Speaking with the author of How to Survive a Plague about the early days of the disease, the unpredictable nihilism of the Trump government, and the evolution of lasting gay love.
In order to find purpose and affirmation, Black artists rethink time and space as we know it to find a place for themselves.
Speaking with the author of How to Survive a Plague about the early days of the disease, the unpredictable nihilism of the Trump government, and the evolution of lasting gay love.
Twenty years ago, after more than a decade of bereavement, panic, hopelessness, scientific stagnation and institutional intransigence, antiretroviral combination therapy—that infamous “cocktail” of drugs—was made available on a wide scale to people living with AIDS in North America. For the first time since the advent of the epidemic, the number of deaths related to the disease dropped, plummeting twenty-three percent from the previous year’s tally.For those on the frontlines—the grassroots activists, the lovers and caregivers of patients debilitated by AIDS-related opportunistic infections, the gay men grappling with social stigma and bureaucratic contempt, the health-care workers tormented by their inability to save thousands—the new treatment seemed like a miracle. “How does a population psychologically braced to die suddenly get on with the business of living?” pondered Newsweek staff in an op-ed from that December titled “The End of AIDS?”The story wasn’t over, of course: there were still nearly 35,000 AIDS-related fatalities in the United States in that year alone. But that moment, the dawn of the Lazarus effect—the promise held by new drugs that would keep those with the disease alive, at least until another potentially effective therapy was discovered—marks the climax and conclusion of David France’s remarkable How to Survive a Plague. A harrowing and astonishingly vivid account, France’s book is both a complement to and an expansion on his Oscar-nominated documentary of the same name. It’s an extraordinary work of history, one that tells a (if not the only) story of the earliest years of the AIDS/HIV epidemic and the activism that coalesced in the face of tragedy.Hazlitt: Your original cut of the How to Survive a Plague documentary was thirteen hours long—did the book come out of necessity, out of the desire to include everything that was left out of the film?David France: Actually, I wanted to write the book first. I'd created a book proposal, as one does, and carried it around, as one does. It was 2008, 2009, and everybody told me there was no market for a story about AIDS, that AIDS was in the past, that there was a glut of AIDS material already. The story had been chronicled.The plague was over.That's right. So even if there were additional issues to be parsed, who would care? And my argument, which met with deaf ears, was that all the great work that had been done around the plague, had been done in the middle of it, from Paul Monette to Randy Shilts to Larry Kramer to Mary Fisher. The writing was powerful and terrifying—And unmediated.Yes. And a lot of it was very personal, and a lot of it was very rooted in time. Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On was the only one of those canonical AIDS books that reached for history. But there was no interest at all. It was also a bad time in publishing; the economy was about to tank, everyone in print got panicked. And as part of my process to build a book proposal, I'd gone back to that videotape pile….How much videotape was there?I eventually brought in 800 hours of mostly home movies. Some people have called it a found-footage documentary, which technically is a kind of category. But this wasn't footage that was inadvertently captured. It was all purposefully recorded in order to create records that were undeniable.You've been working in journalism for decades. How did the documentary process influence you as a writer and shaper of narrative?I'm a long-form journalist, so it wasn't a leap for me to work on a narrative storyline in a film with a three-act structure. I think I've always written in ways that are cinematic—or at least anticipate that cinematic feeling. A lot of my work has been made into films. But what I realized was that what I didn't have any experience with was working entirely with visual media, and that was problematic. It was a steep learning curve.Figuring out which frames to capture, you mean?Exactly. It wasn’t enough that I found somebody saying something; I had to find them in the context of this and looking like that, and then I had to explain why they were there, in that particular place. I was bound by the historical record more than I'd anticipated in going after this old video footage.When this footage was recorded in the '80s and early '90s, was there a sense of urgency within the community to be documenting things for history? I remember reading Paul Monette's Unbecoming, which is a kind of reportage—a firsthand account of how the disease caused the dissolution of self—and trying to make sense of who it was intended for.I think each of us felt an obligation to do something when it became clear that we were all endangered. If you did feel drafted, there were various things you could do. People were signing up for home health-care visitation; there were organizations formed to walk the dogs of people with AIDS and to write the wills of people with AIDS. You'd bring your expertise to it. In 1981, I was just out of college. I was in graduate school. I felt called to write news, to find the news—which was hard to find—and then to bring it back to the community. So I was writing for the queer presses and trying to create medical news and science news that would engender hope. I was looking for the answers. I never found them, but it's what caused me to become a journalist, instead of a philosophy professor or whatever else I was going to become. That was my motivation. I wasn't really trying to create a permanent record of historical crimes.But Michael Callen was. In 1982, he and Richard Berkowitz sat with their doctor, Joseph Sonnabend, and the doctor saw the tragedy in the future, and he felt a very specific need. He sat with his patients and said something to the effect of, "This is going sideways! Greed and lies are going to drive this. We have no power to correct their narrative, but we have power to gather the truth." And he charged both of his patients with making a record. That conversation is on audiotape.It's remarkable that these galvanizing moments in the history of this struggle are actually documented.The first half of the book is all based on audio recordings that people were making, knowing that they needed to capture the undeniable facts of what was happening. The first conversation between a person with AIDS and anybody in the federal government's research establishment was captured on tape. Michael Callen, after that conversation with his doctor, went out and bought his own Panasonic tape recorder for $39—he saved the receipt! Michael’s now long gone; he died in '93, but he took this idea very seriously. At one point he said that one day there would be a Nuremberg-type trial, to bring to justice the people responsible for having let an infection that originally impacted forty-one people develop into one of the deadliest global pandemics of all time. That's what he was leaving behind: the records for that trial.Institutionalized homophobia persists, regardless of political affiliation. But if AIDS had unspooled under an American government that was at least nominally friendlier to LGBTQ people, would there have been the same impulse to create an alternate history?So, we got a liberal government in the States in 1992, and it was really no better. When Clinton was elected, there was a lot of hope that it would be better. He said the word "AIDS." He was the "I feel your pain" politician, and that "I feel your pain" line was delivered to an AIDS activist who was heckling him at one of his campaign stops.You describe that scene so vividly in the book. I can hear his patronizing inflection.It's on videotape! It's all on videotape! I think there are only a handful of conversations that were recreated from people remembering what they said. There are, like, 80 pages of endnotes citing tape after tape after tape after tape, most of which had never been transcribed before.What was it like to pore over all those tapes? It's one thing to sift through a general archive; it's another to be revisiting your own history—these were people you knew, a period you lived through. Was it harrowing?Well, part of it was very heartwarming. To hear Michael Callen again! And to hear the part of Michael Callen I'd never listened to before—there's a New Year's Eve in 1984, ’85, where he's really despairing. He's lying in bed. He'd sent his lover off to the parties because he just wasn't well enough. And he's delirious. His mind is clouded; maybe by fever or infection. And to hear him struggling with that on this tape that he made and put aside, that was really stunning. I mean, he recovered from that night and remained a leading voice in the AIDS movement, even through 1987 with the formation of this grassroots activist initiative. He was a thought leader and philosophical leader till his death in 1993. But almost ten years before that, he was really despairing.Can you remember the moment when you transitioned from reporting on something that was happening to becoming part of the story?I never really felt like I was part of the story. I had coffee with Larry Kramer recently and when I gave him a copy of the book to read, I said, "You're going to hate this—initially, at least—but eventually I think you're going to like it." I explained to him that I'd written the book as an outsider. It's full of praise, but I wanted it to be a real historical commemoration of what went right and what went wrong, and how this deeply flawed group of people came together and created this deeply powerful movement.Now, I decided to include my own story in the book, because I wanted to create a witness account. I was a witness. I was there. I was as panicked as anyone else. I had AIDS in my relationship. My lover was sick. I was not an outsider to the plague, to the epidemic. But I always remained independent as a journalist.I started out in the queer press, and eventually, I was covering AIDS news for the New York Times. I decided that the role I was going to play was not as an advocate journalist, but a journalist using the recognized tools of independence and objectivity to tell these stories. I was at all those ACT UP meetings; I was at all those demonstrations—but always with a notepad in my hand. ACT UP had no formal membership roster; the rules were that if you went to two meetings, you could vote at your third meeting. And I never voted.Within such an action-oriented organization, was there a sense of appreciation for your approach? Did people see you as an emissary who was bringing the story to the outside world? Or did they think you should be more involved in the grassroots aspects of the fight?I never felt pulled in in that way. I worked closely with the journalists who were. There was a journalist who covered AIDS at the Village Voice, Robert Massa. As he was dying, he felt he needed to replace himself, and he began recruiting for people to come and do the kind of work he was doing, which was very aggressive, very critical, very advocacy-based. He didn't come to me. Because...that was not the work I was doing. He approached friends of mine who were, and ultimately, he did replace himself before he died, with Kiki Mason, who stayed alive until '96. After '96, they didn't fill that position again.So, was there appreciation among them for what I was doing? Maybe there was a little suspicion, even, about why I wasn't doing more internally, why I wasn't speaking in the voice of activism. I've always considered myself a person who covers activism—which I guess is a form of activism.Andrew Sullivan touched on this in his review of your book, but it's remarkable to have a story with so many bodies on the ground where you resist hagiography. (You're very candid about Larry Kramer, for instance—both his failings and his triumphs.) You were relying on subjects to share very vulnerable, often painful stories, so how did you negotiate that dynamic?People always spoke to me as a journalist. When I was at the Times, when I was at Newsweek, any of the places I've been able to shoehorn in AIDS stories, I've always been a journalist. I've never been friends with any of these folks. They've often been critical of my work. I've allowed them to be critical of my work; I've allowed that to not change my work if I thought I was right, and I've allowed that to inform future work if I thought I was wrong.I've been interviewing Larry since the '80s, and always as a journalist. I don't think I've ever sat across from him without a tape recorder or a notepad, except maybe when he was in the hospital. When I started working on this book, he said he would not participate. So I didn't talk to him and ask him to go back in time with me. But I did find that he'd dropped all his papers off at Yale, and I convinced Yale to give me early access to his datebooks, his drafts of speeches.... It was amazing. Three weeks; thousands of pages of stuff. I feel like I could understand him from then. A lot of the warts-and-all stuff about Larry is the stuff other people were angry with him about. I think I'm really clear in the book to acknowledge his seminal role in galvanizing the entire movement around AIDS, even in his imperfect way.You’re also very candid in writing about the death of your lover, Doug Gould. You describe sitting in the hospital after fruitlessly pleading with Doug’s doctor—any doctor—to help him, and thinking, "Someone needs to do something, and no one is going to do anything." He eventually died of an opportunistic infection that, even at the time, was diagnosable and treatable. After realizing that it was a death from wilful ignorance...Not ignorance. What's the word? Disregard.How do you acknowledge that disregard, come out of that experience and not go on a rampage? How do you maintain journalistic objectivity?Well, it took me a long time. This book is my first attempt to address what happened with Doug. I found that doctor. I sat with him, two summers ago, and asked him to account for what had happened. He was so damaged—and he’s not the only doctor who was damaged by AIDS—that he wasn’t able to make any sense of it. I feel he was another victim of the epidemic.Did he have any answers? Any excuses? Any explanations?No, no. He didn't remember. He's had trouble with his medical licence. He was very much a diminished man; he's working in a free clinic these days. He'd been one of the top researchers on the disease. That he's still practising medicine is a testament to his ability to recover, at least partially, from what he'd been through.Nah, I just think he's a human being. We've read the stories about the concentration camps, about how people in dire circumstances tried and failed to maintain high moral standards. I can't imagine what it would have been like to have been a doctor back then, especially a queer doctor, like he was. To lose so many hundreds of patients every year, and yet there's nothing you can do about it. There was nothing he could do about it—in the larger picture; there was certainly something he could've done for Doug.Right.And Doug would've died anyway, I believe. Even if he'd gotten through that infection, he would've died of the next one, or the next one. I don't have any reason to believe he was going to be one of the people to live through the miracle year in 1996 and enjoy the Lazarus effect and go on to have a long career in theatre or whatever else he would've stuck to afterward, realizing he had a life.As someone who was so immersed in the queer community in New York at that time, what are your thoughts about the generations that have followed—the generations that have a sense that the epidemic is ancient history?I think there are two different things at play. Yeah, people are still infected, and yeah, people are still dying. But there's great news—the great news is that we can stop transmission, and we have rolled transmission back to really low levels. And we now have even newer tools to help with that. We know that the same drugs that keep people with HIV infections healthy keep people who don't have HIV infections from getting HIV. That's amazing!So, you're pro-PrEP.Oh, yes. I'm happy that twenty-somethings don't have the feeling of a sword hanging over their heads. That's what we were fighting for. That's where we got. There are other problems—there's all the syphilis, all the gonorrhea, all the other crap going through the roof. And maybe what we need to do is solve those things medically, rather than behaviourally. Maybe people should be allowed to fuck all over the place, if that's what they want, and to have it be life-giving.Not long after you made your documentary, there was a real wave of AIDS/HIV nostalgia. Dallas Buyers Club came out; HBO released the telefilm adaptation of The Normal Heart....This was around 2012? I'm not one to take credit for stuff, typically, but I think that documentary opened up that conversation. It opened up whatever vault we'd put AIDS in. It was 15 years after the advent of those drugs. And there's something about a fifteen-year interval. If you look at literature looking back at the Holocaust, it came about fifteen years after the fact. There's something about the human mind—or soul—that needs some time to pretend tragedy didn't happen, in order to go back and make sense of things.The work ACT UP did back then really anticipated the way patient advocacy has evolved since then. I’m thinking particularly of how people with cancer have become fiercely engaged with seeking out and arguing for their inclusion in clinical trials. At the time, it was unprecedented to have regular people taking responsibility for interpreting science and agitating for experimental treatments.It was the advent of citizen science. All the buyers' clubs that started in the early '80s, where they were importing drugs from around the world and making them available to people with AIDS on an underground black market—by 1987, there was a realization that this was not going to do it. There was no way that patients, through criminal ingenuity, were going to solve the problem of AIDS. It had to be the scientists themselves, and they had no idea what they were doing, those scientists. And no one was helping them strategize. So that's what they took on. That was fascinating; that had never been done before. That's what we learned: not just ordinary people, but people on the furthest margins of society, which is where we were in the '80s, could make change. We were in a group that was disenfranchised with glee by everybody else. I've seen old videotapes where politicians were talking about funding AIDS-prevention initiatives and they said, "If we make this capitulation to the gay lobby, they'll come and ask us for marriage licenses." I don’t think anyone was thinking that at the time, but…the guy wasn’t wrong.A lot of people are worried that the Trump regime will have hugely detrimental implications for HIV/AIDS treatment initiatives, and for people living with the disease—particularly given Mike Pence's antipathy toward anything LGBTQ-focused. What's your sense?We're all guessing. I find myself going to sleep at night with dreams that the election didn't happen, or that it can be undone. We see a government being pulled together that's anti-science, that's fully anxious and engaged in the old culture wars from the '80s—but also not reasonable, not predictable. There's no single ideology. You can't even believe what they're saying, because they say it differently the next day. So I have no idea what's going to happen. But we all know it's not going to be good. But we don't know where or how or what the battlefronts are.A Missouri court of appeals just called for a new trial in the case of Michael Johnson, a.k.a. “Tiger Mandingo,” an HIV-positive college student who was convicted in 2014 of “recklessly infecting” a sexual partner. The criminalization of HIV is a hugely vital fight for Canadian activists right now. Is it the same down in the States?It's a state by state thing. I don't know how the Feds can work on that. But they can withhold monies here and monies there—prison systems, school support—as a way to engineer the adoption of certain policies by states. And there will be nobody discouraging those laws, which are anti-science laws. They're not about the transmission of HIV. They're about sexual behaviour.And pathologizing groups of people.There are scores and scores of young men and women in jail for very long sentences, some—or most —of whom didn't transmit HIV. They're there because they didn't say that they had HIV—or they said they had HIV, and their partner, after a bad breakup, got even. You don't know what those situations are. But the point is that HIV transmission is no longer a death sentence. And it doesn't happen in people who are effectively treated.Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz and Joseph Sonnabend, their innovation was safe sex. Safe sex speaks to the people who are negative—that was the audience—and says you have to just assume that anyone you encounter is positive and you have to have the power to protect your life. It speaks to people who are positive, also—it says we have to show love for the people we're having sex with and make sure that we're not transmitting it. That power has fallen apart. Campaigns around it were never funded. It was never promoted as public health policy, as it should've been. So the person who goes and has unsafe sex who is negative and then discovers the person they had sex with wasn't...that's a person who doesn't love him- or herself to a degree where they want to make sure that they stay healthy. It's a complicated, consensual interaction.Men who’ve written about the generation that came of age in the time of Stonewall have talked about the lack of role models for loving gay relationships. Your book leaves the impression that that shifted during the ’80s. Given the way that AIDS exposed and added a different kind of urgency to intimate relationships, do you think the epidemic inadvertently provided that archetype—it showed that there could be loving relationships between two men?I wonder. It certainly really intensified our concept of community—but not just between gay men; between gay men, lesbians, transgender people.... Our world, the queer world came together in a way it never had before, especially across gender lines. But did it create the marrying mind? That’s what you’re asking?In a way. I’m wondering if it introduced the notion of lasting gay love on a much wider scale.Well, nothing was lasting then. But it launched an overt discussion about gay love and gay community and gay family. We had come together as a family. From '69 onward, we’d always called the community “family.” And in those years, it was because we'd been rejected by our own families and created new families. In the '80s and '90s, to watch how that family worked together and took care of one another and mourned one another was very moving.I think it did encourage people to look at coupling in a way that they hadn't before. We see that in Michael Callen's narrative in the book, that he'd never imagined himself in a relationship—and confronting AIDS and confronting death made him challenge the way he thought of his sexual activity, and what he got from sex and what he got from relationships and what he got from love. Maybe it opened up those new possibilities.How did it shape your concept of love?In my personal life? I think it made me into a caregiver, which I hadn't necessarily been before. But I was always a long-term relationship person. My last girlfriend was a four-year relationship, and I went from that into these long stretches, some of them stolen away by AIDS, and then after 1996, I've been in a twenty-two-year relationship now. But it's a queer relationship! And we're not emulating straight marriage! But we have our own sort of really profound relationship model that's developed in recent years—at least among men. Women were...I mean, the '70s brought us that joke about what a lesbian brings on a second date: a U-Haul. And then the boys became more like that in recent years than the girls. But we were outlaws for many, many years. And the change in the last decade, to being in-laws? It's a really startling one. Some of us chafe at it, but we're playing along.
How a race riot in New York state inspired a generation to reconsider America’s vulnerability to fascism.
1949 was the “last postwar year,” the year America came apart.The protesters gathered outside the concert grounds as evening fell. It had been a humid, hot day in Peekskill, New York, but as the afternoon waned, light breezes wafted in from the Hudson River. The crowd was waiting for Black folk singer and political activist Paul Robeson, who was scheduled to perform as the concert headliner at the picnic grounds that night. The protesters kept themselves occupied, waving American flags and singing patriotic songs. Some of them held signs that had been recently spotted around the neighborhood, reading “Wake up America, Peekskill did.”But the mood changed rapidly as the sun sank. As would-be audience members drove up the road and attempted to enter the grounds to attend the concert, they found their path blocked by several large trucks and piles of rocks. Soon the traffic jam stretched for two miles. Those in the back of the line couldn’t tell what was going on. Tensions rose. Concert organizers assembled their own guard, forming three lines stretching across the road. They crossed their arms, stared their antagonists in the face, and waited. At 7:30, the violence began. Protestors broke off pieces of a nearby fence and swung them at the men facing them, screaming, “Kill the Niggers, kill the kikes, kill the Communists.”“No one of you leaves here alive.”A young Black girl just arriving on the scene with her parents looked up to see plumes of smoke rising from the hillside. A twelve-foot wooden cross burned brightly against the darkening sky.Tommy Tomkins, a local white high schooler, only tagged along to the protest because his friend with a car wanted to go. He was seventeen, “the gung-ho age where John Wayne makes you feel happy.” He couldn’t see much when the violence broke out on the road. Men were standing around with bats and then suddenly, a voice yelled that somebody had been knifed. Everyone began pushing and punching. He watched his friends as they threw rocks into the crowd. He saw a group of men pull a nicely dressed woman from her car and punch her, over and over. He felt scared, excited, frightened, sick. The men surrounding him were in their thirties and forties, salesmen and clerks, men he saw every day. Some were college students home for the summer, and many were active in their local churches. The only way he could tell one group from another is that the guys he was with were the ones shouting, “Kikes! Go back to Russia!” Finally, he managed to slip away into the night, leaving his friends behind.By ten o’clock, state police broke up the melee. Protestors melted back into the woods. Only twelve arrests were made, including several of Tommy Tomkins’s friends, who were proud of their newfound fame. A judge let them off with a warning.*Ku Klux Klan activity in Peekskill, just an hour north of New York City, was nothing new—local groups protested Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith in 1928, and every few years they organized a march against an assortment of perceived foes. But in 1949, Russians tested their first hydrogen bomb and Communist forces gained the upper hand in China. Anti-Communism became a great panic, a fever-dream in which enemies suddenly appeared in the guise of friends and neighbors. It wasn’t hard to hate and fear Communists, if you had already grown up hating and fearing Catholics and Jews and Blacks. But none of the concert organizers had imagined the kind of violence they would face. “Why should anyone make trouble?” asked writer Howard Fast, chairman of the concert, in the days leading up to the event. It wasn’t a political meeting or demonstration, just a summer picnic.The concert’s main organizer, William Patterson, a prominent Black Communist and the executive secretary of the leftwing Civil Rights Congress, planned the event as a fundraiser and as a showcase for Robeson, his close colleague. But Robeson never made it to the concert grounds that day—stuck in the traffic jam caused by the roadblock, he returned to Manhattan amid rumors that he was being burned in effigy somewhere along the hillside.Robeson had performed in Peekskill at benefit concerts for the Civil Rights Congress for the previous three years without incident. But veterans in the northeast began protesting Robeson earlier that summer, after the Associated Press reported the singer as saying, “It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations, against the Soviet Union, which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.” Many chapters of the American Legion, and other veterans’ groups, immediately denounced Robeson as a Moscow-loving Communist, an un-American. Veterans of Foreign Wars picketed a Robeson concert in Newark, and the New Haven American Legion tried to ban his concerts there. The Peekskill Evening Star published Robeson’s comments days before the Peekskill concert, prompting several locals to pen letters to the editor, calling on concerned citizens to take action. “The time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out,” one writer declared.“It is clear that fascism can be introduced gradually and almost imperceptibly.” On August 30, thousands of people gathered in Harlem’s Golden Gate Ballroom to hear Robeson declare he would return to Peekskill to deliver his canceled concert. In response, veterans again announced that they would stop the event, pledging to bring 30,000 people to parade and demonstrate at the new concert venue, the Hollowbrook Country Club. At this, the local media and the District Attorney grew alarmed, and the DA pleaded with veterans’ groups to move their protest elsewhere. They refused.On the afternoon of September 4, over 20,000 people arrived at the country club and took their seats on the lawn. African-American soprano Hope Foye stepped onto the stage and delivered the first half of the program, singing the art song repertoire of Bach, Verdi, and Mozart. Then Robeson, a towering figure with a resoundingly deep bass-baritone voice, took the stage. He began to sing a traditional African American spiritual. When Israel was in Egypt's land … Let my people go … Oppress'd so hard they could not stand … Let my people go.Up and down the hillside, thousands of men, most of them white, stood together in a human chain, encircling and protecting the concert and the singer. One guard could see down to the entrance of the Hollowbrook grounds at the far end of the field. At 1:30 p.m., as Robeson began the second half of his program, the guard heard the protestors’ parade begin. Though the protestors had promised to bring thirty thousand, the guard counted fewer than a thousand people, walking in single file to make the group seem bigger. About half an hour later the parade marched back into view from the other direction, this time attempting to make even more noise. “Hitler started it, we’ll finish you!” the marchers yelled. “Hitler killed only half the Jews, we’ll kill all the rest!” “You got in, but you’ll never get out!” The guard saw a policeman laugh.As the concert ended, audience members trickled back to the parking lot to find that the bus drivers they had hired to drive them back to New York had disappeared. Men from the audience, many of them old-time labor activists from the Fur and Leather Workers Union and other radical unions, immediately climbed into the buses and offered to drive everyone home. As vehicles moved single-file down the narrow lane, police moved in and slowed the flow of traffic at the country club entrance. As cars inched past the police roadblock, drivers could see that the roads were lined with protestors, many wearing white World War I helmets. The police turned away from the protesters and stood facing the road, as baseball-sized rocks flew through the air, launched from protestors’ hands and aimed at car windows. Many hit their target. Men, women, and children were caught in a trap, huddling low in their cars as missiles hurtled through their windshields. One man sat in his battered car and picked shards of glass out of his young daughter’s hair.Protestors began hunting down any Black people they could find, pulling them from their cars. One Black man was dragged from his car and hit over the head by several men. As he attempted to crawl underneath the car for protection, four state troopers stepped in to join the melee. The man crawled back down the road towards the concert grounds as the troopers continued to beat him.The Westchester County Grand Jury ultimately indicted six people for their actions during the second riot. None faced serious consequences. In the meantime, Robeson launched a six-city concert tour, vowing he would not be silenced “until every Black man in America can walk with dignity in his own country.”*After that night on the road, Tommy Tomkins began to listen carefully to the things his mother said about Jews. She made it sound like Jews had taken something from them, and the riot was a way of trying to even the score. It made him uncomfortable, but he couldn’t find anyone to talk to about it. His house was full of lace doilies, but no books. The Peekskill riots turned him into a liberal, he said later. He decided, all of a sudden, to leave Peekskill, maybe go to college. He didn’t return home for class reunions.Following the riots, accusations flew in all directions, and many commentators tried to reconstruct the causes of the violence. Some veterans admitted that they had not anticipated the intense currents of hatred that had surged through the crowds of protestors like an electrical fire. The ACLU’s investigative report blamed anti-Semitism as the chief cause of the riots, but the Civil Rights Congress demurred, suggesting that “the pogrom was more against Negroes than against Jews.” A writer for the New York Age, a Black newspaper, blamed whites on both sides of the divide, arguing that Black bodies were on the line whenever whites instigated violence. Communism, with all its promised panaceas, the columnist wrote, could not solve this fundamental problem.Woody Guthrie remarked later that he’d seen a lot, but Peekskill was the worst.The Westchester Grand Jury, convened to examine the causes of the riot, placed blame on Communists, concluding that men like Robeson and Patterson hoped to inflame racial tensions for their own political gain. The anti-Communist, Jewish intellectual-led journal Commentary reached similar conclusions. “Peekskill is an ordinary American community which has undergone rather extraordinary social strains,” they wrote. The authors argued that the riots did not erupt solely from prejudice, but also from a necessary defense reaction against the “totalitarian regime waging an undeclared war” against America. They also placed the blame for the riots on social upheaval, racial integration, and the influx of left-wing summer residents who had a destabilizing effect on the community.Blaming Cold War fear-mongering on American elites, the socialist Monthly Review countered that the riots erupted because large swaths of the American public had been “worked up to a dangerous state of frenzy.” The Review’s editors declared that the real perpetrators of the violence in Peekskill were the federal government, the police, religious authorities, and the media. Ultimately, these authors believed, the violence at Peekskill demonstrated to those paying attention that the American ruling class need not trouble itself by assembling paramilitaries like the SS, because the instruments of power were already available for the taking. Institutions of social control, from the police, the media, veterans’ organizations, and local government, could be effectively harnessed as special instruments of violence and intimidation. “It is clear that fascism can be introduced gradually and almost imperceptibly,” they wrote. Fascism was imminently achievable in America, they believed, because the country lacked a strong labor movement and an outspoken liberal intellectual class that would strenuously defend the violation of civil liberties when they occurred against political and racial minorities.*The folksinger Woody Guthrie, who experienced the second riot from a smashed-up Jeep, remarked later that he’d seen a lot, but Peekskill was the worst. He holed up at home in the following weeks and churned out twenty-one songs about that night. Guthrie wrote obsessively, spanning musical genres from Carter Family country standards to Joe Hill protest ballads. Thematically, the songs all focused on the same material: burning crosses, stoning, and police violence. His moody, dark “Peekskill Blues” includes the lament, “P’liceman beatin’ down my buddy / I c’n see him in my dream / If you ev’r seen your buddy Kueklucked / You know just what I mean.” In his characteristically repetitive, circular style, Guthrie’s focus returned to rocks flying, and blood dripping on broken glass. In his telling, the bloodshed in Peekskill flowed into the Hudson River, so “New York waters gonna taste like Peekskill blood.” But Guthrie didn’t believe in passive resistance; he threatened to “grab you bloodyrock hoodlums, an’ I’ll sink you in that Hudson mud.” Throughout his Peekskill song cycle, Guthrie blasted the enthusiastic violence of small-town American men and women, the casual way they invoked Hitler, and the group mentality they cultivated that bred vicious hatred.Born a year after the brutal lynching of a mother and son in his Oklahoma hometown, Guthrie came of age in an atmosphere of casual, unreflective racism. As a young man in 1930s California, Guthrie sang minstrel songs on his radio show until he received a “politely incandescent” letter from a young Black listener. The effect of this letter upon Guthrie was profound: he read the letter on air, publicly apologized, and promised he would never use the word “nigger” again. From Guthrie’s subject position as a “Dust Bowl refugee,” he slowly developed an empathy for the underdog that would characterize his later lyrics and activism. He began to examine the stories of other marginal and disenfranchised people in songs such as “When the Curfew Blows,” which described police harassment of migrants. Fascism had always been creeping in around the edges of American politics, but now it had sprung up overnight in poisonous fluorescence, threatening the vitality of the entire landscape.After World War II began, Guthrie joined the merchant marines. He grew angry at American hypocrisy, at segregated troops, and at the arbitrary cruelness of Jim Crow. In reaction, Guthrie began honing his own theory of fascism: “Anybody that hates a whole race or color or a whole nation or a whole continent of people is a Nazi and a fascist,” he declared. He believed that the American people needed to be on constant guard against the fascists and Nazis in their own country, not just overseas. To his alarm, these forces did not recede after the war. Guthrie worried that World War II had been fought for nothing: America retained its status quo.In the late 1940s, Guthrie wrote a series of letters to his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Waitzman Greenblatt, in which he reflected on his sense of anguish that the forces of hate that brought the world into two massive wars could still endure. Guthrie worried that past generations made “sad and terrible mistakes” that the current generation could not undo. He wondered if his generation “did not do all in our earthly powers to set those wrong things right.” Borrowing from the language of the Jewish prayer Al Chet, the confession of sins recited eight times during Yom Kippur, the day of repentance, Guthrie composed his own pseudo-liturgical invocation. “We trusted wrong friends,” he wrote. “We followed wrong crowds. We read wrong words. We went lost ways and walked in the wrong winds. But we did fix up our rooms a little speck better than we found them. We found two faiths, two gospels, when we passed by this very spot, one gospel was the gospel of hate, and the other gospel was the gospel you call love … to the best of our mental ability, some of us in your generation and my own worked and labored to make the gospel of love sound out a little plainer.”*Peekskill didn’t change Guthrie’s vision, but it tinged it. For those on the left, men and women who had fought against fascism in Spain and then across all of Europe, homegrown fascism looked like a toxic bloom. It had always been creeping in around the edges of American politics, but now it had sprung up overnight in poisonous fluorescence, threatening the vitality of the entire landscape.By the late 1940s, it was sickeningly clear that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a rough coalition of labor unions, Jews, African Americans, Catholics, and Southern Democrats, was finished. In 1948, FDR’s former vice president Henry Wallace ran a third party presidential campaign under the Progressive Party, advocating government-funded universal health insurance, full voting rights for African Americans, and an end to the Cold War. He received zero electoral votes, and eked out a popular vote tally behind that of segregationist Strom Thurmond.1949 became symbolic of this vertiginous transition from the FDR years into a more fractured, chaotic era. Reflecting on 1949 from the relatively removed vantage point of 1974, playwright Arthur Miller wrote an essay for New York magazine entitled “The Year it Came Apart.” Miller applied a dramatist’s eye to the transformation of American society in the late 1940s. He called 1949 “the last postwar year,” arguing, “an era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” In early 1949, Miller’s Death of a Salesman first appeared on Broadway. His audience that year came of age during the Depression, elected the same president four times, witnessed Pearl Harbor, and won a World War. They understood Willy Loman’s struggles intuitively. But Miller soon lost his sense of communion with the public—the “tender pity for the fallen man” that characterized initial responses to Death of a Salesman became “a new bellicosity” in the public sphere, characterized by the vicious takedown of the vulnerable for the sake of power harnessed to moral authority.Psychoanalysis overtook Marxism, and suddenly everyone was searching for hidden meanings, Miller believed. “We would be entering a period of what the Puritan theology called Spectral Evidence, the testimony of afflicted persons against their invisible, devil-sent persecutors,” he wrote. In 1952, veterans groups picketed the film version of Death of a Salesman, and pressured Miller to issue an anti-Communist declaration. In response, he wrote The Crucible, a story of the Salem witch trials.On December 15, 1951, William Patterson and Paul Robeson delivered a petition to the United Nations, accusing the United States government of genocide. The document, hundreds of pages in length, censured state-sponsored racism, from police slayings in the North to lynchings in the South, and blasted “lives deliberately warped and distorted by the willful creation of conditions making for premature death, poverty, and disease.” The petition included an appendix listing hundreds of cases of the killing or assault of Black people since 1945. The American paradox was stated boldly for all to see: the ostensible guardian of democracy and freedom could not bequeath basic human rights to a portion of its own citizens. Largely ignored by the press and ridiculed by politicians, the petition nonetheless served future generations of Black activists, from the Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter, as a record and a template for holding the state accountable for its crimes.A year before the Peekskill riots, Guthrie wrote in his diary, “Fascism is the gospel of hate that makes so much noise. You’d think that the gospel of hate was more in our mainstream than down in our undertow. The yells of hate are not as loud as the soft little echo of love and democracy. This fascist hate will wax your ears and spike your eyes, and love and love alone can heal the dead.” For Guthrie, this soft little echo of love and democracy was the only thing that could stand up to the Goliath of homegrown fascism. For many Americans now, it is the only tool they have left."We trusted wrong friends..." Woody Guthrie, May 26th, 1949. Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc."Anybody that hates a whole race..." Woody Guthrie, June 14, 1949. Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc."Fascism is the gospel of hate..." Woody Guthrie, July 1948. Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.Excerpts from "Peekskill Blues," by Woody Guthrie, Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.
In order to find purpose and affirmation, Black artists rethink time and space as we know it to find a place for themselves.
In September 2015, Kyle Lydell Canty of Rochester, New York, travelled to British Columbia. He hadn’t planned to stay for long, but after two days in Canada, Canty decided to apply for refugee status. He appeared before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada in October of that year with the argument that Black Americans were “being exterminated at an alarming rate.” As proof, Canty alleged that he had been harassed by the police in six states in which he held offenses, such as jaywalking and disorderly conduct, that he claimed he never committed. Although the Board ultimately rejected his candidacy on the grounds that Canty would not be subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment” upon his return, Ron Yamauchi, an IRB member, did find that the actions of the American police “raise a question about [Canty’s] subjective fear,” a fear that, according to the United Nations, is rooted in historical and racially terroristic acts, such as police killings and “state violence.”In 1838, after a failed attempt that led to his incarceration, twenty-year-old Frederick Bailey used his nautical knowledge while working at a waterfront to disguise himself as a free Black sailor and boarded a train from Baltimore to New York where he then changed his last name to Douglass to avoid suspicion.James Baldwin could not reconcile himself with America. He travelled and lived in places such as Istanbul and Paris in the 1960s, where, according to a 2009 essay in The New Yorker by Claudia Roth Pierpont, he would not be shamed for the color of his skin or his sexuality. Nina Simone revealed in her autobiography I’ll Put A Spell On You why she left America for Liberia in the 1970s: “I had arrived in Liberia with no idea of how long I intended to stay; after a few hours I knew it was going to be for a long, long time—forever.” When she returned to the States for financial reasons, “I flinched at every noise, expecting terrible events that always hit me when I arrived in the country that disowned me ... I ... longed for Liberia …”The desire to escape endures within many Black Americans. It manifests in literal attempts at relocation, as in Canty’s case, but also through our art. “I think to be born Black in America,” said the video and performance artist Lex Brown, “is to be fully in touch with, one, the universal existential crisis of being human, two, the crisis of carrying on the body of an un-chosen evidence of the fundamental hypocrisy of America (i.e. home of the free, land of the slaves) and three, the impossibility of escaping or delaying crisis number one because of number two.” Our perpetual lack of belonging fuels our desire to flee, but where do you turn when there seems to be nowhere to seek refuge?*Sarah Yerima, a Rhodes Scholar studying sociology at the University of Oxford, has been moving between countries for five or six years, from the United States to Brazil to the United Kingdom. “I’ve been trying to find some peace and it’s all terrible. No matter where I am, the anti-Blackness is pervasive. However, the arts give a kind of comfort.” In 1977, The Isley Brothers released “Voyage to Atlantis,” in which lead singer Ron Isley croons to an unnamed woman about sailing to a “paradise out beyond the sea.” That same year, DC Comics released issue #452 of the Adventure Comics series, in which Black Manta, a Baltimore native turned supervillain whose nautical and birth origins are reminiscent of those of Frederick Douglass, seeks to take Atlantis from Aquaman, a blonde-haired, white superhero, by killing his son. In a standoff, Black Manta says to Aquaman, “This city ... shall ... be a new empire over which I alone shall rule! ... I had recruited enough of my own people to serve that purpose …”“Your people?” Aquaman responds. “You mean ... surface dwellers?”“No,” Black Manta says, “I mean exactly what I said, ‘My people.’ Or have you never wondered why I’m called Black Manta?” Black Manta wanted to create an underwater colony in which African-Americans could rid themselves of a white-dominated surface world.In the packaging for Outkast’s 1996 sophomore album ATLiens, the artwork features Big Boi and Andre 3000 as freedom fighters against censorship and population control; Atlanta is re-pictured as the lost city of Atlantis. These artistic renderings of a Black utopia present a hopeful future—places where we can live in all of our complexity and without oppression.“If you think about how American planning has worked, it has always pushed towards a utopia. New York, Chicago—all major American cities—as violent as they were, were utopic visions,” says Jess M., a student and researcher of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. In designing cities deliberately to oppress people of colour, she says, “planners believed that if Black and brown people didn’t exist, then these utopias would.”This racism has led many Black artists to reimagine fictitious nations, such as Atlantis, or develop new mythologies altogether through Afrofuturism, a literary and cultural aesthetic that blends historical components, along with science fiction and fantasy, in order to center Black people.The musician, philosopher, and filmmaker Sun Ra was one of its pioneers, creating what Ytasha Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture calls, “sonar sounds for the space age in the ’50s.” In the 1970s, the Afrofuturistic sound began to expand. Combined with sci-fi elements in works such as “Spaceship Lullaby” and “Africa,” in his 1974 film Space is the Place, Sun Ra, playing the protagonist, seeks to transport African-Americans to occupy a new planet in outer space he discovers with his crew, The Arkestra.Sun Ra’s influence continues to be felt. George Clinton and the Funkadelics incorporated Afrofuturism into their works through electronic instruments, space costumes, new mythology, and mind-boggling wordplay. Janelle Monae’s android aesthetic is a direct descendent of Sun Ra’s innovation. Contemporary artists Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski and Sheena Rose depict black women as goddesses, mythical creatures, and arbiters of their universe. As Stephanie George, former curatorial fellow of New York’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, puts it: “You have to disrupt temporality.” In order to find purpose and affirmation, a Black artist must undermine time and space as we know it to find a place for his or herself.*Since the 1800s, refuge and relief from racist violence and oppression has meant any number of things: escaping to the North, fleeing to a different country altogether, or staying put physically while moving forward in one’s imagination to create a world where Black people are uplifted and able to live as multidimensional human beings. Many of the greatest African-American works of art have been the products of times of oppression. Our art is a form of resistance.So now, days away from the inauguration of a president whose platform was praised by the Ku Klux Klan, what happens to that art? Will there be a new renaissance or simply a continuation of established genres? Geraldine Inoa, a playwright at New York’s Public Theater, says that disturbing events like the Trump inauguration often inspire people to “retreat” to other artistic movements. “But because this art exists in this reality under this president, it will be different. Trump is rather unique in that he has risen during new a technological world that has changed the way art is created and shared. We will see a new renaissance based on the current reality that combines the modern tools artists have their disposal.”Or, as the queer femme writer and editor Myles Johnson puts it, “there’s going to be a renaissance and we can’t help it. Black people have never not been creative.”
Before I read The View from Saturday, I saw anger as a luxury, a way to take up physical and emotional space that I didn’t think I deserved to occupy.
Anger has always mystified me. My natural inclination is to observe the world and myself from an objective distance rather than dive into a messy free-for-all of emotional expression. I don’t fight with people or punch walls, or do anything that might betray the equilibrium that I try to maintain out of habit. But a few years ago, I got into a fight with a college roommate. When she yelled at me, I yelled back. I was terrified, but also felt a foreign rush of power and relief. I tried to explain the gravity of my actions to my friends when I recounted the incident, and it was hard to keep the smile off my face. To this day, I remember how good it felt to be heard, something I’ve been striving for my whole life.When I was younger, I was fixated on the idea of being normal, a fantasy in which no one would ask me where I was from or what I was. When other people at school asked if my name was Eggo-waffle Schifellite, or commented on my food, “Burfi? More like BARF-I!” I never got angry out loud. Instead, I asked my parents why people were so mean—as if understanding their motivations might erase the feelings of rage and shame that come from feeling like you don’t belong. Even adults who asked me what languages I spoke at home were trying to label me before they knew me. Being a self-reliant and suspicious child, I didn’t trust that expressing my frustrations with the adults around me would change their behaviour. Instead, I decided to let people put their labels on me as if I were a blank canvas, to give up in the face of constant, implicit demands to justify my existence. I strived for neutrality and calmness on the outside, thinking I didn’t have the luxury of an emotional outburst; it was hard enough to get people to look past my face and see a person rather than a curiosity. This became a natural state for me, but when I wanted to express anger, I didn’t know how to do it. As a preteen, I looked to feisty heroines such as Ramona Quimby and Sammy Keyes in my search for guidance on how to feel out loud, but my role model for anger, then and now, was Nadia Diamondstein in E.L. Konigsburg’s The View from Saturday.Konigsburg’s 1996 Newberry Award-winning children’s novel tells the tale of a group of four sixth-grade nerds in the town of Epiphany, New York. It’s an oddball group and Nadia, the only girl, is a smart, cherubic redhead who has deep convictions and a fierce attachment to her dog, Ginger. I was initially drawn to her because, like me, Nadia is mixed (“Half-Jewish; half-Protestant,” she says, a combination I found exotic in its tameness). In the book, she’s spending her first summer back home in Florida with her father after her parents’ divorce. Her father has moved into a “swinging singles” apartment building and her Grandpa Izzy has gotten married to a woman named Margaret, whose primary pastime is working with the Department of Environmental Protection to help monitor the spawning sea turtle population in the Sargasso Sea. Despite her cool demeanour and tendency to intellectualize the world around her, Nadia is very, very angry. When she learns that Margaret was the person who helped her mother get a job in upstate New York after the divorce, she’s overcome with rage. “There is no worse feeling in this world than the feeling that someone knows something about you that he has kept to himself,” she narrates. “My heart was pumping gallons of blood up to my face. I could feel my neck throb.” But, she is careful to say, “I controlled by voice so that it would not quiver.”When I encountered Nadia on the beaches of Florida, I had had a lot of practice rationalizing my anger into submission, and I thought I was pretty good at it. But when I read The View from Saturday, I realized my well-honed coping strategies weren’t as effective as I had imagined. I was in awe of Nadia’s honesty with herself; she doesn’t self-censor, or talk herself out of things, or deny her anger when it becomes too big to ignore.Nadia erupts at her father as they sit trapped in his condo during a violent tropical storm, and the fight is a propellant—a new beginning. Instead of brushing her off after their argument, Nadia’s father finally hears her. And her anger also propels her into action: in expressing it, she realizes she can either exist alone in her fortress of solitude, or help to save hundreds of baby turtles from being swept out to sea. She chooses to help, and in doing so finds that she has also asked for help in a tough situation.Nadia analyzes her feelings of despair and pain, but ultimately it’s her anger that helps her speak up for herself, to articulate what she wants and to not apologize for her feelings even if they seem illogical. Nadia slowly realizes why she’s angry, reflecting on the helplessness she's felt since the divorce and her move across the country—“No one seemed to think that it would matter to me where I lived,” she says. Konigsburg never implies that Nadia’s anger is invalid; rather, Nadia’s anger is the momentum that drives her forward, that forces her to spring into action when the turtles, and her own family’s happiness, are in danger. Konigsburg also gives Nadia the room to reach the end of her journey on her own terms and in her own time, indulging in the character’s grappling for a methodical answer to a messy problem. Konigsburg is patient with Nadia, and from that I gathered that maybe the world would be patient with me, too.When I revisit The View from Saturday for a hit of nostalgia and cultural comfort, I’m reminded all over again about the simple, essential lessons I learned from Nadia. It seems obvious as an adult, but before encountering Nadia, I saw anger as a luxury, a way to take up physical and emotional space that I didn’t think I deserved to occupy. Afterwards, I saw it as a show of strength, in Konigsburg’s portrayal of a bookish kid trying valiantly to keep a leaking raft afloat. When Nadia finally realizes she can’t feel better all by herself, nor does she have to, something clicked for me too. I think of Nadia when I’m marching in a political rally or arguing with my boyfriend instead of pretending that I don’t care about what happens to me. She taught me that I deserve to have my voice heard. Through Nadia’s story, Konigsburg shows us that silence may be an effective weapon for shutting people out, but anger can help bring them in.
There are an approximate 239456789987565 flood myths in recorded history. Here’s another one.
The poet and MTV columnist on witnessing, mapping grief and joy, and The Wire.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a punk rock bard from Columbus, Ohio (the east side, he specifies), who writes full-lung prose poems, reduxes of the classical ode, and updates and riffs on Frank O’Hara and Virginia Woolf. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is his confident, vulnerable, slim but feisty debut. A columnist for MTV News, his interest in pop culture knits the collection together, with epigraphs as wide-ranging as Josephine Baker, Whitney Houston, Pete Wentz, and a CNN transcript of an interview between Nancy Grace and the parents of Michael Brown. I thought the collection’s title was a nod to the James Baldwin’s line: “your crown has been bought and paid for. All you must do is put it on,” but I stood corrected.I spoke with Willis-Abdurraqib before the 2016 presidential election. In the dank fog of an America awaiting its next president-elect and parting with its first African American one, Willis-Abdurraqib’s collection has taken on a different insistence, and our conversation now feels tinged with something of the prophetic. In the hollow hours following the election results, he wrote “The Day After The Election I Did Not Go Outside.” The poem is peppered with ampersands—little swirling punctuation marks insisting on kinship, on affinity, on introspection when the world feels full of thoughtlessness. As an antidote to the murky times ahead, the poems of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much can be held in the palm of your hand like a string of prayer beads, taut in protest but with an unrelenting tenderness. Reading Willis-Abdurraqib is a balm, and, if ever the act of reading was in the service of self-care, I believe it is here and it is now.Julia Cooper: You write for MTV as a columnist. Do you find it hard to jump between registers? Poets have traditionally been working men and women, because poetry doesn’t necessarily pay the bills, but do you find it hard to switch between the two forms?Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: Not really, I think a part of that is that MTV is so great at letting me write the way that I write, so they’re not trying to make me into a different writer than I am. In my prose and in my long form work I use poetic elements just because that’s the way I write, and they don’t try to strip that down.Some of the poems in this collection feel like they had been brewing in your mind for a while. Was that the case? What’s your process like?A lot of my writing process takes place in my head before it ever gets on paper. I think that I am someone who attempts to be thoughtful, but a lot of my thoughtfulness is driven by anxiety about my ideas and my ability to execute those ideas. If it feels like some of the poems had been brewing for a while, that’s the case entirely. I wait to commit things to paper. I know a lot of poets and writers are into running into the writing and then sorting it out later when everything is on the page, and I think that’s really admirable, but I don’t have the emotional capability or the confidence to do that outright. I need to take fully formed concepts, narratives, and ideas to the page, and that takes a lot of internal brewing.Is the title a reference to Baldwin?No, the title is a reference to The Wire, which is not Baldwin, but could be. I like The Wire a lot, and I was struggling for a book title really early on. The working title for the first draft of it was called The Greatest Generation, because I did not know there was a book already, like a huge book, like Tom Brokaw wrote it or something. I love the band The Wonder Years and they have an album called The Greatest Generation, and I thought this book spoke to that album a lot. And I was passing my book around and people would come back to me and say, “You can’t call your book this because there’s a really famous book called this,” and it came out in 2012 or something. And I was like, Well, shit.So in The Wire one of the characters says: “The crown ain’t worth much if the nigga wearing it always getting his shit took.” I thought about it, and thought about what themes the book had rattling around it, like themes about displacement and gentrification, and the claiming of space— people having things taken from them that they held close.I’m wondering, who else should I be reading? Who are some other young or lesser-known poets who you think deserve some due?Nate Marshall is a poet from Chicago who I don’t think I could have finished this book without. I think his work is stunning and important and talks about place and home in a way that’s really great. Ariana Brown is a poet from Boston who is gifted. And I think Morgan Parker is really important; she’s right at the edge in pop culture and race and what it means to be a black woman in America in a way that’s stunning and brilliant.I read that you look for poetry that deals in “the art of witnessing.” Do you think witnessing is always painful?No, I don’t think so. I think that a big thing I’m trying to do now, especially with The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is dealing with something that is really rooted in joy. I think the things that are most accessible to us are pain and grief, or fear. Like we can watch—we’re in a time where we can watch someone be murdered on a social media feed. While that is witnessing, witnessing is also sitting on a rooftop after a really good, long hard day and watching the sun go down. Or witnessing someone you love excel at something. I want to invest in that a little more, because I think once I detach myself from the pain of what I have witnessed, I need to find something to replenish myself. And I think finding joy to both witness and write about is really important.I like this idea of investing in joy. I like that image. I was reading that you don’t have any formal training in poetry, which surprised me, but led me to wonder, is your love of music and therefore rhythm and cadence, is that what drew you to write poetry instead of prose?I think so, yeah. The thing is—whenever I talk about how a lot of my peers have MFAs and really intense formal training, that is—I always wrote. I think often times, the narrative around the book is, “Oh, he didn’t go to school for poetry, so he just like stumbled into this, that’s wild.” But I wrote, I was writing music journalism, and I wrote in a very intense way that drew me close to language and the way words moved. Though poetry wasn’t natural, it was a reachable, touchable thing for me that I knew I could access and play out into something greater.I was wondering if you found it hard to write publicly about some of your most intimate losses. Making yourself vulnerable—were you were worried about that? Was it cathartic? It was hard, but I think not nearly as hard as grief without an outlet, grief with no map out of it. For me, although the poets I love write about sadness, their own sadness, very bluntly, they find a way to reckon with it and come out on the other side a lot cleaner, and happier, and freer. I think grief is work, in the same way that I think speaking about joy and trying to find joy is work. Grief sits on our bodies and works on us. And we don’t have to seek it out, it’s just there. So for me, the work of whittling it down is worthwhile. The work of writing about it, chipping away at it, and putting it out into the world where people can read it, and it can hopefully help people chip away at their own—I think that’s vital and important.It was replenishing to read someone else’s grief so bluntly on the page. I don’t want to talk about death all the time, I don’t want to revel in death, but at the same time, I’ve witnessed and suffered through a lot of deaths at a young age. What that did for me was make it real. It made death something that I understand as an inevitability, and it makes this brief, bright collection of hours that I have while living something that I am so thrilled about. Which doesn’t mean that I’m never unhappy because I’m so happy to be alive, but I have an understanding of death that won’t allow me to waste my time. I have an understanding of death that won’t allow me to be complacent and not give all of myself to the people I love and care about while we’re all still present. And I think that’s a real gift, and I think part of my writing about that in the book is not necessarily to bum people out, though I’m sure it happens occasionally, but to kind of say: I lived through this, and through that living I found an incredible clarity. I found this joy about understanding that I have limited time here, and I’m lucky that I have people who would miss me if I were not here anymore. I think the book is partly about that, about how I am trying to be better at loving and living and fighting for the things I believe in while I’m still present.
The spread of plagues is the beta version of “Congratulations, you played yourself.”
What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.There is a warning frequently issued to writers to “avoid clichés like the plague.” The joke being, of course, that the warning itself contains a famous cliché. Until 2016, I largely ignored this advice in my own work because I find clichés useful, universal, and more artful than they are given credit for. Until this year, it was the cliché part of the warning that bothered me. Now, it is the plagues part that does.To “avoid like the plague” is meant to convey the intensity with which you ignore something because it is so detestable, but it fails to convey that it is the avoidance of plague itself that causes ordinary, containable illnesses to reach plague-like proportions. The spread of plagues is the beta version of “Congratulations, you played yourself.” Sicknesses don’t become plagues unless people avoid them, ignore them, and try to outrun them instead of stop them. To avoid something like the plague is to almost guarantee that it will show up on your doorstep, often more vicious and viral than when you last saw it. In 2016, our years of avoidance and denial of certain pests meant they came back to our doorsteps as outright pestilence.*Categorizing 2016 as a plague year might, at first, seem ill advised. The resurgence of Ebola subsided over the last twelve months. HIV and AIDS related deaths are down. The Great Disneyland Measles Outbreak of 2015, which spread as rapidly as it did due to low vaccination rates, did not recur in 2016. But, as of October, there were fifty reported cases of acute flaccid myelitis, a polio-like illness that causes paralysis, in twenty-four US states according to the Centers for Disease Control. Over ninety percent of the diagnoses were in children. The dispersal of the outbreak suggests it could be that patients are all spontaneously experiencing the same complication of several different viruses. It could also be because kids are insufficiently vaccinated. It could also be due to hygiene. We simply don’t know. A CDC spokesperson noted that cases are still rare, with fewer than one in a million contracting the illness.Over a July weekend this year, there was record heat in Siberia. Permafrost melted and anthrax spores were released from a carcass killed by Siberian plague seventy-five years ago. The anthrax killed 1500 reindeer and hospitalized thirteen humans. After lying dormant for the better part of a century, the heat activated the latent microbe in the permafrost and unleashed its lethal contagion on the life in its tracks. Russian scientists had already warned in a 2011 study, “As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.” The zombie apocalypse, it seems, will not feature reanimated human bodies but reanimated bacilli.In May, the presence of the mcr-1 gene was confirmed in the case of a Pennsylvania woman’s bacterial infection. Mcr-1 enables the passage of plasmids on ultra-resistant “superbug” bacteria that can resist colistin: the absolute last resort, break-glass-only-in-case-of-emergency antibiotic in the world. Mcr-1 was first detected in pigs and humans in China last year. The Pennsylvania woman had not traveled in the last five months. "The medicine cabinet is empty for some patients. It is the end of the road for antibiotics unless we act urgently," said Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC. Frieden described colistin as an antibiotic used only for "nightmare bacteria." A study published in May in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy states that the first Mcr-1 case, "heralds the emergence of truly pan-drug resistant bacteria."Frieden said in May, “We risk being in a post-antibiotic world." Mcr-1 made its second US appearance in Connecticut in June. The risk became a reality more quickly than many might have hoped.*It is difficult to discuss the concept of plagues without exoticizing and anthropomorphizing them. “One feature of the usual script for plague: the disease invariably comes from somewhere else,” writes Susan Sontag in AIDS and Its Metaphors. Sontag explains how syphilis was sourced to France by the English, to Germans by the French, to Neapolitans by the Florentines, to the Chinese by the Japanese, and notes, “But what may seem like a joke about the inevitability of chauvinism reveals a more important truth: that there is a link between imagining disease and imagining foreignness.” The illnesses that emerged in 2016 were largely homegrown, gaining their lethal potency from the grim and ever-changing landscapes of both physical homelands and human interiors. Harder still than recognizing plagues that are locally harvested is overcoming a sense that these plagues emerge with actual malevolent intentions.In the same text, Sontag warns against both the cavalier use of plague metaphors and the word “plague” itself. And while I recognize the limitations she puts forth, I don’t have her adeptness with metaphor to look at the current sickness of the body politic in my country and beyond and not see its emergence as plague-like in its features. Vile racism spent years operating quietly in systems designed to obscure bigoted intentions. But this year, events like Brexit and the resurgence of a vocalized, virulent white supremacy in Donald Trump’s campaign and in the hate crimes his supporters committed in the wake of his election made clear that the virus had mutated to make several vehicles of hatred more effective.*What the physical outbreaks of this year do show us is that plagues are not instruments acting on malice, but on memory. The plagues in the permafrost remember the damage they did in centuries past, they must simply wait out the cold to have another chance at it. The bacteria that are mutating beyond the recourse of antibiotics remember what killed their ancestors and they are evolving past it into new and improved versions thereof. We would be wise to follow their examples, to reimagine what constitutes a mortal threat to humanity and to evolve aggressively to meet those threats. Our response to social plagues will necessarily be more complex. In them, we find not an innocent human host to a deadly sickness but hostile, self-aware forces that do not simply remember the ills of the past, but ache to return to them.We should come also to respect the disregard of these plagues for borders: we must look to foreign lands as global partners in combating plagues. 2016 can be the year we commit most rigorously to the idea that health and hope can be spread across borders too. It can be the year we realized that scientific progress is not to conquer mortality but to manage it with more quietude and peace by stopping illness before it becomes epidemic. It can perhaps be the year that we look back on in shame, seeing our failure to contain and cure what we had taken for granted as long dead. And we can use the bitter medicine of this memory to know that though some sicknesses never quite die, we’ll be damned before we let them become reanimated.
When you’re depressed, you learn all of the angles inside a half-empty apartment. You become a student of the ceiling.
What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.After moving to New York at the end of last year, I took a dozen photos of my new room, not for sentimental reasons but legal ones: The ceiling was sagging at a corner, like half-dried clay, and moisture would occasionally seep from that crease to leave faint streaks behind. I imagined the entire floor crashing down, my bewildered upstairs neighbour still sitting in a bathtub, followed by the proper authorities stretchering me into housing court so I could get appropriate compensation for my IKEA bed, the dresser with a broken drawer, etc. The landlords never quite got around to fixing it. When a different real-estate company bought the building several months ago, they announced that all of us with expiring leases would have to move out, ostensibly for renovations. Cheap irony, at least in one sense of the phrase.In 1971, barely out of her teens, the director Chantal Akerman left Belgium for Manhattan, working various jobs and wandering around the city—she stole money from her cashier gig at a gay porn theater to buy celluloid. That experience was inverted by the 1977 film News from Home, with Akerman reading her mother’s old letters over footage of Hell’s Kitchen and the Times Square subway station. It’s deliberately out of sync. According to the mythology, ‘70s New York was a razor-strewn playground. Through Akerman’s lens, its tunnels and streets look serene in their melancholy—compositions often dwarf any stray human figure. Her final ten-minute-long shot pulls away with the Staten Island ferry, watching lower Manhattan sink into the fog behind. Seagulls fly past the smudged fingers of the World Trade Center. At one earlier moment, Akerman films another subway passenger’s reflection, her own image faintly visible near the corner of the window; when the train enters a station, bluish light covers them in walls of tiles.I spent many hours this year watching and rewatching Akerman’s films, a forlorn compulsion, because all the screenings were posthumous. No other director understood as she did the anxiety of enclosed spaces. A long sequence at the beginning of her first feature Je tu il elle shows the main character performing repetitive tasks in a lonely apartment, looking out the window, looking at the walls, looking at herself. She endlessly rewrites an unmailed letter to her ex-girlfriend. There’s some bleak comedy as she eats sugar from a paper bag, dumps it onto the floor, then spoons it back. The camera rarely moves in the middle of a shot, preferring to explore desaturated stasis. When you’re depressed, you learn all of the angles inside a half-empty apartment. You become a student of the ceiling.After losing that place in New York, I found what seemed to be a new one, until the landlord reneged the day we were supposed to move in. I spent most of the next twelve hours pushing all my possessions around the closest storage space on a rusty metal card, although it felt strangely comforting to realize that they could fit a 5 x 10 cube. I thought of Akerman’s later film Tomorrow We Move, a farce aspiring to be narrow rather than broad—the ending involves a jaunty song about a baby with two moms. The central figure Charlotte is supposed to write an erotic novel but can’t, partly because her mother, newly arrived in the same living space after dad’s death, has a distracting amount of stuff. Akerman emphasizes cluttered framing and overlapping planes; even birds smack against glass. There is something to be said for maintaining an escape route.As oppressive as your own interior space sometimes becomes, there are also intimacies in seeing how other people live—that moment when a new friend or lover invites you over to accompany their rhythms. “If I have a reputation for being difficult,” Akerman once said, “it’s because I love the everyday and want to present it. In general people go to the movies precisely to escape the everyday.” Her movie Golden Eighties demonstrates that affection: The musical takes place almost entirely inside a shopping mall, complete with Greek chorus of shopgirls. Young lovers meet beneath artificial moonlight. Characteristically, one character is a Holocaust survivor, as Akerman’s parents both were; the more universal sense of displacement evoked by these films could be grimly specific for her. “I’m Jewish,” she told an interviewer. “That’s all. So I am in exile all the time. Wherever we go, we are in exile.” Like Leonard Cohen, Akerman had a way of transposing history’s atrocities. They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track…I’ve been lingering in certain places I adore, like the Lincoln Center subway station, where jeweled opera divas decorate the walls. For a month I was bouncing around, sleeping in spare rooms, no fixed address. I looked after the cat of two friends in Lefferts Gardens, riding their building’s shuddering Rosemary’s Baby elevator. In Providence I crashed at another friend’s collective house, the kind of setting that brings to mind a YA novel about an eccentric adventuring family. They had mounted an enormous purple hippo sculpture; a warning over the basement door read “WE EAT CHILDREN HERE.” Down the road there was some post-industrial building, its tip like a ruined Faberge egg. I’m trying to make a record of unreality. I wish I could pass through rooms as Akerman’s camera did, poised against the sweep of the wrecking ball.No Home Movie, the last film Akerman completed before her suicide, hides a double meaning in its title. She follows her elderly mother around the latter’s house, Skyping her from the road, a presence anticipating absence. “You’re in Brussels and I’m in Oklahoma,” Chantal tells her laptop screen. “Look, there is no more distance in the world.” Akerman Sr. gives the maternal response: “You have always such ideas! Don’t you, sweetheart?” She peers into the glass more deeply. “When I see you like that I want to squeeze you in my arms.” Akerman segues from this to images of the desert, a place where nothing can be interior, and that is what I am thinking about now, those wastelands seen from a speeding car, how the wind clung to each frail tree.
Will the conversations inspired by high-profile trials such as Jian Ghomeshi’s mean actual change?
What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.Last winter, for each of the eight days of the Jian Ghomeshi trial, Marsha McLeod went to the Old City Hall Building and sat in the media overflow room to watch the case unfold on a TV screen. McLeod, an anti-violence activist and researcher, knew many survivors of sexual violence who tried to avoid the incessant news about the trial. She is a survivor as well, but her instinct was different. “I wanted some time to process what was going on,” she told me. “I found it very affecting. It was clear that the complainants were being made to feel stupid.”Ghomeshi’s was not the only trial in the past year that exposed deep flaws in the way the criminal justice system treats survivors of sexual violence. Mandi Gray, a York University PhD student who was raped by a colleague, Mustafa Ururyar, was brutally cross-examined when she testified in Ururyar’s trial. Defense council accused Gray of using the attack to gain attention, and argued that she must have been bad in bed; the questioning was so extreme that the judge used his decision to repudiate the defense council’s reliance on stereotypes about rape survivors. This year also saw the release of a transcript from a 2014 case in Alberta in which a provincial judge, Robin Camp, questioned a rape survivor in open court about why she wasn’t able to prevent her attacker from assaulting her, asking, at one point, “why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?”But for a lot of people, Ghomeshi’s case was the one that hit hardest. In November 2014, he had been charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. Through early February, the country collectively watched him stand trial: reporters live-tweeted the whole thing, so that in the midst of brushing your teeth, say, you could also take out your phone and scroll through a complainant’s testimony about her assault. But it wasn’t just the ubiquity of these updates that made the case loom large; it was the way the flood of information allowed many people to see the unvarnished reality of a sexual assault trial for the first time. The case was a minute-by-minute survey of all the ways the traditional adversarial trial can fail survivors.When Ghomeshi was acquitted, in March, McLeod was very upset. “But when I thought about it, I realized that I was upset about the process, perhaps more than the verdict itself,” she said. She wasn’t alone: the aftermath of the trial felt like a consciousness-raising moment for a huge swath of Canadian women who had previously been inclined to have faith in the courts. “At dinner parties, on the train, everywhere, people were having this conversation differently than before,” said Pamela Cross, a lawyer who works with survivors of sexual assault. The question is whether those conversations will shift the landscape. What was it all for?*Discussions about the need for a better approach to cases of sexual violence are obviously not new. Indigenous women, who have long known that the court system cares little about bringing them justice, “have been trying to raise awareness about this for a very long time,” said Heather Cameron, of the Ontario Native Women’s Association. So have many other women’s advocates. University of Ottawa professor Elizabeth Sheehy, an expert in women and the law, watched the case “with horror, but not surprise.”The courts’ repeated mishandling of sexual assault cases, she said, has a lot to do with the fact that they haven’t kept pace with our evolving understanding of how trauma affects a crime victim’s memory and behaviour. There’s a need for Canada’s higher courts to set strong precedents about which defense tactics are legitimate. If higher courts would “clarify what kind of evidence is irrelevant,” Sheehy said, they would discourage certain lines of questioning that are based on incorrect assumptions about how a survivor of assault should act. There could also be new legislation: “for example, reforms to the Evidence Act that put limits on the cross-examination of a complainant’s post-offense behavior.” In the short term, Sheehy said, “it may simply be that Crown prosecutors need to introduce expert evidence about the effects of trauma every time, over and over. Because basically what we have to do is replace common sense knowledge—which is actually ignorance—with information.”"For some women this is the impact of the Ghomeshi case: it has given them a strange new kind of power."Cross, who educates judges and lawyers about violence against women, agrees that the courts need to have a much clearer understanding of trauma. “My biggest wish is for law schools to step up to the plate,” Cross said, “so that by the time someone graduates from law school, they have at least a basic level of awareness about the impact of violence against women.” The judge in the Ghomeshi case, William Horkins, seemed to go “out of his way to say negative things about the complainants,” Cross said. “A lot of those comments fell squarely in the area of rape myth. They displayed a lack of understanding of sexual assault. That’s why judges need to be taught to understand trauma better: so that a complainant’s evidence will also be understood better.”But there are also those who wonder whether attempts to fix the criminal justice system’s handling of sexual assault are just stopgaps. “Since the trial, there have been conversations about expanding legal advice for survivors [of sexual violence]. Some advocates talked about calling for Philadelphia Model, which would mean opening up sexual assault cases to feminist organizations for review,” said McLeod. “These things are interesting, but ultimately, all reform is imperfect.”*A few months after his first acquittal, Ghomeshi was supposed to go to trial a second time, on one more count of sexual assault. But last May, the complainant in the case, Kathryn Borel, chose to settle the allegations with a peace bond. “It seemed like the clearest path to the truth,” Borel said, in a statement outside the courthouse. “A trial would have maintained his lie, the lie that he was not guilty, and it would have further subjected me to the very same pattern of abuse.”Both McLeod and Cross found that Borel’s choice resonated. Settling on her own terms “might have felt like an opportunity to be empowered by a process that otherwise would probably have been extremely disempowering to her,” Cross said. “She was able to have a voice and a hand in shaping the outcome. For some women this is the impact of the Ghomeshi case: it has given them a strange new kind of power. They think, Okay, the courts aren’t going to be helpful to me, so I’m going to figure this out outside the system.”Jillian Rogin, a criminal defense attorney, also understood the motivation for Borel’s impulse to settle the case before going to trial. The common defense tactic of casting doubt on a complainant’s credibility “is inherently violent,” said Rogin. “Survivors, for a variety of reasons, might not be ready to tell the whole story right away. It doesn’t mean they're not telling the truth.” But it does present serious questions about what place the criminal justice system should have in adjudicating allegations of sexual violence.“I have to disagree with the commentary that we should believe survivors of violence, no matter what,” Rogin said. “To say that women never lie is condescending. Women have agency. We should believe women, of course—but not in the courtroom. If you want to believe women, you have to think of a completely different judicial system. Because we know, for example, that survivors of trauma are not always able to relay information in a consistent manner.”Rogin would like the post-Ghomeshi conversation to be more expansive, and to explore ideas that are outside of the traditional legal framework. “Ultimately, what is going to produce justice for women?” she asked. “The reason the criminal justice system doesn't work is that when someone's acquitted, there's not only no acknowledgement of the crime, but the complainant is told they were lying. I can't imagine anything more traumatizing for a survivor of sexual violence. Because I think that's one of the first things you ask [after an assault]: Did this really happen?”Rogin wonders what might be possible if the threat of prison were off the table. “I think prison completely prevents men from being forthright about what happened. I know everything I'm about to say is fraught—in the past, mediation was used to pat women on the head and tell them to move on. But what would it look like to have a discussion in which survivors were asked, What do you actually want out of this process? That’s the conversation I want to start having.”McLeod agrees. With a research partner, she has been interviewing survivors of sexual violence about how they would ideally like to experience justice. They’ve heard responses of all kinds, from those who feel they need to have their voices recognized by a criminal court, to those who say the last thing they want to see is a perpetrator incarcerated. “As a society we’ve been taught that justice is someone being sentenced in a courtroom,” said McLeod. “But ideas about justice are so individual.” At the end of the day, she says, survivors of sexual violence benefit from understanding what their options are, and what each could entail.During the Ghomeshi trial, McLeod was not the only survivor to watch from the media overflow room. Still more gathered each day outside the Old City Hall Building while the trial was in session. If McLeod sees anything to be hopeful about, it’s the way the case galvanized survivors, and opened up nuanced conversations about consent and justice. “Survivors really pushed those discussions forward,” she said. They don’t plan to stop.
I was not born powerful, but this year, I chose power for myself.
What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.Just a few weeks ago, I participated in a debate about religion at Trinity College in Dublin. The motion was “This House Believes Religion Does More Harm Than Good.” During the debate, the fourth speaker, a white man who referred to himself as a wizard, declared Islam inherently egregious. The man, who wore purple velvet for the occasion, went on to explain why Muslim women needed to be saved. I was flabbergasted.I was the second speaker on the opposition side, and I stood up to rebut, only to have him wave me away, his slinky hand curved downwards, lazy in retrospect, penetrating my identity with a dull argument about Islam’s historical tendency to be tyrannical. I sat down, incensed.The whole charade was caught on camera. My eyes rolled far behind the back of my head—an immature act, yes, but the only agency I had over my body’s anger. Because, in that moment, my voice, a Muslim woman’s voice, was being drowned out by a man with a smarmy Noel Gallagher face.Needless to say, the proposition team won.I walked away from the debate fast, ghosting on the good-hearted festivities. Instead, I treated myself to an Italian meal five minutes away from the ancient Book of Kells, at a blue walled restaurant named Carluccio’s. Ordering a crisp and mineral glass of Pinot Gris and a side of beef rib off the bone, I sat and pondered the debate, realizing the result was a synecdoche of the larger world, and the politics I battle with daily as a Muslim queer woman of color.*White men love playing the devil’s advocate, cruising with the oversaturated use of, “Well, that’s your opinion” and negating the things you say because they can. White men can run for president with no formal experience, be accused of raping thirteen-year-olds, disregard grabbing pussies as “locker room talk,” and then become the leader of the free world.I sat at Carluccio’s, looking around at the people beside me, feeling the after-effects of defeat. Part of the reason I couldn’t participate in the merriment post debate was that it was a reflection of my very real life. I couldn’t just pack it up and put it away into a small anecdote, or laugh at the antics as performative aggression, or even the formality of the event. It wasn’t a theoretical argument for me, it was about survival. To explain your humanity to a room full of people who already disbelieve in it is exhausting. I’ve been tired for years now.Power is a performance, not a state of being.Repeating the debate in my head, I lingered on the white man’s role in my feelings of powerlessness. The audacity of people to speak over my experience is the reality of my diurnal life. People think they know more about racism than I do, without ever experiencing it; Islam without ever talking to a Muslim in-depth, without examining Muslim life en masse. With these presumptions of knowledge, my power is taken from me. If a white man gave my opinion from their perspective—as an outsider—it would be lauded, it would be believed.So, as I sat there at the shiny table of an Italian restaurant in the center of Dublin, my heart buzzed, my body pulsed, I suddenly felt awake. The rage from the debate had sublimated into something different, like a chemical, mercurial through my veins, I felt power. Power that had been taken away from me. Power that was never mine to begin with. Power that I’d earned, and power that I, finally, wanted to take as mine. I was tired of white men coming and going, taking what isn’t theirs and wearing it like armour. What was power if not, at first, an illusion?Power is a performance, not a state of being. If you’ve never had someone anoint you with it, you’ll navigate your entire existence without tasting it.But, now I wanted to taste it.*I wasn’t born powerful.I was born to two immigrants and have been called everything from “gross black dirt” to the very imaginative “terrorist.” I’ve been hounded at airports, stopped and frisked, detained in a white room while my diary was read to me by two TSA agents at the San Francisco International Airport, turning each page with an entitlement that comes with power, luridly stopping at sentences, pausing with a menacing heartbeat, only to continue my silent echo of detainment. Somehow I survived it. I’m randomly security checked all the time, the SSSS on my boarding ticket a hallmark of a Muslim registry.White people want to relate to your stories, so they tell you their traumas, too. We all have them, bruising the backs of our throats. But very often, it seems, white people want to hear the stories of our traumas only so they can tell their own. We’ve all been hurt. But some are given the option to lead, to live, and others aren’t even given the chance.As a young brown girl who felt invisible, I didn’t know I was allowed to speak, until, until, until… now? No one ever told me, Fariha, speak, speak for yourself. I bet no one ever told the wizard not to.I have only begun to speak louder because I didn’t like the answers of those who speak for me. Yet their voices are still all too ubiquitous. This year has been the year of figuring out how to take the power that was never offered me. How do I take what is mine, and do it without guilt or shame?*Truth is, at a certain point, as each white man takes and takes and speaks over me with a huff, with a “That doesn’t sound right,” with a reference to The New York Review of Books, I’ve grown more and more enraged, and at a certain point it’s turned into the metal I’ve collected, alchemizing my silence and frustration into a very red and very tangible anger, spinning it into something that I take with me to war. I wield it against those who wish to silence me. I’m mad, I’m mad and that’s power.Why you always mad? People have asked me through the years—saying I was too radical, too angry, playing the victim. That question is a way to dismiss the legacy of your pain. Why do you hate white people? They ask, a way to disengage with the constructs and context of racism, to diminish the role of whiteness in racism. It’s to gaslight you black and blue until you think you deserved the wounds that carve your body. It’s to force you to love those who have oppressed you, to remain (un)powerful, to feel (un)powerful.But, in 2016 I chose power for myself.I’m not sure why, but I rose at some point against the odds of my skin, and my sex, and my religion that everyone hates, I pushed through some barrier that felt like a psychic weight against my chest. I lifted myself from the agony of living a half made life, and the thinking that’s all I deserved in life, anyway.Silence is something that I no longer decided upon. Silencing is an act of abuse, and though I’m not quite a believer in demonizing those who can’t speak (when someone is attacking you, sometimes your instinct is to shut down) I owe it to myself, and those like me, to call out racism and bigotry, so that I can pull it out at the roots. I’ve spent too many of my days acquiescing to white people, not wanting to cause any undue stress, when someone says something offensive, as if it’s my responsibility, and those marginalized, to keep the peace.Now, more than ever, as Trump tramples on the ideologies that I hold dear, we need more people that will shout and scream and say what’s right. We need fearlessness now, against the tyrannical leisure of the neo-Nazis. We need power for people on the peripheries, for those who never believed in their own voice, who were too afraid to say anything under the ubiquity of miasmic bad opinion. Now it is time.Nobody ever gave me power, but I’m taking it.I’m powerful because I say that I am, I’m powerful because I know that I am. If power is an illusion, then I transformed into it. I chose power out of exhaustion, but I stay powerful because I’m still here.
I find myself staring down 2017 with a surplus of useless wisdom and nowhere to put it.
What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.I started writing full-time in 2011. I was twenty-three years old and made between $25 and $150 per piece of writing, usually for websites geared towards other women my age. I needed roughly $1100 per month to live as comfortably as I required then, which is to say I was very chill about walking long distances in the rain, would attend almost any event in the name of free food, and gave myself a number of very questionable at-home haircuts so that I could afford to call myself a writer.To make my $1100, I produced between eight and eighteen pieces of writing per month. Most of these were weird little notes about myself, my feelings, and what other twenty-three-year-olds should wear to parties to ensure everyone around them knew they could play or were at least considering taking up the ukulele. It was true then, and seems to be true five years later, that the best chance a young woman writer has to get her pitches read is to sell personal stories about sadness and sex. I don’t know how to feel about this, but I certainly participated very actively in the sadness-and-sex economy for the first year of my career. Mostly, however, I wanted to write jokes. This is how I found advice.Advice pieces were a win-win-win: a space for comedy writing that was still ostensibly personal enough to get editors' attention, and that paid. A local website allowed me to start a faux advice column, and for the next three years I produced a bossy weekly ramble on topics like "cold season" (okay), "barbecue etiquette" (sure), and "when it's okay to be a bitch" (twenty-three!!!). Eventually I branched out and began offering my specious advice to other magazines and websites. These pieces were usually based around problems in my real life, which were plentiful, and so could easily be written at a speed required to meet my bills, providing I was paid on time. If rent was coming up and it looked like I'd be short, I'd pitch a sexting guide. Between 2011 and 2013 I probably wrote one sexting guide every three or four months. It was not an auspicious beginning, but it got my partially exposed foot in the door.Last year, I published my first book—a humour collection loosely themed around the idea of giving advice. It was a compendium of any of my early writing that I could still read without wishing myself dead, plus new pieces on topics like "dips" (fine), "ageing" (twenty-six!!!), and "I bet Pinterest would be smug if it was a person" (absolutely why not). It contained all the best advice I'd given or received in my early twenties, and a number of highly personal essays about abortion and kissing and being embarrassed almost all the time. After the book I was able to reduce my publishing schedule to six or seven pieces per month, but I still spent 2015 writing a lot of how-tos, comic and serious, based in my own life.But this year, I found I did not have it in me to write any more sexting guides. I have not kept up with which emoji are in fashion, for a start, but I also needed a break from personal writing in general. I had found myself narrativizing experiences in real time—planning the kicker to an essay about a breakup as I sat in the park discussing where it all went wrong, measuring out the future dollar value of some social faux pas at a party. It’s dangerous to assume one’s life is in any way ordered or linear, and selling mine $200 at a time felt, if you can believe it, quite bad. So I replaced magazines and blogs with television writing, turning my problems into the mishaps of fictional characters instead.Keeping the majority of my thoughts and feelings to myself has been calming, and in general I am in favour of the switch, with one exception: I find myself staring down 2017 with a surplus of useless advice and nowhere to put it. So, in lieu of an essay about the time my new husband, ex-boyfriend and I physically carried my ex-boyfriend’s bed from his old home into my new one, here are a few of the best lessons that came to me in 2016:- Correcting others’ pronunciation is rude and you are bad if you do it. If the person speaking is a good friend, and if they have expressed some concern over the word as they said it, you may offer your own “best guess” as to how to say the word, but language is a living thing and also fucking relax.- No one can force you to wear sleeveless clothing, even if all the stores are selling shirts with no sleeves and little keyhole cut outs just wherever. Your options include light layers, making friends with a seamstress, or spending years climbing your way up the fashion industry to influence from the inside. Please let me know if you achieve the latter so I can personally thank you.- As you approach thirty everyone you know will either give up drinking or flirt with a drinking problem, maybe both, which is to say: the tenor of your house parties will change quite radically.- Don't trust anyone who tells you your bangs look fine in the photo. Check for yourself or accept that it will probably be a disaster.- If you have peanut butter in the house you will absolutely eat too much of it but only because it's the perfect food. Just give in and put it in a wrap with some raspberry jam already. (Bonus advice: a variety of luxe jams and spreads in your fridge lend it the illusion of a much more together woman's appliance.)- If someone really likes you they will find almost everything you do charming. In short: it does not really matter how often you text someone, or who texts whom first.- Taking a break from the Internet is as difficult but worthwhile as everyone says. Consider doing so without writing an essay about why you are doing it. It will be there for you when you get back, just as you left it, like a slow cooker full of pictures of dogs and men who think you're a slut.- Modern dating is a broken system. Cultivate a variety of friendships, noting those that seem steeped in romantic and sexual tension. Simmer that tension for three or four months, and if it's still there after a few makeouts, you've got a good boyfriend or girlfriend on your hands.- "Wear sunscreen," lol. (But really, wear sunscreen.)- Contrarians are not inherently noble or wise. Proud misanthropes do not make particularly exciting critics, artists, or friends.- Posture is about core strength and even extremely terrible Text Neck can be greatly improved with an abdominals-focused workout routine. There is no need to sit at your desk all day, fearfully touching your hump and Googling images from Disney's surprisingly sexual take on The Hunchback of Notre Dame.- If you are considering living with, let alone loving, someone for the entirety of your adult life, you'd be insane not to enter therapy with them right away.- Don't make fun of your friend for trying a new look. Give it a few wears, then see if you still think it's stupid and bad. And then: keep it to yourself! Change is hard and your friend took a risk and the lewks that make them happy are actually none of your business!- This being said, if you are over the age of twenty-five and have not figured out what hat style works for you, the answer is probably "none."- This is so embarrassing, but: if someone is being mean to you for what appears to be no reason, your mom is right and they are probably jealous. Isn't that nuts?!- Doing the right thing takes practice and feels extremely boring at first. It eventually starts to feel better but once you're good at it you're not even allowed to be smug, which to be perfectly honest is a real burn.- Unless it is your mother's birthday or your best friend's wedding, you do not have to go to the function.- Moisturize your body heavily and don't look at the Instagram accounts of people you don't like. That's basically all you can do.
How do you decide when to call somewhere home, and which one takes precedence if more than one place fits the bill?
What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.Last December I went to visit family in Puerto Vallarta for the first time in five years. Travel-wise, it’s one of the best times to go. By the beach it’s the season for watching humpback whales swim by and freshly hatched turtles drag their tiny bodies across the sand to water. It’s not too rainy and not too hot, unlike the summers when we would visit and my nose and neck would sprout little red boils from the relentless heat. Trucks loaded with tin foil Christmas piñatas drive down the highway. Souvenir shops hang blown-glass hearts in their windows. Religion and revelry co-exist peacefully in the same space in this month, with parades of flower garlands marching through the city for the feast of La Virgen de Guadalupe and gay clubs spilling brilliant noise and blue light into the streets near the Cuale River well after 4 a.m.Few of these things concerned me at the time, though. Instead I went to the biggest mall in the city and helped my aunts shop for shoes. I fell asleep listening to my grandmother pray the rosary most nights and watched the International Women’s Weightlifting Championships with my mother and uncle in a little sports bar, drinking his secret-recipe Bloody Marys and cheering for Thailand the whole time. I ate everything that was put in front of me. I helped my cousins’ kids with their homework. I went to the beach precisely once.I was trying as much as possible, I think, not to be a tourist. Not that I ever was one in the traditional sense, exactly: half of my family lives here, and until I was thirteen I’d spend most summers and Christmases in churches without air conditioning or at the beach. But I’ve become increasingly uneasy about the very real likelihood that despite being second-generation, despite how much time I’ve spent in this part of the world, and despite (and in some ways, because of) my relationship with loved ones in this place, every trip to Vallarta is still a form of escape. That a large part of who I’ve grown up believing myself to be is in fact taken from an understanding of Vallarta and my family there that has only ever been mediated through travel and the different people we become when temporarily leaving a place called home.*The first time I read A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid’s furiously beautiful indictment of postcolonial tourism and government in Antigua, I thought I understood. I had the audacity to believe I identified with her anger: “The thing you always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true,” she wrote of the kind of person who might treat another part of the world as a playground or uncomplicated paradise. “A tourist is an ugly human being.”I’ve been trying to identify the experience that signaled my becoming a tourist in a place I once considered a home, but like any becoming it was likely no one thing. It might have been when, at thirteen, a second cousin took me to a nightclub washed entirely in black light and splotches of neon paint and I had my first rum and coke. She wasn’t more than a couple of years older than me, but knew some of the staff, so we danced in tight tank tops with sequined mandalas sewn on the chest and laughed at being inappropriately hit on by drunk college jocks, people I told myself for years were the real tourists; the kind of people who regularly fly to coastal cities in Mexico to have the kind of fun they didn’t think was possible in whatever apparently greyer, duller place they lived. Fun that included roasting themselves like lobsters on once-public sand beaches now owned by hotel conglomerates and combed through daily for litter, or downing tequila shots in cactus-shaped glasses and hitting on teenage girls.If obligation is a necessary element to familial intimacy, it's something that I've managed to slip out of for years.An earlier possibility: at age five, being driven around the city’s outskirts to this family friend’s baptism or that uncle’s pig roast in the back of a caged-in pickup truck with all my other cousins riding unseated, clinging to the bars like small curious animals and watching impossibly steep cobblestone streets and palm trees turn to dust roads turn to fields of scrubby green bush as we drove further inland. When we got to wherever we were going, my younger brother and I could stay up as late as we wanted and wander where we liked, often to a neighbouring stranger’s house to ask for paletas.I’m not so sure these two memories are evidence of being an ugly human being, really, but they do have something uncomfortable in common: they are such a departure from life in Toronto, where my parents chose to raise my brother and I, and under a pretty strict roof. Where in Vallarta I could casually get away with telling my mother in an innocent, awkward Spanish that my cousins had just “taken me to the disco,” in Toronto I wasn’t so much as allowed to talk to boys—or watch The Simpsons (too vulgar), touch ouija boards (Catholic rules) or dye my hair. We eventually learned that with two homes came two sets of rules, not always in agreement with each other, and so we took advantage. Fifteen years and an adolescence later, I wonder about the ways I still do.*“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain,” Kincaid writes later on in that first chapter of A Small Place. “For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere.”How do you decide when to call somewhere home, and which one takes precedence if more than one place fits the bill? There was a time I was happy to sit for hours behind the counter in my aunt’s convenience store, counting packs of puffy Disney princess stickers and quizzing her on English words, or sit with my grandmother in her tiny, fastidiously clean kitchen sucking soda out of a plastic fruit bag while she wrapped tamales and talked about religion.This was when life in both places most closely resembled the other, but as I got older that sameness started to slip away. In Toronto I stopped speaking Spanish, but eventually started speaking to boys. In Vallarta, where visits began to thin out over time, the only place I wandered was to the nearest neighbourhood pay phone to call said boys “back home,” or to some new swimming cave, or whatever fun new attraction my cousins wanted me to see before I left.If obligation is a necessary element to familial intimacy, it's something that I've managed to slip out of for years. I’ve never, for example, been able to attend a funeral: not when my grandfather gave in to his last stroke, my grand aunt to an uncaught stomach cancer, or when my tia Pilar died choking on failing lungs because she’d worked her whole life unable to afford health care insurance. It was a long time before I understood that my tia Concha eventually closed that convenience store in favour of a network of taco stands not only because local tourism meant better money, but because an uptick in neighbourhood drug running had brought along an increase in after-hour break ins. Cousins, more than a few of whom are employed by the area’s tourism industry, have found themselves driving farther and farther out of the city limits for work as hotel companies keep searching for more pristine, untouched beach land. My tia Ana, who lives with polio, left Vallarta altogether. A city of bumpy cobblestone streets and steep stairs of cracked concrete may seem charming to many, but to a person with a disability it is a daily series of little nightmares.On the second-last day of my visit to Vallarta that December, my grandmother sat me down in her kitchen to ask me something that seemed innocuous but quickly turned very sad. Just simply: “What is your favourite thing to eat?” It was as if we’d both forgotten.I told her the first thing I could think of: sopa de fideos, a noodle soup she makes out of little more than tomatoes, garlic, chicken fat and lime. The next day I found her taking precisely those things out of a plastic grocery bag and lining them up for dinner. My Spanish was too poor to say the all of it—that I’d missed her, that I’d never properly made this soup, that I was sorry to never be around long enough to learn to make it right—but even in English I doubt I’d have expressed this well. Instead, I offered to help her, but then my uncle walked in.“What are you doing?” he asked. “We’re going to be late.” He’d made dinner plans for us to go somewhere special for my last day in town, and so we never made the soup. A year later, and I am still counting down the months till I can go back, if only to cook this one dish.