Hazlitt Magazine

The Legion Lonely

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

Critical Failure

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

A Thousand Ways to Make It

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

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Critical Failure

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

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

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

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

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

The entire category of food writing comes with built-in nostalgia. It resurrects remembered meals. M. F. K. Fisher’s rapturous descriptions of eating in France, for example, are also the story of an adventurous American woman abroad, writing and living in quaint circumstances with a husband or between marriages. Fisher’s adventurous trip to isolated restaurants in Burgundy, where she’s served pickled herring that is “mild, pungent, meaty as fresh nuts,” and trout served au bleu, gutted and cooked half-alive in bouillon, “agonizingly curled on a platter,” is as much about the sense of being alone and given a unique gift in a foreign land, as it is about the food, which Fisher actually describes in rather quick little clauses compared to the considerable time given to her own sensations of hunger, surfeit, determination, and even fear in the face of an epic meal. Food writing, at least outside of the confines of the newspaper restaurant review, is also memoir. When a food writer is associated with a certain ethnic background, that written act of nostalgia is positioned as a cultural looking-back. One of the conventions of diasporic food writing dictates that the writer’s identity and self-discovery are implicitly linked to a tracing of culinary roots, a finding-out of who he or she really is in the rich smell of a Keralan masala finally nailed. That’s the extra dimension to writing about ethnic foods: beyond meditating on hunger and fulfillment, writing about the real food of one’s ancestors becomes a meditation on personal and familial identity, and its relationship to the place where one grew up, or was wrested away from. The inability of the writer to reproduce his or her mother’s aloo gobi often becomes, as if by default, a metaphor for the impossibility of full communication between generations—a metaphor so overwrought it’s now as codified and recognizable as a Noh mask. Curry’s range of definitions, edible and otherwise, prevent it from having a stable existence. It’s a leaf, it’s a process, it’s a certain kind of gravy with uncertain ingredients surrounding a starring meat or vegetable. It’s an elevating crust baked around previously bland foodstuffs, but it’s also an Indian fairy tale composed by cooks, Indians, émigrés, colonists, eaters, readers, and writers. The unifying notion of curry as an authentic, homeland-defining collection of dishes that form a cultural touchstone for diasporic brown folks is a cliché, in the same way food-based bonds between people from any culture who find themselves in a new land is a cliché. But curry can’t be trapped. If you push through the cliché, you arrive at a surprising truth: the history of this ever-inauthentic mass of dishes is a close parallel to the formation of South Asian diasporic identity, which is as much of a blend of conflicting cultural messages forced into coherence as Indian cuisine itself. * In “The Long Way Home,” a 2004 essay for the New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize–winning Indian-American novelist Jhumpa Lahiri connects family, roots, secrets, and the lost unknowables of the past incarnated in particular delicious dishes. Lahiri’s mother had learned to cook by witnessing and participating in her own mother’s cooking in Calcutta, learning lessons that she carried to America by, for example, getting “down on the floor to pound turmeric or chilies on a massive grinding stone.” Lahiri’s mother joins a line of mothers in this food-writing tradition. Like so many before her, she’s kindly evasive when asked to share recipes, and never records or verbally details them: “To this day, if friends ask how she made a particular dish, she cryptically replies, ‘It’s nothing, really, you simply take all the ingredients and put them in the pot.”’ This reluctance to share methods is perhaps true of many mothers, and extremely common in these nostalgic essays and stories. My mother, thankfully, will give up any recipe, with detailed directions. Lahiri ends up learning her Indian-cooking techniques from a cookbook by Madhur Jaffrey, doyenne of subcontinental cookery books and TV since the early 1970s. In the end, her mother is quietly impressed, taking a photo of the spread that Lahiri and her sister make for their parents’ thirtieth anniversary. In 2016, Scaachi Koul wrote about learning how to cook the dishes of her childhood as an adult in Buzzfeed: My mom had watched my grandmother cook for years, knew her languages, knew how to pleat a sari or mutter a Kashmiri insult (‘Thrat’) or throw a wedding for her son, 25 years after she moved away. I don’t have any of these secrets, because I was born in North America and raised around white people in a family that wanted to integrate. So it felt important to at least try to remember how my own mom did things. Late last week, I called my mom to get a refresher on a few of her recipes. I wanted to make rogan josh, aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower), chicken biryani (chicken and rice), and paneer with palak (spinach). But my mom, like so many Indian mothers I know, has always avoided giving me complete recipes. Mothers are an important and authentic part of the curry genre, both cooked and written: not only a source of accessible, cross-cultural nostalgia, but a reminder that there are domestic, comforting aspects to exoticism. The parental link to the homeland, especially for writers with immigrant parents who themselves were born in the West, or who moved to the West at such a young age that their grasp on the old country is delicate, questioned by brown people who dismiss their experiences or white people who say, “But you seem so white,” can also have a sinister, minimizing aspect. Mothers are permitted to be mysterious or generous in this system of symbolism, but in Lahiri’s essay, her mother’s pattern of selective withholding becomes her primary trait: and Lahiri, the writer, is burdened with mastering the domestic skill of cooking in order to achieve an understanding and connection with her mother. In Koul’s piece, being able to cook her mother’s food comes to stand in for her mother’s presence: Koul manages to pull off cooking a solid meal, catching the intangible scents of her mother’s kitchen while she prepares it, but the meal “wasn’t as good because my food, as surprisingly palatable as it was, didn’t include my mom hovering over me with a wooden spoon.” For these writers, their personal relationships with their mothers overwhelm the symbolic stand-in of mother for motherland, of food and the ability to prepare it properly as a marker of authenticity: but for many readers, the mother on the page remains a symbolic stand-in for authenticity lost, despite the writer’s labour to own the metaphor, to make it personal. That this treatment of a relationship between food, family bonds, and a fraying connection to the homeland appears frequently in essays and novels by diasporic South Asians doesn’t invalidate it. An oft repeated story isn’t a false one: experiences like the ones described by Koul and Lahiri take place in the kitchens of brown undergraduates worldwide. Their essays hit many of the same points about authenticity, love, and the unknowability of one’s parents, but stylistically they are distinct to their authors, and there is no sense that the details are anything but true, lived experience. I’ve had a bunch of those experiences, too. A recipe is given over the phone, but a half pound of burnt onions and candied-walnuts-subbing-for-almond-slivers later, there’s a stovetop of muck that has nothing to do with home, comfort, or good food. Just failure, distance, a sense that something essential has been lost. This is authentic, isn’t it? It’s also relatable, to readers from any number of immigrant backgrounds. Stories beget similar stories, and they don’t become lies as a result. But endless encounters with one narrative—one that tells us that truth and colonialism are embedded in these family recipes and our failures to cook them—make me wonder why I keep reading this particular story over and over again. South Asian food came to major prominence in the West with the explosion of Indian restaurants in the U.K., and the formative wave of South Asian diasporic writers followed soon afterward. When genres and forms have been around for long enough, there comes a point when they risk calcifying. This narrative thread, this way of thinking about curry, is one iteration of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently called “the single story,” one overarching narrative that “creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” * When I first moved out of the house and my mother realized the depths of my incompetence as a cook, she pinned a sheet of paper to the kitchen wall of my apartment (not with a pin, but with a toothpick, running the paper through and affixing it to a pre-existing gouge in the drywall) with recipes for the BASIC MAURITIAN and BASIC INDIAN bases of any number of dishes, featuring onions, garlic, a more-or-less identical meld of spices, and in MAURITIAN’s case, ginger. Ginger is almost omnipresent in Indian food, but I’m still surprised for a half second when I run into it in a recipe from Madras or Chennai, due to this piece of paper that is still toothpicked to my brain. In memories and stories, the diasporic household often becomes a stand-in for the land of origin, a circumscribed set of walls that bound in language, scents, tastes, ethical codes, and patterns of love and communication that start to shimmer and vanish if the front door is left open too long. It’s a backdrop to the stories, one encountered so often that I distrust my own household recollections sometimes, as though one of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s short stories or a Sri Lankan pal’s childhood anecdote has supplanted my memory. But the paper my mother pinned up wasn’t a signet of the unreachable past: it was a set of dumbed-down instructions for a boy who had been spoiled nightly at the family dining table. Growing up, I always knew there would be food on the table, in the fridge, a delicious and seemingly inexhaustible supply. Toothpicking the paper to the wall marked a break. For me, the act of cooking was to be about self-sufficiency, adulthood—not a reanimation of childhood. That’s what eating is for: manning the pots and pans meant taking the reins of adulthood, a common factor in many immigrant stories and essays, like Koul’s and Lahiri’s, like the one I’m telling now. But self-sufficiency was the stated purpose of cooking when my mother was making sure I learned how to feed myself—there were no arcane codes held back from one generation to the next only to be revealed through hardship, experience, and a moment of deep eye contact and admittance to the secrets of our ancient race. * I make a chicken curry a few times a month, from a now-freehanded recipe liberally adopted from Vikram Vij’s first cookbook, modified by my own tendency to favour coriander and turmeric. I take some trendily twenty-first-century licence of my own by throwing in torn-up kale leaves as the curry approaches the end of its simmer: an effective way of vanishing greens under the vivid yellow of this sour cream–aided sauce, which acts as a subtle delivery model for the red powder hiding deep in the masala. The introduction of sour cream into a curry, by the way, wouldn’t be entertained in the home I grew up in. Yogurt, sure, but not sour cream. I like it and think it works pretty well in this dish, though I often forget to stir a bit of masala into the sour-cream container to bring the temperature up before dumping the whole thing into the pot, which leads to a distastefully curdled appearance that guests are usually too kind to comment on. This dish is mine now, based not just on the addition of kale but on one of the great strengths of curry: its flexibility, its demand that you freehand ingredients. While curry, and Indian cuisine in general, has always taken in spices and approaches from neighbouring countries and invading empires while continuing to be strongly regionally defined, precision measurement of spices is genuinely foreign. It’s telling that imprecision is one of the few true signifiers of authenticity for a dish as inauthentic as curry. The inability to nail down exactly how much of what goes in what is a recurring element of the curry narrative. Excerpted from Curry: Eating, Reading and Race, available now from Coach House Books. 
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
The Legion Lonely

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that strangers have seen me naked, I can move on to worrying about getting into college or my inevitable death.

Friday night, Chevron station bathroom. Boots flat against the poured concrete wall, ass in the sink. I rub a thumb up and down the sweating neck of a bottle of fifty. Asher hid two in the ice freezer out back for us. He let us feel around in the candy bins first, eat until our lips stung in sour pouts.Hair up or down, I ask. A first drink question.Sandy says up. She’s still peeing. Strong stream, no hesitation. Twist it. No, not like that. She pulls her miniskirt down, kicks the flusher. Sandy knows how to be a girl. She grabs my hair, turning it around in her fingers, elastic in her front teeth as she tames it into a top bun. It pinches. I wince, take another long sip.There, she says. That’s perfect.She pulls a half-empty Diet Coke bottle from her bag and nudges my knees apart. I squeeze it between my thighs. She tips a mickey of Stoli against the open spout. Lip to lip, a smooth pour, not one drop wasted. The sound of the vodka trickle makes me have to pee.I can’t piss in front of you, I say. Go outside.You’re too shy. You’ll get eaten alive if you don’t cut that shit out. She lights a smoke, leaning against the door with her arms crossed. Just pee.I’m not going to win this stand-off. I pull down my jeans. One hand on the wall to steady a low crouch. It won’t come.Stop looking.I’m not looking. God.Okay, then sing a fucking song to distract me.She sings the national anthem. By true north strong and free! a trickle comes, but it runs down my leg, soaking my sock. I try to stop it by sitting down.Sandy laughs. You’re a mess, girl.I prop an elbow on my right knee and stare at her as I finish peeing. My legs in an open V. Two can play this game. I can feel a soft rush of warm air from the heating vent against my exposed skin. I pretend not to care. She blows a smoke ring up and ignores me, like she didn’t look away first.I can’t believe you sat on that filthy toilet seat.What, it’s just other people’s pee on my butt.[[{"fid":"6701131","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"1573","width":"1608","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The skate park is not that far and I’d rather walk, but Sandy is impatient once we reach the road, thumbs out. A forest green pick-up truck with Hartley’s Sparkling Clean-Up Service painted on the side pulls up. I give him a once-over, but Sandy just hops in. She tells the driver we are runaways.Don’t tell me that, he says. I’ll have to tell the cops.No, don’t. We’re escaping a cult. Morgan here is a child bride. Imagine the bad karma.He pops open the glove compartment and offers us Nutri-Grain cereal bars. I don’t like the red ones, my wife keeps buying ’em.Sandy takes two. I say nothing. While Sandy is distracted, I drink most of the pop bottle. I hold eye contact with the collie sitting behind us, whisper You’re a good dog, yeah, you’re a good dog.She can’t hear you, the driver says. She’s deaf, but she sure is loyal.*In the morning, my father pulls the covers off me. Get up. It’s 12:30. You’re late for work and it’s tart bake day. Pearl needs you.I can’t.Why did you sleep in your clothes? What happened to your jeans?I look down to see both knees are ripped. I cover them as though legs are meant to be private. He gives me a look like he caught me sleeping in a pile of rotting bones. When I open my mouth to respond, my teeth are tiny moths. I’m all mouth.Sorry, I whisper.He’d bought me the jeans last weekend. He told me not to tell Mom. He’d paid on two different credit cards.After he leaves, I get up and look in the mirror. I’m wearing a shirt I’ve never seen before. A Vans skateboard logo across the chest. The cotton is soft. I look around for the shirt I left the house in. It’s nowhere.By 2 p.m. I am behind the cash register at my aunt Pearl’s Pie Shop. It’s a slow day. I suck on a ginger hard candy, drink cups of cold mint tea. I’ve showered but I can still smell the alcohol on my skin. Thank god Pearl is baking in the back. I crack my knuckles. I check myself for bruises. I turn the music up to drown out the ringing in my ears.I keep getting text messages from TYLER WITH THE COOL HAIR. I don’t know who he is, but his texts swiftly progress from Hi, you must be hungover! to your pussy was so tight. I can’t stop thinking about you. I type: I think you have the wrong number but don’t send it.There’s no one in the store, so I put a hand down my pants and feel around for evidence. I know as soon as my finger meets the shoreline. A deep ache. A disconcerting heat. I scan my brain for a final memory. I see myself trying to ollie on someone’s skateboard. Falling. Then my dad waking me up.When I go to the bathroom to pee, I put my head to my lap, pucker my mouth around my right knee, scream-cry into the impressive scab.Later Pearl finds me kneeling in front of the bulk coffee, pretending to re-fill the canisters, but really I’m half-sleeping, forehead to a cold bag of medium Ethiopian fair-trade.She asks, are you heart-sick? Is it a boy?I guess.I don’t tell Pearl about my life. She says there’s something about my face that tells her I’m always in love. She frowns when Sandy appears, because Sandy eats all the free samples.They’re broken cookies, Pearl. Why does it matter if I eat them? She eats the face of the one that looks like a bunny.When Pearl tells Sandy that it looks like I’m always in love, Sandy spit-laughs the last cookie.I don’t think Morgan’s ever texted a boy back. There’s something wrong with her. Speaking of, Tyler says you’re ghosting him but we’ll all hang later, right? At the park?I’m not sure.I don’t want to admit I don’t know who Tyler is in front of Pearl. Sandy’s my best friend, but I often feel like she’s waiting for a better option, so I’m surprised she wants to go out two nights in a row. Usually we just stay in and watch movies on Saturdays.Come on, Tyler’s friend Sketch is going to come. It was your idea last night!That explains it. Sketch is in college. He’s the guy all the girls stare at from the top of the half pipe ramp. Sandy said he once grabbed her ass in a mosh pit, then smiled at her. I felt like prey, she said, it paralyzed me.I’ve never heard Sketch speak a word that has more than one syllable.[[{"fid":"6701136","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"1573","width":"1608","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]When I get home my uncle is sitting on the back porch. Sometimes he sleeps on our couch when Pearl has long hours. He has special needs from the Gulf War, which is how my mother puts it. They tried to send him to Afghanistan but he had a breakdown before he left. He tries not to drink anymore, but he’s off the wagon. When I was little they told me that and I pictured him literally falling off of a wagon.I join him. He’s got a can of beer hiding in one of his cowboy boots. He reaches behind the cedar bush, pulls out another can and gives it to me. I empty out my water bottle and fill it with beer. We cheers to our little secret party.I know you’re fifteen so you feel old, but believe me girl, don’t be in any hurry.It’s the first coherent sentence I’ve heard him say in a while.Thanks, Uncle Marty.Because all men are awful.You’re not. I take a long swig of beer.Be careful, drinking runs in our family. Up and down both sides.There’s barely a pause before he starts in on 9/11 and how it was perpetuated by the Americans. I tune out. He talks himself into a soft, slow sleep on the lawn chair. I finish all his beer.*My eyes pop open, but all I see is a clear sky, fluttering stars. I’m frightened, until I hear Sandy’s voice reaching through the confusing blur, her nervous giggle, the tone she uses when she’s showing off, yeah girl, you get yours, bitch.She only calls me bitch affectionately when she wants someone else to overhear.Am I falling through the sky? I look down, feel him pushing into me. It hurts so much I have to close my eyes.I wake again, his face so close to mine, still inside me. Who are you?He laughs. What do you mean? This was your idea.He goes harder, holds my hands down.Do you like that? You liked it this way last night, remember?I don’t know what to answer, so I turn my head, try to force my eyes to stay open though they are so heavy, so dry. We are on top of one side of the half pipe. There’s no one else around, except Sandy and Sketch on the other flat side of the ramp. The skateboards lay at the bottom of the half pipe, swaying in a slow roll. I wonder if the aging wood will crack, if we’ll stay together when we fall.Sandy’s quiet now, because she’s giving a blow-job. His hands are on her head, but he’s looking up at the sky. It’s red and pink on the horizon. The park is deserted.I squeeze my eyes shut. All I hear is their tandem moaning, then the sound of a car peeling down the nearby highway.This is the best night of my life, Tyler yells, before he comes.I curl my knees to my chest. A voice inside my head yells at me to sit up, to not go under again. I’m stunned. The night air swirls when I finally get up. He pulls off the condom, throws it off the ramp. A sound like a rubber band snapping.Oh man.I climb down the ladder to the ground, throw up in the grass. I stay there, digging my shaking fingers into the dirt. He comes up behind me, runs a hand through my hair. Are you ok babe? You feel cold. Here, have my hoodie.He covers me in his sweatshirt. It smells like a campfire. We hear Sketch’s final moans, then the sound of Sandy laughing.Will you be my girlfriend? Tyler asks, almost shyly.I don’t tell him this is the only conversation I can remember having with him.I murmur an okay, and then dry heave some more.*Sketch knows how to drive. It’s 5 a.m.Why didn’t we go home earlier, I ask Sandy, we’re going to be in so much trouble.She hugs me close in the back seat of a really old compact car. She smells like pineapple perfume and cigarettes. I guess the car belongs to Sketch’s mom because a Jewel CD starts playing as soon as he turns the key in the ignition. He pulls it from the player and throws it out the window.You didn’t want to go home, remember? We texted to say we’d be at each other’s places.I check my phone for evidence. I’d sent my Dad four lines of heart emojis after I told him I was staying at Sandy’s.Who was this effusive blackout girl?So where are we going now?Sandy shrugs. Sketch pulls up in front of a squat apartment building across from the gas station. The guys get out, but I don’t move.I want my bed, I say. Or your house. Let’s just go to your house, watch some Netflix.Coming down with Sandy is always the best part of the night.You’re no fun, she says. This is a big deal. This is his house. He only brings girls he really likes back to his place. Don’t fuck this up for me.[[{"fid":"6701141","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"1573","width":"1608","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Sketch’s apartment smells like garbage. I sit on a ripped ottoman with my arms crossed and stare at the TV. Planet Earth is on mute.Tyler rinses out a coffee mug, fills it with a thick liquor that tastes like black licorice and hands it to me. I keep two sips down. The room swirls in and out. I go the bathroom and pour it down the sink, fill it with tap water. Only the hot water tap works. There is one white towel dangling from a rack, wet and graying like a detached eyelash. A cake of blue soap with a black vein through the middle, flecks of abandoned beard hairs in the sink.Sandy sits on Sketch’s lap. They kiss a lot. I pull my legs up onto the ottoman. I remember being a kid and pretending the floor was made of lava. Tyler tries to lean into me from the armchair.You know what would be cool? says Sketch. If you girls kissed.No way, I say.Sure, Sandy says. I love Morgan.She walks over to me, a fake sexy walk, a bumbling baby deer.Nah, I say. This is stupid.You homophobic? Tyler asks. Cause my brother’s a fag.No. Sandy and I are just friends is all.Sandy’s already straddling me, locking her ankles around my back.Aw yeah, I hear one of the boys say. In my periphery I see Sketch rubbing the front of his jeans.I keep my mouth closed, but she pushes my lips open with hers. Our front teeth clank like drawn swords. Her mouth tastes of peppermint and smoke and my stomach lurches. I pull away. I just want to fall asleep against her chest. I want to be watching Drag Race in her basement.I pull back, so Sandy grabs at my tits. Her legs hold me in place. She pushes my breasts around like sand at the beach.Enough. I said this is fucking stupid. I stand up so fast that Sandy falls over. I leave without my purse or my phone, run down the long hallway and out the front door.Sandy yells You’re such a cunt out the window.*I beg my way onto a late night bus without fare, telling the driver my purse was stolen. He says, you should be more careful. You’re so young. He drives the bus off the regular route, right down my residential street, stopping in front of my house. I’m so thankful I start to cry. He gives me an avuncular smile.You shouldn’t be drinking so much, young lady.I get off the bus, stumble a bit up my driveway. As he drives away, even though I love his kind face with everything I have, I give him the finger.I sneak in the house quietly. In the living room, a glow rises like bonfire from the TV. I try to be quiet but my uncle sits up, alert.It’s just me, Uncle Marty. It’s just Morgan. You’re okay.He stares at me, cranes his neck to peer around me.No one else?No one else.I turn on the bright overhead light to prove it.He reaches for his bag.I think I heard someone outside, he says. I’ll go do my rounds.Just go back to bed, Marty.He takes a rifle from his overnight bag. As soon as I see the gun, I’m sober.Marty, is that loaded?Of course it’s fucking loaded.It scares me.He takes that information in. I stand very still, try to speak in a calm, even tone. That’s what we’re supposed to do when he has episodes.Stay here, he barks. I mean it, don’t move.He goes out onto the back porch, holding the rifle like he’s walking in a military drill. He circles our house and all the sensor lights go on, one by one, like he’s in a play and he’s stepping into the spotlight for a monologue.When I guess that he’s in the front of the house and can’t see me through the windows, I run to wake up my mom, who gets up and stays with me in the living room, waiting for him to return. He slides open the patio door.Everything safe out there? she asks him gently.He puts the gun back in the bag. Yup.I wish you wouldn’t do that, Marty. You might scare the neighbours. Some of them get up to jog early in the morning.I know an enemy from a jogger, he says, like it’s preposterous to suggest he’d accidently shoot someone. She hands him a glass of water. He smells it, then takes a small sip.She turns and looks at me for a moment. That’s a boy’s sweater.I have a boyfriend now, I say. His name is Tyler.She looks pleased.That’s good. You hang around Sandy too much. You should meet new people.Tyler is a shithead’s name, says Uncle Marty.*I sleep almost all day Sunday. I reach for my phone and then realize it’s not there, that I left it at Sketch’s house. I don’t even know Sandy’s number by heart to try to get it back from her.I feel briefly untethered, like I may float up and away from the ground. My thumbs scroll the air like a dog who runs in place while he’s dreaming. I wait it out and it recedes, replaced by a film of calm. My skin has never felt more porous. I pick up the softest sounds.I ride my bike to the river in a white cotton dress and I wade up to my waist, trying to cool the burning ache.I don’t think about not partying, but I do write myself a note to put in my pocket for next time.It reads: Remember not to let anyone inside you, you dumb slut.*I’m eating a green apple in the schoolyard on Monday when Sandy approaches, at our usual spot.You left me there, alone with them.So? You’re the one who wanted to be there in the first place. You’re the one who wanted to make out with me, like some perv.She looks hurt. I’ve never seen Sandy hurt. I am so angry, remembering her hands pawing at me, her cackling laugh, that it does not occur to me that she may be angry with me.You don’t do that. You don’t leave someone.She throws my phone at me. It hits me in the chest.She walks away, towards Sketch’s car waiting for her in the parking lot.Forty minutes left of lunch and without Sandy, I just lay down in the grass, reunited with my phone. So many texts from TYLER WITH THE COOL HAIR. I delete them all without reading. I know it will only be a few days until Sketch breaks her heart and I’ll get her back.I take a series of selfies. Bambie eyes. A filter that peaches my lips.I scroll back further. An unfamiliar video.The camera moves like the hand that holds it is shaking. Sandy’s laugh, the sound of Sketch saying whoa, whoa, a swirl like they don’t realize the camera is on.Then my own face is in the frame, monstrously close. I’m heavy lidded, trying to drink from a bottle of beer, but I keep missing my mouth. Tyler grabs the beer, puts it down and kisses me. We make out like we’re eating each other’s faces.Then a few seconds of blackness, and a shot from above: Tyler spreading my legs, my skirt lifted. Sketch’s low laugh. Sandy’s in the background, like she’s standing on the ground under the ramp. Come on Sketch, leave them alone. Let’s go have our own fun.Wait a sec.He focuses the close-up on me.Just do it.Nah, don’t film it.Come on.I watch as Tyler’s cock goes in me. They both laugh. Tyler looks into the camera and gives a thumbs-up. The camera moves up to my face. My eyes are closed. My mouth is open.Sketch, Sandy calls from below, come on.Sketch whispers, Wake that bitch up.Tyler shoves me a bit.Nothing.He shoves me harder. I blink. My mouth moves into a smile, like I’m dreaming about something really funny.Yeah, she likes it.SKETCH. YOU’RE BEING AN ASSHOLE.Calm the fuck down.There’s a few seconds with the camera still on, as Sketch climbs down to the ground.You okay, girl? Morgan?She’s fine.The video stops. The noise of the schoolyard returns. I throw the apple core to the ground. I delete the video.[[{"fid":"6701146","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"1573","width":"1608","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]I skip the rest of the day, peddle up the tallest hill, flying down. I bike so long my hands go numb, my legs have leopard spots of bike grease. Eventually, I end up on the winding tree-lined road towards Tyler’s school.He’s easy to spot, even in the stupid jacket and tie all the private school kids wear. He takes the tie off his neck really fast when he sees me. Pretends it’s a lasso. His blond hair falls, asymmetrical, to cover his right eye. In the daylight his face is more freckle than skin.I’m surprised, he says, rolling back and forth on his skateboard. You didn’t answer one text. You made me feel like a chick.I press my hands to his chest the way I’ve seen women do in the movies. I kiss him on the mouth with everything I’ve got. He’s a bad kisser but maybe malleable. When I pull away he says wow. He holds my hand. I like the way it feels, to be somebody’s girlfriend. The private school girls all look at me and whisper, like I stole their property.We ride down the winding hill. I take him to the bench by the river that runs beside the Chevron station. It’s heavy tourist season, families picnic in the park.I have nothing at all to say to Tyler. He doesn’t notice. He says, I feel like you’re the first girl I can really talk to, you know? You’re not all caught up in girl stuff.My emotions are a magic eight ball, like you could shake me and the answer to how are you feeling could change on a dime. I want to ask him what he thinks girl stuff is.How drunk were you Saturday night? I ask him.Oh man, pretty fucked up. You know.Do you remember everything?Of course, babe.I want to ask about the video, but we are interrupted by the sound of someone hollering our names. We look up and see Sandy and Sketch skateboarding towards us.Sandy pretends we’re best friends, hugs me like I’m a child she lost in the park. She hands me a wine cooler from her backpack.For a moment, it feels good, to have a crew. It feels like enough. I put the bottle to my lips but the smell makes me gag. I hand it back.I don’t feel like drinking today, I say.She shrugs, takes a long pull, then sits down next to me. You punishing me?For what?She doesn’t answer. Two hours later, every second feels interminable. I discover that sober kissing is boring. The expectation that kissing will be fun when it is not feels almost insulting. Where are my exceptional feelings? Where is the sparkle?Later he has my shirt undone in the backseat of Sketch’s car, and I still feel nothing. The closest I get to having a feeling is a low-level hum of anger. I’m not certain why. An excuse comes to me. I have homework, I say. Big project.I jump out of the car. By the time I get home, I’ve salvaged some resolve, some dignity.I will find new friends.But then Sandy crawls in through my window in the middle of the night. I am startled to see her legs dangling from the window, landing clumsily in a pile of my dirty clothes.You know my uncle is crazy, I say, you shouldn’t sneak around out there!Sandy doesn’t respond, just curls up around me.Take off your dirty boots, I say, but she is fast asleep already. I untie each one, line them up against the wall, stare at the glowing sticker stars on my ceiling.*Late morning. Sandy and I walk into the kitchen. My parents are both at the table. They appear to be sweating, even though it isn’t hot.Hey Mrs. Stockall, Sandy says, so sweet. It works on everyone. Not my mom.Sandy, you need to go home. Now.Later I will learn my mother blames Sandy. Her voice on the video. That’s the one she won’t forgive or understand.*It’s nothing. It was nothing. It was stupid. I drank a whole bottle. I don’t remember anything. No, no, no. Not like that. He says it was my idea. Don’t overreact. My god. Just chill. I’m sorry but it wasn’t like I was a virgin or something. Stop acting like this is the end of the world. If you act like this is the end of the world, that’s what it becomes.*I am pulled out of school for a week. For my own good. I am not allowed to see Sandy. My father wants to call the police. What kind of name is Sketch anyway? The name of someone who should be in jail.Don’t, please don’t. Everyone has a camera now. This just happens. It’s no one’s fault.My mother rubs my back, says she is sorry it happened, tells me she has made an appointment with a professional.Later I hear, how can she think it’s no one’s fault? I hear glass smashing. A hole in the pantry wall the size of her hand. How much more clear can it be?[[{"fid":"6701156","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"1573","width":"1608","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]I just want everyone to drop it. It’s over. It was a hundred years ago. I say this to Sandy at Shoppers, where I pretended to bump into her.We try on lip gloss. I read the name on the tube: Cathedral. Her pinkie finger dabs my top lip to mark a cupid’s bow.Yeah. Plus, Sketch is so worried. He went tree-planting to avoid it. He’s going to write me letters. This is so hard on him.How did it get out anyway? It was on my phone. I deleted it.You saw it?Yeah.Sandy puckers, looks at whether Ladylike suits her lips in the cheap slice of mirror. It doesn’t.I didn’t know that. I didn’t even know about it. You weren’t mad?I don’t know what I felt. I just wanted it gone.I saw you kiss him first, you know. You seemed really into him.Maybe I was.I don’t know why everyone is freaking out about it.Yeah. Well, it was a shitty thing of Sketch to do, to make a video.Sandy’s face doesn’t change as she applies another layer, so I press: It was a totally asshole thing to do in the first place.Sandy wipes her lips with the back of her hand. Well, we were all pretty drunk. Everybody does stupid stuff when they’re drunk. And it was Tyler’s girlfriend who leaked it. Tyler must have sent the video to himself.Tyler doesn’t have a girlfriend. I’m his girlfriend.This is the first time I experience a flicker of feelings for Tyler.I guess he just hadn’t broken up with her yet? He said he was going to. Apparently she’s just so dramatic, he didn’t want to make a big deal of it. Then she went through his phone, so.Right.You have lipstick on your teeth. Here’s a trick. She puts her index finger in her mouth like she’s sucking it, then pops it out. Won’t happen again if you do this every time.*Tyler’s texts are relentless and complimentary. I’ve never loved anyone like you. You’re so beautiful. I’m sorry. She’s crazy, my ex. So crazy.I don’t respond, but he’s used to that. It doesn’t dissuade him from sending song lyrics, declarations, endless emojis.Eventually he writes: Just say one thing. Just one thing so I know you’ve read this. I need to know you’ve forgiven me.I send him a bullseye emoji.What’s that mean!?!I flash on all the people who may have seen the video, my heavy pebble eyes, face like a slow blur. Somehow that’s worse than the porn shots. If only they’d left my face out of it. I could have just been any girl, no girl; detached, meaningless.I text: Tyler, I think you’re boring.After an initial blurt of question marks, lines of awkward LOLs, eventually he replies: you just can’t forgive me yet. Let me make it up to you.I delete the texts.My mom takes my phone at every opportunity, reading every new text or email while I stand, arms crossed.It’s for your own good. Some day you’ll thank me.I wear my shortest skirt and my smallest crop top to school. She doesn’t say anything about it anymore. I spend the weekend working at the Pearl’s and watching documentaries with Uncle Marty. He’s not drinking, so he barely speaks.He spears honeydew chunks and cocktail onions with a toothpick, both swimming in a sweet and sour liquid sliding around in the toaster oven tray he eats off of. He’s wearing my mom’s old bathrobe.We’re watching Gilmore Girls. Now that’s the perfect woman, he says suddenly, pausing the screen and pointing to Lorelai Gilmore. We’d just watched two episodes in silence. Are you going to tell me what’s wrong with you these days, Morgan?I shake my head.He shrugs. It never really helps to do that anyway. People will tell you it does, but it doesn’t. It makes the person listening feel good that they listened.So what does help?Marty offers me an onion.Vigilance.He un-pauses the show.[[{"fid":"6701151","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"1573","width":"1608","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Once strangers have seen you naked, it kind of breaks you open, frees something up. Everyone else is having nightmares about walking into class with no clothes. That’s already happened to me. I can move on to worrying about getting in to college or my inevitable death.Whenever a girl gives me side-eye, I think about saying, you have a pussy. I have one. Get over it.No one says anything about Tyler’s cock, his slits for eyes, his exuberant grin, or his high-five with Sketch.*TYLER WITH THE COOL HAIR sends seventeen texts, all mostly invitations to come out. I’m at the half-pipe and I’m so sad here without you.Finally I write, I don’t want to go out. I don’t want to see you.But I love you, he writes, I have to see you.I don’t answer while Uncle Marty and I make our way through several episodes, wordless again, finishing every pickle in the fridge. My tongue is cold and hurts by the time I fall asleep in front of the TV.I wake with a start to a vibration from my phone.I’m outside your window. Come out.Go home, Tyler, I text. I begin to snuggle back under the flannel couch throw when the motion lights flicker outside, and I note the sliding patio door askew, the absence of a deep snore from Uncle Marty on the adjacent couch.I’m up, running, trying to stop what I know could happen, and it sounds like a crack of lightning in the sky when it does.
‘Information is Always Currency’: An Interview with Don Winslow

Talking with the author of The Force about the real origins of mass incarceration, levels of corruption in law enforcement, and the most difficult conversations he’s had with police officers.

Don Winslow hit a career peak, commercially and artistically, with 2015’s The Cartel. The Mexican drug wars, fueled by the American appetite for narcotics, with its city-and-village razing violence, killings both indiscriminate and calculated, radiates from its pages to a degree matched only by committed non-fiction accounts like Alfred Corchado’s Midnight in Mexico. Winslow has been careful to point to his debt to the journalists and on-the-ground writers in Mexico who made the profound research that went into The Cartel possible, even embedding heroic and extremely human journalists into the novel itself; Winslow didn’t risk death, while the men and women reporting cartel activities did.Accountability—more basically, more brutally, the idea of paying for what you write, do, steal, say—is a big part of Winslow’s work. The Force, Winslow’s latest novel, asks big questions about who pays for police corruption, who pays for police violence against African-Americans in urban cities, who pays for the handshake favours and agreements that keep civic political and criminal organizations doing business as usual.Born in New York and raised in Rhode Island, Winslow has spent much of his writing career in California, but the city where he was born, watched and read great crime thrillers, and finally became a private investigator, is where his The Force is set—where, maybe, it had to be set.Talking about cops, talking about right-now, talking about who’s dying—a corrupt-cop book in 2017 has to be personal, as well as excessively well-researched, if it’s going to be good. For Winslow, talking policing and making it personal means New York City. For Denny Malone, the book’s complexly corrupt elite cop hero, Manhattan North is an identity and a territory he has to protect even as he continually exploits the job for every illegitimate dollar he can safely gather—until he comes to understand that no level of caution can keep him completely safe.*Naben Ruthnum: Why do you start The Force with Denny Malone in prison and then backtrack?Don Winslow: That was a real internal debate for me. I argued with myself a lot about it; I originally didn’t write it that way. It’s the only book I’ve ever written with one person’s point of view. Even though it’s in the third person, it never leaves Malone through the whole book. I’ve never done a book like that before. It’s frankly easier to cut away—easier structurally—but I wanted the reader to be in this cage, in this dilemma, in this trap with Denny, right from moment one, and then just keep them there ’til the end.I didn’t want to write a “what happens” book, I wanted to write a “how did it happen” book.Denny talks about how being a cop where he works, in New York City, is part show-business—the mobsters in The Force grew up imitating movie gangsters, and the cop characters knowingly mock this. But who, onscreen, are your cops modeling themselves after? Who are they trying to be?Like anybody else in the culture, we all grew up with police on TV. That cultural life-imitates-art/art-imitates-life keeps flipping back and forth. Those guys [in The Force], they watched Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, The Shield—those classic TV series. And in a sense, that informed who they are, formed their public persona.Cops on the street definitely know that they have to give a performance. Sometimes it’s charm, sometimes it’s persuasion, sometimes it’s to calm people down—but other times it’s to jack people up, to intimidate. They definitely know that, to a certain extent, they’re actors.Denny Malone talks about Serpico—Frank Serpico himself, that is. [Officer Serpico reported institution-wide police corruption in late 1960’s New York, his honesty making him a pariah in much of the NYPD.] But that got me thinking, Malone and the other cops on his task force have probably seen Serpico, Prince of the City, Q & A—these classic cop films about corruption. Beyond those cop shows, are these corruption-focused movies part of their makeup, too?Absolutely. Those pieces that you mentioned were part of my inspiration for writing the book—I grew up on the movies you’re talking about. Part of what I was trying to do was write a story in that vein, but give it a contemporary setting and a contemporary feel. [Denny and the other cops] are very aware of those cultural icons—and they’re very aware of the history of police corruption in New York City.I presume that going into a lot of the interviews you did with cops for research—both the cops who were your friends and the ones you were just interviewing—they knew that you were writing a book about quote-unquote dirty, “bad” cops. I say quote-unquote because the morals in this book, like your others, aren’t cut-and-dry. How did this knowledge of what you were going to be writing about affect what they were willing to tell you?Well, that’s a very closed society. Know what I mean? Cops have a reflex which I absolutely understand, I can’t argue with it: to be defensive. You need to remember that that’s a world where information is currency. Whether it’s information they have about a case, about a suspect, about each other, about internal politics inside of a precinct house or inside the department, information is always currency. So, they have a reflexive habit of protecting. And then, when you start talking about things like corruption, that heightens the tension.But like any relationship, I don’t care if it’s a source, or a friendship, or a marriage, or a parent-child relationship: there’s no substitute for time. I’m never going to start an interview saying, “Hey, whaddya think about police corruption?” That’s a bad idea. I use the same sort of interview technique that I used as an investigator. I try to ask as few questions as possible, and I try to start them out as broadly as possible.I would typically, with someone I had recently met, say, “Tell me about being a cop.” When you start an interview that way, what you always get is what’s foremost on their minds. If you start an interview with your own questions, you’re already shaping the perception into something you already know.You walk a bit of tightrope, then—because, as you said, they’re not forthcoming interview subjects. You’re asking these broad questions, then you need to encourage these cops to elaborate at the right moment.I wouldn’t call it a tightrope. I’m not a journalist, I’m not doing an exposé, I’m not going to a grand jury. I’m a fiction writer, and they know that. They know that the characters are fictional—so I never felt it was any kind of a tightrope.Look, there are times I’d have to ask some tough questions. Corruption was not the toughest part: the toughest questions were asking about police shootings of young unarmed African-American men. Those are tough questions. Everyone knows that there’s corruption, historically, in big-city police departments. And most cops are pretty clear-eyed about that. They’re not naive. I add that most cops, of course, are clean.That’s an interesting aspect as well—because we’re focalized through Denny Malone’s viewpoint in The Force, a reader can emerge from the book with the idea that it’s near-impossible to be a clean cop and have an ambitious, rising career. But you’re saying that that’s not the case?That’s not universally the case. I know a lot of cops who’ve had heavy careers, high-ranking officers, who are absolutely squeaky clean. At the same time, the politics of any big city or even small-town police department are always going to require the exchange of favours. Now, sometimes those favours are perfectly legitimate—but they’re still favours. There is no free lunch. You get a favour from someone, you’re laying down a marker that will be picked up, trust me.There’s another kind of corruption—we have to distinguish. When you’re talking about police corruption, you’re talking about two separate issues. There’s financial corruption, which is pretty cut-and-dry: you take money or you don’t take money. You steal stuff from a crime site or you don’t. But the other kind of corruption, the type that’s related to getting your job done, which you alluded to in your question—there is a tremendous temptation, either for career reasons or for, believe it or not, ethical reasons, to cut corners, to lie on the stand, to do these sorts of evidentiary things to put someone away that you know either has or is going to hurt somebody.I’ve had cops tell me these stories. I had a cop tell me about going to a domestic disturbance, wanting to get that guy out of there and not doing it because he didn’t have a legal pretext to do it, and then having to go back to that same address six weeks later because of the homicide case, where the guy did kill his wife. That’s not an uncommon story.In a lot of these precincts, they know—believe it or not, it’s a small number—the 80 or 90 individuals who live there and who cause 85 percent of the crime. They know who they are—they’ve got their pictures up in the back room, where you can’t see. They know who these people are, and they know they’re going to hurt someone, they’re going to rob someone, they’re going to cause problems for the vast majority of people who live in these poorer precincts, who are just trying to get through their lives, raise their kids. There’s a great temptation for that second kind of corruption, to cut a corner, to lie about what you saw, so you have a pretext for bringing somebody in.When you said it’s a very small collection of individuals who drive 85 percent of the crime, I assumed you were talking about the drivers of organized crime—but you’re actually just talking about just people on the street who are carrying out crimes.OC—organized crime—is a different topic. [Cops] know the OC guys living in their precinct, but these guys are rarely committing crimes in your precinct. They live there, they might operate there, but the crimes are bigger things—and organized crime guys don’t defecate where they eat. If you want to get yourself killed, go ahead and sell dope on the block where the local OC guy lives. That can be a death sentence. But the OC guy has no problem selling dope two miles away.On this organized crime tip—you’re just off The Cartel, and I felt unsurprised to see The Force become, at least partially, a drug novel. Not because that’s “what you do,” but because a crime novel at a certain level, when you’re talking about institutions in America, has to become a drug novel, because that economy is embedded.Exactly. It’s difficult to write a novel about big-city policing, whether it’s New York or Chicago, or anywhere else, without writing about drugs. In 2016, it’s disingenuous to write that novel without writing about the heroin epidemic.I’d rather not have been writing about drugs, frankly—but that’s just what it is.You say the most difficult conversations you had were about race, about the shooting of young black men. Were you talking to people other than cops?I wanted to write about the race issue—if you’re going to write about a big-city police department in 2014-2016, when I was writing the novel, you have to write about race. You just do. It’s the reality of our times, and that’s going to be a sensitive and difficult subject on every level. Whether you’re talking to white cops or black cops or Hispanic cops, or people in the community, it’s a difficult subject.It’s America’s original sin. I often say the era of mass incarceration didn’t begin in 1993, it began in 1690: it was called slavery. And for at least two hundred years of our country’s history, the police were not used to enforce laws to protect black people: they were used to enforce laws to enslave black people.I know this is not your problem to solve, but can non-racist policing exist?I think it’s a matter of time. I think it’s a generational issue, and I think it will get better. When you talk to cops, more forward-thinking police, what they tell you is that this is a recruiting issue and a training issue. Some people shouldn’t be cops, because either they’re overt racists, or they have—as we all do—conscious or semi-conscious biases. We all come from the same society, so if you ask me are cops racist, I say yes—just no less and no more than the society from which they come. The difference is, with a cop with a gun, that unconscious bias can become lethal.Denny does a certain part of policing well, though he does cut corners, indulging in that second type of corruption you were talking about, taking shortcuts for reasons he believes to be ethical. Malone cares, deeply, about his community. That’s why I’m always putting quotes around “dirty cop” and “bad cop” here. Denny thinks he is trying to be a good cop, and he is succeeding in some ways.I think about character—I never think about good or bad, or anti-hero or those things. It’s not my job to make those judgments. My job is to bring people into a world that they otherwise couldn’t enter, and show them that world through those people’s eyes. So when I’m sitting down to type, I’m never making those judgments.Denny’s a complicated guy, but most human beings are. As a fiction writer, it’s not useful to label people—but when I’m not on the job, I might have my own opinions.
Magic Can Be Normal

Why seek out examples of representation in art and culture for my kids as if their lives and identities depend on it? Because I’m convinced they might.

I was nine or ten years old when I saw Twelfth Night—my first Shakespeare play—at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. By then I knew what a protagonist looked like (white, thin, conventionally attractive), and I knew I was supposed to care most about the talented and golden-haired young woman playing both Viola and her twin brother Sebastian. But the actor playing Olivia happened to be Asian—the first Asian actor I had ever seen onstage, and one of precious few I’d noticed anywhere. Regal and beautiful in her long black dress, I watched her sweep across the stage with a sense of wonder and expanding, exciting possibility I didn’t yet know how to name.I like to refer to the OSF as “my hometown Shakespeare festival,” even though Ashland, Oregon is technically not my hometown, just near it, and when I was growing up my family could almost never afford tickets. Last year, when Julie Cortez in the OSF communications office connected with me via the sorcery of Twitter, I was already planning a summer visit home and seized her offer of complimentary tickets with a flurry of grateful exclamation points. Then I wondered: Should I take my kids to the theatre, too? My then-five-year-old was too young, I decided, and would fall asleep an hour into the play. But my eight-year-old was only a year or two younger than I had been when I was introduced to Shakespeare; she’d been reading chapter books since kindergarten; she could probably infer a great deal, even if she missed a lot of the dialogue.As I clicked through the season’s offerings online, I found myself reading with an eye toward which of the productions might be, if not kid-friendly, then at least kid-accessible. The image for The Winter’s Tale immediately caught my eye: Queen Hermione, half herself and half in marble, a statue blooming to life. This Hermione, I saw, was played by a Korean American actor named Amy Kim Waschke. The production, directed by Desdemona Chiang, was described as The Winter’s Tale “from an Asian and Asian American perspective,” and the cast featured Asian American artists in a majority of the lead roles.I felt sure my serious, bookish older child was enough like me to enjoy her first Shakespeare play. I talked with a friend back home who’d already seen the production; he assured me there was nothing in it an eight-year-old couldn’t handle. Maybe warn her about the bear? he suggested. My mother asked why I didn’t just take her to see Twelfth Night instead.Of course, I thought, I could do that; Twelfth Night is livelier, funnier, and there are no bears. At first blush, bringing an eight-year-old to one of William Shakespeare’s quirkier plays in an effort to help her see herself, an Asian American girl, in popular culture did seem a rather odd decision. But then I remembered the flash of delighted surprise I felt when I saw my first Olivia: the same surprise I felt, still feel, whenever I catch a glimpse of a fellow Asian in a place I did not expect.*Thanks to the books I read and the shows I watched as a kid, I was convinced that whiteness was practically a prerequisite for agency, adulation, protagonism in a story. Now that I’m a parent, I sometimes wonder if that’s what my kids will think, too, despite everything we tell them to the contrary. Sure, it’s a little better than it once was, but pop culture is still so lacking in the diversity—the reality—kids deserve. What and who does my daughter see reflected most often in the novels she devours? How often do my kids find themselves in the media they consume?Last year, when the hashtag #WhitewashedOut drew attention to controversial film casting decisions and the still-sorry (if slowly improving) state of Asian American representation in pop culture, I tweeted something about how I wanted better than this for my children. I’m an adult, after all; I can deal with a degree of invisibility—I’m used to it. But children need and deserve to feel important, to feel seen. My tweet, which truly seemed like the most innocuous, unassuming thing I could have contributed to the discussion, led to me blocking racist abuse for days and garnered me my first Twitter death threat.I get tired of thinking about this, tired of talking about it, tired of the rage I encounter when I do. Occasionally I give up on searching for new movies or shows for the kids, which is why we watch Moana and Big Hero 6 (still the only movie my children have ever seen that features a multiracial Asian kid like them) over and over and over. I keep a list of Asian American children’s book authors, and pester friends for recommendations—bonus points if the stories don’t all revolve around cultural conflict or racial trauma. I buy every book I can find with an Asian American girl protagonist. For all my effort, it still comes to probably less than one percent of what my kids read.Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that when I had the chance to take my daughter to see a company teeming with Asian American Shakespeareans, I grabbed it—even if it was “too weird” and “too old” for her; even if the original source material wasn’t written with her in mind at all. She didn’t know anything about the play, but she knew she would get to stay up very, very late, so of course she wanted to go. I bought her an abridged version of The Winter’s Tale written for children, dreamy fairy-tale illustrations filling every page, so she would go in with a basic grasp of the plot. She might not know Shakespeare yet, I thought, but she would—she’d be assigned his plays in school and see them performed onstage, on film. And now she would always be able to look back and recall that the first time she ever saw a Shakespearean play, many of the people bringing the story to life before her eyes were Asian American. Just like her.*Our seats were just eight or ten rows back in the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre. My daughter and I dressed up for the play—she wore a new navy-blue dress with white polka dots—though it was southern Oregon and no one cared what we wore. I bought popcorn and cookies and bottled water from the concessions counter, and the two of us snapped selfies while waiting for the trumpet fanfare that would announce curtain time.The first time my daughter tugged my sleeve was when the girl playing Prince Mamillius (Naomi Nelson) appeared in the first scene; though my daughter knew the prince’s fate, she was still so excited to see this child actor around her own age, who actually resembled her a little, running around onstage in costume. She nudged me again when Paulina (played Miriam A. Laube) let loose, upbraiding King Leontes (Eric Steinberg) for allowing his jealousy to destroy his family—What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me? My daughter could tell it was an important scene, but couldn’t follow the dialogue. “She’s saying that he’s a big jerk,” I murmured. “Now she’s listing all the reasons why he’s a big jerk.”From the high drama of Leontes’s rage to the depths of his grief, we watched for the revelation of Perdita, her restoration to her family. I don’t go home often, so for me it was Perdita’s absence and her strange homecoming, accidental and unlooked-for, that resonated more than anything else. In our production, Perdita was played by a wonderful actor named Cindy Im, whose singing talents were on display during a Bohemian hoedown scene (this was likely the only production of The Winter’s Tale to ever feature a hoedown). Just as she did for Mamillius and for Hermione, my daughter perked up during all of Perdita’s speeches and songs. Later, she would tell me Perdita was her favorite.As we watched actors of three different generations portray mother, father, daughter, and little son, I tried to remember the last time I saw so many Asian American women in a single work. After a while, though, I realized I was focusing less and less on the fact that they were Asian. It wasn’t that I stopped noticing or caring. But after the initial surprise wears off, seeing so many Asian American actors at once becomes utterly unexceptional. They simply are their characters, as all skilled actors are when performing; their presence makes a perfect kind of sense. As we watched not one but so many Asian American artists command the stage, feuding and scheming and falling in love as great characters do, it made me wonder why something so easy has to be so rare.Stars shone high above the stage by the time the company took their bows. My sleepy child told me that she didn’t believe Hermione was alive all along, in hiding and pretending to be a statue. She thought the queen had died, and then been revived by magic. “You said this story was kind of like a fairy tale,” she said, “and in fairy tales, magic isn’t strange at all. It’s just normal.”*“I feel there are two distinct parts of myself, an American me and a Chinese me,” says Desdemona Chiang, who directed the production of The Winter’s Tale my daughter and I saw at OSF. She was born in Taiwan and moved to the U.S. at age three, and describes her upbringing in southern California as “a classic hyphenated experience.” “When I was thinking about The Winter’s Tale, I kept thinking about these two places, Sicilia and Bohemia, how the play is really about dual cultures, polarity—cold and warm, kings and peasants,” she tells me. “I thought, what if we add East and West?”In the production, Bohemia is a multicultural New World immigrant utopia, and Sicilia is “a kind of Asian Pangaea” represented by a diverse group of Asian American artists. “When you cast an all-white cast, you’re casting a racially specific show, too—we just don’t think of it that way because we’ve normalized whiteness in this country,” Chiang says. “With race-conscious casting, like we had, we’re not ignoring race. We had all these different aspects of Asianness in the company: a Korean Hermione, Korean and Filipino lords, a South Asian Paulina. So Asian American identity, the nuances of diaspora and migration—all of these topics were part of the conversation with the company from the beginning.”It was important to Chiang to have a predominantly Asian American creative/design team as well, including dramaturg Gina Pisasale and costume designer Helen Q. Huang. “Representation is about the bodies on the stage, yes, but who makes the choices about what plays to produce in the first place? Who’s directing, who’s designing the sets and costumes, who’s doing the casting?” For Pisasale, it was the first time she had been in a room with so many Asian theatre artists. “The joy in the rehearsal room was real,” she says. “Beyond telling the story, many of us were also thinking about our own relationship to our history and our Asianness and how to bring those things into this production.”When I tell Chiang how thrilled my daughter was to see Perdita and Mamillius, she says she had a similar experience attending a high school production of Twelve Angry Men. “It was Twelve Angry Jurors,” she explains, “because there were also girls in the company. The lead juror was a young Asian woman. And I had this amazing moment: ‘oh my god, someone who looks like me is playing this important character onstage.’”Chiang and Pisasale highlight the importance of supporting Asian American creators and playwrights and ensuring their works are part of the theatre ecosystem. Yet as Pisasale points out, presenting an iconic work of Shakespeare’s from an Asian and Asian American perspective can help poke holes in the very idea of “the Western canon” and what it means—and such interrogation is a good, even necessary thing. “Making these bodies visible onstage is a huge political and artistic step forward,” she says. “What I always think, and what I think about even more since the election, is the larger global and national and local context for what we see onstage. When you’re asked to bring your full self to an artistic collaboration, instead of only the Asian part or only the artist part—there’s something liberating in that. From the audience perspective, it’s important because of possibility: This wasn’t possible before, and now it is, and we go from here. Your daughter’s experience is why it’s important.”*There are so many different types of inheritances; one I still hope my children can somehow sidestep is the void, the frustration of desperately searching for yourself, or people like you, in a cultural landscape that does not seem to be for you. And what does it say about you, about your worth and your importance and the possibilities open to you, if you can’t find yourself at all? Something I think about, often, as I watch my multiracial Asian American kids growing up in Trump’s America: There are millions of racist people in this country; millions of reasons for them to want to be white. Against the current political backdrop, my kids are already observing, acquiring so many products doled out by Hollywood, book publishers, the media—products full of insidious and unsubtle messages about what and who is most important, desirable, praiseworthy. My older daughter is well aware of precisely who this administration stacked with grade-school bullies views as worthwhile, “real Americans.”I worry a little more these days because my children aren’t white; I also worry because one day, regardless, they could still attempt to seek the privilege and safety of whiteness—or as much of it as the white people around them will allow. It’s not a choice I’d ever want them to make. But I would not have to ask why they made it.I don’t know if my urgent attempts to find them the stories and examples I never had—even if there still aren’t enough of them—will make any kind of difference at all as they grow and learn who they are and where they belong. I don’t know how much I can help them feel important, seen as they are, without limitation or a care for other people’s biases. But I know I will continue to seek out these examples of representation for them as if their lives and identities depend upon it, because I’m convinced they might.I’m still glad that, from now on, when my daughter thinks of Shakespeare, she’ll be able to imagine Asian American players. I will always remember the Olivia I watched, years ago, in such thrall; what it meant to see someone who looked a little like me sweep across the stage wearing a gorgeous costume, speaking beautiful words I barely understood, on her way to securing her love and her due. As my bibliophile daughters grow up, as they go on their own pagebound adventures, I want them to believe that these works of art and imagination belong to them as much as anyone else. I want them to be able to envision stage after stage, world after world of people they, too, can become.
The Picture of Health in Northeast Ohio

The Cleveland Indians are young and robust, but in a part of America increasingly known for stories about the ravages of opioids, not even baseball is quarantined from issues of health care.

Paint the Corners is a monthly column about baseball.On the day before the All-Star break, the Cleveland Indians played their first Sunday night home game in eight years, and under very different circumstances than the previous one. The Tribe of 2009 was on its way to losing nearly 100 games; the 2017 Indians are defending a pennant after an agonizingly close World Series, their first since 1997. They improved more than the Cubs in the offseason, too, adding Blue Jays tater-specialist Edwin Encarnación to a lineup that lacked only for power. And after a 28-29 start, Cleveland finally clicked into gear over the last month. They entered the Sunday game at 47-39, good enough for a 2.5-game lead in the AL Central, and were set to send three starters and two reserves to Miami’s All-Star field of dreams, a tie for most of any team.O Cleveland! The news gets better. Other than season-ending elbow surgery for pitcher Cody Anderson, the Indians have been lucky, injury-wise. They are what every baseball team—indeed, every human being—wants to be: young and healthy. Take it from star second baseman Jason Kipnis, who told the Player’s Tribune that he emotionally recovered during the offseason by remembering, “It’d be one thing to lose a World Series like that with a team of mostly older guys or players who were about to become free agents… But it’s different when you’re a younger team, or when you’re actually in the process of adding pieces for future seasons.”During that Sunday-night game, Jim Rosenhaus, lead broadcaster for the Cleveland Clinic Indians Radio Network, agreed: the future is bright. Rosenhaus spent long stretches of the early innings admiring the team’s collective youth and the strength of their farm system. In his perfectly calibrated baseball-man timbre, Rosenhaus assured his listeners: “Lots of reasons to feel optimistic in Northeast Ohio.”That must be a relief to hear, since Northeast Ohio, the purplest region of the country’s most crucial swing state, is more often embroiled in one political argument or another. Cleveland and environs have been held up as the capital of Rust Belt decline for decades now, leading to outsize commentary on every factory closing. And increasingly, the region is best known as the setting for nightmarish reportage about the ravages of opioids. According to the Plain-Dealer, “this year, 860 overdose cases are predicted in [Cuyahoga] county,” where Cleveland is the county seat, “a 152 percent increase since 2013 and up from roughly 600 cases last year.” Mother Jones reports that in Ashtabula County, about 50 miles east on Lake Erie, “the number of children in court custody quadrupled from 69 in 2014 to 279 last year,” largely from parental overdoses and rehab stints.Almost exactly a year ago, Donald Trump told a Columbus audience that he felt their pain. “I’m going to stop it,” he said of the opioid crisis, “We’re going to spend the money, we’re gonna get that habit broken.” I doubt he’s read the health care bill that colloquially bears his name, but the first Senate version of Trumpcare infamously cut almost $800 billion from Medicaid, which treats about 30 percent of the country’s addicts and provides health insurance to about one-fifth of Ohioans. Medicaid also supplies about half of the state’s prescriptions of buprenorphine, commonly used to treat opioid addiction. Senator Rob Portman was skeptical of that bill out of concern for its effects on people with opioid addictions in his state, but Mitch McConnell appears to have wooed him with some dedicated, if insufficient, funding for the issue in the newest version. For suckered Trump voters in Northeast Ohio, it’s apparently all too true that “nothing is given.”Residents of the Forest City haven’t taken this in stride. Protesters have swarmed all of Portman’s offices throughout the state, including the one in Cleveland, and one advocacy group, UltraViolet, even got a plane to fly over an Indians game in June, trailing a banner that warned: “SENATOR PORTMAN: TRUMPCARE HURTS WOMEN.”The Indians, as one would expect, haven’t touched this topic; what sports team could? And fun as they are to watch on the field, the Indians aren’t the overtly lovable or personality-driven kind of great team. Their players aren’t known for big statements or flashy wardrobe choices. The franchise stud is comically stoic ace Cory Kluber, whose face is so inexpressive he could pass for a Guardian of Traffic on the Hope Memorial Bridge.But nothing, not even baseball, is fully quarantined from health care in this part of Ohio. Recall that Jim Rosenhaus’s employer is sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic, one of the premier medical facilities in the world and one of the city’s main economic engines. With annual gross revenue of $9.14 billion and recent expansions to Florida, Toronto, and Abu Dhabi, the Cleveland Clinic is arguably the best-known ambassador for the city’s name besides LeBron James. Their success is so great that Trump invited CEO Dr. Toby Cosgrove, who presided over the international expansions and boosted the Clinic’s revenue, to join a business council that also includes Jamie Dimon and Disney chief Bob Iger.Cosgrove has been publicly critical of this year’s GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, though he has delicately avoided full-throated endorsement of the ACA as well. His association with the president has drawn widespread rebuke, especially after one of his own doctors was prevented from reentering the country as a result of the Muslim ban. Cosgrove announced in May that he is stepping down from his role at the Clinic, though he will remain an advisor to Trump. He leaves behind a business that is monumentally wealthy and growing, serving a community whose efforts to fight an epidemic are being endangered by men who will never lack for medical care in their lives.*At that Sunday night game, the Indians were missing one crucial part of their personnel. Manager Terry Francona was recovering from a coronary ablation to correct an irregular heartbeat. The procedure was performed (where else?) at the Cleveland Clinic, and though everything went as planned, he stayed at home through the All-Star Game to recover.Francona is a delight, one of the most colorful and respected managers in the game. He’s also celebrated for his famously unhealthy appetites, from a daily mouthful of tobacco that has claimed at least one of his dental crowns to a propensity for late-night sugar binges that would shame a stoned OU freshman. There’s no reason to think that this recent heart problem resulted from his room-service habits, but Francona treats his teeth and stomach with a jolly abandon that only a rich man can manage.In a rightfully renowned essay on the relationship between poverty and dental health, Kansas writer Sarah Smarsh notes that nearly half the U.S. population lives without dental insurance, and those that have it usually forego treatments anyway because of high premiums. In the course of her own working-class childhood, she was warned to brush every day and never eat candy. “My family’s distress over our teeth—what food might hurt or save them, whether having them pulled was a mistake,” she writes, “reveals the psychological hell of having poor teeth in a rich, capitalist country: the underprivileged are priced out of the dental-treatment system yet perversely held responsible for their dental condition… Often, bad teeth are blamed solely on the habits and choices of their owners, and for the poor therein lies an undue shaming.”“Privileged America, ever striving for organic purity,” Smarsh continues, “judges harshly the mouths that chew orange Doritos, drink yellow Mountain Dew, breathe with a sawdust rattle, carry a lower lip’s worth of brown chaw, use dirty words and bad grammar.” I’d only add: unless those mouths are in a major league dugout. Fewer players may dip these days, and MLB has caught on to the training benefits of dietary nutrition, but baseball has always been a sport that celebrates regular-guyness and even unhealthiness. Years of steady sunflower seed and chewing gum consumption—not to mention daily Gatorade intake—would seem ill-advised for people in any other line of work, especially anyone without the money for a dentist. Certainly there are many people who listen to the Cleveland Clinic Indians Radio Network who couldn’t afford to be treated there. Certainly there are listeners who don’t have the security to gobble ice cream and Skoal with impunity. Bad habits aren’t cute affectations when the consequences might bankrupt you or worse.Whatever their coverage level, anyone listening on Sunday night heard Kluber pitch a disappointing game, walking three Detroit Tigers in only five innings while ending his streak of ten-strikeout starts. For the second game in a row, his offense fizzled behind him, and eventually the team took their fortieth loss, 5-3. A disappointment, but no matter. The Indians have something no single setback can erase, something enviable and rare, especially in Northeast Ohio: optimism for their long-term health.
‘Here Lies a Bitch Who Loved Convenience’: An Interview with Samantha Irby

The author of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life on being a New York Times Best Seller, ordering off the dollar menu, and pickling. 

The fallacy about reading a (great) collection of personal essays is that you think you actually know the person who wrote them in an intimate way. In reality, what you have is a sense of someone, a few good stories and a narrative the writer is choosing to present. Even still, when I met Samantha Irby, author of the New York Times best-selling We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, a few weeks ago in Chicago, I did somehow feel like I knew her. Maybe that’s because her second essay collection is filled with stories both embarrassing and sweet: anecdotes about dating men who treated her like shit, her father’s physical abuse, and perhaps her best work, pooping her pants inside some dude’s car while in college.But even if you don’t know Irby from her books, you might know her from her popular blog bitches gotta eat, where she writes in lowercase only, “if the hotdog-scented thigh meat wafting up from the sun-dappled sidewalks of my fair city are any indication, SUMMERTIME IS FINALLY UPON US.” And in addition to two books, a prolific blog, and the only good Facebook page known to man, FX is developing her first book Meaty into a half-hour series with Jessi Klein and Abbi Jacobson.She’s busy, but she did, somehow, find time to let me bother her with some questions.*Scaachi Koul: SAM. HI. It’s me, Scaachi. Do you remember me?Samantha Irby: Kind of...? I mean, I think so? You're the one with the glasses, right?Sufficient memory. The last time I saw you, I bought a copy of your first book, Meaty, and you told me not to because you said—and I think I am recalling this correctly—it is garbage. It sounds like you don’t feel too hot about your first book. Why? I always hate everything I write as soon as it's finished, especially once it's published and there's no chance to go back and fix it, make it better. I am also very uncomfortable looking back at older versions of myself. Everything embarrasses me, all the time. And there's never a moment that I can look at something I've written without thinking, "That could be funnier. You could have used this word instead of that one. How could anyone have ever published this."I have an amazing opportunity, though: Vintage just bought Meaty and they're gonna let me make a few changes to it and rerelease it in the spring. I'm sure the minute it's published I'll be like, "UGH STILL TRASH WTF," but for now I'm feeling hopeful about it. I'll send you a copy with a note that says "less garbage-y than before."Okay, thank you, that would be an honour to receive. Your second book, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, hit the New York Times Best Seller list! I remember reading an interview with a bunch of stand-ups who talked about going on late night television, thinking it would change their lives, but the next day they just went back to normal. Has getting on the list changed your life in any tangible—or intangible—ways? Do you feel very powerful now?It hasn't changed my life in the least bit. Wait, let me rewind—my agents and editors are really happy? And among a very small group of artists and writers, I've achieved some kind of brag-worthy accomplishment? But, like, the barista at the coffee shop isn't screaming, "CLEAR A PATH FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLING AUTHOR" when I walk in. As a matter of fact, that dude is like, "Yo, is your card actually gonna go through today?" Because the realest deal is that this isn't the kind of distinction that comes with a cheque. As a matter of fact, I'm gonna make a T-shirt that says, "New York Times Best Seller ordering off the Dollar Menu." Or, "New York Times Best Seller and just negotiated for a cheaper cable TV package."As for my newfound power? Let's talk after we see what sort of ridiculous shit I can insert into my next book contract. I don't even give a shit about the money. Let's see if I can work "Do a tour of my friend's houses" in there.Okay, this is the most important question of this entire interview: why do you like writing about poop so much?I wish I didn't have to. But having IBD [Inflammatory Bowel Disease], for me, is like carrying an obnoxious toddler around with me all day, every day. "Is it too hot for little IBD? Is IBD gonna give me a problem sitting through this three-hour movie? What can I do to settle IBD down during this flight? Don't eat that near IBD, she's allergic!!" It's exhausting to spend so much time thinking about my guts, trying to anticipate what's going to set it off and ruin my life for an afternoon. I'm always thinking about what the bathroom is gonna be like, or how many hours the road trip is gonna take, or what new food might have a previously unknown trigger. But I always want my writing to be useful, and if I didn't get emails from women with Crohn's thanking me for my candor or women showing up to my readings crying because they can read about someone else's struggle with not being able to just, like, spontaneously dine, I wouldn't do it. Even though there are now commercials for diarrhea medicine on during the evening news there's still a huge stigma around the #2, it's still awkward to announce to someone you want to have sex with later that you've gotta take a shit in the middle of a date, and if my talking about it helps free some women even a little bit from the shame surrounded a perfectly natural function, then I'm gonna keep doing it.What’s the worst question you keep getting on your book tour? Is it this one?No, this is the best one, duh. The worst are probably questions about my wife's kids, because I have to keep giving the same non-answer that says “I'M NOT GONNA TALK ABOUT THIS” without being quite so blunt. I never want to make anyone feel bad and I understand the fascination with my life, so I always jokingly dance around it, but yeah—if no one would ever refer to me as a "parent" ever again that would be great.Well, forgive me, but speaking of your life, how long have you been in Kalamazoo? Do you like it? I know you used to live in Chicago so I am having trouble imagining you doing stuff in Kalamazoo. I feel like there’s a lot of fruit picking involved.My wife picks a lot of fruit but that shit feels too much like slavery to me so no thank you! So I'm from Evanston, a suburb of Chicago where John Cusack is also from, and Kalamazoo and Evanston are super similar: lots of natural food stores and well-meaning whites. So I don't really feel like a fish out of water because I already knew what teff was before I moved here a year ago.This sounds so stupid and I keep saying it, but the biggest adjustment is not having things available to me at all hours of the day. I mean, if you were hungry at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday in Chicago, I could tell you where to get food from. Good food, too, not just some lukewarm trash from a gas station. That's just not a thing here. If you want something, you have to get in your car and go get it, during business hours, and probably not on a Sunday.A few months before I left Chicago, my beloved television shorted out and because I can't spend even a minute without a television in my home, I Amazon Primed a new one that was delivered within two hours. This is exactly what the fuck technology is for! I'm not scared of the future if it means on-demand electronics delivery! But that is not my life now, now my life is figuring out which farmer has the best carrots for this pickling project I'd like to start. And I don't hate it as much as I expected to, at least not until I go to a city where bike messengers will deliver doughnuts in the middle of the night and there's an Apple store. My tombstone is gonna say, "Here Lies a Bitch Who Loved Convenience."I am very, very impressed that you’ve maintained your blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, while writing your book(s), and while doing a book tour. Is there something about blogging in particular that keeps you coming back to it? I feel like I’ve bailed on so many of my blogs but yours has this amazing velocity to it that you don’t see often, and certainly not while creating other work at the same time.You know what's hilarious? If I don't blog for a long time, which I feel like I haven't because I'm busy saving my best material for interviews like this one, people will tweet or email me like, "What's up bruh, are you ever gonna blog again?" And my kneejerk reaction is, "WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT I JUST WROTE A DAMN BOOK." I don't even have ads on my blog! Like, it's a free thing that's actually free that makes me zero money! There are eight years' worth of archives! Reread that old shit!!But I don't take anyone's support or interest for granted. I’m also the kind of person who immediately feels ashamed and like the biggest letdown human, so then I scrounge up something to write about while apologizing profusely and vowing to do better in the future. I feel like the last person on the planet with a blog, me and The Bloggess, but I don't know when I can end it. Especially since, and tell me if you feel the same way, I know that I have a product to sell? And even though it's gross and I don't really do it a lot, I need to at least maintain this outlet to peddle my wares? How do people who write books sell books now? I'm not doing videos or Snapchatting or whatever, so I guess until I'm done writing books I gotta dredge up shit for this blog? But not the super good shit, because I need to save that for a book?! The real answer is that I hope I just drop dead in the next couple years so I don't have to ever hear the words "branding" or "sales" ever again.At least we have your tombstone sorted out. When we last saw each other, we talked about our shared affection for makeup artists on YouTube. How did you get into beauty vloggers? Who do you think is the best and the worst? (Manny MUA is the worst, by the way.)MANNY MUA IS MY FAVORITE, SHUT YOUR IMMACULATELY LIPSTICKED MOUTH.I had no idea they were even a thing until a couple years ago when my friend Stephanie, who is the kind of beautiful creature who does a razor sharp winged eyeliner just to go to the grocery store, casually asked, "Have you ever heard of Jaclyn Hill?" And I hadn't, but I'm very, very into activities you can participate in alone in the dark in the comfort of your own home, so I watched some cut crease eyeshadow tutorial later that day and I was hooked. I watched almost every one of her videos, then I started watching Manny (shut up) and Jackie Aina and Nicole Guerrero and Jordan Hanz and Patrick Starrr, and basically these people are a regular part of my life now.I'm not sure I can really articulate their appeal to me, but I think it's equal parts straight up awe at the skill and artistry, the soothing effect of listening to funny, beautiful people with nice voices talking about camouflaging undereye circles, and the belief that I too could look this amazing if I just applied myself. Oh and also had the patience to properly blend a cream cheek contour. I love makeup but I've never figured out my right shades or whatever, and let's be honest, where do I even go that would require a brow bone highlight!? Beauty vloggers are my house flippers. There is no worst one, especially not Manny how even dare you, but my absolute favorite is Patrick. He looks like an exquisite painting.Something I really loved about your book that I haven’t seen done this successfully is that each essay feels like a brief, wonderful chat with someone you really like spending time with. I feel like that kind of writing requires a tremendous amount of restraint. Was it intentional that you wanted to keep the essays short? Did you aim to have them feel almost conversational?Okay, so, here we go again, but my approach is always to make my essays poop length. For a couple reasons: one, it's just practical. I understand that between Instagramming cute dinners and bleeding the planet's resources dry, people don't have a lot of time to devote to sitting down with whatever musings I have about my butthole, but everybody poops and most people like to keep a book handy for the toilet, and six or seven pages is just enough time to be entertained while getting your business done without worrying about your butt falling asleep. Same goes for a subway commute or keeping it on your bedside table—I know I've got a handful of pages in me before I pass out on top of the book, creasing it into oblivion, and I assume other people are like that, too?But, two, I sometimes feel like I am not smart enough to not lose my way when my pieces get too long. I'm good at rambling and taking a circuitous route to get to the point, and the more words there are, the more meandering I do. That's no good.Let’s end this with my favourite question to ask other writers: what’s your least favourite book?I really hate saying this because I read in an article that Barack Obama loved it and it was his favorite book of whatever year it came out but, goddamn, Fates and Furies really baffled me. I'm pretty sure it won a National Book Award—I could Google but I refuse11Editor's note: It was a finalist. Also, it was very good.—and I wanted to love it because so many smart and interesting people said they loved it but the entire time I was reading it I was like, WHY. I'm sure it's brilliant and that I'm actually too stupid to understand why but as soon as I finished it, I displayed it prominently on my shelf (I need to feel like people are impressed by my choices) and vowed to never touch it ever again.
My ‘Just In Case’ Inheritance

When I learned that the jewelry my family had given me over the years was a morbid kind of safety net, I came to dread my future every time I put on a piece of gold. 

India is the largest consumer of gold in the world. It works as the counterweight against the constant rise and fall of the rupee. Gold is a major cultural and social cornerstone: We wear gold to weddings and poojas, we give gold as gifts for newborn babies and newlyweds. When Indian businessman Datta Phuge wanted to show off his wealth he did it by ordering a custom gold shirt, worth 12.7 million rupees, or $240,000. It held 7.3 pounds of 22 karat gold and contained 14,000 faceted pieces. Three years after he made headlines for his shirt, he was beaten to death by 12 men over a money dispute. If the country’s love of gold is on one side and its poverty is on the other, violence is the cruel spectre flipping the coin.Gold is my family’s favorite gift to give. When my mom was pregnant with me, aunts and grandmothers would send her gold coins via friends visiting America. Every year on my birthday, I’d receive a custom charm or heirloom bangle. All gold. It didn’t take long to amass a small treasure trove. Tiny gold statuettes of deities strung along delicate chains, a series of pendants twisted into the shape of an om. Gold earring studs with diamonds I’d never be old enough to wear. Rings wrought for baby fingers.In the decade between the ages of 4 and 14, the last thing a girl wants is solid gold jewelry from the Motherland. Little girls want the new mermaid Barbie doll whose hair changes color in water, or they want that Harry Potter book the library never has, or they want pink plastic jewelry that goes with everything. They don’t want a pair of gold dolphin-shaped earrings which will be whisked out of their hands and put “in a safe place” as soon as Kavita Massi is done waiting for a reaction.This jewelry was always out of bounds—I only ever saw it when someone was getting married. These pieces felt more like a gift for my mom than me. Sometimes she even wore the earrings to parties, fuelling my conspiracy theories that this was all a racket for the older women in my family. I had to wait till I had all the spitting venom of a teenager before I asked her when I’d get to keep the jewelry myself, and why everyone insisted on giving me heavy gold pieces that were at least 30 years out of fashion.“It’s for your dowry,” she said, with all the succinctness of a woman practiced in dealing with teenagers.“My dowry?” I spat. “What do you mean my dowry?”*In 1961, India passed the Dowry Prohibition Act. It made demanding or giving a gift “as a consideration for the marriage” illegal. You couldn’t buy or sell women, the government decided. But whatever they said on high, what happened in the village between families could never be so easily codified—you cannot simply say “no more” to tradition.While women are handed over along with new TVs, gold watches, and cash, they also continue to die in the mad rush for dowry payouts. The Indian National Crime Records Bureau determined a woman was killed every hour in 2012 because of dowries. These “dowry deaths,” as the media called them, happen when the groom shakes the bride’s family down for more money. Or, grooms simply kill off their brides to marry again and receive a new dowry.At 13, I knew dowries were illegal and dangerous. In my pre-teen mind they were synonymous with death. They were the epitome of sexist injustice. So when my mother mentioned my dowry, a chill snaked down my back and made my hair stand on end. I was raised thoroughly American, I was not a statistic from the Subcontinent.“What do you mean dowry, mom?” I repeated, because she had gotten distracted chopping vegetables for dinner.“I mean, your Nani and Dadi are giving you jewelry to keep in your dowry,” she said, referring to my maternal and paternal grandmothers. “When you get married, you’ll take it all with you to your new house. This way, the jewelry remains yours. And,” she said, sliding a cutting board full of carrots into the frying pan, “if something bad happens, you can sell the jewelry to take care of yourself.”*My dad’s dad, my grandfather, brought his young family to America after receiving a placement at Texas A&M University. He and his skills were being imported from India to work in the growing fuel industry. It was the early 1970s, Asian immigrants were being given permission, for the first time in decades, to make a home in America. Everything was about to fall into place.Only it didn’t. Instead of living in the lap of promised luxury, my dad and his siblings grew up in Houston’s working class neighbourhoods. They knew few Indians besides themselves, so they acclimated and assimilated to those that assimilated before them.By the time my parents were married and I was born in the early 1990s, my dad’s family had reached a sort of equilibrium—they operated a video rental store that brought in some money. My grandmother probably spent the most time out of all of them in that store, talking to customers and stocking shelves. It was there that she saw her first nameplate necklace on a Mexican woman who had walked into the shop. Her gold pendant, with its dainty heart and etched face, seemed so delicate and charming to my grandmother. So she got one made at the local Indian jewelry store with my name. It was one of the first pieces added to my dowry.I asked my grandmother why she gave gold so freely to her granddaughters, even when she didn’t have much money herself. “It’s for security,” she said. “It’s just what Indian people do.” I pressed her. Did she grow up hearing horror stories about women ending up in bad marriages and needing this sort of security? No, she replied, but this is just in case.I was raised with a fear of men, strange and familiar. “Never be alone with a man,” my mother had been telling me since I was small, “unless I tell you it’s okay.” Stranger danger was always a concern for my young parents, who were still going to school when I was born and had to work all day when I was an infant. We would practice how to avoid being pulled into cars and the right questions to ask men who said things like “I lost my puppy, can you help me find him?” or “I’m a friend of your parents, they sent me to pick you up from school.” Law & Order: SVU was often playing in the background in the evenings, and my parents would use its storylines to ask me and my brother questions about dangerous encounters we might have had. At a certain point, talking about abuse like this stops becoming an issue of “if” and becomes a “when.”When I learned that all the gifts I’d been given over the years had a morbid intention, it felt more than ever that it was only a matter of time before I’d be harmed or worse by a man. In this case he’d be my husband, not a stranger. Confronting the fact that my family was preparing me for the worst meant thinking about this very possible, very real future every time I put on a piece of gold. I’d be getting dressed for my favorite cousin’s wedding and thinking about how my own might be the worst mistake of my life.*The culture of women in my community is double-edged: there is a lot of talking behind hands, pursing of lips, public shaming for unmarried or never-pregnant members, but there are also unspoken laws of protection.We don’t always call feminism by its name, but it’s still there on the outer edges of what’s expected of us. Sometimes feminism feels completely absent from a situation, as if we all forget that we too are women when we demand tea be served and good appearances be maintained. But we still err towards protecting each other.As the Pakistani-British feminist thinker Sara Ahmed writes in her essay "Feminist Aunties," feminism is not an inherently Western concept. “It might be assumed that feminism travels from the West to East. It might be assumed that feminism is what the West gives to the East. That assumption is a travelling assumption, one that tells a feminist story in a certain way, a story that is much repeated; a history of how feminism acquired utility as an imperial gift,” she says. She talks about how her aunt Gulzar lived and taught feminism within the confines of Pakistani culture. Even when marriage was the norm, Gulzar side-stepped the expectation. She spoke confidently when she wasn’t expected to. And she owned herself. It was Gulzar’s inexplicit feminism that was handed down to Ahmed. Feminism didn’t come in a textbook.For my grandmothers, giving me gold as an investment in my future safety was their feminism. This is how they maintained a matriarchy in a strongly patriarchal world.My grandmother on my dad’s side didn’t have a dowry. Her father and his friend, my grandfather’s father, set up the match and got them married in the space of a few months. My dad calls it a “one rupee wedding,” meaning everyone was broke and it was done quickly and cheaply. When she gives me gifts, like the shell she brought back from Aruba or the table runner from Hyderabad, I think about how my dad and his siblings were on welfare during their early years in this country. She went from having nothing to making sure I had something, if I needed it.I have a dowry and a small fortune of personal wealth because women before me didn’t. My teenage rage over having a dowry has settled into a sort of ambivalent quiet. Most of the pieces live with my mom in a series of scattered safety deposit boxes, but there are two that I do keep with me. A pair of gold hoops—baliyon—that my mother bought me, and that gold nameplate from my grandmother. Putting on my baliyon and nameplate are consistent acts of validation. They pull together a lineage of women who are scattered across the world by preference and politics. They remind me that strength is imbued in everything.I hope there never comes a day when I’ll need to dip into my gold savings, but I can’t deny that it’s comforting to know that it’s there, just in case.