pillow over her head. Her voice is muffled, tear-clogged, defiant.He looks from her pale shoulders to the insipid watercolour on the orange wall.‘Of course it is,’ he says. ‘That’s why we need to think about this. We need to think about it seriously. I mean . . .’ He wonders how to put this. ‘You need to think about your life.’He knows she is ambitious. She is a TV journalist – pops up on the local Kraków news interviewing farmers about the drought, or the mayor of some nearby town about his new leisure centre and how he managed to snare matching funds from the European Union. She is only twenty-five, and she is sort of famous, in the Kraków area. (She probably makes more money than he does, now he thinks about it.) People say hello to her in the street sometimes, point to her on the shopping-centre escalator. He was there when that happened. ‘What was that about?’ he said. ‘You’re famous?’‘No,’ she laughed. ‘Not really.’She is though, and she wants more. He knows that.‘Do you see what I’m saying?’ he asks.*They spend a few hours in the dim, curtained room as the afternoon wears on. Nothing outside the room, on the other side of the crimson curtains, which glow dully with the daylight pressing on them from without, seems to have any significance. The room itself seems preg­nant, swollen with futures in the blood-dim light.And the light persists. It is high summer. The evenings last for ever.Finally, as if outstared by the sun, they dress and leave.Outside it is warm and humid. They start to walk up the picturesque half-timbered street. There are some other people around, people strolling in the evening, and on the terraces of the two or three inns, people.She has said nothing. He feels, however, he feels more and more, that when she thinks about the situation, she will see that it would not be sensible to keep it. It would just not be sensible. And she is sensible. He knows that about her. She is not sentimental. She takes her own life seriously. Has plans for herself, is successfully putting them in train. It is one of the things he likes about her.He notices that there are cigarette vending machines, several of them, in the street, out in the open. They look strange among the fairy-tale houses. A village of neurotic smokers. He would like to have a cigarette himself. Sometimes, in extremis, he still smokes.Nothing seems very solid, and in fact there is a mist, nearly imper­ceptible, hanging in the street as the warm evening sucks the moisture out of the wet earth.They sit down at a table on one of the terraces.He wonders what to talk about. Should he just talk about anything? About this pretty place? About the high steep roofs of the houses? About the carved gables? About the long day he has had? About what they might do tomorrow?None of these subjects seems to have any significance. And on the one subject that does seem to, he feels he has said everything there is to say. He does not want to say it all again. He does not want her to feel that he is pressuring her.It is very important, he thinks, that the decision should be hers, that she should feel it was hers.They sit in silence for a while, surrounded by soft German voices. Older people, mostly, in this place. Older people on their summer holidays.He says, desperate to know, ‘What are you thinking?’‘Why did you choose this place?’‘Why?’ He is not prepared for the simple, ordinary question. ‘It wasn’t too far from the airport,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to drive too much further today. It was in the direction we were going. The hotel looked okay. That’s all. It’s okay, isn’t it?’‘It’s fine,’ she says.He turns his head to take in part of the street and says, ‘It’s not very interesting, I know.’‘That’s why I like it.’ They share that too – an interest in uninterest­ing places.‘I wouldn’t like to stay here for a week or something,’ he says.‘No,’ she agrees.Though after all, why not? He does find a lot to like in this place. It is tidy. Quietly prosperous. Secluded in its modestly hilly landscape. Evidently, not much ever happens. There aren’t even any shops – or perhaps there is one somewhere, one that is open mornings only, on weekdays (except Wednesday). Hence, presumably, the cigarette machines. Maybe, with a teaching post at the Universität Würzburg, twenty minutes up the motorway, he would be able to find a way of living here . . .As a train of thought it is absurd.And escapist, in its own weird way.A weird escapist fantasy, is what it is.A fantasy of hiding himself in a place where nothing ever happens.She has another taste of her peach juice. She is drinking peach juice, though that does not necessarily mean anything – she is not a habitual drinker.‘And now,’ she says, ‘we’ll never forget it.’The noises around them seem to slide away to the edges of a tight, soundless space. He hears his own voice saying, ‘Why will we never forget it?’ as if it wasn’t obvious what she meant. And when she says nothing, he wonders, fighting down a wave of panic, Is this her way of telling me?He does not want her to feel that he is pressuring her.Panicking, he says, ‘Please don’t make a decision now that you’ll wish later you hadn’t made.’‘I won’t,’ she says.They sit there, swifts shrieking in the hot white sky.‘Just,’ he says. ‘Please. You know what I think. I won’t say it all again.’And then a minute later, he is saying it all again, everything he said in the hotel.About how they don’t know each other that well.About the impact it will have on her life. On their life together.There is a furtive desperation in his eyes.‘Stop this, please,’ she says, turning away in her sunglasses. ‘Stop it.’‘I’m sorry . . .’She starts to well up again; a solitary tear plummets down her face.‘I’m sorry,’ he says again, embarrassed. People are starting to look at them.He has, he thinks, really fucked this up now. His hand moves to take hers, then stops.He feels as if his surface has been stripped, like a layer of paint, all the underlying terrors exposed.‘I just need to know,’ he says.‘What do you need to know?’It seems obvious. ‘What’s going to happen?’‘What you want to happen,’ she says.‘It’s not what I want . . .’‘Yes, it is.’‘I don’t want you to do it just because I want it . . .’‘I’m not doing it just because you want it.’It is like waking up from a nightmare, to find your life still there, as you left it. The sounds of the world, too, are there again. It is as if his ears have popped. ‘Okay,’ he says, now taking her hand. ‘Okay.’ It would not do to seem too happy. And in fact, to his surprise, there is a trace of sadness now, somewhere inside him – a sort of vapour trail of sadness on the otherwise blue sky of his mind.She sobs for a minute or two, quietly, while he holds her hand and tries to ignore the looks of the pensioners who are watching them now without pretence, as if, in this place where nothing ever happens, they were a piece of street theatre.Which they aren’t.*3The motorway is taking them north-east, towards Dresden. In the vicinity of each town the traffic thickens. The sun looks down at it all, at the hurrying traffic glittering on the motorways of Germany. It is Monday.They woke late, to find the sun beating at the curtains, beating to be let in. Heat throbbed from the sun-beaten curtains. They had kicked off the bedding. She had not slept well. She was, in some sense, it seemed to him, in mourning. He had no intention of talking about it, not today.Last night, after the scene on the terrace, they had walked for an hour, walked to the end of the village and then along the river – little paths led down to it, to wooden jetties where boats were tied in the green water. Steep banks on the other side, where there were more pretty houses. Clouds of gnats floated over the water. It was evening, then, finally. Dusk.They walked back to the Gasthaus Sonne. They hadn’t eaten any­thing.In the harshly lit room, she said, ‘You always get what you want. I know that.’‘That isn’t true,’ he murmured. Though even then he thought, Maybe it is. Maybe I do.She was undressing. ‘I should get used to that,’ she said. ‘I know people like you.’‘Meaning?’‘People that just drift through life, always getting what they want.’ She was speaking quietly, not looking at him.‘You don’t know me,’ he told her.‘I know you well enough,’ she said.‘Well enough for what?’She went into the bathroom with her washbag.He lay down on the soft mattress. He was still trying to think of a single significant instance, in his whole life, when he did not get what he wanted. The fact was, his life was exactly how he wanted it to be.It had been his plan to visit Bamberg the next morning, and that is what they did. They stuck to his plan, and spent the morning sightsee­ing, as if nothing had happened. In the Romanesque simplicity of the cathedral, he pored over the tombs of Holy Roman Emperors.Heinrich II, † 1024The middle ages. Yesterday’s mad scenes next to the motorway, among the trucks, seemed very far away in the limpid atmosphere of the nave. Their feet whispered on the stone floor. They were walking together, looking at statues. He felt safe there, doing that. He did not want to leave, to step out of the hush into the sun, the blinding white square.She still wasn’t saying much. She had hardly spoken to him all morning.Maybe this was the end, he thought, as they walked in the streets of Bamberg, every blue shadow vibrating with detail.Maybe she had decided – as he had intended, in the madness of yesterday – that she didn’t like him.He had disappointed her, there was no doubt about that.Lunch, though, was almost normal.Sunlight fell through leaves into the quiet garden where waiters moved among the tables. This was what he had imagined. This was what he had had in mind. Not the scenes next to the motorway. This windless walled garden, the still shadows of these leaves. This was what he wanted.That she was pregnant, and what would happen about that, was the one thing he did not want to talk about. The decision had been made. There was nothing else to say. They would, at some point, have to discuss practicalities. Doctors. Money. Until then, talking about it might simply open it up again – might somehow unmake the decision – so he stayed away from the subject, or anything like it.After lunch they drove out of the town to the church of the Vierzehnheiligen. They were standing outside the church, and he was reading from a leaflet they had picked up at one of the tourist stands. ‘ “On 24 September 1445,” ’ he read, ‘ “Hermann Leicht, the young shepherd of a nearby Franciscan monastery, saw . . .” ’He stopped.He would not have started if he had known how the story went.He went on, quickly, ‘ “A crying child in a field that belonged to the nearby Cistercian monastery of Langheim. As he bent down to pick up the child . . .” ’He had already started on the next sentence when he saw that it was even worse.‘ “As he bent down to pick up the child, it abruptly disappeared.” ’He wondered whether to stop reading the thing out.Deciding that that would only make matters worse, he went on. When he had finished, he shoved the leaflet into his pocket. ‘Should we go in?’ he said.And then inside, in the mad marble dream of the interior, some­thing similar happened.They were standing at the altar, inspecting the statuary there – each statue was numbered and there was a key to indentify them. That was what he was doing. Pointing to each of the fourteen saints, and telling her who they were, and what they did. For instance, he pointed to one and said, ‘St Agathius, invoked against headache.’ Or, ‘St Catherine of Alexandria, invoked against sudden death.’ Or, ‘St Margaret of Antioch, invoked in . . .’It was too late – he had to say it.‘Childbirth.’He wished then more than ever that they had not driven out there, in the heat of the day. He didn’t like baroque, or whatever this was. And he had a feeling that something was coming unstuck.The next saint, he told her, was St Vitus, invoked against epilepsy.‘St Vitus’s dance. And so on,’ he said. Her eyes, he was sure, were still on St Margaret of Antioch. ‘Here, I won’t read them all.’ He handed her the paper and, after standing there for a few seconds, started off at a leisurely pace across the brown marble floor, past pinkish columns, their markings swirling like the clouds of Jupiter.She was still at the altar.The place was as full as a station at rush hour.Full of murmurous voices like the wind in a forest.He found himself standing in front of the font – another extraordinary accretion of kitsch – staring at its pinks, its golds, its powder blues.A stone bishop holding in his hands his own gold-hatted head.As weird, he thought, as anything in any Inca or Hindu house of worship.A stone bishop holding in his hands his own gold-hatted head.A martyr. Presumably. And he wondered, with the habit of wanting to know, who this man was. This man, who had invited oblivion on himself, or taken it peaceably – the stone face on the severed head was nothing if not peaceful – when it took him.Oblivion.He looked up, looked for her.She was not at the altar now. She was near the entrance, where the devotional candles were. And she had put a euro in the box and was taking a candle and lighting it from one of the ones already there.He wondered, again, whether she was in any sense devout. Her per­sonal mores – as far as he had been able to make them out – suggested not. Or at least had not in any way led him to think that she might be. The first time he had set eyes on her, more or less, she had been snort­ing cocaine, at Mani’s party.Everyone else in that space was moving, it seemed, and she was standing still. She was standing still and watching the little flame that she had lit.Which meant what?He wanted to ask her. He did not dare. He was frightened about what she might say.‘I preferred the cathedral in Bamberg,’ he said, as they walked down the hill, hoping that she would agree – as if thatwould mean anything. As if it would dispel the worries that had started, since they arrived at this place, to interfere with his tranquillity.She said she would have expected him to prefer the cathedral. ‘You’re not interested in anything post about fifteen hundred,’ she said, ‘are you?’‘Fifteen hundred,’ he said, pleased that she was at least being flip­pant, ‘at the very latest.’‘Why is that, do you think?’‘I don’t know.’‘You must have some idea. You must have thought about it.’‘It’s just an aesthetic preference.’‘Is it?’ She was sceptical.‘I think so. I just feel no love,’ he said, ‘for a place like that.’ He meant the Vierzehnheiligen, and he seemed determined to do it down.When she started to praise the tumbling fecundity of its decoration, he took it almost personally.‘I just don’t like it,’ he said. ‘Okay?’She laughed. ‘Okay.’‘I’m sorry. Whatever. You liked it. I didn’t. Fine.’They drove back to the motorway – a few kilometres through humid fields of yellow rapeseed.‘Why did you light that candle?’ he asked, trying to sound no more than vaguely interested.‘I don’t know.’‘I didn’t know you were religious,’ he said.‘I’m not.’‘So?’‘I just felt like it. Is it a problem?’‘Of course not. I was wondering, that’s all.’‘I just felt like it,’ she said again.He asked, ‘You don’t believe in God?’‘I don’t know. No. Do you?’He laughed as if it should be obvious. ‘No. Not even slightly.’And then they were on the motorway again, north-east, towards Dresden.He said, after a while, ‘I’ll pay for it, of course. The . . .’ He found himself unable to say the word.He needed to know, however, that the decision still stood.It seemed it did.She said, just looking levelly out at the motorway, ‘Okay.’ And then, ‘Thank you.’He wondered, having started to talk about it, whether to talk about it some more. To ask, for instance, where she wanted to have it done. To nail it down with details. Specific places. Times.The silence, while he wondered this, ended up lasting for over an hour.And now they are stuck in traffic outside Dresden. It is five in the afternoon. Light screams off windscreens. The air conditioning pours frigid air over them.Satisfied again that he has no major problem, small ones start to trouble him. It was a fault in his plan for today, he thinks, that they should be passing Dresden at this time. He ought to have known that this would happen. It was foreseeable. (He moves forward another few metres, sick of the sight of the van in front of him.) It was an unforced error.And the damage to Stan´ko’s paintwork – that is still there, to be talked about, to be apologised for.To be paid for.Another thing to be paid for.*4He is thinking about the piece he needs to write for the Journal of English and Germanic Philology. ‘Anomalous Factors in the Form “Sle-an” – Some Suggestions’. He is in the shower, offering his face to the warm streams of water, thinking about it. Thinking about the work that needs to be done. The hours that will need to be spent in libraries – Oxford, London, Paris, Heidelberg. The shower is in a sort of hollow in a stone wall – the whole bathroom is like that. The win­dows, two of them, are narrow slits. The functional elements, though, are impeccably modern. The tiles on the floor are warm to the soles of his feet when he steps out of the shower and takes a heavy towel. Taste­fully done, everything. Once it was a monastery, now it is an upmarket hotel. While he towels himself he leans towards one of the windows, which is set in a deep narrowing slot in the wall, to see out – steep for­ested hills, quite far away. He likes to imagine the time when this was a monastery, when it sat in fields next to the meandering, pristine waters of the Elbe. When the only way to get to Königstein was by walking for an hour. When Dresden was a whole day’s walk away. He towels his hair, flattens it with his hand until he is satisfied with how it looks. ‘Anomalous Factors in the Form “Sle¯an” ’. That must be his focus now. Now that this nightmare is over, and the future is there again.It is early evening. The sun puts warm shapes on the wall opposite the windows. The decoration is monastic minimalist: fluid lines, un­elaborated. Polished stone. White sheets. Everything white.She is sitting on a pale leather sofa, hugging her knees, looking to­wards one of the windows, with its view over neat modern houses to the hills farther away. Disappointingly, the hotel is surrounded by sub­urban normality. Streets of newish single-family houses, and a sort of industrial estate.Kilted in the white towel he descends the two stone steps from the shower room. He starts to search in his suitcase for his deodorant. ‘Are you hungry?’ he asks.She is sitting on the sofa, hugging her knees.He applies deodorant.‘Are you hungry?’ he asks again, not impatiently, just with a different intonation, as if she might not have heard him the first time, though she must have.‘The food’s supposed to be excellent,’ he tells her, looking forward to the meal himself. ‘French. They’ve got a Michelin star.’This was to be their treat, this immaculate hotel and its Michelin-starred food – their indulgence, their luxury. Tomorrow night they will be at her place in Kraków. The day after that, she will be at work again, on television, and he will be on a flight to Stansted. She likes her work. Just after they arrived at the hotel, late this afternoon, someone phoned her. It turned out to be her producer. It was interesting to hear her work voice, and it seemed obvious, overhearing her – just from the tone, he understood nothing else – where her priorities were.He is doing up his linen shirt.She is sitting on the sofa, hugging her knees.‘I can’t do it.’‘Can’t do what?’ He thinks she might mean the Michelin-starred meal, that she is feeling too depressed or something.When she doesn’t answer him, he starts to see that this is wrong. She does not mean the meal.‘I thought you decided,’ he says, quietly, trying to sound unper­turbed as he does up his shirt.‘So did I.’He finishes doing up his shirt. What this means, he thinks, is that he will have to do it all again. He will have to do yesterday evening, again. She is going to make them do that again. He sits down on the pale sofa. She is sitting sideways with her feet on the sofa, facing away from him, and he puts his hands on her shoulders and starts to say, again, all the things he said yesterday.‘I know,’ she says.He is saying the things, softly saying them, with a tired voice, as if he is unpacking them, and putting them out on a table for her to see.‘I know,’ she says.He is whispering them in her ear, his mouth is next to her ear. He is able to smell the light scent of her sweat – fresh sweat and stale sweat. To feel on his face, which sometimes touches hers, the dampness of her tears.‘I know,’ she says, ‘I know.’His arms are encircling her, his hands on her stomach.‘It’s all true what you’re saying,’ she says.‘Yes, it is . . .’‘And none of it makes any difference. I just can’t.’She takes his hands in her hands. Other than that, she does not move. Her hands are very warm and very damp.She says, ‘This child has chosen me to be its mother, and . . . and I just can’t turn it away. Please understand.’‘Karel,’ she says, ‘please understand.’His forehead is heavy on her shoulder.‘Do you understand?’ she wants to know, in a whisper.‘No,’ he says. It is not quite true. Not quite.The situation, anyway, is simpler than he thought. It was always very simple. The last two days have been a sort of illusion. There was only ever one possible outcome. He sees that now.They stay there for a long time, on the pale sofa.The sun won’t stop shining.‘Now what?’ he says finally. What he means is: Where does this leave us? Where does this leave our two lives?‘Are you hungry?’ she asks.‘No,’ he immediately says. He finds it hard to imagine ever feeling hunger again. He finds it hard to imagine anything. The future, again, seems no longer to be there.‘Do you want to go for a walk?’ she asks, for the first time shifting her position, turning towards him, so that her shoulder moves, and he has to lift his head. ‘Let’s go for a walk,’ she says.‘Where?’ Having lifted his head, he is looking at the elegantly minimalist room as if he does not know where he is.‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘Wherever. Why don’t you put some trousers on?’Docilely, he does.*They leave the hotel and start to walk towards Königstein. The pave­ment follows the main road. Traffic sometimes whizzes past. Sometimes there is silence. Sometimes there are trees, or from somewhere the smell of cut grass.It is five kilometres to Königstein, the sign says. They do not stop. It is high summer. The light will last for hours. They have time to walk it, if they want to.This is an excerpt from All That Man Is by David Szalay.
The Great Secret Creator

On Ellen Seligman’s editing alchemy.

One of Canada's greatest editors, Ellen Seligman worked with authors such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Jane Urquhart, and many others, helping to shape the face of literature in this country and the rest of the world over her long career. Steven Price remembers his time with her as his editor.In the last year of her life, before her sudden passing in March 2016, Ellen Seligman edited two novels: Michael Helm's excellent After James, and my second novel, By Gaslight.By Gaslight is set in Victorian London, and tells the story of the real-life detective William Pinkerton, some six months after his father's death, as he seeks to trace a criminal his father never managed to catch. Ellen and I worked together on the editing for thirteen months, from February 2015 to March 2016. Our first serious email exchange explored in detail some of the ideas and elements in the novel, and ways to tease them out—themes of fathers and sons, grief, loss, fate, and the ways our lives are determined by where we come from. Our last exchange on the novel—also by email, changing the Reckitt woman's name to Charlotte, for clarity—was conducted seven days before her death.Editing, at its highest level, is surely a creative act. I don't know that Ellen would have used such language; she told me once that her task was simply to read attentively, to bring the full weight of her concentration to bear on a book. But Ellen's concentration was a kind of genius, a sensitivity to a work and what it wanted to become. Her editing method was somewhat legendary: Ellen would examine every sentence, word by word, questioning if what was being achieved was in the book's interest, or the author's interest, or neither. Ellen liked to work in conversation with her authors—literally. We spoke on the phone almost daily for months, sometimes five days a week, usually for roughly five or six hours at a time.It was a powerfully intimate process, frustrating, yes, but also illuminating, and intensely gratifying. Beginning at the opening of the novel, Ellen would edit 50 or 60 pages (line by line) and then post them to my house, on the west coast; I would read through them, make my own notes, and then we would speak. I would raise questions, Ellen would raise questions, and the purpose of both was always to seek greater clarity, fluidity, resonance, and integrity. These could be matters of diction: "dinner" or "tea"? "hansom" or "brougham"? Or logic: if the candle is held low and close to the body, would the light catch a figure's eyes? Or psychological complexity: would a man like Adam Foole speak openly in front of his ward, Molly, or seek to protect her from the horrors of the city and so allow her a kind of childhood? Sometimes I would make note of a particular problem, of a scene too freighted with exposition, or dialogue that didn't coalesce, and return to it later that night, after the kids were asleep. More often, Ellen would fall silent and wait on the end of the line while I wrote and rewrote a sentence, the only sound between us the typing of the keyboard.There was no second draft, third draft, fourth draft. Rather, there followed an endless amount of rewriting. We cut 35,000 words during that year; added some 70,000 words of new material, the length of a short novel. Two significant characters were removed entirely; the ending was wholly rewritten. We were both satisfied with By Gaslight's horizontal movement but a vertical element was added, to deepen and complicate the characters. Our intention always was to keep an eye fixed on the characters, rather than the plot; neither of us wanted an "entertainment," but rather a novel exploring its characters and how to live in the world. It was to be a novel about a detective, rather than a detective novel; we wanted the detective's art to become a metaphor for the mystery of grief and loss.In order to make this happen, we worked linearly through the manuscript, beginning the second section only when the first was satisfactory. But because any change to a later section necessitated reworking what had come before, we were endlessly returning to completed sections. Ellen's faith in the novel never wavered, no matter my own anxiety or despair. Still, she was not pleased with everything. Often a revision would create a whole host of unexpected problems. In a 750-page novel, this meant an almost dizzying number of scattered new "hot spots" throughout the manuscript. But when a scene at last began to work, Ellen was voluble and fiery in her praise. Somehow it all seemed worth it, at such moments.I think now of that year with Ellen and it is difficult to pick apart what happened when, and how. Everything blurs together. Momentous changes were happening in my life. My wife gave birth to our second child at the beginning of that year, and he had a difficult first year on earth; my wife and I were neither of us sleeping; deadlines for By Gaslight rolled past at an alarming rate. Ellen insisted the novel would take as long as it took. The editing went on.Ellen's devotion to her books was unyielding, passionate. I learned later how, as with all of her books, Ellen debated and weighed font sizes, paper stock, cover layout, and page design for By Gaslight, making sure the very tiniest details were considered. And the final physical book is indeed beautiful. I like to think now that, although Ellen never did see the finished book, all this must have helped her to envision it, to close her eyes and feel its weight in her hands.Ellen Seligman was a dynamo, a wonder. She was one of the great secret creators of Canadian literature. She believed the nature of words mattered because a work of literature, to her, was folded seamlessly out of the language itself. One needed to get it right and the only true obstacle to that was giving up, giving in, too soon. She had a low, dry, sardonic voice that somehow carried an equal measure of detached amusement and particular warmth. She spoke slowly, was never hurried, and had an impossible grasp on the minutiae in a text. Her ear for dialogue was extraordinary. Characters were psychologically complex beings and she would question and argue and debate and worry away at why any of them did what they did. And she argued with herself as much as with the novel; I believe a great part of her gift lay in an endlessly elastic ability to adapt and re-examine how a novel moved and came to life. It was a kind of alchemy, a fluid gesture.Some two weeks after Ellen had passed away, my wife was going through our old answering machine messages, deleting them. She stopped when she heard Ellen's voice. It was a message from several months earlier. "Steven. It's Ellen. I guess you're not there. It's Friday at... No, wait. It's Saturday. [pause] Are you there? [pause] Okay. You're not there. I'll call you Monday."It was so absolutely typical of Ellen, Ellen at her most concentrated, her immersion in the work so total that the weekdays had poured into the weekend unnoticed.My wife and I stood together in the gathering dusk, listening, playing her voice over and over, stricken.This piece originally appeared in the Literary Review of Canada's September issue and on its website. 
Double Bind

Nate Parker is Black; in that sense, attacks against him are also attacks against me. How unsettling, then, that defenses of him are attacks against me, too.

In 1940, when Hattie McDaniel, the daughter of two former slaves, became the first Black person to ever win an Oscar (she won Best Supporting Actress, for her portrayal of Mammy—a slave—in Gone with the Wind), she was taught a lesson: “Good enough” to win an Academy Award doesn’t mean “good enough” to sit with the rest of your film’s white cast while waiting to receive it. McDaniel was only let into the building for the awards ceremony because of a favour called in by the film’s white producer. Still, of winning the award, she said: "I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry." Her trailblazing not without controversy, Hattie was later disowned by the NAACP for perpetuating negative stereotypes of Black people.Just as trauma doesn’t have discrete edges, America’s racist legacy knows no bounds, and Hollywood was no better (or safer) for Black people than the world beyond the big screens and bright lights.Thoughts of bodily autonomy and slavery and Hattie McDaniel and lessons learned are with me when I read the online commentariat coming for director Nate Parker after the details of his 1999 rape trial resurface. These details are hard to stomach: Parker and his writing partner Jean Celestin were roommates and Penn State wrestlers when they were both tried for allegedly raping an eighteen-year-old schoolmate. According to court documents, the two men were accused of assaulting the young woman while she was unconscious. Both Parker and Celestin, nineteen at the time, claim the encounter was consensual. Parker was acquitted after a three-day trial during which the victim underwent severe scrutiny. Celestin was originally found guilty, a fact some believe was related to Penn's "contentious racial climate" at the time (the victim was white, and both Parker and Celestin are Black). That conviction was later overturned when a judge found Celestin's counsel to have been ineffective.As polarizing as they are horrendous, the sordid, murky elements of this story only become harder to grapple with upon learning that the unnamed woman who survived the alleged assault did not survive the third suicide attempt she made in the years following the ordeal. She had been treated for depression since 1997 (before ever meeting Parker or Celestin), and, in the years following the trial, her mental state only declined. According to a detailed breakdown reported by The Daily Beast, she eventually entered a state of psychosis, and died in 2012, only thirty years old.When the information first came to light, Parker told Variety, “Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life. It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that.” After receiving wide criticism for his insensitivity, Parker seems to have gone through some consciousness raising regarding issues of male privilege, toxic masculinity, and rape culture—he recently apologized for his original responses, which he calls “selfish,” and gave Ebony a candid interview in which he openly discusses what he’s learned.What does the Academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (a Black woman), have to say about it all? "My belief is that people need to see the movie and judge the movie.” She is, of course, referring to Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which tells the story of the Nat Turner slave rebellion and received a standing ovation following its premiere at Sundance in January, after which Fox Searchlight offered Parker $17.5 million for worldwide rights.White director Roman Polanski has been nominated for twenty-six major film awards since he was convicted of raping a minor. Woody Allen, accused of molesting his then seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, in 1992, a claim Farrow maintains to this day, has also been nominated for multiple awards since. But many are wondering if The Birth of a Nation, once extolled as an Oscar frontrunner, will be able to recover from its contemporary association with real-life sexual violence.While some people are asking why the studio didn’t vet Parker (and Celestin) before making the record-breaking deal, I’m mostly thinking about how their film “got through”—which is to say, entered into and was lauded by this hegemonic, historically white institution. The Birth of a Nation allows us to better envision a world in which Black filmmakers and writers and producers and actors have a so-called seat at the table, and for that alone, the film is revolutionary. No, this recognition isn’t something we need, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t important.In Ain't I A Woman, cultural critic bell hooks writes: “the struggle to end racism and the struggle to end sexism are naturally intertwined.” One night, as we struggled to make sense of Parker’s art in the context of these allegations, a girlfriend said to me, “I'm acutely aware that, as much as Parker is a man, he is also Black; in that sense, attacks against him are also attacks against me. How unsettling, then, that defenses of him are attacks against me, too.”Are we so hungry for liberatory art—which specifically addresses social and political structures that historically, presently oppress peoples—that we’re willing to forgive artists who commit abominable acts? My friend says that when you’re starving, even crumbs can be a feast.I fell asleep thinking about something another friend, a Black woman filmmaker, said to me: “I think that, probably, part of our emancipation is learning how to be individual. But at the same time, how we gonna get anything done if we don’t think of ourselves as a whole?”*In an essay for the New Yorker, Mary Karr recently wrote that “all women have been to some degree sexually assaulted,” and I agree with her estimate. Most of the time I am adept at not thinking about the violations I’ve endured simply because I am a woman. But both bodies and minds can be groped, touched without permission, used without consent. (Which is probably why my memory only works perfectly when I don’t really want to remember.)Right now I am remembering that there is a concept called bodily autonomy that many think of as a human right. The belief is that no one but the individual can control who uses her body, for what, and for how long. But when a woman is raped, her rapist treats her body as if it does not belong to her, and this, we know, both legally and morally, to be wrong. Still, somewhere in America, a woman is raped every two minutes.But I am not just a woman; I am a Black woman, and so I cannot think of this concept without also remembering how Black people’s bodies have often not been our own. For hundreds of years on this continent and others, white people who owned Black people had final say over how and when Black bodies were used. Black men, treated as breeding sires, were forced to rape Black women who were forced to birth babies that were not legally theirs.Is there a contract between my Blackness and myself that I can’t betray? Does it apply to my womanness, too? This was preceded by Black bodies being forced onto boats, where, sometimes, those that were too old or too frail or otherwise considered not precious were thrown overboard just to lighten the load and relieve white men of the burden of having to feed bodies they did not, for one reason or another, like or want. Other times, while making this long, forced journey, Black heads belonging to Black bodies deemed “unruly” were severed and impaled on spikes so that Black eyes would see and know to behave. More recently, Black bodies hanging from trees or burned upon stakes were used in exactly the same way—as examples. “Let this be a lesson,” we have been told over and over again.These lessons, the dark stains carried over from America’s original sin, have ways of imprinting on our society, but most especially on the souls of Black folks. Just two years ago in North Carolina, a seventeen-year-old Black boy was found hanging, dead, from a swing set early one morning. He was wearing too-small shoes that were not his own; the belt he was hanging from did not belong to him either. And despite the nearly impossible mechanics, his death had been ruled a suicide, something an FBI probing (pushed for by the NAACP) confirmed. His family maintains that they know the truth. The boy was found in a nearly all-white trailer park, and it is us, Black people, who have inside knowledge of what happens to Black bodies in white spaces.I eventually read more details of Nate Parker’s trial, which also make me remember things—to the point of feeling sick. The depravity and disrespect I come to believe Parker and Celestin exhibited is textbook. While taking in the transcripts of conversations Parker had with his alleged victim, my heart starts racing and my stomach, typically steeled against any outside attack, becomes queasy. I can feel it in my gut, in my groin, in my mouth, in my chest—I know this man. I do not like him.I read that Nate Parker was never found guilty of this crime, but I know that doesn’t mean he didn’t violate that woman’s body. Afterwards, I read lots of reactions that say great art should not come at the expense of women’s bodies or lives. Then, almost involuntarily, I think of all the things “greatness” has come at the expense of.*“Yo. Nate Parker?” My friend has sent me a message, asking me to weigh in on the subject.“I have FEELINGS,” I write back. It only takes a second to realize that they are harder to articulate than they are to simply feel, so I call my dad looking for a reprieve and to find out what he thinks. “You can be staunchly against rape and crimes against humanity while also promoting revolutionary art that has the power to inform society,” he says. “We have to figure out how to not be a tools of our own suppression when we hear about Black people who have done terrible things.”Afterwards, I think about that concept a lot—is there a contract between my Blackness and myself that I can’t betray? Does it apply to my womanness, too? I don’t even want to introduce artist or anything else into the mix; I can barely deal with the two most blatant identities I inhabit.Last week, a subject I was interviewing for another piece said to me: “I’m a female; I’m also Black; I’m also gay, bisexual—I have fluid sexuality; I’m also from a very poor background. Those four things really created my character and my identity. And because of all of those things, because I’ve had knives thrown at me from all directions because of one thing or another, I have very open eyes.”Her words affected me; I took them as a challenge. You better keep your eyes peeled, she was saying, or else you’ll fall victim to a blight of selective recognition—a condition America’s had for years and years. I started writing more things down after that.*I keep asking myself, What kind of woman are you? (And: What does it mean to be Black? And: How will you respond, as an artist?)The truth? The truth is that I’m not sure. The truth is that I’m happy The Birth of a Nation is getting a huge box office release, and it has nothing to do with me being happy for Nate Parker.Unlike Al Sharpton, I don’t think the current interest in Nate Parker’s seventeen-year-old rape case is a right-wing conspiracy. But my knowledge that Black Americans have been systematically excluded from so many arenas of public life and especially the film industry becomes problematic if I’m expected to take a stance on not just the filmmaker but the film itself. Perhaps if Hollywood were more inclusive (which is to say, if historical oppression and racism weren't things), Parker's movie wouldn't represent so much. Maybe then I wouldn't be in this double bind; annihilating one part of myself to soothe or advance the other. It feels like I'm in one of those awful horror movies, forced to choose between losing a leg or losing an arm. I made up my mind, though, after hearing that Amazon Studios spent upwards of $20 million to acquire Woody Allen’s latest flick, complete with the expected all-white cast, sight unseen. (Which makes a piece of advice Ava DuVernay gave on getting ahead in an industry in which one is a minority all the more tragically ironic: "You gotta follow the white guys. Truly. They’ve got this thing wired.”)So, what kind of woman am I? One with Black skin living in America. One who wants to believe in Nate Parker’s art. One who maintains that believing in his art doesn’t mean I don’t believe his victim.
The View from Madinah

When my family made pilgrimage to Saudia Arabia in my grandmother’s memory, we were struck by the state of faith and war.

In early spring, with snow still clotted thick on the ground, my grandmother dies in my parents’ home. We wash her naked body the next day in the basement morgue of the local Scarborough mosque, my hands closer to her skin than they’d ever been in life. There is a gaping hole in her throat where the cancer had eaten through to open air. I can’t remember who cleaned around the wound’s curling black edges. I can’t remember much of how her body felt that morning, except that it was very stiff; mine felt barely less so. We recite my favourite dua, the Muslim funeral prayer: allahumaghfir li haiyyaini wa maiyyatina—God, grant us your forgiveness / for the living and for the dead …We bury her in a graveyard in Pickering, an hour east of Toronto, wrapped in a white shroud her daughters and grand-daughters twined around her. In the orthodox way, we don’t put up a gravestone, no plaque and no flowers. I send myself an email to remember her plot number. We visit often, commencing a new, far different relationship from the one we’d had through the ravages of her long, croaking dying.My mother begins a slow, thorny grieving. Time wrinkles around her periodically heaving body. In May, she decides we will make umrah, pilgrimage, in my grandmother’s memory. My immediate family doesn’t do field trips. I can’t remember the last time that we, all seven strong, went anywhere together—we are always too busy or too dispersed.By month’s end, we are flying to Saudi Arabia for the first time in fifteen years.*Twenty-four years ago, when our family first arrived in Saudi Arabia (I was born in Sri Lanka), the country was at war with Iraq. I was young then, repeating kindergarten to compensate for the ocean-wide migration. We landed in Yanbu, a highly industrialized expat-heavy petrochemical centre, then moved to Jeddah, the country’s grittier seaport commercial capital.My parents eschewed compounds, those securely gated, miraculously green alternate realities occupied largely by wealthy white Westerners and served mostly by South Asian labourers. Instead, we grew up on hospital premises, so that my doctor mother could walk to work. Bussed between our low-rise apartment building of other doctor families from the global south and my state-run international all-girls school, the war seemed far away.It’s almost impossible to get off the no-fly list: the Canadian government doesn’t have to tell you that they’ve put you on it, and if somehow you find out that you’ve been blacklisted and attempt to challenge that listing, the government doesn’t have to tell you or your lawyer what evidence they’re using against you to keep you on it.Still, the fighting found ways to impinge on my heavily regimented childhood of school and home. Sometimes I would call my aunt in Riyadh and hear bombs close by in the background. A weird normalcy hung over our conversations, a sense not so much of resignation as of suspended disbelief. I imagined stony grey rubble unfurling beside them, their building the lone monument still standing. In retelling these years, my mother describes sirens, but I do not remember them.This was the era of the first Gulf War and the first George Bush. In response to Iraq’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait, the U.S., once supportive of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, convened the largest military alliance since World War II to fight Iraq. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia paid more than half of the war’s $60-billion cost, and the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division landed in the deserts of Dhahran, scarcely 400 miles from Madinah.By then, the U.S. had long been partnering with the wealthy kingdom: during the Cold War, the U.S. had trained al-Qaeda to fight the Soviet Union, and had propagated Saudi religious schools across the world, aiming to use U.S.-funded interpretations of Islam to fight the U.S.S.R.By my early teens, a marked shift had emerged. With rifts growing between al-Qaeda and the (rest of the) Saudi royal family over U.S. involvement in the war on Iraq, Usama bin Laden became a household name. September 11, 2001 was on the horizon.*As we prepare to fly out of Toronto in 2015, Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, while simultaneously negotiating a $15-billion arms deal with Canada. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s “sunny” soon-to-be prime minister, will spend the election cycle decrying then-PM Stephen Harper for the Conservative-initiated deal, but when elected to power later that year, will himself approve the sale. The light-armoured vehicles, or LAVs, that Canada is to provide to the Saudi Arabian National Guard will reportedly be equipped with, among other things, machine guns that can fire 105mm shells or missiles.Saudi activists will eventually manage to leak footage of the Saudi regime using LAVs to crush internal civilian dissent, especially against the country’s Shia minority. When confronted with the video, Trudeau refuses to cancel the sale: “We [Canada] are not a banana republic.”But our departure from Canada is smooth—to my surprise and relief. My brother shares a name with someone on the no-fly list. He’s missed flights before. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare that leaves me enraged, fearful, and despondent by turns. In contrast, my brother, who was in grade school during 9/11, takes it in stride as some kind of Muslim rite of passage.A civil war is the war at home; civil war is place imploding in on itself. His experience is hardly unique: there are hundreds of people on this list, including babies. A post-9/11 U.S.-demanded invention, Transport Canada admitted in 2010 that it had listed at least 850 false positives—only three years into the “Passenger Protect Program.”It’s almost impossible to get off the no-fly list: the Canadian government doesn’t have to tell you that they’ve put you on it, and if somehow you find out that you’ve been blacklisted and attempt to challenge that listing, the government doesn’t have to tell you or your lawyer what evidence they’re using against you to keep you on it. The Orwellian paradox of laws that openly parade their concealment makes it difficult to map, let alone fight, the list’s reach.Under Trudeau, the no-fly list has been expanded through the so-called “anti-terror” bill C-51. Though the bill was introduced by Harper, Trudeau voted to make the bill an act, and has refused to heed calls for its repeal. Of the act’s myriad racisms, the list, with all the resources required to execute it in airports across the country, perhaps most visibly exemplifies racialized paranoia. But in the nearly two decades since 9/11, Canada has made such ample use of secret trials against Muslims that ultimately the mass surveillance of the no-fly list feels cynically unremarkable.*We land in Jeddah. Though I spent close to a decade of my childhood in this still-familiar dusty city—“the Bride of the Red Sea”—we do not linger. At the King Abdulaziz International Airport, we pile into a van and head to Madinah.We quickly discover the A/C is broken, so we pull off the highway to grab some pop and shawarmas for the four-hour drive. We enter a sort of strip mall of low-roofed restaurants set a little ways back from the road.If I had escaped the symbols of war during my childhood here, not so this time. Men mill around us in military uniform, also getting food. Wearing light brown camouflage and traveling in groups, the ease with which these soldiers move through the take-out joints reminds me of my birthplace, Sri Lanka.After twenty-seven years of civil war, soldiers are as much a part of Sri Lanka’s national landscape as the flora and fauna. My memories of Sri Lanka are as much of checkpoints, soft-jawed teenage boys drooping with the weight of machine guns, and the sunburnt remains of bombed-out commuter buses, as they are of first friendships or the spider-web of familial dramas. After all, a civil war is the war at home; civil war is place imploding in on itself. In contrast, Saudi Arabia’s wars were not, thanks to its domestically relentless and now LAV-equipped autocracy, civil; they were directed elsewhere (such a young country, and so insecure, perennially fighting its neighbours). So I had grown up with Saudi Arabia serving as a foil to my first home, its relative peace counterbalancing the turmoil of the place my family comes from.(After we return home from the pilgrimage, I talk about the trip with a friend from middle school, and she notes that Saudi Arabia now has checkpoints all over. This is a development since my family moved away in 2000. The war is starting to come home.)Along our drive, we’re waved through a few such checkpoints. Mostly I sleep through the ride, lulled by the heat and the monotony of the view. We arrive without incident in Madinah.*When we lived here, we visited Makkah and Madinah often. Makkah was where the Prophet Muhammad had been born and was later exiled from; Madinah where he subsequently found refuge and later died. I had always preferred Madinah to Makkah. Officially titled Madinah tul Munawarra—City of Light—I thrilled to the idea of a city named, simply, City; it seemed so confident and cosmopolitan an understanding and demonstration of self.For millennia, Madinah had been a city without a country, ruled by a shifting patchwork of local and global powers. By the eighteenth century, the House of Saud had emerged as the Ottoman Empire’s chief rivals for control of Madinah. In 1925, Madinah was finally brought under the rule of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.Over the course of our trip, my family discusses often this disconnect between the mosque as a place of faith and the state as a mechanism of racialized profit and regulation.Six years later, the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company hit oil in Dhahran. Now called Aramco, it is the world’s most valuable company, with estimates ranging from $1.25-trillion to $10-trillion USD.Seven years later, in 1945, with the end of World War II in sight, King Abdulaziz and then-U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt met for the first time. They reached an agreement in which Saudi Arabia would supply oil to the U.S., in exchange for U.S. military protection of the Saudi regime. This agreement remains in effect: it has survived seven Saudi kings and twelve U.S. presidents.*We spend most of our time in Madinah in Masjid an-Nabawi, the Prophet’s Mosque. It is the world’s second-oldest mosque, and the second-holiest site in Islam. Built by the Prophet a year after his migration to Madinah, the mosque was originally about the size of an average house, with pillars of palm trunks and roofs of beaten clay and palm leaves. After his death, under a succession of caliphs, sultans, and kings, the mosque underwent a series of renovations, razings, and reconstructions, until now, at over 50,000 square metres and with a capacity of 1.6 million people, it has become one of the largest mosques in the world.It is also one of the most opulent. The mosque is a thing of wonder, bedecked in marble floors, cream columns, dizzyingly tall doors and archways. Qurans, hardcover and green-backed, are stacked in gold shelving. Gold chandeliers hang from the ceilings, and every pillar has lamps hung in each of its four corners, each pillar inscribed with the name of God.A marquee outside declares that photography is prohibited, a decree belied by how liberally the mosque is peppered with security cameras, curving out from behind the pillars, positioned high above our heads.Female security guards check our bags as we enter. Planted at every door, they rifle quickly through our belongings, flip flops and books and water bottles, before waving us in. The search, short as it is, only ever lasting a few seconds, is long enough nonetheless to bottleneck entry. The guards are quick-sighted, and generally effective at spotting women with bags, but the brevity of their search renders the whole process questionable. No one is entirely sure what they’re looking for and they never say, as they prod incredulously my small pillow.11The marquee didn’t lie: they’re apparently looking for camera phones, a manifestly failed effort. Pilgrims openly take pictures inside the mosque—of the ceilings, the crowds, the floors, themselves. I see my first selfie stick in Madinah.Inside, the carpets—thousands and thousands of square feet of them—are thickly embossed with the Saudi state emblem, a palm tree emerging from the crossing of two swords. I can’t remember if the carpets were always designed like this, but it feels now like a deeper obscenity than the wealth on display within the mosque, or the five-star hotels and expensive malls that crowd in on its courtyards.Today, these carpets feel subtly militaristic, this encroachment of state power into the house of God, this laying claim to the spirituality performed here, the countless palms and foreheads pressed in prayer against this symbol of state conquest.*It’s too full indoors, so at 4 a.m. on a Thursday, my mother, sister, and I are praying on plastic-sheeted walkways in the mosque’s courtyard. My mother wants to attempt the ziyarah, a visit to the rawdah, the Prophet’s grave. The ziyarah has strictly enforced women’s hours; it is otherwise open to men. Being no less desirous of visiting the grave than men, this constriction has resulted in the women’s ziyarah being a full-on scrimmage. We’ve arrived for the women’s sunrise hours.As we wait for the gates to the gravesite open, the female guards begin organizing the hundreds of women assembled around us into groups.The racial logic of their ordering quickly becomes apparent. Following some unspoken rule, Arabs are typically allowed entry first, South Asians last. All the guards, irrespective of whether or not they understand that we speak English, point us in the direction of the India/Pakistan grouping, where another guard is lecturing the group in what sounds like Urdu or Hindi.My mother asks where the gates are, and is ignored, until one guard asks where we are from. Given pervasive racism in Saudi Arabia against Sri Lankans, my mother says Canada, and then, into the blank stare that follows, America. The guard nods vigorously, and point us back to India/Pakistan. Eventually we settle among some Indonesians. Even if she could understand the guards, my mother neither needs nor wants the lectures being imposed on the pilgrims. She quietly manoeuvres through the guards’ racial obsessions, trying to get us as close as possible to the grave so that we can enter quickly when the gates open.Over the course of our trip, my family discusses often this disconnect between the mosque as a place of faith and the state as a mechanism of racialized profit and regulation. The crassness on display, mere feet from the Prophet’s grave, feels like yet more proof of this tension. There’s little point raging about it here, it’d be like beating a wall, though a woman close by is in fact telling off security for precisely this. My mother just sits, bides her time, absorbed in prayer. When jetlag rears, we nap briefly. Otherwise, there is too much to see to be bored.A woman in a sparkly niqab bears down on us, an elderly matriarch on her arm. She asks the guard beside us if there are (in this order) groups for English, Tamil, or Malayalam speakers. After first hopefully pointing out Urdu/India/Pakistan, the guard says no. The city—and indeed the whole country—is in fact full of Tamil speakers, many of them migrant workers hailing from Sri Lanka, whose GDP rests heavily on the housemaids and labourers it exports here. But in the mosque’s policed attempts at language accommodation, the most impoverished of its worshippers and custodians do not register. The two women leave. It becomes evident that we have seated ourselves in the Arab section. A guard comes up to the edge of our motley group and attempts to dislodge the Indonesian women beside us. They are reading the Quran and ignore her wholly. Her pitch grows increasingly frustrated and quick. Eventually, she wins and they disappear, perhaps to their prescribed spot in the mosque ecology. They are soon replaced by a troop of worshippers robed in electric blue. Behind me, there is a group speaking Telugu. I pick out a few words that mimic Tamil, chief among them “palli,” which in Tamil means mosque. A flock of women in deep brown chadors swoops by us; the backs of their scarves are imprinted with the address of a tour group in Niger. Sometimes it's the accoutrements that distinguish the tour groups: fluorescent yellow backpacks here, baby blue headscarves there, green messenger bags, orange lanyards, thick winter scarves the shade of the Toronto Blue Jays logo.Southeast Asians are by far the easiest to spot, each tour group marked by their particular choice in fabric—huge purple flowers for one group, orange and green forest foliage for another—cut at the wearer’s pleasure into long dresses, tunics, sarongs, pant suits. In each group there is always one noncompliant member: among the purple floral is a woman dressed in a solid and beautifully complementary block of violet. I wonder idly about the cost of coordinating outfits like this, how much work it must entail. I like to imagine the odd one out as the group’s poorest planner. I sympathize.It is not clear if anyone is listening to the guards on the loudspeakers, who carry on anyway. I exchange smiles with a twelve-year-old in jeans. As the hour for the gate opening nears, women begin to stand up, and an expectant lean ripples through the crowd.We are let into the rawdah, and the women's bodies push up tight against each other, everyone's fleshy parts part of a larger thrust towards the dead. Arms reach out and clasp me as they pass by, bracing themselves against me or pushing me out of the way, as the case may be. There is no compunction in touch. My brothers later describe strolling through the gravesite during the much longer men’s hours.Meanwhile, the guards are still yelling, “India Pakistan.”I leave Madinah praying I never hear “idhar aao,” Hindi for “come here,” again. The patience with which the immigrant cleaners and pilgrims put up with the mosque’s daily, inept, and deeply entrenched racisms seems indicative of the Muslim cognitive dissonance on which Saudi Arabia relies: the holiness of this place exists in a different dimension than the profanity so openly on display. Everything that is beautiful about this place seems also laced with disrespect for both the sacred and the human. It falls to the individual pilgrim to carve out worship from the cacophony of ugliness.*On July 4, 2016, the day before Eid, a year after our pilgrimage, a string of bombs goes off across Saudi Arabia: one near the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, wounding two security officers; the next a suicide bomb near Masjid an-Nabawi, killing four officers; and the third outside a Shia mosque in Qatif. In Jeddah, the government arrests a thirty-five-year-old Pakistani migrant worker.As one of the Middle East’s biggest regional powers, Saudi Arabia is a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS. When Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in March 2015, it claimed it did so to protect Yemen from Iran and the world from ISIS, echoing U.S. justifications for its invasion of Afghanistan. It also proudly noted that “U.K. military personnel are providing assistance in targeting and its legal aspects.”By February 2016, at least 8,000 Yemenis had died, at least sixty percent of them killed by Saudi air strikes. Much of Yemen is on the brink of famine.In this light, it’s not surprising that Madinah was attacked. It is terrifying and reprehensible, and in the magnitude of the symbolic breach, staggering—but it is not surprising.What makes a war our war? The Iraq Wars. Are wars named only after the home team? The War on Afghanistan. Is its name the measure of who is doing the killing and who the dying? The War on Terror. If the dead die far from where we can see, are we still at war? The War of Terror.Our pilgrimage was hemmed on both sides by carnage. At once a site of faith and war, this feels like a central tension in being Muslim in the era of the nation-state. Across the world, we are tied to cities we love in countries we fear.