Hazlitt Magazine

Critical Failure

Armond White’s film reviews were once electric: part historical analysis, part posturing, part insult comedy, an attempt to take black art—and art in general—seriously. What happened?

Growing Up Emo

Why am I loath to confess to the role these bands played in allowing me a measure of catharsis when I was a teenager facing down extraordinary grief?

The Legion Lonely

Over the past few decades, loneliness has reached almost epidemic levels, with men uniquely suffering its effects. How and why has isolation become such a threat?

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Growing Up Emo

Why am I loath to confess to the role these bands played in allowing me a measure of catharsis when I was a teenager facing down extraordinary grief?

Long Island’s garages and basements birthed many an emo band. Brand New, Straylight Run, Taking Back Sunday—a collection of local acts—aired the grievances that come with being cooped up in cul-de-sacs, and emo’s rise in popularity on Long Island overlapped with my pubescent coming-of-age there—and with the most difficult years of my life. At 12, my newfound obsession with New Found Glory coincided with my mom’s diagnosis of late-stage lung cancer, and my dad’s recurrence of prostate cancer. When my parents were sick and after they died—Mom a few months after her diagnosis, Dad two years after Mom—I took solace in emo’s overblown feelings. The angst-drenched music I blasted through the headphones of my Sony Walkman allowed me to access the intensity of my grief. The lyrics to Brand New’s “Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t” climbed up the front of my binder in ninth grade. On that track, Jesse Lacey’s voice grew from a whisper to a yell over an electric guitar’s strum: “Holding onto your grudge / Oh it’s so hard to have someone to love / And keeping quiet is hard / ‘Cause you can’t keep a secret if it never was a secret to start.” The summer after my dad died, Straylight Run’s “It’s For the Best” captured my premature sense of being grown up, and it still does now: “And I know much more than I did back then / But the more I learn, the more I can’t understand.” The end of sophomore year was steeped in Bright Eyes’ eerie “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now.” When I turned 17, I listened exclusively to Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me at full blast on my car stereo for weeks, relishing Lacey’s new visceral howl. Emo was how my brother John and I bonded in our loss. We did not talk about what had happened to our family, but we sang along to songs that talked about it for us. The song that spoke to both of us the most then was Brand New’s “Guernica,” in which Lacey pleads for the life of a dying relative: “If I could I would shrink myself / Sink through your skin to your blood cells / Remove whatever makes you hurt, but I am too weak to be your cure.” Even now, “Guernica,” which oscillates between soft-spoken verses and a power-chorded, manic chorus, seems an appropriate representation of the mix of placidity and hysteria I actually felt when my parents were sick. Back then, I fought to stay placid on the surface; I felt like I had to keep it together. My extended family did not explicitly discuss the seriousness of my parents’ conditions, let alone the emotional turmoil they caused. I felt that everything was so tenuous that letting grief overtake me would have tipped the scales into chaos. My veneer of normalcy was so polished that when my brother’s therapist asked me how I was at my father’s wake, I responded with, “I’m fine.” She took me by the shoulders, looked in my eyes, and said, “No, you are not fine.” I valued emo music because it allowed me a way to not keep it together. When I listened to emo, sang along at shows, or replayed lines, like The Early November’s “It’s never been harder to fall / there’s nothing to grab and that’s all I want to hold onto,” in my head over and over again, I allowed myself to truly feel. The melodrama of emo did not seem melodramatic to me—it expressed exactly the heartbreak I felt, at exactly the pitch I felt it. Those overwrought, heart-on-your-sleeve lyrics; those screams and whines; those blaring power chords were the outward expressions of the anguish I kept tamped down. Like many former emo kids who soothed rough patches with a dose of Saves the Day, I’ve grown up. My grief no longer feels like a fresh wound that is only safe to unbandage while wearing headphones. But I still listen to emo. While riding the subway, I queue up albums from 1999, 2001, 2003—The Get Up Kids’ Something to Write Home About, Saves the Day’s Stay What You Are, Brand New’s Deja Entendu. Ask me what my favorite album is, though, and I probably won’t name an emo record—unless I know you’re a safe confessor because you still listen to emo, too. Why do I feel like still listening to emo is something shameful to admit? I’m not embarrassed to say that when I was nine I plastered an entire wall of my bedroom with pictures of the Backstreet Boys, so why am I loath to confess to moshing at a My Chemical Romance concert in 2004—even if that concert was eleven months after my dad died and allowed me a measure of catharsis? I’m not a teenager facing devastating loss anymore, so why am I still drawn to this music that airs overblown feelings? * Emo is the label that no one wants for their music. A diminutive of “emotional,” it connotes whining, melodrama, self-indulgence. It even sounds like a taunt, and it’s supposed to. Speaking to the label’s origins, Tom Mullen, founder of the website and its eponymous podcast Washed Up Emo, says that “the term has always been, starting in the 1980s, a way to call something wimpy or lame…the bands that weren’t heavy enough or took a more quiet approach were called emo.” Emo grew out of hardcore punk in the 1980s in Washington, D.C.; it was originally shorthand for “emocore,” itself a shortening of “emotive hardcore,” meaning hardcore that focused on personal rather than political feelings. Where Minor Threat, founded in 1980 in D.C., raged with a decidedly political bent, Rites of Spring, formed by teenage Minor Threat fans in 1984, took that disillusionment and turned it inward, making for the beginnings of the genre. As critic Andy Greenwald explains in his 2003 book Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo,“With Rites of Spring, the goal was no longer to shake your fist at the injustices of the world, it was to shake yourself.” Rites of Spring only played a handful of shows in the D.C. area, but during that period they tapped into what Greenwald calls an “eager[ness] to convert private pain into public purging.” The band got called “emo” by people making fun of their weepy fanbase. Even still, Mullen says, emo continues to undergird a community. He founded Washed Up Emo in 2007 because he felt that the genre’s origins were being supplanted by bands getting attention on MTV and Fuse, bands that wore guyliner and skinny jeans (e.g. My Chemical Romance). Mullen’s website and podcast celebrate both the early days of emo—bands like The Promise Ring—and the current fourth-wave emo revival. He also started Emo Night NYC, a DJ series that brings together fans to revel in nostalgia—though Mullen regrets that there has been too much of a focus on third-wave, mid-2000s bands at these nights, playing into the sense that “the genre is scene as a punchline, with cracks about the clothes and party atmosphere, and zero understanding of the older bands that led to this.” Back in 2003, Greenwald defined emo as “a specific sort of teenage longing, a romantic and ultimately self-centered need to understand the bigness of the world in relation to you… Emo is about as specific as adolescence and lasts about as long.” In this line of thinking, emo is solipsistic, nostalgic, and sentimental, encapsulating the heightened emotions of adolescence, when nothing feels good. Via email, Greenwald explained why bands want to repudiate the emo label but fans embrace it: “It’s an essentially lame and derogatory name that no bands want anything to do with. And yet everything it represents is quite meaningful to fans, as it somehow captures a sort of adolescent emotional electricity that can be received from bands and songs but also more ephemeral sources like blog posts, texts, concerts, or summers.” * Tom Mullen believes that “the ethos or mantra of emo is honesty.” This makes me think of the vulnerability of my formerly favorite emo songs, the sense that tuning into Taking Back Sunday’s “…Slowdance on the Inside,” hearing Adam Lazzara’s voice erupting into rawness on the chorus—“So cross my heart and hope to / I’m lying just to keep you here / So reckless (so reckless) / So thoughtless (so thoughtless) / So careless, I could care less”—is like opening a diary. But those lyrics are not raw, honest, or even authentic. They’re polished and dramatized, words that are “at best worse than teenage poetry,” to borrow a line from another Taking Back Sunday song. The lyrics are also sentimental, leaning heavily on cliché (“cross my heart and hope to”), and melodramatic, especially in the breakdown: “This glass house is burning down / You light the match, I’ll stick around.” Mullen would almost certainly object here and say that Taking Back Sunday is part of the mid-2000s trend that gave emo a bad name, not the version of the genre that is undergirded by honesty. But if I’m being honest, I was the kind of emo fan who didn’t know about the genre’s origins when I was a teen, who wasn’t all that interested in bands like Sunny Day Real Estate. And I’m still not, because my attachment to emo is a perverse sort of nostalgia for the years of my life when I couldn’t bring myself to talk about my parents because I was afraid of slipping into a chasm of despair. Emo helped me to enter that despair on my own terms. In the decade-plus since my parents died, my loss has become less raw; I no longer need listen to music at the highest decibels in order for me to hear my own heartache. But I still value those old albums because they keep me in touch with the times when everything was unprocessed. Part of me fears that if I forget the intensity of my initial mourning, I will forget my parents—if I allow myself to keep moving forward, going through the day-to-day of life without feeling that grief, I will forget the two defining moments of my life, when my parents left this Earth. And I suppose that is a sort of desire for arrested development, a wanting to live in the past. It’s nostalgic, and nostalgia can be dangerous. Nostalgia is also, as Greenwald put it to me, “a very powerful drug.” In The New Yorker last fall, Jia Tolentino wrote about emo dance nights and the potency of nostalgia among former emo-loving teenagers who are now “grown up, sort of” and “are re-immersing themselves in the sound of adolescence—that squeal of medical-grade angst and longing… [Emo nights] are oddly specific celebrations of near-term nostalgia in which music made to help teen-agers flail their way to adulthood provides an opportunity for adults to succumb to the histrionics of teendom again.” The appeal of emo nights lies in the fact that, as Greenwald says, “we never love music as much as we do when we’re teenagers, it’s a high we’re always chasing.” By chasing that high, it could be said that adults are allowing themselves to be overtaken by feelings they should have left behind. The nostalgic draw of emo, then, is tied to the sentimentality and melodrama that made the genre so irresistible to teens, and what makes it embarrassing for adults. The extravagant feelings of emo are too easy; adults should work harder, listen to music that is sparse, clear-eyed. Or, at least, listen to music that doesn’t include lines like Dashboard Confessional’s cloying “My hopes are so high that your kiss might kill me / So won’t you kill me / So I die happy?” Sentimentality presents not just an aesthetic dilemma but an ethical one: it traffics in clichés that assume the universal truth of an emotional experience. Sentimentality manipulates, giving cues to the listener as to how to feel, how to react. When I was 14 and listening to Dashboard Confessional’s “Hands Down” over and over again, I thought that falling in love was meant to feel like giving away my heart for someone “to fill or burst / to break or bury / or wear as jewelry.” Sentimentality promises easy redemption: getting over a heartache is as easy as taking cues from New Found Glory’s poppy anthem “My Friends Over You.” Melodrama, on the other hand, may be theatrical and exaggerated, but it owns its extremity, to a degree. It’s still in bad taste, though—I would be mortified to be caught wearing the old Chuck Taylors that I tattooed with Taking Back Sunday’s histrionic lyrics nowadays. Even though indulging in emo means indulging in what Tolentino called “the histrionics of teendom,” when I listen to Taking Back Sunday, I do not become the teenager I once was—I can never fully access that girl again. Still, emo helps me mark the distance between the different selves I have inhabited. Writer Briallen Hopper—whose take on another taboo-for-adults genre, the YA novel (in particular, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars) broke the Los Angeles Review of Books website—explains why overcoming that distance is necessary. A teenager’s perspective is not less valid because it comes before an adult’s—in fact, a teenager’s view on life can guide you “when you are living through an extreme experience,” Hopper told me. “Much of the time you need detachment and analytical distance through forms like critical analysis or irony, but sometimes you need an emotional form like melodrama that’s more like a waterslide—a certain kind of guided, wild ride; a little scary, a little exhilarating, but not too unsafe, with the end in sight.” Emo still provides me with that waterslide, a safe way to confront the loss of my parents. * The sentimentality and melodrama of emo music can be beneficial to surrender to, but we fear doing so. “Saccharine is our sweetest word for fear: the fear of too much sentiment, too much taste,” Leslie Jamison writes in the opening to her essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” a consideration of intense feeling and artificial sweetener. “When we hear saccharine, we think of language that has shamed us, netted our hearts in trite articulations: words repeated too many times for cheap effect, recycled ad nauseum.” We are afraid and ashamed of emotions “unmediated by nuance.” That fear arises not just because sentimentality and melodrama are juvenile, but because they are base. Jamison writes: “We want to dismiss sentimentality, to assert that instead our emotional responses are more sophisticated than other people’s, that our aesthetic sensibilities testify, iceberg style, to an entire landscape of interior death.” This is why we deny listening to bands like Brand New, because we wish to “construct ourselves as arbiters of artistry and subtlety.” In another essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Jamison traces the trope of the wounded woman from Victorian novels to Tori Amos album, writing about how female pain in particular has come to be seen as a cliché, and about women who try desperately to evade that cliché: “They are wary of melodrama so they stay numb or clever instead. Post-wounded women make jokes about being wounded or get impatient with women who hurt too much.” In college, I realized that outwardly admitting my love for emo would mark me as a wounded woman, but I would still listen all the time through Apple headphones. I recall a set of months in 2009 when I would replay Kevin Devine’s song “You’ll Only End Up Joining Them” on repeat, hitting the back button before the last note of the song had ended so I could hear it on a continuous loop. I loved the song—still do—both for its acoustic, folksy sound and for Devine’s verbosity. “You’ll Only End Up Joining Them” tells a story, moving through depression (“And I can’t say that it’s a sickness / More like a stranger I ask in / And later realize was a strangler / slipping nooses in my den”) to a realization (“Don’t kill yourself to raise the dead / It never works, you’ll only end up joining them”). I needed to hear that story then, to go through those lows and highs along with the song. Jamison was the one who made me remember those marathon sessions of Kevin Devine. She told me about her own song of choice to push replay on when she was 22 and was “thinking about a breakup”—Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” “Sometimes listening to a sad song can become a way of pushing on a bruise, staying stuck in a feeling or stuck in a certain groove of thinking about a feeling,” she said. It’s a version of the “wound dwelling” she writes about in “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” and it’s this aspect of “wound dwelling” or “pushing on a bruise” that can make listening to emo seem shameful and narcissistic. It’s indulging in a certain kind of static self-pity that, once again, can seem to allow for regression rather than growth. But Jamison notes that there’s another kind of wound-dwelling that listening to music can offer, “something that honors the depth and legitimacy of feeling but also involves constant evolution in how you’re relating to the feeling; that’s not standing still.” When I listened to “You’ll Only End Up Joining Them” on repeat, I felt that movement, that shift in my emotions. When I listen to it now, the shift is compounded—the lyrics carry me through three evolutions at once: Devine’s own emotional journey, my need to be taken along on that journey in 2009, and how I have ended up on the other side of that journey now. Listening to emo doesn’t just serve as a way to recapture what Greenwald called “adolescent emotional electricity.” It lets me feel that electricity surge on and off, to see a little more clearly where I’ve been and where I am now, and how that distance isn’t so far to overcome.
Critical Failure

Armond White’s film reviews were once electric: part historical analysis, part posturing, part insult comedy, an attempt to take black art—and art in general—seriously. What happened?

A columnist for National Review and OUT, a neocon and a black man, a lover of black comedies and a hater of Black Lives Matter, film critic Armond White dwells in the liminal region between sincerity and absurdity. It makes sense, then, that despite having been reviewing and discussing films for more than three decades, the Internet mostly knows him as a joke, a metonym. Browse any online film forum, peruse any movie review’s comment section, or read one of the four Urban Dictionary entries penned in his honor, and you’ll see his name used as a catch-all for troll, contrarian, hack, hater, pretentious asshole—take your pick. There was a time when these words were simply graffiti on a generally sterling byline. White had his quirks—he liked to review two movies at once, he liked to snipe at other reviewers, he loved prickly headlines (his review of I’m Gonna Git You Sucka was titled “Sucka: A Conspiracy of Dumbness”)—and they could grate when they were employed at full force, but there was a timbre to his writing. You never read an Armond White review and felt anyone else had written it or even could have written it. Part historical analysis, part posturing, part insult comedy, his reviews were electric, somewhere between sermon, college lecture, and celebrity roast. "In a sense, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson's work is far too rich for Lee's simplified demonstration of what Black and white people, men and women, don't know about each other. He's photographing real people, while Lee is using stick figures to dramatize a scene,” he wrote of Jungle Fever in 1991. At that time White was the arts editor for The City Sun, a now shuttered black newspaper that circulated in New York City in the ’80s and ’90s. Published by Andrew Cooper, and managed by Utrice Leid, two black activists turned journalists, The City Sun distinguished itself from the consumerist cool of Jet and the cautious respectability of The Amsterdam News with bristling takedowns of black leaders and unfiltered commentary on the black community. In 1987, The New York Times described the paper as “new, tough black journalism.” When I interviewed White, he echoed this sentiment: “The black community had not known a serious newspaper before.” Elena Oumano, a former freelancer for The City Sun, offered me a less emphatic recollection, but her account still brims with quiet reverence. “With the passing of time, I really hold [the paper] in high regard. It was pretty unique,” she says. “There was a kind of overall point of view that was sharper, more willing to tell the truth.”White defined himself by truthtelling, going so far as to ask his editor at Film Comment to change his byline to “The Resistance.” (He ended up sticking with his birth name, but he did repurpose the title for his 1995 collection of reviews.) He covered theater, music, and arts exhibits for The City Sun, but it was through film that he honed his voice. In 1987 he was nominated to join the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) by Pauline Kael, a longtime New Yorker film critic. The appointment clearly meant a lot to him. “Growing up and going to school and reading great critics like James Agee, and Bosley Crowther, and Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris, and John Simon, and Stanley Kauffman ... I wanted to be among them,” he told me. Once among them, he remained for years, retaining his membership when The City Sun closed in 1996 due to persistent financial problems; when his next employer, New York Press, closed in 2011 due to a winding series of mismanagements and staff dilutions; and when his following employer, CityArts, closed in 2014 because of dwindling ad revenue. During this period White served as the chairman of the NYFCC three times, which entailed hosting the organization’s annual awards banquet and organizing programs honoring and supporting film. He also began to make his name online, transitioning from a fringe New York critic to a fixture on Rotten Tomatoes (his negative reviews often robbed movies of that coveted 100 percent fresh rating) and a cultural commentator. “Hipster self-righteousness has become a blight on film culture,” he wrote for Slate, shifting from films to viewers as his subject of interest, a pivot that would come to define his approach to film. In 2004, he started publishing his annual “Better Than” list, a year-end compendium and critique of every other year-end list all in one, truthtelling in viral form. His manifesto of sorts, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies,” published in April 2008, was the culmination of all the threads he wove during his migration to the web. In it White speaks of shuttered newspapers, devalued intellectual labor, bland consensus, and PR-driven hype, and you can really sense how many forces his writing pushes against and why that fight matters to him. New York Press hadn’t bottomed out yet, but White wrote as if film culture was a barbarous wasteland populated by ignorant fanboys and dupable imbeciles who knew nothing of film. The ambient gloom of the financial crisis loomed, but curiously, the Internet itself became White’s focal point. “Although criticism is everywhere, and some online reviewers prove themselves honest and less beholden to the power elite than print critics, the problem is this: So many Internetters get to express their ‘expertise,’ which essentially is either their contempt or idiocy about films, filmmakers or professional critics,” he wrote. “Do movie critics matter?” he asked in 2010. By 2014, the Internet had been increasingly questioning White’s own expertise. His reviews themselves made headlines (“Choice Quotes from Armond White's Green Hornet Review”; “First Bad Review for Toy Story 3 Comes Predictably from Armond White”), and his behavior at the NYFCC award banquets had become newsworthy (“World’s Crankiest Film Critic Makes Annette Bening Cry at Awards Show”; “Armond White debuts live version of his contrarian dick act at New York Film Critics Circle Awards”). And outside of the news cycle, his mere face had become visual shorthand for smugness. The truth was finally viral. Things got real when the NYFCC ousted him following allegations that he heckled director Steve McQueen at an awards ceremony—calling the filmmaker, according to various reports, a "garbage man and a doorman." The ouster was decided upon by an internal vote; Owen Glieberman, a member of the NYFCC, publicly defended the decision. White immediately set about defending himself, embarking on an inconclusive press tour. On the SlashFilm podcast, he denied the claims and said that jealous haters were colluding against him. When he was interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter, he admitted to talking during the ceremony, but claimed that he couldn't have been audible to anyone beyond his table. And he told The New York Times that he did have some profane words that evening, but they were directed at someone at his table. Whatever actually happened, while White did have an admitted history of disruption at these NYFCC banquets, it’s not clear why this would be the final straw: Multiple NYFCC members that I spoke with insisted on White’s guilt, but floundered when asked why or how it justified him being expelled, citing internal rules. White received an anti-censorship award for weathering the expulsion, a gloriously absurd turn for an ouster from a mere social club, but when a group of people whose profession is explaining their viewpoints can’t coherently articulate why they banned one of their members, it actually does feel a bit deserved. Though White speaks of his early years in the organization with a palpable longing, he denies the allegations and dismisses the Circle now as a snake pit filled with hacks. "I was interested in becoming a member of the Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Critics because the critics that I admired were in those groups. And it was a great pleasure to be among them," he says. "And then they died. It stopped being a pleasure. And a different breed of person took over the group." White's account feels too nostalgic to be taken entirely at face value, but even if the nature of the organization truly had changed, White believes there are fundamental differences between him and his contemporaries, in the circle and beyond. “My political consciousness is what separates me from other critics and what confounds other critics about me. Usually because they haven't formed their own political consciousness,” he told me. Taking the long view of his often politically charged body of work, that’s almost convincing, but the real thread that emerges, from The City Sun to his last few reviews at New York Press, is his insistence that criticism is journalism. White's best reviews rarely gesture at moving goalposts such as taste or sensibility. Like a discerning lawyer, he's more attentive to context and precedent, circumstance and history. Criticism isn’t mere personal reaction or response, he’s insisted for years: it’s literacy, analysis, reporting. Armond White doesn't review movies to uphold his Tomatometer score; he's interested in how movies fit into larger cultural mechanisms, what they say about the human condition. This is why he tends to pit movies against each other. His reviews aren't porous because he's full of hot air: it's because he refuses to seal movies off from the world into which they're born. At his best, Armond White's appeal is his audacity and his expertise—his perspective, not his consciousness.What tarnishes White's appeal is how calcified his expertise has become. No longer even nominally engaged with larger discourses, he writes with an embittered detachment, scoffing at an anonymous conglomerate of lesser writers and thinkers. White was always adversarial, but in his old columns, his rivals were named: Stanley Crouch, Greg Tate, Robert Christgau, Ann Powers—virtually anyone who ever wrote for the Village Voice. His tone was just as sardonic as it is now, but there was an air of community to all these callouts, a sense that he, and all critics, were participating in a grand commitment to art that necessitated disagreement and dialogue. White’s current reviews have no sense of any conversations beyond the ones in his own head. "Hollywood movies have become television at just the point when media shills are spreading the fake news that we’re experiencing a ‘new golden age’ of TV," he writes emptily in his review of Baywatch, the shills, the movies, and the television shows unnamed. "Kong: Skull Island and Contemporary Color coexist because Millennial culture is at odds with itself," he writes of those two movies, citing a mysterious conflict within a demographic group that no one can accurately define. Critics are expected to make loaded comparisons and to use their own inclinations as a wellspring for new perspectives, but since his expulsion from the NYFCC, White’s oppositional writing style has struggled. He brings the gusto of his past work, but he writes against criticism that doesn’t actually appear to exist, the silliest resistance. And as if sneering at phantom opinions isn’t damning enough, White has also started to become distant from rote facts. His joint review of Dope and To Pimp a Butterfly features an embarrassingly incorrect aside about the lack of reverence for the latter, despite it being one of 2015’s most critically acclaimed albums. In his review of Chi-Raq, he likened the film’s shallowness to the Black Lives Matter movement, neglecting the ways in which Black Lives Matter and Spike Lee fundamentally are at odds. His review of Southpaw, Horse Money, and Lila & Eve characterizes BLM as anarchic and nihilistic, as if an affirmation of life isn’t in its title and it didn’t spend the entire election year courting the state. His review of the Roots remake describes the movement as“wrongly educated,” as if it hasn’t actively drawn from past civil rights struggles. When I asked White about his particular grievance with Black Lives Matter, he spoke confidently. “They're not interested in coming up with proposals. What can I say? That's how the organization works. They don't come up with proposals. They just complain. The great civil rights movements of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s had answers. They had proposals. And Black Lives Matter doesn't come up with that.” Campaign Zero, an official set of policy proposals by Black Lives Matter, has been in circulation for over a year and has been regularly updated. It was even discussed in White’s resident publication, but he appears to have missed it. No one should be expected to know everything, but it’s jarring that White, who prides himself on his political awareness, has spent months pestering an organization whose basic politics he cannot describe. It’s even more damning that he’s taken this position against Black Lives Matter at the National Review, a conservative publication with a long history of anti-black rhetoric and that helped gestate the alt-right. When I mentioned his misunderstanding of Black Lives Matter, he taunted, “And then what?” quoting La Chinoise, a rhetorical fuck-off. It’s one thing to be caught sleeping, but White increasingly feels permanently and intentionally half-awake. His review of Silence and Assassin’s Creed, published in the second week of January, refers to 2017 as the age of Gawker, a site that shut down in August 2016. White’s dismissal of the Internet has been festering for years, but it no longer even seems attached to any real time spent on the web. “The Internet has made instantaneous response too common and there's less reflection, there's less sensitivity, there's less humanity, frankly,” he told me. Can he really mean this? Is he talking about the same Internet where journalists publicly self-flagellate themselves after a change of heart? Surely he isn’t referring to the Internet that hosts podcasts about movie extras, screenwriting, Denzel Washington, and individual minutes in Star Wars movies? These are basic currents in his field, yet White acts as if the entirety of film criticism is Siskel and Ebert flicking thumbs circa 1993. Only a dolt would say the Internet is a paradise, especially after print media’s failures to adapt led to the recession-era buyouts and layoffs that continue to hit newspapers hard and have levelled arts and culture sections. But it’s hard to take seriously the notion that the Internet is Armond White’s personal hell. White is a guy who cut his teeth in a newsroom filled with writers who believed that mainstream newspapers weren’t doing enough. He’s a guy who’s survived fiscal implosions at three different publications. He’s a guy who was expelled by his most cherished institution, maybe even deserved it, and was then given the chance to write about it. The Internet isn’t Armond White’s enemy: it’s his only friend. If White can’t recognize the irreverent spirit of The City Sun reincarnated in outlets like The Ringer and The Baffler and Vulture and Vice, he’s just not looking hard enough. And it’s a travesty not just because it’s his job to look at things closely, but because the print era he salivates over was no better. The Internet didn’t invent hype and wack writing and fluff. It’s just their new home. But White, like every other card-carrying old media nostalgist, seems so scared of the present that he deludes himself about the past, convinced a changing field is a dying field solely because he doesn’t like what he sees. Resistance is necessary, but it means little when it’s not accompanied by resilience: being flexible, adapting, understanding. White has done nothing but the opposite, shrinking into himself, his recent reviews withering into flaccid jabs and bland insults. Lines like this one from his review of Suicide Squad have become his bread and butter: “These comic-book characters are interesting in ways that abandon the nihilism Christopher Nolan brought to the previous Batman franchise, which merely continued Tarantino’s jokey, sadistic film noir.” White nearly bursts a lung blowing on his anti-comic book nerd dog whistle, and for what? To irk a few Nolanites? To rile up some Tarantino nerds? He’s gone from writing about movies to writing against viewers. His review of Get Out is pure, repugnant contempt. “Pushing buttons that alarm blacks yet charm white liberals, Peele manipulates the Trayvon Martin myth the same way Obama himself did when he pandered by saying, ‘Trayvon Martin could have been my son,’” he writes. There’s barely an opinion or fact to be found here, just inane, needling prodding of the audience he used to write for. You really can’t get lower than this: Armond White takes a watershed moment in this country’s ongoing civil rights struggles, a moment that was the genesis of a political movement he doesn’t understand, and reduces it to a myth that serves white people. Armond White should know better, but he no longers seems to know or care what words mean; he does know, however, what they can do—shock, aggravate, hurt. Roger Ebert was right: Armond White is a troll. Ultimately, the world doesn’t need Armond White, but it’s a shame that he’s slipped away. He wasn’t initially a contrarian or a hack or a troll; he was a gay black man with the audacity to demand that movies not be condescending and escapist and patronizing to the people that loved them, that needed them. He believed in black art and art in general and fought, sometimes pettily, sometimes harshly, for it to be appreciated seriously. He sneered at goofy shit like consensus and Tomatometers and Stanley Crouch because they had nothing to do with criticism. Criticism was arguments, confrontation, politics, enlightenment, resistance. But that’s who he was, back when he had colleagues, back when he listened, back when the NYFCC was accountable to him, and he to it, back when he was a journalist and not a blowhard. Now he’s just a joke. And even worse, he’s the most unfunny kind: the kind that used to rock you to your core, but now just confounds you, broken synapses firing into the void.
‘It’s Not Magic, It’s About Proximity to Truth’: An Interview with Sarah Meehan Sirk

The author of The Dead Husband Project on Sartre, motherhood and solving proofs. 

Sarah Meehan Sirk’s debut shorty story collection, The Dead Husband Project, is filled with pieces that amble along quietly until the reader realizes they have been thrown into the middle of an unsettling, life altering moment: the wait for a phone call with the results of an HIV test, or the immediate aftermath of the grisly death of a loved one. In the title story, an artist named Maureen is planning an installation around her terminal husband’s dead body, but is forced to change her plans when his health takes a turn for the better. In “Ozk,” a genius mathematician’s life’s work serves as a point of isolation for her introverted daughter. Sirk has worked as a radio producer and broadcaster for the CBC, and hosted the series Stripped, a show that explores the body inside and out. Though she’s had fiction published in Joyland, Taddle Creek, and PRISM international, she is still adjusting to her identity as an author, and mentions to me after our interview how weird it is to be on the receiving end of so many questions. Yet when asked about her stories, Sirk jumps to life with detailed answers, eager to bring me into the winding worlds of her characters. Anna Fitzpatrick: You've produced at the CBC, and you covered sports and crime earlier in your career, and now you have this book of short stories coming out. How did you get started writing fiction?  Sarah Meehan Sirk: I guess it was always in the background. In my early twenties, probably in university, there was a significant pull in the fiction direction. I just was kind of tinkering around. I started taking some of those continuing ed courses at Ryerson, wanted to do the Humber school, was thinking of doing the MFA but didn't have the money, but I was writing. I was starting to play around, and had writing groups, and was doing that on the side. What did you major in? Math and philosophy. You got some math in the book. I mean, you got a lotta philosophy but you got some math too. It's funny you say philosophy, because I've had a hard time to—wait, are we interviewing now? Yes, the recorder's on. This is my fancy interview voice. It's been a bit difficult trying to synthesize the stories, to talk about them. I wrote them over seven or eight years, and I certainly didn't have the intention of linking them when I was writing them. But that being said, I was thinking about stories and writers that have influenced me. I mean, I was shocked into a new level of awareness or something when I read the Wall by Jean Paul Sartre. When I was in philosophy, and when we got into the existential branch of thinking, that felt like, "Ok, here we go. These guys are speaking my language." Only in the last few days, honestly, when I've looked back at what I've written in these stories, I feel like almost all the characters are in these clear moments of crisis that are very human but also, they're disconnected. They're adrift. In some cases sort of obviously searching how to reconnect, but in other cases they're just longing for that reconnection. And in that moment of crisis, they seem to be confronting some very real, difficult questions about themselves and about loneliness, and I think that they're sometimes very awkward and difficult places to be, but I think that some of the most beautiful and real stuff comes out of that. I didn't mean to do that. That wasn't ever, "I'm going to do something existential," but I'm now seeing some of that influence in the stories. Well that answers all my questions. Good talk. Oh no! No, I'm kidding. You've got a lot of wham moments in the book, where characters get in car accidents, or make these amazing mathematical discoveries, but all the stories are very tight in a way, very internal. Well, I hope so. I was working full time. Many of the stories were written before I had a child, but some of them were written while I was pregnant, or after I had a child. My relationship to time changed once I had kids. How old is your oldest one? He just turned four. I think, in writing short stories… I never thought about writing anything else, to be honest with you. It wasn't like, practice to become a novelist. I felt like I could do the most in that form, with the time that I had. With short stories, to paraphrase something George Saunders said after writing a novel, you don't have as many balls in the air. You can kind of do more with the balls that you have. You can just narrow in and focus and not have to worry about where those characters are going to be in 200 pages. Yeah, and how they connect to something in 200 pages. You said you weren't looking to synthesize your stories, but did you notice any other links when you were deciding what to include in this collection? What I decided to include was, full disclosure, the best stories that I had. I was pregnant with my second child, and had this manuscript essentially done. I was ready—well, I was fearing going back full time without sending out this manuscript. Without knowing if there was going to be any interest in my writing, because I didn't know what I would be able to do, and I had two small children and a demanding full time job with respect to writing. It really was the best that I had. But to go back to whether there's a theme, looking back now I can see there's a yearning that's in each of the stories, and most often it's a yearning for a connection. You wrote some of these before you were even pregnant with your first child. Being a mother is such a thematic recurrence. In the very first story, the title story, you have Maureen who is an artist, and you start with her as a newlywed and jump ahead twenty years, and she's a mother. She's at a talk, hearing a young successful artist, Claudette, speak. Someone in the audience asks her for advice, and Claudette answers, "Let other people have kids." It's considered this feminist statement, like, "Oh, it's ok to put your career first!" And then Maureen's baby starts crying at that moment. What do you make of that? I'm so glad you touched on that, because that means so much to me, that moment. That's a piece of advice I'd read. I think my son was just born, or I was pregnant. Either way it was a kick to the gut, right? It's not like I hadn't heard that kind of thing before, but it was...when I read it, it was at the end of a list of advice to writers. The number one thing was, let other people have children. And I couldn't let that be true. There was that debate a number of years ago, Zadie Smith had gotten involved, when somebody had surmised that the ideal number of children to have if you're going to be a writer as a woman is one. And everyone said “That's absurd! You can't look at things that way.” However, I understand where that advice comes from. It is very difficult to write and probably do a lot of things, but I find it difficult to write and be a mother because in some ways, there is that pull in a different direction. The amount of time you have to do your work significantly changes. There are other things on your mind. Your perspective on the world changes. For me, that also opened a whole other understanding of things. Not only did it make me feel like, as one of the writers had said in that debate, you realize it's not about you. But there's a new connection that you have to other people who are parents, to an understanding of looking at the world in a completely different, wonderful way, like a child does. Personally, it made me do this. It pushed me forward, harder. I didn't say, "Ok, well maybe my writing's going to take a back seat." Absolutely not. I said, "I want my children to see that just because you become a parent, it doesn't mean the things that mean the most to you have to go away. I will prove to you that I can make this come true. I can prove to you that the very pinpoint goal that I have is going to happen." That's been my relationship to motherhood and writing, but I also wanted to take some control of that idea, and put that in a story somewhere because it affected me so much. It's odd to think that there's an ideal number of children to have if you're a writer, because it turns it into this equation. It's like those debates about whether you should get an MFA or go straight to writing. There shouldn't be a formula for being a writer, because you don't want every book to be written by someone with the exact same experiences. Well, that's what I think, too. Wouldn't it be a terrible thing if every book that's written is by someone that doesn't have children? What are we missing in that perspective? I feel very blessed and I'm very glad to have that as part of my arsenal when I approach my work. I read your book while I was visiting my family the other week. I just turned twenty-seven, so I'm at the age now when people are asking me, "When are you going to have kids?"— Ten years! I sympathize with Claudette when she was like, "Well, fuck you, I'm not gonna have kids, I'm going to focus on my art." It's such an either/or situation. It's not up to anyone else! And if you want to, you do. That's part of the wonderful thing. It's up to you. If that's what you want to do, great. And if you want to go the other direction, great. And you'll make it work. You'll figure it out, right? Most of the time. So you wrote that before you were a mother? That story started as a novel. As an attempt at a novel. I was pregnant with my son, my first born. I had originally started writing it from the daughter's perspective. They had moved out to the country, the father was convalescing after being cured of what had been, they thought, a terminal illness. She was watching her parents deal with this strange new relationship they'd had where her mother had been coming to life as her career was coming back to life, in direct relationship to the daughter's father dying. My agent was the one who said, I love this concept but I want to be with the wife. I want to be in her head. I found that—I was scared a little bit. I didn't want it to be cartoonish, and I didn't want her to be evil. I wanted her to be ambivalent and conflicted and not fully aware, I don't think, of what she was, of what the full implications of what she was doing were until they realized he wasn't going to die. Then she's forced into this moment of "Wait a second, I kind of think I wanted him dead. Why?" You see that he's this more prolific artist. He certainly has more confidence in his work than she did. He boldly pursued his work, his art, throughout their whole life together, and she was picking up sort of the details of life. Had a bit of a flailing attempt a few years after her daughter was born that didn't work out so well, and essentially just completely swept it under the rug until there was an opportunity. I think they were roles that they just fell into, but I think it, you know, as I said, I didn't want to—it felt like dangerous terrain to even start considering.... That mindset? That mindset! Yeah. I just read Elizabeth Hardwick's essay collection Seduction and Betrayal because another person I interviewed for Hazlitt a couple of months ago told me to read it. They're essays about women and literature, but she writes about women adjacent to famous authors, like Zelda Fitzgerald and Dorothy Wordsworth, and a lot of it grapples with the idea of this second genius in the family that didn't get the same advantages. An interesting thing you dealt with in your book is that the reader doesn't know if Maureen is actually more talented than her husband. It's not a matter of like, "Oh, she's the real genius." He could very well be a better artist. It's about how she just never went for it. You don't even know what the levels are, because it's not about that. It's not about who's more talented or who deserves it more, it's who has the permission to even pursue it. I think that's a really good way of putting it. I don't know how conscious I was of who was better, because as you said I don't think it was about that. I think we, naturally, in coupledom, can fall into roles. Sometimes one person's pursuits can take up so much space in a relationship that it just doesn't feel like there's space for the other person. And maybe they're not conscious of that. It's just sort of you, it's a rhythm that you can fall into. With Joe dying, and it was his idea in the first place too, to use the body of the other in a work of art when one of them dies, she starts to feel that she can breathe. She starts to feel like, "I've got these ideas! Things are making sense! I start to feel like myself! I'm reconnecting with the person I was a number of years ago." There's a scene that jumped out at me when I reread it, that wasn't intentional. I don't know if I'm supposed to admit that. Near the end of the first scene, he essentially smothers her, and blocks her view of the thing that's inspiring her. Which he doesn't know about, it's in her mind. But that is essentially a metaphor for the rest of their relationship. You follow up "The Dead Husband Project" which "Ozk," which is about a daughter dealing with a mother who's the opposite of Maureen. She just goes full into her passion. I think it was always fascinating to me. Because I was conflicted too. The more writing I was doing, the clearer it became to me that it was really what I needed to do, as I was going through my twenties and into my thirties. At the same time, as you said, you hit a certain point where everyone starts looking at you a different way, and thinking "When are you going to start having kids?" I think that must have always just been in the back of my mind while I'm writing, and I think that's an incredibly significant relationship to say the least, and so much can be mined in the difficulties of that relationship, when you have two very particular characters. I don't think the mother in Ozk is an awful person. She's more of a savant who had a different ability to be connected that her daughter, who wasn't a savant, didn't fully understand. In the first story, you have this third person narration, where you're in the mother's head a lot but you flirt with other points of view a little, the second story is strictly the daughter's point of view, and then the third story, you've got the mother's perspective, but she's talking to the husband. It felt like you were looking at this concept from all angles. I guess I was. I should sell it like that! I meant to do that. Then in the fourth story it's something totally different, so there goes my theory. "Motherhood in crisis" should be the subtitle. Well, when I was writing my questions for this interview, they were all about motherhood. And I thought, "It's reductive that I'm going to go talk to a woman author and then focus on her being a mother." But then it's reductive that I think it's going to be reductive. That overthinking it. Of course. You don't want to talk to an author and be like, "So, you're a mom, what's the deal with that?" But I don't want to dismiss it. I want to talk about it. I feel like, I've done a lot of things. I've had a good career in broadcasting, I did some interesting things in university, I waitressed for a long time in between and was figuring stuff out. I don't just define myself as a mother who's a writer, but my children are not in school yet. I have one who's in diapers. As any mother will know, as any parent will know, that occupies a tremendous amount of your mental and emotional space, if not, like, 95% of it. So to be doing this kind of work, which is mining your deepest feelings and truths and things like that, I think it'd be disingenuous for me, in my experience. At the same time, I feel like there's a lot of things that I had been drawn to in relationships, in motherhood, in parenthood in general, because there are a couple of stories that are from the male perspective, where there are these disappointments and regrets and uncertainties and the loneliness that you're not really supposed to talk about, still. There's some stuff that's out there, but it's not something that you get into with someone until maybe you've been talking to them for a long time, and then you start bringing this stuff up. And there could be a lot of apologies around it or guilt, and "I know I shouldn't really be saying this, but..." That's the kind of stuff I like to write about. I think there's a lot of that stuff in these stories, those very real, hard to deal with feelings that are part of that stage in life. The question of, do you want to be an artist or a mother, it's like, "Well, don't mothers have a lot to say?" It's something that so many people experience, but can still be unique to each person. Motherhood represents this huge swath of humanity that's been largely brushed aside in art. Like, it's just going to be too much of an interruption, is how I felt it can be defined. And like, Zadie Smith has two children, and thinks it's absolutely absurd that you can put any limit on the number you can have. And she said, "Was it a problem for Dickens to have ten?" Of course, it was a different time. And Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, they have four children. Is it just a problem for her and not for him? But I don't overthink that as much as I might sound like I do. It's ‘cause I'm asking you all these questions. But I related to Claudette. Believe me, when I was 27? I didn't start having kids until I was in my mid-thirties. I would have been Claudette for sure, for a very long time, that's exactly how I felt. I wasn't sure. And the other thing, the writing, was more important at that time. Or getting to a place where I felt strong enough with it. So you can be both! Whenever someone says, "You're going to want to have a kid someday, you'll change your mind," the instinct is to push back. And I don't know if I do or don't want to have a kid, but then you're forced to adopting this stance, "Well now I'm never going to." Exactly! And there becomes some animosity and weirdness around the whole idea of it. Now I have to navigate it under your watch. It can become so complicated. But it made me write. It made me write, honestly, in so many more ways. I had to become better with my time. My son didn't sleep at first. I originally thought I was going to write a novel on my first maternity leave, and you can laugh, and you don't even know how insane that is to think about. Unless you have a good sleeper. But I didn't. And when he started napping after eight or nine months, I had an hour in the morning. I had never done more with an hour than I did with the rest of my maternity leave in that one slot of day. It was like somebody handed me a pot of gold every single day. It was my most amazing time. I got so much done. Moreso than I probably had in years before. I knew what I wanted. And kids can help you focus in kind of a weird way, in your bigger trajectory. It's a profound life change in a lot of ways, and it doesn't have to take away from your art. What area of math did you study? There wasn't a particular area. It was an undergrad program. I started in a couple of other things. I was in this program called Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Toronto for a brief time. That sounds fancy. It was brand new and it was fun to say. I loved it. I loved the people that I met. It was like the island of misfit toys, but the smartest and most interesting people that were into art and science and all kinds of stuff. But the computer science side and I were not friends. That was not going to work. But I loved the math and I loved the philosophy, and that's how I ended up double majoring in both. I have regretted for a long time, as my writing became more and more of a serious pursuit, that I hadn't done in undergrad in English lit. I was an English major and I always wish I did math. Really? I love number theory. I mean, I read the pop science books about it now, that explain it in simple ways for people who didn't study math. But I loved math in high school. I felt like being an English major was a really easy thing to fake. I don't know why I didn't. I can't remember. When you're eighteen, nineteen, you just kind of go with whatever feels good. I had these romantic aspirations of, "I'm gonna read literatuuure" and now I'm like, I can read books on my own, I can't teach myself the more complicated math. Yeah. In the higher levels, you're doing a lot of proofs. They could take a long time. I certainly wasn't a savant. It took me a little while to get the concepts, but once I did, once you get locked into a proof, it's meditative. It's amazing. I loved it so much. I could sit on the fourth floor of the library by myself for hours. Hours would go by, and it was just this beautiful flow from one line to the next to the next until it's natural conclusion. The only experience that is like writing to me is that. I don't mean anything I've done journalistically is like that. What I think a big part of the pull was, and it was not something I ever had words for at the beginning but there was a pull, once writing was going well, and it certainly doesn't happen all the time, but when you're locked into it there's a natural flow from line to line to line to this logical conclusion. You do feel like you're elsewhere. When it's going well. I should emphasize. When it's going well. I don't want to be overly precious about it because it's not like it's like magic, but it feels like it's about the proximity to truth.
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
A Thousand Ways to Make It

The history of curry is a close parallel to the formation of South Asian diasporic identity, a blend of conflicting cultural messages forced into coherence.

The entire category of food writing comes with built-in nostalgia. It resurrects remembered meals. M. F. K. Fisher’s rapturous descriptions of eating in France, for example, are also the story of an adventurous American woman abroad, writing and living in quaint circumstances with a husband or between marriages. Fisher’s adventurous trip to isolated restaurants in Burgundy, where she’s served pickled herring that is “mild, pungent, meaty as fresh nuts,” and trout served au bleu, gutted and cooked half-alive in bouillon, “agonizingly curled on a platter,” is as much about the sense of being alone and given a unique gift in a foreign land, as it is about the food, which Fisher actually describes in rather quick little clauses compared to the considerable time given to her own sensations of hunger, surfeit, determination, and even fear in the face of an epic meal. Food writing, at least outside of the confines of the newspaper restaurant review, is also memoir. When a food writer is associated with a certain ethnic background, that written act of nostalgia is positioned as a cultural looking-back. One of the conventions of diasporic food writing dictates that the writer’s identity and self-discovery are implicitly linked to a tracing of culinary roots, a finding-out of who he or she really is in the rich smell of a Keralan masala finally nailed. That’s the extra dimension to writing about ethnic foods: beyond meditating on hunger and fulfillment, writing about the real food of one’s ancestors becomes a meditation on personal and familial identity, and its relationship to the place where one grew up, or was wrested away from. The inability of the writer to reproduce his or her mother’s aloo gobi often becomes, as if by default, a metaphor for the impossibility of full communication between generations—a metaphor so overwrought it’s now as codified and recognizable as a Noh mask. Curry’s range of definitions, edible and otherwise, prevent it from having a stable existence. It’s a leaf, it’s a process, it’s a certain kind of gravy with uncertain ingredients surrounding a starring meat or vegetable. It’s an elevating crust baked around previously bland foodstuffs, but it’s also an Indian fairy tale composed by cooks, Indians, émigrés, colonists, eaters, readers, and writers. The unifying notion of curry as an authentic, homeland-defining collection of dishes that form a cultural touchstone for diasporic brown folks is a cliché, in the same way food-based bonds between people from any culture who find themselves in a new land is a cliché. But curry can’t be trapped. If you push through the cliché, you arrive at a surprising truth: the history of this ever-inauthentic mass of dishes is a close parallel to the formation of South Asian diasporic identity, which is as much of a blend of conflicting cultural messages forced into coherence as Indian cuisine itself. * In “The Long Way Home,” a 2004 essay for the New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize–winning Indian-American novelist Jhumpa Lahiri connects family, roots, secrets, and the lost unknowables of the past incarnated in particular delicious dishes. Lahiri’s mother had learned to cook by witnessing and participating in her own mother’s cooking in Calcutta, learning lessons that she carried to America by, for example, getting “down on the floor to pound turmeric or chilies on a massive grinding stone.” Lahiri’s mother joins a line of mothers in this food-writing tradition. Like so many before her, she’s kindly evasive when asked to share recipes, and never records or verbally details them: “To this day, if friends ask how she made a particular dish, she cryptically replies, ‘It’s nothing, really, you simply take all the ingredients and put them in the pot.”’ This reluctance to share methods is perhaps true of many mothers, and extremely common in these nostalgic essays and stories. My mother, thankfully, will give up any recipe, with detailed directions. Lahiri ends up learning her Indian-cooking techniques from a cookbook by Madhur Jaffrey, doyenne of subcontinental cookery books and TV since the early 1970s. In the end, her mother is quietly impressed, taking a photo of the spread that Lahiri and her sister make for their parents’ thirtieth anniversary. In 2016, Scaachi Koul wrote about learning how to cook the dishes of her childhood as an adult in Buzzfeed: My mom had watched my grandmother cook for years, knew her languages, knew how to pleat a sari or mutter a Kashmiri insult (‘Thrat’) or throw a wedding for her son, 25 years after she moved away. I don’t have any of these secrets, because I was born in North America and raised around white people in a family that wanted to integrate. So it felt important to at least try to remember how my own mom did things. Late last week, I called my mom to get a refresher on a few of her recipes. I wanted to make rogan josh, aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower), chicken biryani (chicken and rice), and paneer with palak (spinach). But my mom, like so many Indian mothers I know, has always avoided giving me complete recipes. Mothers are an important and authentic part of the curry genre, both cooked and written: not only a source of accessible, cross-cultural nostalgia, but a reminder that there are domestic, comforting aspects to exoticism. The parental link to the homeland, especially for writers with immigrant parents who themselves were born in the West, or who moved to the West at such a young age that their grasp on the old country is delicate, questioned by brown people who dismiss their experiences or white people who say, “But you seem so white,” can also have a sinister, minimizing aspect. Mothers are permitted to be mysterious or generous in this system of symbolism, but in Lahiri’s essay, her mother’s pattern of selective withholding becomes her primary trait: and Lahiri, the writer, is burdened with mastering the domestic skill of cooking in order to achieve an understanding and connection with her mother. In Koul’s piece, being able to cook her mother’s food comes to stand in for her mother’s presence: Koul manages to pull off cooking a solid meal, catching the intangible scents of her mother’s kitchen while she prepares it, but the meal “wasn’t as good because my food, as surprisingly palatable as it was, didn’t include my mom hovering over me with a wooden spoon.” For these writers, their personal relationships with their mothers overwhelm the symbolic stand-in of mother for motherland, of food and the ability to prepare it properly as a marker of authenticity: but for many readers, the mother on the page remains a symbolic stand-in for authenticity lost, despite the writer’s labour to own the metaphor, to make it personal. That this treatment of a relationship between food, family bonds, and a fraying connection to the homeland appears frequently in essays and novels by diasporic South Asians doesn’t invalidate it. An oft repeated story isn’t a false one: experiences like the ones described by Koul and Lahiri take place in the kitchens of brown undergraduates worldwide. Their essays hit many of the same points about authenticity, love, and the unknowability of one’s parents, but stylistically they are distinct to their authors, and there is no sense that the details are anything but true, lived experience. I’ve had a bunch of those experiences, too. A recipe is given over the phone, but a half pound of burnt onions and candied-walnuts-subbing-for-almond-slivers later, there’s a stovetop of muck that has nothing to do with home, comfort, or good food. Just failure, distance, a sense that something essential has been lost. This is authentic, isn’t it? It’s also relatable, to readers from any number of immigrant backgrounds. Stories beget similar stories, and they don’t become lies as a result. But endless encounters with one narrative—one that tells us that truth and colonialism are embedded in these family recipes and our failures to cook them—make me wonder why I keep reading this particular story over and over again. South Asian food came to major prominence in the West with the explosion of Indian restaurants in the U.K., and the formative wave of South Asian diasporic writers followed soon afterward. When genres and forms have been around for long enough, there comes a point when they risk calcifying. This narrative thread, this way of thinking about curry, is one iteration of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently called “the single story,” one overarching narrative that “creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” * When I first moved out of the house and my mother realized the depths of my incompetence as a cook, she pinned a sheet of paper to the kitchen wall of my apartment (not with a pin, but with a toothpick, running the paper through and affixing it to a pre-existing gouge in the drywall) with recipes for the BASIC MAURITIAN and BASIC INDIAN bases of any number of dishes, featuring onions, garlic, a more-or-less identical meld of spices, and in MAURITIAN’s case, ginger. Ginger is almost omnipresent in Indian food, but I’m still surprised for a half second when I run into it in a recipe from Madras or Chennai, due to this piece of paper that is still toothpicked to my brain. In memories and stories, the diasporic household often becomes a stand-in for the land of origin, a circumscribed set of walls that bound in language, scents, tastes, ethical codes, and patterns of love and communication that start to shimmer and vanish if the front door is left open too long. It’s a backdrop to the stories, one encountered so often that I distrust my own household recollections sometimes, as though one of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s short stories or a Sri Lankan pal’s childhood anecdote has supplanted my memory. But the paper my mother pinned up wasn’t a signet of the unreachable past: it was a set of dumbed-down instructions for a boy who had been spoiled nightly at the family dining table. Growing up, I always knew there would be food on the table, in the fridge, a delicious and seemingly inexhaustible supply. Toothpicking the paper to the wall marked a break. For me, the act of cooking was to be about self-sufficiency, adulthood—not a reanimation of childhood. That’s what eating is for: manning the pots and pans meant taking the reins of adulthood, a common factor in many immigrant stories and essays, like Koul’s and Lahiri’s, like the one I’m telling now. But self-sufficiency was the stated purpose of cooking when my mother was making sure I learned how to feed myself—there were no arcane codes held back from one generation to the next only to be revealed through hardship, experience, and a moment of deep eye contact and admittance to the secrets of our ancient race. * I make a chicken curry a few times a month, from a now-freehanded recipe liberally adopted from Vikram Vij’s first cookbook, modified by my own tendency to favour coriander and turmeric. I take some trendily twenty-first-century licence of my own by throwing in torn-up kale leaves as the curry approaches the end of its simmer: an effective way of vanishing greens under the vivid yellow of this sour cream–aided sauce, which acts as a subtle delivery model for the red powder hiding deep in the masala. The introduction of sour cream into a curry, by the way, wouldn’t be entertained in the home I grew up in. Yogurt, sure, but not sour cream. I like it and think it works pretty well in this dish, though I often forget to stir a bit of masala into the sour-cream container to bring the temperature up before dumping the whole thing into the pot, which leads to a distastefully curdled appearance that guests are usually too kind to comment on. This dish is mine now, based not just on the addition of kale but on one of the great strengths of curry: its flexibility, its demand that you freehand ingredients. While curry, and Indian cuisine in general, has always taken in spices and approaches from neighbouring countries and invading empires while continuing to be strongly regionally defined, precision measurement of spices is genuinely foreign. It’s telling that imprecision is one of the few true signifiers of authenticity for a dish as inauthentic as curry. The inability to nail down exactly how much of what goes in what is a recurring element of the curry narrative. Excerpted from Curry: Eating, Reading and Race, available now from Coach House Books. 
The Legion Lonely

Over the past few decades, loneliness has reached almost epidemic levels, with men uniquely suffering its effects. How and why has isolation become such a threat?

On Thursday, July 13, 1995, a concentration of high pressure in the upper atmosphere above Midwest Chicago forced massive amounts of hot air to the ground, causing temperatures as high as 41°C (106°F). In a Midwestern city not built for tropical heat, roads buckled, cars broke down in the street, and schools closed their doors. On Friday, three Con Ed power transformers failed, leaving 49,000 people without electricity. In high-rise apartments with no air conditioning, temperatures hit 49°C (120°F) even with the windows open. The heat continued into Saturday. The human body can only take about 48 hours of uninterrupted heat like this before its defenses begin to shut down, and emergency rooms were so crowded they had to turn away heatstroke victims. Sunday was no better, and as the death toll rose—of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and renal failure—the morgues hit capacity, too, and bodies were stored in refrigerated meat-packing trucks. In all, 739 people died as a result of the heat wave. In its aftermath, an inquiry found, unsurprisingly, that the majority of those who died were poor, old, and lived alone. More surprising was the gender imbalance: significantly more men died than women. This was especially strange considering that in Chicago in July of 1995, there were more old women who lived alone than old men. What made these men more vulnerable than the women? It wasn’t physical circumstances. Both groups lived mostly in “single room occupancy” buildings, or SROs—apartments of one room in what used to be called flophouses. It was social circumstances. The phrase “No known relatives” appears repeatedly in police reports of the dead men’s homes. Letters of regret were found on floors and in backs of drawers: “I would like to see you if that’s possible, when you come to the city”; “It seems to me that our family should have gotten along.” The single rooms of the deceased are described as “roach infested” and “a complete mess,” indicating few or no visitors. The women, according to Eric Klinenberg, who wrote a book on the heat wave, had people who checked up on them and so kept them alive; the men did not. “When you have time please come visit me soon at my place,” read another letter, unsent. What conditions lead to this kind of isolation? Why men? * Artie, 63, who lives in Beards Fork, West Virginia, population 200, has never married. He grew up in Beards Fork, but spent most of his life elsewhere. He moved back when he was 47 to take care of his sick mother, who died earlier this year. Now, after putting his own life on hold for sixteen years, he finds himself single, semi-retired, and without a close friend. “Life goes by really fast,” he said. Since his mom died, he’s found himself thinking, “Where in the hell did it go?”  This is the kind of thing he used to talk about with his mother. Now that she’s gone, he doesn’t really open up to anyone. He has no close friends in the area, and he’s “felt a lot of depression over the past few years.” Artie’s not an antisocial guy or a homebody. His career brought him into contact with hundreds of interesting people over the years; he lived in California for a decade, and before that he had a nine-year relationship. But back in his hometown, all the connections he made seem to have melted away. “I don’t really have any close friends, other than my family,” he said, “which is something different.” (A 2005 Australian study agreed: while close friendships increase your longevity by up to 22 percent, family relationships make no difference.) Artie has a group of friends he met in his thirties and forties with whom he’s still in touch, mainly on Facebook, but those relationships are “not quite the same as the friendships I had when I was younger. Less deep. Less vulnerable. And I’m not even sure I want to [open up].” He’s somewhat close with a few of his former coworkers, but though they confide in him, he doesn’t feel like he can confide in them. “They’re younger,” he said. “They don’t understand my problems.” Despite being semi-retired, he still goes into the office every day and stays late, after everyone’s gone. “I’m reluctant to go home,” he said. “Nobody’s there.” In many ways, Artie seems in danger of going down the path of those Chicago SRO-dwellers. But there’s an important difference between those men and Artie: what the former had in common was their social isolation—having few or no social connections. Artie’s problem, on the other hand, is one of loneliness—the feeling of being isolated, regardless of your social connectedness, usually due to having few or no confidants.  Is this my future?   At first glance it seems unlikely. I’m 34. I have what seems to me a pretty active social life. I’m integrated into my community and I go to arts events regularly. I’ve lived here in Toronto off and on since I was 18. I went to university here. I helped found an arts venue here. I know hundreds of people here, if not thousands. I have multiple jobs—college instructor, freelance writer, tutor. I have friends. Whatever path led to these lonely destinations, I want to believe, is not the path I’m on. When I die, my floor will be tidy, and my letters sent. And yet, there’s something about their stories that seems eerily familiar. Slowly but surely, I feel my social world slipping away from me. All three of my jobs combined require me to be around other humans a total of about eight hours out of a week’s 168. The other 160, I’m mostly at home. It’s not unusual for me to go several days in a row with no social contact of any kind, and the longer I go without it, the scarier it feels. I become shy, paranoid that no one would want to hang out with me. Social slights metastasize in my brain. I start to avoid social functions, convinced I’ll walk into a wall of mysterious eye contact. I live close to many friends, but I hide from them when I see them in the street. I don’t think of myself as antisocial—I love people, love being around them, and have had so many good friendships—but it often feels like an uphill battle, and mystifyingly complex, to not slip back endlessly into this pit of despair. The thing is, I wasn’t always like this. How did I get here?  * Friendship in adulthood is a challenge for a lot of people. On average, both men and women start to lose friends around age 25, and continue to lose friends steadily for the rest of our lives. As adults, we tend to work more, commit to more serious romantic relationships, and start families, all of which end up taking priority over buddy time. Even if, like me, at age 34, you don’t have full-time work, you’re not in a relationship, and you’re nowhere close to starting your own family, others’ adulting leaves you bereft. Furthermore, young adults move around the country more than any other demographic, which severs our support networks—a phenomenon Robert Putnam calls the “re-potting” effect, referring to the injury a transplanted plant sustains losing its roots. People are changing jobs more than ever, which interrupts connections that in previous eras would have become decades long. And freelancing, which Forbes estimates 50 percent of the U.S. workforce will be doing in one way or another by 2020, deprives the worker of not only job security, but social stability. As a freelancer who’s had six different jobs in the past year alone and who lived in a dozen countries throughout my twenties, I fall squarely into the most vulnerable part of this Venn diagram. I try to compensate by keeping up with, like, four or five different friend-groups on social media—mostly Facebook, where I have 3,691 contacts—but I often find myself using social media more like a performance art video game than a way to facilitate friendships. And studies show that I’m closer to the norm than the exception. “Online social contacts with friends and family,” as one study put it, “were not an effective alternative for offline social interactions in reducing feelings of loneliness.” And that’s what I am, I guess. Lonely. Sometimes excruciatingly so. Loneliness can be measured by psychometry like the UCLA Loneliness Scale (I scored 21 out of 40) or the De Jong Gierveld Loneliness Scale (I am high on emotional loneliness, low on social loneliness). For me, though, loneliness at its core is a stubborn, irrational certainty that no matter how well I know the people in my life—several of whom I consider close, some of whom I’ve known for decades—I am not, as the poem goes, involved in mankind. I still feel, in the bad moments, frantic with isolation, and become my 16-year-old self, desperate on the edge of my parents’ bathtub, mentally searching for a friend, having ruled out all the obvious candidates. I tried to summon a world in which Blake MacPhail, whose sister’s apartment I visited once two years earlier, could be considered my friend. That wasn’t the loneliest I ever felt, but it set the template, and I still feel that way more often than perhaps those who know me would suspect. Or maybe they would suspect it; maybe they feel it too; over the past few decades, as the structure of society has changed, loneliness has increased, and now affects almost half the population. Just last week, the American Psychological Association issued a press release advising that "many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’"  And as if feeling lonely wasn’t bad enough, it also turns out that loneliness and isolation are shockingly bad for your health and wellbeing. The quality of your friendships is the largest predictor of your happiness. Social isolation weakens your immune system, raises your blood pressure, messes with your sleep, and can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. According to the authors of a widely cited meta-analysis, loneliness on its own can increase your chances of an early death by 30 percent and "heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity." And in practical terms, being in contact with nobody in an emergency, like the men in the Chicago heat wave, can kill you in an instant. Unfortunately for me, like the majority of those Chicago dead, I belong to another, perhaps counterintuitive, at-risk category: I’m a man. All that freelancing and moving and adulthood stuff affects men and women alike, but, for a complex set of reasons, men face additional roadblocks to connection. On average, we have fewer confidants and are more socially isolated. Women do report being lonelier than men, and research says, statistically, they are—if they're married and between the ages of 20 and 49. For all other demographics, though, men are in fact lonelier than women. On top of all that, there’s a consensus among researchers that due to male reluctance to self-identify as having emotional problems, the ubiquity of men’s loneliness is probably being underestimated.  * I have a photograph of my friend Tyler and myself snuggling on my parents’ cream carpet, in the sun, next to my sandy dog. It’s a sweet moment, but captures something bitter, too: this was probably the last time I touched a male friend in a way that wasn’t a handshake or a bro-y hug. We were, like, six. One avenue into understanding men’s loneliness is to consider how children are socialized. In an interview, Niobe Way, a professor of developmental psychology at New York University who has been doing research with adolescent boys for almost three decades, talked about how we are failing boys. “The social and emotional skills necessary for boys to thrive are just not being fostered,” she said in an interview. Indeed, when you look at the research, men do not start life as the stereotypes we become. Six-month-old boys are likely to “cry more than girls,” more likely to express joy at the sight of our mother’s faces, and more likely to match our expressions to theirs. In general, before the age of four or five, research shows that boys are more emotive than girls. The change begins around the time we start school: at that age—about five—boys become worse than girls at “changing our facial expressions to foster social relationships.” This is the beginning of a socialization process in “a culture that supports emotional development for girls and discourages it for boys,” according to Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. This begins to affect our friendships early—in a study in New Haven, Connecticut, boys aged 10-18 were significantly worse than girls at knowing who their friends were: “over a two-week period, the boys changed their nomination of who their best friend was more frequently than girls, and their nomination was less likely to be reciprocated.” Still, there’ll never be better soil than school in which to grow friendships, and most boys do find good friends as children. Way, who summarized her findings in her book Deep Secrets, found that, up until early adolescence, boys are not shy about how much they love their friends. Way quotes one boy named Justin in his first year of high school: “[My best friend and I] love each other... That’s it... you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. ... I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect, and love for each other.” Another high school freshman, Jason, told Way friendships were important because then “you are not lonely ... you need someone to turn to when things are bad.” However, for many boys—Way calls it “near-universal”—a shift occurs in late adolescence, roughly from the ages of 15-20. In a phase of life we often think of in optimistic terms—self-discovery, coming of age—boys’ trust in each other shatters like glass. Three years after his first interview, Jason, asked if he had any close friends, said no, “and immediately adds that while he has nothing against gay people, he himself is not gay.” Another boy interviewed by Way in the eleventh grade who up until the year before had maintained a best friendship for ten years said he now had no friends because “you can’t trust nobody these days.” In interviews with thousands of boys, Way saw a tight correlation between confiding in close friends and mental health, and she observed that, across all ethnic groups and income brackets, three quarters of the boys she spoke to “grow fearful of betrayal by and distrustful of their male peers” in late adolescence, and “begin to speak increasingly of feeling lonely and depressed.” Making matters worse, in the middle of this estrangement from other boys, as we’re becoming young men, we’re governed more than ever by a new set of rules about what behaviour we’re allowed to show. Psychologists call them display rules. “Expressions of hurt and worry and of care and concern for others,” according to white high schools boys, are “gay” or “girly.” Black and Hispanic boys, according to Way’s interviews, feel pressure to conform to even stricter rules. Men who break the rules, and express “sadness, depression, fear, and dysphoric self-conscious emotions such as shame and embarrassment” are viewed as “unmanly” and are comforted less than women. Way told me when she speaks in public, she often quotes a 16-year-old boy who said, “It might be nice to be a girl, ‘cause then I wouldn’t have to be emotionless.” * And yet, it’s easy to be skeptical—aren’t men doing fine, compared to everyone else? How much does this actually hurt men? They still have friends, don’t they? And yes, entering adulthood, and up to the age of 25, men and women do have approximately the same number of friends. For the outsider looking in, then, and even for the man himself, it may appear that nothing’s amiss. But to paraphrase University of Missouri researchers Barbara Bank and Suzanne Hansford, men have power, but are not well. In the UK, suicide rates among men are steadily rising. In the US, so is unemployment among men, often coupled with opioid abuse. In a 2006 paper addressed to psychiatric practitioners, William S. Pollack of Harvard Medical School wrote, “present socialization systems are dangerous to boys’ physical and mental health and to those around them, leading to increased school failure, depression, suicide, lonely isolation, and, in extremis, violence.” In a study Pollack did of boys age 12-18, only 15 percent of them projected “positive, forward-looking sentiment regarding their futures as men.”  Women keep being intimate with their friends into adulthood, and men, generally, do not: “Despite efforts to dismiss it, the finding that men’s same-sex friendships are less intimate and supportive than women’s is robust and widely documented.” Perhaps you want to say that men just like it that way. Perhaps you want to say, like Geoffrey Grief, writing in Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, “Men are more comfortable with shoulder-to-shoulder friendships while women prefer face-to-face friendships, which are more emotionally expressive.” Shoulder-to-shoulder meaning: engaging in a shared activity, like playing a game of pick-up basketball, as opposed to confiding face-to-face and being emotionally vulnerable. This may be true for some men, who, like some women, need less intimacy than others. But when asked, men say we wish we had more intimacy in our friendships with other men. “What is wrong with men," Bank and Hansford asked, "that they can’t or won’t do what they enjoy to the same extent as women do?” In a study of 565 undergraduates, they investigated. Six possible reasons why men shut each other out were measured by questions like “how often [the subject] and their best friend showed affection for each other, had a strong influence on the other, confided in the other, and depended on the other for help.” The worst offenders? Homophobia, and something they called “emotional restraint,” which they measured by responses to statements like “A man should never reveal worries to others.” From the vantage point of adulthood, especially in progressive circles, it’s easy to forget the ubiquitous and often quasi-ironic homophobia of teen boys, which circulated among my guy friends. That’s why it was amazing to read Dude, You’re a Fag by C. J. Pascoe,11I have to call attention to the fact that so much of the most insightful work on masculinity—Way, Bank, Hansford, Pascoe, Fehr, and others—has been done by women. who spent a year embedded in an American high school divining and taxonomizing the structures of teen male identity in intricate and systemic detail. She concluded that “achieving a masculine identity entails the repeated repudiation of the specter of failed masculinity”—in other words, boys must earn their gender over and over again, often by “lobbing homophobic epithets at one another.” And unfortunately, for boys both gay and straight, the rise of gay marriage and queer visibility has not made schoolyards any more tolerant. In fact, Way, who still works with kids in New York City schools, warned that, in contrast to the unselfconscious way straight men can be physically affectionate in repressive societies, in cultures where being gay is a publicly viable option, boys actually feel even more pressure to prove their straight identity. “I hear that coming from all sorts of sources—parents, kids,” said Way, who notes the simultaneity of the rise of gay acceptance and the phrase “no homo.” Way discusses yet another reason men may shut each other out: a major betrayal or insult we don’t have the relationship skills to get past. Though they often happen in late adolescence, Way saw the fallout from these formative injuries as “a dramatic loss that appears to have long-term consequences.” For all these reasons—the socialization we receive as kids, as well as emotional restraint, homophobia, experiences of betrayal, and many others22Bank & Hansford’s other four: 1) role conflicts, where men feel their one role, e.g. as a romantic partner, means they cannot continue in another role, e.g., as a friend; 2) lack of parental models for friendship; 3) competitiveness interfering with intimacy; and 4) masculine self-identity—e.g., “real men don’t talk about feelings.”—many men stop confiding in each other, trusting each other, supporting each other, and expressing emotion around each other. And if you subtract all that, what kind of friend will you be, exactly? *  “Fickle” and “calculating” is what men tend to be as friends, according to a four-year study at the University of Manchester. More neutrally stated, a comparative study of men in New Zealand and the United States found that, in both cultures, “friendships between males tend to be instrumental in nature, whereas female friendships are more intimate and emotional.” We’re good at being buddies when times are good, but in harder times we tend to abandon each other, or hide from each other, knowing or fearing the other won’t have the language or skills—or will—to support us.  Dave, 30, a writer and bartender, who struggles to form deep connections with other men, said navigating male friendship is “almost as challenging as dealing with girls when you’re single—you don’t know how close a guy wants to get.” Most of Dave’s friendships are with his male coworkers at the bar, and they mostly just talk about sports. “If the conversation ever gets a little more personal, it’s usually because we’re like, six beers in. And the next time we see each other it’s just like, ‘hey.’”  For some men, there’s a direct line from their years as the New Haven schoolboys whose best-friend nominations were unreciprocated to now. Our reluctance to show real feeling can mean we don’t acknowledge or affirm friendships. The relative laxness of male friendships can also leave you wondering who your friends are—who should you invest in? Ian, 33, who lives in Toronto and works in the food service industry, has a wide network of acquaintances all across the city, but “they’re not really confidable-quality friends.” Ian, like me, belongs to yet another group at a high risk of loneliness: single men. Using data from 4,130 German adults, researchers found that single men are lonelier than both men in relationships and single women. (Single women, in other studies, having been found to be “happier, less lonely, and more psychologically balanced than single men.”) A lot of men don’t cultivate emotional intimacy when they are not in partnership with a significant other. Whereas single women at least feel as if they can cry to their friends, single men, generally, cry to no one. * Loneliness is not just a bad feeling and like lung tar for your health; it can actually cause you to become more objectively socially isolated, in a vicious cycle triggered by a particularly cruel trait of humans: we ostracize the lonely. Using data from 5,000 people in Framingham, Massachusetts, one study found that loneliness is contagious. Having a lonely friend (or coworker, of family member) increases your chance of being lonely by 52 percent, and each additional lonely day per week you have leads to one additional lonely day per month for everyone you know. Why would this be? Well, lonely people tend to act “in a less trusting and more hostile fashion,” to “approach social encounters with greater cynicism,” and to be less able to pick up on positive social signals, which causes them to withdraw, making those around them feel lonely, too. Like a virus, this loneliness spreads, giving one person the ability to “destabilize an entire network,” as one of the researchers told the New York Times in 2009, leaving patient zero further and further away from anyone who’s not lonely. Like the rhesus macaque monkeys in a horrific 1965 study who were kept in a “pit of despair” and then shunned when reintroduced to the group, “humans may similarly drive away lonely members of their species,” concluded the authors of the Framingham study. Over time, lonely people are pushed further and further away from others, which only increases their loneliness further, which causes further ostracization. Decades of this can push you right to the periphery of society. A report by the British Columbia Ministry of Health reported that, compared to their female equivalents, never-married men “are more depressed, report lower levels of well-being and life satisfaction and poorer health, and are more likely to commit suicide.” Indeed, the men who died alone in the Chicago heat wave were all single, and it’s difficult not to see being lonely and single as the path of unsent letters on cockroach floors and the collapse of all contacts. *  It may seem like the answer is a relationship, or marriage. Married people in general are less lonely than single people, and married men are less lonely than married women. A 1991 meta-study summed it up: marriage is “particularly rewarding for men.” However, closer inspection reveals a more complicated, and hazardous, picture. Though less lonely, married men are more socially isolated. Compared to single men, and even unmarried men cohabiting with a partner, married men in a 2015 British study were significantly more likely to say that they had “no friends to turn to in a serious situation.” This seemed to capture the situation of Roger, 53, in Indianapolis, who’s been married for 24 years. "The friendships I had in college and post-college have kind of dissipated,” he said. “My wife and I have a few friends in couples, but I don’t really see friends outside of that.” He confides in no one other than his wife. “There’s very little need to,” he said. Roger is typical: married men “generally get their emotional needs met by their spouses/partners.” Why, then, would Roger need to keep up with anyone else? In contrast, married women “often get their emotional needs met by their female friends.” That married women’s friends are more important to them than married men’s friends may be one reason why a 2014 British study found that women organize and encourage a couple’s social life more than men, and, in general, “men are far more dependent on their partner for social contact than women are.” When I shared this fact with the men I interviewed, several of them admitted that this was true of them, with one saying his partner spoke with his own mother more than he did, another saying he wouldn’t be in touch with his friends from college if it wasn’t for his partner, and a third saying, because most of his pre-marriage friends were female and there was tension with his wife when he hung out with them, he saw mostly her friends now. There are clear dangers for married men shunting all this social planning to their wives. (It can be grimmer still for gay men, who struggle with loneliness even more than straight men.) Aside from the questionable morality of offloading all this emotional labour, what are you going to do if your marriage ends before you do? Brandon, 35, a professor in St. Catharines, Ontario, who got divorced a couple years ago, saw the results up close: when his marriage dissolved, all his friends, who had originally been closer to his ex-wife, went with her. “It was a big wake-up call,” he said. You don’t want to find yourself mid-disaster one day “and realize you’ve surrounded yourself with people who, while interesting, don’t really give a shit about you.” But Brandon was lucky: he divorced young enough to learn his lesson. A seemingly infinite number of gruesome studies of older divorced and widowed men show that they, like never-married men, are lonelier and more isolated than their female counterparts. Divorced men “are more apt to suffer from emotional loneliness than are women,” and widowers have it even worse. While widowed women generally “are capable of living alone and taking care of themselves,” widowers “encounter severe difficulties in adapting to the single status,” which “leads to a precarious condition ... reflected in unusually high rates of mental disorders, suicides, and mortality risk.” All this suggests that married men don’t actually learn how to not be lonely, they just bandaid the problem with marriage, and if that ends, they have all the same problems they’ve always had, but now are older, and for that reason even more prone to isolation. *  So—what should you do? I’m glad you asked now, because the more friends you have while young, the more friends you’ll have when you’re old, so the sooner you start improving your connections, the less likely you are to slip into a loneliness/ostracization spiral. Social isolation is, by definition, ameliorated by simply seeing more people. Most interventions I’ve seen come at the policy level, mostly for older men. The UK seems to be the most aggressive in this approach, with programs like Men in Sheds, which originated in Australia and brings older men together to share tools to work on DIY projects of their own choosing; Walking Football, which gives those who’ve aged out of their prime soccer years the opportunity to play with others of their ilk; and Culture Club, which hosts expert speakers, targets men who’ve spent their lives in “intellectual pursuits” and enforces a “no chit chat” rule (also: no women). One even targeted single-room occupancy hotels, of the kind inhabited by the men who died in the Chicago heat wave. They set up a blood-pressure evaluation program in these SRO's lobbies, cajoling men “who tended to stay in their rooms due to physical disability and fear of crime” into social interaction on the pretext of a convenient health check-up. Over time, the program “helped participants identify shared interests.” Programs like this seem to have been successful at least in part because “older men participate in organizations slightly more than older women.” Most of these programs try to meet the conditions generally understood to be required to create close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other. If you’re trying to go it on your own, and aren’t into joining a program like the ones above, or they’re not available—or you’re not a senior!—you’d be well-advised to try to replicate these conditions on your own. I’ve had some success showing up to a weekly writers’ group. Lonely people tend to have a range of maladaptive behaviours and thought patterns. They—we —“have lower feelings of self-worth,” they “tend to blame themselves for social failures,” they “are more self-conscious in social situations,” and they tend to “adopt behaviours that increase, rather than decrease, their likelihood of rejection.” For men, this may include hypervigilance in abiding by display rules learned long ago that were designed to protect us from threats that no longer exist. Fortunately, all these things can change. This is done primarily through cognitive-behavoural therapy. The “cornerstone” of these interventions was to “teach lonely individuals to identify automatic negative thoughts and regard them as hypotheses to be tested rather than facts.” The specific approach depended on the target population. “Reminiscence therapy” was used to help institutionalized elderly people recall past life events, which they were encouraged to reinterpret in a positive light, and also to apply “positive aspects of past relationships to present relationships.” Thought substitution techniques were used with Navy recruits, who were encouraged to replace a negative thought like “I am a total failure” with “I’m often successful at the things I do.” Lonely college students responded well to a “reframing” technique, where they were coached to reframe their present experience of loneliness in positive ways, e.g., “A nice part of being lonely now, is that it allows you to develop and discover more about yourself at a time when others may be so wrapped up in a relationship that they end up spending their time trying to be what someone else wants them to be.” Variations of this kind of therapy were shown to be successful across diverse lonely populations, from sex offenders in jail to people with limited mobility. * As the novelist Jacob Wren notes, though, there are no individual solutions to collective problems. And, unfortunately, men's loneliness is a problem not only for themselves. Though not shown to be causal, there is significant correlation between loneliness in men and violent behaviour. A 2014 Turkish study found that violent high school boys are disproportionately lonely; a 1985 study found that "men who scored high on measures of loneliness readily aggressed against a female subject in a laboratory study"; and, in a dynamic that would appear to explain some aspects of red-pill culture, a 1996 study of sex offenders in a Canadian prison found that those who were lonely and lacked intimacy in their lives "blamed these problems on women." Even more troublingly, matching studies in Canada and New Zealand found higher-than-average loneliness in populations of male rapists. It's clear that it's in everyone's interests that men's loneliness be curbed. But what specifically can be done? “The boys are telling us the solution,” said Way, in our interview. “They want friendships! They need them, they’ll go ‘wacko’ if they don’t have them.” Better friendships, she says, are what men are missing—the key to better mental and emotional health, and certainly the antidote to loneliness. Pollack echoes this: “As tough, cool, and independent as they may sometimes seem, boys yearn desperately for friendships and relationships.” Changing how boys navigate their friendships, or how men relate to each other in even the smallest ways, may seem forbidding, but, as Louis D. Brandeis said, most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done. Way told me about working with a class of seventh-graders just last year. She read them that quote from Justin who, speaking of his friends and himself, says, “sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect, and love for each other.” These seventh-graders started laughing. “The dude sounds gay,” one of them said. Way set them straight, telling them that 85 percent of the boys she interviewed over 25 years sounded like this. They were totally quiet. And then someone said, “For real?” Way said, Yeah, this is what boys sound like. All of a sudden, the boys were waving their hands to tell Way about their close friendships, their relationships, “and two boys who had just so-called ‘broken up’ their friendship, even started to talk to each other about the friendship.” As Way said, as soon as they learned having emotions and loving their friends was normal, “they were allowed to access what they really knew, and they were like, ‘This is me.’” It is possible to change the culture. What is normal can change. And in the meantime, know this: intimacy is normal. Having close friends is a normal thing to want. And if you’re struggling, you’re not alone.
The Enormous Night

This is the first time in all eighteen years of her life that Grace has ever snuck out of her mother’s house.

A restless wind is rattling the windowpanes, blowing strange and dry and hot. Beyond the glass the palm trees are shivering, their fronds clicking and rustling like bones, or teeth. Grace gets up and rests her hands on the windowsill, peering out through the curtains. The moon overhead is white, too, bright and heavy and full. She watches a lone black car crawl up her quiet street. Probably a neighbor coming home late from some other party. Apparently, everyone’s at a party tonight but her. The wind picks up force. Instead of blowing everything back and forth, it whistles straight, high and sweet, like a song winding through the trees and the street. Grace touches the bottom of the window and starts to pull it up, but it whines in protest and she stops. There’s just enough space for a breeze to wash through, raising goose bumps on her skin. Usually she loves the quiet familiarity of her room, but something about the wind makes it seem stifling. Instead of feeling sheltered, Grace looks from wall to wall to wall and thinks, Am I trapped? She’s so used to the idea that her friends will come over and pull her along on one of their adventures. If they stop doing that, will she just spend the rest of her life in here, alone? The idea unsettles Grace so much that she acts without thinking: pulls a long-sleeved shirt on over her tank top and slips her feet into a pair of Converse. It’s easy to shuffle downstairs and out the back door, which is light and quiet when she closes it. This is the first time in all eighteen years of her life that Grace has ever snuck out of her mother’s house. The night feels enormous around her, emptied of everything but wind and sound and moonlight. Even her yard seems mysterious. The pool gleams darkly, water lap, lap, lapping against its edges. She goes around to the front of the house, but the street is empty and suburban and still. Grace feels a little silly: she’s just being self-indulgent and dramatic, probably, imagining something out here calling to her, like she’s special, like the night and the air mean something. What does she think she’s doing, anyway? There’s nowhere for her to go, not really. Her car is here, but her keys are still inside the house, and what, is she going to drive to In-N-Out and get a hamburger? She can do that during the day. She can walk around the neighborhood during the day, too, but it feels different now. Expansive. Illicit. Enticing. The wind decides for her: it sings up the street and toward the cul-de-sac a few blocks up. Grace lets it push her legs out in front of her and follows its path. Everything looks different this late or this early. She blinks at the few lit-up windows in the houses, trying to picture who’s sitting and reading, and what people are watching in the glow of their screen-blue cocoons. The black car is parked in the cul-de-sac, at the farthest edge of the curve where there’s no house, just hedge. On the other side of that wall of ficus leaves is Blue Bell Park, where Grace and her neighbors used to play when they were kids. None of them hang out together anymore, but Grace knows if they did it would probably be on this side of the hedge, now, where the leaves enclose you and the neighbors can’t be too nosy. This is where the neighborhood kids come to get high once they aren’t kids anymore. Whoever’s here now isn’t doing that, though. Even Grace recognizes the difference between the sweet skunk of weedsmoke and the ashy tar of a cigarette. The car’s driver is the one smoking, sitting on the hood, a snapback pulled brim-down over his eyes even though it’s been dark out for hours. Grace’s worn sneakers are almost silent on the summer-softened asphalt, but he’s hair-trigger: rabbit nervous, rabbit fast. He whips his head around as she starts up the curve of the cul-de-sac, flicking the hat’s brim up to get a better look and then tilting it back down again in a breath. He’s not fast enough to stop her from seeing. And recognizing him. Grace almost can’t believe she didn’t glean it from the slope of his shoulders and the curve of his fingers around the cigarette. She’s seen them thousands, probably millions, of times, in photographs and drawings, grainy performance videos, and television commercials for headphones and, when she was younger, in torn-out magazine pages plastered all over her bedroom walls. Jes Holloway is sitting and smoking on the hood of his car, in the embrace of her cul-de-sac, and her neighborhood, and this strange, restless night. For a second the world turns white with her shock, like just looking at him has run her through with lightning. It takes her a moment to get her breath back. She expects to feel like she’s burning, but instead she’s electrified. She can’t tell what’s crackling, her skin or the air on it. Jes shifts nervously under the weight of her gaze. He flicks his cigarette twice, brings it up to take a drag and then lets it fall again, unsmoked. He pulls the hat up to rake a hand through his hair. There’s a split second where he hesitates, and decides. When he puts the hat back on, its brim is backward, his face exposed to the night. His shoulders uncurl and his spine straightens. He sneaks another glance at her, but this time, he lets her see that he’s looking. All of Grace’s friends would call her quiet. She would say so herself, even. She doesn’t start conversations. Seeing Jes, though, makes her feel like she’s on familiar ground all of a sudden: on the track, at the block, about to push off and run. His presence is like a starter’s pistol. She’s shot through with adrenaline; it makes her feel like a different person. One who knows instantly that there’s nothing to do but: go. “Sorry,” Grace calls. Her voice quavers. Maybe it gets lost in the wind. She wants to take it back but she can’t make herself stop talking. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.” “It’s a public street, I guess.” His voice is low and rough and familiar, something she’s heard just as many times as she’s seen his face. She fell asleep to Fever Dream’s first album for a whole year after it came out; she’s drifted off in front of YouTube videos of the boys goofing off on tour buses and compilations of their press junkets on so many lonely, idle nights. She feels crazy with boldness. Jes watches her step off the sidewalk and cross toward him. He doesn’t ask her not to. “You want one?” he asks instead, holding the pack of cigarettes out to her. He’s just as handsome as he is in all of those pictures, dark-skinned and beautiful, fine-boned and thin, with eyelashes so long that the moonlight casts shadows through them onto his cheeks. There’s something about seeing him in the flesh, with no cameras and no stage and no paparazzi, not even his bandmates around, that makes him seem oddly compact, like gravity is working harder on him than everything else in the world. It has to strain to hold all of his beauty and his brightness together in one slender frame. “Sure,” Grace says before she can think better of it. So this is going to be a night full of firsts. This is something she knows from screens, too: filter end between her lips, lean forward so he can flick life into a lighter and catch the cigarette’s tip. She inhales and holds the smoke in her mouth for a few seconds before breathing it out. There. Easy. As her brain starts to catch up to what’s happening, puzzle pieces begin to click themselves into place. Jes grew up around here, originally, before his family moved out to Georgia, where he met the rest of the Fever Dream boys. It’s something she knows and forgets, because it seems so impossible that Jes, Jes Holloway, could have been just another kid from Canoga Park if they’d stayed. She takes another drag from the cigarette and lets the smoke trickle down her throat. Immediately she coughs it all back out again, startled. Jes laughs. “Sorry,” he says. “I forgot to warn you that I smoke the black lung stuff. It’s a lot if you’re used to, like”—he gives Grace an assessing look—“Parliament Lights.” “I don’t smoke much,” Grace says. Actually, she smokes never. “Oh. Special occasion?” “Not really. I guess it just—it just seemed like the thing.” “I get that.” A breeze blows by them, stirring the smoke from his cigarette and the ends of her hair. He says, “It’s a weird night. I forgot about these winds. What are they called? Santa something?” Grace shakes her head. “Santa Anas,” Jes says. He reads a lot on tour, Grace thinks. She reads a lot about him being on tour. She wonders if he knows the names of the winds for everywhere they travel, or if he learned it when he was living here and carries it around with him, somehow, still. “So, are you visiting?” she asks. Part of her thinks that it’s dishonest not to tell him that she knows who he is, but she can’t bear to break the spell between them, or test whatever magic brought him here to sit through the night with her. With her, like he’s just as ordinary as she is. “I lived here when I was little,” Jes says. “We’re in LA for a few days, me and . . . some friends. I wanted to see the old neighborhood.” “This is barely LA.” “That’s why I got here so late,” Jes says. “Forgot how long the drive was.” He smiles sideways at her through the darkness. He’s never been Grace’s favorite of the Fever boys—she loved Solly first, and then because of Solly she loved Land. Jes always seemed too obvious. Even girls who didn’t care about Fever Dream knew he was the most beautiful one. Now, a few feet from him, Grace has to admit to herself that she seriously underestimated the sheer physical force of that kind of beauty, especially combined with the pull of his charm. It acts like a beacon, tugging her closer—or maybe like a lighthouse, warning her away from a craggy corner of the shore. She asks, “Is it the same as you remember it?” Jes looks around, considering. “Not really,” he says. “It seems—smaller.” “It is small.” “You grew up here?” “Down the block. I’m leaving for college in the fall, though.” “Getting the hell out of Dodge.” “Yep.” Grace doesn’t want to press him, but she’s curious whether he’ll tell her if she asks the right questions: who he is and what he does. He’s surprisingly easy to talk to. Or maybe it shouldn’t be surprising. It’s his job to talk to strangers, to girls. “You?” “Nah,” Jes says. “My job involves a lot of traveling. So the shine has kind of worn off for me, you know?” Grace doesn’t. “It’s so dumb, but it’s really true, you know: wherever you go, there you are.” Jes is only a few years older than she is. He turned twenty-one in February at a party at a club in New York. Grace spent the whole next day clicking through the pictures as they filtered onto the internet: paparazzi shots of everyone coming and going, underlit cell phone photos taken inside, snaps of the photo booth strips uploaded to Instagram. She lingered longest on professional shots of Jes’s girlfriend, a model named Rowena, holding out a cake with gilded frosting and sugared roses, and blowing him a kiss before he blew out the candles. She’s knows there’s more to it than that, but still. It’s hard to imagine that he could be tired of his life. That anyone could. “I’m excited to go be me somewhere else for a little while,” she says at last. “Enjoy it,” Jes says. He stubs his cigarette out on the car hood. Grace’s has burned itself almost to the filter while she’s been ignoring it, and she does the same. Another car slides up the block. “Shit,” Jes says. He flinches instinctively away from the headlights and the noise of the engine, but there’s nowhere for him to hide. He sits up again. The car pulls to a stop in the center of the cul-de-sac. The person driving throws it into park and leaves it idling as he steps out, something large and black clutched tightly in one hand. He raises it to his eye and aims. Grace registers that it’s a camera a second before the first flash goes off. Excerpted from Grace and the Fever, available now. 
India’s Imagined Worlds

To be haunted by nostalgia is probably to be writing. Seventy years after Partition, India becomes, in our sentimental imaginations, both sweepingly general and intensely personal.

Seventy years ago, just before midnight on August 15, 1947, thousands crowded the streets of major cities across India. They stood for hours, crammed shoulder to shoulder in front of the Viceroy’s Palace in Delhi, some hanging off trees for a better view, waiting for the precise moment that the nation, after three centuries of British rule, would be free. The official footage from that day shows Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru shaking hand after hand, posing beside the once-Viceroy, now governor general, Mountbatten, waving to the masses from a cavalcade of vehicles, Nehru's streamlined features smiling. To an outsider, these bear the familiar markers of national grandeur and celebration. But to the countless millions with a connection to the region, they’re chilling images, not only because the pomp and ceremony now appears, in the wake of history, so hollow, but because it was empty even then. Even as the cameras were flashing, the fires and looting had begun at the borders of the world’s largest democracy. Punjab, the site of the faultline that separated two states by religious majority, was burning. Ten of the estimated total of 17 million people displaced during Partition crossed this border; the Muslim population westward to Pakistan, the Hindus and Sikhs east to India. One million died. Seventy-five thousand women were raped. Independence, the most anticipated and calculated shift of power in national history, became synonymous with the type of brutality and carnage that still reverberates through the world’s understanding of the South Asian continent’s politics and culture. * Everyone misses an imagined India of the past—but none more than the British. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Partition in 1997, Granta magazine published a “Golden Jubilee” issue, showcasing essays, fiction, photography, and memoirs from the region. By then, the originally Cambridge-born, student-run magazine’s 1970s revival by Bill Buford and Peter de Bolla had already cemented its place at the center of the English-speaking literary world. Ian Jack writes in his introduction, “I saw myself sentimentally connected to India. My grandmother had been born there…We had Indian mementoes in the house: pictures of soldiers…a small stuffed crocodile, a book in Urdu.” He goes on to speak of the class divide he observed during his 1976 visit: “Words which in Britain sounded quaint and dead—‘the elite, the common man, the masses, feudals, lumpens’—were used in India unselfconsciously; they applied to the living in their white cotton shrouds.” This seems odd considering that England is a place so starkly divided by class and feudalism that you can still tell how poor someone is by how they speak. And it bears a mark of particular colonial irony that the precise populations who brought modern structures of class and capital to India should find themselves privileged enough to see the living consequences as “quaint.” His is just one example of how we use our sentimental attachments to form deeply embedded worldviews, as though our feelings, rather than historical fact, were enough to authorize our claims. Then there is Mark Tully, who remembers that as children in colonial Calcutta, he and his sister had a nanny hired solely “to see that we did not get too close to the Indian servants…Once I got a sharp slap from her when she found our driver teaching me to count to ten in Hindustani.” It seems clear that they enjoyed a more high-class lifestyle in Calcutta than his father, part of the lower end of English middle class, would have been able to afford back home. But Tully then explains that his “zeal” for India “began as a reaction to my father’s insistence that England was my home, the place I belonged, the country that made me…I owe the one enthusiasm in my life, which became a passion, to him.” He sounds entirely unaware of the idea that he might be passionate about India because it felt practically more British to him than England. * When Granta’s Jubilee issue arrived, a canon of Indian writing in English was already well-established—Rushdie had won the 1981 Man Booker for Midnight’s Children, V.S. Naipaul for a short story a decade earlier. Anita Desai had been shortlisted twice. R.K. Narayan, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Minstry, and Bharati Mukherjee were internationally recognized as literary novelists. The special issue, focussed on national and cultural identities, introduced Arundhati Roy as a promising new novelist and featured an excerpt from The God of Small Things as the endpiece to the collection—famously, it went on later that same year to win the Booker, too. (That her literary achievements, with the publication of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in this past June, seem to mirror the symbolic milestones of the Indian nation-state is an interesting coincidence.) Granta always deliberately walked the line between magazine and anthology; at almost 300 pages, it’s hefty for a quarterly. A reader in the late ‘90s, I imagine, would flip through and see how earnestly its editors had tried to lean towards diversity: an essay on the Kashmir conflict follows a personal memoir of working with captive tigers, which follows a photo essay on the Independence Day memories of everyday citizens. Gandhi’s influence, the caste wars, and the chaos of Mumbai’s Hindu right-wing Shiv Sena are all separately explored. The life story of Viramma, an agricultural worker and village midwife, lies sandwiched among stories by Naipaul, Narayan, and Desai. Among these pages, middle-class India is meant to mingle with the impoverished, the low-caste with the British expatriates of the Raj, and the foreign political correspondents with the literary elite in ways that they didn’t often mingle in real life. The effect is less “jubilant” than it is unsettling. For one, while the fiction and poetry included is by Indians and Pakistanis, the majority of the nonfiction is by British writers. The political and historical analyses of regional conflicts and the brief memoir on CIA and Soviet propaganda in Mumbai are all penned by white expats who spent time in India. I mention this without malice—these are incisive, uncanny, often funny pieces that unmoor readers from their blindly patriotic or sentimental lenses. They provide valuable information about the aftermath of Partition from lived experience and are especially interesting because they reveal the shifts in attitudes towards figures like Nehru, Bal Thackeray and Laloo Prasad Yadav over the decades. With the exceptions of two condescending pieces of memoir about the glory of the Raj—including a nauseating imperialist appreciation of the bejeweled “Orientalist curios” found in English and Welsh castles—the nonfiction enriches the issue. It also, however, makes clear what is missing. The anthologizing of creative work in a geographical region—which Granta still practices today—invariably presents the illusion that every piece of that place that matters is included within the covers. Added to the emotional baggage between Britain and India, this creates the strange and haloed effect that every piece is framed by (and for) Granta’s largely Western, English-speaking audience. The violence of Indian rioting, railway banditry, massacres, fires, shootings, and armed conflict is described in detail in the issue. But there isn’t a single piece dedicated to the tactics employed by the British during their centuries of colonization. In a region where Muslims, Parsis, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists lived relatively harmoniously within competing kingdoms for almost nine centuries—since Moghuls conquered Delhi in the 11th century—how did religious strife uproot millions in the span of a few years? And how, when the British left, did they make their exit with so few of their own casualties, leaving Punjab and Bengal, their main sources of wealth and power, fractured and divided? The colonial rhetoric and fretting around the future of “the jewel in the Crown” suggests that violence and religious hatred somehow exploded from a mess of internal, exclusively Indian problems, too opaque and culturally complex for the rest of the world to understand—but the opposite is true. Many historians argue that the British colonized India not only by attaining control over central resources and trade routes but by gaining the trust and affections of high-caste landowners, whom they then gave increasing amounts of ruling power, creating a rift between the “maharajas” and their citizens. They also attached political representation to religious identity, creating a fraught environment in which the likes of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, and Hindu Congress Party leaders Nehru and Gandhi, grew frustrated and embittered. James Cameron, travel writer and journalist, reporting on the Simla conference of 1945, writes in his memoir An Indian Summer that, by the end, these three men and the Viceroy “were trying, by now in a sort of anguish, to find a future for the luckless millions of India [while] shut up in the most inaccessible room in all Asia.” They didn’t succeed. In fact, as William Dalrymple notes in the New Yorker, the issue was resolved only in March 1947, when “Mountbatten deployed his considerable charm to persuade all the parties to agree to Partition as the only remaining option.” They gave Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer, forty days to draw the boundaries that would remake all of South Asia. He did so without visiting a single spot along his pencil-lines. * When I landed in New Delhi in the spring of 2014, I hadn’t been to India in seven years. I was 21, we’d emigrated when I was seven—was I only one-third Indian, then?—my jet-lagged brain muddled through the numbers as my parents and I climbed into a cab. Headed to the Gymkhana Club, a still-standing colonial relic where my mother spent the weekends of her youth playing tennis, we drove past government buildings enthroned on lush gardens. It was three in the morning, the grounds were empty except for stray dogs, and the floodlights lit up the flagpole. It still makes me a little nauseous to say it: I cried. Three expats prone to tri-colour sentiment climbed into the Gymkhana’s beds that night. The flag’s central image is a chakra or wheel, meant to symbolize the Hindu-Buddhist cycle of rebirth—and its violence lies in the way it clothes India’s population in a religious uniform. In Granta’s “Gallery of Memories,” a washerwoman from Aligarh reflects, “In my village there were a few poor Muslims, and they were very frightened. They thought that people were coming to kill them, so they ran away. But there was no rioting…so things went back to normal. The Muslims never came back though. And then one day someone gave us flags and we waved them around.” The most bizarre aspect of nationalism’s efficacy is found here, in the shamelessness of its artifice. What’s emptier than the image of small children waving a flag for which millions, unbeknownst to them, have needlessly died? And how is it that the universal feeling of “home” or “reunion” can be married to a sectarian agenda manufactured by desperate governments and propaganda? When Saleem Sinai, the verbose protagonist and storyteller of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, mythologizes his birth at the midnight hour on that fateful day, he says, “Thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks, I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country…I was left entirely without a say in the matter.” And later, in Rushdie’s nonfiction book Imaginary Homelands, while asking whether India, never once united by language, race, religion, or culture in thousands of years, can really exist, he writes: “That midnight, the thing that had never existed was suddenly ‘free’. But what on earth was it?” The problem, of course, is that “it” is different for everyone. India becomes, in our sentimental imaginations, both sweepingly general and intensely personal. My longing for Udaipur’s courtyards of bougainvillea trees or the noisy stalls of Bombay’s Chor Bazaar finds its fuel in the belief that while thousands may have seen those places, only I know their true value. Only I know their beauty, because it has changed me. This narcissistic possessiveness, in a country that belongs to a billion people who are not me, is part of the same raw material that has become the seed of so many brutal movements to homogenize, unify, and cleanse parts of India. Nostalgia, especially when it becomes a weapon, operates through language and rhetoric. It’s formed like a narrative, slotted into place using value systems that position its author at the top of a hierarchy. The expatriate or emigrant’s nostalgia for a previous India—like the Englishman’s—is not damaging simply because it’s sentimental. It’s damaging because it must flatten the diversity of a population living within teeming, conflicting histories in order to make one feel something akin to belonging. When you imagine a past India, you imagine one that fueled your emotions rather than a multifarious system of which you knew only a tiny part. This leaves little room for the other versions—the everyday, the mundane—the stories that don’t feel as simple or beautiful or redemptive as Your India felt. And in short—that nostalgia leaves its bearers lacking real knowledge and thinking of India as a symbolic shell, empty except for their own experiences. * To be haunted by nostalgia is probably—as the wealth of Indian literature on homeland (“azadi” for Kashmiris, “watan” for Punjabis, “desh” for others) suggests—to be writing. There is no shortage of immigrant literature, especially bad literature, on the subject. In part, this is due to the expectations of Western publishing markets, where the more tragic and exotic a story is, the better it’s expected to fare commercially. This creates a feedback loop in which writers are taught to value their sentiments more than the quality of the stories they’re trying to tell. Thankfully, the tides are turning in South Asian writing—today, more interesting and unexpected work is being created than ever. Vivek Shanbhag’s short novel Ghachar Ghochar, Akhil Sharma’s collection A Life of Adventure and Delight, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Githa Hariharan’s nonfiction travel essays, Almost Home, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s foray into Italian, In Other Words, come to mind. Granta’s 130th issue, "India," published in 2015, was dedicated to and includes a host of new writing. In a nation that veers more forcefully towards the Hindu right under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who continues to actively marginalize the Muslim minority within its borders, this literature’s diversity and capacity to be critical of the state is necessary. Far from flattening the complexities of the subcontinent, I hope reading more of it will remind me that the only thing I share with those crowds on the streets the night before Independence—though our experiences and circumstances couldn’t be more different—is a desire to be proud of our collective past, and the necessary pain of knowing that such an unambiguous sentiment will remain impossible.
‘There Have Always Existed People Who’ve Simply Wanted to be Alone’: An Interview with Michael Finkel

Talking to the author of The Stranger in the Woods about the hermit subject of his new book, what it takes to survive 27 years in solitude, and finding contentment in isolation.

At the age of twenty, Christopher Knight walked away from civilization and set up camp in the woods of central Maine. There he remained, near North Pond, undetected, for twenty-seven years. He survived on stolen provisions and a determination to live in solitude. In The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Michael Finkel tackles the story of the famed North Pond hermit. He portrays a man who, without a shred of formal outdoor training, survived through ingenuity and remarkable self-discipline. Many readers know Finkel as the author of True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa (2005)—later made into a movie—which chronicles his torturous relationship with an alleged murderer who stole his identity. The tale is all the more bizarre because it began just after Finkel was fired from The New York Times for fabricating part of a story. Here, Finkel approaches the North Pond hermit with genuine humility and writes about him with insight and compassion—perhaps because of his own flawed past. He examines the fascinating tradition of hermits throughout history, and describes the allure, and the very real dangers, of long-term isolation. And he poignantly chronicles his own efforts—never entirely successful—to build a relationship with this inscrutable man. * Tucker Coombe: How did you initially become interested in the North Pond hermit? Michael Finkel: I’m an avid outdoorsman, and I love to read. One day I came across a small article about a man who was arrested for stealing food from a summer camp. The article told a fantastical story: the man had apparently spent twenty-seven years alone. In all those years he had never lit a fire, had a conversation with another human, or even been sick. My curiosity started ratcheting up. The last thing the article mentioned was that this man had stolen books—hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them. My curiosity turned to compulsion, and I decided to write him a letter. I doubted that I’d hear back from him, but to my surprise, he wrote back. From the first paragraph of his first note to me—which was witty and extraordinarily well written, and intelligent and sad at the same time—I was hooked. I wanted to know Christopher Knight’s story. Knight had no survivalist training, and in fact had never spent a night in a tent when he decided to move to the woods. How did he manage to survive? If you read about hermits throughout history—people who wanted to separate themselves from all other people—an extremely high percentage of those people have been bright. I think Chris Knight was brilliant. He was also an amazing student. He understood aspects of physics and thermodynamics. He could change the oil and repair electric things and do the plumbing. He could recall details from every book he’d ever read. He could fix an engine and quote Shakespeare. He was also committed to being alone in a way that’s hard to get your head around. He didn’t want to light a fire, for example, because the smoke could give away his location. In Maine, snow persists on the ground for half a year, and there were times when he’d stay in his small camp for six whole months—coming to the brink of starving or freezing to death—because he refused to walk through the snow and risk leaving a footprint. How did he do it? He figured it out. Your book opens with a vivid description of the woods where Knight lived for twenty-seven years. Tell me a bit about those woods, and about the camp he built there. You might think Knight would choose a site up in the North Woods, but he didn’t. He actually lived in an area where there were about 200 cottages situated nearby. The camp he built for himself was a three-minute walk from the closest cabin. But the woods themselves! If you imagine a Brillo pad the size of a football stadium—well, that’s how dense those woods are. I’m a fairly decent woodsman, and I can’t overemphasize how challenging, how difficult and crazy it was to walk through those woods. I cut my hand open and ripped my shoe. The trees are skinny and closely packed. Lots of them are fallen, so it’s as if you’re walking through a giant game of Pick-Up Sticks. It’s chock full of boulders, and there are no trails. The undergrowth is full of ferns, mushrooms, and tree branches. It’s claustrophobic and disorienting. Even deer don’t go there very often. But Chris Knight could move through these woods—without making a sound—in the middle of the night. There are two distinct-looking boulders next to each other, and if you pass between them, you enter what feels almost like a room in the woods. Tree branches link overhead, and the space is ringed in a natural Stonehenge of large rocks. I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world, but here in Maine, inside this little patch of forest, is one of the most enchanting spots I’ve ever seen. I can understand why someone like Knight, who’s highly sensitive to noises and disruptions, found the spot to be an oasis of calm. You describe spending a night in this camp, and being awed by what Knight had created. As a camper myself, I wondered how Chris had built this camp. It was as if he’d invented a world for himself in this spot. He had a tiny kitchen, which consisted of a stove that he had stolen. He cooked with propane—he stole propane tanks as well—instead of a fire. He had bound together old National Geographic magazines with electrical tape, creating bricks of a sort, which he used to build a floor. It was perfectly flat, which prevented water from pooling in his tent. Everything was neatly and precisely organized. There were some touching things about the camp, as well. He had only one chair. And he had tons of books. He didn’t care about the year or the decade. But he cared very much about knowing what time it was, so that on raids, he could get back before sunrise. He had a little weather station. He listened to the radio. He didn’t believe in sharing anything, so he never wrote anything down. He thought he would die out in those woods. Other people have tried to live in the wild, and many have died in a very short time: somehow, he made it work. It was semi-miraculous. How did he survive the Maine winters? Maine winters are brutal—cold, windy, and unbearably wet. You could spend one night outside in a Maine winter and probably never forget it and probably never do it again. I wondered what Chris did in winter. He used the propane stove to melt snow, for drinking water, but wouldn’t use it for heat because the fumes would have killed him. When we spoke about the winters, I said to him, “You must have gone into a sort of human hibernation––cocooning yourself in every stolen sleeping bag you had.” “You’re absolutely wrong,” he said. The human body breathes, he reminded me, which creates vapor. Chris didn’t want to find himself covered in frozen condensation, and risk dying of hypothermia. So he’d wake up at 2:30 in the morning, which is the coldest time of the night. He‘d unwrap himself from his layers of blankets. And he would begin pacing. He knew that if he were to stay still, the cold would march from his fingers and his toes right to his heart, and stop it. He would just walk in circles. And you know, he never lost a finger or a toe to frostbite. To me, it sounds like torture beyond torture. But for some reason—in his suffering, and in that sort of extreme state—he found fulfillment.­­­­­­­ I will never encounter another human being that lived life on the edge the way he did. He found contentment for himself. But he survived by stealing from others. Did he feel conflicted about this? Yes, he was conflicted. He had been raised in a family where education, learning, and self-sufficiency were all considered important. And he was taught that you do not steal. But he made the decision that he would have to steal if he were to survive. And to assuage his guilt, he created a set of rules for himself: he never broke a pane of glass. He never kicked in a door. He never stole anything of great monetary value. Only once was a person in the home when he broke in, and Chris felt terrible for having frightened that person. He would enter a house by very carefully picking a lock. He wouldn’t touch the jewelry, the television, or the computer. He’d take what he needed, and when he left he’d lock the door behind him because, well, there were real thieves out there! Chris would be the first to say that he’s not a saint. There are lots of gray areas, lots of moral complications, in this story. People in Maine seem to have had strong reactions toward Knight. Personally, I feel warmly toward Chris. But let’s not forget this: the man broke into people’s homes. Repeatedly. In some states, you can legally shoot to death a person who enters your house uninvited. That’s how sacred a home is considered. And what he stole was people’s sense of safety and security. I’ll say this as well: if you steal my laptop, I can get another one. But if you steal my sense of safety and security, that can’t be replaced. It’s more valuable than diamonds or jewelry. So, to some people, what he did was terrible. Other people thought he was no more trouble than the seasonal houseflies. And on one level, the list of what he stole is almost laughable: hamburgers, steaks, and paperback books. Magazines and flashlights. Some people, even after the second break-in, just shrugged. “I can buy another flashlight,” they reasoned. “I throw away that amount of food every week. And I’d already read that Stephen King novel.” On this planet, we don’t know what to do with people who don’t belong. I don’t mean murderers, or people who are, clearly, mentally insane. I’m talking about someone like Chris Knight, who was a gentle person but who didn’t fit in with the rest of us. It’s heartbreaking. We don’t have a spot for him. There were a significant number of people in Maine, victims of his crimes, who intuitively realized there was someone living in the woods who just didn’t want to be part of society, and they were very sweet about it. It turned out that the woods where he lived for all those years was private property, owned by a woman who lived alone. I thought she might have been horrified when she learned that a strange man had been living on her land for twenty-seven years. Do you know what her response was? “So what,” she said. “If I had found him, I might have just let him stay.” If your reaction to Chris Knight is that you hate him, then that’s totally valid. If your reaction is that he’s your hero, that’s equally valid. He provokes very disparate feelings in people. I’m not saying anyone’s reaction was right or wrong. But the way people reacted to Chris Knight spoke less to who Chris was, and more to who they were. You spend a lot of time discussing human isolation in this book. Strangely, across all of human history and going back thousands of years, there have existed a tiny handful of people who’ve simply wanted to be alone. What’s fascinating is that many of them have had profound effects on the world. Think of Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha: they all spent very long periods of time alone before introducing their religions. Chris Knight had no interest in anyone else. He wanted to be by himself in the most extreme way. It’s hard for most of us—the 99.9 percent of humans who don’t want to live like that—to get our head around this concept. I found him to be a singular human being. He certainly confessed to his crimes. He never said he shouldn’t be put in jail. But he also had an idea for how he wanted to live. And despite the fact that it was radically different from the way anybody else lived, he ignored all the pressure of society and went to live exactly as he wanted. Chris told me that he found contentment in his isolation. And I could just tell, from the way he described it, and the way his face changed, that he had been happy out in the woods. I think he found more fulfillment than most of us will ever find in our own lives. He found something deeper and richer. Your discussions with Knight seem to have shifted your own perspective on humans and happiness. Encountering a person like Chris affected me profoundly. Sometimes I find myself in my car, stuck in traffic. Texts are coming in on my phone. I’m stressed. I’m late for an appointment. And I think: maybe it’s not Chris Knight who’s crazy, maybe it’s the rest of us. Maybe he got something right, and we’re the ones who got it all wrong. What did Chris Knight do? He made me take a step back, think about the choices I’ve made personally and the choices we’ve made as a species. Look at the political climate now, and the craziness that’s going on. We don’t even know what truth is anymore. It makes me want to run to Chris’s spot in the woods. More than a decade ago, you wrote True Story. You developed a relationship with a pathological liar—an alleged murderer—at a time when you were struggling with your own issues of honesty. For this book, you developed a relationship with Knight. Is there some aspect of his story that resonates with you at this juncture of your life? As a journalist, I try to understand other people and their stories. But the truth is, each of us can only really and truly know one person––our own self. Years ago, I went to India for a ten-day, silent retreat. I wanted to make myself go where I was afraid to go—deep down, inside my own head. I found it terrifying. Why don’t we want to be alone? Because the stuff that’s down there is stuff you don’t want to see. Chris Knight is a guy who went all the way down to the bottom. He saw the whole thing. He did something that I was frightened to do. What did he see? What did he learn about himself? What does it all mean? I couldn’t do it myself. I wasn’t a strong enough person, and he was. That’s what attracted me to this story.
This is a True Story

Our stories are stock: they hold the disparate parts of ourselves together—our desired flavor, how we want to taste, how we wish to be known.

[[{"fid":"6701261","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Mouthful is a monthly column about the author’s relationship with food, ten years into recovery from anorexia and bulimia. I recently spent four days in my home state of Florida. Usually, the first thing I do when I get to Florida is buy a jumbo Styrofoam cup of boiled peanuts. I do this even before I arrive at my parents’ house, at a seedy convenience store at the top of the street where all the registered sex offenders live. The peanuts are found in the back near the lotto tickets in two crock pots labeled “original” and “Cajun”—I don’t know why you would go for the original when there is Cajun. Next to the crock pots and the sleeves of Styrofoam cups is a white plastic Thermos with a red handle and two ladles in it: one regular and one sieved. I use the regular ladle because, though I will eat the peanuts, what I’m really spending five dollars on is the salty, spicy soup the peanuts have been cooking in for days, without which the peanuts are useless to me. I don’t like peanuts if they haven’t been fried or boiled. I grew up in the vicinity of boiled peanuts but I didn’t embrace them until I moved back to Florida at the age of twenty-two, on a medical leave from college to address my anorexia. Soon after leaving rehab, I abandoned my meal plan and began the process of settling into the slowed-down, southern, sun-baked St. Petersburg lifestyle. At my most anorexic, I had subsisted on a diet of sugar-free Red Bull, Starbucks iced coffee, and David’s-brand pumpkin seeds, which rode always in the cup holder of my champagne-colored Chevy Cavalier. Now boiled peanuts took up residence in my cup holder. Like pumpkin seeds, they are a salty finger food that possess a certain grittiness. Eating too many gives me a stomachache but this doesn’t stop me. I was the only person I knew at the time who ate peanuts the way I did. Boiled peanuts are easy to make: green peanuts and seasoned water, brought to a boil and left to simmer. I never make them, though. I prefer the kind found at the gas station or convenience store, or sold from a truck on the side of the road. They’re humble, like all comfort foods—delicious because they make no claim to health-consciousness, classiness, or even quality. They’re specifically southern, so that’s how I feel eating them. The Styrofoam cup rides sticky next to me as I turn toward my parents’ house. I lean over the island counter in the air-conditioned kitchen and shovel boiling-hot legumes into my mouth, catching up with my mom, who asks me if the peanuts are my dinner. * There is a version of me who steers with one hand and feeds herself boiled peanuts with the other. This person grew up in an area of the world populated with trailer parks and yards piled with discarded appliances, furniture, children’s toys. She smokes weed out the window sipping sugar-free Red Bull like Courvoisier. She is glamorous in the manner of Future: “I turn the Ritz into a poor house…/ ‘Cuz I’m always reppin’ for that low life.” She has overcome hardship. She is a survivor. She does not give a fuck. This is a version I’ve designed in my subconscious, a story I tell myself about myself. It’s connected to the version who orders two eggs over-easy with bacon and hash browns, no toast, coffee with cream, no sugar, while she brunches during this trip to Florida with an estranged best friend she hasn’t seen in six years. This person was my first love. We’ve only recently acknowledged this. She knows a version of me who betrayed her in ways that aren’t easily uttered, not because they’re too horrible, but because like aquifers they flowed so deep beneath the surface of our shared ground. That is a story she tells me about me. We sit beneath a blue umbrella. It is ninety degrees but we smoke cigarettes in silence. She orders French toast. She asks me why we’re splitting brunch; in her opinion, I owe her. She later takes this statement back. She asks me if this is all narrative for me or if I’m really here with her right now, experiencing this moment. I tell her: both. * There’s the version of me who talks to her estranged husband on the phone for the first time since February, to discuss our divorce. The estranged husband was always the one to cook in our home. He was anxious about money because he didn’t make any. When he bought groceries, he would tell me how little he spent. When I did the shopping, he would point out my perceived overspending by even a few cents. He is allergic to everything. When I happened to cook, he micromanaged even my way of fixing eggs. When I didn’t cook, he assumed the role of the sacrificial husband to the more successful wife. His version of me inhabits our shared story like a person falsely accused of a crime. This version is connected to one who recently saw her ex-boyfriend outside a bookstore. We broke up six years ago because I began sleeping with the person I later married—not that it matters, but I ultimately pulled the plug on our relationship, not him. My ex-boyfriend always finds ways to insult me when we see each other and this encounter was no exception. When I told him that I’m in love again he said, “Don’t fuck it up,” as if I always fuck things up with people I love. As if six years haven’t passed since I broke up with him, and we haven’t both grown since then; as if people are the same versions of themselves forever, fixed and unchanging. Here is a story I tell about my ex: When we dated, his idea of cooking was to boil together whatever happened to be in the cabinets in a large pot of water with no seasoning, maybe some salt and pepper. He called this “goulash.” He once bought a bulk bag of textured vegetable protein in Chinatown because that’s what he felt he could afford after having been fired from the single job he’d held since we moved to New York together six months beforehand. Textured vegetable protein was thrown into the goulash. He’s sensitive, so I told him I liked it. When we first started dating, he worked at a teashop. I was newly out of anorexia rehab and soon afterward had sustained a near-fatal injury that disfigured the left side of my face. This was ten years ago. I was desperate for someone to show me I was wanted, that I was worthy of the life I was trying to rebuild, even after having ruined it. I would visit him at the teashop once or twice a week, and sit in the corner reading my book, or writing in my Moleskine. At the time, I was writing very cryptic poetry. Sometimes I would read it to him and ask him what he thought, and he would tell me. I was accustomed to relying on validation from outside. That’s where anorexia had taught me I could find it. I didn’t know yet who I was when I wasn’t starving. I hadn’t yet learned all of the ways I could feed myself. My ex had no formal education in tea, but, being in a position to serve it to the general public every day, he considered himself an expert. He enjoyed educating others about the different types of tea, whether or not they desired to be educated. I would overhear these conversations. I learned a little bit about tea this way. I began drinking it. He “infused” loose leaves in old, browning yogurt containers in his refrigerator and would serve them to me in jelly jars. He washed his dishes with an old rag. The water that appears in my memory of these early days of our relationship is dingy, with particles floating in it. It smells sweet like a rotting forest floor. I didn’t consider myself an artist, but I wanted to be one, and he seemed to me to be one—this was the image he projected about himself. It took me months to convince him to be my boyfriend. Something in me compelled me not to give up in my pursuit. For his birthday gathering, shortly after we began sleeping together, I made stuffed peppers with couscous, black beans, corn, and cilantro—this took me hours. I had learned how to cook while I was in rehab and wanted to practice loving this way. I wanted someone to want my love. I was proud of the peppers. He didn’t seem to notice. Two years later, I got into an MFA program in London. I’d been working in an elementary school, and then a children’s museum, but I’d decided I wanted to study writing, and accepted the school’s invitation. I asked my boyfriend to come with me. At first he said yes, then he dragged his feet about it. Months went by and he didn’t file his paperwork, didn’t make plans, didn’t tell me that he wasn’t coming, so I began to feel nervous that he’d be left behind, or that he wasn’t being honest with me about what he wanted. In the meantime, I got into another school in New York. This looked more feasible: if he wouldn’t come with me to London, perhaps he would come to New York, which was closer. I needed him to come. He was the only partner who had ever fixed me breakfast. He made fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches with honey. He introduced me to kombucha. He told me to send my work to McSweeney’s. No lover had shown me this version of myself: the one who deserved to eat, the one who deserved to be heard. Two weeks before we were set to move to New York, he compared me to a barnacle clinging to a boat—which is to say that he was the boat, and I his barnacle, riding his success. I couldn’t understand how these two versions of me could coexist in my lover’s mind: the version who should be fed, and the version who should be scraped off. So, I chose the one I preferred. * We place so much stock in stories. Or, our stories are stock: they hold the disparate parts of ourselves together. We choose them according to our present hunger, our desired flavor, how we want to taste, how we wish to be known. Before my ex and I moved to New York, my estranged best friend and I—before we were estranged—traveled to Plant City, Florida, where your strawberries come from. We visited an astrologer who told my friend we were cosmic twins, that we’d been traveling together for thousands of years and had known each other in infinite forms. Each night, while we slept, we would find each other, no matter where we were in the universe: no matter if I was in New York, no matter if she was in Florida. We were always together, even if our bodies were far apart, and I believe this story because I want to believe this story, because I trust my friend’s stories of me, even after six years of silence: we have changed a lot, but we know each other. The other day, after I wrote the above paragraphs about boiled peanuts, another friend tagged me in a photo of boiled peanuts on Instagram. I hadn’t told her about my column. She didn’t know that I’d lately been thinking about boiled peanuts, even Googling the best places to find them in New York City. I didn’t know she even liked them; I think we’ve never discussed them, despite growing up in their midst. But there they were on Instagram, perfectly timed, the very same day, as if boiled peanuts were ebbing on the flow of our common ether. This friend has known me since we were two years old. For three years beginning shortly after my stint in rehab and the near-fatal accident, we were also estranged. We were both in bad places. In the heat of our stress, she said things to me that cut deep. They were mean, unforgiving things, intended to wound. They showed me the stark reality of who I was at that time: an anorexic, self-harming drug addict who had fucked up her life in the most humiliating ways she possibly could—and on top of that, I was being allowed to work in a school, a fact she couldn’t believe. Now I couldn’t believe it, either. I felt lesser than shit. But I wanted to be someone who was allowed to work in a school. I was trying very hard to be that person, to change my story. It is hard to change a story once it becomes myth. A myth is a story that is scaffolding for every other story we tell. This friend knows about the power of myth. She knew how hard I was trying to change mine, but she left out that part of the story because, in that moment, she wanted to hurt me. I wasn’t going to let her hurt me. I was trying not to hurt anymore. I told her never to call me again. Three years later, she showed up outside the art gallery where my boyfriend worked when he wasn’t at the teashop. I was hosting a party there for the first issue of a literary journal I was editing. She didn’t tell me she was coming. She didn’t know I was moving to New York in a matter of days. She’d just heard about the event and felt it was time to apologize. To set our story straight. * The other day, I was drinking sugar-free Red Bull on my lunch break in the woods. For the next several weeks, I’m working at a summer camp for artistic children, teaching writing. My ex-boyfriend had texted me the night after we saw each other outside the bookstore. He said it was [sunglasses emoji] running into me and it would be cool to get coffee or a drink sometime. I hesitated. I had left our encounter feeling insulted by his advice not to fuck things up in my new relationship, as well as some other things he’d said that I found irksome. But I was feeling generous, so I agreed to have coffee. People change, I told myself—certainly I had. Perhaps he had, too. But the more I thought about it, the less I believed that story. The pattern of our recent encounters suggested otherwise: each time we interacted, I parted ways feeling bothered. Recently, I had told him about my garlic allergy and he insisted the symptoms were all in my head. Garlic is antiseptic and thus good for me, he said. This had come out of an invitation to meet for ramen and kimchi. As if he knows things about kimchi, he informed me that it doesn’t include garlic, which it does. He then told me that he hopes I’ve been tested by a real physician about my garlic allergy, which I have. This still bothers me. In the woods with my sugar-free Red Bull, I decided to cancel our plans for coffee that Sunday. I explained the reasons why in a text message. What I didn’t say was that we shape reality with our stories. It is because a large number of Americans believed a story about Hillary Clinton’s email that Donald Trump is our president. It’s because people believe hard work will be rewarded that we have capitalism. It’s because I worked hard to change my story that I didn’t die before I turned twenty-three. I reframed my philosophy and established new paradigms. I repaired relationships with people who show me a version of myself I want to claim. They challenge me in ways that encourage me to grow, and they don’t tear me down. My ex responded to my text with a slew of insults. He dragged my character under his boat. He took credit for my success and called me immoral. He said I’ve never cared about anyone but myself. Meanwhile, I finished my lunch and proceeded to teach a class of twenty youth how to think about conflict. While they wrote from their lives, I texted my ex back. I invited him to kiss my ass. Actually, he can eat it. Collage by Sarah Gerard.
Dead Time

The temporal shift from serving in the Army to my formless but chaotic life in New York had unmoored me. Then I started listening to the Grateful Dead.

After nearly five years as an infantryman in the United States Army, mostly spent deployed to Iraq, I separated from the military and moved to Brooklyn. It was more than just a change of scenery: It was a wild, pendulous swing from one extreme to another. I went from living in mostly rural places—dusty Iraqi villages in the Diyala province and tiny German hamlets—to the biggest, loudest, filthiest city in America. My life as a soldier had been spent with a diverse cross-section of working class America, a rich panoply of experiences and opinions. Everyone I knew in Brooklyn had a college degree and listened to LCD Soundsystem.But the biggest difference was time. If my days in the Army had been highly structured and punctuated with huge, inescapable, languid bubbles in which nothing happened, then my time in Brooklyn was the exact opposite: completely devoid of form, but somehow frenetic. The temporal shift weighed on me. Days felt like they crumbled apart in high frequency, staccato moments, moving faster and faster. My life felt terrifyingly accelerated, like I was being jettisoned out of my own experience and completely losing control. I couldn’t sleep. And when I was awake, I was too frenzied to comfortably inhabit my days. Time became painful. And then I listened to the Grateful Dead.I’d probably heard the Dead before. It would be almost impossible not to. Everyone’s at least heard of the Grateful Dead, even if they can’t sing along to any of their songs. The reputation of the band precedes it, and the legions of half-obsessed fans, known colloquially as Deadheads, follow it. As unfair as it is, those are probably the reasons why I’d never given the band a chance. I’m not a burnout. I’m not interested in listening to a band practice live onstage for five-plus hours. Why would I want to listen to a ten-minute-long guitar solo?Looming in the background to my cultivating an ear for the Dead is the very thing that would make you want to hear a ten-minute-long guitar solo: marijuana. In Brooklyn, there’s a delivery service. You call a number—my guy was called Al Green—and an hour or so later a cyclist shows up at your door with a satchel full of little plastic baggies labeled “Sour Diesel” or “Girl Scout Cookies.”One day, after smoking a bowl of a dreamy but energizing Sativa strain, I took the advice of a recommendation from Spotify and turned on a compilation of live songs by the Grateful Dead. Never have I known an algorithm to be more accurate. The first song on the album was a version of “Sugaree” from a 1983 show in Lake Placid, New York, just a month or so before I was born. The recording is crisp. A perfectly balanced soundboard. Jerry Garcia’s guitar is up front in the mix and Brent Mydland’s gauzy, over-modulated organ is right behind it. The polyrhythmic drumming of the band’s two percussionists kind of contain the other instruments, keeping them from spinning out of control. Garcia starts out muttering a verse with a rough, nasally voice. ”When they come to take you down...when they bring that wagon ‘round...when they come to call on you...and drag your poor body down…just one thing I ask of you...just one thing for me...please forget you knew my name...my darling, Sugaree…” He starts telling a sad story, but, as soon as he finishes singing the chorus, almost stumbles into a solo. It flits around a mixolydian scale, colored by the blues but breaking itself free from formal blues structure. It’s as complex as jazz, but earthy and tired, mirroring the lyrical content. There’s something sweet and sad about it—gently pleading for forgiveness. It finds its logical conclusion in a series of crunching bar-chords. The lyrics move by so quickly that you almost miss them before another solo begins. Underneath the second solo, Bob Weir’s rhythm guitar plays bright, abstract, minimalist chords. He sounds like a garage band Keith Jarrett on the guitar. Mydland’s organ is slithering around in the background, brooding, keeping Garcia’s fluttering riffs tethered to reality. But Garcia runs scales until he finds daylight. His solo emerges into a bright clarity, then just as quickly collapses back onto itself and tenses into heavy and simple chords. Mydland’s organ flares up to fill the space. And the solo is suddenly over again.[[{"fid":"6701206","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Grateful Dead 10-17-83 Sugaree: Lake Placid","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The lyrics are repeating themselves. It’s an old story, maybe about a hanging and a secret accomplice. Or a lover making an escape. It could be about the strictures of fame, Garcia lamenting his loss of anonymity. The words are moving, but ambiguous: “shake it up now, Sugaree...maybe I’ll meet you at the jubilee...and if that jubilee don’t come...maybe I’ll meet you on the run…” The word “run” transforms into a bent note from Garcia. He springs into a cascade of triplets that fall apart, abstracted from arcane scales half-imagined in reverie. For a moment, the music sounds more like bop than rock n’ roll. Intricate patterns form, fall apart, turn into new patterns. The rest of the band simplifies their playing to contrast with Garcia’s wild foray. To give it a platform. Garcia isn’t just moving between scales and notes, but between entire American musical idioms. Jazz turns into bluegrass which turns into country which turns into barroom blues. He reaches an impossible crescendo before everyone simultaneously hits the breaks and simmers in the quiet heat of what they’ve just accomplished.The song is long—over sixteen minutes—but the experience feels more like a single, unified, holistic event. A gestalt. The actual feeling of your own mind thinking inside a distended flow of time takes you out of the physical world of motion, of minutes counted off by clock hands or the slow decay of radioactive isotopes. Time is abstracted from physical space and is given its own autonomous life.There are reams of literature on time and how it’s experienced, but I first noticed a description of time as experienced specifically in a Dead song—“Dead Time”—in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, of all places:In the knowledge derived from experienceThe knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,For the pattern is new in every momentAnd every moment is new and shockingValuation of all we have been.Eliot’s poem is about time as a junction point, where the eternal enters into our quotidian, everyday experience. Every single disjointed moment, which in our secular imagination feels broken into segments, is actually a rupture through which a deeper, eternal, rendering of time enters our lives. I couldn’t imagine a better description of how it feels to lose oneself in the meanderings of a Dead song.Eliot’s ideas about time were heavily influenced by the French philosopher Henri Bergson, whose work, popular among Francophiles at the turn of the last century, dealt primarily with experience, the imagination, and time. His ideas were a sort of philosophical corollary to Einstein’s scientific theories, in that both believed that time isn’t a fixed and contained constant, but is experienced differently depending on perspective. Bergson believed that we overuse spatial metaphors when we talk about time, which is a way of tricking ourselves into believing that time can be broken up into distinct and autonomous moments. In fact, the metaphor that he used to describe time was a melody. Bergson writes in Time and Free Will that “one could thus conceive succession without distinction as a mutual penetration, a solidarity, an intimate organization of elements of which would be representative of the whole, indistinguishable from it, and would not isolate itself from the whole except for abstract thought.” What he means is that a melody exists entirely holistically, as a unity. It can’t be dissected moment to moment except by the human mind removing itself from the experience of the melody as a singular event.Entering Dead Time saved me from the moment to moment frenzy of my new civilian life. Instead of seconds piling up on each other in a claustrophobic frenzy, pummeling me with their jarring insistence, I could turn on the Dead and be reminded of how time can actually work. Or, really, what time actually is. It felt as though the nature and shape of my thoughts gradually took on the form of what I found in a Dead song. I slept at night. I enjoyed my days, fully present in each moment. And it occurred to me that maybe this kind of deep healing is the “jubilee” Garcia sang about. It feels good to no longer be on the run.
‘There’s a Lot of Lazy Writing About Gentrification’: An Interview with Brandon Harris

The author of Making Rent in Bed-Stuy on how places change people, and how people change places. 

A decade ago, film student Brandon Harris became an accidental gentrifier of Brooklyn’s intermittently notorious Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood. The brownstone-lined backdrop of early Spike Lee sets, Bed-Stuy is home to one of the country's first free Black communities, established in the 1830s. The neighbourhood's predominantly African American denizens have spanned the spectrum of socioeconomic experience ever since. Silver screen icon Lena Horne grew up in Bed-Stuy. So did Shawn Carter, who sold crack out of the Marcy Housing Projects at the neighbourhood's northwestern perimeter before rhyming about it as Jay Z. "Hold a Uzi vertical, let the thing smoke/ Y'all flirtin' with death, I be winkin' through the scope," he waxes in "Marcy Me," a verse coated in nostalgia for the artist's pre-Giuliani youth.When Harris and his art school pals moved into Carter's old stomping grounds, just a decade and change after the height of the crack epidemic, their presence marked the beginning of a contemporary wave of demographic transition that has since accelerated. Bed-Stuy is now among the fastest-gentrifying neighbourhoods in the United States, Harris reports.But when Harris made his initial move into the area, this wasn't yet the case. Real estate agents fibbed his Taafe Place address as falling within the boundaries of neighbouring Clinton Hill—a demographically similar enclave closer toward downtown, notable mostly for the Pratt Institute and conspicuously little else. (A fun fact is that Clinton Hill native Christopher Wallace played the opposite trick by repping Bed-Stuy when he reinvented himself as the Notorious BIG. A shared zip code just isn't enough when what you're going for is infamy.)Unwittingly, Harris found himself a well-to-do film student in one of the country’s most notorious neighbourhoods: upwardly mobile, upper-middle-class and, incidentally, Black.Harris’ new book, Making Rent in Bed-Stuy, melds memoir and sociology to probe the history of a neighbourhood whose mythos often eclipses its truth—and picks apart the stories we tell ourselves at the intersection of race, class, and geography.*Kelli Korducki: So, this book is kind of a memoir and kind of a history of Black cinema and kind of a story about gentrification, plus code-switching. How would you describe how its moving parts fit together?Brandon Harris: I guess I can only describe what I was intending to do. For me, I always saw the book as a sort of juxtaposition of a number of formats, that whether a memoir or history or cultural criticism, I’m trying to get at the root of what various individuals—including myself—have made of Bedford-Stuyvesant.The myth of Bedford-Stuyvesant as a bulwark for Brooklyn’s Black community versus the reality of it as a place of social and material contention dating back to the 1830s—between Blacks themselves, and Dutch farm owners who sold the first black Brooklyn landowners their land, the waves of gentrification, if you will, if you want to call it that, that, that began in the 1860s and ‘70s… basically trying to get at the root of what about Bedford-Stuyvesant is so loaded.How did what you learned about its history echo, or not echo, your own experience of the Bed-Stuy neighbourhood? I think that Bedford-Stuyvesant is a place that grew in importance for me over the years that I lived in it. As I described in the book, it didn’t really mean much to me when I moved there. I had very little emotional stakes in what became of it, and what it had been, and what my own living there represented—what the invasion of upwardly mobile, upper middle class millennials meant.I think in a lot of ways, the book is a way of memorializing, and of documenting, that evolving me. I wanted to reflect on how the place had accrued meaning for me, and the historical ironies of a moment we thought of as a progressive one—the Obama era—that in the end, was perhaps in a lot of ways, disastrous for African Americans. For their material wealth, for their collective political activities, and for their sense of ownership for Black spaces, not just in New York.I could not have imagined writing this book when I was 22. I think the book represents the intellectual journey that I took to be able to write the book, but also to understand what Bed-Stuy means and meant and what it represents both historically and in its current incarnation as the fastest gentrifying neighbourhood in Brooklyn.You make the specific choice to use the word “Negro” in a way that feels very considered. Can you explain your choice to use that word?I think that all terms that we currently use to describe people from West Africa, or whose ancestors were from West Africa, are invented terms that come from the West. At various points in history we’ve referred to people we now refer to as African Americans as niggers, as coloured people or coloured folks, and as negroes—the term that my grandparents and any number of people from my mother’s generation used privately among Blacks themselves, in an endearing manner—Afro-Americans, Blacks, what have you. I find, for me personally, it’s the term that feels most comfortable. It’s a term that I think can be rehabilitive.So much about contemporary Black politics has been about symbols of respect, from the mainstream, from the city founders, from the men that run this country, from whatever sources of power—usually, that is, amongst Caucasians—that African Americans seek to attain or to find some entryway into. And yet by and large, these symbols and this changing nomenclature to what is deemed “politically correct,” or using the right term… I think Black political action should be more interested in power as opposed to symbols and nomenclature.There was that kerfuffle a few weeks ago about Bill Maher’s use of the word nigger… It was a silly thing to say, and a very shitty thing to say. But I couldn’t take any offense to that. Then, I look at Dana Schutz’s painting [of Emmett Till] in the Whitney Biennial. I can’t say that I own Black pain. It’s not for me to tell white people what to say or what to paint. What I’m more interested in is political agency, economic security. In power. It’s a completely different arena, but ultimately people conflate them.One passage in your book that really stood out to me, that I took a picture of with my phone so as not to forget to ask you about it: You mention that in Spike Lee’s “more nuanced films,” shit-stirring characters evolve into “people willing to grasp the ambivalence of Negro existence and understand that the white man is only part of the problem and, naturally, an even bigger part of any lasting solution.” Can you explain what you mean by this?What that referred to is rooted in the horror of living in an America dominated by white supremacy, and its various lasting legacies. Whether that’s from municipal policy or redlining, to police shootings, to the sense of insecurity that these things bestow upon Blacks. And that ambivalence that I talk about is one that, the only way to unpack it, is to think very clearly about the implications of living in a society where the majority is not going away.I don’t think that nationalism, separatism, Liberia—none of these things have liberated Black people. We’re all Americans. Whether we like it or not, we’re all in the same boat.The book is grounded in your own experience but also obviously deeply researched. Were you taken by surprise by anything you encountered in the process?Yeah. A lot of the statistics about how badly African Americans fared the recession, that I encountered, were really startling to me. Like, deeply terrifying.The idea that over half of Blacks lost over 40 percent of their wealth during the recession, that 30 percent of New York City’s Black-owned businesses closed between 2007 and 2012. It goes on and on and on.I’ve seen this experience in my own family. My mom had a birthday party a few weeks ago, and she made this remark—that gave me great personal clarity—about how, when we moved into that home in 2005, we were upper-middle-class. And now, 12 years later, we’re working-class. And there are lots of stories like that, amongst African-American professionals.Sometimes it seems like the market-driven mechanisms of gentrification are lost in a narrative of “white person opens coffee shop.” There’s a lot of lazy writing about gentrification. There’s a level of rigor and thoughtfulness about what the process is and means that’s lacking. I certainly think that I have a pretty unusual personal narrative of gentrification, or class warfare, or ethnic cleansing, or what have you—because I don’t think it should be called gentrification—and I try to speak to that perspective.So who did you write this for? The white people gentrifying Brooklyn? Me? Yourself? I don’t know if I was thinking of a reader. I mean, I dedicated it to someone whose identity I won’t reveal, but they were someone I was very close to and who I still love, who lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I thought about what that person would say, and how they’d respond. But mostly, I wrote it to figure out what I knew.
Queering the Rural

What happens when we return to the places we once thought were suspicious of us, to the places we kept secrets from? 

In the early 1920s, Sylvia Townsend Warner published her hugely successful first novel, Lolly Willowes. The writer spent much of her time in London, but at the suggestion of Stephen Tomlin, who later became part of the Bloomsbury Group, she went to Chaldon Herring in Dorset to visit the writer Theodore Powys. Powys and his self-made literary enclave attracted a variety of poets, writers and artists to the area. Warner found herself enchanted with Dorset’s rural landscapes, coastal views and small-town solitude and grew particularly fond of visiting Powys and his family.One evening at the Powys home, Warner met Valentine Ackland.Warner was transfixed, but not necessarily impressed, by Ackland’s slender figure and her self-assured demeanour. In one of her diaries, Warner describes Ackland as an “aloof unicorn” and writes that Ackland’s presence, and their strained conversation, made her feel uncomfortable. Warner assumed an atrabilious disposition toward Ackland and the two women retained an almost suspicious and distant friendship.In 1930, during a walk around Chaldon Herring with a group of friends that included Ackland, someone pointed out a small house and suggested that Warner might like to buy it. It was decided that Ackland, who was at that time without a proper home, would use the house as temporary accommodation. Warner bought the house for £90 and returned to London whilst Ackland took up residence.Ackland found Warner’s manner “abrasive” and describes her as “intolerably nervous” in her diaries. However, Ackland also admits to wanting to live with Warner. In one particular diary entry of Ackland’s, the distance between them begins to slip; Ackland admits to feeling “sad on waking to have lost the dream” because in the dream she had found Warner’s “eager and loving look,” which Ackland was sure she would never see on the “real woman.”In September that year, Warner decided that she would spend a month or so in Dorset, whilst coming back and forth from London and maintaining her links with the city. Ackland, who also had commitments in London, would do the same. On their second Saturday together at the house in Chaldon, Ackland and Warner went for dinner. They returned home and lay in separate beds on either side of a partition wall. The calm evening was uninterrupted; aside from the soft murmur of the wind, a deep quiet spread out evenly across the village. In mellifluous tones, they began talking to one another in the dark. After a faint pause, Warner heard Ackland whisper into the night; “I sometimes think I am utterly unloved.” According to Warner’s diary, after several seconds, “the forsaken grave wail of her voice smote me, and had me up, and through the door, and at her bedside.” They spent the evening with one another and the next morning, they lay together on the Dorset downs “listening to the wind blowing over our happiness, and talking about torpedoes, and starting up at footsteps. It is so natural to be hunted, and intuitive. Feeling safe and respectable is much more of a strain.”In an article for The Guardian, Sarah Waters writes that Warner’s work is “relatively under-appreciated.” Though there has been a revival in popularity in recent years, arising primarily from a recent investment by certain scholars to seriously re-examine Warner’s oeuvre, she still remains a neglected literary figure. Though Warner’s novels were well received amongst the audience of her day, they did not sustain a continued interest during the later twentieth century, ensuring that Warner fell out of the mainstream literary canon. Critics have speculated on the various reasons behind this, but more often than not, most attribute it to the fact that she was in an open lesbian relationship, held staunch Communist views and had retired to rural Dorset from London, ensuring she couldn’t maintain connections with a city that more easily promised visibility and success. I grew up less than eight miles from Chaldon and I was entirely oblivious to the literary connections that Warner had garnered here—I, like many people, had never heard of her.Growing up in a small town in Dorset, London was the place that I made responsible for my future happiness. I spent my time at Sixth Form pouring everything I could into this future vision. Unlike Warner, I did not desire the quiet of the countryside. Instead, I sutured an impossible collection of overwrought expectations, lofty dreams and unobtainable aspirations onto this unknown city. London was where I was going to escape the insularity and single-mindedness of living in a small town in a rural county on the coast. It was where I could avoid spending my twenties dancing in grimy clubs on the seafront with the same people that I had gone to Brownies with. I moved to London in 2009 and allowed the transition to fulfil my teenage desire for anonymity and mystery.For many years, living in London worked to counteract everything I had grown to hate in Dorset. I played the urban flaneur successfully, replete with Starbucks coffee and the same misty-eyed gaze of anyone who has discovered Proust for the first time. I went to university, read Judith Butler, drank cider in bottles bigger than my own head, spoke about The Fundamental Flaws of Neoliberalism with uncompromising yet naive confidence and spent chimerical nights in parks creating fleeting friendships with strangers. I was a living, breathing embodiment of the cliché I had longed for as a teenager.When I was eighteen, I met the woman who would become my first girlfriend. She was obnoxiously confident and, almost instantly, I fell in love with the crooked angle of her fingers when she held a cigarette, the Polaroid pictures she showed me of living alone in Paris and how she would elusively disappear on nights out in a way I thought was implausibly cool. But it wasn’t until we had been friends for years that our relationship slowly changed. We would spend hours one summer lying on her bed talking, and many more hours lying awkwardly not quite knowing what to say. We would buy obscure Polish milk drinks from the local off licence and take long bus trips across London. We wrote each other notes late at night in our university library, sliding them tentatively across the plastic green desks, and slowly, we fell in love.As our relationship progressed, returning home to Dorset became more difficult. My parents were less than pleased when I told them that I was moving in with my girlfriend. It was a shock for them; not only was I coming out, but I was committed to someone, committed enough to share a one bedroom flat with them, to share a bed and an IKEA cutlery set. For nearly a year, my father and I didn’t speak. While I think he found coming out reprehensible, his confusion and disapproval was simultaneously bound to his dislike of me living in London. My dad called it “my London lifestyle,” as if binding my sexuality to geographical exposure was a deadlock solution for trying to understand what was happening.However, in many ways, there was a certain element of truth in his vitriol. It was easy to fall into the trap of steady and familiar London company. The ritual of staying in the same city and living out the same ordinary mornings and evenings became a reward; proof of something that belonged solely to me, an evidentiary footprint of a life that I had built for myself. London was where I was safe and respectable. The relationship with my father remained strained and we grew further apart. As each family occasion loomed on the horizon, the prospect of returning home was considerably more alienating.Queer theorist Sara Ahmed writes that “as a structure of feeling, alienation is an intense burning presence; it is a feeling that takes place before others, from whom one is alienated, and can feel like a weight that both holds you down and keeps you apart.” In this sense, alienation presents a gauzelike cover across the world: displaying to you that which is there but which you don’t have access to. In London, it was easier to move smoothly in the world, and without friction: home was resistant to me. In the psychic landscape within which we wrap geography, something was always lost when I left London.Outlining this interior struggle emphasizes the extent to which my own narrative is typical of the urban “coming out” stereotype; where it is the isolation of a small village in the middle of nowhere that one seeks to escape in favor of the promise of a bright city of acceptance and freedom.The relative invisibility of cultural and literary representations of queer rural life further fractures this alienation. Queer theorist Jack Halberstam argues, “queers from rural settings are not well represented in the literature that has been so much a hallmark of twentieth century gay identity.” When I was growing up in Dorset, models of recognizable queer possibility were fundamentally invisible. The only books or films I encountered as a teenager explored what John Howard dubs the “gay migration narrative.” That is, books which examined how “rural and small-town queer life is generally mythologized by urban queers as sad and lonely, or else rural queers might be thought of as ‘stuck’ in a place that they would leave if only they could.” These references presented the city as the only viable alternative—the urban landscape was an obligatory rite of passage to ensure validity and future happiness. In the city, you are free and fabulous and comfortably surrounded by the tolerance of like-minded people; you are allowed to assimilate yourself into a world that wants you. In the countryside, you are melancholy, lonely and persecuted by people who refuse to accept you.Halberstam argues that the story of coming out tends to function as a meteronormative story of migration from “country” to “town,” within which the subject moves to a place of tolerance after enduring life in a place of suspicion, persecution and secrecy. According to Halberstam, the idea that the individual must move from the rural to the urban ensures that the coming out narrative is constructed as mandatory. Queerness means deploying energy. It is never enough to just show up. Instead it is necessary to consistently forge spaces for yourself. Any struggle to try to accommodate yourself within an environment is a blind recognition of what it means not to fit in. Making yourself comfortable is socially necessary—in metropolitan centres and outside of them.Though I loved my life in London, I began to consider the possibility of moving home. I needed to create for myself the cultural map that I didn’t have growing up, to forge a queer identity at home that felt viable. The binary between living out a queer/city experience and the heteronormative/country identity was only as pervasive as I allowed it to be. What happens when we return to the places that we once thought were suspicious of us, to the places that we had kept secrets from? What stories, people and objects do we rely on to figure ourselves as visible? When my relationship, which had anchored my time in London, ended, there seemed like no better time to find out.A few days before moving home, I spent the day in a park with an old friend. It was blisteringly hot, and we were both repetitively applying viscous pools of sun cream to our arms and backs. I told her that I would be moving home to Dorset for a while and that my prescient feelings of anxiety around this transition were beginning to surface. “It won’t be for long,” she reassured me. I nodded my head in agreement but felt old feelings of tension and alienation bubbling furtively beneath the surface. My friend assured me that she felt the same whenever she went home; “I don’t think I make sense there—I am somehow out of context,” she said.Whenever I go home to Dorset, even if this is just for a few days, there is a disconnect with my surroundings, with the environment, with my family and the people living there; as if perhaps, my life in London were a tale of local apocrypha that I couldn’t now allow myself to believe. When I first told my mum that I would be coming home, she was taken aback by my palpable concern. Almost automatically, I informed her that I don't feel I have a community at home. I had never even thought about really having a community, let alone lacking one. But admitting this, I suddenly understood why I feel somehow incomprehensible in my hometown. Moving to London had allowed me to exist within environments that validate queer lives, where I was offered an opportunity to move as part of a community and find spaces that explicitly celebrated identities that were never modelled for me as an adolescent growing up in a rural environment. Over the past decade or so, I haven’t really returned to Dorset for fear of losing everything that I’d taken so long to find. The return meant that everything I had fought for could so easily slide out of grip.On one of my last afternoons in London, as I sat surrounded by cardboard boxes and piles of clothes, I found myself frantically scouring Dorset community notice boards for menial jobs, local art exhibitions and any activity that might keep me from falling into what felt like the imminent boredom and loneliness of returning to my childhood home. On the Dorset County Museum website under the Writers’ Dorset section, there was a small paragraph that detailed how “Twentieth century authors like Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Powys family took inspiration from the Dorset landscape and locality.” Almost instinctively, I felt drawn to Warner. I began buying biographies and diaries, spending the height of summer immersed in academic articles and collections of letters. Warner became a secret that I pursued. As Waters wrote, the fact that Warner is under-appreciated “baffles, frustrates and, I think, secretly pleases her admirers, for she's the kind of novelist who inspires an intense sense of ownership in her fans.”This conspiratorial sense of ownership became inescapable as I prepared to leave London; I learned that Warner ran a book lending service in Dorset. I found a description of a matchbox that Warner had received from a friend—she loved the matchbox simply because she had never before received one. I listened to the falling, prosodic cadence of her calm voice as she read one of her poems, first written and recorded in 1938. I spent long, distracted hours in the British Library scrolling through pictures, studying her short curly black hair, her round spectacles, the cigarette that she holds delicately in her hand in one photograph, or the cat languishing in the sun across her knees in another. I obsessively scrolled through Google Images, finding pictures of her that I saved to the ever-growing landscape of my desktop. I re-read her descriptions of the willow-like catkin trees, that hang like “suspended hail; glistening, and pearl grey” and I revelled in her writing of a February afternoon when the Dorset landscape was a “pale earth” with “pale honey-coloured trees and an immense sun-lit purple cloud tattered with blue and wearing a rainbow.” I immersed myself in Warner’s Dorset from London, taking hold of it, as though it was somehow my own.When I finally left London, I visited the Dorset County Museum with my eight-year-old sister. We cradled old sepia photographs of Warner like soft, smooth pebbles in our hands. The photographs depict Warner and Ackland where, leagues apart from the conservative, heteronormative standard of the 1930s, they lived together openly in Dorset. There are other pictures of Ackland and Warner on the Internet; Ackland is dressed in jodhpurs and carries a gun—hair slicked back, wearing a cravat and smoking a cigarette. They are rarely pictured together. But I can tell that in many of the pictures of Warner, Ackland is holding the camera. The softness in Warner’s eyes spools outwards, suggesting that someone she loves frames the picture.Acknowledging Warner and Ackland’s past presence in Dorset was a secret talisman as I returned to the enclaves of my small rural town. Warner became the vanguard of some viable, rural queer life that I urgently hooked onto. Orientating myself towards what felt like a tangible history of queer, non-normative living, a sudden safety and calm washed over me. Out of context and feeling like I was losing my bearings by moving home, Warner was an object of hope. In Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed writes that “if we know where we are when we turn this way or that, then we are orientated. […] To be orientated is to be turned toward certain objects, those that help us find our way.” Warner’s archives, photographs and books were the secret, queer objects that orientated me home; the decision to move away from London became far easier knowing that there was a path that had already been taken by a woman that had seemed to find a semblance of happiness and acceptance in an environment where that always felt impossible.Moving back to Dorset, it became clear that coming out is often also bound to spatial and geographic terrain—what might it mean to come out to myself in a place where I had never really felt queer? Leading with Warner’s life in my hands became a strange and secret model of possibility, a distinct means to become closer to my home. In many ways, I was returning with Warner, whilst also returning to her: to live through her.Much literature that has offered representations of queer life has informed us that rural environments oppress the queer, whereas in the metropolis queers thrive. It is that strain of safety, especially for those further marginalized or persecuted by race, socioeconomic status, gender or age, which so often defines migration to urban centres. Yet, for Warner, it was Dorset where she was most at home. According to critic David Bell, so often the queer countryside is figured as either “hostile” or “idyllic,” whereby extreme characterizations often come to define the rural experience. The narrative of Ackland and Warner, however, is a story where rural queerness isn’t necessarily figured as lonely or hopeless. Similarly, it isn’t necessarily characterized as blissful and happy, without skirmish, social judgement or relational blemish. However, I found some hope in the modest banality of their life in Dorset, which made it clear that by returning home, life there wasn’t backward, impossible and hostile, nor was it was straightforwardly a bucolic utopia of queer acceptance.*The first evening back at home, I lay on a mattress on the floor and argued with my ex-girlfriend over the phone, crying myself into a semi somnambulant state only to be woken at 6 a.m. by the sound of an incensed wasp caught in the folds of the curtains. I dressed quickly, sent a text message I probably shouldn't have sent, and broke into a cool Sunday morning. I began cycling through the village of Upwey and didn't quite hit Martinstown before I decided to make my way to Dorchester. Having missed breakfast, the climbs were steep and arduous. Swapping the verdant patchwork downs of Martinstown, Mallards Green gave way to the sterile toy town of Poundbury and in the distance emerged a McDonald’s that I recognized as the spot lit breakfast stop from long car journeys taken as a child. Hungry and tired and seated on a yellow plastic high stool at a burnished metal table, I looked at the map on my phone. In block capitals, Hardy’s Country presented itself on the screen. My fingers pinched and dragged the virtual patch of land into focus; I decided I would find the home Warner shared with Valentine, in Frome Vauchurch, which lies eight or so miles north west of Dorchester.Having spent several months attending the Second International Congress of Writers in Defence of Culture in Spain, Warner and Ackland found themselves back at their home of Chaldon Herring in Dorset on the 16th July 1937. Both women were exuberant, consumed with ideas “for articles and propaganda.” Yet this would be the last time that they would return to Chaldon. According to Claire Harman, the women, who were partners in love, writing and politics, saw a small advert in the local paper for a small house to rent on the outskirts of Maiden Newton. Warner and Ackland moved from their infamously damp and dank habitude at 24 West Chaldon, in East Dorset, on the 23 August 1937, taking up residency in Mrs West’s house by the River Frome, in Maiden Newton, Dorset.Seventy-nine years later and on the dawn of August’s arrival, I strapped my helmet to my head. I felt conspicuous as I downed the coffee out of my McDonalds cup, apologizing profusely to families preparing for Sunday football because my bike was in the way of the automated door. Revelling in the magical perversity of the names of small Dorset country lanes, I took several wrong turns before I found myself on a small country track, headed for Brandon Peverell. On the long road, the air pushed past my face, drying the dampening hair under my helmet. With no one around, I shouted into the air. I hadn’t seen a car for the last mile. I shouted again, with the momentum of my bike pushing me forward into the early morning.Calm solitude swarmed around me as the wind washed across my face. The monotonous, empty iterations of similar roads and countless white rolling hills had always instilled a deep isolation in the past; an easy metaphor for the lonely banality of my teenage years. But for the first time, in a place that spoke of past loneliness and forceful distance from who I thought I was, a quiet stillness had momentarily taken me. I was boundless, moving past the anxiety of the months previous, cycling faster across the Dorset downs across low hills with flecks of stone spurring underneath my wheels.As I moved across the dust-white, chalk landscape, Sylvia’s home and the knowledge of her life here were a reminder of something that I so desired to know could exist. She was the vehicle for beginning to belong: a cathartic reassurance of self-viability. Sometimes we need to live through the presence of someone else to remind us of who we are. She reminded me that I could create an identity for myself here, outside of one that had been defined solely by living in the city. Moving through the hills, I could challenge the rural environment where I had never felt I had belonged. In many ways, I needed to return home to come out to my home.In a poem, Ackland writes:Space is invisible waves. In leaves of trees/ Space-water rustles, and the sway of these/ Is only movement of seawater under tide/ In restless sway and swing from side to side/While in the invisible air and in the sky/ Spirits like deep-sea fishes are sweeping by/ And the wind is no wind but a fast-flowing current of tide/ And the spirits are blown and driven and cannot abide.Whilst space in this poem is figured as invisible, it also remains forceful; it has the powerful potential to move and alter—the invisible strength to shape you. However, space is also transversal, continual, and perhaps even recurrently revisable in the “restless sway and swing from side to side.” It is Ackland’s account of space that seems like fertile terrain for rethinking the geographical, spatial contours of queerness. The environment I grew up in did not seem revisable. It felt like it had shaped me and that I needed to get away from it in order to shake its grip.However, part of what has always been so compelling about queerness is the potential it offers to create alternatives modes of being, doing and living. There is such unprecedented joy to sidestepping the seemingly binding structures that you have simply been given and not asked for. Believing that the city is the only place of queer self-intelligibility upholds the fact that I am somehow in the closet in my rural home. I spent a long time allowing this idea to sediment. When many cultural and social representations of coming-out tales portray the urban as the only platform for queer visibility, it is easy to allow this to become the dominant narrative.Ackland’s anamorphic concept of space seems like the fertile terrain for queering the dominant narratives of queer visibility; for troubling the spaces that are prescribed as mandatory conduits for assimilation and acceptance. Whilst I don’t want to deny that there are still complexities and dangers for many queer folk in rural environments, it becomes all the more necessary to remember that there are always local, queer stories at work. Establishing that the rural and the urban are somehow mutually exclusive, or that to find one, you might need to escape the other, it becomes abundantly clear that these seemingly paradoxical positions, which bolster the conventional queer migration narrative, might themselves, need queering.