Hazlitt Magazine

Half Pipe

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

'Really Small Books Can Be Just as Ambitious as Big Ones': An Interview with Rachel Khong

The former Lucky Peach editor and author of Goodbye, Vitamin on being a better adult, the differences between writing about food and fiction, and the adhesiveness of baby carrots.

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.

Latest

‘Really Small Books Can Be Just as Ambitious as Big Ones’: An Interview with Rachel Khong

The former Lucky Peach editor and author of Goodbye, Vitamin on being a better adult, the differences between writing about food and fiction, and the adhesiveness of baby carrots.

Thirty-year-old Ruth has moved back in with her parents following a breakup. Her father, Howard, has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the disease has been taking its toll on his memory. He has lost his job teaching history at the local university, and Ruth and his former students decide to invent a class for him to teach on the history of California in order to give him something to do. Since he’s been barred from teaching on campus, they have to come up with creative reasons to keep hosting classes at different locations: one week, they hold a lesson at a Chinese restaurant, while Howard gives a lecture on the Canton population of California in 1880. The following week they meet at a Mexican restaurant.It’s a funny, sad, and smart scene from Goodbye, Vitamin, the debut novel by American writer Rachel Khong. That it is centered around a restaurant makes sense in the larger context of Khong’s work. Khong was an editor at the inventive and singular food magazine Lucky Peach, which sadly just put out their twenty-third and final issue. Earlier this year, she worked with Lucky Peach to publish All About Eggs: Everything We Know About the Most Important Food, of which she was the principle editor. Goodbye, Vitamin is her first longform fiction project, though she’s had pieces in Joyland, The Believer, and Tin House. I called her one afternoon while she was at home in San Francisco to talk about her book.How was writing a novel—which, congrats, by the way—how was that experience different from writing a book about eggs?That was kind of a total fluke, that I had two books coming out this year. I had started writing the novel before I ever started writing about food or started working at Lucky Peach. It just takes a long time, or it took a long time for me to write the novel. Especially because I was working this full time job and trying to squeeze in the fiction when I could.I had never planned to write or edit a book about eggs. That was sort of something that came up while I was at Lucky Peach. We were doing a cookbook series—last year there was a book about sausages. Peter [Meehan] and Chris [Ying], the other editors there, had asked me to do a book about eggs. I love eggs, and jumped at the chance. It was just crazy timing that the book about eggs came out in the spring and my novel is coming out this July. Never really expected that I would have two books coming out in a year. It was a happy project. It was really fun.The experiences were totally different. The egg book still took a long time. I think all books take a long time. It was more condensed. I worked on it maybe for a couple of years, a year and a half, and it was very collaborative. It almost felt like a bigger version of Lucky Peach magazine. Talking to a lot of contributors, getting people who I admire to write things, just piecing that all together. Piecing the puzzle of that book together. It was a really collaborative and social process. We had a team. Not a big team, but a team. Bigger than just me. For the novel, it was a lot of just mornings in a cafe before work, or just, yeah, using vacation times to quietly work on this book on my own. Just social versus antisocial books, I guess.When did you start working on Goodbye, Vitamin?I started working on it in 2010. Officially I guess I was done, or I sold it, in the fall of 2015, maybe? I guess I learned that book publishing takes a long time. It was pretty close to done. We went through maybe one revision together, my editor and I. It felt like a long time. You know, you kind of start a book, and you are one person, and by the time you finish it, you're just in a completely different headspace, I think. You know, if the book takes that long.How has your headspace changed?I think I just...I think some really obvious things I guess, when I started the book I was in a place that was a lot more like Ruth's. Just not sure of what to do, just feeling a lot of career ambivalence, feeling a lot of panic and anxiety about being a grownup. Not that I've figured those things out, but I feel like a better adult. I have now done a lot of work that I enjoyed, and had this career in working with Lucky Peach. It feels, not like I have my shit together at all, but it feels like the career stuff is slightly more figured out. When I started the book I also had just been going through a breakup, and now I'm like, recently married. So it feels like a lifetime ago, but at the same time I'm having now, too, to get back to that brain space and trying to remember what it was to start that book.It's interesting you started working on this before you were at Lucky Peach, because it's such a food book. I was underlining every reference to food, but there were just so many per page. So much of it is tied to memory, which is a central theme of the book. Like, she eats carrots with sugar when she's with her friend, because that's what they did when they were growing up. Or she visits her brother, and everything they eat are airplane snacks, because his girlfriend is a flight attendant. Was it a conscious decision, to incorporate food this much?It's funny because I got a question recently where someone said to me, "I was surprised there was not that much food in the book considering your career in food writing." I think it's just been funny hearing the different reactions, because I've gotten both reactions. Like some people have said, "Oh wow, there's so much food in this!" and then other people have said, I'm surprised there's not more. And for me it was not a conscious decision. Like, I tried to accurately represent the amount of times a normal human person thinks about food, but like, I guess I think about food more than some people and less than others. It wasn't like, "I'm going to put a bunch of food in this, cause I'm a food writer!" It felt so separate from my career in food writing, which felt to me like a job. This felt to me like, this is what I've wanted to forever, to write a novel and be a writer. There's food in it because I think about food and care about food, but it was never meant to be a focus. I think going about my days and trying to represent being at home, being in your parents home, to me it's often just about "hey, what do I eat next?" because there's not a lot to do.Okay, but the carrots with sugar thing, is that a real thing you've done?I have not quite done that, but I've found baby carrots to be very adhesive. They're kind of moist. You can dip them in things. I hadn't done the sugar thing, but I remember once when I was maybe 19, I was subletting an apartment for the summer and a friend was over, and we were looking for things in the pantry to drink before we went to a party. This was before I really learned how to cook so my kitchen was very sparse, and there were baby carrots, and there was jam. So we had vodka and chased it with baby carrots and jam.That's one of those things that you would do if you were broke and stoned, but it's also a thing that if a really fancy restaurant did it, it would be considered gourmet.I hope I'm starting a trend! That this spurs a worldwide baby carrot and sugar phenomenon, and they start serving it at Noma or something.You've wanted to do fiction for a while—I mean, you got an MFA. But where did the food even come in?Yeah, it was kind of just a happy coincidence. I started to learn how to cook when I was in my graduate program in Florida. I had sort of dabbled in cooking before, right after college, but in Florida there's not a lot to eat. I was in Gainesville, which is right in the panhandle. So more out of necessity, I had to learn how to make the food that I wanted to eat. I didn't want to eat like, fried food and Sonic all the time.The Lucky Peach job came about when I moved back to San Francisco after the MFA program. I was working first in a restaurant and then a cafe, these food service jobs, because I had this fantasy I could be at a restaurant, and then write on the side in the mornings. Which turned out to be way harder than it sounds. That same year I moved back, Lucky Peach was just starting. The summer of 2011. I was just working at a cafe when Chris Ying, the editor-in-chief, asked me to join as managing editor. I had met Chris when I interned at McSweeney's in college. We kept in touch and—and this is how Chris decided I was write for the job—I was keeping this secret blog in grad school where I would sometimes write about food or cooking or recipes. It was really nothing, but he knew that I was interested in food. He knew that I could write and edit. So that was how it happened.I kind of learned with them. It wasn't like I had any experience before that, but I find that sort of true for a lot of jobs. You jump in and you figure it out, or you fake it until you make it. But the thing was, we were all kind of faking it. Chris had never run a magazine before either. Everyone was doing it for the first time. We just got a chance to build the thing together. It didn't feel like I was searching for a career in food writing. It was never a goal for me. I was just excited to be part of this magazine that felt like it was doing something interesting and not quite like the food writing that I had seen elsewhere, like another Bon Appetit magazine. Nothing against Bon Appetit.You say you didn't have experience, but you have an MFA [from the University of Florida] and worked at McSweeney's and shared these sensibilities.Yeah, that was what also made it possible for us to do things like, we published a short story in every issue, and I was the one editing those pieces and soliciting them. That was really fun. Doing stuff that was more rambly and narrative, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't really, but we felt more free to play around.It's good writing! I mean, I'm vegetarian, but I still read the Chicken issue cover to cover. But to go back to your book. A lot of it is about memory. Ruth's father is losing his while she's trying to keep track of everything that happens in the course of the year. I love that her journal starts with these detailed, narrative entries and towards the end it gets fragmented, which is so realistic about how journals are kept. Starting ambitiously and then giving up. How did the diary format affect the story?I wish I had a really smart reason why I chose this format, but I think it was really just that it felt possible to me. I never really thought I could write a novel. I was writing all these short stories when I was in my MFA program because I felt a novel was way too daunting. But then I started to read these pretty short books, often by women, that were really fragmented and really piecey. Like Play it as it Lays, or, one of my teachers in Florida was Mary Robison, who writes a lot of these really short stories but also has this novel called Why Did I Ever, which is one of my favourites. She basically wrote it on these index cards in the middle of the night because her home life was so crazy. She only had those moments to steal away and jot down these sentences on note cards and then she eventually pieced it all together into this novel.I was reading all these books and they really had this impact on me, and I realized, "Oh, I could write a novel." A novel is just a big thing made up of smaller pieces. I can write paragraphs and I can write little sections. If I can just write those little pieces, maybe I can write a novel. That is sort of where that came about. I think I tried doing even a non-diary format, where it was just these little fragments throughout the book, and then I felt a some point, oh, this needs the structure of a year and it needs these markers to help guide people along. But the format was really because it felt like a possible thing for me to do. To just write out one paragraph at a time and see how that went.In terms of like, the way the format kind of changes near the end, I think...I wish I had a better answer for that too! It was really just a lot of experimentation. I realized at some point I wanted Ruth to be recording things for her dad and to have those roles kind of reversed. The last quarter of the book mimics his journal entries. I felt it was the right rhythm and pace. But it was really just so much trial and error and reading it over and over again. I don't have a better reason, like, "Oh, I outlined it like this, and then there's this scene at this exact moment..."You don't have to apologize for making instinctive choices! I'm always curious about how things are made, but sometimes it's really just, "It felt right."That's one of the joys too. Going back to the earlier question of what is different about writing about food versus fiction, they're both puzzles and you have to figure out what works best with each piece, but with non-fiction you know you're working with the pieces that you have. With fiction you can sometimes be surprised by what your subconscious brain just kind of spits out, which is fun. You're still limited by what you know and what you can do, but at the same time there's almost more surprise in it. You can surprise yourself with some insight or a sentence that brings that all the things together. That's what I love about it.What books did you gravitate towards growing up?There were so many different stages. I read a lot of Babysitters Club when I was little, and Boxcar Children. I really loved books that involved survival of some kind, so I loved like, Island of the Blue Dolphins. Do you know about that book?Scott O'Dell?Yeah! Having them make huts out of walrus tusks and seaweed. I loved that kind of thing. I loved the first four books in the Boxcar series because they were cooling their milk in the stream.Those are all about kids learning how to make their own worlds and do things on their own.Definitely. It was about wanting to be independent, to escape childhood. I feel like in college, I had these phases. I can remember in college feeling like there were books I was supposed to read, and reading them and trying them on and often they were just really kind of like....Boring?Yeah. But also really male books. Just trying them on like, "I should read like, Flann O'Brien or something." That's a really random bad example. But I think in college I looked at, what books am I supposed to read to be a writer? And then just realizing after that I should just read—I mean, it's good to read books that you aren't used to reading, or that are outside your normal reading habits, I guess, but I think something clicked for me when I started reading these smaller books by women that were really powerful in their brevity. I don't want to say domestic, but often they are less sprawling. The word that people use with bigger books is "ambitious," but I feel really small books can be just as ambitious. Seeing how powerful a shorter book could be was really formative for me.Like the ones you were mentioning earlier?Yeah. Like Joan Didion, Mary Robison, Grace Paley, Elizabeth Hardwick. There's so many that once I realized this whole world existed, I was like, "Oh shit! These are amazing." And they're not any less because of their length. They're even more impressive because they've been distilled.This isn't really a question, but I have to say I love the cover of the book with the lemons. I don't know how much you had to do with that. Oh yay! I love it. It's pretty weird but I like it a lot.I feel like it's one of those covers I'm going to see Instagrammed a lot this summer. But I'm really excited for it. I've actually already Instagrammed it.I'm going to go like it right now.The interview ends and we hang up. Two minutes later, I get a notification on my phone. Khong has indeed liked my photo on Instagram I took of her book cover.
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.
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)
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.
The Eternal Becoming of Sofia Coppola

Like so many of her heroines, the director seduces to control.

Charlotte Rampling, 1973, nude, sits atop a wooden table at the Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus in Arles in the room in which matadors once dressed for battle. Legs ajar, wine in hand, body turned away, she squares her unsmiling eyes with the camera (and Helmut Newton behind it), as if to say: “This is not for you.”To Sofia Coppola, this is what it means to be a woman. As a girl raised in Napa on a rambling ranch, her world-famous father travelling the planet, her mother alongside him,11“Why can’t we just be normal?” Sofia asked. this girl, the one who has always been defined by her style before anything else, considered fashion magazines her “link to the rest of the world.”22Vogue, 2003 She covered her walls in their images—mostly thin, mostly beautiful, mostly rich white women. The photo of Rampling came from a 1974 issue of Vogue. Sofia wrote about it for the magazine in 2003 and kept it into her 30s; deep into womanhood, she was still reminding herself who she wanted to be. Even today, more than a decade later—with six films behind her and two children in front—we still sense that photo watching over her, still sense her incipience. “Is she an eternal adolescent because she’s always primarily read as her father’s daughter?” asks Fiona Handyside, author of Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood. If she is, her heroines come by it naturally. The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring and her most recent film, the Cannes-lauded Beguiled, are all coming of age tales featuring young, privileged white women—pre-adolescents, actual adolescents, delayed adolescents—none of whom ever really come of age. To Coppola, the image of Rampling is, after all, just that, an image, the ideal that can never square with reality. “Girls are seen as really special and exciting and full of potential,” Handyside says of Sofia’s cinema, “womanhood is this thing that closes that down. So why would you want to grow up?”*To hear Eleanor Coppola tell it, her daughter was a typical adolescent who denigrated her mother and deified her friends. Sofia has said herself that she was “a little too cool to be a teenager,” that she wanted to grow up, felt more suited to adulthood. When she wasn’t traveling with her family, her youth was occasionally caught on film. In her first pubescent role—Tim Burton’s 1984 monochromatic short Frankenweenie—she is a gangly pseudo-teen credited as “Domino,”33She also used the pseudonym for her father’s film The Cotton Club that same year but has never explained why. who wears a long, blond obvious wig, a bow and a gingham dress—the platonic ideal of the American girl. She is also the only girl, a Dorothy type surrounded by munchkin boys, who exercises side by side with her Barbie doll (Barbie, naturally, being her one female friend). Two years later, 15-year-old Coppola acted through braces in Peggy Sue Got Married as the girl scout sister of Kathleen Turner. “Teenagers are weird and you’re the weirdest,” she says, her lackadaisical delivery already secured in place.Around this time, according to her mother, Sofia became a fixture at her friends’ homes, claiming her own no “fun.” This teenage rebellion culminated in her flying off to Paris at 15 to intern at Chanel over two summers.  “Every inch of her wants to break out of an ordinary routine,” Eleanor wrote in her diary. And she did. That same year, Sofia abruptly stopped being a teenager, though not of her own volition. Twelve days after her birthday, her oldest brother, Gian-Carlo (“Gio”), died unexpectedly at the age of 22 in a boating accident.  “[W]hen my brother died, my teenage years got interrupted,” Sofia told The Hollywood Reporter. Later, when the family was organizing Gio’s things, Sofia slid into his white silk jacket. “It smells like him,” she said.A little while after that a dude named Dave Markey became a sort of surrogate older brother to Sofia. Three years before he became known as the director of The Year Punk Broke, Markey was an underground filmmaker. When they met through mutual friends in the late '80s, Sofia was a fan of his low budget teen-girl-runaway-rock-band extravaganza Lovedolls Superstar, which featured early-days Sonic Youth. “She had already seen some of my work and was really into it so it was very flattering for me at the time,” says Markey, whose band stayed at the Coppola ranch. Sofia looked up to Markey, who was in his mid-20s, and he turned her onto “psychotropic cinema,” escorting her to Laemmle’s Monica Premiere Showcase (as it was then known) in Los Angeles to see Carnival of Souls. Herk Harvey’s only film, a goth-cult horror from 1962, is about a beautiful blond organist who exists in a sort of post-car-accident limbo—“I had no place in the world, no part of the life around me,” she says—and is drawn to an abandoned amusement park. “I remember that left a really big impression on her,” says Markey. “She was really blown away by that film.”But several months later Sofia had no time for rep cinema. At that point, she was handed the biggest responsibility of her life so far: taking Winona Ryder’s place. Her father, Francis Ford Coppola, by then a well established New Hollywood force having helmed the mobstalgic Godfather franchise, had based the role of Mary—mafia alum Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) daughter—on Sofia. So when Ryder, who had already headlined several films, fell ill, Sofia was the obvious understudy, despite having never actually studied acting. In her first scene in The Godfather Part III, sitting in a pew with a scarf on her head, an enigmatic smile on her face, Sofia looks every drop the Virgin Mary. But internally she suffered from a severe case of impostor syndrome and overworked herself to the point of tears. Sofia knew she was not welcome. A Paramount executive disputed her casting, the other actors did too, and people advised Eleanor she was abusing her child. Mary folded under the pressure. In the film, Sofia’s delivery is flat, almost bored, her lines overlapping those of others, her weak presence only underscored by the power of Pacino’s. After Mary is fatally shot, she falls to her knees and says, “Dad?”44This is the second time Francis killed off his daughter on screen—the first was when she was gunned down as a street urchin in The Cotton Club. It ended up being a metaphor—she trusted her father and the critics killed her for it.That same year, 1990, Sofia appeared in Markey’s music video for Sonic Youth’s “Mildred Pierce.” He shot her on Super 8 in front of Hollywood’s Max Factor building one afternoon after she designed her own costume and applied her own makeup—thick brows, black lips, Chanel—her exaggerated wide-eyed sneer reminiscent of Cry Baby’s Hatchet-Face. “I just had the concept to dress up Sofia as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest,” Markey says. “So she’s actually channelling Faye Dunaway.” Around that time Sofia also befriended Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon, whose fashion label, X-Girl, she would soon join. “Kim inspired me because she tried all the things that interested her,” she told Elle. “She just did what she was into.” As for herself, Sofia wasn’t sure what she was into. It was an embarrassment of riches. Fashion, maybe? She was in charge of the outfits on a film called The Spirit of ‘7655She had previously designed the Chanel jr. costumes for “Life Without Zoe,” her father’s maligned Eloise-like segment in the 1989 film New York Stories, which Sofia also helped write. and at one point considered studying costume design. “She was really into that,” says Markey. But a year later Sofia was onto a third college and other interests. “I want to take photography and painting and learn more skills,” she told her mother. So she studied art history and co-founded a clothing company, Milk Fed, in Japan. “I became a dilettante,” she told The New York Times. “I wanted to do something creative, but I didn’t know what it would be.”[[{"fid":"6700856","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Sonic Youth - Mildred Pierce","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The one thing Sofia didn’t study was film—she figured she could ask her dad anything—and it wasn’t until her late twenties that she started talking about directing. “I’m gonna make a movie, it’s gonna be fun, I’m so excited,” Markey remembers her saying. The movie was Lick the Star (1998) and it lasted no more than 15 minutes, but it would become the prototype for her entire oeuvre. Co-written by best friend Stephanie Hayman, this black-and-white sliver of Heathers-style precociousness sees a bunch of high schoolers poisoning their male harassers (the title inverts their motto, Kill the Rats). “Everything changes, nothing changes, the tables turn and life goes on,” the queen bee scrawls on a scrap of loose leaf and sticks into An American Biography. Adolescent torpor, slo-mo saturnalia, gendered spaces, in her first film Sofia had already hinted at what would become her signature tropes.66Her two previous music videos—Walt Mink’s “Shine” (1993) and The Flaming Lips’ “This Here Giraffe” (1996)—also touched on these motifs. “Movies incorporated all the things I liked,” she told W. “It was the first time I felt like something clicked professionally for me.”*A redhead lies on her back in the grass, her arms outstretched like an exhausted Christ, orange hair matching the orange in the sun-soaked green, the blossoms on her borrowed dress nestled in the ground. Barely clutching a camera in her left hand, the girl’s right arm reaches out of frame, perhaps searching for something to hold onto. She is in a sort of rapture. She smiles, maybe.William Eggleston’s 1975 image of a young woman on Quaaludes was one of the many works of the time—alongside Bill Owens’ Suburbia and Sam Haskins’ Playboy portraits—that inspired Sofia Coppola’s first feature. From the beginning, she used a mood board to set the stage, which is why her films, if nothing else, are as eternally moody as a prom at midnight. Her 1999 adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides languidly embraced a quintet of teen sisters from suburbia whose burgeoning sexuality is stifled by their Catholic parents’ clapboard take on gothic seclusion.[[{"fid":"6700786","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":"288","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Born in 1971, Sofia’s aesthetic is largely nostalgic for the decade of her prepubescence, so it follows that her first film would be set in the same era. She understood the Virgin Suicides’ feeling of alienation and loss—of time, of innocence, of relationships—having felt the same way in her nomadic youth. “I liked that the story seemed to capture what it was like to be that age,” she told Interview, “something that I haven’t seen many people get right.” Coppola captured the impulsive guilelessness of adolescence by hiring non-actors she found on the streets of her Toronto set, directing one of the neighborhood boys in the film to dine with the Lisbons for the first time, for the first scene, script free. Writes producer Julie Costanzo, via email, “she opted for him to experience the bewilderment and discomfort.”For Lux Lisbon, however, the sister who is ardently pursued by the local rake and then just as coolly dropped, Coppola chose a professional. Kirsten Dunst, around 17 at the time, was picked for her liminality—“She’s really a kid,” said Coppola in Combustible Celluloid in 2000, “but she’s also womanly”—thus began the director’s trend of casting white (often blond) former child starlets. Dunst was followed by Scarlett Johansson was followed by Elle Fanning was followed by Emma Watson, all actresses who, despite their advancing ages, eternally invoke youth. Sofia based the look of the girls on her childhood best friend’s sister, Leslie Hayman, the freckled towhead she eventually cast as sibling Therese. “[W]hen I was in high school, the pretty girls were blonde and perfect,” Sofia said. “Those were the girls the guys were after.” She was not one of them. Even Coppola’s own mother wrote of her, “She is beautiful in an imperfect way.” Having broken her nose in junior high during a ball game, Sofia remembers appreciating Anjelica Huston’s promise that she would grow into it. The advice was particularly stark coming from the fellow daughter of a famous director (John Huston) who had an equally miserable first experience working with her father. [[{"fid":"6700791","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":"281","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]While the male gaze defines Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides, in Coppola’s film the girls exist beyond it. As such, she explores the “imprisonment of being a girl” but also its potency. “I really loved how the boys were looking at the girls and the girls had this kind of power and mystique over them,” Coppola told Rookie, “and I was interested in how girls could get stuck in lives that were too small for them.” In the Lisbons’ presence, the boys are virtually emasculated, mere subjects in the girls’ home, under their spell even in their own car. Not even Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the magic man, has command over the younger Lux, who unbeknownst to him has his name branded on her underwear (he is already where he wants to be but only she knows it). “I often thought of Sofia’s style and assuredness as more about identifying the absence of what was transpiring in a scene, rather than the presence,” says producer Julie Costanzo. So Lux owns Trip, until he owns her, disappearing while she slumbers post-coitally, the guy who is objectified refusing to be, as the girls joke, “They’re just going to raffle us off.” But they refuse too. By killing themselves, the Lisbons reject their restricted lives. “What do girls have? Well, they have their bodies,” says Handyside. “That’s [their] weapon, that’s the thing that [they] can possibly use or indeed withdraw.”[[{"fid":"6700796","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":"281","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Sofia Coppola might have withdrawn herself had the press responded to The Virgin Suicides as they had to The Godfather Part III, but after a warm reception at Cannes, she was reborn. The 28-year-old director was no longer merely Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, she was an individual. Emboldened by the response in France, she turned further inward for her next film.Lost in Translation was, of course, about loss, too, but of a different kind. A young married philosophy grad finds herself aimlessly wandering the halls of Tokyo’s Park Hyatt, crying long distance to a “friend” back home who doesn’t seem to hear, her absentee husband equally oblivious. When she first visited Japan, Coppola told The New York Times, she “felt like teenage girls were running the whole country,” which makes it an apt setting for a delayed adolescent like Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson was in fact only 17 during filming). The overgrown, subdued Eloise soon comes across a famous actor (Bob, played by Bill Murray) in the midst of his own midlife crisis. They karaoke, party, sushi, watch late night movies. “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be,” she tells him, before he tells his own wife, “I’m completely lost.” The first time they see each other, in an elevator packed with locals, Charlotte and Bob catch each other’s eye and share a smile—they are each other’s compass. “To me that’s like the most comforting or best thing in life,” Coppola told The Guardian, “when you have a little connection or you both find something funny, and it makes you feel not alone.”[[{"fid":"6700801","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":"320","width":"576","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Though the press speculated about how autobiographical the film actually was, Coppola responded in Filmmaker, “There’s a part of me in that character.” The truth is, for a long time she was as lost as Charlotte. It is thus unsurprising that her most autobiographical work would be vocal about its search for personhood, a leitmotif that permeates all of her films (without, however, the oft-associated finding of it). “I always like characters who are in the midst of a transition and trying to find their place in the world and their identity,” she told Rookie. This was the all-encompassing theme of her life for about a decade, when she was afraid that, like Somewhere’s Johnny Marco, she would end up a nothing, a nobody—it’s a fear she reflects on screen over and over again. “To me, the films are about how everyone has to decide how they want to live their life,” she told the Boston Phoenix, “as opposed to how they’re supposed to.” Supposed to. For young women the expectation becomes even more loaded. And Marie Antoinette is the biggest supposed to of all.Based on Antonia Fraser’s biography of Madame Deficit, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette follows the Austrian dauphine from the age of 14, when she is sent to France to become queen at a time when she knows more about pugs than politics, to the French Revolution. The director told Vanity Fair she could identify with the 18th century royal, “coming from a strong family and fighting for her identity.” The moment Sofia was born, bestowed upon her was what Handyside refers to as “a simultaneous burden and privilege.” Barely out of the womb, she was cast as a baby boy in The Godfather, cast, in a sense, as heir to the Coppola dynasty both on screen and off. The way her image was co-opted by her family, Antoinette’s was by Versailles (though at least Sofia’s uterus remained her own). “I think there is a sense in which she is debating her own past,” says Handyside of Sofia’s films, “and the way she was commandeered as image.” Each of her heroines are found in a role they have not really chosen, the confines of their lives symbolised by their entrapment within houses, hotels, schools, castles. “I think there’s an element of the female experience that you have certain boundaries,” Coppola recently told Film School Rejects. But her mother thinks it might be more personal. “Perhaps Sofia is part of all these women,” Eleanor wrote in her diary. “Growing up she was in a way a princess in Francis’s kingdom. On his sets she was treated as the adored daughter of the boss, a child of a celebrity. She was not seen as a thinking, feeling person with her own identity and acute perceptions.”As an adult, Sofia erects gothic edifices within the construction site of contemporary feminism. Her films interrogate a reality in which women are told they are equal, yet know they are not. Without an alternative, says Handyside, “you repeatedly get these fantasies as the answer.” The moments of acedia in her films—on pillows,77“Nobody throws girls on pillows like Sofia Coppola,” Nathan Lee wrote in Film Comment. in grass, on each other—the confetti-fuelled fetes, the forlorn looks out of fishbowl windows, the sly winks that shatter the fourth wall, the floaty sojourns—Petit Trianon, underwater tea, travel snaps—all luxuriate within the bounds of femininity. As Handyside puts it, “it’s just killing time,” a suspended reality as you yourself are slowly killed. In Modernism, Feminism, and the Culture of Boredom, Allison Pease writes that modern literary depictions of boredom are “an acknowledgment of the profound dissatisfaction of a group of people who found themselves on the wrong side of agency, interest, and meaning.” Sofia’s “girliest film set” thus focusses on Antoinette’s teen years—“the earlier, fun days,” according to the director—icing the merry monotony in a “cookies and cake” palette. “You’re considered superficial and silly if you’re interested in fashion,” Sofia told Vogue. “But I think you can be substantial and still be interested in frivolity.” Frivolity itself speaks volumes, Antoinette’s tight corsets, for instance, are tight for a reason—privilege means more even when you want less. Though the Queen of Versailles is the quintessential symbol of white privilege, Sofia believed she deserved as much of a voice as she did, particularly considering the din of public perception. Hence the scene in which Marie Antoinette is appalled by the rumour (which persists to this day) that she scoffed at the poor, “Let them eat cake.” Handyside believes Sofia is drawn to ostensibly unsympathetic women like Antoinette and the girls of the Bling Ring because, regardless of their means, “we’re all in a culture which doesn’t have answers” for women.[[{"fid":"6700811","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":"552","width":"1024","style":"font-size: 13.008px;","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Spent after Marie Antoinette, Sofia took time off to bring up her first child. It was her daughter who inspired her to write her second original screenplay, Somewhere, about a prominent actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), and his relationship—or non-relationship—with his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). This is Sofia’s first male hero, but, aside from his gender, he is not so different from her heroines. Sure, he objectifies women—“[Sofia] has a lot of sympathy for male foibles,” says Handyside—but he feels as lost as his predecessors, once again within a rambling palace (in this case, the crumbling decadence of the Chateau Marmont). Johnny bides his vague time falling asleep on the women he is with, texting the ones he is not, otherwise sitting constricted in a plaster mask recalling Antoinette’s girdles and crying on the phone like Charlotte to an unsympathetic listener. “I’m fucking nothing,” he says. “I’m not even a person.” His future, like everyone else’s, is unclear as he leaves his car behind in the middle of nowhere and yells to his daughter under the chop-chop-chop of a helicopter, “Sorry I haven’t been around.” But his words are only for show. Only the audience hears them—they are not for her. This as opposed to the final confidence shared between Lost in Translation’s Bob and Charlotte, which we are not privy to, but which somehow equips Charlotte to face the future. In Cleo’s case, there is no roadmap, she is as lost as Charlotte was.[[{"fid":"6700816","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":"576","width":"1024","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Coppola designed Cleo as “a kid in this grown-up world” who in the end is as adrift as her father, crying over her absentee mother, abandoned by both of them. Her happiness can only fluorish in the interim, prior to this epiphany, within the ignorance of innocence, “where being a girl is wonderful and it buys you this space of transcendence and evasion from adult problems…but the price is that you’re never allowed to grow up,” says Handyside.  There is nothing worth knowing beyond this, the end being the refusal to continue—to die, to walk away, to be escorted off the premises. “I think the feminism in the films,” Handyside adds, “is precisely that there is a refusal of what womanhood means.” The way her father is nostalgic for the old country, Sofia is nostalgic for youth—an idealized sanitized notion of youth, anyway—in which you don’t have to know who you are, decisions don’t yet have to be made, and there are only feelings and experiences and being. This is why she always chooses the girl’s potential—an eternal becoming—over the woman’s reality. Because how do you commit to adulthood when you don’t know where you stand?Coppola wasn’t planning on another film about kids. But then along came the Bling Ring, a group of privileged California youths who burgled celebrity homes in 2008 and 2009 and stole about $3 million worth of possessions. As Coppola told Indiewire, “there’s kind of just the universal teenagers getting in trouble and wanting to be part of a group—that part I could totally relate to.” This film parts ways with the rest by depicting adolescents who are not trying to get out, but instead trying to break in. Versailles is what they want, that sparkling assembly line of shoes and clothes and money. Their homes are a uniform affluent fawn—a peach-hued image of Calabasas the inspiration—but the ones they breech are rich in technicolour. “We had so many beautiful gorgeous things,” says the character Marc in the film.[[{"fid":"6700821","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":"478","width":"680","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The Bling Ring was a comedown after Somewhere, which had won the Golden Lion at Venice. The film was particularly criticized for erasing Diana Tamayo, a Mexican immigrant who did not have U.S. citizenship and was threatened with deportation over her involvement in the Ring. Though Tamayo was reportedly small enough to get through the doggie doors of celebrity homes, in the film it’s the character Nicki’s sister (Georgia Rock) who accesses Megan Fox’s abode this way—Tamayo, and the fact that her conviction could have lead to her expulsion from the country,88She plead guilty and received three years’ probation instead. did not appear on screen. Korean-American Katie Chang, who played the character of Rebecca Ahn in the film, based on the real-life Rachel Lee, remains the rare exception in Coppola's parade of pale patrician faces. “I think Coppola seems to be suggesting, you don’t have to necessarily be white, but being white really helps,” says Handyside. It certainly hasn’t hurt her. As a teen, Coppola had thick dark eyebrows, a long mahogany mane and a pronounced nose, but as she got older, her hair got progressively lighter and shorter, her eyebrows thinner, her makeup and clothes more discreet. “If you think about Italianness, it’s associated with excess, with sexiness,” says Handyside. “She’s almost reinvented herself as a wasp.” Sofia is not Versace, she is Marc Jacobs, and her characters follow suit, often dressed in powder blue, often blanched out to make them even more alabaster than they are, the kind of women who Helmut Netwon might have photographed had they been old enough to qualify.Those who do not pass, do not make the cut. The Beguiled is the latest example. The second adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s Southern Gothic novel unravels during the Civil War at an all-girls boarding school that is disrupted by the arrival of a wounded soldier. The plot is largely preserved, the convalescent, McBurney (Colin Farrell), seducing three women—Nicole Kidman’s commanding head mistress, Kirsten Dunst’s shy teacher, Elle Fanning’s student temptress—who choose not to fight amongst themselves, but to unite against the sybarite. In so doing, the controlled, civilized, quiet confines of their school erupt into a chaotic, barbaric mess of carnage. “Control, civilization, quietness, they’re about femininity,” says Handyside, “they’re also about very strict classical WASP norms of femininity.” The operative word being WASP.[[{"fid":"6700851","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":"268","width":"477","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Sofia’s Beguiled excises the shrewdest character in Cullinan’s story—the school’s slave, Mattie (played arrestingly by blues singer Mae Mercer as Hallie in the 1971 adaptation)—with the film’s only nod to the Civil War’s racial foundation reduced to “the slaves left.” Coppola has said in several interviews that her focus was specifically on the power dynamics between men and women. She told The Hollywood Reporter that she wrote Mattie out, “because I didn’t want to treat that subject lightly,” adding more recently to BuzzFeed that Mattie’s was “a really interesting story, but it’s a whole other story.”999“I would love to have a more racially diverse cast whenever I can,” Sofia told the site. “It didn’t work for this story, but of course I’m very open to stories about many different experiences and points of view.” Presumably that is also why she turned the book’s biracial teacher, Edwina, into Kirsten Dunst. But Edwina’s whitewashing is particularly puzzling considering her background would have been perfectly positioned within Coppola's oeuvre-wide theme of identity. In Cullinan’s novel, Mattie surmises that the reason Edwina is so isolated from the rest of the school is “because she don’t know who she is—she don’t know what she is.” In the film, we are meant to believe that it is simply Edwina’s oppressive timidity that has separated her from the faces that look exactly like hers. But you can’t help hearing the strains of Beyonce’s “Sorry” when you see Fanning on Instagram recreating a scene from Lemonade—The Beguiled shot on the same Louisiana plantation1010“I didn’t see Lemonade, but I saw the chair and it was explained to me,” Sofia told The Los Angeles Times.—casting herself as Beyonce and Dunst as Serena Williams, both of these white actresses clothed in antebellum cotton.*Sofia Coppola, 2017, sits on a winding staircase surrounded by femininity, pre-pubescent to middle aged. Drenched in light, dressed in pale ruffled ankle-length frocks, frozen in place, the seven girls and women around her gaze out from their cramped quarters with various conflicting expressions. The director, 45, is in the middle, white shirt, black pants, white runners, androgynous, the contemporary center of control around which all these females orbit. Coppola is as quiet in this photo as she is in real life. She is so soft spoken that her mother regularly had to strain to hear her when she was a teenager. And when her father commanded her to speak up on set, she did not. Neither do her heroines. Even Marie Antoinette, as loud as she is in dress, often holds up a fan to obscure her mouth. “There’s a sense in which they are saying, ‘You know what? You don’t have to shout,’” says Handyside. Sofia pushes silence, privileging imagery over dialogue, her scripts sparse, her visuals abundant. When I interviewed her at the end of 2010, her sentences would trail off, dissipating into the ether, often unsatisfying—too brief, too superficial. I described her then as “disconnected,” and there continues to be a sense that she keeps herself disengaged from the world (even outside the media). “I think it’s a survival strategy,” says Handyside. “I think sometimes she gives people enough rope to hang themselves with just by not responding.”It is also a way of performing femininity. Coppola will play the submissive, placating her male actors in particular, but inevitably obtaining from them what she wants, sometimes to the point of objectification. “It’s just like my fantasy to get him to sit there and dress him exactly how I want him to be and do everything just exactly how I want,” she said of Bill Murray on the set of Lost in Translation (he nicknamed her The Velvet Hammer). She quietly inverts the male gaze, in Lost turning John Kacere’s painted portrait of a woman’s rear into a moving image that barely moves, laying it across the screen a spell too long, prompting us to question our own gaze. In Somewhere a bed-sprawled Johnny Marco is surrounded by naked gyrating women but sees none of them. In The Virgin Suicides, a muscular demigod floats in a pool of electric blue, in The Bling Ring it is the un-sculpted boy who is self conscious. In The Beguiled too, we see McBurney’s body—caressed by the light, like a Roman statue—immobile, entirely under the power of the women around him.1111“Colin was a really good sport about being our token male,” Sofia told Vanity Fair. “He knew that he was the object.“Like so many of her heroines, Sofia Coppola seduces to control. She learned this, no doubt, being surrounded by men—father, brothers, cousins—ensconced in an industry guided by their sex. She says she was indulged growing up but it was an indulgence stemming from a stereotypical notion of femininity. Her father, his physical presence almost as overbearing as his psychological girth, is ubiquitous in behind-the-scenes footage of her first three films, manspreading on set, making suggestions even after his daughter has already secured an Oscar. Even filmmaker Wes Anderson, an old friend of Sofia’s, told The New York Times, “You want to look out for her. She turns everyone into her big brother.” Of the more than 20 people I contacted about Sofia Coppola, less than a handful agreed to speak with me. In the wake of The Godfather Part III, this is how she likes it. This is her own story, why would she not want to direct it?Her own story, the way she tells it, repeatedly returns to adolescence, those years which were abruptly taken from her, which she continuously reclaims on screen. To Coppola, womanhood is imprisonment, girlhood is freedom, and her feminism lies in her refusal to compromise the latter. She will not, for instance, adopt the “feminist” label, despite her constant devotion— albeit a devotion that is blind to intersectionality—to female identity. When she became the second woman in the history of Cannes to win best director for The Beguiled (a film with a set in which, according to Variety, women outnumbered men), she thanked another feminist icon, Jane Campion, the only woman to win the Palme d’Or, for “being a role model and supporting women filmmakers.” But her inspiration was Jo Ann Callis, specifically her 1977 image “Woman with Blue Bow.” The photo shows an angelic blond with curly hair, her head thrown back, only her neck and nose visible. Around her throat sits an aquamarine satin bow which connects to her lacy white strapless dress. Look closer and it seems the ribbon is forming a groove in her neck, as though it is a fraction too tight. Behind her is water coloured wallpaper of blue leaves, three golden birds flying around her as though she is some kind of S&M Cinderella. “It reminded me of the feeling of femininity and frustration I wanted to achieve in The Beguiled,” Sofia said.“Nous sommes des filles”—“We are girls”—say the students in the film as they conjugate the French verb but do little more to project their gender. Sofia chose to re-adapt The Beguiled in order to express “the women’s point of view,” but the story does not really change. The women remain pale specters cut off from the dark war raging outside. In their decrepit estate they have become arrested in time with only McBurney to remind them of the outside world, one which promises excitement, but also brutality. To preserve their innocence, they must destroy this man, though in so doing they destroy their own prospects. Like a caged beast, McBurney trashes his bedroom after losing his leg at the hands of the women. In protest, he screams, “I’m not even a man anymore!” but it is a mere storm in a teacup, the same one that brews inside these women. To little effect. The film ends where it starts, with a girl searching for sustenance, with the women dragging a man in and then out of their coven. Sofia’s heroines have tried to get out and tried to get in, but this is the first time they simply choose to stay put, a sort of cynical acceptance of their lot. The last scene of The Beguiled shows the body of McBurney outside the closed gates, behind which the women watch from the steps of their crumbling institution, ashen and still, in a sense as dead as he is; yet, even then, nowhere near as free.
Anxiety at the Gates

Why did I go to work for the TSA? To try to connect with my father? To soothe various concerns as a new father myself? Was I researching a book? Having a midlife crisis? All of the above?

1.It was my first shift of Transportation Security Officer on-the-job training at Albany International Airport’s only checkpoint and I was told to shadow Steven, a fast-talking, big-bellied former car-salesman. We started our rotation at “divestiture,” the Transportation Security Administration’s term for the place where you surrender your belongings. I rehearsed the script about emptying all pockets, putting laptops in their own bins, and removing shoes, jackets, and belts. After fifteen minutes of that, it was onto the next task. We moved from bag search to the walk-through metal detector to document checker to exit to the scanner, then back around to divestiture. Steven pattered advice my way as we circled the checkpoint. “Carry extra gloves in your back pocket,” he said. “Make sure they’re not too tight. And remember, you’re in charge. This is your house.”It didn’t feel like my house, which I’d left at 4 a.m., tiptoeing out so as not to wake my wife and three-year-old son. And despite my brand new, titanium blue uniform, complete with patches, epaulets, and a shiny nametag, I didn’t feel in charge at all. While I listened to Steven, I scanned the checkpoint for my fellow TSOs-in-training. Eight of us had just spent two weeks downstairs in a heavily air-conditioned, windowless classroom together. In our civilian clothes, we’d listened to lectures, learned how to read x-ray images, practiced pat-downs, and passed various tests. I caught sight of one of my classmates: Nina, a bubbly, former schoolteacher. She was bouncing on the balls of her feet as she worked the walk-through metal detector. She didn’t look in charge either, but the crisp new uniform leant her an undeniable aura of authority. She gave me the thumbs-up and I returned the favor, remembering my pre-dawn drive to the airport. A slow cover of “Feeling Good” had been playing on the radio as I pulled into the employee lot: It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life. I’d walked toward the terminal with the music still buzzing in my ears. Red lights glowed out on the tarmac. Under the layers of asphalt and concrete, there was marshland. Along the chain link fences, cattails still grew tall, rustling in the wind. They were stiff from the cold and I listened to them brush like bamboo against the fence, an odd but soothing windchime.Steven thumped a hand down on my shoulder. “Come on, man,” he said. “Focused attention please!” The lines around me at divestiture were backing up; suddenly there were two passengers in wheelchairs, another two passengers requesting pat-downs to avoid the scanner, and a young woman with a Siamese cat in a small carry-on. I struggled to recall the SOP for pets. I had to keep the lines moving. I needed to continue repeating my script about liquids, gels, aerosols, jackets, and laptops. As TSOs, we were supposed to Create Calm and demonstrate Command Presence, but I was starting to sweat and my voice didn’t sound confident to me and I wasn’t sure exactly what I should be saying into my walkie-talkie. I was grateful that Steven was there to help me out. Clearly, it would take a little longer to establish authority.Just a few rotations later, Steven and I were at the scanner when a familiar voice shouted, “This guy is an impostor!”I looked up and saw Gene, a friend and retired UAlbany professor, about to enter the scanner. He was old enough to keep his brown loafers on. I was already nervous enough. I feared I was now moments away from being fired.But I was the only one who flinched. I helped Gene through and quietly told him we’d talk another time. I watched him reunite with his wheelchair-bound wife—she’d been sent through the metal detector instead of the scanner. I heard her ask him the obvious question: “What’s Ed doing here?”Again Gene spoke at full volume, as if the checkpoint were his lecture hall, though I knew his wife had perfectly good hearing. “He’s researching a novel!” Gene shouted.The supervisor did not rush over to apprehend me. Steven was unfazed. “Is that grandpa a friend of yours?” he asked.“He’s a sweet guy,” I said. I expected him to ask for more details, but he was already focusing on the next passenger. Still, for the rest of the shift, and for many shifts to come, those stubborn questions stayed with me: What am I doing here? Am I an impostor? Am I researching a novel?2.When I sent in my application to work for the TSA, my father was on the brink of eighty and I was struggling to communicate with him. Too often, when I talked about him with my own son, I told stories about my childhood that were laced with resentment. I emphasized how many chores and rules there were around the house, how my father was often on the road (he was a traveling textile salesman), how he had a talent for finding flaws in whatever I happened to be doing, from setting the table to stacking the firewood to filling the water pitcher.My father never went to college. He went to work for his father after high school and, aside from a brief stint in the Air Force Reserves, he worked in his father’s business for almost his entire life. Those two Schwarzschild men shared a dank, basement office for decades and then, after my grandfather died, my father had that office all to himself for a few decades more. In other words, he was a grinder. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him truly relax. If pressed, I’d say the closest he ever got was when he was in the basement of our house, in the workroom he shared with the furnace and the hot water heater. He could sit in there for hours, painstakingly assembling and painting model airplanes.He loved to fly. When he’d signed up for the Air Force Reserves, he’d hoped to become a pilot, but his eyesight wasn’t good enough. He became a paratrooper instead.Whenever he flew on a commercial flight, he’d bring home one of the plastic emergency cards as a souvenir. He kept them in folders he could clip into three-ring binders. He encouraged his family and friends to help him enlarge his collection if they happened to be traveling. Over the years, I brought him dozens; they made him, for a moment, smile with approval. After decades of collecting, he had a shelf or two of binders, all of them filled with brightly colored illustrations of emergency exits, seat belts, and inflatable slides gently delivering passengers from planes to open water. Many of the airlines no longer exist. If you’d like to see the entire collection, along with the model airplanes, they now sit on display at the Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum in Horsham, Pennsylvania.Which is all a way to say that maybe if I worked a grinding airport job for a while, I’d come to understand my father better, and resent him less, before it was too late. At the same time, sometimes I thought applying for a job with the TSA was evidence of a mid-life crisis. I was closing in on fifty, my son was three, and I’d been working as an English professor for seventeen years. Every day offered evidence of how little control I had over the world around me. Call it the mid-life crisis of an authority-seeker. Instead of speeding around recklessly in a shiny red sports car, I’d take an entry-level, rule-bound job, work the 5-9 a.m. shift, and learn how to divest tired travelers of their plastic water bottles. Then I’d race over to the university and bring a whole new perspective to my classes in contemporary literature and fiction writing.The fact that I’d become a father myself also drew me to the job. What does it mean to be a parent during the “War on Terror”? I felt as haunted by the collective tragedy of 9/11 as anyone, but I was also haunted by the ways daily living in the United States had changed from 9/12 forward. I bristled at the bunkering of public buildings (like the state capitol buildings a few blocks away from my house), the pervasiveness of surveillance and searches, the sudden expansion of airport checkpoints. When I used to fly home to Philadelphia from St. Louis or San Francisco or elsewhere, my father would be there at the gate, waiting to embrace me, eager to hear details about the flight. When it was time to leave again, he’d walk me to the gate and wait with me, waving farewell as I boarded the plane. My students were growing up in a very different world, as was my son. These days only those with tickets can be with us as we board and deplane. Our farewells and reunions usually take place in the shadow of a checkpoint.3.Day after day, shift after shift, I kept trying to feel in charge at the checkpoint. I found that, in some ways, my time as a writer and professor provided good training for most duties of a Transportation Security Officer. Years of grading papers meant I could check documents at a good clip. Thanks to a specialization in film studies, I’d spent a good deal of time examining images on screen, searching for unusual, hidden, crucial details—fine practice for working the x-ray machine. And my first teaching position, right out of graduate school, took me to a small Southern women’s college, where I learned a certain genteel politeness—politeness that served me well as I searched through bags while harried passengers stood by, scowling and impatient.No part of my teaching experience, however, prepared me to perform pat-downs.Back at that Southern women’s college, I’d learned that the only really acceptable form of student/faculty physical contact was a high-five. On rare occasions, there were fist bumps, but these risked the perception of violence. Now, every morning, as part of my job, I was supposed to run my hands up and down the legs, torsos, and arms of my fellow citizens. I was supposed to do this in such a way that no one would feel groped.My fellow rookies and I practiced on each other first, patting each other down multiple times. There was nervous, lighthearted banter about touching junk and how much worse it would be in North Korea and why the men finished practicing before the women did. Our cheerful instructors offered guidance. They said the procedure was clinical. Exert the same pressure you use to spread peanut butter on a sandwich. Say clearly what you’re going to do and then do it. We’d grow numb to it before long, they assured us.As we practiced, a few lines from Bob Dylan’s “George Jackson” kept running through my mind: Sometimes I think this whole world/Is one big prison yard/Some of us are prisoners/The rest of us are guards.How could I put my hands on someone else like this?And yet, was there a better way to keep our airplanes safe?Whitman’s “A Song for Occupations” offered this: Neither a servant nor master I…I will be even with you and you shall be even with me.But how could I perform pat-downs in such a way that they’d foster both security and compassion?I remembered Newjack, Ted Conover’s book about the year he worked as a Corrections Officer in Sing Sing. Day after day, he’d had to do much more than the TSA’s standard pat-down and he voiced his worries about the consequences of his actions:“Leave it at the gate,” you hear time and again in corrections. Leave all the stress and bullshit at work; don’t bring it home to your family. This was good in theory. In reality, though, I was like my friend who had worked the pumps at a service station: Even after she got home and took a shower, you could still smell the gasoline on her hands. Prison got into your skin, or under it. If you stayed long enough, some of it probably seeped into your soul.I didn’t think I’d be able to work a year at the checkpoint, but I wanted to stay at the job long enough to understand more fully what had drawn me to it. I hoped my soul—as well as the souls of all the passengers I encountered—wouldn’t be stained. I knew airport checkpoints were disturbing, dehumanizing, and frightening places for many people. And these days, more than ever, it becomes almost impossible to pass through an airport without thinking about how many people are detained on their way. How many have their property confiscated. How many leave feeling violated. How many are forced to leave and forbidden to return. But, back then, I tried to reassure myself: Albany’s checkpoint was a bright, airy, high-ceilinged space. I hadn’t witnessed any inappropriate behavior. Technically, as TSOs, we weren’t even allowed to detain people—that was police work.My professorial intellectualizing didn’t help much the first time I had to shadow a TSO named Lance, a hard-working bodybuilder so thick with muscle he had to walk through the scanner sideways. He showed devotion to all the rules, held at least one other security job, and went to night school. When he wasn’t working or studying, he was watching cop shows, preparing himself for the latest threats. In other words, he was a true believer with big aspirations in the security field. Only a fool would have tried to get in his way. When he watched me perform a pat-down, I flubbed my lines and forgot to check the passenger’s feet. Lance was not impressed. “That being-nice stuff,” he said, “you have to let that go.”The next time I was paired with Lance, he focused harder on my pat-down technique. Again, he was not impressed. “Have you been practicing your verbiage at home?” he asked.“Not really.”“It’s a yes or no question,” he said.I felt like a student woefully unprepared for class. “No,” I admitted.He shook his freshly shaved head and went over to speak to the supervisor. When he returned, he led me off to the side of the checkpoint and told me to practice a pat-down on him. A few of the other officers and officers-in-training glanced our way. I noticed a few passengers watching too.“Do the whole script,” Lance said.“Can you see your belongings,” I began, “or would you like me to bring them over here?”“You need to enunciate better,” Lance said.“I’m going to use my hands to pat down the clothed areas of your body. I’ll use the backs of my hands on the sensitive areas, the buttocks and the zipper line. I’ll be clearing your collar and your waistline with two fingers. And I’ll be clearing each inner thigh, sliding up until I reach resistance.”“Say it like you mean it,” Lance said. “You need to do pat-downs like they mean what they’re supposed to mean. Every pat-down is done to make sure the person in front of you is not a risk, right?”I nodded and went on, nervous, wondering if my job was on the line. “Do you have any internal or external medical devices? Do you have any painful or tender areas on your body? Do you have absolutely everything out of your pockets?”“This is your house,” Lance said, echoing one of Steven’s opening lines.“A private screening is available if you’d prefer. You can request one at any time.”“Go ahead,” he told me.So I did what I said I was going to do and, as was the case with every pat-down, eventually I was on the dull brown airport carpet, on my knees. I cleared Lance’s big feet, his legs, and I went up until I met resistance.“That’s better,” Lance said. “Remember, if you’re not doing a pat-down properly, then you’re doing it improperly, and isn’t your whole Mr. Nice Guy thing about not doing anything improper?”When I stood up, the rest of the checkpoint was still humming along as usual. Was I being hazed? Humbled? Embarrassed? Schooled?All of the above, of course.Later in the shift, while we were working the bag search position, a young woman lost the backing to her earring. She seemed willing to let it go, but I knelt on the carpet again and managed to find it, a small speck of silver amid the brown strands studded with dust.The woman beamed at us as she reattached the earring. “My day is going to be much better now,” she said.That pleased me, and it pleased me even more when Lance, smiling, looked my way and said, “You got a hawkeye or something?”Just forever seeking the approval of my father, or father-figure of the moment, I could have said.Security. Homeland. Fatherland. Maybe my motivations for seeking a job with the TSA were simpler than I thought.That night, at home, while my family slept, I made sure to study my verbiage.4.If this were a tabloid exposé or a steamy roman a clef, you might expect to hear tales of corrupt, inept, mean-spirited TSOs screwing in family restrooms, smuggling drugs, stealing laptops, and tormenting the elderly, all while failing one critical Homeland Security test after another.I’ve read those stories. I’ve spent time on websites like Taking Sense Away, where a former TSO not only wrote about the failings of the system at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, but also periodically published e-mails from other TSOs around the country eager to share their own critiques of the system. I closely follow coverage of the TSA in the news and it seems clear that far too many officers abuse their power. Toddlers are patted down. Cancer survivors are forced to remove their prosthetic breasts. The list goes on.I have no desire to be an apologist. Also, I held the job during Obama’s presidency. The job and the way airport work is done seem likely to keep changing drastically as Trump continues to make appointments and sign executive orders. Who can say at this point what sorts of orders TSA employees might be compelled to carry out in the months and years to come?A mantra I heard throughout my training helped me understand my time on the job: If you’ve been to one airport, you’ve been to one airport. While I can’t speak to what happens at other airports or what might happen in the future, I can tell you what I experienced and observed during my time at Albany International. It’s not a particularly sexy or edgy reveal. I saw a diverse group of men and women of all ages who sought TSA employment because it offered a combination that seems scarce these days: entry-level positions with real health benefits, job security, and the possibility of career development. For all its supposed faults, the TSA is an opportunity for thousands of people who want to help keep their finances and/or nation secure. I watched Steven and Lance and Nina work hard every day. Some were more skeptical about the mission than others, some were more crass in their conduct than others, but everyone I saw performed the job they’d been trained to do as best they could.I’ve held other entry-level jobs over the course of my life: kennel cleaner, dishwasher, waiter, gardener, gravedigger, office temp, lab assistant. Working as a TSO-in-training was as challenging as any other work I’ve done, including writing and teaching. At the checkpoint, we were often urged to practice focused attention, hour after hour, shift after shift, and it could get exhausting. We rotated from station to station, repeating our scripts, studying documents and images, searching bags, and we were supposed to perform each task as if our lives and the lives of everyone around us were continuously at stake.In my best moments at the checkpoint, however, I came to feel that security done right could be downright peaceful, even uplifting, a way to rise above our world of constant distractions. In this context, it’s revealing that the TSA lingo for passengers is actually PAX. The PAX passed by, pulling their rolling bags, poking at their devices, chatting with other PAX and non-PAX in distant locations, and there was an odd, pulsating beauty to it all. Peace, PAX. We’re all PAX of the world, just a swirl of souls. We pass through airports to lift off and land, like so many drops of water, bound for our time in the clouds. We’re carried aloft for miles and then we descend back to the earth’s surface. The world spins and we spin upon it; it is, like almost everything else, beyond our control. The tickets can say whatever they say. Everyone knows the person who arrives is not the same person who departed. Whoever we are, we won’t be for long.5.The application process to join the TSA was complicated and lengthy, involving forms, tests, physicals, and months of waiting; the resignation process was surprisingly swift.After I’d been on the job for a few months, a group of people started leafleting the checkpoint, encouraging PAX to opt out of the pat-downs. The story drew local media coverage, and when I read the article in the Albany Times-Union, I noticed it had been written by a friend of mine. He could’ve easily seen me while reporting, and then I would have become part of the story. And if it wasn’t that friend, it would eventually be a student of mine, or a parent from my son’s school, or someone else. Gene’s day-one moment of recognition hadn’t attracted anyone’s attention, but I probably wouldn’t be so lucky next time. I didn’t want to become the story, at least not until I figured out for myself what the story was.So, the day after I read the Times-Union article, at the end of my shift I went downstairs to the HR office, right across from the windowless classroom where I’d been trained. I told the woman behind the desk that I wanted to talk about resigning. She asked if working afternoons instead of mornings would help. She said if I was interested, it might be possible to take some time away and get re-instated later. Her kindness caught me off guard. I considered changing my mind. Then I told her I’d made my decision. She handed me a pen and a blank sheet of paper so I could write a short resignation letter.“Do I need to say anything in particular?” I asked.“Just that you’ve decided to resign. Also include the date, your name, and social security number.”While I wrote a sentence or two, she prepared a few forms for me to sign. She asked for my DHS ID and told me to drop my uniforms off within forty-eight hours.“That’s it?” I asked.“We’re used to turnover,” she said. Then she told one of her assistants to escort me out to my car. I wondered if I was making a mistake. The assistant didn’t talk to me as we walked and he stopped at the employee lot gate to wait for me. Alone in my car, I took a long look at my TSA ID and parking pass. Then, when I pulled out of the lot, I lowered my window and surrendered the pass and ID to the unsmiling assistant.From the airport, I headed south on the thruway toward the university and parked in the faculty/staff lot. I grabbed my backpack, which was stuffed with books and a change of clothes. On the way to the Humanities building, my uniform hidden beneath my winter coat, I walked among crowds of students, thinking, again, of my father. Instead of going to college, he’d covered his own father’s territory, hawking textiles his whole life. Over the years, I’d come to believe that his obsession with rules and his inability to relax stemmed from the ways that job compelled him to serve others. His salary was completely determined by the commissions he made on each sale. In other words, as he travelled the northeast corridor, lugging sample cases from office to office, his success depended upon pleasing and winning over one boss after another. I sometimes simplified it this way: Serving as a paratrooper in the Air Force Reserves compacted his body; working as a salesman shrank his soul.I climbed the three flights of stairs to my office. I needed to prepare for class. I needed another cup of coffee. It was a relief to be down to one job again.Before I changed out of my uniform for the last time, I wondered again what it would be like to work as a TSO year after year, to remain in the TSA while my wife and I continued to raise our son. Would my soul shrink or expand? Would I come home from work most days feeling powerful or powerless? Could my work at the checkpoint be just as significant to me as my work on the page, or in the classroom?When I think about those questions now, in these early months of Trump’s presidency, I’m even less certain of the answers. It’s so easy to slip into despair about the seeming ineffectiveness of—and opposition to—writing and the arts under the current administration.But Trump wasn’t on my radar back then. I carried my questions into my office with me. I closed the door and started to change out of my uniform. As I traded the titanium blue TSA shirt for an English professor’s simple white button-down, I thought about something that happened a few days before I resigned.I was working the document checking station, reaching for the next person’s ID and boarding pass, when I found myself face-to-face with another former university colleague. Judith and I had never been close, but we’d worked together and, when she retired, it so happened that I wound up moving into her office. We’d chatted a few times about whether or not she wanted the two pink wingchairs she’d left behind. We’d also bumped into each other once at the local food co-op. “Well, you better get on back to my office,” she’d joked. But at the checkpoint, she didn’t really see me. My face was still my face. My last name was printed on the silver nametag pinned to my chest, and there aren’t too many Schwarzschilds in Albany. I looked at her and wished her a nice trip when I returned her documents. She stepped away, oblivious, because from where she stood, I fit in. The checkpoint was my house and I was guarding the gates of Pax Americana. I was not an impostor.Sure, I was slightly hurt she didn’t recognize me. But, more than that, I felt strangely proud.
Along Came Harvey

My father defaulted on his dreams, abandoned his daughter, and resigned himself to living on a futon in his parents’ living room. Then he bought a two-foot-tall stuffed rabbit.

I was twelve years old when my father, sitting next to me in his Cadillac outside my school, looked at his hands, calloused from hours at his electric guitar, and informed me that I was an adult, that I no longer needed him as a parent. He’d be leaving tomorrow, he told me, to drive down to Vegas to become a professional poker player. He was good at poker, had taught me everything I knew about the game, late nights skipping homework, betting pennies on the floor of his apartment from the age of eight, when he and my mother had divorced.My father never made it to Vegas. He drove five hours to his parents’ home on a stark suburban street in Ottawa, and stayed there, on a futon in their living room, for twenty years. It didn’t make sense to me at the time: he was a gambler, an adventurer, a man with an insatiable thirst for life. These were all the impressions I had as a child, and all, save that he was a gambler, were false. My father had never lived alone. He was afraid of travel, of flying, and was not, as a gambler, equipped to take care of himself, let alone a child, financially. So his mother and father took him in. Perhaps out of the same strange sense of obligation I felt towards keeping him happy. More likely, I think, they felt they owed him. My father’s own childhood, from what I’ve heard, had it’s own extreme hardship between the war, the depression, and a father who swung between domineering and outright abusive. Together, perhaps unconsciously aware of this dynamic, they lived in an insular, isolated world, making their weekly trips to the casino, and to the Denny’s up the street for weekend brunches. This was their life, and as far as I could tell, they were content with it.He would call once a year or so, around the holidays—or, rather, would have his mother call me and then pass him the phone, so adamant was he in his resolve to never again hear the sound of my mother’s voice. He and my mother had fought on a regular basis, sleeping in separate bedrooms and keeping opposing work schedules until they finally decided to get a divorce. The divorce resulted, as many do, in a vicious court battle, and in rages within my father that would manifest as statements, during otherwise calm mornings, about how he would like to shoot my mother between the eyes or drive her off a cliff.I began to wonder, after he left, if part of what prompted his departure was my increasing resemblance to my mother. He’d gone almost instantly from the central figure in my life to a near-stranger. I flirted with suicide, withdrew socially, and took up hours of lying on the floor listening to ’90s grunge. He, meanwhile, had defaulted on his dreams, abandoned his daughter, resigned himself to a futon in his parents’ living room surrounded by craft supplies and Dollarama knick-knacks. It was during that first year in Ottawa that my father bought Harvey.*Harvey is a stuffed white rabbit, about two feet tall and cuddly, purchased from the gift section of a local bookstore. Harvey wears a black tie on special occasions, and is rarely left alone. My father would sit Harvey on the futon next to him during movie nights with his parents and carry him around in the local shopping mall during weekly outings with his father. He loathed his father, the war vet with a bitter disposition who, following the three strokes and tracheotomy, could express himself only in hisses, grunts, and seemingly random pointing.He and my grandmother put up with Harvey, though, both handling the stuffed rabbit with the tired resignation of those who knew well the stubbornness of their son, and no longer had the energy to fight it. During weekend brunches, my father would sit Harvey in the chair next to him, order him a coffee, and smile at the waitress with unwavering confidence in the charm of his quirk. On the rare occasions that I was invited into their world I would glimpse this ritual, sitting across from my father and Harvey with a blank expression, a daughter too fixated on keeping her father’s love to display anything other than total compliance. There was such pride in the way my father presented his eccentricity to the small world around him. He had inserted himself into his parents’ life with success. He could do as he pleased. Now, with Harvey beside him, he’d upped the ante, proving to himself that he could take these little impositions to another level. Everything about him—the way he smiled in his cowboy boots and black cowboy hat; the thinning ponytail that crawled down along the back of his neck like a snake; the quickly aging and ratty rabbit—served to confirm his status as a man who could do whatever he wanted, regardless of how those around him might feel about it.*My father’s obsession with Harvey began with the Jimmy Stewart film of the same name, in which Stewart portrayed Elwood P. Dowd, a lovable anti-intellectual with his own Harvey—also a rabbit, though his was six-foot-two, invisible, and a bit of a smart-ass. From the time I was six or so, my father and I would watch the film annually, and he would transform into a child, eyes wide and mind open, receptive. He saw Stewart as a guru, mouthing the words as he said them: “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for thirty-five years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I’ve finally won out over it.” This quote, I would realize years after his departure, was the key to my father’s approach to life.Having grown up with a rigid, controlling father through the Depression, and having known nothing but poverty and perhaps frequent acts of aggression, I imagine my father’s interest in reality was beaten out of him at a fairly early age. My grandfather fought overseas in the Second World War. While he was gone he forbade my grandmother from working to keep the family well fed, and when he returned, he brought a warring aggression that unloaded itself almost exclusively on my father. I wonder if, for my father, part of the appeal of moving in with his parents was the reversal he might have felt, suddenly a strong and imposing force in his now sickly, silenced father’s life.In the film, Dowd’s sister is desperate to be married, and his mother desperate to marry her off. His insistence upon parading his imaginary companion scares off friends and suitors alike, leaving the women in his life at a loss. Eventually they come to a sort of resigned realization that this invisible rabbit is important to Dowd in a way that overshadows them altogether.*My father was conflicted, he once confided in me, about Jimmy Stewart as a person. How, he wondered, could he play a hero such as Elwood P. Dowd in one film, then turn around and play a detestably selfless communist in another? The selfless communist he referred to, with notable disdain, was George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. During the four years in which I lived alone with him for three days a week, between my parents’ divorce and his ultimate exit, he refused to let me watch that film, claiming it was communist propaganda that aimed to undo everything great thinkers such as Ayn Rand had worked so hard to achieve. My father didn’t read much, but when he did, without fail, he read Ayn Rand. He carried her books like bibles, quoting from them, much as he did Harvey, with an earnestness, a devotion, that seemed to me unwavering. My father was rarely an angry man, generally blissful in his willful neglect of the needs and demands of others, but when he talked about It’s a Wonderful Life, he became something almost frightening, shut off, righteous. It was a trait I’d known he carried with him always, hidden beneath the easy smile, and knowing about the trait is what kept me good. Knowing it was there meant knowing the maintenance of his cheery disposition depended upon me, on my ability to maintain my “good girl” status, to stay obedient, easygoing, to accept and embrace whatever it was he wanted to give, including Harvey.For those four years, we did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. I learned not to want much, not to ask for meals or to go out for a few hours to visit with a friend. I existed to keep him entertained; together, we went to his favourite horror movies, or to the pool halls and racetracks at the outskirts of Mississauga. He didn’t think about things like washing my clothes or cooking me meals, and I was so eager to be loved that I learned quickly not to push for such things. While he stepped into the full glory of his most selfish, most imposing self, I shrank proportionately. I stopped knowing how to even begin to think about what I might want or need.I was thirty when I finally saw It’s a Wonderful Life. I’d barely spoken to my father in a decade, save for the odd birthday text or holiday greeting card. That was how long it had taken for me to feel free enough in my autonomy to do something I knew would displease him. By the end of the film I was crying the way I wouldn’t allow myself to even when my father announced he was leaving: loudly, sloppily, and with uninhibited dejection. It was a beautiful film. It exhibited a Jimmy Stewart who cared about the people, the state of the world around him. Here was a version of manhood my father had so ardently hidden from me, protecting me from the knowledge that one could be generous, and giving, and that it could benefit those around him in profound ways. I, of course, knew how to be giving, having been trained well as a child. What I didn’t know was how to receive, the way those around George Bailey did, the benefits of such generosity. I was crying because it was heartwarming, but more than that, because while I’d cried plenty for the loss of my father, I’d never cried or even properly acknowledged the loss of wellbeing I’d suffered while in his presence.*The last time I saw my father was February of last year. He called out of the blue from a number I didn’t recognize to tell me he was dying. I agreed to see him one last time before he started a rigorous treatment of radiation and chemotherapy for stage-four lung cancer. They’d taken a chunk of his brain, where the cancer had spread, and the scar was still fresh, a Frankenstein’s monster gash across the right side of his head. He had, in addition to a flesh and bone wife who fixed us tea while we made small talk, a family of Harveys now. The rabbits sat in a pile on the couch, some smaller than others, some brown or beige, dressed with scarves or hats, some naked. He washed them monthly, he said, in the machine. His wife adopted the Harveys as though they were her own, and fretted about their comfort: was the temperature right? Were they dressed warmly enough? Did they have enough space? Did they feel loved?I hadn’t seen my father since his own father’s funeral. Harvey wore a black silk tie for that occasion, and when the family went to Red Lobster afterward, he sat between my father and me. My father leaned over Harvey and opened his wallet in front of my face. There was a photograph, a little school photo of me when I was ten years old. You could see the meekness, the awkward way I held myself after the divorce. The year this photo was taken, my parents were engaged in a vicious court battle, I had just been diagnosed with a supposedly insurmountable learning disability, had been held back in school, and was generally on the verge of suicide. To my father, though, as I’d been well trained to please him, I was a smiling, obedient girl who enjoyed the horror movies and casinos and pool halls he brought me to. In showing me this old photograph he believed he was showing how much he loved me. I looked at the photo, saw in it the desperation of our two realities, and told him I had a more recent photograph he could have. I’d just finished graduate school in New York and had a smiling headshot, black cap, red lipstick and all. My father shook his head, folded up his wallet again, returned it to the back pocket of his black.“No thank you,” he said. He told me the photograph represented the time when he loved me most. Sure, he still loved me now, he’d offered, in a way, but it was different. My father moved a glass of water a little closer to Harvey’s face, I suppose to make it easier for him to drink should he suddenly become animate and thirsty. I sat silent, waiting for the ordeal to be over, for freedom, again, from my father’s reality.
Mourning My Dad, the Identical Twin

The fact that I’ve always had an exact replica of my father, with a startlingly similar voice, mannerisms and, well, face, never really struck me as exceptional until he passed away.

In 2011, my father died. Technically.Let me start again. My dad, Tony, was an identical twin. He and his brother Tom were tall, blonde, thin-legged and blue-eyed with a surprisingly Italian last name. They typed terse emails with their index fingers and loved The Godfather movies. They shared bad senses of humour, ice cream dependency, discomfort with long phone conversations (save for with each other), and business acumen.Tom is still alive. My dad isn’t. The fact that I’ve always had an exact replica of my father, with a startlingly similar voice, mannerisms and, well, face, never really struck me as exceptional until my dad passed away.As is custom, the funeral was bleak. In the memorial line up of family members, seeing my uncle exacerbated the strange reality of loss. A few guests were unfortunately or hilariously caught unaware that Tony had a twin brother. Reactions to Tom ranged from shock to clinginess. People insisted on reminding my uncle of his uncanny resemblance to my dad. Tom responded, patiently, way too many times: I know.In the ’80s, the only feature that distinguished my dad from Tom was a thick, blonde cowboy moustache. One day, well into a confidently moustachioed decade, after much urging from Tom, my dad shaved. The twins then tried to confuse my cousin and I about who was whose father—It’s me, your daddy, one of them insisted—and neither my cousin nor I could distinguish. They were that identical. This experiment ended in tears. My cousin and me: paralysed and afraid. Betrayed? I was about five years old at the time.I’m not sure what the fear was. Was I worried about making the wrong choice and losing my dad’s faith, failing a test of some kind? Or was it that I couldn’t be clear about what made my dad my dad?*Tom and Tony’s likeness went deeper than their appearances. A particular freaky twin thing happened during a summer in the ’90s when my parents brought my brother and I to a little hotel on Prince Edward Island. We went for a walk into the charming town to marvel at, I don’t know, the gables and the red clay beaches, probably, when my dad stopped on the sidewalk and said something like I think Tom’s here. Minutes later, we heard a car horn and turned to see my uncle cackling out the window. The twins had, without knowing, booked the same vacation, at the same hotel, for the same damn week.Coincidences like this are called tacit coordination—the phenomenon that people can successfully coordinate their decisions without communication. Though it can happen in many social contexts, identical twins in particular enact synchronous behaviours or decisions frequently, and have a high incidence of tacit coordination. The social bond between identical twins has been described as among the closest and most enduring of human social relationships.The genetic commonality of identical twins may underlie their similarities and social intimacy, and the perception of physical likeness can cause others to subconsciously reinforce similar behaviours.While my dad and uncle were growing up, people could never be sure who was who, so each twin was often called TomTony. One word. The twins would answer to each other’s names; they were so wrapped up in each other and indistinguishable that to be recognized as an individual might’ve been expecting too much. And really, how could you maintain any behavioural or psychic distance if you share everything, including your name?Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, in a family of nine children, the twins were like their own unit. As my Uncle Tom puts it, they kept each other company and, as far as I can glean from second-hand stories and my own experiences with their hard-ass Canadian Auto Workers union activist parents, protected each other amongst the chaos.I called my uncle recently and asked about some of his twin memories. He said one of the hardest times for them was when my dad failed grade 7, which meant that Tom and Tony would no longer be in the same class. The twins cried over their report cards outside the school; the repercussions were overwhelming—separate grades, separate classrooms, Tom would start high school a year sooner. They were devastated at the idea of being apart. On their walk home from school the twins formulated a plan: Tom promised to intentionally fail grade 8, leaving Tony enough time to catch up so that they could be together again. Of course, when their hardline parents caught wind of this, the twins were scared off from following through with the scheme.I wonder, if they’d followed through, if their relationship would’ve been different. Maybe my dad’s 13-year-old follies gave the twins enough distance in their education to grow some independence, to maintain their bond, but who knows, maybe into their adult years they still would’ve preferred to have been synched up. Still, they went on to work the same jobs at A&P grocery, eventually becoming twin co-managers, and put themselves through business school at the University of Windsor, one year apart.My uncle got married in August of 1977. Following a job offer, he and his wife moved to the Toronto area after the wedding. It was the first time Tom was away from home, and the first time in their lives that the twins wouldn’t share a room. The twins were distraught and crying as the reception wrapped up. My uncle’s wife stepped in to get Tom on the road to their honeymoon, prying the twins apart.My uncle’s family were the only LaSordas who moved out of Windsor. Most of my life Tom’s family has lived across the border in Michigan. When our families would visit, the twins were giddy. TomTony essentially reverted to being little boys. They matched each other. One exception was the development of my uncle’s slight American accent, notable on words like dah-lers, which my dad hated. If one twin lost weight, the other would try to lose weight too. Haircuts. Glasses. Clothing. They’d explained their constant evaluation of each other as disciplining themselves so they could still look alike. They wanted to.Tom and Tony have their differences, however subtle. My dad, minutes younger, was more outgoing. He’d starred in a middle school production of Our Town, and brought up his glorious moment of stardom on the regular. He dated a few women before he met my mother. Tom, on the other hand, married his high school sweetheart. In their careers, too, Tony was preoccupied in creating, and Tom was interested in contributing; my dad started his own marketing company while Tom worked at high level corporate for auto companies. Both twins were blind in one eye—Tom’s left, Tony’s right—one of the only physical attributes in which they were the inverse of each other.As a non-twin, I think all of the blurred identity stuff sounds annoying. When your self is so tied up in another person’s, I assumed there’d be a longing for that sort of individual distinction, maybe some resentment at having a persistent and dizzyingly close model for comparison. Instead, my Uncle Tom explained that being mistaken for someone else or someone not being sure what name to call him made him feel special. With every milestone or piece of good news, Tom says he and my dad were never jealous or competitive in any negative sense. If anything, the twins felt as though they were achieving vicariously, maybe even taking credit for it by genetic association.As Tom remembers, in Windsor, Ontario in the 1950s, identical twins were rare. Everyone around them seemed to reinforce their twinness; together, they were magnetic. “People stared, stopped us on the street, asked us questions,” he said. “We were rock stars.”*My dad died suddenly, after what should have been a routine heart surgery. He was too young—everyone I knew made sure to say so, as if confirming that this loss was indeed tragic. His death shattered me. I went through unnerving phases like eating only comfort food. I threw away a manuscript I’d “finished,” adopted a kitten, never talked about his death, and then sometimes talked about it.It’s only recently that I’ve considered how deeply and distinctively his death must have shattered his twin. I think of my uncle witnessing my dad being extremely ill, struggling, and dying; it would be horrific in ways unique from my own experience. Losing a life partner and a best friend is its own grotesque and crushing blow. But with their resemblance, my uncle could’ve been glimpsing himself in such a state, not unlike a Dickensian spectre of what-is-yet-to-come.[[{"fid":"6700756","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":"2448","width":"3264","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Kinship genetic theory suggests that our ratings of grief intensity will increase proportionally with genetic relatedness to the deceased. Several twin-specific bereavement studies have found direct association between the degree of gene similarity (which is highest in identical twins) and anticipated grief. Using a rating system called the Grief Experience Inventory (GEI) selected aspects of twinship—preoccupation with the co-twin; disruption of shared birthdays; reactions to meeting or seeing other twins—were significantly associated with high GEI scale scores.In terms of experiencing grief for a co-twin in comparison to another sibling, my uncle can speak to both. Two younger LaSorda brothers passed away in the twins’ lifetimes: one at age of 16, and one at age 39, both unexpectedly. Of course these were tragedies that my uncle grieved, but when his twin died, he said the loss felt completely different.Twin researchers Nancy Segal and Thomas Bouchard have found that the mean grief intensity rating for twins was higher than for non-twin siblings, and significantly higher than that for spouses. My uncle echoed this finding: “A twin is more like a wife or a husband,” he said, “but bigger than that, because with a spouse, you could maybe meet another one. You can remember a time before. A twin leaves a void that’s always, always there.”*Tom and Tony have left their children a legacy of similarities, in a way. My cousin, Jackie, and I are the first-born kids of the twins. We share some physical traits (kind of tall, kind of blonde, fast walkers), but the parallels in our behaviours are what I find most striking. We both move around a lot (too much). For several Christmas holidays in a row we’ve chosen the same gifts for our mothers. We’ve both gone to university and later pursued two Master’s degrees: one academic and one Fine Arts each. We are intensely self-deprecating, solitary, and we were given the same prescription antidepressant.Oh, did I mention we’re both writers?As the children of identical twins, Jackie and I share 25 percent of our genes instead of the usual cousins’ share of 12.5%. Biologically, we’re half-sisters, not cousins. An identical twin parent is as closely related to his own children as to the co-twin’s children. At first I was surprised by my cousin’s grief when my dad died, but then again, I’d feel the same way. Our dads are our favourite people for the same reasons.*What I struggle with is the question of whether grieving my dad is made easier or harder by his twinship. You hear it all the time when someone loses a loved one: what I’d give to see them one more time, to be able to call them, hear their voice, hug them. I have that option, sort of. This father-clone.Since his death, I attempt to formulate my dad’s opinions about events that unfold, about the arc of my life since his absence, even thoughts about former tensions in our relationship. I hold on to my metaphorical grief suitcase. I can get insights from my uncle, though I rarely consult him; in part because I worry it’s painful for us both. When I called Tom the other day and asked for advice, I can say with confidence that what he told me is exactly what my dad would’ve said, down to the idioms and the nervous, excited laughter when answering the phone. So, in a way, the twin thing is a privilege.In another way, I can get petty. I see my cousins enjoying their lives with their dad. I watch Jackie grow annoyed sometimes, probably the same way I was, by her dad’s conservatism (maybe born out of the vehement working-class socialism they were raised with), his struggle to talk feelings, or his crippling awkwardness at drive-thru windows. I also see how my dad would’ve aged, how a few more years would’ve softened him.On the phone with Tom, talking about my dad, I was nervous. My uncle relaxed, and recounted story after story of his favourite twin memories. I jotted down Tom’s words in my notebook for over an hour—a shockingly long phone call for one of the twins. Tom and Tony were excellent baseball players. One season, they were placed on separate teams and pitched. Both made it to the finals—Tom’s team won. The Windsor Star featured a small clipping with a photo of the indistinguishable twins facing off with their uniforms and gloves, but the caption stated that Tony’s team won. Tom jokes about demanding a retraction from the paper, but the reality is neither the championship nor the headline mattered: their wins and losses were vicarious. As I listened, I began to step back and recognize that Tom is whole—a person who can offer me a distinct relationship and a perspective on my dad that I could never otherwise access. I stopped fretting about the upsetting parts of their identicality, because those exist in the similarities and the differences. I’m sure I’ve overlooked a lot of sparkling individuality while hunting for what I needed from my uncle, which is my dad.
‘Sadness Sharpens Into Anger Very Quickly’: An Interview with Pasha Malla

The author of Fugue States on upending Diaspora clichés, disingenuous narrative arcs, and dharma.

I first saw Pasha Malla speak in 2008, at a packed event at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto, for the launch of his debut collection of stories, The Withdrawal Method. Instead of a customary reading he presented a slideshow which included a series of doodles he made as a kid in London, Ontario while fascinated by the Nazis: swastikas, guns, fighter jets and tanks. Each drawing was accompanied by self-lacerating commentary on his childhood psychology, and if I remember correctly, he didn’t read a single story from his book that night.This lite deviancy left me enthralled at 21—who was this funny brown dude treating his own book launch with irreverence? I scooped up the stories and was engrossed with the tender rage he presented in the collection: brothers full of love unable to talk to each other, absurd imagery that stretched and collapsed. The book was funny. Like, funny-funny, but then the stories would detonate in unexpected ways and leave me reeling; it seemed impossible that someone could make stories twist and feel with such precision.Since The Withdrawal Method Malla has published a collection of poetry, found poetry focusing on post-game interviews with athletes, an art book riffing on Frank Capra’s Why We Fight, and an experimental novel, People Park. He has taught at the University of Toronto and mentored a wide range of authors, alongside writing a regular books column for The Globe and Mail, and contributing regularly to The Walrus, Newyorker.com and others.Last year I was fortunate enough to work with Malla on a project of my own. I was a little scared to meet someone I knew only through their work and my own admiration, but my fear was needless. Malla greeted my writing and me with a relentless generosity, rigor, and seriousness. While I spent the summer floundering with the state of my own work, ambition, and relationships, Malla—unbeknownst to him—provided a kind of anchor and model of what it meant to live a life in the arts, one built on dedication to serious thinking and a devotion to craft free of pretension.His new novel Fugue States follows Ash Dhar, a thirty something radio interviewer and author, spiraling outwards from the recent death of his father. The book is ambitious in its scope—at once a comic farce, serious in its psychological searching, while also delicately taking apart the conventions of the realist novel. It manages to be a page turner and provocative simultaneously, asking from the reader as much as it gives.We talked over Skype; Pasha in his book adorned office in Hamilton, Ontario, me in my balmy room in Toronto. He laughs often when talking about basketball or something personal but shifts gears quick when speaking on writing. We were interrupted only once, near the end, when his big bushy dog burst into view. We spoke mostly about Fugue States, how it came to be, and the responsibilities he felt towards it and by the end of the interview he was back to recommending me books for my own work.Adnan Khan: What was the process to get into Fugue States? One of the things that’s curious to me is that this is very much a realist novel, but at the same time there are some elements of it that feel like you’re poking at the genre a little bit. Pasha Malla: Oh yeah, totally. The intention is that it dismantles the whole structure as it goes.I think I set out to write a realist novel and then what I wanted to write about and talk about kind of required me to disobey the conventions. It’s so weird, I started writing this thing six or seven years ago, and you have to try to remember where it started. And I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been saying things…I dunno if any one of them is true or it’s a combination or I don’t know.I was just interested in trying to write a realist novel that was about a chronological story that takes place in space and time, where, you know, people do things that people do.To me it seems like the easy sell for this novel is that it’s a comic, Diaspora psychological realism novel, and then as you read it, you see it sort of turn inside out. I’m curious to know why you did that, basically. Lots of reasons. I mean there are reasons of my own accountability to the material. Like, I don’t feel like I’m the guy to write a novel of Kashmir, you know? Those aren’t my stories to tell, there are already plenty of writers who are writing about that place, better than I can, people who live there, people who speak the language, people who are on the ground getting shot in the face with pellets and shit like that. So, yeah, I did not, I really wanted to, not take that one. Not appropriate it, I guess.At the same time, I thought that there was something interesting in that tension of having this tenuous cultural heritage, from this place, being a piece of who I am, and so actively resisting it for ten years of having a writing career, because of that concern. Because of that concern and because of how that shit gets commodified and how in some ways writing about it is adhering to a market expectation and how easily that becomes packaged.It’s interesting that you say that—to explore that tension—because re-reading The Withdrawal Method, there are a few stories where there are certainly brown characters, but it’s not central to the story. Someone asked you in an interview why in The Slough, the first story of The Withdrawal Method, you named a character Pasha, and you talked about responsibility and not wanting the character to get away with something. The Slough is almost a foreshadowing of this novel, in the way that story also inverts upon itself. The point of that inversion was more exclusively literary and the points of the inversion in this book are, for lack of a better word, political. Or at least, I’m trying to—by sort of dismantling the structure and by setting up one kind of story only to subvert it I hope that I am—asking some questions about how we create narratives: political narratives vs. narratives of masculinity vs. narratives of purpose.One of the things that came up was this idea of responsibility. It seemed to me very much about responsibility, about whom is responsible for whom and not just who cares for who—but who is responsible, that sense of duty. Yeah, duty is—I mean, dharma.And it comes up in The Withdrawal Method, there are at least two stories about care giving and that sense of duty. I’m also curious to know, because the Kashmiri question comes up, there’s a point where Ash directly addresses this—when he discovers his father’s manuscript, he asks something like “why would I write this book, is it my story to tell?”He says explicitly that the character had written this kind of silly book and then felt the weight of doing something political, and wanted to write about Kashmir and then just couldn’t find a way in and felt disingenuous or manipulative or in some way advantageous to his own career to write about a very serious trauma.Is that cynical? Maybe I’m being cynical, maybe I’m being naïve, but even your willingness to engage with that question…I don’t think that if you publish this book and you take away all those questions about who can write about Kashmir, I don’t think anyone would say to you: you can’t write this. I think they would say, “You’re half Kashmiri, your father is Kashmiri, go nuts.” I think it’s just a personal resistance—I don’t really care what other people say. It’s just a personal thing, especially having gone there with my dad and feeling so outside of that culture. I went while I was writing the book. Basically I’d written drafts of the first two sections and I was like, “Okay, well, I’ll go there with him and then I’ll be able to write the third part where they actually go” and it did not go how I was expecting. I did not come away from that trip with any sort of better understanding of the things that I wanted to write about but a whole different set of questions that I thought were worth pursuing.What did you go there wanting to pursue? I thought I would just go there and get some answers. Just see the place and breathe the air and some way innately understand it. I hadn’t been there since I was four and I have no memories, or very, very small little flashes of sensory memory of ever being there.I thought, yeah, I had expectations of that trip, that it would sort of be like a birthright trip or a homecoming or something and I would suddenly be within my people. It was, like, not like that, at all.It’s a decimated place. It’s really not what it once was. Infrastructure is crumbling, people are suffering, the large proportion of the population no longer lives there, and 40,000—probably more than that—people have been murdered. It has kind of a shell shocked feeling of a place. It’s still beautiful if you look up, but if you look down, it’s degradation. And it’s not what it once was—at least, what I’d been told what it was.The story then became about the idealization of what it is to people, to exiles, and how the place can never be what people want it to be, or how it’s remembered. They remember in this idealized sort of way.I think that the character in the book, Ash, has inherited this idealized version of what that place will be and has this innate suspicion that it is not that so I think he knows that if he starts to write about it, he will be writing about a false version, and then, he resists going because he doesn’t want to know the truth, and then he gets there and forgets why he’s there!Why is care giving, or duty, so prevalent in your work? Ash does go to India for Matt—there’s an underlying sense of taking care.When I was writing The Withdrawal Method my step-mom was really sick and my dad just dedicated his life to taking care of her. I mean, he talked about dharma all the time—it’s like, I’m not doing anything good, I’m just doing what has to be done. Not out of obligation—but this is what you do. And, you know, I like that idea.I like to think about the various degrees of loyalty and what that means in friendships and how Matt’s idea of loyalty is built into this code of what he imagines it means to be a man and a friend and whatever else, that the book kind of dismantles. And I think that, you know, ways that men in this novel, like Chip is the sole caretaker for his son, who has cerebral palsy, and it’s just a relationship that Ash cannot fathom.I wanted that relationship to have an irony to it, where we see how hard this guy is trying to take care of his kid, as a man, he’s doing his best, and there’s something kind of innate to how he’s been culturally limited to do it right—or at least, how he feels he should be doing it right. Struggling with it and whatever else. You know, you don’t read a lot of books—I don’t anyway—that apply that care-giving role to men, or caretaking. How men take care of each other and family and friends and everything else. And also how they fail.There is this undercurrent of menace through the book; Ash’s father is very angry, Ash is morose, but then there’s this comedy throughout. Even Matt—who is this incredibly destructive force for most of the book—is quite funny. I wanted to make their characters multivalent, so they’re not all just struggling with a kind of masculinity. Whether it’s bro culture masculinity that Matt feels like he has to live up to, or some sort of paternalistic culture the father needs to live up to, or whether the son feels like he has this male inheritance.But the way that North American male culture is built, that sadness sharpens into anger very quickly and the way that it manifests outwardly as hostility, violence, anger, aggression, and for the three of those characters. You know, Matt is physically violent, Ash is linguistically violent.And I think for that to work and the kind of tone I wanted—I didn’t want it to just be a book of menace, because that would create a kind of monotone that didn’t work for this. I think it works for something like Blood Meridian, where that tone is crucial to how that book operates, but I wanted for that to be not the dominant strain, but an undercurrent that is inevitable, especially when it rises up and becomes so prevalent.It’s very unsettling. The Matt-in-India stuff is terrifying. And he doesn’t know! I kind of wanted a certain, it’s hard to create expectations for what you want from the reader, but I liked the potential for the character—the people who find him innocuously entertaining and have some sympathy for him, I think that’s good. But I also wanted to turn that into a kind of complicity, where his bumbling is such a symptom of a certain type of privilege. And that this kind of behavior actually wreaks a lot of havoc.I think that my intention was to try and create a character that feels potentially dangerous but is innocuous enough—at least in the first two, maybe the first part of the book and then starts to shift in the second and then really shifts in the third—that if you’re entertained by this guy, then suddenly you’re like “oh shit, I kinda got sucked up in this character.” To some people I think he might be charming, or sympathetic; and certainly some people would find him repulsive. That’s fine too.I was also interested in the relationship between Ash and Sherene. It’s sort of set up initially that Ash is very needy towards her, and kind of longing for her, but then it comes out that it’s a friendship. You see that Sherene, a woman, is the only place where he can express that longing for intimacy. Whereas Matt, who is desperate for it from Ash, never gets it from Ash. Yeah. And they have an intellectual intimacy. There’s nothing really romantic there. There’s a kind of longing of certain kinds of friendships that will never be consummated in any way, except trust, and a sort of emotional dependency.You said complicit, and that struck a chord because that’s something the book does. Not only playing with the very typical Diaspora storyline—I’m pretty sure the father dying and the boy going back home is what happens in The Namesake—I mean, I’m not gonna name names, but it’s cliché, and the book is full of cliché, but I hope that, it kind of upends them. The main character is aware that he is a cliché.And that self-awareness comes through. I remember when you outed Chip and Sherene as being Asian—do you want to talk about that a little bit? I love things that make me feel that sort of shame; because in the book you introduce them and then later on we learn that Chip is Korean and Sherene is Persian, and in both those moments I was like, “Oh, wait a minute, I was definitely thinking that these dudes were white.” It’s just a little game. It’s a game to play with expectations and racialized characters have to be identified as racialized. I had a clear idea of who these people were from the beginning and then I was like, why do I need to explain it? If they were white I wouldn’t explain it. I hope that you know, the reader’s response to that is to make them question that expectation, that unless specified, a character is read as white.Talking about those ideas of what is common in Diaspora literature is this heirloom—Ash finds his father’s manuscript; this is what his father has left behind. Exactly, it’s another cliché.It also provokes a lot of questions about memory, about what’s left behind, and that ties in really well with a lot of the political stuff. You ask, how much responsibility does Ash have to Kashmir—what was the decision behind that, that you wanted to explode that? Explode what in particular?This idea of heirlooms, because it’s an unfinished heirloom. That caught my mind particularly—when someone comes from another country, you have to decide what to leave behind, and Ash’s father is this man of intellect and he decides to write the Great Indian Novel. And then Ash, viewing himself kind of as a failure, kind of not, sort of steps into his father’s shoes by retyping this novel and seeing what he can discover. And using that novel to engage with his dead father. It doesn’t go anywhere though, right? It’s a process that I think we see in fiction as being kind of rewarding, as a path to the self, I just feel like it’s a little bit disingenuous. Does life really work that way? I don’t know, it’s a question. I don’t know. But at least, in this book, the manuscript never goes anywhere, and then that sort of gets transmuted into the reality of the book, eventually. But Ash’s process of working on it doesn’t go anywhere either.The riskiest thing to me about this book is that you withheld the epiphany. Yeah, well, kind of.You withhold the epiphany with a capital e. I struggle with that tendency, among, let’s say, North American writers, to sort of take that cultural heritage and cultural inherited trauma and use it for self- discovery. It’s so weird. “I don’t know who I am, I’m going to dig up all this stuff about X genocide that happened to my ancestors to get a better sense of myself.”The level of solipsism in that is insane! So it’s something the character is aware of, and it’s something that I was thinking of when writing this book. I could spend a year in Kashmir talking to people and living there, but I think that the instinct to then use that to better understand myself is crazy. Like, I grew up in London, Ontario, you know what I mean? So it’s like—the resistance, the way the book sort of sets that up, is a kind of garden path, like he’s going to use this to sort of discover something about his dad and then discover something about himself, but is very conscientiously a dead end, I guess.I don’t know if there are epiphanies that are withheld. The coda that’s at the end of the book is supposed to lead the reader to a realization that the character’s had, you know, this theme of time and memory that’s sort of been threaded throughout the whole book, that there’s something still within that, there’s something that’s still worthwhile. And that the act of storytelling and, you know, fiction, and the process of engaging with these questions is, in itself, even though they don’t go anywhere, is worthwhile.I don’t think it’s an entirely cynical and nihilistic book. I feel like though it’s resisting a lot of these things, it’s resisting a lot of tropes and things that I think are themselves cynical. I think that, you know, approaching storytelling as a kind of teleology that will lead you to an end point of understanding is this thing that we’ve developed as a way to talk about fiction, to me, it’s like, is that what life is like?
It’s the New (Old) Thing: When Post-Punk and Literature Meet

From Pissed Jeans inviting Lindsay Hunter onto a song to Lynne Tillman writing for Y Pants to Kathy Acker performing with the Mekons, there’s a unique energy and catharsis in these collaborations.

So let’s begin with Pissed Jeans. From the eastern side of Pennsylvania, they tap into a grimy, visceral strain of music, have one of the most evocative names of any currently running punk band, and put on a gripping live show. Their latest album, Why Love Now, was released by Sub Pop at the end of February, and right smack in the middle of it, prime sonic real estate to disorient discerning listeners, is a song called “I’m a Man.” Like many of their songs, it delves into the grotesque and the menacing: over booming drums and frenetic guitars, a voice declaims a narrative of toxic masculinity that would make the misanthropic protagonist of your average Shellac song blush.“I’m a man, Miss Office Lady,” the narrator says, and proceeds with an unsettling and over-the-top method of seduction, using a tone of voice that’s both highly exaggerated and frequently sinister (“I’ll take the milk and the cow. That’s you. You’re the cow”). But the voice heard here isn’t that of Pissed Jeans vocalist Matt Korvette. Instead, those words were written and read by author Lindsay Hunter, whose books—including the novel Ugly Girls and the collections Daddy’s and Don’t Kiss Me—involve a host of similarly oversexed, comic-yet-sinister figures. Hunter blends in so neatly with the band’s sound and attitude, it’s almost a surprise such collaborations don’t happen more frequently.[[{"fid":"6700721","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Pissed Jeans - I'm A Man","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Which isn’t to say they never happen at all. Earlier this year, Water Wing Records out of Portland, Oregon, reissued Beat It Down, the first full-length from No Wave band Y Pants. Originally released in 1982, the album offers plenty of archetypally post-punk moves: left-field instrumental arrangements, haunting vocals, and a general sense of aesthetic unpredictability. The phrase “don’t be afraid to be boring” is repeatedly intoned on “Obvious,” the album’s first song, with connotations that sound alternately liberating and ominous. In other words, it’s par for the course for that particular musical moment in time.Where does the literary side of things come in? The song’s lyrics were written by Lynne Tillman, who went on to become an iconic writer among iconic writers, nominated for National Book Critics Circle Awards in both fiction and criticism. On its own, “Obvious” seems of a piece with the rest of the album, whose songs deal with alienation, flawed interpersonal connections, and subcultures, but its lyrics also fit nicely in with Tillman’s bibliography, the components of which frequently disconcert, experiment with form, and often bring artistic disciplines together. It’s not the only literary nod on Beat It Down, either: the lyrics to “The Fly,” the eighth song on the album, are adapted from Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -.”In his 2008 book on the genre, Marc Masters pointed out that artists identified as No Wave had little in common—except for, in the case of many, a brief existence. “Did the bands sound the same? Did they think the same? Did they all get along? No. There is perhaps only one question to which No Wave offered a Yes: is there anything left when you start by saying 'No'?” All of which, then, makes for a subgenre that’s fairly open to collaborations, perhaps moreso than most. Why not bring in a writer to work on lyrics? Why not collaborate with someone outstanding in their own field but without formal musical training?The moment in No Wave history from which Y Pants emerged is important to keep in mind. In his introduction to the 2006 anthology Up Is Up But So Is Down: New York’s Literary Scene, 1974-1992, editor Brandon Stosuy set the stage for the literary world that the book encompasses. Stosuy notes that the experimentalism of that scene had a greater aesthetic similarity to the punk bands with whom those writers frequently shared art spaces than more traditional concepts of experimental writing from the same time. “All in all,” he writes, “these writers have more in common with Reed and his Velvet Underground, the tight three-chord anthems of the Ramones, or the jagged sounds of Suicide and DNA than baroque Pynchon and his V-2 missiles.”As tends to happen when likeminded creative figures congregate, disciplines began to overlap. Stosuy’s anthology is particularly useful in the way it showcases a cross-section of a particular scene, noting not just the punk ties of literary figures like Tillman and Dennis Cooper, but also the literary efforts of those known for their work in other fields, such as Lydia Lunch and David Wojnarowicz. Barbara Ess, best known for her innovative photography, is represented in the anthology as both a writer and designer, but has also been involved in several musical groups over the years, the aforementioned Y Pants included.The same spirit of collaboration and the motif of punk and literature borrowing from one another—what Stosuy refers to as “the fusion of power chords and words”—persisted beyond the initial heyday of postpunk and downtown experimentalism. One of the most prominent writers mentioned in Up Is Up But So Is Down is Kathy Acker, who collaborated with the long-running group the Mekons on the album Pussy, Queen of the Pirates. Now might be a good time to mention this live footage of the collaborators performing on television, in which Acker dramatically reads from her work before segueing into the Mekons at their most catchily new wave, while everyone dances across the stage dressed as pirates. It is an amazing sight to behold. But more importantly, it suggests, like Lindsay Hunter taking the microphone on a Pissed Jeans song, that the overlap by a pair of artists with roots in the avant-garde can be surprisingly cathartic and ecstatic. It’s another way for musicians already taking their music in unexpected directions to go in an even more unexpected direction. In the case of Hunter and Pissed Jeans, for instance, this is twofold: adding a literally different voice to the band’s music, and folding in a representative of a new artistic discipline along the way.[[{"fid":"6700726","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"The MEKONS & Kathy Acker ~ Live ~ Pussy, King of the Pirates ~","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Pussy, Queen of the Pirates shares its name with a book by Acker, though the two works are distinct from one another. In a 1996 interview for the zine Carbon 14, Acker talked about how she had sought to explore questions of race through writing the book. Her answer, however, ultimately explores larger questions about the nature of collaboration and the work that can result:“When I start it, I have no idea where it will end up. The same thing with the record with the Mekons. I didn't know it would end up the way it has. I was using material from the book, but I think it's also partly something else. Something you get from the record itself, or from the live performance.”That sense of “something else” isn’t easy to quantify. Some of it might be the notion of taking a listener (or a reader, or a viewer) by surprise; some of it might stem from the friction that emerges from the best collaborations (and is entirely absent from the worst). It does seem notable, however, that plenty of those collaborations maintain a connection, even now, to the same downtown scene from which Acker played a part.The producer of Pissed Jeans’s Why Love Now is, in fact, Lydia Lunch (who has herself worked across multiple artistic disciplines). A significant amount of the press the band did follow Why Love Now’s release delved into the band’s working relationship with their two high-profile collaborators. In the case of Hunter, that came via vocalist Matt Korvette’s admiration for her writing.“I’ve just been a fan of hers and I reached out and we became friends,” he told writer Sarah Rose Etter in an interview for Fanzine. “I just love her writing. I wanted her to write something for the insert initially, but then I wondered does anyone even read inserts?” And so the band and Hunter worked together to create “I’m A Man,” which both feels like a natural extension of their sound and a necessary counterpoint to it. In an interview with the music website CLRVYNT, Korvette was asked about Lunch’s reaction to the finished song. His response? “Oh man, she was moshing to it. It was great!”There are, of course, such collaborations whose lineage can’t be traced directly to that New York scene of yore. The Philadelphia-based poet, musician, and performance artist Camae Ayewa makes music under the name Moor Mother; her album Fetish Bones was released last year by Don Giovanni Records, best-known for being the home to music by punk artists ranging from Downtown Boys to Screaming Females to Alice Bag. In her introduction to her interview with Ayewa at Pitchfork, writer Jenn Pelly wrote that “she’s posted some 100 recordings to Bandcamp, with samples ranging from children’s hand games to Fugazi’s ‘Waiting Room’ bassline to the poets Maya Angelou, June Jordan, and Ntozake Shange.” Here, too, there’s a juxtaposition between the literary and the musical; here, too, the result is nearly impossible to classify, but frequently gripping.Trying to force cross-disciplinary collaborations can backfire in a host of ways. But the upswing in these sorts of punk/literary collaborations feels organic: the increased presence of writers at music festivals suggests a move towards increased overlap, and as writers have embraced more performative readings, some have also gotten attention for that side of their persona—author Amelia Gray, for one, has recorded two sessions for the online music archive Daytrotter. A number of DIY performance spaces are also taking a cue from bygone days and hosting multidisciplinary work: the calendar for the Brooklyn DIY space Silent Barn shows readings and zine events alongside a host of punk and experimental artists. The result, often, is thrilling and unexpected: artists of different stripes challenging and complementing each other, and forging new ground together in the process.