Hazlitt Magazine

Closing Pandora's Box

Reckoning with the swift decline of Twitter. 

'The Language of Other Things': An Interview with Stephanie LaCava

The author of I Fear My Pain Interests You on inevitable doom, writing through absence, and cows. 

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What Does the Sea Sound Like?

On music for floating.

There’s a photo I love of the French documentary filmmaker Jean Painlevé on the coast of western France. The year is 1935. Painlevé wears a classic oval-shaped dive mask which completely covers his face—nose, mouth, and all. There’s an oxygen tank slung over his shoulder, a relatively new and novel invention for the time. But it’s his arms that draw your focus. The muscles in his forearm ripple as he grips a massive metal box, leaning backwards to counterbalance the contraption’s immense weight. The box is half as long as Painlevé is tall and contains a crudely waterproofed camera. When people think of underwater documentaries, if they think of such things at all, they probably think of the legendary subaquatic explorer Jacques Cousteau. But Painlevé came first. He was one of the first filmmakers to use underwater footage in a film, and he wanted to depict the minutiae of undersea life as naturally and authentically as possible—right down to his choice of music. Painlevé’s films prompted a simple question: What should the sea sound like? What should a viewer hear when watching kelp forests sway or seahorses fight? It wasn’t something anyone had to consider before, not seriously. Songs about the sea tended to focus on distance, adventure, danger, and longing—on human concerns happening on the surface, not life beneath the waves. But Painlevé wanted his audience to see the ocean as a world like our own; a world of dignified seahorses, stylish crabs, and seductive octopuses, the human condition rendered bubbling and bulbous. He wanted emotion, movement and vibe. Much to the chagrin of scientists, who did not want such things, Painlevé chose jazz. I hadn’t given the question of what the sea should sound like much thought until about a decade ago when I first heard The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, a 2002 album from the indie rock band Yo La Tengo. I learned that to celebrate the dawn of a new millennium, organizers of the San Francisco International Film Festival thought it would be clever to connect past and present. They wanted to have modern-day musicians score old silent films with new, original work. The musicians would be free to interpret the films however they saw fit. In 2000, Television guitarist Tom Verlaine was tasked with scoring a collection of avant-garde shorts from filmmakers such as Man Ray and Fernand Léger. It went well enough that the festival’s organizers wanted to do it again the following year. They asked Yo La Tengo to score a handful of Painlevé’s early films. The Sounds of the Sounds of Science captures the result. In Yo La Tengo’s interpretation, synthesizers whoosh like water being filtered through mouths and gills. Brushes dance on drums as delicately as fins, while Rhodes piano shimmers like refracted light. Guitars noodle in the distance, drenched in tremolo and reverb on long, looping delays, while creatures jerk, thrust, jitter, flop, flap, wiggle, pulse, and convulse on-screen. The constant thumping of the bass drum evokes the distant churn of the tide as heard from the seafloor, sending seaweed into a slow dance, shuffling side-to-side. At times, notes slide and linger while sonar pings skip like pebbles across a placid surface. At others, there is discord, danger, chaos—the crunch of crustaceans in combat, the crash of cresting waves, a flurry of fuzz, and deep, urgent toms. The whole thing is sublime. It is music for floating, drifting, writing, thinking. But in the depths of my mind lies a dark, terrifying thought: that, increasingly, this is also the soundtrack to a threatened world, a sonic snapshot of a place that no longer exists.  *  The sea, of course, is far from silent. In fact, the fathoms are full of sound: the clicks and whines of dolphins and whales, the low rumble of distant earthquakes, the scrape of tsunamis on the seafloor. There’s the belch of volcanic vents, the breath of glaciers through freeze and thaw, or the mechanical salsa of passing ships. But just because the sounds are there doesn’t mean they’re easy to hear; you can’t stroll the seafloor like you would a forest, and what’s audible from shore isn’t a proxy for life below. The problem has always been accessibility. So, for decades, it’s often fallen to musicians to bring the soundscape of the sea—both real and imagined—to life. In the 1960s, surf rockers ran their jangly guitars through reverb units to create sonic textures that washed over listeners like waves, paired with dark, propulsive picking that spoke to the danger that lurked below. Dub went further, chaining reverb, delays, equalizers, and other effects to "displace time, shift the beat, heighten a mood, [and] suspend a moment,” writes musician and author David Toop in his book Ocean of Sound. As per Toop, the music evokes “the sonar transmit pulses, reverberations and echoes of underwater echo ranging and bioacoustics.” Synthesizers proved especially versatile, with alien tones both eerie and fantastical, equally fit for space and sea, separate sides of the same tape. By this point, even Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon—his longtime collaborator and wife—had abandoned traditional jazz, scoring their 1965 film The Love Life of the Octopus with a soundtrack of experimental electronic sounds. Around the same time, popular music had started replacing more traditional orchestral arrangements in film and TV. Underwater documentary was rising in popularity, too—thanks, in no small part, to The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Before long, the trajectories of musical experimentation and ocean exploration converged, the ocean as both subject and vibe. One of my favourite artifacts from this era is Sven Libaek’s Inner Space. Libaek composed the music between 1965 and 1974 for a long-running Australian television documentary of the same name that followed the adventures of shark-diving couple Ron and Valerie Taylor. The reissue record label Light in the Attic calls the compilation one of the key entries in the underwater music genre. Another label, Trunk, described Inner Space as “where jazz meets the great white shark, where waltzes meet wildfowl and longboard surfers meet a lively sea of cool flutes and groovy, spacey, moody vibes.” Votary Records calls it “a whirlpool of sublime aquatic jazz exotica.” I can confirm all of those descriptions are apt. But what I love most about Inner Space is the sense of depth and movement infused in some of my favourite arrangements—the soft yet propulsive patter of brushes on the hi-hats, the shimmering tones of reverb-drenched vibraphone, the gurgle of electric organ chords. It’s the slippery sway of the wah-wah and the tremble of a tremolo guitar, fingers flitting across the fretboard like frantic fish, and, best of all, the low, mysterious reediness of the bass flute—urgent and undulating and undeniably cool. I first encountered Libaek’s music on the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou—both a spoof of and homage to Cousteau’s televised adventures. But whereas the music used by Cousteau feels relatively staid and predictably orchestral, Libaek’s music is stylish and electric; a perfect sonic match for Anderson’s whimsical, impressionist vision of the sea. What I’ve since learned is that Libaek was not operating in a vacuum. By the 1970s, an entire genre of underwater music—or aquatic jazz exotica—had emerged, fuelled by the growing demand for television soundtracks and film scores that might evoke the sea. There’s Italian composer Egisto Macchi’s Fauna Marina, “a set of eleven compositions intended to accompany the images of a hypothetical fish fauna documentary.” There is also Alessandro Alessandroni’s electronic Biologia Marina, Daniele Patucchi’s Men Of The Sea, and Armando Sciascia’s Sea Fantasy. The Sonor Music Editions catalogue has more. The Italians are so well represented in the genre that I recently discovered a sprawling Spotify playlist devoted solely to Italian library music, with no shortage of underwater-themed tracks. Much of it is deeply weird, atmospheric, and experimental; it’s what you might expect from jazz and rock musicians working in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the boundaries between genres collapsing beneath the sonic weight of new technologies and their new sounds. Cousteau famously called the sea “the silent world”—but here were visions of the sea so lush and sonically rich they were practically not of this planet. This was no accident. From Lovecraft to Libaek, there is a rich tradition of alien allusion in our descriptions of the sea. Libaek had already gestured to the similarities between sea and cosmos with the term Inner Space, but he made the connection explicit with his next collection: Solar Flares. Considered a spiritual companion to his ocean work, Solar Flares uses a similar sonic palette, reinforcing the notion of sea as space and space as sea—remote, inhospitable, mysterious, and largely unexplored, but also alive with wonder and the promise of life. Wes Anderson scored much of The Life Aquatic with gentle acoustic covers of Starman-era Bowie by Brazilian guitarist Seu Jorge—who appears throughout the film as a bemused, Cousteau-like deckhand, looking out across the endless surface, asking “is there life on Mars?” But of course, we know the sea is not space. It is here, and it is a part of us. And the connection between what happens on land and sea has never been more urgent, more clear. *  In Painlevé’s early days, underwater documentary filmmaking was no easy feat. Sometimes it meant spending hours wading in the shallow coastal waters of Saint Raphaël, gripping his heavy waterproof camera, or draped over the rocks on his stomach, arms half submerged like a diver, frozen mid-entry, camera held fast beneath the waves. And, as recounted in the book Science Is Fiction, this was an improvement on his prior films.  Before the invention of the Fernez-Le Prieur breathing apparatus, Painlevé had to be tethered to a boat and fed air through a hose. He resurfaced often—to replace the camera’s film, which could only capture a few seconds at a time, and to curse the boat’s crew for pumping either too much air or not enough. When it wasn’t feasible to record his critters underwater, Painlevé would instead try to recreate their natural environments in a tank—with oft-disastrous results. While attempting to film male seahorses giving birth in tanks in his Paris studio, their enormous glass aquariums shattered twice under the intense heat of the lights needed for high-speed filming. The sudden gush of seawater sent crew members flying and corroded spare camera parts. Another time, an octopus escaped its tank, fled the studio, and made it to an embankment next door, startling hapless bathers. During a trip to Brittany, the most northwestern point of France, Painlevé and crew lugged an incredible amount of gear in the back of a truck: two generators, myriad lamps, a microscope, and of course, containers to hold his actors. It was a disaster. Glassware smashed. Equipment melted. The truck broke down. They overloaded their lights with electrical current, broke one of the generators, and even set fire to a fireproof screen. Sand blew everywhere, into everything, wreaking havoc on animals and instruments alike.  But the Fernez-Le Prieur was so freeing that Painlevé imagined one day building an underwater studio—a place where he might float with ease in perfect conditions, able to visit his subjects at home at last. Though he died in 1989, I wonder what he might have made of something like the BBC’s Blue Planet II. To me, it feels closest to the vision Painlevé had in mind. Filmmakers for the 2017 series spent more than six thousand hours capturing underwater footage, going to depths and extremes Painlevé could have only dreamed. They piloted submersibles, used remotely operated vehicles, shot with cutting-edge cameras designed to capture the most exquisite of details in ultra-low light. The quality is remarkable, resplendent, a hallucinogenic smear of texture and colour. Viewed like this, I tend to think of the sea as an alien place; all those tentacles, those ghostly pools of brine. It hardly seems real. And then there’s the music: grand, sweeping, orchestral, dramatic. It has all the style and substance of a big-budget film score—not bad per se, but comfortable and familiar—which made sense once I realized prolific Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer was involved. It reminded me, at least conceptually, of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which also paired seascapes with orchestral scores—soundtracks for the sea, but not exactly of it. Which brings me back to Painlevé’s early question: what should the sea sound like, then? The sounds I find the most compelling in Blue Planet II are also the most fleeting; they don’t come from horns or strings, but from dolphins and shrimp. The truth, I think, is as radical as it is simple: the sea should sound exactly as it sounds.  * If you asked me to describe the sound of shrimp, I would say: like raindrops in a puddle, the crackling of a log fire, like branches snapping, or the electromagnetic morse code of cellphone data passing through a speaker. This, to me, is how shrimp sound on Jana Winderen’s 2009 composition “The Noisiest Guys on the Planet.” Winderen is a Norwegian artist who mainly works with field recordings of underwater sound. Over more than a decade, Winderen has captured the sounds of fish, melting ice, whales, shrimp, and the inescapable noises of human activity that seep into even our deepest underwater soundscapes. What I love about Winderen’s work is that it doesn’t merely evoke the ocean; it is the ocean. In the right place, with the right equipment, it’s startling just how much you can hear. Winderen’s main tool is the hydrophone—an extremely sensitive underwater microphone that converts pressure changes into sounds we can hear—and she often deploys three or four at once, dangling them from cables at different depths. The resulting works are both a reminder and a provocation—that the sea is not silent, that there is so much for us to hear, and that what we can hear is not necessarily healthy. Speaking on the BBC podcast Between the Ears in an episode about her practice, Winderen says there is almost always engine noise present in her recordings. Shipping traffic, seismic testing, even vibrations from land—“from the first moment where I put a hydrophone in the water, you immediately start to hear human-created sounds,” she says. The types of creatures she can hear, the sounds they make, the sounds we make—all of it reflects how the thrum of human activity has irreparably changed our planet, and how the consequences of our actions ripple out over time.   Winderen is part of a long lineage of scientists, artists, composers, and musicians who have used hydrophone recordings for decades to surface rarely heard sounds of the sea. The 1970 album Songs of the Humpback Whale was such a revelation upon its release that it became one of the most popular nature recordings of all time, with more than 125,000 copies sold. Contrary to Cousteau’s The Silent World, advances in hydrophone technology have made field recordings an integral part of underwater documentary film. But Winderen, I think, is in a league of her own. Her recordings are inherently, unmistakably, the sound of climate change, and for Winderen, sound is a way to reorient our relationship to the crisis. “Sound is a more direct, physical presence,” said Winderen on Between the Ears. “An image of an iceberg melting—it is looking very beautiful and will always be at a distance from you, while a sound comes very close and all around you.” Over the years, Winderen has presented many of her works as large-scale sound installations—the kind where sound can wash over listeners like the sea. But thankfully, with a good pair of headphones, you can also listen to many of them at home. Depending on the composition, whales can sound like an orchestra tuning up, haunted bows sliding across a ghostly violin. Evaporation is a cavernous, expansive account of disappearing ice—nearly 20 minutes of deep background rumble and industrial-sounding drone against the foreground’s drips, bubbles and squeals. Energy Field is like a slithering wall of sound, layering wind, waves, and wildlife. Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone often sounds like the endless descent of a malevolent elevator—stopping only for clicks, whines, and creaks that punctuate distant, glassy whispers. The sounds in these recordings are utterly, overwhelmingly alive, but it’s impossible not to wonder: for how long? “What Winderen is creating, then, is not just music but—in the idiom of sound art—documents as well,” wrote MIT anthropologist Stefan Helmreich. “If earlier generations of composers sought simply to replicate a submarine sublime, today’s sound artists hope not just to soak in sound but also to broker ear-opening accounts of human relations with the water around us.” To Helmreich, Winderen’s field recordings are like listening to the vital signs of our oceans—of “soundscapes that harbor evidence of global warming, of sea creatures under stress.”  In that sense, I’ve also started to think of the works of Sven Libaek and Yo La Tengo as documents in their own way—important records of how we used to think about the ocean, creativity caught in amber, reminders of what we stand to lose. To me, listening to the work of Libaek and Yo La Tengo is like listening to the platonic ideal of a healthy ocean, an imagined ocean, the polar opposite of what you can hear in Winderen’s work. As much as I enjoy these albums, I’ve come to the uncomfortable realization they do more than merely evoke an exaggerated vision of an uncharted and mysterious sea; they exist as soundtracks to a worldview, an era, an innocence that can no longer exist today. The ocean environments that inspired these works are increasingly threatened. Before long, they may not look so redolent with life. And when that happens, what kind of music will we make instead? Perhaps the sea may start to inspire sounds a lot like the surface—those of shipping and mining and warming and death. “Dialing [into] deployments of sound deleterious to dolphins and whales might reveal a genre of underwater music no one has yet considered: cetacean death metal,” Helmreich writes.  Ironically, I think it’s the surreality of that submarine sublime that keeps me coming back to the music of Libaek and Yo La Tengo. It’s not how the sea actually sounds, but how I hope it would, and maybe again could—healthy, hopeful. The ocean as both subject and vibe. Listen to Matthew's Sea Sounds playlist on Apple Music or Spotify. 
Closing Pandora’s Box

Reckoning with the swift decline of Twitter. 

Welcome to Mind in Bloom, a column deconstructing current events, music and art. I first signed up for Twitter in March of 2009. My tech-savvy friend and tourmate DJ Co-op encouraged me to start an account. Already fatigued after migrating from MySpace to Facebook in 2007, I asked him what the point was. Turns out this new website was essentially a micro-blogging application that mimicked Facebook status updates. You could text out a tweet via SMS and it would show up online for all to see. Everyone was talking about what they had for lunch or what they were listening to. Here’s an example of an early tweet by me: [[{"fid":"6708741","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] In the years that went by, I became increasingly addicted to the dopamine rush provided by this app. I started using it as a news aggregator. Breaking news was reported on Twitter at a speed that made going on Facebook feel like waiting for the town crier to shout the day’s comings and goings. Twitter became the perfect place to discuss live events like award shows and sports matches as they happened. Black Twitter seemed to be where every meme on the internet originated. The app unexpectedly became a useful tool for revolutionary dissent and organizing protests. Things that happened on Twitter began to impact the real world. My Twitter account probably contributed to me getting a book deal. I used Twitter to crowdfund hundreds of dollars for the Canadian Association of Black Journalists. Fans who followed me on Twitter once helped me find a vintage jersey of the Edmonton Trappers, my home city’s long defunct AAA baseball team. Lars Ulrich started following me, played my song on his Apple Music radio show, gave me backstage passes to Metallica’s 2017 Toronto show at Rogers Centre and invited me to a private afterparty with a full banquet where I talked at length with his personal pilot about the English Beat.  Still, I’m somewhat relieved to see Twitter decline, if only for my own sanity. When Trump used it liberally during his presidency, there was a simmering sense of unpredictability and chaos for four straight years. He would threaten countries with nuclear war with the same level of nonchalance I might muster to tweet about a really good croissant. After Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was assassinated and Flight PS752 was accidentally shot down by Iranian missiles in January 2020, I combed through tweets about a potential World War III and worried for my wife’s relatives in the region. I remember doomscrolling during the early months of the pandemic, following every update on the virus. It’s hard to think of a time in my life when I ever felt worse than when I was doing that. Twitter is the answer to the question, “What if you could know about everything that was happening in the world at once?” What that amounted to was immediate knowledge of every celebrity death and global natural disaster as well as every instance of political malfeasance and interpersonal wrongdoing on the planet, packaged into an addictive format that made it impossible to look away.  Seeing one of your tweets blow up can be intoxicating. A tweet I made earlier this month was seen by literally a million people. Twitter is probably the most efficient tool for the dissemination of information (and disinformation) in the history of mankind. But to quote Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, with a business like this, there's a gnarly downside. Viral tweets brought me media attention and opportunities to write for money. But those same posts have also brought me an outsized tsunami of hate and anger from total strangers who even follow me to other platforms to give me a piece of their mind. Who profited more from one of my viral tweets: me or the platform? Every time I posted about a public event, it got attention, made its way off of the app and became news. News producers were always roving around for content that resonated with people and garnered engagement. I felt obligated to be thoughtful and responsible with my personal platform when all I wanted to do when I first started my account was make jokes about basketball players.  Social media platforms are only as valuable as the people who use them. To paraphrase Nilay Patel in his devastating piece for the Verge, when Elon bought Twitter, he essentially paid $44 billion dollars to buy himself. As Musk becomes more hostile to the authors, journalists, artists and public figures who helped turn Twitter into the internet’s town square, the value of his asset declines with every notable person who leaves. Musk claims that “Twitter usage is at an all-time high lol,” but who are these users? Are they mostly trolls attracted to Twitter’s new thirst for “free speech” that saw instances of the n-word rise by 500% after Elon’s acquisition of the app? Are they flocking to the app to make one of the countless parody accounts that have now inundated the site, one of which caused Eli Lilly’s stock price to tank? Or are they just there to watch the car crash unfold?  Musk’s desperate gambit of convincing people to pay $8 a month for a verification badge was a clear attempt to destabilize the app ahead of the US midterm elections as well as a way to lessen the influence of public figures. But it’s also an idea that only a rich guy would come up with: buying status instead of earning it. If you pay for enough bottles of champagne with sparklers to get brought to your private table at the club, people might start thinking that you’re someone important. Unfortunately, you can’t buy credibility. People who paid for the now-suspended Twitter Blue program have since become an object of ridicule on the app. Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter shows the corrupting influence of capitalism on the web. He fired half of the company’s staff immediately after taking the reins. He came up with the ill-fated $8 verification badge program to increase revenue. Musk is essentially pushing the “freemium” model used by games on the App Store that incentivizes in-app purchases and upgrades that improve your user experience. For that system to become profitable, the free experience has to be made more intolerable. We’ve seen it happen on Facebook and Instagram where organic engagement has been throttled and paying for ads is the only way to reach an audience. There hasn’t been a meaningful update to Facebook’s rickety user experience in years but the app’s advertising infrastructure is possibly the most robust on the internet. It shows you where their priority lies. Damon K’s excellent recent post inspired me to sign up to Mastodon, a competing social media app. I was reluctant when I saw a few folks complaining about it on Twitter, all of whom were verified users with massive followings who had reason to be unreceptive to an alternative. They found it confusing and unintuitive. When you sign up, you pick a home server. From there, you can post on other user’s pages on other servers, which is referred to as “the fediverse.” I haven’t totally gotten the hang of it yet but I do appreciate one of Mastodon’s founding principles: they’re a decentralized network.  As a result, there’s no profit motive. There are no ads. Every server is controlled by someone else. There is no single owner of Mastodon. You can post multiple links on your profile page because no one cares if your followers go elsewhere. Of course, all of this could change with time if the platform grows and somehow gets infiltrated by corporate interest. Mastodon recently attracted one million active monthly users for the first time in light of Musk’s takeover. Twitter has around 237.8 million active users EVERY DAY. Thankfully, Mastodon isn’t trying to be Twitter; it’s aiming for something different. Perhaps the difficult learning curve might lead to something slower and more thoughtful. Maybe I'll be free to talk about what I like there without the looming spectre of going viral hanging over my head. I'm ready to let go of the pressure to produce the content that keeps Elon's investment whirring. I won't be making a big performative post about how I'm leaving Twitter. But I will certainly be more mindful of how much of my intellectual property I use there and definitely how much mental real estate I let the app take up in my mind going forward.
‘The Language of Other Things’: An Interview with Stephanie LaCava

The author of I Fear My Pain Interests You on inevitable doom, writing through absence, and cows. 

How does a character in a Stephanie LaCava novel mourn? When I called her to discuss the release of her second novel, I Fear My Pain Interests You (Verso Books), it was a weekend morning for me and the afternoon for her: just a few days since coming from an event in Paris, she was spending some time in London. Jean-Luc Godard had passed away only four days earlier, and on that Saturday a line was snaking all the way around the city for British citizens to view their deceased queen. If the internet can be said to have an atmosphere, then the impulse to pay homage to a great filmmaker was strong in the air; a resistance to an overly nostalgic or conciliatory narrative that tried to erase the monarchy’s endless oppressions, even more so. In between both was that great dissociative distance that comes from viewing life through a pixelated screen. I pictured one of LaCava’s heroines clicking through tweets the way someone stuck in traffic might change the radio station: having given up on relief, she might still find distraction. I Fear My Pain Interests You is the story of Margot Highsmith, a daughter born to two parents with two very different kinds of fame. She has inherited her mother’s generational glamour, and her father’s punk credentials. With this comes a perpetual grief that she is not quite sure how to bear: she never chose to be looked at so intently, the subject of paparazzi photos and scrutiny by obsessive fans, but now that she has the attention, she is also not so sure she would choose to give it up. Half-heartedly courting an acting career while navigating the micromanagement of her grandmother’s guardianship, Margot is dimly aware that she is missing something other people have, besides anonymity. She has a condition called congenital analgesia, meaning she cannot experience physical pain.  This is, as the title suggests, a worrying way to receive someone’s intrigue. As the novel progresses, her affair with an older, more powerful director throws her into a different kind of feeling; her chance encounter with a man in a graveyard (only referred to as “Graves”) begins, after he discovers her diagnosis, to hint at what might be some ulterior motives. Depressed, isolated, and deprived of her own creative outlet, Margot’s plight is tragic, but not without its own perverse sense of comedy: no pain, no fame. LaCava’s first novel was The Superrationals, about missed connections and distant lovers amongst academics and art world workers. A critic, essayist, memoirist, and the founder of an independent publishing house called Small Press, she is intimately familiar with the way lives can contract or expand around the facts of a biography. In both works, LaCava begins her stories in the small circles that congregate around even smaller creative scenes, pulling loose the tight beliefs characters have about their power and what they might deserve, their reaction to or possession of beauty, and the limits of reaching out to people just like them. They cherish style, reject taste, and revere icons. In the interview below, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, LaCava and I spoke about her process, her artistic associations, and what comes after the end of writing a book. Haley Mlotek: Sometimes it seems that certain themes all rise to the surface at the same time. As I read I Fear My Pain Interests You I was thinking of Crimes of the Future, and how people find themselves linked around a similar idea. When you began working on this novel, were you actively noticing some of those references, or was it more like you found them as you went along? Stephanie LaCava: The book was just what was going on with me at that moment, in my own vortex. It had nothing to do with anything else, but I find it magical and fascinating when it does happen in the culture. My friend got me that shirt from the film— “Surgery Is The New Sex”—it was so crazy that that happened.  But then, there are ideas right under the surface, and a lot of them are political themes coming up at the time. They’re macro themes that are broken down into visual art, music, anything like that, and it just sort of happens because what’s in the air is often what’s happening in our world all over. There are certainly what could be called fashions of literature, where the political climate or cultural obsessions that writers are exploring are easily grouped together. I’ll have to say that that question has attacked me from all angles in ways I didn’t expect. People have tried to ask, like, Are you part of the disassociated feminism thing? And the answer is definitely not, and I explained why. Then they would ask, Are you part of the sad little pretty girl thing? And I would say definitely not, and here’s why. Is it similar to My Year of Rest and Relaxation? Definitely not, and I explained why. It made me realize something about my own writing. Through these questions, I was suddenly able to form my own kind of theory. My book is almost post-all of those, in a sense. It’s definitely not a #MeToo story, it’s not a trauma story—it’s actually the opposite of a trauma story. I mean, again, not on purpose; I wasn’t aware of it as I was writing, but it happens to be the opposite. It’s a story of a woman who is aware of her complicity and aware of the politics underneath wanting to be something better, but she lives in the world that exists as it is. The idea of feeling pain or no pain changes the whole realm of that kind of theoretical discussion. I don’t think I Fear My Pain Interests You fits in with any of them. I think it’s the next thing. How would you define a timeline of those pre- and post-genres that you’re describing? Sometimes I feel like everything is so over-categorized; everything is just made to be contained, whether it fits in or not. But it is true that often one thought or theory follows another. How did you lead yourself to a place you describe, of writing into an era that comes after now? What’s going on with Margot—the voice of the book—is what’s different. Parts of the book are more about spacing, about absence . . . I’m not a literary history expert so I’m not so qualified to say much about what these genres mean, or to enter into a discussion with those kinds of books . . .  There’s something about literature and novels that can feel so daunting! They come with this strange weight. And in English! I’m so interested in works in translation. I sometimes think that my work reads as in translation, even though it’s written in English, if that makes sense. The cadence has more of a French approach to punctuation; and we accept different things as readers when the characters are different, when the symbols are different, for example. I think about all of that, and then I think about what’s not on the page. That’s harder to discuss, but it’s something intuitive, maybe? It could be like reading screenplays, in the idea of the spacing on the page. I’ve been reading a lot of Louise Glück recently, which I hadn’t before. I read this book about a garden throughout the summer. I decided to read essays about writing poetry because I felt like I could learn something about my writing through that. I don’t want poetry, but I’m interested in studies of it—not because I want to try writing poems, but because of the way I want to write prose. I’ve always thought poets write the best prose. Yes. And wanting to learn the language of critiquing poetry . . . I just want to learn the language of other things, like, I don’t know, mountain biking.  Maybe that’s a good way to start talking about your process, and how you find and build your ideas. You’ve spoken before about finding a clipping about congenital analgesia, and how that ended up becoming a fact of Margot’s character in I Fear. How do those early sketches become a story? I found that clipping and I knew I wanted to write a story about it. I wasn’t heavily researching the systems; it was more about the idea of the absence of pain than the actual neurochemistry, although I was interested in the neurochemistry too. I had also always been interested in this idea about love being based on oxytocin, which comes when one orgasms, and what that means for bonding and the realities of falling in love—what is lust, what is real, what is chemical. The specifics of what I wrote were more about wanting it to act as an absurdist, surrealist device. I started there and wanted to see where it would take me. Interestingly, it started with the cows, too. I guess I have a little penchant for cows, too. There’s the Peter Hujar portraits in the inside cover, and obviously the epigraph is “Cows are not sentient beings.” There’s an idea that cows are these creatures that are raised knowing, in many ways, that they are there to suffer. The sadism of the condition comes up throughout the book, what it means to be a creature that’s inevitably doomed but also revered. We’re all so many things, and symbols can mean so many things. I would take notes in these notebooks that my son does watercolours on. I would fill each notebook up, sometimes writing the same thing over and over again, or sometimes I would just sit with it. It’s almost like I keep writing until it becomes this thing, and then the writing process happens super fast. This book was ten years in the making, but it wasn’t ten years being written at my computer. Yes, because so much of writing is that thinking and processing. You’ve also mentioned this concept of absence or space in your finished work. Was there ever a time when you stepped away from this idea for a period, and then had to get yourself back into it? Did time change the writing? To be honest, I probably should do that more. That would be something everyone in my life would tell me to do. But I’m a bit compulsive, and obsessive, so that’s hard for me. I think I just wrote through the absence, if that makes any sense, which is kind of apropos: I wrote the absence. That paradox is just what it is. I kept writing until it was no longer an absence, or it was a deeper absence. A purposeful absence. And you mentioned screenplays—was there any work you did to understand your characters that might not appear on these pages, in the same way we often have to understand a film character by the way they behave rather than what they say? My work is very cinematic, in terms of setting the scene. And I feel like the way I write on the page looks like a screenplay. So much of the book is about what’s left out and withheld, and that’s so much of who Margot is . . . so I can’t tell you. Oh, so it must stay a secret. Well, there is a rich tradition of a woman at the center of a story who will drive you crazy because you can’t tell what she’s thinking. As I was reading I Fear My Pain, I was alternating between the eulogies for Jean-Luc Godard, and thinking about the different ways different audiences romanticize and project onto his images, and the kind of Tumblr user who would have come to Godard through stills of Jean Seberg. For me that goes back to the dissociative feminism thing, the aestheticizing of a certain sort of teen. Everything really does come in cycles, and I am very interested in the ways they become aestheticized. This book is very much that—it fits into these waves of taxonomies. People have said to me before that my work is a bit like being a visual artist on the page; not that literally, but that also doubles over into the idea of Margot being a beautiful cipher as a window into exploring other things. So if there are common aesthetics to your work, let’s say, “beautiful cipher” might be a good phrase to start with. Do you have a theory of or a conscious language for how you would describe what connects your work? For me, it’s very intuitive. I’ve never really tried to give it words, which is funny, because I create in words. But I’ve always left the theorizing to someone else. Can I ask you what you would say it is? Well, I did like beautiful cipher. That’s a good phrase. And I was thinking when I was reading I Fear My Pain Interests You and The Superrationals that there’s a funny fluidity of movement in both your novels—it’s very easy for your characters to get from one place to another, but once they arrive, they’re a little bit stuck. A combination of being in flight and total inertia. The fight-or-flight impulse is very present in my work, and so is dance, and both kind of converge in what you’re saying. A big thing for me, too, is this idea of being passive. Throughout the book there are examples of people who are passive, but full of words to say, and then people who are active, but silent. I think that’s a simple way of me trying to deal with a constant in my life, which is having trouble when people’s words don’t match their actions or when there’s a dissonance between them. There’s this idea that you can almost have justice by logging someone’s words; it’s a very childlike way of looking at the world. And also, how passivity can seem cool, but in the end, passivity is one of the weaker, trashier things one can do in terms of how to live a life. It’s especially a kind of privilege to believe that you can just never move. In the book, no one shows any care for Margot except for Lucy, and Lucy’s care is action. There’s a marked difference in Lucy and every other character that makes it clear she’s a true friend. And speaking of that character and theories of your work, I understand what you mean about how it’s not necessarily for you to say, because sometimes we’re too close to what we do to really see it, and that’s what a reader or a critic is for. I did, at the same time, notice there was some self-referential material in this book . . . Self-deprecating. The opposite. [Laughs] But Lucy’s mother does give Margot a copy of your book, The Superrationals. Yes. So, when you thought of Margot as a character, were you thinking of her as somebody you could encounter who could read your novels in her world? I’m just thinking of it as taking the piss out of myself, basically. There’s a lot of stuff like that throughout the book that people have been noticing—someone called it Easter eggs, which I liked—but I’m not thinking beyond just making jokes about the fact that I’m not self-serious. Right, you leave those little jokes for yourself and for your reader. Do you think of yourself as the kind of writer who writes towards a specific person, either in life or towards a reader? Definitely not. But what I am doing, and this is very honest, is often I’m dealing with emotional pain, and the only way I can get through it is by doing the story. It’s not directed towards anyone. It’s more of an exorcism for me. For me, it was like: I got to survive, and I got to process this thing that happened, I’m going to write this book.  But it’s not like you get it all down and it goes away. I mean, that would be a very shallow place for it to have started. When you’re continually asked smart questions, it makes you look to where it began, a resurgence of certain things. I’m just really, really trying not to get too dark and to start working on the next thing. I feel grateful that I get to do these things so that I can have a job writing, and now I just want to write the next book.
Memories of Oppression: Revisiting a Classic Documentary on Kashmir

Over seven decades, the right to forget has seemingly become intrinsic to Indian nationhood.

Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film.  Halfway through Sanjay Kak’s 2007 documentary Jashn-e-Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom), he runs into a retired school teacher living in a village in the Indian-administered region of Kashmir. You’ll never forget the old man’s mellow voice and steady gaze because he betrays no anxiety while speaking of the dead. He rattles off the names of two children killed in the “Indian army blasts” nearby, then the names of three brothers who became gun-wielding militant fighters during a wave of insurgency and were later murdered, one after another. After a while, the old man starts tallying the body count on his fingers. “Forty-two,” he says, “I may have missed a few.” Kak asks him when he started keeping count. “Since 1989,” he replies, “ever since the militancy began.” Forty-two killed in 15 years—and that’s just one village. In Srinagar, the summer capital city, Kak follows a father on the way to his son’s grave. They are in a park that has been repurposed into a burial ground and renamed the martyrs’ graveyard. The father has trouble locating his son’s tombstone. “After a while, one forgets,” he tells Kak. The German essayist Walter Benjamin once quoted Flaubert to the effect that his understanding of politics was bound by a single gesture: “the revolt.” Kak’s films strike me as political in a similar way. They are haunted by the ghosts of revolts past and ongoing; inevitable, perhaps, in a country where the twin tides of majoritarian sentiment and economic progress often gloss over forgotten lives and histories. Over seven decades, the right to forget has seemingly become intrinsic to Indian nationhood: what felt like a stoic refusal on the eve of independence in 1947— to be defined by the depredations of colonial rule and the cataclysmic partition of the subcontinent— hardened soon into an automatic reflex. After Narendra Modi was elected prime minister in 2014, the upsurge of Hindu supremacy and the rapid erosion of democratic norms can make the years prior seem relatively utopian. But that older idea of freedom, too, was predicated on spells of repression, most notably in Jammu and Kashmir, which was until recently India’s only Muslim-majority state, and where the military crackdown has been brutal and absolute. Intifada is Kak’s word for the clarion call of self-determination that has echoed in Kashmir since 1989, when “old memories of oppression sought out fresh winds of struggle from across the mountains—from Pakistan, Afghanistan, even Palestine.” At the peak of the insurgency, more than thirty thousand armed militants were estimated to be operating inside the state. Last year, a Kashmir police official claimed that the number of active militants in the region was fewer than 200, yet half a million Indian troops still occupy the valley. Kak relates more startling figures—sixty thousand killed between 1989 and 2007, another ten thousand missing—but they seem only partially important to his story. The film lingers because of the cumulative power of its images; the delicacy with which suffering is conveyed without overstraining for the truth. In almost every transition shot, glimpses of the wintry landscape are impaired by a passing army truck or, sometimes, a pair of barbed wires. A soldier stands at gunpoint in the middle of a busy street but appears clueless about what he is supposed to see. A schoolgirl speaks of the time soldiers shot a man outside her house in cold blood and wouldn’t let anyone help for hours. Years after his brother’s murder, a cop recalls fainting at the sight of the body and the trauma of receiving the news while out on duty. Each time I watch Jashn-e-Azadi, I marvel anew at how the documentary inhabits a collective point of view, despite the ways it could have ended up being a personal story. Kak’s parents are Kashmiri Pandits, a minority Hindu community with a different memory of what happened in the valley after 1989. At least one hundred Pandits were killed in the early years of the uprising, and several thousand families fled their homes in the state. Kak grew up away from Kashmir—his father worked in the Indian Army—but he visited relatives every year through the seventies and eighties. In 2003, he went back after fourteen years, apparently because he had promised his daughter they’d go together. The film could very well have been a more intimate saga about a father and daughter travelling back to a lost homeland, or the story of a man coming to terms with the exodus of his community. What we witness instead is a group portrait of a population withering away under military surveillance at the turn of the millennium. Shops are shuttered in Srinagar on the eve of Indian Independence Day; the city’s lanes and alleys are ominously silent. Except for a few desolate-looking policemen humming the national anthem in a market square, you can’t spot a soul walking for miles. Elsewhere, civil rights activists go knocking on doors to record the names of the missing and the dead. Survivors queue up all day long outside psychiatry clinics. Schoolkids are frisked before they can enter a playground. Inside an army base, a regiment leader hands out a few radios to locals and promises desktop computers for the children as long as “you keep talking to us.” Amid reappraisals of prior casualties across the state, no one seems to remember the Pandits and their long exile. The film imaginatively evokes their absence, not through images but with sound. At one point, we hear Kak talking to the Pandit poet Pyare “Hatash” on the phone and asking him to read something aloud. Moments after the poet starts reading from his work—“so brothers, our home is lost…”—the line gets disconnected.  Fifteen years ago, Kak could afford to let a missed connection evoke something ineffable, but the formal choices that made Jashn-e-Azadi a classic—the expository restraint, the cinéma-vérité silences—would perhaps not be feasible today. There is the strident toxicity of Hindu nationalism that renders artistic intricacies vulnerable to manipulation. Besides, a film about contemporary Kashmir would have to reckon with a longer timeline of defining moments. Kashmiri journalists and photographers are routinely harassed and stopped in Indian airports from travelling abroad. Since 2010, the Indian army has been using shotgun pellets to disperse protests in Kashmir, despite countless instances of children being blinded by these pellets. One long August night three years ago, Modi revoked the autonomous statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, imprisoned almost every local political leader, and imposed a crippling lockdown with an internet blackout that partially persists to this day. Just this spring, a paranoid fictional drama called The Kashmir Files claimed that the targeted killings of Pandits were tantamount to a “genocide” and that a cabal of “leftist” college students, journalists and activists had colluded to suppress the truth over decades. Reports of Islamophobic chants and hate speeches at theatre screenings around the country didn’t deter Modi from recommending the movie. The remaining Pandits in the valley complained that the film’s diabolical distortion of history made them feel unsafe. By June, sectarian murders had spiked, and many of them were moving out of Kashmir again.
‘It Awakens Giants That Are Sleeping’: An Interview with Joshua Whitehead

The author of Making Love with the Land on transforming pain into love, entering as a guest into the recesses of literature, and birthing a body of text from a body of experience.

“The land, like the body, teaches us the fundamental rule of ending: that no such thing exists,” Joshua Whitehead writes in “The Pain Eater,” an essay in his new book, Making Love with the Land (Knopf). The book, in many ways, embodies an ending and a beginning, but is a text that writes from the throbbing middle: “the middle of global destruction;” the middle of a grid in a digital world; "from middle point, the belly button and first mouth of origin;” “middle of sîpiy;” of an eating disorder; in the middle of “the nebula of these lands;” “in the middle of the night;” a dance floor; the middle of an opioid crisis; a breakup; an apartment flood. “In the middle of me;” “my middle of nowhere;” which is everywhere. "I know nowhere is an everywhere." This collection positions itself in the center in order to stay with the trouble and alchemise pain into love. Throughout Making Love with the Land, Whitehead traverses vulnerable and diverse subject matter, brilliantly uprooting explicit and implicit violences and personal and collective struggles, carving out a space for seeds of futurity to form. “We need to make our stories animate beings, we need to place them into oratories of history and of futurity. We need to conceptualize our fantastical dreams as very real decolonized futures,” he writes in “My Body is a Hinterland.” What emerges from the process of this imagining is an opening up of urgent space within the recesses and ruptures of life and experience for healing and new connections to inflorescence, for new mountains of relationality to rise. The essays, collectively, are a lesson in how to love what is bad and what is hard, again and again, and a testament to the essential art of care. Here, writing is both cure and poison, language is a vein. Making Love with the Land is about transforming pain into love and about creating connections where there weren’t any before, nurturing pathways of cultural reclamation, a task Whitehead traverses with his stellar gifts of storytelling and poetics, sensually and sensorially birthing difficult subject matter so that the body of the text can access empathy, care, pleasure, forgiveness, tenderness and belonging. “Transformation always begins with the tongue,” he writes in “Me, The Joshua Tree.” And In “The Pain Eater:” “I need to, and must, exist beyond the constriction of Western linguistics.” Making Love with the Land sees Whitehead, then, returning to his cultural and linguistic roots, invoking nêhiyâwewin/the Cree language as a tool of transformation throughout to create and claim new centres, worlds, relations and meanings. As Whitehead describes in “I Own a Body that Wants to Break,” “I think of English as cerebral and nêhiyâwewin as kinetic.” Whitehead’s exploration of nêhiyâwewin allows for new connections and meanings to form: “Words branch into other opportunities, other meanings.” By reclaiming and utilizing nêhiyâwewin, and in illustrating the limitations and restrictions of the English language, Whitehead writes himself into a new vaster world of belonging, an exalted expansion of self, queering language’s borders and creating new meanings to grow and heal inside of in the process. How do we nurture the ties that bind us together, even when those ties hurt? What this collection does is lovingly challenge its readers, inspire us to think in new ways, in and outside of language, of material and immaterial realms, of ownership and binaries, and to open ourselves up to being in good relation. The epigraph of the book reads: “By the way, I forgive you,” a quote from a Brandi Carlile song. This book is about forgiveness. Making Love with the Land invites us to enter as caring guests into the lands and terrains of its text and biostories. These essays remind us that we have a responsibility, as guests, when we enter into other people’s spaces and lands, as well as when we enter the psychic space of books. It asks us to consider that a body of text is birthed from a body of experience. I consider us all lucky to be welcomed as guests into the hinterlands carved out and seeded by Making Love with the Land. I met with Joshua via Zoom two days after the official release of Making Love with the Land. What follows is a slightly edited version of our one-hour long conversation. Ashley Obscura: I would ask you “How are you?” but, I did read your essay “The Pain Eater” and absorbed your musings on how this seemingly casual question can be “a bewildering jab.” How a “simple asking can so easily become a violent undoing,” which I resonated with so much. So, to start things off: What has felt good for you lately? What has brought you joy? Joshua Whitehead: I've just been in a whirlwind here in Toronto. Interview after interview. Which has been really fun, but it's exhausting. At the end of the day, you talk for eight-plus, nine hours. I’m very happy my partner is here with me. A lot of music lately. I've been listening non stop to Maggie Rogers's new album, Surrender. I can’t get enough of it. And also Game of Thrones. I just watched the new episode of House of the Dragon last night and it was so rejuvenating to be back in Westeros. [laughs]. [Laughing] Would you live there, if you could? I feel like I would die very quickly [laughs] but I imagine myself as being among, I guess, the Prince of Roses. It seems like the queerest place to be, in Highgarden. So I would go there. If Making Love with the Land had an aura, what colors and scents would be a part of it? Ooooh, that's a fun question. Its aura… I'm a very obsessive person with colour. Mint is, by far, my favorite colour. My entire house is decorated around it. I feel like the colours I would attribute to Making Love With The Land would be mint in its joyful elements, and then scarlet when it's more personal, more grieving. But its scents... The first scent that comes to mind is the sense and the senses within “Me, The Joshua Tree,” like woven… that kind of sweet, musky smell of summer sweat at the river and, like, wet soil. Yeah, I was gonna say something wet. Apparently all my books are soaking wet for some reason. With Jonny Appleseed everyone was like “There’s so much fluid in it!” [Laughs] Are you a water sign? I’m a Capricorn. Oh, me too! I love Capricorns. I don't act like a cardinal earth. I feel more attributed to a Cancer or Pisces, because I'm very emotional at all times. I love the title that you arrived at with Making Love with the Land. Was this always the title you knew it would be, or is it something that was developed over time? Originally it was Making Love to the Land. But I thought that was too penetrative, too masculine, too much revolving around heterosexuality but, also, topping in queer culture. But the title came to me from Jonny, actually. I keep talking in all of these interviews about how I'm trying to move out of the shadow of Jonny… But then I’m like “The title actually came from Jonny!” Maybe it was Jonny's final gift. He is continually gifting me all these years later. All sorts of things. But, the bear scene in Jonny Appleseed—wherein Jonny's in the mountains and he's having this dream of this bear topping him, and he's placing his hands deeper and deeper into the mud— I remember thinking about that scene when I was starting to conceptualize this as a book. Instead of it being a foray into thinking about my own mental health, that scene kept flashing in my mind. When I was writing it and going back to my old notes of Jonny, one of the lines in that vignette was “making love with the land.” The title came to me from there, and then a lightbulb went off and I thought, I have a book on my hands! The title was the gravitational force of it all. What was the most healing of the essays for you to write? I think they each have a medicinal element, but I would say “Me, The Joshua Tree” was the most healing. You know, it's like the most cliché, overwritten topic: a breakup. I wanted this to be that but not be that because I wanted to show myself and my previous partner—who's a dear, good friend of mine now—and also the readers in the world, that relationships aren’t about ownership or death. And, actually, this comes from something that Lee Maracle taught me, I think in 2019. When I was writing this book and writing “Me, The Joshua Tree” we did this event at the University of Calgary, and she came along with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and she was giving this speech and talking about the late Richard Wagamese at the time. She kind of broke down, and held us all accountable to Richard's death… You know, his hard life and his addiction to alcohol, and told us that we can't afford to abandon one another. And that really drilled into my head and made me think about how we do that in terms of relationships, severed ones, but also in a kind of queer and Indigenous sense. We really can't afford to abandon, unless egregious errors are made, because we as queer folks need that community and if we keep ostracizing ourselves for the sake of the discomfort of how to mend a relationship into a friendship, or not even wanting to do that—I still think we need to be in community at all times. “Me, The Joshua Tree” was probably the most healing for me, overall, as it helped me mend that relationship, helped me transform pain into love, which is the whole thesis of this book. And yeah, it really showed me how, at the core of everything, it's about relationship and kinship versus other attributes like love or sex or desire. Those are just around it. Every strong relationship, at the core of it, is this motoring skeleton that is friendship, and I couldn't afford to forget that. That essay made me cry. I resonated with it so much, especially in regards to the way in which you refuse to use the word “ex.” I wish I would have had this essay to read six years ago when I was going through a truly awful breakup. I remember feeling so disposable, and also thinking about how it was such a reflection of our time, too—the way we use and discard objects constantly and all of these materials and plastics… like we just live in such a disposable society, and that is reflected in our relationships as well. I feel that we all crave feeling more rooted and cared for, especially during breakups. Where did you write Making Love with the Land? Do you have a specific space that you like to write from? Or are you more of a fluid writer who likes to write in different spaces? I'm very erratic in that sense. Most of the book was written in my condo and in the wee hours of the night when I couldn't manage the dam that was all of the stories wanting to come forward. But a great deal was written on road trips through Alberta, specifically the mountains. And, then, “The Pain Eater” was written right up in the mountains in Golden, BC during a kind of retreat. That's where I finessed and finished a lot of the book because the essays weren’t quite done, I felt. And so it's owed a lot to the kind of idyllic scenes of Alberta, which has such a beautiful range of ecosystems, from desert straight to Arctic. The mountains are always a creative hub for me. I finished Jonny in the mountains, and I finished this book in the mountains, just on opposite sides. Mountain goat energy! [Laughing] Capricorn, right? Do you think that writing this book has changed you at all? And if so, how? I think so. What this book really taught me, and what I hope readers take away from it, is the universal elements of it. It's very specific. Again, it's personal. But it's also Cree and queer and Indigenous, and also academic. So I think the lenses of its specificity are pretty niche, but a big part of the ethics of this book was, as I write about in one of the essays, mental health, and SA and having this youth overdose on my desk and opioids... and so what the book taught me was really, as a Capricorn, I'm really good at repressing things [laughs]. And in the stasis of COVID, it really forced me to talk with myself and unearth some of things like sexual assault, and talking frankly and openly about eating disorders. And so I think the greatest lesson I took away from this book was to be truthful to myself. Because, as I was saying, as a Capricorn but also as a writer, I think I've mastered the ability to take things that are perhaps traumatic or joyful even, and immediately catalogue them into story. So learning to be a person first and writer second, I think that's what this book is talking to. There is this transmutation that happens, especially in this book where you're writing about very painful subject matter, but you're transforming it and trying to find the light and love in it. I've always found there's this very powerful and healing alchemy that happens with writing where, if I'm able to get something down into writing that's sending my mind into spirals or twisting my heart into two, it's almost as though I can separate myself from it and overcome it, to an extent. Does that resonate with you in regards to your writing? Is there a release, or a purging when you get something difficult out onto the page? With this book it feels like an exorcism to me, almost. Or a purging, too. In that, you know, we have all these things, like talking about anxiety or depression. It's immaterial but, again, it's really embodied and materially felt. A big ideology of this book was to transform pain into love. To make love to something, it has to be embodied, it has to have a body. And the book does. But, also, to make the immaterial material. And I think this was the transformation of it from pain into love. And, for me, I can hold it, but I can physically and metaphorically put it down and put it away. It allows me to kind of be released from it, but still in relation to it. What have you done to prepare yourself for this book launch cycle? Because I can imagine it takes a lot to promote a book to the scale that you do. And I'm just wondering if you've prepared for it in any way? Have you needed to ground yourself, or is it more that you need expansion during these times? Yeah, talking has been tiring. Also, it’s a lot of mental work and emotional work and spiritual work, too, going into all these interviews. Specifically the quick-paced ones that are like five, ten minutes. Like snap, snap, snap, where you don't get to get into a rhythm. I also knew I should not be alone doing this, so I'm happy my partner’s here to join me, and I have friends and family here in Toronto as well, who I'm trying to make a point to see, at least for dinner in the evenings just to kind of release. But I've also come to know the power of rejection, I think. I’m thinking about it as a generosity and a gifting. And I think we as writers know, but maybe we don't love it, but it's a generative gifting sometimes to be getting those rejection letters for submissions, in that it teaches us to rethink, remodulate, and reconceptualize. And so I've also been using that as a kind of a methodology in these interviews, specifically with the quick ones. Trying to conceptualize “no” and rejection as me letting them know “I'm telling you something so that you can learn something from this, too,” and myself as well. Criticism, too, as a gifting. After reading “Me, the Joshua Tree” I was left reflecting on how you wrote about a manuscript as being an “animate being. Through it, you survey my body, my memory, my spirits, my heart, my emotions.” It made me feel like contemporary publishing is so out of touch with this reality in regards to authors. And how the art of marketing literature can often feel and literally be extractive. You also speak of traditions of storytelling as being a space for conversation and dialogue. As a publisher, I often think about these things and I'm often thinking about how we can improve the culture of literature in Canada to reflect this reality, of writing being such a vulnerable thing. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on how we can improve the culture of literature in Canada? I feel like It's such an important question for us to be asking. Definitely. I can speak for myself. I think there’s a difference between quality and quantity. I think it comes from a tradition of publishing in Canada and the US, that also comes from publishing from the UK—stories of who is writing and what is writing. And I think the idea that we, as people, are so devoid of the work… it's objective rather than subjective. And things we teach in creative writing classes and high school too… not to infuse the self with the work. And I think with who's being published, what’s winning awards, who’s winning awards, who's being recognized, and the new waves of folks that are following in the wake really quickly—and of course need to be there—I think we also need to conceptualize that the whole writing needs to be devoid of the self and writing as a solitary act—like The Old Man and the Sea, like Hemingway, or something—is very much a privileged, white, male, het, cis person and ideology of that which is the canon, right? It's very curated, very selected. It's very strategic. And who's being published and what's being published— I think it’s reflective of the true experience of living as a Canadian who is BIPOC, or queer, or living in a country that's colonized you. Or has disempowered or disenfranchised you. I think that we're getting that kind of truer, ghastly, and kind of profound and profane image of what Canada is, how it treats its peoples. So with that, clearly I can speak for myself, I have to attach my body to the body of text. They are in relation and they feed each other. And I think what I would like to see is for publishers, editors, Q&As and festivals, to recognize the labour that goes into crafting and birthing a body of text from a body of experience, and that they can't be annexed from each other. As much as we are taught to do that, right? To read the text, to pull it apart, is also like a form of autopsy, as I write in Making Love with the Land. So recognizing the cost on the writer, and the expectation of the reader to enter as a guest into the spaces of these recesses. So much of this book made me feel like identity by nature is so blurry and transient, and it's a fallacy to think that we are bound into these little boxes and binaries. And you know, as you explore in this book, this could be related to the very language that we share, English, or perhaps other languages of colonization as well as literary genres. Your art is simply sublime at resisting structures of genre, of gender language, that bind us to limiting identities and modalities of being. But, in essence, I feel that it's also about you insisting on space for nuance and complexity, and especially of wholeness. It's as though Western culture wants us so desperately to be simple, but nothing really is. And I'm wondering if this resonates with you, this concept of trying to arrive at a sense of wholeness? I think you are one hundred percent correct. But I think my concept of wholeness is to be ghastly, ghostly, to be immaterial and, in that, defying and pushing away from all these boundaries of genre in form and tradition. If I’m going to be decolonial and not recognize provinces, territory, national borders and, instead, recognize sovereign Indigenous nations on the land, I also need to do it on the page. So that was my attempt to really defy an outcry against the bordering of genre and form, and how limiting it is to Indigenous writing. But I think to Black and trans writing as well, and the intersections of those. And also—this is something I've learned from folks like Billy-Ray Belcourt— that to be indecipherable and to be untranslatable and to be unrecognizable to the nation-state that is Canada is a radical act of freedom. So I think I was also wanting to maintain, as I write in the book, the idiom of working and being a mirage, where you can't be grasped or held, you're always ephemeral. But there's still a wholeness in being ephemeral like that. It's kind of like being a poltergeist, just to haunt, but also to be whole in a home, too. For those of us who are immersed in literary dialogues around multilingual texts and the ethical issues of othering non-Anglo languages by italicizing or providing translations to those words, it seems obvious why you didn't choose to provide footnotes or translations to the words that you were using in Cree. Is this because you are prioritizing a Cree audience, or is it something else? I was curious how you approached the footnotes and your thoughts around that. There are some footnotes and translations in “Me, The Joshua Tree” because I wanted to leave the door open for that one, because I thought it was one that people would resonate with but also need from me. With “The Geography of Queer Woundings” or various other ones I didn't want to do the translation work because I wanted my readers as guests to the book. Even other Indigenous readers also have to meet me halfway and do some of the work, too, which I'm consistently doing as an academic, as an English speaker, and as a reader—of having to do etymological work of these words to understand their full meaning. So yeah, I wanted readers to have to move through a maze and meet me in the book rather than just having free, unbridled access to every single room of my psyche. There are some keys that you need to earn. So yeah, there’s that expectation of meeting each other. It puts a responsibility onto the reader. Were there any ever any talks about having a glossary in the back? Not particularly. My editor and publisher at Knopf, I think, has been trained so well as Eden Robinson's editor. She was like “I trust you, just go ahead. We don't need to have the translation.” So maybe I just got the luck of the draw being with an editor who didn't mind, and I never had this either with Arsenal Pulp [Press]. But I do have kin and friends who have had complete horrendous battles around having to include glossaries or full on translations, or having to do the dreadful thing of italicizing non-English words. But yeah, I've never had to have that. But I think publishing… I see a change. But there is a history of having to completely other and also de-market and disfigure non-Englishness and non-whiteness, right? I love how this book explores how identities are tied up with different languages. And I'm very curious about the journey you've had back to your ancestral language. As a Mexican-Canadian woman who was not raised speaking Spanish, for my parents thought that it would make it difficult for me to fit in, I often mourn the loss of a part of myself. But this part of myself also comes to life when I begin sounding Spanish words, or when I'm in the presence of Spanish. So for those of us who are not raised speaking the language of our ancestors, learning those lost languages can be such a life-changing experience, and an act of reclaiming ourselves, and it awakens parts of us that have been dormant. At least that's how it's felt for me. I love the ways in which you write about Cree, and how learning this language has given you a larger vocabulary to speak your expansive truth. Could you tell me a little bit about your journey towards learning Cree, and what that means for you, or how it's changed you? Growing up in Manitoba, I definitely heard and grew up in a house that spoke Cree and Anishinaabe, Soto and Michif as well. Specifically, Treaty 1 is such a mix of languages, as a central hub. But, again, it was not something I was privy to. My father, because of the murder of my grandmother, never had access to it and my mother and her mother, because of residential schools and boarding schools, also never had access to it. Life would be so much easier if I could just, like, ring up my aunt or my grandma and be like “Hey, how do you say this?” “Here it is.” Done. Instead, my journey to it has been autodidactic. I had to basically teach myself through lovely Cree dictionaries and, you know, buying textbooks for children. I’m actually having a lot of fun doing mazes and stuff. I’m nostalgic for those. And conversations I've had, when I’m able to, learning with fluent Cree speakers. And so, I think I agree with you one hundred percent in that it awakens giants that are sleeping, worms and bones of something that might have been encased in amber or crystallized, in that sense. With the more and more I learn—I think you can start seeing in each of my books—hopefully one day there will be a whole book just in Cree. That's the end goal. But it's been a long journey, and a difficult journey, but it's been, probably, the most profound one I've been on in that it calls me home, too. And it's also taught me these vernaculars that we use specifically on reservations or in urban reservations. That is the language, it’s in the sound. And I think it's lying there waiting to be awakened. And it's never been a dead or forgotten thing, it's just been forgone. So I think what I'm trying to do is awaken it in myself and do an act of practice of not just thinking about reconciliation but reclaiming, and doing that through language revitalization for myself and hopefully for others. I'm curious if you think it would be appropriate for Canadian settlers to learn our Indigenous languages. What are your thoughts around that? Or do you think that knowledge should specifically be for people who have origins within those roots? I mean, that's a great question. I think… not that I'm doing this [laughs] but I should be, as I learn my own… that we should all be learning the Indigenous languages of any land base that we visit here in North America, or if we’re going abroad, because it teaches you the history of that people, it teaches you the language of people but also their relationships with the land and the rivers around them, and it also teaches you their Indigenous law which, you know, might stop people from being gored by buffalo [laughs]. But yeah, I would definitely love to see that. It's also something I'm hoping to take up, too, as I ground myself more in Cree— to also be learning more about the Blackfoot Confederacy, where I am a guest in Treaty 7. I think it's important. How could you not? It is the original language. Even to know a small semblance of it gives you so much more privy to knowing the full breadth and beauty of that land base, rather than just partaking in the cities and the urban space. A city is a city. They're all similar. What’s beautiful is the surrounding area, right? What was there before. I love the line you wrote in “Writing As a Rupture:” “Orality is an entry point into community” enrichment. I was wondering, what other entry points do you think lead to community enrichment? Beside the language and the stories, I think the biggest one that I've learned and seen is laughter. Humour. Specifically, in Treaty 7, we still have a shared lexicon of joy. And so cracking those little jokes, which sometimes come from drama and from being colonized, opens this little pocket. So I think, for me, I would say that humor and joy has been an everyday practice that I can do for enrichment, in that sense. Where do you find sources of light and luminosity in the world? Where do you draw those sources from? I keep joking with Lynn Henry, my editor, how I think the fifth or sixth book is literally just going to be a musical [laughs]. But music has been a big source of that. And even in the acknowledgments of this book, and in the epigraph, is Brandi Carlile. I continually thank her in the book for always meeting my grief head on. In those moments, to be completely awashed and to drown in lyricism but also in musicality and rhythm, is to be sensorially gone. And it allows me to process and think and remind myself that there is also beauty, even in the raising. And all I have to do, sometimes, is find the motoring noun “that is.” It allows me to be at rest and see myself from an outside vantage point. When do you feel your most free? I love to give my dog a hard time, but when he's in a cuddly mood—and he also loves to watch Homeward Bound, which is the funniest cutest thing—and I’m having a bad day, having this huge German Shepherd curled up laying against me and everything is quiet, and we're just watching a television show together, and everything kind of stops. I think that, to me… it's very freeing. And it's something I have an ease of access to, at least in my home. And the same experience, as I write about in “The Pain Eater,” of being with my niece—and now I have a nephew— just kind of lying in the grass, looking up at the sky and mispronouncing things. This must be what sovereignty feels like, just to have all of these generations cascading through the breath of a stem, the movement of a sternum. Being around kids is such a great feeling. It's just so nice to be around humans who still see the world through fresh eyes. Exactly. Like getting to see through their eyes and hear their laughter, and willfully mispronouncing things, but also having that close range to the imaginative again, and knowing, too, that children and infants also come from elderhood. So they also have this breadth of knowledge that I think sometimes we just disregard as childhood innocence or curiosity. But I still think we have so much to learn, even in their unlanguage, which is a language. Totally. Children seem, in some ways, almost more wise than we are, truly closer to the source. Just listening to and observing them…. There's just so much they can teach us. I'm wondering if you have a favorite flower or tree, or something that you feel very connected to? I do very much love a rose. One of my goals is to see a Joshua tree in real life and go to Joshua Tree National Park. So, I'd say, that is one I'm wildly obsessed with and in love with, because I guess it’s my namesake but, also, the stories they have as being keepers of the desert and waypoints. That just look so mundane and quotidian, but have all of this knowledge, too. Within your book you write about technology and digital culture, especially in “A Geography of Queer Woundings.” If you could have an avatar replace you in the real world, would you? [Laughs] I mean… part of me wants to say yes, but we’ve seen Black Mirror and what can happen … But I think I would. We can thank Donna Haraway for my obsession with cyborgs, with automatons, the digital and virtual in that I think there's a lot of connection that they share—the mechanical, the virtual, and the technologic, and also the natural at the same time. I'm so happy you brought up Donna Haraway. I'm such a big fan of hers, especially Staying with the Trouble. And It's interesting because I was going to share this quote with you at the end of this interview, but I feel like It's appropriate to bring it up now because it really reminded me of the wisdom that I was absorbing from your book, which is a quote of hers: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” But back to technology. We're living in a time where the metaverse is creeping up, virtual reality is becoming a big thing, and artificial intelligence is here. Do these technologies inspire you, or are you more of a critic? I mean, it very much inspires and excites me so long as I’m also horrendously traumatized by Terminator 2. Sarah Connor burning in the playground is in my mind at all times. But I'm very much on board. I just think accessibility becomes a thing. We have Elon Musk building his own private spaceship to fly across and colonize another space. How I try to attribute technology is not to weaponize it and also not to use it as a colonial tool, but to be in relation with it. Because those technologies, these computers that we're using, these headphones, are also made from the land— from silicone in the phone straight to the data chips being mined. I think sometimes what we forget is the cost that it takes to make these, because we can turn a blind eye to the work and extraction that's happening overseas. So I would say, remembering that the cost of technology and building a rocket ship is to deplete the earth. And remember it in a sense that maintains an ethics and protocol of care, the responsibility around it, as well. In “On Ekphrasis and Emphases” you write how “connection is a technology.” I feel that, oftentimes, people think about technology in the sense of being other to us. But I've always felt like technology is ancient, has always been around—like connection, as you write, and also love. What's your concept of technology? As I wrote about it in Making Love with the Land—in thinking about connection as a technology that indigeneity perfected— I think about trickster spider who, in the trickster stories at least of North America, crafted and spun the first world wide web. And, again, this was the world to Indigenous folks of Turtle Island, that had all these kinds of webs of connectivity, connection, kinship, trade routes and peoplehoods crafted all across the land. And so I think about that as… that's a technology. It doesn't have to be mechanical. It doesn't have to be cold or metal. In fact, it can be ephemeral, and it can be emotional and connective like that. So I think some motoring form of survival and a motoring form of resistance, really. To think about connection in that same sense and to not forget that we ourselves, there's a mechanic to us. We ourselves are machines in that sense. Totally. Yeah. Our hearts and all our organs are motors. We are machines, beautiful and natural and slightly cyborg. [Laughing] [Laughing] Thank you, Donna. I was reading your acknowledgements and I was really struck by this line: “I hope everyone can see the invisible labour of being in relation.” For me, it really sums up so much of what I was gifted by reading your book, which is a deeper understanding of what it means to be in relation not only to ourselves, but to each other and to the whole living earth. I think that is also a bit of the heart of the book, right? In thinking about the invisible labour of being in relation, specifically in the pandemic and specifically in COVID and the lockdown. It's kind of like that “how are you?” question, which becomes a huge undertaking. This book—and wanting to think of myself not as a solitary writer or someone who writes in a vacuum, but someone who is amassing and can tell stories through community of all sorts, and always wanting to give—I attribute back to everyone who has helped shape and form this book and me. There is a lot of labour to be in connection with someone that often goes overlooked, beyond the grand gestures of getting a gift or going on a date or taking a selfie and posting it. It's also everyday, small little acts. Sometimes even just checking in, or sometimes even just saying a word, or sending a meme or recommending a song, or even just being in silence side by side… It's a form of labour that needs to be remembered. And also is as grand as any form. And I can't forget that.
Graffiti, Through Grief and Discovery

There was the glimmer of possibility in stories of bolt cutters and train yards and spray cans—possibilities of disruption and liberation.

1. In my last semester of college, two Swiss graffiti artists stayed in my living room. They were travelling through the US, couldn’t afford a hostel in New York, and a friend of a friend thought I might be able to host them. My roommate Kyle and I offered our living room to them for $20 a night. They agreed. Kyle and I met Marcel and Julius outside our dorm in mid-February, and were taken aback. I suppose we were expecting to meet versions of ourselves; instead, they were older, tattooed, wore streetwear, spoke the endearing and occasionally poetic English of non-native speakers. Marcel had olive skin, short stubble, a stud earring, and chewed on a disposable dental flosser. Julius was shorter, had flowing blond locks, a crooked, goofy smile and a peach-fuzz-smooth face. They had a quiet but unwavering confidence about them, a clear-eyed gaze that seemed to melt all pretense. In Zurich, they told us, they worked as little as they could at whatever jobs they could find, and with their free time and money wrote graffiti with their crew. They sat for hours, sometimes whole nights, outside train yards, taking note of cameras, heat sensors and security guards, all to later sneak past and vandalize the trains. Julius’s cherubic looks made him their designated getaway driver; the police never suspected him. Marcel was once temporarily banned from the whole country of Italy for vandalism. Kyle, who would later be banned from the whole country of Canada for starting a fire in a national park, seemed impressed—Kyle who had once jumped on the back of a garbage truck and ridden it all the way from Morningside Heights to Staten Island, who had pierced both his ears himself, one with a nail, and had pierced one of mine. Kyle who slept on two carpets instead of a mattress, who had worked as a forest firefighter in Oregon for two summers. The dedication of the Swiss artists was striking to me, especially because, as an illegal art—and as an illegal act—graffiti could not be sold, could not be parlayed into a job, could not be rendered productive. And this was exactly the point to them: it was graffiti’s essential, outlaw uselessness that made it so powerful. It was pure artistic expression, untarnished by the possibility of money. They wrote because they wanted other people to see, graffiti being above all else a public art, and they believed in what it had to say. It said, more than anything, that the law could and should be broken. Each tag, each piece insisted on the possibility of a life outside the law, and this was for them its own directive. Marcel had “BREAK THE LAW” tattooed across his back. They stayed for a week, and I was increasingly drawn to the way they moved through the world. There was a great clarity to their message to go out and vandalize. There was the glimmer of possibility in their stories of bolt cutters and train yards and spray cans—possibilities of disruption and liberation. It was simple, creative, uncompromising. They had found a way, they were not paralyzed by the whole fucked up thing; they seemed to slip and dodge effortlessly through it. I wanted to do that too. I wanted their clarity, their confidence, their sense of control over their environment. I was about to finish college, with no plan, no job. I’d be kicked out of our dorm and my friends would disperse. The places and communities I’d known would dissipate, another in a long line of displacements beyond my control.  Kyle and I had gone to high school in London, where we had known some of what Marcel and Julius did—we had broken into an abandoned RAF base, a derelict factory, the London Zoo. But that was years ago, and more and more, I felt again the urgency of that drive again, to BREAK THE LAW. Kyle and I decided not to charge them for staying in our living room. So that they have to be our friends, we said, only half joking. Over the next few days, I tried to hang out with them as much as I could.  At a bar in Harlem one evening, I mentioned an abandoned subway station I’d heard about, only a short distance away at 91st Street and Broadway. They seemed interested, so I found an urban exploration website on my phone and handed it to them. They decided immediately that they would go, right then, and I should join. We called Kyle to see if he wanted to come, but he didn’t pick up. It was not out of character; he was so habitually bad about answering his phone that people often called me to find him. Though I resented being his “secretary,” as I would remind people I was not, I did actually know where he was most of the time. But not tonight.  The three of us went down to the 86th Street station and stood on the platform, looking up the tracks. “What if a train comes?” I asked. “Flatten yourself against the wall,” Marcel told me. “It won’t be comfortable, but you won’t die.” And then we jumped onto the tracks and ran along in the near darkness with our sneakers padding on the rails, the railroad ties and the cables and the rough gravel a blur in the near-complete darkness, our breaths ragged, raw adrenaline pulsing. [[{"fid":"6708691","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] 2. Before you start to think about graffiti—to really take it seriously—it blends in. It’s just part of the backdrop of city life, like advertisements and concrete, cars and shopfronts. All of it forms a kind of visual noise. But when you start writing it yourself, things change. I began to write in January of 2018, about a year after meeting Marcel and Julius. I had graduated from college and moved back to London, where I was staying with Kyle at his family’s house. He and I started walking around at night, writing on trash cans and phone booths, thinking about everything Marcel and Julius had told us. The first thing I noticed was that the feeling was totally different from that of writing on paper. There was the adrenaline rush of doing something slightly illegal, the possibility of being seen or chased or caught. There was also something deeply cathartic about making letters as big as your head, the unrestrained freedom of moving your whole arm instead of delicate motions with your wrist or your fingers. And more than anything, there was a rare, elusive feeling of power, of being able to write on anything, to vandalize and deface, to make a mark that hundreds if not thousands of people would see, even if it was just a blur in their periphery. To shape the world around you that you otherwise could not control.  The more I wrote, the more the visual noise sifted into something meaningful. I began to develop a kind of literacy in graffiti. It started with the graffiti writer Trip. He tagged a trash can outside Kyle’s house. I took note, and then saw he was in the alleyway to the high street, as well as the utility box at the end of the lane. Then there was Duke, who was down on Finchley Road on some bus stops and a few construction site fences. Then there was the crew NWS, North West Sprayers. Trip wrote it next to his name sometimes, as did Duke and Hate and Yuck. I learned much later that Yuck was Trip’s tag before he was Trip.  NWS were all over the neighbourhood. As I read their writing, I started to feel the prestige of certain busier locations that I was too nervous to write on myself, seeing Trip or Duke had tagged the wall of an intersection with heavy foot traffic or a handrail right outside a tube station. Once I started to really read people’s tags, I began to notice that the streets were constantly changing. Trip and the others seemed to pass regularly up and down Kyle’s street—one night there was nothing, the next night a tag, the next night three, and the next day, the borough council had painted over everything. I felt like the streets were breathing. It jolted me each time a formerly blank wall read “Trip,” to know he’d been there just the night before, that we were walking the same streets, writing on the same things. Kyle started to joke that Trip and I were having a turf war; to play along, I crossed out Trip’s tag and wrote my own. The gesture meant very little to me. London is a large and anonymous city, and it didn’t even occur to me that someone might notice. But the next day, he had crossed out my tag and written his own again. We were talking to each other, directly, on some register I couldn’t quite work out. This was something new, something immediate. I looked around for a place to cross him out again, to find out more. He regularly tagged in Hampstead—but he was also all over Camden, Finchley, Kentish Town, more. I gave up on the cross-out war, clearly outmatched. But it made me realize that people were talking to each other all over. Just as Trip and I had had a short and disdainful conversation on one wall across three days, people were talking to each other over the course of days and weeks and even months, and across neighbourhoods, boroughs, all of London. People were telling each other that they’d been here, that they’d written there, that this or that part of the city could be written on. It was a conversation that you could read or follow like football or the news, seeing who’d been where and when. But you could also take part in it—there was no barrier to entry, no authority who determined if you could write, much less where or what. If people respected your work, they left it, and if they thought it was dumb, they would cross it out or cover it. A piece of graffiti was an act of interpretation, I started to think, a way of understanding the city.  *** I saved up enough to move out of Kyle’s family’s house into a friend’s place. Within a few weeks Kyle stopped talking to me. Nothing I said, over text or through friends, could get him to talk. We had been best friends for ten years, had gone to high school together and had lived together in college. But suddenly, with no explanation, he just disappeared. Kyle, who, when we fostered a cat together our sophomore year, would fall asleep with the cat on his chest—I would come back to our room and find them both snoring. Kyle, who had once stored an avocado pit in the freezer because it was “the best avocado [he’d] ever had” and he wanted to “cryogenically preserve it” until such time as he could plant it. Kyle, who, when I wore my hair in a bun, would pick up every hair tie he found on the pavement or subway platform, offering them to me as earnestly as a cat leaves a dead bird at its owner’s feet. What had I said to him? What had I done to him? What could I say to get him to come back? I sent him long messages apologizing for everything I could think of. He didn’t respond. Then my Uncle George died. I wound up in an empty apartment for two weeks. In the cold grey drizzle of London winter, I felt more loneliness than ever before. I drafted messages to Kyle that I didn’t send, and sent more messages that got no answer. In April, I went to my uncle’s funeral in Atlanta, where the pain and the sudden heat made everything feel like slow motion. In a liquor store, shopping for the wake, my dad fingered a miniature bottle of bourbon, my uncle’s drink of choice. “I was thinking about putting it in his grave,” he said. I nodded. “For the crossing,” I said. He laughed and put it in the cart, and later into the ground with the urn. When I returned to London, the sun had at last begun to break through the greasy film of winter. I blocked all thoughts of Kyle behind a wall of rage. I made new friends. I brought them along to spray some graffiti here and there, but mostly I was just reading it. I moved to Camden then, and noticed one of Trip’s tags on a railway bridge next to the Camden Road Overground station. It was a hangover piece, where a writer hangs over the top of a bridge and sprays upside down on the outside surface. It was sloppy—perhaps one of the first he’d tried to write upside down—but the absence of style pointed to another dimension of the work. I began to wonder how he’d gotten there, how he’d escaped the claustrophobic streets, the choking pollution, the lung cancer and depression. There were other hangovers on the bridge, and so I was sure that there was some kind of route up. Each time I passed the bridge, I tried to imagine how he might have climbed it. The graffiti seemed to defy the city itself, in all its stultifying and immovable weight. I would stand across the street for minutes at a time, just staring at it, trying to figure it out. I started to notice more graffiti above street level, on other train bridges, on rooftops, on high walls and car flyovers. How had those writers gotten there? Soon, wherever I went, I saw less the cold iron-and-brick brutality and more the masked persons climbing nimbly down the crosshatchings of the pilings, sprinting across the gravel, spray-painting the walls; less the steel girders and I-beams, and more the running and jumping and climbing and the thrill of hanging above the bustling road. A well-placed piece of graffiti, I realized, meant that someone had actually been there and written it—which suddenly meant that London, which is covered in graffiti, was way more open than all the CCTV and fences and walls suggested. Here’s how to look at London. Here’s how to live in London. Here I am, the writer says, in this place I can’t be. *** I wanted not just to see London this way, but to live in it. The busy streets and train tracks and cameras still felt too advanced for me, so I began to consider the somewhat calmer and less policed London canals. I decided on a wall across the water from the canal’s footpath, right next to a bridge over which ran Camden Road. The wall was accessible by a small triangle of concrete stretching between the bridge and the wall itself. I puzzled through it in the same way I had Trip’s bridge piece, standing and staring at it for minutes at a time. Finally it hit me that I could get there by boat. I was delighted by this absurd solution, this new way of being in the city. It was like something I would’ve done with Kyle, though I still couldn’t think of him. I convinced two friends to split in with me on an inflatable raft. We went for it a few days later, around midnight some Tuesday in June. The night was calm and the sky was clear. We walked in silence, the rolled-up boat sitting on my shoulder. I felt a wave of adrenaline, and everything felt a little sharper, a little more precise: the crenulations of the bricks and the leaves, the slivers of light reflected in the trash cans and the iron of the fences. On the footpath, about ten minutes downstream from the wall, we pumped the boat to life and dropped it into the water. It landed with a smack. The plastic oars plunged and murmured through the waters, which glinted as sharp and smooth as obsidian in the light from the street lamps. We drifted past a sleeping duck, which awoke in a sputter of wings and flew off down the canal. A creamy moon floated above the tops of the buildings through which we wove. Beneath us was the unknown filth of centuries—shopping carts, phones, knives, bicycles. Sometimes they found unexploded bombs in there, from the Blitz.  We passed below the grubby bridges, heard the cooing of their pigeon tenants. A man on the footpath saw us, with a start, when he was only metres away. Sounds of a party floated down from a balcony. I waved mischievously at the smokers leaning over the railing, but no one noticed. Suddenly, with a last few strokes, the rubbery plastic of the boat’s bow scraped against the ragged bank. I rolled out onto the triangle of concrete, bag of spray cans in hand. Cars sped by above, and the shadow of the bridge swept and jumped across the wall in their headlights. I brushed through knee-high weeds into the light. The cans clinked on the stone as I set them down. For the few minutes, the thick fuzz of air and paint harmonized with the hum of traffic. First a sketch in light paint, then the fill in and finally the thick black outline. Then I dropped back into the boat and pushed us off from the bank with my feet. We slid once more into the darkness. [[{"fid":"6708696","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]]  3 Days later, I was rushing to work and crossed the bridge that overlooked the piece we’d done by boat. Across the water, a temporary construction wall had been erected to repair the footpath. All across its surface, large and small, in simple, unobtrusive scripts, people had written what looked like “RIP Trip.” I didn’t have time to stop, but I kept looking back, wondering. At lunch, I found the news article. On the morning of June 18th, 2018, three young men were found dead on the train tracks near Loughborough Junction Station in South London. Police found spray cans near their bodies.  They were later identified as graffiti writers Trip, Lover, and Kbag—real names Alberto Fresneda Carrasco, Harrison Scott-Hood, and Jack Gilbert. Alberto—Alby, as his friends and family called him—was nineteen. Harrison—Harry—and Jack were both twenty-three. Their friends and families brought flowers and photos to Loughborough Junction Station, and covered the building in graffiti in their memories. One of their friends created the Instagram account @rip_trip_lover_kbag, which showed their drawings and paintings in notebooks and on walls and on trains. For a while, the streets of London were covered in tags of “RIP Trip Lover Kbag”—much of it from writers who hadn’t known them. Their deaths had been a kind of personal blow to graffiti artists all across London. Banksy himself wrote letters of condolence to each of the families.  I was terribly sad, in ways I couldn’t quite understand. I had known Trip—but only Trip, not Alberto or Alby. I had only known him through his graffiti. I felt again the losses of the last year, and a new loss that was all the more strange and poignant for the fact that I’d never met him, never known what he’d looked like, how old he was, what gender he was. And yet somehow we had talked to each other. In the news articles, I saw pictures of him for the first time. He was a kid. His haircut looked like mine when I was eighteen: long on the top, short on the back and sides. He had friends and a family, and two brothers, like me. He was short and smooth-faced, with a tattoo of Snoopy on his chest. “These many lives Alberto was leading,” his father wrote in an essay for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “I led some of them myself.” I felt, as I read more, that I had led some of them too. When Trip was twelve, he and his family moved from New York to London; his father wrote that the transition had been rough. When I was thirteen, my family and I had moved from Wisconsin to London. The transition, too, was rough. I remembered the disorientation, which he must have felt as well: there was the “tube” and Oyster Cards, the concrete estates and thousand-year-old churches. There was new slang—peng, wasteman—and Nectar Points and meal deals. In restaurants they gave you tiny glasses for water instead of the huge ones you got in America, and the toilet bowls were smaller and rounder. Someone from a different school threatened to stab me in the queue for McDonald’s in my second week.  Moving is a kind of semi-exile. You are brought against your will to somewhere you don’t understand or care about. You are disoriented—your geographic, cultural, emotional landmarks disappear. I could not return to the place I came from because I was barely a teenager, but that place in any case no longer existed because someone else lived in that house now with all their own stuff, and they probably repainted the walls. Most of all, I was betrayed by authority—my parents—which I could never again trust quite so deeply. So I didn’t belong in London, but after some time—a year or three—I stopped feeling that I belonged where I’d come from. Then I could see from two perspectives, and they destabilized each other. I was no longer certain that the way people talked about things was totally the way that they were. Everyone around me—my old friends from middle school in America, the British people on the tube who called us “foreign cunts,” my teachers and parents—they were all too sure about things. How do you deal with that? How do you live out what you know? Kyle, me, our friends, we stole gas and made Molotov cocktails, threw parties shut down by the police, made bonfires in Regent’s Park, ran through the London Riots of 2011. We wrestled and drank, smoked weed from soda cans and shot fireworks in the streets. Once Kyle and I played “knife baseball” in our friend’s backyard—one of us threw a kitchen knife to the other to hit with a cardboard tube. Perhaps Trip felt some of that raw, furious energy too, testing the boundaries of the world as it’s explained to us.  In the days and months after Trip’s death, I couldn’t stop thinking back to the abandoned subway station I’d visited with Marcel and Julius. At 86th Street station, we saw the train leave and jumped down onto the tracks, and we sprinted, running between the wall and the inside rail, Marcel in front, Julius in the middle, and me at the back. I could hear only the padding of our sneakers on the wooden railroad ties and my own ragged breathing. Adrenaline buzzed all the way to my fingertips, and Gothic iron arches flashed by, lit only by 86th Street disappearing behind us.  For Alby, Harry, Jack the night had been moonless, the tracks pitch black. Suddenly we were climbing onto a filthy, trash-strewn platform. I looked down at my hands and saw they were black with grime from hoisting myself up. Leaves had blown into piles against all the walls. Marcel picked up a spray can, shook it, and pressed the nozzle. A tiny puff of air came out—empty—and he tossed it down. It clinked delicately against the concrete and was still. Then we could hear the clatter of another train coming down the tracks. They must’ve heard the out-of-service commuter train coming towards them. They must’ve seen its lights. Julius motioned for me to hide behind a pillar, as he had done. Marcel crouched near the stairs. The noise grew louder and louder. They wouldn’t have been able to tell which rail the train was on; they would have tried to hide on the other track, but they guessed wrong. And then– The train shot past us, bringing with it billows of stale tunnel air. The windows were bright yellow in the pitch-black. Inside we could see the passengers slouched in their seats, leaning against the walls, hanging from the straps. They vacantly faced their own reflections, no idea we were staring at them. And then in a deafening clap of silence the train was gone. [[{"fid":"6708706","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Weeks and months passed, and Trip’s work was still there. I could still feel the paint he had painted, could touch it with my fingers knowing he had been alive when he’d written it. A tag would disappear every now and then: faded, buffed, painted over. A telephone booth he’d tagged was one day gone entirely, no trace of it left. I had a dream one night about going to Trip’s funeral: I was standing in a parking lot with all his friends, and they started to walk to the cemetery to see him interred. They looked at me questioningly, and I knew that I shouldn’t go. “You guys go on without me,” I said, and they walked away. I suspected I was somehow trespassing on other people’s grief. I was concerned, I suppose, that mourning for Trip was a way of mourning for Kyle. Kyle, I heard from friends, had moved back to New York, and then somewhere else. Far enough that we’d never have to speak again. Exactly a year from the day that Trip, Lover, and Kbag died, a “graffiti jam” was held at the Stockwell Hall of Fame, a legal graffiti wall in south London about a twenty-minute walk from where they’d died. I deliberated for a long time whether or not I should go. The dream weighed heavily on me. Around this time, out of the blue, Kyle messaged me. I messaged him back. We organized a video call. In our own halting and incomplete way, we made amends. He was living in Idaho with his wife, he told me, and breeding rabbits. I decided to go to the graffiti jam. The day was cloudless and hot, and I was sweating by the time I got to Brixton. Even from a few streets away I could smell the sweet tang of spray paint in the air. The Hall of Fame, when I arrived, proved to be a sunken concrete rectangle a little bigger than a basketball court. A thick wall, wide enough so that all four sides could be painted, divided the space in half. The whole place had been whitewashed the day before the event, and now dozens of painters were covering every surface with ornate renditions of Trip, Lover or Kbag. The blank spaces were covered with marker-drawn words: RIP, Rest in Paint, RIP Trip Lover Kbag. I took a seat on some steps at the far end and leaned back on my elbows. I recognized some of their friends from the Instagram page, and I recognized Trip’s dad from the news articles. He walked around taking photos of his son’s name. I thought about saying something to him, but I couldn’t think what. Two girls sitting at the base of the steps stood up and walked over to me. They introduced themselves as Marni and Lola. We all shook hands, and they sat down.  “What brought you here?” Marni asked.  “I always saw their pieces up around London,” I said, “and, I mean, I didn’t know them but… when I heard they died, I just… you know… I was pretty… I mean, it really…” I paused. “I was really sad,” I said, and paused again. “So I wanted to come down.” “That’s nice,” said Lola, smiling. Marni smiled too. “How about you guys?” I asked. They were both friends of Lover—or Harry, as they called him. Lola had been his girlfriend when he’d died. I told them I was sorry and they nodded in thanks.  “Do you write graffiti?” Marni asked me. “Not really,” I said. “I used to, a little, but… I pretty much stopped when I heard they died.” “You should keep writing!” said Lola.  There was another pause. “Actually I did a piece once that Lov…”—I caught myself—“that Harry covered up with his own.” This was true. It had been covered about a week after I’d painted it, but I’d realized only months after they’d died that Lover had done it. When I realized, it felt like I was talking to the dead. Lola started to apologize for him, and I, abashed, started to try to explain that I was not making an accusation. But she cut in: “Well, I guess it’s kind of nice,” she said, and laughed. “Sounds like Harry,” said Marni, grinning.  I stayed another hour or so, watching the painting and talking. For all my fear of imposing, everyone I talked to at the memorial seemed touched that I was there—that someone else had seen what their friends had written. Afterwards, I walked over to Loughborough Junction, to see the last pieces they’d done before they died. I found them on a bridge over Brixton Station Road. They were hangovers, like Trip’s piece on the Camden Road bridge, though his upside-down painting had clearly improved in the time that had passed.  I sat down on a brick wall and stared at the paint for a long time. They’d gotten onto the tracks somewhere else and had run here trackside, but all the same I tried to imagine how they might’ve climbed up here: I saw them step on the bollard, climb onto the rubbish bin, grab the mesh cage around the service ladder. I saw them edge along to the top of the wall, vault over the railing and run along the bridge. I saw them crouch and hang and spray their names and feel alive.
‘The System Isn’t About Justice or Rehabilitation’: An Interview with Hugh Ryan

The author of The Women’s House of Detention on forgotten prison history, the incarcerated LGBTQ population, and women being punished for entering the public sphere. 

In the 1930s, Alice moved from a rural town in New England to New York City because she wanted to be queer. She fell in love with an opera diva, and for a year, they lived together. Then the diva married a soldier. In an attempt to prove she wasn’t lesbian, the singer forced Alice to watch her have sex with her new husband. Alice had a psychotic breakdown and ran screaming from the apartment. The police found her two days later, dirty and hungry, wandering the streets with no idea who she was. They arrested her for prostitution and brought her to the Women’s House of Detention in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighbourhood and, according to author Hugh Ryan, “for the rest of her life, she was connected to the carceral system.” Most people today do not know there was a maximum security women’s prison in the heart of Greenwich Village from 1931 to 1974. In The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison (Bold Type) by Hugh Ryan, author of the widely acclaimed history of gay life in early 20th century Brooklyn, When Brooklyn Was Queer, tells a powerful and deeply researched story of the systematic and persistent criminalization of queer and gender-nonconforming women and transgender men. Regular stints at the House of D, as it was known to many people incarcerated there, were a fact of life for the often poor, nonwhite, queer women and transgender men in the New York City facility. Today, 40 percent of people in women’s prisons identify as LGBTQ. The Women’s House of Detention describes how queer women and trans men came to be disproportionately incarcerated, and how their experiences and activism shaped the 20th-century struggle for gay liberation.  Nicole Pasulka: This prison has been closed for nearly 50 years; most of the people who were incarcerated there have passed away. What made it seem like a good subject for a book now? Hugh Ryan: The easy answer is when I was writing When Brooklyn Was Queer, several folks I followed (for the book) had passed through the Women’s House of Detention or the court that was connected to it. That alerted me to its existence, and it shocked me that I didn’t know a 12-storey, maximum security prison had existed in Greenwich Village for most of the 20th century. After that, it seemed like it was everywhere: I found references to the House of D in Audre Lorde’s book Zami, in the writings of Joan Nestle, in movies, in musicals—and then, I found a statistic saying that 40 percent of folks incarcerated in women’s detention centres identify as LGBTQ. This was a crisis of incarceration that we weren’t talking about. In a broader picture, when I started writing When Brooklyn Was Queer, I thought I was writing the history of an incredibly diverse borough, only to discover Brooklyn was—for most of its existence—98 percent white. I didn’t want to make contributions to queer history that were always centred on whiteness and maleness. Writing about the House of D ensured that I literally could not produce a book like that, no matter what I discovered in the existing archives.  I wasn’t going to be writing that story.   How did women end up incarcerated in the House of D? Women ended up in the House of D for everything from wearing pants to mailing the definition of lesbian (or) committing murder — but the vast majority of folks were there for one of three charges.   One was “vagrancy prostitution,” which in the eyes of the law simply meant being a poor woman who had been arrested. According to New York State legal precedent, you did not have to exchange sex for money to be a prostitute: it was defined simply as the “common lewdness of a woman,” so all poor women were an invitation. to prostitution (charges). Many girls were placed in the House of D for preventative reasons, either because their parents or guardians thought they were wayward, or because they were seen as at risk for having venereal disease. Under The American Plan, this meant the U.S. government could incarcerate them until they tested negative for syphilis and gonorrhea, without ever being arrested, tried, or found guilty of anything. The third category, particularly in the later years, was drug charges. After World War II, the U.S. changed its drug laws, and many women got caught up in new punitive carceral solutions to drug problems. What was the stated objective for incarcerating these women—was it to help or to punish? The initial objective was rehabilitation, but from the very beginning, everyone involved in the administration understood that what they were doing was not rehabilitating anyone. In their eyes, that was because of a lack of resources, not because of a structural flaw in the prison system. Either way, everyone knew they were not meeting their stated goal.   In what way is the story of this one prison a history of incarceration in the U.S.? The research taught me that women’s incarceration is fundamentally different from that of men. From the first independent women-only detention centres in the 1870s, the goal was to retrain women to be wives, mothers, and educators of children, because it was believed that was all women could be. As such, it was a forced feminization process. The concern was making them the right kind of women, whereas men’s institutions were simply concerned with not having men return to jail. Women were imagined to have very limited avenues to respectability—wife and mother, or maid, and you had to be feminine to pursue those jobs. Women’s incarceration has always been focused on women who were seen as masculine of centre and therefore has focused on queer women.   The other thing (the research) taught me about 20th-century incarceration is almost everyone agrees that jail primarily functions as a way to get poor people off the streets. I think this tells us a lot about why reform is often a doomed endeavour. The system isn’t about justice or rehabilitation; it’s about warehousing all the people we don’t take care of.   What violence does prison perpetuate against women specifically? Unless you’ve been there, one of the things few people understand about jail and prison is that every time you enter a facility you are given an invasive cavity search, and in some past instances, a PAP smear. These routine procedures are tantamount to state-sponsored sexual assault. Can you imagine being on trial and having a cavity search every morning before you testify, often done by a male guard or doctor?  Knowing that’s what you’re going to face tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that?   How is the Women's House of Detention connected to broader struggles for women’s and LGBTQ rights?   Looking at the House of D shows us how the government has routinely punished women seen as masculine of centre simply for existing—under whatever laws the government chooses. At the same time, my research revealed that in spaces where women and trans men gathered, including the House of Detention, they were espousing what we think of as gay liberation and gay pride long before it ever showed up in homophile organizing or liberatory movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. These people bore the brunt of state oppression, and for that reason, understood before anyone else what state oppression of queer people and women looked like, and how it needed to be resisted. For example, in the 1940s, two young women named Bernice and Renée were in a long-standing lesbian relationship, which their social workers in jail realized. When confronted, both women adamantly said what they did in their own time was their own business; they were not ashamed of who they were and did not feel it was anyone’s business who they loved or think there should be any laws limiting what we today would call “gay rights.” Long before organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis or the Mattachine Society made this argument, these folks, the lumpenproletariat who are often referenced in biographies of more famous queer people, knew these ideas. I often think of this as similar to “freedom dreaming” in Black Liberation traditions. It’s the communal ability to imagine life beyond white-cis-heteropatriarchy and recognize the same struggles in each other, which enables all kinds of leaders to push those ideas forward. Tell me about some surprising people who were incarcerated. How did they end up there? In the archives, I came across a woman living during the 1950s from an upper-middle-class Black neighbourhood in Queens. She trained in conservatories for singing, was a keypunch operator (like in the movie Hidden Figures), was active in the growing New York homophile movement, and was a cabaret singer. She and her girlfriend broke up, and she was arrested when someone offered her money for prostitution. In the House of D, the social workers were intimidated by her. Their notes said they were afraid to attack homosexuality because they didn’t want her to think less of them. This isn’t the kind of case we normally think of when we think of Black women being arrested in the 1950s. How do you get people to care about a prison that’s gone? It’s hard enough getting people to care about prisons that are currently incarcerating people. I think it’s really hard to get people to care about history in general, and what guides my work is helping people see how history leads into the present day and then writing it in a way that is as accessible, emotional, and narrative as possible. We live and die by stories, and when we present our histories as these dry, static moments that barely involve real people, we deaden the subject and ask people to stop listening. Then, in your mind, how does the story of the House of D connect to the present? For me, it always comes back to that statistic: 40 percent of people in women’s prisons identify as LGBTQ. To understand why this came to be, I had to understand how the system came to target masculine-of-centre women, nonbinary folks, and trans men. That is the story of the House of D, but it’s a story that is still operating today though the House of D is closed. Hazlitt is a Canadian publication, and although the story of the House of D is a story of women’s incarceration in the United States, are there ways to connect this to the Canadian justice system? The trends and changes in consideration of women’s roles in former British colonies tend to follow similar trajectories. When we look at the history of women’s incarceration, part of what we see is women in a post-Victorian world entering the public sphere in ways they were denied previously. That is not an American story; that is a story of every country with a legacy of British colonialism.   You said earlier that part of the motivation for this project was telling queer histories that didn’t centre on whiteness or maleness. Were you concerned when writing this book that you wouldn’t be able to fairly represent the experiences of groups—like women, trans men, and people of colour, for example—outside your own experience? When I started this project, a lot of people pushed back on the idea of me as a white cis man writing this book. Most of the time, that pushback came from the point of view of people who assumed that other people would cancel me. That hasn’t been what happened. There are many people who’ve thought long and hard about these issues from different perspectives, who’ve pushed me to think but haven’t condemned me for being a white cis guy writing about women, trans people, and people of colour. It has largely been a nuanced, wonderful conversation I have been welcomed into after doing the work. People who are afraid of “cancel culture” are often actually afraid they won’t do the work, or their work will be crappy, and then they will get called out for it. If my work is crappy, I hope people call me out or call me in to talk about it. But if you do the work well, I don’t think you’ll get many calls to be cancelled, even when you’re writing beyond your own identity.
‘Silence We Inherit and Carry With Us’: An Interview with Eva Stachniak

The author of The School of Mirrors on sexual violence, the history of midwifery, and opening up archival silences. 

Women’s bodies have long been used as tools of conquest, in displays of dominance and acts of war, their voices unheard. These are silences that Eva Stachniak opens up with her latest novel, The School of Mirrors (Doubleday). Véronique and Marie-Louise—mother and daughter, both from the poorest class, with little agency of their own—live in 18th century France, a place where a debauched king can keep a stable of very young women in a house known as Deer Park, some who haven’t yet bled, for his personal pleasure. It’s an historical precursor to Epstein’s compounds and others like them: impoverished young women are lured with false promises of work that would improve their economic situation but become sexual playthings for the king instead. Often, as with Marie-Louise, the king’s agent secures these women with only parental consent. The young women themselves are never even asked. Although women’s sovereignty over their own bodies continues to be threatened worldwide, women have eked out ways to exercise agency and help each other. In The School of Mirrors, Marie-Louise is taken under the wing of France’s first midwife and becomes one herself. The novel is deeply feminist in inception and execution, a counter-narrative that gives voice to the powerless, whose stories are rarely a matter of historical record. Christine Fischer Guy: How and when did you find out about Deer Park? Was it the inspiration for this novel, or did it come later in the process? Eva Stachniak: It was both the beginning and the inspiration.  Reading the The Private Memoirs of Madame du Hausset, Lady’s Maid to Madame de Pompadour, I came across a scene in which Madame de Pompadour, King Louis XV at her side, summons Madame du Hausset and orders her to take care of a young lady until her confinement and make arrangements for the baby’s baptism. From the conversation that ensues, it becomes clear that the king is the father of the child, and that the young lady doesn’t know it. “She and others like her” have been told that their lover is a Polish count, a distant cousin of the queen, who keeps an apartment at Versailles.  That very phrase, she and others like her, was enough to make me dig deeper and discover Deer Park, a secret house in the town of Versailles where royal enablers kept young, pretty, lower-class girls for the king. The house, supervised by Madame de Pompadour but run by the king’s valet de chambre, was an elaborate and well-functioning establishment. The girls were told that they were trained to become ladies’ maids and thus improve their station in life. Most were dismissed after one or two “visits” with their “benefactor.” A few caught his fancy and stayed longer. I tried to find out who they were and what happened to them in the end, but the voices of the powerless rarely merit more than an occasional record. I’ve found a few names, learnt that Deer Park “bastards” were always given to foster parents, that the palace paid for their upkeep and set them up in life.  This is how the novel began, with an image of a young pregnant girl, a child she will give birth to, and the royal courtiers who make sure neither will ever cause their royal master any trouble.   This scenario puts me in mind of “the virgin cure,” an insidious myth that gained prominence in 19th century England: sexual relations with a virgin could cure a man of disease (then, syphilis). It persists in various forms throughout the world, a tragedy that leaves a trail of human wreckage: men of means use a very young woman’s body as they wish, without regard for her personhood. “The virgin cure” is an excellent example. Men of means and thus impunity usurp the right to use the female body as an object, a possession devoid of agency and feelings. We are still nowhere near being free from it. I don’t just mean the cases of Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein, either. It is enough to take a closer look at any war—most recently in Ukraine—to see how quickly women’s bodies become objects of revenge, a weapon of terror meant to dominate and humiliate the enemy. Sexual violence exerts one more terrible price. Silence. Silence forced by shame, by fear of reprisals, by the wish to spare the loved ones from pain. Silence of the victims and the perpetrators, of women and of men. Silence which seeps through generations, silence we inherit as children and carry with us all our lives.   Any family who has been through the terror of war carries these silences with them in various ways, as recent work on intergenerational trauma shows. When a woman’s body is used as a tool of war, she is silenced, as you say. Historically, the fallout—in my grandmother’s case, headaches, bad stomach, nightmares—didn’t have a name, and yet generations after carry the effects of PTSD in their own bodies. We are only starting to understand that these unresolved, unacknowledged traumas are carried forward on a cellular level in future generations. Although women’s bodies are used as tools of war, they haven’t historically been considered as equal value to men’s bodies, have they? Even within legitimate relationships, a woman’s pleasure was never a requirement in sexual relations. The young women in King Louis’s stable didn’t give consent; the act itself wasn’t even named. That’s a kind of erasure, too. In your research, did you find any examples of women who spoke up? What were the consequences?  The young women recruited to Deer Park were never asked for consent. Their parents were asked, and they made their own calculations. In The School of Mirrors, the Widow Roux, riddled with debts, believes that her three sons trump one daughter. All other arguments were a luxury she could not afford. Yes, there were women who spoke up. One nameless Deer Park girl stubbornly maintained that the king of France was the father of her child, until a few weeks of “treatment” in a mental asylum forced her to change her mind. One anonymous girl escaped with the help of her sweetheart. There was also Marie-Louise O’Murphy who, emboldened by the king’s liking of her, tried to win the Versailles game by trying to oust Madame de Pompadour herself, famously asking the king, “What do you still want with the old cocotte?” Louis XV dropped her in an instant and had her married off to an impoverished aristocrat.  The game was rigged then and it is rigged still. As Melissa Febos notes in Girlhood, her changing girl’s body had the “power to compel but not control.” And then she adds: “There is no good strategy in a rigged game. There are only new ways to lose.” Even within their limited scope of power, women have shown resourcefulness and ingenuity, exercising what little agency they had to help each other. I read accounts of women in my family’s ancestral village helping each other find food for their children under the cover of the night when Stalin’s occupying soldiers took the lion’s share of the crops for themselves and the village men were away in Russian work camps.   In The School of Mirrors, Marie-Louise, fierce and strong and intelligent, crosses paths with a midwife who changes her life. France’s first midwife, who we glimpse in the novel, was a force of nature who invented a “birthing machine” for student midwives and won a commission to train others by showing it to the same debauched king. In the words of Mme du Coudray’s biographer, “hundreds of letters existed, to her, about her and by her… There are hardly any women, especially in the 1700s, who left that kind of paper trail.” Du Coudray not only helped improve the lives of other women but carved out a place in history for herself, all from within a very limited scope of power. How she sold King Louis on the idea of funding the training of midwives all over France? By describing the French babies that would be saved. Brilliant and subversive, wasn’t it?   Did finding the record of Mme du Coudray change the course of the novel? Yes, in the most fundamental way.  Angélique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray hijacked the second part of The School of Mirrors. A licensed midwife, a proud professional woman aware of her self-worth, a relentless advocate for women’s health, she fought to improve both natal care and to reduce infant mortality. And in contrast to the Deer Park girls who had no agency or voice, she was a woman who would not be silenced. Madame du Coudray’s biography The King’s Midwife provided the basic facts. Single and of unknown parentage, she practiced as a licensed midwife in Paris in the 1740s and ’50s, rising to the position of head midwife in the Hôtel Dieu, where approximately 1500 babies were delivered each year. Faced with the realization that Parisian high standards of natal care were inaccessible to poor women in the provinces, she obtained royal funding and patronage for her obstetrics course with the help of a teaching tool she had invented, the “birthing machine.” Between 1760 and 1783, she criss-crossed provincial France training thousands of young peasant women in the art of midwifery. She also adopted and raised an orphaned peasant girl, Marguerite Guillaumanche, later Madame Coutanceau, who carried on her work well into the 19th century.  The “machine” speaks of Madame du Coudray’s resourcefulness and ingenuity. It is a curious object: a cut-off model of a female torso, a stuffed pregnant belly designed to give the students the illusion of delivering a baby. It makes use of ordinary, easily accessible materials. An internal wicker frame is covered with straw or upholstery. Sponges imitate flesh. An additional layer of durable linen imitates skin. The vessels hidden inside the belly hold fluids which can be released to imitate breaking waters or internal bleeding. The baby mannequin has an open mouth so that a student could practice the well-proven maneuver for breech births which demanded inserting two fingers into the baby’s mouth.  How many lives had she changed for the better! Not just the lives of mothers and children, but also the lives of thousands of young women from the provinces who received her precious gift of education. The gift that gave them a chance to exercise power over their own lives.  All I needed for The School of Mirrors was to imagine women like her and let them lead me.   Like Mme du Coudray herself, Marie-Louise breaks the poverty cycle in a system set against her. Unlike her mother, she escapes the silencing imposed by the king. I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of silence as I work on my own second novel, about music and silencing under a Russian regime. Silence is violence. The seat of power can be conceptualized as one’s voice, however expressed, whether through the vocal cords themselves or through one’s work. Within the scope of her limited powers as a poor young woman, Marie-Louise gains a voice of her own. I’d like to circle back to your decision to open up historical silences by introducing this counter-narrative to the official version of French history. In an interview, you said, “As a child, I quickly calculated: to be a grandmother I have to live through two world wars, to be a mother, through one World War and one Nazi occupation.” How did the women in your personal history act on the story you tell in this novel? The women who raised me, my mother and my grandmother, raised me in Communist Poland, in the aftermath of not just a devastating world war, but of what historian Timothy Snyder so aptly called the “bloodlands,” Hitler’s and Stalin’s killing fields.  As far back as I remember, war ruins have been around me everywhere. The houses that survived still had inscriptions in Russian: Min nyet. No mines. There were only two kinds of time: pre- or post-war. The words World War II meant that there must have been World War I and that there could be World War III. Stalin and Hitler were dead but their legacy was still very much alive.  At dusk, after all the work was done, my widowed grandmother would sit by the kitchen window, staring into the distance, turning the rings on her gnarled fingers. Her silence frightened me. I remember her startled eyes when I approached, her blue unseeing eyes, welling up with tears. If I asked what she was doing, she would say she was praying for the living and the dead. Every time she heard me laugh, she would tell me to stop, for I would soon cry. Once when I was playing with stones, she snatched them from me and threw them away, screaming, “Do you want your life to be as hard as mine?”  My mother did not believe that playing or not playing with rocks mattered. Refusing to yield to despair, she pushed the war past behind her, became a paleontologist, a professional woman, an outspoken expert in her field. She too warned me, but her warnings were of a different kind. Wars always brought out the worst out of humanity. Men were wolves to each other. Give them half a chance to drown you in a spoonful of water, they will. Then she made me concentrate on what was still possible. “If they close the door, get through the window. Find a way. You don’t know how? Figure it out.”  I thought of her as fearless, invincible, and yet she too refused to speak about her own experiences during the war or the political reprisals that followed. I knew she had been imprisoned as a member of the anti-communist underground, but only because she never let me close the door of a room she was in. “I’ll tell you one day, when you grow up,” she might say to fend me off when I wanted to know more, but mostly my questions would annoy her. We were living under a totalitarian regime; informers were everywhere. A child could be easily manipulated. Not knowing was a form of protection. Nature abhors a vacuum. My mother’s silence, even more than my grandmother’s, had always taunted me. It turned me into an expert in reading clues that slipped through her defences, eyes turned away too quickly, the tensing jaw, the unexpected anger in her voice. Many years later when, ravaged by Alzheimer’s, she no longer knew I was her daughter, she pointed at a bullet-riddled wall of a building we passed by and said: “These were terrible times. I know you want me to tell you what has happened, but I won’t.”  A missing story becomes conspicuous in its absence. A story refused, a conversation that did not take place, leaves a wake of loss behind it. I mourn the intimacy we could have shared, the comfort we could’ve given each other, but I’m her daughter through and through. I too turn to what is still possible. The School of Mirrors emerged from my personal memories of growing up with women marked by silence and loss. Their fear and their insistence that women choose silence for many reasons, not just shame and fear, but also love and the desire to protect those around them. Their conviction that even if the ravages of silence cannot be reversed, life is resilient and thrives on hope and that lost voices can be regained in spite of everything that has conspired against them. The loss of memory did not make my mother forget her determination to keep her secrets, but it did turn the formidable professional woman I had known all my life into a spirited teenager who would assure me she loved me because we were so happy together, or a thoughtful friend offering the greatest gift of all: empathy and acknowledgement of my pain.    “You say you are my daughter. I don’t know how this could be possible. But if you are right, it must be terrible for you to know that your own mother cannot recognize you.” That moment found its way into The School of Mirrors.  That scene was very moving, perhaps more so as my own mother has been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She still recognizes me, but I know the day will come when she won’t. And then there’s the other sort of forgetting, which isn’t forgetting at all but the desire to forget traumatic times or dissociate from them entirely. I grew up with the laughter admonishment, too, and it went “Laugh before seven, cry before eleven.” The subconscious life advice transmitted in that aphorism: one must never forget that tears or disappointment are just around the corner. My grandmother wouldn’t talk about the time that Stalin’s soldiers occupied their village, except once, when I pressed her. “The doctor made sure no babies were born,” she said, and then would say nothing further. That sort of elliptical comment was meant to shut the conversation down but did the opposite—it became a catalyst for my research and imagination that fuels my work. When your mother said, “You want me to tell you, but I won’t,” did it have a similar effect? Did it become a reason for the decision you made to let the women finally tell their story? I’m thinking of your wonderful line “The dead, once wakened, may not stay silent.” It did. I was never old enough to hear it, or she was never ready to speak. Was it the fear of her own reaction or mine? Why couldn’t we talk about it? What would’ve happened if we did? There is enough force in it to make me imagine and probe. This mother/daughter conversation I never had seeped into The School of Mirrors but in some ways, it underlines all my writing. I know that it is the same for you, and that this phantom conversation will continue to frustrate and inspire you.  All my writing comes from the deep need to break this chain of imposed silence, to restore the voices that could not or would not speak. It is no coincidence that I became a writer only after I emigrated from Poland, and that I became a writer in English rather than in my native Polish. My Canadian voice is much bolder, not as susceptible to cultural warnings of what can or cannot, should or shouldn’t, be said. Polish secrets and obligations are not Canadian secrets. Distancing myself from language and place gave me the emotional freedom to explore and restore what might have been much harder or impossible to probe if I had never left.
The World We’re Losing

Ecological grief captures a newly defined set of emotions, all connected to our personal relationship to the natural world.

A stranger paces around an unfinished shack, speaking to himself as though he is alone. He says he saw dead dolphins floating belly up in the Bayou. He had never seen anything like that, he says, he was born and raised in Louisiana, he had lived his entire life in Louisiana and now what? There were dead turtles on the shore? Dead fish? Dead birds? Tears drip from his wet eyelashes. His face is pink with pain. His hands are clenched into fists at his side. Standing in the room with me are eight other people, a friend from Texas who gave A and me a ride from the Sonoran Desert in an old hearse—we took turns lying in the back on a mattress—and others, friends, acquaintances, strangers I can’t place. A, my partner-in-crime since childhood, is standing next to me, but we are all silent, paralyzed by this rupture in the social shell of the day, alarmed by what the stranger is saying. It is my first time in New Orleans. Everyone refers to us as the Canadians. The city is still full of the wreckage of Katrina. Five years later, each broken-down bungalow and abandoned building is a reminder of someone’s home lost. Rebuilds, restoration, blight laws, auctions, squats, gentrification all working in different ways to erase these markers of history. From the corner of the room, I watch the stranger cry. I am frozen, embarrassed, childish. Some untouchable part of me is afraid of being undone in the same way, afraid of emotional contagion, afraid of cracking, and I am not the only one. I don’t know what to do with my own hands. Do I clutch them? Put them in my pockets? Hold them behind my back? What do I say? What do I do? I feel my heart beat faster and faster. The stranger stops suddenly. He kneels down, holds his stomach and gasps for breath. It is October 2010, just after the BP oil spill. In April, the Deepwater rig was drilling a well 35,000 feet below sea level when high-pressure methane from the well expanded, lit, and exploded the underwater piping, the rig, the platform. After the well opened, an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers were killed by the blast. It wasn’t until September 19th that it was fully sealed. Memory is slippery. With each recall it is altered. The context you remember from colours it. The narratives you’ve told to make sense of it colour it, like a drop of food dye in a cup of water. The identity you imagine for yourself colours it. This memory is persistent. I can feel the heat on my face. I can hear the stranger describing his utopian building plans, touring us around the construction site, pointing at a wooden frame that, with drywall, would become a bedroom, and the holes where windows would be. I watch myself watching as the stranger cries. In the memory I don’t have the language or tools to understand what is happening, but now I understand that this was grief. Ecological grief can be triggered by the loss of a species, an animal, part of a forest, a cherished place, a river, a home, future ecologies, past ecologies. The grief can be acute, anticipatory, vicarious, cumulative. It is connected to a cluster of a newly defined set of emotions: eco-anxiety, eco-panic, eco-trauma, all resulting from our personal relationship to the natural world. I think of this memory as a demarcation, a transition between a time before I understood the idea of ecological grief to a time after. *** “One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds” wrote Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac in 1945. In 2020, I read in the newspaper that it’s the 10-year anniversary of the BP oil spill. Clean-up crews skimmed the water’s surface and sprayed Corexit dispersants, but oil still coats the floor of the salt marshes. I start to read obsessively about the tar balls left behind from the spill, the pancakes of oil in the sand, the brown tides of dead sargassum, the rig workers with PTSD. I read an account of a wife struggling with her husband’s suicide attempts after working the exploded rig. I look at photographs of pelicans coated in oil. I read about Mexican fishing communities that still haven’t been compensated by the oil company. And the memory continues appearing out of nowhere, vivid but out of focus like a hologram. The stranger weeping in his shack. Part of me imagines I can repair my mistake from those years ago, when I froze in the face of his breakdown, by researching. If I can see what he saw, be equipped with information, facts, then I can honour his suffering now in a way I failed to do then. By now, almost everyone I know has experienced some form of ecological grief. And the more I read, the more I want to see the slow-moving coffee brown rivers where the man described the dead floating downstream. What does it look like today? There is a disturbing paradox between voyeuristic curiosity and bearing witness. I am not sure it can be resolved. In nature we imagine experiencing transcendence by being a piece of something beyond ourselves. The borders of the self turn permeable. They blur. Where do we begin? And where does wilderness end? How do we stop pretending to be bystanders to the natural? But all interactions with wilderness now are edged with equally unresolvable tragedy, seesawing between the poetic and sublime. I want to be in the Bayou again, so I can hear chirping insects in the undergrowth, smell the wet musky earth, so I might reckon with my naïve past self, so I might understand something about the relationship between human interiority and the natural world. Stefan and I sleep in a cheap motel on a snowy Ohio highway next to an adult superstore. When I go in to ask room prices, the woman at the desk calls me sweetie, then complains that she had to work a double shift because the other girl called in sick. She was beaten up by that fucking idiot again, she says. A man in an oversized winter jacket is half-asleep on a lobby couch, watching golf. I am sorry, I say, is she ok? Oh yeah, it happens all the time, the woman says. Here’s your key, the hot tub closes at 11:30. The phone in our room starts ringing for no reason at 4 am. We call the desk to ask why. She doesn’t know, it’s happening all over the motel. We leave the receiver off the hook so we can sleep, but the ringing feels somehow ominous. In the morning over coffee and a bagel, while Stefan showers, I begin a handwritten list of endangered species, repeating the names of the dead like an incantation, an elegy, a spell. I start with British Columbia, where I spent half of my childhood, and then move through North America: American Badger, Basking Shark, Burrowing Owl, Chinook Salmon, Vesper Sparrow, Caribou. In Montgomery, Alabama we stay in a room that smells like it is rotting from the inside out. The only other guest is a young student from California working for the Elizabeth Warren campaign. Monarch Butterfly, Quillwort, Desert Nightsnake, Eulachon, Fragrant Popcornflower, Grey Whale. The next night we camp in Atchafalaya Basin, the largest wetland habitat in the US, where the Atchafalaya river delta meets the Gulf of Mexico. Our tent is a thin membrane between us and the wilds. If we touch the tent wall, water will leak through. We lay with our eyes open listening to a chorus of unidentifiable nightlife singing through the velvet black. The swamp is like nowhere I have ever been. The night is alive and wet. In the morning we eat crawfish etouffee at a gas station, get lost in a forest of sycamore and bald cypress, ferns at our feet, as it rains and the delta fills. The bayous are neon green with algae. Gators swim below the still surface, dinosaurs in the deep. An egret flies by. Its wings are impossible clouds. The bird population of North America has declined 29 per cent since 1970, and I wonder when the silence will eat at this landscape of sound. I take videos of Stefan on my phone walking in the mist, camera slung over his shoulder, bleached hair, plaid jacket, just so I might hear the song of migratory waterfowl again. I’m crafting a time machine.  ***  In The Hidden Life of Trees, rogue German forester Peter Wohlleben writes that trees communicate through underground mycorrhizal networks. They can share water, nutrients, send distress signals, they have kin recognition and memory. Individual trees even seem to have unique personalities. Older trees, with more fungal connections, redistribute water or nutrients from their deep root systems to more shallow-rooted seedlings like a mother might. In an interview, researcher Allan Larocque suggests, “We don’t know how they communicate within their own bodies. They don’t have nervous systems, but they can still feel what’s going on, and experience something analogous to pain. When a tree is cut, it sends electrical signals like wounded human tissue.” I like Larocque’s description because it feels surprising to think of a tree this way. Everything about a tree is so different from how we are taught to imagine an emotional being, and in trying to relate to this idea we have to wrestle with personal histories of knowledge. What is emotion? What is language? How do we feel what we feel? But there is power in attempting this radical act of undoing perception, to pick away at comfort in search of alternative ways of seeing. Thinking of trees this way resonates with me. At six, I lived with my grandfather on the mountainside of a two-lane highway to nowhere. His house is near an old silver mining town in BC called Riondel. Fingers of logging road extend up the Rockies and Selkirks to wilderness, cathedrals of birch, hemlock, cedar, larch. Loneliness is a word with too many divergent meanings. To be alone with others is a loneliness that turns into alienation, a loneliness that traps you inside yourself. To be alone in loss or abandonment is to be forsaken, betrayed, left behind, unwanted. There is a gentler, surface loneliness, the reminder of our perpetual aloneness in time. The kids at school called me Heidi and laughed at my pink rubber boots. I hid my sandwiches in my desk or slipped them into the garbage. The teachers were concerned that I never ate. I told them I hated the butter slathered on the bread, because I didn’t have words to describe what I felt, a war against the invading hollowness of being alone. My grandfather accepted my explanation, and although he was loving, he worked all day in his studio, napped at noon, then worked until we ate in silence watching documentaries on TV. I would have been a very lonely child—sent away from my mom, from everything I knew, to the woods—if I didn’t have the forest to play in. After school I would walk down a moss-covered path, through the soft white pines up the mountain, to Corn-beef Creek. My grandfather and I had made a deal that if I refused to wear a bear bell, which I rejected because it made me feel like a cow, I had to make noise in order not to surprise any predators. There were cougars, lynx, black bears, supposedly grizzlies. So, I spoke or sang to the trees as I walked. I even remember them speaking back to me. Fallen cedars created bridges over the creek. Some days I sat or lay on a log in wait for deer, elk who might come to drink. I saw the trees very differently at six, seven, twelve, than I do now. I felt they knew me, and I knew them in a way that is difficult to describe. I imagined they had a collective and individual sentience. They were wiser than me, with a slow sedimenting concept of time that was comforting. In my mind it stretched past one human life into deep-time and held me in my human limits with care. This relationship eased my isolation. I wasn’t lonely when I was with them. In the early ’90s, the pine beetle started to kill forests throughout BC and Alberta, devastating nearly 18 million hectares of forest. Although the insect is endemic, it moved into new territories. Warm winters and dry summers increased its population, and the trees couldn’t fight against the attack as normal. Beetles bore tunnels into the bark, laying eggs in the living cambium. The larvae then continued to dig deeper and deeper into the trunks, until the mountains were covered in orange patches of dead forest. At the same time, clearcutting mowed bald patches all over the province, usually hidden from highways to calm any outrage. “The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love,” write psychologists Colin Parkes and Holly Prigerson in their book Bereavement: Study of Adult Grief in Life. “It is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend it is not so, is to put on emotional blinders, which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our lives and unprepared to help others to cope with the losses in theirs.” The first time I saw these swaths of burnt-pumpkin, dead forest, I felt a pain in my chest, though I will admit that I still hadn’t accepted or allowed myself to reveal this to others, consider it legitimate, or let myself feel it, so it became a stunted obscure pain. A pain I considered immature, juvenile, weak. This is the first time I can remember my own eco-grief. An elastic tight feeling inside my chest. I will always equate the orange colour of dead pine needles with the colour of death. *** Stefan and I drive from Atchafalaya Basin to LaFayette. We drink beer and listen to a Cajun jam at a run-down but famous saloon. The Acadian singer sounds like his heart has been broken since he learned to walk. We try to two-step. The next day we drive through Plaquemines Parish, the area hit hardest by the BP spill. A single ribbon of asphalt extends down the peninsula. The road is cradled by marshes, roadkill armadillos, pipelines, stilted houses, banana trees, distant rigs. Sandhill cranes and plovers fish in the ditch. Smoke curls up from who knows where. After the spill, the fishing industry was depleted, the economy devastated. Corexit dispersants used as a band-aid solution by BP to sink and scatter the oil killed marine life, producing mutations in their offspring. Some fish in Barataria Bay were later found with no eyes, or no opening for their mouths. 2 million gallons of Corexit was used in the aftermath. People living nearby who were sprayed complained of boils appearing on their skin, and seizures. Even the solution to the problem was a problem. Dusky Gopher Frog, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Red-cockaded Woodpecker. I was curious to see the end of the line, to see the coast. Was there oil residue still or had it been completely restored? What did it look like? What did the stranger from my memory see? But the road was flooded. We didn’t even get close. Twice that happened. The road disappeared into the ocean. We would have driven directly into pools of water if we hadn’t stopped to turn around, and it was the dry season. Sockeye Salmon, Spotted Owl, Steelhead Trout, Vancouver Island Marmot, Horned Lark. Solastalgia is a term coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2005. He defines it as the pain experienced when the environment you live in is under immediate assault. It is the loss of belonging when the place you belong to transforms around you, is altered, or no longer exists as it used to. Albrecht interviewed farmers in New South Wales, a state in eastern Australia, during the severe drought of the early 2000s, and families in the Upper Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, living next to large-scale open cut mines. On the one hand, the drought had caused the earth to dry up and crack; on the other, the smelters had caused an eternal night, blocking the sun with smoke and pollution. The change in the landscape was extreme. Albrecht noticed his questions were often answered with a latent sense of doom. The interviewees always referred back to, or referenced, their desolation, helplessness, crisis-of-self resulting from the shocking changes to their homes. So, Albrecht invented a word to name this new emotion, to articulate it. “Solastalgia is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home,” he writes. Louisiana is the first state with climate change refugees. Entire communities have been displaced by erosion. Islands have disappeared. The state is losing a football field of land every hour. Everyone knows this about their home. It is a mantra. The land is disintegrating because of the intrusion of saltwater, rising sea levels, oil and gas infrastructure, lack of replenishing sediment due to levees and water control. At least 22,000 acres of land have been sucked into the swamp. Isle de Jean Charles, an island that is home to a community of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw people, is being devoured by water. They have been forced to relocate. A state restoration project promising to rebuild the land and shift state water control infrastructure in the hopes of replenishing sediment hovers in a distant bureaucratic future. In lieu of this, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw have created a powerful Tool Kit for other communities undergoing environmental and developmental pressures. By 2045, scientists estimate that 300,000 homes in the US will be lost to rising ocean water. Western-tiger Salamander, White-Headed Woodpecker, White-bark Pine, Limber Pine, Northern Leopard Frog, Oregon Spotted Frog, Phantom Orchid. Ashlee Cunsolo, Director of the Labrador Institute, studies the impact of climate change on Inuit communities in Labrador, the fastest warming area in Canada. Her research dovetails Albrecht’s in its attempt to understand this acute existential distress. After interviewing hundreds of people over the course of five years about the emotional effect of the changing environment on their lives, she concludes that profound questions of identity come with climate change. “We are people of the sea ice,” an Inuit elder tells her, “And if there’s no more sea ice, how do we be people of the sea ice?” This is the question of solastalgia: Who are we when our home disappears around us? Who are the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw without Isle de Jean Charles? Or Nehiyaw communities in Alberta without the Bison? Who am I without the pines I spent my childhood with? The impact of ecological grief is different than mourning the dead. With it we mourn the future that will be changed or may not exist, the past that we can never return to. We mourn ourselves. Red Wolf, Pygmy Racoon, Staghorn Coral, Oahu Tree Snails, Franklin’s Bumblebee, California Condor, Ozark Big Eared Bat, Canada Lynx. On the way back up the peninsula, we stop in an interpretive center for a historical fort. The museum has a few relics on display. Descriptions of the objects, printed from a home printer and taped to the wall with scotch tape, give little information. The history seems shallow and spotty, which in museums can mean a dangerous forgetting or a hint of an apologist scaffolding. I try to read between the lines, to tell if it is a disguised confederate mausoleum, but am not sure. The fort is a five-minute drive away, but the gate is locked with rusted-out chains. One motorcycle is parked under a skeletal magnolia. Otherwise, there is no sign of anyone. Spanish moss hangs from the branches. The biker stalks about agitatedly looking for something. I watch him from a concrete ruin, the river on one side, used condoms and beer cans littered underneath. When will the fort be open? I ask the woman behind the counter. It’s always locked up except for re-enactments, she explains. I ask her if the land has changed a lot in the last ten years, if she remembers the BP spill. She tells us she lives in New Orleans. The owner isn’t around, he would know more about the spill, and the land. But she has a lot to say about Katrina, she says. Her neighbors heard them blow up the levy. Nothing else sounds like that. She speaks with her eyes in a language of intimate conspiratorial gesture, looking at us wisely after hinting at the unspoken, leading us through unfinished sentences with a raised eyebrow, a coquettish turn of the head, a laugh. Her name is Val. You can say what you want, some people don’t believe us, some do, but we have ears, she says, we understand what’s happening. She tumbles through her stories without questions. She wants to tell us. She wants us to listen. Her family was split up afterwards. One son went to New York and was having a rough go. One son was never the same after the Superdome. A lot of people were never the same. How could you be the same? *** A group of Berkeley academics and doctors looking at the emotional bonds between humans and nature in the 1980s coined the term ecopsychology. Traditionally other therapies work on healing or understanding relationships between people, families, partners, the self, whereas ecopsychology tries to heal relationships between people and nature. It posits a synergy between humans and the earth, where the needs or rights of the planet are inextricably linked to the needs and rights of humans. Patients are treated outside in natural environments, and work towards sustainability. In more contemporary circles this might mean a patient is prescribed a walk in the park for 20 minutes a day. But earlier advocates of ecopsychology insist on reciprocity. It doesn’t mean just sitting on a bench under your favorite oak, it means somehow caring for that oak in return, maybe watering it, fertilizing it, defending it from removal, planting seedlings. This mutual care can help with healing. “In a culture of gratitude,” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Potawatomi biologist, writes on gift economies: “Everyone knows that gifts will follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you.” Reciprocity builds bonds. A network of bonds is a community. We think about this in our intimate relationships with each other, but less so in our relationship with nature. This “moral covenant” of reciprocity, as Kimmerer describes it, could be crucial to managing our grief. In his work on the role of mental health providers confronting emotional distress due to the climate crisis, Daniel Rosenbaum writes that it’s a problem if clinicians and therapists approach psychological distress as a dysfunctional response that the sufferer must fix. He reminds us that hurt is a normal reaction to loss. “Pain and upset in response to painful and upsetting situations may be both perfectly normative and a sign of healthy mature emotional functioning.” Pathologizing eco-grief implies that it is not healthy to feel a strong emotional response to the climate crisis, but how can we not feel something? Rosenbaum calls on fellow mental health providers to “reject notions of individual’s brokenness, and honor people’s grief or pain for the world as a healthy response to an abnormal situation.” So, then, it is for us to name and normalize what we feel in response to the abnormal situations we are in. Naming is a powerful step in grief work. To name is to acknowledge. To name is to accept that loss is real. A common treatment therapists recommend for eco-grief is mindfulness, the meditative practice of being present to yourself in the moment without judgement. Emotions are inevitable. Resisting or burying or denying them can push them into dormancy. The idea is that a meditative approach can allow people to feel with resilience and unknot the ropework of repression without being flooded into despair. Once you feel, you can begin to integrate the loss, mourning is possible. But how are we supposed to mourn the environment? Some psychologists stress the uniqueness of grief: because each individual grieves differently, finding a personal way to grieve is important. Other strategies for grief work, including psychedelic assisted therapy, using psilocybin as an adjunct to psychotherapy, or daily microdosing to improve the physical or depressive impacts of grief, rearticulating mourning rituals, both public and private and lamentation, are all having a renaissance. The DSM does not provide diagnostics for an ill or afflicted society. Because climate change disproportionately affects the vulnerable, social determinants of health need to be looked at and issues of poverty, racism reckoned with. But without some deep structural shifts these therapies can only go so far. North American society places the responsibility of mental health on the individual, but how can a person heal or be well while living in a social structure with a fundamentally exploitative infrastructure that doesn’t support basic wellbeing? *** On one of our last nights in Louisiana we watch a marching band perform in New Orleans. Halfway home we stop for a drink in the French Quarter, order a round of beers and find a small table to crowd around. A girl with thin hair and heavy blush approaches us. She is beautiful the way teenagers can be beautiful, like deer wandering along the side of a highway at night. She talks to Stefan. He charms her with a sequin patch of a flower he sewed to his jean jacket and his glittering eyes. I lean against the wall, watching the ebb and flow of nightlife in the bar. Then the man she is with turns to me. He speaks with an alarming intensity, telling me how much he hates himself, over and over again, a vicious loop, the mind trapped in repetition. I think it was naïve for me to not have seen what was coming. I try to comfort him, as the roiling alcohol from the night simmers in my blood. I’m sorry that you feel so bad, I say. Maybe you should see someone you can talk to, I think that can help, a therapist? He tells me he has seen psychologists for years but nothing could help. He hates himself, he hates himself, did I want to know why? He can’t tell me, he says. I pause. I understand the power of confession, would it absolve him to confess? I don’t want to absolve anyone, especially not knowing what he’s about to say. Would it ease the pain to be shared? I figure he’s cheated on his wife. It can’t be that bad, I say. He looks all the way through me. Because of what he had done in Iraq, he says. I feel everything leak out of me. I shot a child in the head. The teenager is monologuing beside me, her hands whirling in the air. I look more carefully at the stranger. He is wearing a crew neck sweater and pre-distressed jeans, hair tightly cropped, clean shaven. He looks like a soldier. No one can hear him besides me. My translator was my best friend, he says, and you know what they did to him and his wife after I left? I excuse myself and go outside.   Here it was again, prismatic grief, wounds opening onto wounds. Experts have tried to reimagine grief as non-linear. They suggest that the five stages of the Kubler-Ross model, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, may repeat or switch in order. There is no clear final outcome or end to grief, pain may return in new forms forever. One loss bears the burden and residue of another. A new wound digs into older wounds. In an article for the Intercept, journalist Murtaza Hussein looked at the impact of industrialized militaries on climate change. Citing a report published by Brown University, “Costs of War,” Hussein writes that the US military is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide aside from entire nations, and that if it was a nation, it would be the 55th largest emitter. Beyond its shocking carbon footprint, the direct environmental impact goes much deeper. Afghanistan, after 19 years of ongoing conflict, has suffered extensive deforestation. In Iraq, burn pits and toxic munitions, such as uranium depleted bullets, have caused severe environmental damage, while also leading to high rates of cancer in cities like Fallujah. The country suffers from increasing dust storms, desertification, drought, salinization, all a result of climate change. War is an industry that contributes to environmental destruction, exacerbated by the bottomless violence of racism, colonialism, and anti-poor systems. For so many, home has become a battleground for resource extraction, and, as a result, collateral damage. Trying to understand eco-grief is a puzzle, so many griefs today are entangled, and unexpectedly pass through the same place.  *** At home, March brings the pandemic. I hide out at a friend’s farm watching twilight turn the fields of dead grass a lavender-grey. I can’t stop thinking about the soldier and the stranger from my memory. They begin to become one person. White-headed Woodpecker, Vancouver Island Marmot, Western-tiger Salamander, Whitebark Pine. After dinner, I share a beer with my farmer friends. We discuss what to do, who will get groceries, protocol, masks, what we need, hand sanitizer. Their five-year-old daughter runs around shirtless with pale sweatpants singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. This is the first but not the last time I hear this song. She circles the kitchen like a helicopter. “The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside” she sings. Her voice gets louder and higher pitched near the climax, “conceal don’t feel, don’t let them know, well now they know, let it go, let it go...” Noticing our grocery list, she stops, looks up at us with imploring brown eyes. Daddy, can I get straws tomorrow at the store? We exchange glances. Straws are no good, love, we don’t use them anymore. Why? She asks. Orca, Ocelot, Jaguar, Woodland Caribou, Whooping Crane. He finds the video on YouTube, the three of us hover over his phone watching as two doctors in a motorboat try to safely remove a plastic straw from a tortoise’s nose. It has lodged all the way up its nasal cavity, with the white tip protruding only a few centimeters. For some reason the creature, with its scaled prehistoric beak and sad poetic eyes, does not struggle. It submits. The doctors cut the straw in half, and the tortoise starts to bleed. They debate whether to leave the straw. If it is lodged in the brain, they could do more damage by removing it then leaving it in. I wonder if it’s ok to show this to a five-year-old, but it’s too late. When the straw is finally pulled out, I feel dizzy like I have lost blood. The animal cowers in a corner of the boat, the video cuts, and we are back in the kitchen, in the panicked spring of 2020. Grief again. Maybe grief is the syntax for living. She looks at us with questions but says nothing. What is there to say? *** Thinking about utopia in A History of My Brief Body, Billy-Ray Belcourt writes that joy is a revolutionary act for Indigenous people who are constantly fighting against the settler state to stay alive. “Freedom is itself a poetics,” he writes “in that it seeks to re-schematize time, space, and feeling in the direction of a future driven by an ethic of care, a relational practice of joy-making that is all ours to enact.” He writes this to and for Indigenous people. Joy has a different meaning in a context where it is policed by white culture, where the legacy of residential schools, police brutality, incarceration, forced starvation, climate change, and dispossession of land leave people marked with trauma and poverty, but I can’t find another statement that more concisely speaks to what I am trying to understand about ecological grief. Part of me cringes at optimism, at the word hope, which is fraught with history. Isn’t hope a balm without a strategy? Hope is not an act. Hope is not a tactic. Hope is a fantasy for people who are not afforded agency. Hope is the expectation that nothing can change in the here and now. It is a deferral to another place, another time, a future speculation, a heaven, a hereafter. I was afraid I might have to return to the idea of hope in this conclusion. It felt like a stain I didn’t know what to do with, but an essay about grief can’t be concluded without some refuge, some attempt at solace, some attempt at hope? I hear the word offered constantly as an antidote. In the news journalists conclude interviews with questions about hope, do you have hope? How does hope influence you? Is there any hope? I feel guilty for writing this paragraph. Railing against hope seems so cruel, because what else is there? But I think there is a lot for non-Indigenous people to learn from Belcourt’s statement. Care can be a radical act, a temporal act, a healing act. Care is a protective attentiveness to the future. Care is active, reciprocal. Joy, like care, is also an act of love, to celebrate, to feel delight, wonder, euphoria. If we only grieve what we love, let us also actively love what we love, while we still can. *** This morning the sky is all rough-hewn clouds, like matted hair, feral, unkempt. Summer tightens its jaws. I watch the street from my porch. A neighbor in a mask asks for a tomato from the garden. A child passes with a balloon. My grandfather texts me a photo of Kootenay lake. The water is silver. Waves reflect light in rivulets of liquid mercury. He compares it to a photo from a few days before where the ferry is near invisible, cloaked in smoke from the wildfires. He says he doesn’t go outside anymore, except sometimes in the morning with a special mask to filter the particulates. I think of the charcoal forest, everything burnt an ink-black, ravaged. A pain in my chest rises to my throat like a hand. Is this what the stranger in New Orleans felt? I think of a stand of cedars near my grandfather’s vegetable garden, the perfume of the needles, the red peppermint puzzle pieces in the bark. I drink my coffee too fast. Claustrophobia is setting in. I need to run away to a place where I am unknown, I write in my notebook, so I can be more myself, not controlled by other people’s ideas of who I am. The clouds twist and contort until they turn to waves cresting in the sky. My mom texts to say the animals are acting weird. Birds are flying in circles or hiding. What is home? A photo on Instagram of an inferno peaking over the summit of a blue mountain. I cross out what I have written in my notebook, as if anything makes sense anymore. How can I be more myself in a place that doesn’t know me? Atlantic Salmon, Atlantic Walrus, Blue Walleye, Caribou, Deepwater Cisco, Eelgrass Limpet, Great Auk, Kiyi, Macoun’s shining moss, Whitefish, Passenger Pigeon, Sea Mink, Striped Bass.
‘It Did Away With the Entire Juvenile Justice System’: An Interview with Kathleen Hale

The author of Slenderman on deinstitutionalization, early onset schizophrenia, and “crimes of the century.” 

On a spring morning in 2014, three little girls went into the woods and only two came out. That’s about as much as most people remember about what came to be called the Slenderman stabbings. Two twelve-year-olds—one in active psychosis due to childhood-onset schizophrenia and the other wrapped up in her delusions—invited their friend to a birthday sleepover and planned to murder her, to protect their families from a villain named Slenderman.  Slenderman, a character written about profusely on a user-generated site called Creepypasta, was just one of the many fictions that bonded Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier. But it was the one that would infect their reality, so much so that they felt the only way to keep themselves and their loved ones safe was to kill someone important to Morgan. They chose her long-time best friend, Peyton “Bella” Leutner. The morning after their sleepover, the three friends walked into the forest. Morgan stabbed Bella 19 times, and then she and Anissa set out on a trek to Slenderman’s mansion, the location of which they imagined to be outside their midwestern town. Bella, severely injured, managed to drag herself to the edge of a nearby road where a cyclist found her. She was rushed to the hospital and survived. Doctors told her that if one of the stab wounds had been just a hair deeper, she would have died. It wasn’t long before police found Morgan and Anissa and arrested them, at which point the girls gave separate, lengthy confessions. (Both of which you can watch, in their entirety, online.)  What followed was a trial that brought to national attention issues of mental health care, child crime laws, friendship, and mythology. But what struck author Kathleen Hale most, as she watched the case unfold, was that no one seemed troubled by the idea that the state of Wisconsin was prosecuting a severely mentally ill child as an adult. She first wrote about the story here at Hazlitt, an in-depth look at the case and its cultural significance, and has since expanded the story into a book: Slenderman: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crime of Two Midwestern Girls (Grove Atlantic). As Hale’s editor on the original piece, I was curious to talk to her about the case again. “One of the biggest revelations of writing the book,” she told me, “was that there were no villains, and that’s what made it such a difficult story.”  Haley Cullingham: After Morgan and Anissa are arrested for stabbing Peyton, or as they call her, Bella, the thing everyone wants to ask these girls is why. And it made me wonder, when was the last time someone asked them that, about anything, before the crime?   Kathleen Hale: If anyone had acknowledged it in any way, or opened up the conversation, this might never have happened. I think, in some instances, the reluctance to engage with these girls about what they were saying, experiencing, exhibiting in their behaviour, just speaks to a real national reluctance to talk about mental illness in general. And I think some of it came down to local culture, as well. The girls cared deeply about Slenderman and the Creepypasta stories, and nobody else in their lives took these stories seriously. But the girls made Slenderman serious through their actions. They forced people to take it seriously. That was one of Anissa’s intentions, she told police. Part of this was just wanting to prove that Slenderman was real and that she wasn’t “crazy.” But I think, in her child mind, proving that Slenderman was real was code for proving that her pain was real, that she wasn’t crazy to be feeling the way she was feeling, that what she was feeling was okay, lovable, and relevant. She just wasn’t getting that attention. Her sadness was being ignored, and at the same time, she felt like she had to hide it because she didn’t want to cause extra stress for her parents because she craved their attention so much. I think, in a really terrible way, this crime might have occurred, among other reasons, as a cry for help. You spend so much of the book at this intersection between brain development and cultural context, and the idea of being a girl in middle school specifically somewhere like Waukesha, Wisconsin. In exploring these draconian juvenile justice laws, or really the lack of juvenile justice in the United States, I was really surprised to come up, again and again, against this idea that children are no different from adults, and if they commit a serious, “adult” crime, they should be treated as adults in their punishment. First of all, what is mature, what is adult, about a crime at all? And, second of all, this idea of “adult crime, adult time” just flies in the face of science, which I know has unfortunately become very politicized in our country. But you can see on an MRI that a child’s brain is different, and undeveloped, and remains undeveloped, until the age of sometimes 25. The brain develops from back to front, and so the executive functioning skills that allow us to make decisions based on future repercussions, they don’t exist. We can all remember being children and not being able to grasp the permanence or the reality of death. That’s just one example. Children are biologically different, and I was very shocked to see a defense team—Morgan and Anissa’s defense team—trying to prove in court that Anissa and Morgan were biologically children at the time of the crime, and having it contested. It was contested to the point that Anissa’s pediatrician’s report was brought up, and read from, and they went down this list of prepubertal characteristics in Anissa to try to prove she was a child to get the case transferred. It was surreal to see these kinds of things debated in contemporary society. So much of the horror was that this was done to someone who was a child, but people could then not make the switch to realize that the girls doing it were children as well. When there’s child-on-child violence, in Wisconsin but also in many other states, there’s only one child, and there’s only one victim, in the situation, as far as prosecutors are concerned and the public is concerned, and that’s the victim. The other children who are assailants become adults in the eyes of the community, at least with serious violent crimes like attempted homicide. There’s definitely no room in the discussion for the idea of more than one child or more than one victim. Morgan and Anissa victimized Bella, and then they too were victimized by our justice system, and both of those things are true, but it’s hard in our country to hold both of those facts in mind. A lot of that comes from something you go into deeply in the book, which is the super-predator phenomenon. Could you talk a little bit about the impact that phenomenon, and its very destructive legacy, had on this case? It’s impossible to overstate the importance and the destructive impact of the super-predator theory when considering the ways in which we now harshly prosecute children in the United States. It basically did away with our entire juvenile justice system. In the mid-’90s, a man named John DiIulio Jr., who was then a sociology professor at Princeton, said that he had done all of this research and had found that children growing up in “moral poverty” in urban areas—he used all the coded racial language—were becoming super-predators, which is to say that they had no souls, and therefore they were psychopaths, and the usual punishments would not work on them. What we needed to do, the only way that we could stop them, was to set up laws that put them behind bars. And it just caught fire. It happened across the aisle, both Democrats and Republicans advocated for these laws, Hilary Clinton pushed for it, Joe Biden talked about it. This is something that, right now, is associated with right-wing politics, but everyone is guilty. Every single politician during that period, pretty much, pushed this theory into law. In places like Wisconsin, they have the harshest laws, which is that children ten and older are prosecuted as adults in attempted homicide cases and homicide cases.  So, a couple of years after this theory came out, it turned out that John DiIulio Jr. had made up everything. It was all fake. It was fiction. He wrote it like a novel. It wasn’t real. There were no super-predators, just like there’s no Slenderman. But nothing happened. He went on to work for the Bush administration, nothing upended in his life. And the laws built in service of his fake theory exist to this day. And no one is interested in changing them, because tough-on-crime politics has become so ingrained in our political system, especially in voters’ minds, especially right-wing voters. It’s impossible to tear down, because no one wants to admit to their voters that they bought into a conspiracy theory—a racist conspiracy theory. Voters are still very worried about crime. In a lot of states, the laws have been reversed, and the minimum age for adult prosecution has been raised, but Wisconsin—I’ve talked to juvenile justice advocates who have campaigned there, and they say it’s impossible. Whereas in other states, they’ve managed to move the dial, they just cannot start the conversation in Wisconsin. It’s such an interesting parallel, because in a lot of ways, Anissa and Morgan were punished for believing in and acting based on something made up, but then the people punishing them were able to enact those punishments because they were scared of something that also wasn’t real. Everyone was swayed by fake news. I want to talk about Wisconsin. I’m ready. You’re from Wisconsin, and not far from Waukesha. You weave a lot of the culture of the place into the book, and part of what makes the book so compelling, as someone who is not from that culture, is I felt immersed in and like I understood it through reading the book. Can you talk about how where the girls lived had an impact on how the case played out? Because in a lot of ways, we’re talking about two girls who are in a fairly privileged class in American society. They’re white, they’re from, if not wealthy, middle-class families, but things did not go in their favour. I would love to hear how you saw Wisconsin, because you said you got a really good feeling for it. I think the thing that struck me the most was how important it seemed to everyone from Waukesha that people understood that Waukesha was a good place to live. That was really fascinating to me. It’s a place that’s fairly close to a major city, but people don’t really talk about the city much. Even Peyton, or Bella, who had this terrible thing happen to her, is like, “Waukesha’s a great place to live.” Prior to this happening, and after, Waukesha was and still is a really safe place to live. It’s actually voted one of the top places for families to live. It’s just a really wholesome place. The downtown is very quaint, it’s out of a set for Our Town. It’s even still got a Christian joke store, with wholesome joke toys. That’s one side of it. But the other side is that there’s some pretty big economic disparity in Waukesha. For instance, that apartment complex where Morgan and Anissa lived was for lower -income families and provided housing to that population of people. And although it was a safe place to live and it had a very safe school district, the schools were underfunded and understaffed and that played in a lot to so many of the warning signs [being missed]. Morgan’s behaviour leading up to the crime was bizarre and troubling, and her teachers just ignored it, and I think part of that was just that they had a lot of students to take care of, and didn’t have the time. They obviously we not trained in mental health care. Putting the laws aside, culturally, what do you think would have been different about the public perception of this case had it not happened in Wisconsin?  I think what makes Waukesha different is that nobody questioned the fact that the state of Wisconsin was prosecuting a mentally ill child as an adult. Nobody seemed to care about that—it just seemed right to everybody. To keep the area safe, to make it a good place to live again, they would just get rid of these two girls, and then everything would be okay. The degree to which fear and punishment seem so baked into the culture of somewhere that is statistically quite safe is disturbing to read about. And the not talking about things, that culture spilled over into the case too, because sending these girls away to a hundred total years in prison, which was the plan, that was a way of sweeping it under the rug, and that’s what had been going on leading up to the stabbing as well. I think people thought, if they go away, then everything would be okay again. Morgan’s father has schizophrenia, something she hadn’t been told at the time of her crimes. The mental health piece of this case is incredibly complex. How did you prepare to report on that? What were some of the things that you were keeping in mind when you were getting into that part of the case, and interviewing Morgan?   I knew that I needed to know everything I could about schizophrenia, in particular. As someone who lives in a major city, my conception of schizophrenia was when I would cross paths, and this happens almost every day, with an unhoused person who is confused and talking to themselves. It was hard for me, and I think it’s hard for most people, to conceive of a child, a very young child, having these kinds of hallucinations that I had seen disabling grown people, and at the same time going through her life, and managing for the most part to mask it. I knew that I needed to really deep dive into what that felt like and looked like. I interviewed a lot of leading researchers on early-onset childhood schizophrenia. I interviewed psychologists, psychiatrists. I watched this amazing special called Born Schizophrenic, about kids who have it, and what it looked like to them.  So that was my way in, and then I tried to listen as much as possible to Morgan talk about her schizophrenia, and how it feels to her, and how it manifests, and over time I developed a very different conception of schizophrenia, which is that it exists on a spectrum. Not everybody has scary hallucinations, and not everybody has disabling hallucinations. But what’s true across the board is that schizophrenia is a degenerative illness, which means that over the course of one’s life, it can lead to cognitive decline. Psychosis without medical intervention causes brain damage. That’s part of why it’s so upsetting, so abusive, that Morgan was withheld anti-psychotic medication for 19 months after her diagnosis. The State of Wisconsin treats basic mental health care as some kind of luxury amenity. As a result, Morgan was in a state of psychosis for over a year. She was in medical crisis. She lost the ability to read and do basic math. If therapeutic intervention had happened sooner, it might have changed her life. As things stand, it’s still unclear to what extent those 19 unmedicated months will affect her long-term prognosis. So it was through my research into schizophrenia that I came to understand certain story points a lot better—one is that, once Morgan was finally given anti-psychotics, it was like putting on glasses, everything got clear, but because she was not also on antidepressants, this terrible, crushing depression set in, because now that she had clarity, she understood what she had done to Bella, she hated herself, and she became suicidal. Over time I developed a more nuanced understanding of schizophrenia, and how it’s something that people can live with, and take medication for, and function and come of age and grow—so long as they have access to mental health resources, which are virtually non-existent in the US. Anissa’s lawyers used the concept of folie à deux explain her actions. Can you tell us what the folie à deux explanation is, and why they used it? Morgan, after being arrested, was pretty quickly diagnosed with early onset childhood schizophrenia, which runs in her family. Anissa did not receive a diagnosis for a major mental illness, so her defense team had to take a different approach to defending her because she’d already given this lengthy confession. Folie à deux is a 19th century French diagnosis, and it basically says if you’re in a close, intimate relationship with someone who has a severe mental illness, you can begin to exhibit the same symptoms that they do. This has been proven true in other situations; for instance, mass hysteria springs to mind. Hatred can catch on, and we’ve seen that playing out in other ways in society.  But with folie à deux, usually it was a different kind of approach. Most of the time, folie à deux arguments are made about couples or people who are married or related in some way. A very minor variation of that is to talk about codependency in a family that’s ruled by addiction, where everyone starts to act a little bit “crazy,” for lack of a better word. So, a folie à deux argument is saying that Morgan’s schizophrenia affected Anissa, and that she got wrapped up in this delusional world, and as soon as she was separated from Morgan, the fog lifted, which proved that it was Morgan-related, and not Anissa-related. It was a creative Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity defense, which allowed them to push for that without having a mental health diagnosis. What do you feel like you were able to explore, as a writer and a reporter, about those very deep pre-pubescent connections, through Morgan and Anissa’s friendship? So much of this story centered on the intensity and platonic romance of close female friendships. In Anissa and Morgan’s case, Anissa started out as Morgan’s bully, because Morgan was bullied. But over time, Anissa grew to really like Morgan, and started hitting the bullies who bullied Morgan. I think that Anissa had never really had a very close female friend, and Morgan was and is so funny, and they both liked the same kinds of stories, and I think what ended up happening is that when Morgan told Anissa about her hallucinations, Anissa’s instinct was to make Morgan feel better by believing in the same thing. And she came to see Morgan as a medium for Slenderman as a way of understanding and trying to make Morgan feel less unusual. And so the plan was a byproduct of this friendship between them that started from a relatable place of mutual childhood infatuation, and that feeling you get when you finally have a best friend, and someone to talk to, and unfortunately they bonded over the wrong things and everything went horribly wrong. It’s interesting, because Bella talks about doing the same thing with Morgan—going along with those hallucinations, supporting those hallucinations, because she felt like that was an act of love and friendship. Yeah, to make Morgan feel less unusual. Everybody was bending over backward to try and erase Morgan’s differences, which they thought was the compassionate approach. This idea that we’re all the same. And that’s what Morgan saw modelled with her parents—her mum’s compassion for her dad’s schizophrenia, and her setting up their whole life around not having to have that be a problem for him. Totally. And they didn’t want to scare her, that was one of the reasons that they didn’t talk to her about it. They were sort of waiting for a moment where she was old enough. But she knew that something was off, and when she was a kid, she would ask him, “What’s wrong with you?” And Morgan told me he would say, “I’ll tell you when you’re sixteen.” What did the reporting for this book make you feel about how we talk to children about difficult things? It made me think a lot about my daughter. I was so new to parenting, and I was really struck by this case. I found out that Morgan had schizophrenia, she was twelve, she was being prosecuted as an adult, she faced over sixty years in a woman’s prison at the age of twelve. I immediately thought of my daughter, and I thought, what if she becomes so confused, so secretly, and makes a horrible mistake, and she’s taken away from me, and I won’t be able to help her come back from that? I won’t be the one to punish her, I’ll have to watch her be punished in front of me. My mind just immediately went there. What if my child got sick and I didn’t know and something terrible happened as a result? And I guess I didn’t realize how controversial it would be to have that perspective and not to immediately think, at the expense of all else, what if my child was stabbed? I think what came up for me was this very strong feeling of recognition that these were children. These were little kids. I was aware of that at every juncture, just how young they were. You talk about the HBO documentary, Beware the Slenderman, and how Morgan’s mental illness isn’t mentioned until three-quarters of the way through, but Slenderman and the effect of the internet and Creepypasta on the girls is so present. This case has been seen through that lens everywhere, and one of the great things the book does is see it through other lenses, but I’m curious if you’re surprised that that was what so many people clung to? I was and I wasn’t. With every passing year, I expected somebody to take my “angle,” which was, these are kids, and one of them has schizophrenia, why is the state of Wisconsin doing this to two twelve-year-olds? And no one did, and that was surprising to me because it seemed like such an obvious question.  But when I started researching the book, I realized that there’s a history of doing exactly this, adults view child-on-child violence through the lens of whatever new media is most confounding to them. Columbine springs to mind—it was blamed on Marilyn Manson songs, and violent video games, and none of that turned out to be true. If you read Dave Cullen’s book Columbine, you’ll see that one of the killers was actually a psychopath, and the other one had suicidal depression.  In Morgan and Anissa’s case, people blamed the violence on new media, and it’s the same story as it’s always been. This terrible crime occurred because of what kids like these days. It turns out we’ll go to such extreme lengths to not talk about mental illness. We’ll invent this whole mythology around whatever the new technology is, and we act like it bewitches kids into violence, when the real reasons behind it are going unnoticed and undiscussed. When we were working on the Hazlitt piece together, you talked a lot about other cases going far back, these other girls who commit crimes in pairs.   I went down a lot of different roads in terms of looking at other cases that involved similar forces and they didn’t all make it into the book. I looked at some of the big cases, like Leopold and Loeb, Columbine, the Parker-Hulme murder in New Zealand—the topic Heavenly Creatures is based on—and drew from those and other headline-grabbing “crimes of the century” as they’re always called, every single time. There was this pattern, this real pattern of people blaming outrageous, scary acts of violence on whatever the newest media was. You’ve been immersed in this case for so long. How many years did you work on this? I first really wrote about it in earnest for Hazlitt. Another outlet was supposed to publish a version of the piece, and they got spooked, because the lens on my piece was more from Morgan’s point of view, because that’s who I had access to, I had access to her mother. And they didn’t want it to come across as victim-blaming by treating her with anything other than derision and fear. This is something I’m very interested in exploring, which is this phenomenon of ignoring any other angle on a crime except for the victim’s angle. I wanted that to be something that I investigated next. And then I published the piece with you guys in the fall of 2017. The book is out of my hands now, but I’ve been working on it for five years, and I started talking to Morgan in winter of 2017, and I started hanging out with her in the spring of 2018. I have been writing this book for a really long time. With all the research you’ve done, with all the reporting you’ve done, what do you think needs to change about the way cases like this are treated? It would require so much cooperation between different factors of US government that I don’t even think it’s possible. I think we’ve messed it up too badly, to be honest. I mean, you can hardly go to a DMV in the US and get a driver’s license without it taking eleven hours, and even then, the system usually crashes because our government is so disorganized. Add politics to that and you’re completely fucked. But in an ideal world, the first step is to raise the minimum age for adult prosecution to eighteen. It should not be lower than eighteen, it just shouldn’t. It should actually be higher than that, if you’re taking a science-based approach. But people as young as ten should not be thrown into prison with adult sentences. That goes without question. The other thing is that we need a mental healthcare system, and we don’t have one. It used to be that if you had schizophrenia, you could move in and out of a public hospital that was well appointed, where patients had dignity, clean clothes, food to eat, recreational activities, medical attention. Then, movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest really lowered people’s opinion of public mental hospitals, but there were also some very well-publicized cases of abuses of power. If a neighbour can drop you off at a mental hospital, and they checked you in, doctors have a lot of control over whether you leave or not, you’re really relying heavily on that neighbor and those doctors to be just and fair. So of course there were some abuses of power, and those were widely publicized. But instead of finding a middle ground for how to admit people who needed medical treatment to medical facilities, the government just emptied them, and created a diaspora of homelessness, which persists to this day. Today, in order for somebody to get mental health treatment who’s in crisis—who’s in a state of psychosis, who’s standing naked under a bridge and they’re terrified and they can’t see straight—in order for that person to be admitted, a cop will say, “Are you a danger to yourself or others?” And the person in crisis will have to say yes. That’s the secret word. And you can imagine somebody who’s controlled by psychosis might not describe their current reality very well. And when they can get admitted to a hospital, and don’t have insurance, their stay is covered for the first forty-eight to seventy-two hours—after that, it costs $2000 a day to stay in hospital. So, then our healthcare system comes into play, which is also very messed up. So, basically, there are no resources for people like Morgan before they get arrested. After they get arrested, they get into the prison system, which has become our largest mental health care provider, and of course there is no mental health care provided, it’s just that there are prescribing doctors and a lot of inmates with mental illness whose basic human needs were not attended to, and that became the gateway into crime. I talked to a lot of people, who didn’t make it into the book, whose stories all went something like this: they began exhibiting symptoms at the age of eighteen; they devolved very quickly; their parents and families tried to get them help but could not, because the person was eighteen. The cops would come, say, are you a danger to yourself or others? They would say no, and then they would end up committing an act of violence that got them arrested, sent them to prison, where they degenerated really quickly, because they were in prison. That’s the pattern, over and over. In the United States, in other words, unless you’re rich, you must commit a crime to receive free treatment for severe mental illness, and even after you’re arrested, there are not resources to serve this population of people. Morgan’s hospital has something like one nurse at night for forty patients, is what I was told by patients there. And there’s a doctor who visits every so often, but the bulk of care is provided by entry-level employees who don’t have any mental health training, and there’s a lot of accidents that happen, and it’s not a very safe place to be. Definitely not the get out of jail free card that people describe. But it’s a whole mess of different factors, and unfortunately, with mental illness being as politicized as it is in the US, and with tough-on-crime laws being so hotly politicized, I don’t see a future in which this will ever get figured out.
Not This: Considering Oscar Isaac’s Face

“I like when you watch something,” Isaac once told Rolling Stone, “and you get the sense it’s something you’re not supposed to be seeing.”

Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film.  Before he became the perfect internet boyfriend and a hot professor dad, Oscar Isaac was an unlovable loser. The first time I watched Inside Llewyn Davis, on a drizzly winter morning in 2014, I was surprised to learn that being good-looking isn’t enough. Isaac plays the eponymous balladeer-singer, a man constitutionally incapable of catching a break in 1960s New York. Not too long ago, he was one half of a promising folk duo, but then his partner died by suicide. Now he performs solo for pennies at bars—dire, hummable ditties, actually sung by Isaac, bereft of a chorus. His life is a litany of pregnancy scares—usually after a fling with someone else’s girlfriend—and misgivings about becoming an artist. Most nights he ends up on friends’ or strangers’ couches, expecting the next day to be no different. Deprived of royalties, and all signs of affirmation, he wonders whether he was better off becoming a sailor like his father. “You have to owe me something,” he just about begs his manager at one point. “It’s cold outside and I don’t even have a winter coat.” In the opening scene, at the iconic Gaslight Cafe in the Village, Llewyn bellows his heart out in a fit of barely restrained anguish, but the evening clientele  responds hesitantly, clapping more as an afterthought. The next evening, a lanky youth in military fatigues mumbles something less dolorous from the same podium and Llewyn can only watch from the sidelines as the audience applauds with vigour. The soldier finishes his song and then invites a couple of Llewyn’s friends to perform a number together on stage. This time the crowd, unprompted, joins in the chorus. Surveying the singing crowd, Llewyn—or rather, Isaac—raises his heavy eyebrows and shakes his head. Moments ago, he had mocked the soldier’s voice. “Does he have a higher function?” he’d wondered aloud to a friend. But the look that passes through Llewyn’s face is not one of resentment, although the plot of the film indicates that might be the case. You’d think that the soldier has everything Llewyn might covet: the promise of youth, a steady job to cover expenses, a disposition at once sunny and sincere, an offer of representation from a kingpin Chicago manager who is also on Llewyn’s wish list. One morning, we see the soldier striding confidently about the lower West Side in full military regalia. Llewyn, on the other hand, has grey streaks sticking out of his unkempt curly hair and wears the same thrifty-looking scarf and brown jacket everywhere. Indeed, his overall appearance mirrors his working definition of folk music: “never new and…never gets old.” And yet, that evening at the Gaslight, he doesn’t exactly seem envious of the response to the soldier’s performance. When he shakes his head at the crowd, it’s more that he can’t believe their tastes. There comes a moment in every Oscar Isaac performance when his resting face onscreen betrays that look, flitting between disapproval and discernment. His temperament as an actor might be more immersive than inventive, but soon enough a close-up will focus on his half-drowsy eyes when they are inadvertently poised in disbelief, as if to suggest, “not this.” In Ex Machina, Isaac plays a billionaire edgelord, Nathan, who works bare-chested out of his secluded AI research facility somewhere in the mountains. After a day spent perfecting sentient sex robots, Nathan drinks himself to sleep every night alone in his living room—you glimpse that look in these moments, replete with flashes of absolving self-awareness. Jonathan, the forbearing professor and father in last year’s HBO remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, strikes a familiar note as the bespectacled, betrayed husband. But the fact that he is just as capable as his partner of inflicting emotional cruelty is never in doubt, even though we are rarely shown those scenes. As Llewyn Davis, Isaac’s mannerisms oscillate between ecstasy and despondency. The film itself delicately straddles the real and unreal faces of the American dream, both the stage-lit myth of making it big and the dark underside of the hustle, so that even at the brink of exhaustion Llewyn must, in some way, be ready to roll. It’s not enough that he can sing and play the guitar; he has to act out the part of the tempestuous musician at dinner parties, inside recording studios, with his sister and father—like Sartre’s waiter going through the motions of being a waiter in a café. The poetry of Isaac’s performance is unforgettably evident in one scene when Llewyn is told that a comedy song he had worked on some time ago is set to become a chartbuster. This should have been good news, except that after recording the track he had signed away his right to any future royalties in lieu of some quick cash. For a flicker of a second, you can perceive in Llewyn’s face the incredulity of someone who has missed his chance again, but then, without missing a beat, he is back to playing at being a mercurial artist. He is at a dinner party, where the hosts have been parading him around as “our folk-singer friend.” Soon they will invite him to strum a tune. He’ll refuse at first—the other guests would no doubt be impressed if he took his time to relent. And so a pivotal moment is passed off as casual, not so much to downplay its significance, but to suggest that Llewyn, for all his ambition, is at peace with the inexorability of his modest fate. In interviews, Isaac seems aware of the moods his face can evoke. “I like when you watch something,” he once told Rolling Stone, “and you get the sense it’s something you’re not supposed to be seeing.” Why, oh why, has he then preoccupied himself with so many fantasy projects over the years: movies saturated with VFX sequences and puerile storylines, where his face is often the last thing you’re supposed to be seeing? It could be that he loves the genre, or that there aren’t many big-ticket choices available for actors to pay their bills these days. To emote alone in front of a green screen is perhaps the archetypal scenario of a movie star playing at being one in our time. I feel wistful when I watch Isaac blow up buildings and nemeses in  X-Men: Apocalypse, and the recently released Marvel TV series, Moon Knight. As Poe Dameron in the Star Wars films, at least you get to see his face always unmasked, but you miss the grace with which a creased eyebrow could once reveal a protagonist’s inner life.
‘We Should Be Articulating Joyful Alternatives’: An Interview with Nona Willis Aronowitz

The author of Bad Sex on the body horror of pregnancy, selling books about sex, and why this might be her last word on her mother’s body of work.

My favourite plot twist (spoiler alert!) in Bad Sex (Plume), the new memoir-cum-feminist-history by Nona Willis Aronowitz, is that the chapter “The Real Experts” seems at first to be about heteronormative motherhood, but ends up being about liberation through abortion. My least favourite plot twist about the ongoing cultural politics that Bad Sex documents is that when I first read it earlier this year, abortion was still a constitutional right in America. It’s good to live in a reality in which rigorous personal writing on sex appears on our bookshelves when we need it most, but goddamn, it would be nice if we weren’t always in such dire need of good timing. Bad Sex is an odyssey through Aronowitz’s life as a slut and a reader. There are as many vivid scenes of her voraciously consuming research in a library as there are of her adventures in dating. The inner life she documents is one that defies the myth of the nymphomaniac: as she searches for meaning through sexual experience, she also documents profound intellectual analysis and complicates everyday human emotions such as annoyance and heartbreak. Aronowitz uses the stages of her post-divorce sexual escapades as prompts to research topics from race to queerness, from the institution of marriage to the feminist porn wars. A chapter on non-monogamy becomes both an investigation of anarchist Emma Goldman’s relationship to romantic jealousy and a discovery that Nona’s dad cheated on her mom. One of the book’s most refreshing angles is the choice to explore the topic of women’s pleasure by interviewing female clients of male sex workers. All the while, her memoir passages have the refreshing frankness of an early 2010s hookup blog. The prose is infused with natural humour, as when (in the essay on bisexuality, “In It For The Dick”) she concludes that for her, sex with women isn’t “the difference between ‘roller skates and a Ferrari,’” as described by Rita Mae Brown in Rubyfruit Jungle, but “more like being gifted a Ferrari when you don’t have a driver’s license, and anyway, you live a block away from the subway.” A great deal of sexual scholarship and literature seems devoted to distancing itself from lust to be deemed legitimate. Bad Sex does what more sexuality books should do: prove that our politics can be horny as hell. Tina Horn: In the essay on reproductive justice in Bad Sex, you tell the story of your own abortion. In this politically catastrophic summer of 2022, what I want to ask is: what is the question you’re most tired of being asked about abortion, and how do you wish we were talking about it instead? Nona Willis Aronowitz: The biggest a-ha moment I’ve ever had when it comes to abortion was in a Sally Rooney essay about the topic, wherein she points out that in no other circumstance does one human legally have a right to avail themselves of the blood and organs of another human, even in the case of a corpse’s organ donation. So, it really frustrates me when people ask, “Is a fetus a person?” Maybe it is some version of a person—so what? A person does not have the right to take over your uterus and cause permanent changes to your body in order to survive. This point really became vivid when I was pregnant this past year. Now that I’ve met my daughter Doris and experienced her inside my body, it does seem plausible that some parts of her personhood existed before she was born; she had the hiccups every day in the womb and still does, for instance. But as much as I love her and am happy she exists and feel very sad at the thought of her not being here, she still should not have a state-given right to violate my bodily autonomy, whether she’s in utero or earthside. I appreciate that perspective from a new parent. Speaking as a child-free-and-proud person, the ethical philosophy of abortion is emotionally uncomplicated for me; and feelings influence politics, whether we like it or not. When I read family abolitionist Sophie Lewis (“A key correlate of viewing gestating as labor is that forcing someone to gestate against their will is forced labor”) her ideas make perfect sense to me. The concept of pregnancy as a body horror violation of my autonomy is one of the reasons I’ve never wanted to have children. I like that you understand that, and still welcomed someone to take over your uterus. Yes—after being pregnant, I’m more sure than ever that having a wanted child is a profound act of generosity. If it’s not wanted, it’s absolutely body horror; and if it is, it’s still frankly body horror (at least for me, it was) but body horror in context of a conscious, joyful invitation. In its first few chapters, Bad Sex could be read as a divorce memoir. It then morphs into something more slippery: an assessment of sexual politics at large through historical research, cultural criticism, and even an engagement with your mother through her writing. I’m curious if you set out to write something so genre-bendy, or if it started off as one thing and became another? To put it in the language of the book, what were your desires and drives when it came to writing this? I always knew the book was going to be genre-bendy—the memoir element of my story was so genuinely influenced and informed by history that it would have felt weird to focus too much on my personal story. That said, I discovered new historical touchstones and new family secrets as I got deeper and deeper into my research (and some books, like Angela Chen’s Ace or Jane Ward’s The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, were released in the midst of my writing process). So, there were certainly surprise twists and turns along the way. It’s funny you mention divorce memoirs, because I definitely think of the first act of my book [as] fitting perfectly into that genre of freedom-seeking through obliterating one’s romantic and domestic life. But my ultimate goal for Bad Sex wasn’t just to end there—it was also to talk about what happens after you take the first step toward freedom, and then realize, “Oh shit, there’s so much more to untangle here.” The institution of marriage is a broken system, but so is the vast world of casual dating and “sex for sex’s sake.” There’s the promise of pleasure (and the reality of it—I had a lot of wonderful times both in my marriage and afterwards, when I was fucking a ton of people). But there are just so many roadblocks getting in the way of that pleasure, too. I tried very hard to not have a “ride off into the sunset” vibe with any of it. I like the idea of divorce as a beginning instead of an end: a beginning of unprecedented sexual self-discovery and of the ideological explorations that make up this book. Can you talk more about those roadblocks getting in the way of pleasure, and sex for sex’s sake being a broken system? Do you have a utopian vision of a system of love, sex, and commitment that works?   The roadblocks were multi-layered: They came from all the different messages I’d received; from the traditional patriarchy to my mom’s version of feminism to my own generation’s interpretation of sexual liberation. There are lots of different, often clashing standards of how to be an acceptable sexual woman, and—despite feminism’s history of consciousness-raising and the development of candid female friendship over the last few decades—not enough space to talk about those harmful standards. I found myself having doubts about my marriage and the importance of orgasms and my heterosexuality and my ambivalence about casual sex, and I’d feel embarrassed to vocalize these thoughts even with people (like my pro-sex feminist mom, like my progressive friends) who would ostensibly be receptive to them. When I say that “sex for sex’s sake” is a broken system, I mean that we still haven’t managed, decades after the 1960s sexual revolution, to solve the problem of quality, not just quantity. Put simply: a lot of casual sex is bad, especially for women. The uncomfortable fact is that good sex usually involves a certain level of vulnerability and surrender from its participants, and yet this quality is often discouraged during casual encounters. Women are told to have their physical and emotional guard up, but a state of self-protection seldom produces the kind of transcendent experiences one may hope for during sex.   I can’t say I have a fully coherent utopian vision of love, sex, and commitment, but I do know that some element of mutual care, empathy, and patience needs to be involved if the sex is going to be worthwhile. This doesn’t mean good sex needs to take place in the context of a committed relationship, but it does mean that people need to be committed to kindness and attunement for the duration of the encounter, at the very least. And I also think that commitment needs to be de-coupled from old-fashioned ideas of monogamy, the source of so much pain in heterosexual relationships especially. Of course, monogamy is fine if it’s actively chosen, but all too often it’s the unspoken default, which not only breeds mistrust and jealousy but can also really get in the way of uncovering one’s true desires. At the risk of being cringe, I have to tell you that Ellen Willis, your mother, has been one of my heroes since I was very young. Her writing about rock ’n’ roll and sex gave me many a-ha moments, like, “Hey, I too could write professionally about the things I find endlessly fascinating.” I return to her work a lot, including through her anthologies that you edited, when I’m seeking clarity in prose or analysis. Obviously, your relationship to her work has infinitely more layers of meaning. You write about her being there for you through her writing even though she’s gone. How is this book a new stage of the work you began by archiving your mom’s writing? Did the book ever feel like a ghost story? Writing this book felt really different than putting together her archive or editing those anthologies. This was me really dialoguing with her through her writing, and not always agreeing with her! I’m so glad I’ve preserved her work, but there’s always the danger of inviting hagiography if I don’t also critique and wrestle with my mother’s ideas. And I really grappled with who she was as a person and a mother, not just a writer. She was someone who was fiercely loving and principled, but also at times overly boundaried and extremely hard on herself. Bad Sex feels like, in many ways, my final (and most complex) word on my mother’s work—not that I won’t keep grappling with her love and legacy privately, but I doubt I’ll do another big project that features her work so prominently. So, in some ways, yes, it’s totally a ghost story, because her unfinished business has finally, thoroughly been attended to, and I do feel a sense of peace about it that I didn’t before. You write about personal sexual situations where your arousal and consent changed, and how the men you were with responded to those changes. I want to ask you about the cultural tension between seduction and consent. It seems to me that consent culture is very attached to the idea that consent is sexy, as if we need to eroticize ethics in order to deserve good treatment. But we also know that wanting or agreeing to have sex with someone and being aroused by them is not the same thing. When other intellectual giants try to grapple with this, they seem to have a lot of issues reconciling desire and safety. We have Camille Paglia’s loathsome assertion that women stay in abusive relationships because the sex is hot, and more recently we have Slavoj Žižek insisting that consent undermines the essential pleasures of seduction. Where do we start reconciling our need for an ethic of consent with the value of lust, and the centrality of power struggle and danger in arousal? What does that have to do with what you identify as the vulnerability paradox? This is a central question that I’ll probably be asking myself forever, but one thing I can say is this: good sex and the pursuit thereof will never be completely safe. We can’t rely on consent to protect us from potentially dangerous, unpleasant, or painful experiences if we truly surrender to our desires, which can be made up of a whole mess of surprising and politically inconvenient elements. There’s always a possibility that an unsafe experience can be unexpectedly arousing, and we need to make room for that possibility and not blame ourselves or put ourselves down if we experience it. Regardless of this fact, I do also think it’s worth interrogating where our desires come from. My mother once wrote that some desires of domination, for instance, might be a learned coping mechanism for dealing with pervasive misogyny—which is similar to the recasting involved in BDSM, where the person ostensibly being dominated is actually controlling the whole scenario. I don’t agree that consent kills seduction, but at the same time I think we need to complicate the campus-friendly slogan “consent is sexy.” Consent can be sexy, because it’s great to have sex with someone who’s attuned to your desires and cares about your pleasure. But desires are culturally constructed, so that means that they’ll often clash with the politics we have in the light of day, including our views on consent.  I feel like American media is becoming more repressed than ever about sex. Have you found that to be true? Why is it so hard to sell a project about sex? What obstacles did you face in getting this book made? Asking for a friend! (It’s me. The friend is me.) I wouldn’t say that American media is more repressed about sex than in the past, but it’s certainly not a time of great expansiveness when it comes to sexual freedom. And there’s definitely been some backlash to the idea of “sex positivity” on the heels of #MeToo. On one hand I sympathize—as I make clear in my book, consensual sex can still be unsatisfying or straight-up bad. But the recent handwringing over dismal dating-app experiences and porn also worries me, because along with critiques we should be articulating joyful alternatives besides just committed relationships, which as we know have their own toxic traps. I went out of my way in this book to describe moments of joy, surrender, and pleasurable surprise (regardless of whether they were with someone I loved or wanted to commit to) because those things can still happen even in the context of an imperfect system! Those moments are what we should be reaching toward and cultivating, not retreating into the solutions of the past or designing narrower lives for ourselves. In terms of selling projects about sex, I actually think it’s slightly better than it was just a few years ago. I was selling Bad Sex right after the blockbuster success of Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, which gave me an opportunity to say, “See? People really do care about women’s erotic lives!” And since I got that book deal, thoughtful books about sex like Tracy Clark-Flory’s Want Me or Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex have done really well. That said, I did face a lot of rejection from publishers, though their letdown letters were often less focused on the sex element than the genre-bending element. And I do get the general sense that some media/publishing gatekeepers still think of narratives around sex as not “prestigious” or “serious.” Also—and this isn’t only true in media but—it frustrates me so much that straight men have basically cut themselves out of this conversation completely! Very few straight male editors and writers engage with these types of books, even though they’re often the subject of them, and that’s a huge problem.  What’s the deal with straight men divesting from the discourse? What would you like them to do differently? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I learned the most from your book in the chapter about men: woke misogynists, success objects, MRAs, men’s lib, etc. You portray your struggle with having boundaries versus being a doormat, how to give men the benefit of the doubt for their good intentions while also having standards. What have you learned about trusting men while we’re all simmering in the broth of the patriarchy? This is very delicate, because every time a straight man attempts to write about sex or relationships, a lot of people yell at him on the internet. But we need men to be more vulnerable about their desires, too, both through writing and in their everyday lives. At its best, that’s what the men’s liberation movement of the ’70s was about: stripping men of their many, many layers of pretense and self-protection. Since this book, I’ve become very good at sniffing out men who want to at least try to be vulnerable. The men who admit they don’t necessarily know the answers, who want to explore alongside you rather than facilitate your exploration, men who are patient and don’t appear to have a particular agenda—those are the men I now trust. Nowadays, if I stumbled upon that woke misogynist I write about in my book, my spidey sense would have gone off sooner, because he was just too confident! And too eager to be in control of the whole situation. I know lots of women are attracted to confidence and control, and that’s cool, but if you ask me it’s very hard for men to pull those things off and earn my trust. One of my favorite Ellen Willis quotes is, “In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably come down to ‘What turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic.’” I often use this to expose the (usually classist) hypocrisy in anti-porn rhetoric. I love that you’re building on your mom’s feminist response to pornography, especially your critique of Robin Morgan’s notion that the difference between hardcore masculine lust and softcore feminine romance is self-evident. (“‘Every woman here knows in her gut,’ wrote Robin Morgan in 1978, ‘that the emphasis on genital sexuality, objectification, promiscuity, emotional noninvolvement, and coarse invulnerability, as the male style, and that we, as women, placed greater trust in love, sensuality, humor, tenderness, commitment.’” To which you hilariously responded, “Other women’s guts begged to differ.”) Can you speak more on complicating the analogy of “porn is to erotica as male sexuality is to female sensuality”?  I love that Ellen Willis quote, too! I felt a little self-conscious about not delving too much into porn in this book, even though I actually know a huge amount about the feminist porn wars. Ultimately, I didn’t feel like porn was a huge part of my sexuality, and it also seemed like lots of other writers were already covering how internet porn affects the youngest generations. But yes, I am fascinated with this fallacy of aggressive male sexuality versus softer female sensuality, a dichotomy I do see creeping back into people’s critiques of modern dating. I’m the sex advice columnist for Teen Vogue, so I’m privy to a lot of young female fantasies, and they’re all over the map—they really do not fit into one category or the other. I do think kindness and some measure of vulnerability figures into what most women (people, really) want sexually, but that can look all kinds of ways. Intense BDSM, when done right, certainly incorporates elements of both. Even more, anonymous, “unattached” sex can be a fulfilling, humanizing experience if you choose to make it so. I tell an anecdote in the book about a one-night stand I had in Texas with a seemingly conventional, not very sexually sophisticated guy, but he was curious and present and he didn’t want to totally orchestrate the situation. Which made our all-night fuckfest a really pleasant experience, one that didn’t fit into any rigid category of “hardcore” versus “softcore.” In your essay on race and “The Vulnerability Gradient,” you discuss “the violence of the archive,” or “archival silence.” Do you see your work as an affront to that violence and silence? Honestly, when it comes to feminist sexual liberation, straight white women have had the most space to opine and the most latitude to participate—so I don’t think that my story directly remedies archival silence. That’s why I wanted to include a chapter that deliberately centred the narrative on a different story: [that of] my friend Selah, a Black queer woman whose journey gets told far, far less. I believe the particulars of my story are important and worthwhile, but as I wrote this book it began to seem like the elephant in the room that I kept quoting and profiling other straight, white women because they really took up the most space when it came to sexual freedom narratives, at least explicitly feminist ones. So, I did try to include other stories from women of colour and queer women, too.  Why do we fight so much about what IS feminist? Do you see a resolution to this in our future? I think, thankfully, that question has actually become less relevant as the years go on; I do feel that the pressure to be some feminist orgasm goddess is loosening a bit. There are always going to be culturally imposed standards for sex, though, which is super annoying—I feel a certain amount of pressure to be “embodied” or “mindful” with my sex thanks to Instagram and sexual wellness companies. The closest to a resolution I come up with in the book is that any movement’s standard is always going to be reductive and kind of judgy by design, which runs the risk of alienating the very people they want to recruit. Feminism is wonderful in so many ways, but there are serious limits to how much it can and should dictate your intimate life. Once I realized and accepted that and gave myself space to grow and surprise myself, things felt a lot more hopeful.