Hazlitt Magazine

The Strange Life of the Modlins

The world left their art behind, until a young man found a series of photographs blowing along a street in Spain.

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The Strange Life of the Modlins

The world left their art behind, until a young man found a series of photographs blowing along a street in Spain.

On a spring night in Madrid in 2003, the Spanish photographer Paco Gómez got a call from his brother-in-law. He had seen a messy pile of discarded photos on Calle Pez, a street in the gentrifying neighborhood of Malasaña, close to where Gómez lived. His brother-in-law thought it was the kind of thing that would interest him. He was right: Gómez put on his shoes and hustled out the door of his apartment. The impulse that sent Gómez into the street and sweating toward Calle Pez was less professional than personal. Gómez was from a mountain town in the province of Avila, the child of a working-class family. Unlike most people he knew, his parents had hardly any photos of his ancestors. As he grew up, this absence of a visual family history left a void, and had the added effect of making the lives of others appear more interesting than his own. The first person in his family to go to college, Gómez’s vicarious nature—or budding voyeurism—found an outlet after he moved to Madrid to study engineering and worked as a night garbageman. During his shifts, as families slept and college students less encumbered than him partied past dawn, he hung on to the back of his crew’s truck, looking into the vehicle’s belly and scrutinizing its contents. “I learned to recognize what had occurred in a home by the kind of junk the people threw out,” he recalled. “A breakup, a death, an eviction.” He came to feel that trash obeyed certain universal laws, creating decipherable patterns. When he turned from engineering to photography after college, he didn’t develop a particular style so much as an MO: studying details in old pictures to excavate clues, as if searching for his family’s own vanished past. Yet he had never seen anything quite like the cache of photos he found on Calle Pez in front of a dilapidated apartment building. The photos contained something much stranger than mere unknown lives for Gómez to imagine his way into. In one, a man in ratty underwear stood in a bare room in a posture of crucifixion. In another, a statuesque teenage boy posed like a magazine heartthrob. In still another a woman with a lustrous ponytail stood before a Dalí-esque canvas of angels and demons. The exhibitionist fervor of scene after scene of otherworldly gazes and unnatural postures struck Gómez as very un-Spanish, never mind the fact that the pictures had ended up not destroyed, but out in the street like this, a private life turned inside-out. Who the hell were these people? He had little time to dwell on the strange images. The heap of discarded photos had attracted other magpies like himself. He scrambled to collect as many as possible. Though he didn’t yet know it, Paco Goméz had just met the Modlins.  [[{"fid":"6705476","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"}}]]   At one in the morning on June 3, 1950, a young man and woman stepped off a Greyhound at the bus station in downtown Los Angeles. Married the previous August in North Carolina, he was twenty-five and she was twenty-three. He was handsome, with fine-boned features and expressive eyebrows. Nearly his height, she had long legs, a wide yet subdued smile, and a bouncy wave of brown hair. She exuded an enigmatic, impenetrable air. They had met in college acting opposite each other in a play. They connected through their shared faith in two redemptive forces: Jesus and art. Their names were Margaret (née Marley) and Elmer Modlin. More than actors—he was also a poet; she was a painter above all else—the two were dreamers who longed for “a divine state in creativity,” as Margaret put it. Like countless others before them, they had arrived in LA, according to a future newspaper article about them, “with their hearts full of hope.” Their wallets, however, were empty. They landed in LA with a mere twenty dollars, fifteen of which went straight to securing an apartment in Hollywood. The two ate mainly potatoes as they got settled. “One day we have chicken to eat,” Elmer said, “and the other thirty days we have feathers.” He and Margaret had the tolerance for precarity of the young, and blind faith that the future would accommodate their hopes. And most important, they had each other, along with a pact: whoever got the first big break, that person’s career would take precedence over the other’s. Whether or not they meant for this agreement to last a lifetime, it would. Margaret got the first break: a scholarship to Otis College of Art and Design. She began the degree, which took her five years to complete, in 1953. By then, she was a mother. On February 19, 1952, she had given birth to their only child: Nelson Modlin. She was smitten with her baby, yet art remained her higher calling. Elmer hadn’t booked any TV or film roles, so he worked three jobs. When Margaret graduated in 1958—after experimenting with every “‘ism’ extant,” as she wrote—she destroyed nearly everything she had produced. She entered a discouraging “Dostoevskian Siberia” period in her art and got a teaching job. A decade passed. By 1968, Elmer, now forty-three, had landed a handful of bit parts, including an uncredited, non-speaking role in the background of the final scene of Rosemary’s Baby. It seemed he and Margaret had been relegated by central casting to roles as extras in life and art. Nelson, who was now sixteen and looked like a Greek statue, would later tell his second wife that during his childhood his parents sometimes drank to excess and took their anger out on him. By the loose standards of Los Angeles in the 1960s, theirs wasn’t the strangest household—though it was still strange. Margaret, for instance, painted a nude portrait of Nelson holding a flute when he was eleven, and he would pose as a model for the construction of her imagined universe into adulthood. He held deep admiration for his mother, bragging to his friends that Margaret was an artistic genius. When Nelson reached his teens, Elmer and Margaret enrolled him in the acting track at Hollywood Professional School, an arts high school that only had morning classes so students could go audition in the afternoons; alumni included John Drew Barrymore and Judy Garland. The family might have continued on in their middling Hollywood trajectory, unremarkable victims of the American mirage of fame, if it hadn’t been for a famous American who came into their lives. Or rather, one whose life they nudged themselves into: Henry Miller.  One of Elmer’s jobs was working at a trendy vegetarian restaurant. There he had met Miller, a regular, and gotten to know the legendary author of transgressive autofictions such as Tropic of Cancer, who was now in his late seventies. In early 1969, after meeting Miller herself at an art gallery, Margaret had a vision involving him and a recurring dreamscape—Doric columns with drapery fluttering gauzily until a temple-like structure collapsed into the sea—which had been visiting her at night since childhood. “There suddenly came to my mind,” Margaret remembered, “an image of Henry Miller with wings seated in the haunting landscape of my dream. I knew that I must paint him.” Paint him she did. Miller gamely agreed to pose, sitting for Margaret that spring before heading to Paris for the filming of Joseph Strick’s adaptation of Tropic of Cancer. They reconvened in December and during their sessions Margaret reveled in her conversations with Miller, who extemporized on subjects such as Christ, the Bible, and Francis of Assisi. She saw the saint as an antecedent to the writer who was lending her his greatness. “Miller’s lifework has the singular effect of letting the pus out of the wound of conscience of modern man,” she wrote, “and of cauterizing it with the fires of the Apocalypse.” Considering that Tropic of Cancer had been banned in the US until the Supreme Court overturned previous obscenity rulings in 1964, Margaret’s reading of Miller’s work was a curious one for a devout southern Christian, and revealing as to her views on the purpose of art. Where others saw rottenness, Margaret saw a call to holiness. She painted Miller seated with angelic wings and a notebook in which he recorded “everything on earth,” as she conceived it. He gazed at the viewer as Margaret’s dream extended behind him, a harp partially composed of a woman’s head with billowing brown hair set in the middle ground. After finishing the laborious painting, which she believed had turned her at last into a true artist, she gave it the title Henry Miller Ve Más Que Un Aguila, Henry Miller Sees More than an Eagle. Why had she chosen a title in Spanish? Because she loved the sound of the language, and for a few years now she and Elmer had been fantasizing about Spain as a new home for the family, a sanctuary where art and God were still intertwined in the popular imagination, and a place far from American upheavals such as the 1965 Watts riots, which they feared presaged total social breakdown in the US. Spending time with Miller, who had lived in Europe and who Margaret and Elmer idolized to the point of fanaticism, pushed them to actually go to Spain. They blamed their lack of recognition in the US on its shallow, materialistic culture. In contrast, they believed that Spain, home to several of history’s greatest painters, was great because of its Christianity. That it was ruled by a murderous Christian dictator, Francisco Franco, wasn’t a deterrent. Another of its draws was the fact that several prominent Hollywood producers were making large-scale films in Spain. Before Margaret had even finished her portrait, Nelson was telling friends at school that his family was moving to a country he cast as a promised land for aspiring actors. He was popular, striking classmates as both cool and dignified, and they were awed by his boldness, surely most of all by the fact that he was going alone to Madrid in the fall, to attend an English-language high school while setting up a home for him and his parents, who would follow in the spring. So it went: in September 1969, seventeen-year-old Nelson flew to Spain. Elmer came in May, accompanying their belongings and Margaret’s artwork on a freighter across the Atlantic. Margaret, meanwhile, packed up the rest of their things in LA and wistfully found a new owner for their Siamese cat. Then she flew to Madrid. The Modlins would never again live in the US. [[{"fid":"6705531","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":{"9":{"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":"9"}}]] Courtesy of the Modlin Estate and the Malvin Gallery. Gómez kept the photos he had found on Calle Pez in the tiny darkroom he had set up in his apartment. He and his wife had their first child, then soon after, he landed a job working for a prominent photographer, which required him to travel frequently. It was only when his family moved to a new apartment in 2004 that he rediscovered the mysterious photos. Poring over the many shots of a middle-aged man and woman and a youth who was presumably their son, he once again wondered who these people were, and what the purpose of the photos was. They were bizarre to the point of unsettling. They often posed with props and bent postures, as if twisted, Gómez thought, “by a kind of divinity that, from heaven, sought their breaking point.” He wracked his brain searching for a working theory of who the family might be, to no avail. If they were diplomats, as he briefly speculated, they would have lived near the foreign embassies, not in Malasaña, and it was doubtful their belongings would have ended up in the street. “It was an indecipherable mosaic,” he thought. That March, Gómez was at a friend’s apartment working on a photography project. After taking posed pictures of his friend, he noticed a frame on the wall with four photos of the same enigmatic, dark-haired woman—the woman in the photos from Calle Pez. His friend explained the frame was a gift from someone who, it turned out, had foraged alongside Gómez the night his brother-in-law had called him with the tip. And now his friend told him that the woman was a painter named Margaret. Gómez went straight home and searched online. He found a June 2004 article in the newspaper El País. The reporter wrote: “A building in the center of Madrid in a state of ruin, with the roof held up by construction supports, the stairs of eaten-away wood and mailboxes full of letters that no one claims, holds a secret. The American artist Margaret Marley Modlin died in 1998, leaving in the apartment, where she resided the last thirty years of her life, a collection of more than 120 paintings of a surrealist style that she had painted. Her only child Nelson died in 2002 and her husband, Elmer, last year. In Spain there are no other relatives. The valuable paintings remain in the dwelling, orphans, without an owner, in a building that could be demolished at any time.” [[{"fid":"6705481","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"}}]]   Margaret and Elmer had spent their honeymoon on Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks. They arrived after nightfall as a storm blew in. It took down the power lines in the quaint town where they were staying, and the next day gathered into a hurricane. Outside their hotel, waves pummeled the beach in a thunderous percussion and the wind lashed every surface. Feeling invincible, the newlyweds went outside. Margaret cupped water and threw it over Elmer’s head, christening him, “El, God of the Sea!” He baptized her back, calling her, “Margaret, Pearl of the Sea!” This scene would come to be a creation myth of their marriage, and Margaret would later claim that the hurricane descended on them, yet suddenly all became calm in the eye of the storm. This was surely entirely false, though their sense of heightened togetherness was not. “We embraced,” Margaret wrote breathlessly, “and the elements embraced us, and God embraced the elements, thereby embracing us. This was our mystical beginning.” It was fitting, then, that settling in Spain also came with aquatic symbolism. After a brief stint in another apartment, the family moved into the one on Calle Pez—Fish Street. To reach their new life all three had crossed the same baptismal ocean of Margaret and Elmer’s honeymoon, and now, indeed, they were fish out of water. Neither parent would ever learn to speak Spanish well, splashing around insouciantly in the foreign vitality of Madrid. They loved the bustling cafes, the boisterous street life, and the bullfights (where they spied on Salvador Dalí with binoculars). It was all perfect in Margaret and Elmer’s eyes, as was the apartment, with its large, north-facing windows through which pigeon feathers drifted along with ideal painting light. And, of course, they frequented El Prado Museum, home to works by Goya, El Greco, and Velázquez, which made it easy to romanticize Spain as “a paradise for the hungry soul of the artist,” as Margaret wrote. Meanwhile, Nelson was beginning to break away from his parents. When he made landfall in Madrid the previous year, he had conquered his new international high school. The best friend he met there, Jim Lipton, recalled nearly fifty years later, “He sort of arrived with a bang. He ran for student council, made friends very quickly, became popular.” Lipton remembered that Nelson was put off by his father’s insistent actorliness, his need to be “on.” In spite of his own theatrical training—or perhaps by employing it—he began refashioning himself in opposition to his parents. He was very sensitive to art, and many of the women he would go on to date would be artist-types sprung from the mold of his mother—Margaret hated most of them—but he developed a matter-of-fact, businessman-like persona. “He was in a sense a very conflicted guy,” Lipton said. “Nelson never talked about his parents, except to say that his mother was a genius and someday the world would recognize it.” To coax this fame into being, Margaret got to work, pursuing her art with a singular intensity. Sometimes she didn’t leave the apartment for days on end. Meanwhile, Elmer took auditions and Nelson started college in Salamanca, occasionally coming to visit on the weekend with friends. His draft number had come up high, so it didn’t look like he would have to choose to either go to Vietnam or dodge. The Modlins eased into their new life. They remained sure that soon—very soon—fame would find them. [[{"fid":"6705486","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"}}]]             Gómez was determined to uncover the secrets hiding on Calle Pez. Eating breakfast at the Malasaña dive he went to every morning, he asked the bartender if she knew the Modlins. Her grinning answer: Of course she did! She suggested Gómez talk to another bartender who knew them better, and to a woman who lived next door. He thanked her, finished breakfast, and went to work, his mind churning with thoughts about the family. The woman who lived next door to his breakfast spot was a dressmaker who still recalled Margaret’s measurements, as well as anecdotes about the family; for example, that Elmer often bristled at noisy neighbors disturbing the peace of his wife’s work and once went out to the balcony with a trumpet that he blared to bother them back. She told them how in love Margaret and Elmer seemed. She also showed Gómez a lithograph of a very strange painting of… Henry Miller? He was stunned when she explained that the Modlins had known the famous American writer. A cascade of serendipities combined with Gómez’s tenacious detective work accelerated the pace at which more revelations came. Like a re-creation of Antonioni’s Blowup, Gómez scrutinized a picture of Elmer standing on a street, though he wasn’t sure which street… until he ended up eating at a restaurant right there. He visited nearby storefronts and came across an art restorer who had known the Modlins, who directed them to a man named Carlos Postigo, Margaret’s former art dealer. Postigo was happy to talk to Gómez and told him about the penurious life Elmer and Margaret led in service to her art. Although her paintings were out of sync with the trends of the art market, she asked for astronomical prices that guaranteed they wouldn’t sell. Postigo didn’t know where the canvasses were now but thought it would be a shame if they were lost. Dying to see Margaret’s work, Gómez contacted a man that El País had mentioned in its brief article about the Modlins, with a name as quixotic as the quest to know the Modlins: Miguel Cervantes. Cervantes knew Elmer’s sister, who still lived back in North Carolina. After Margaret’s death in 1998, Elmer’s deep grief gradually widened into dementia, so his sister had asked Cervantes to help manage her brother’s affairs. He spent a great deal of time with Elmer during the last year of his life, listening to his stories in the Calle Pez apartment, which nearly overflowed with Margaret’s work. Cervantes related to Gómez a history of the Modlins that didn’t seem to square (for instance, that McCarthyism had forced them to leave the US, and that Elmer had been a famous soap opera actor), though the way it didn’t square somehow did square with the outlandish, myth-laden narrative of the family Gómez was coming to know. After Elmer’s death in 2002, Cervantes became the executor of the Modlins’ estate. Gómez asked: Could I see Margaret’s paintings?  [[{"fid":"6705491","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":{"4":{"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":"4"}}]]   In the fall of the same year that Margaret and Elmer began their life in Spain, another American arrived in Madrid: President Richard Nixon. On October 3, 1970, Nixon and Franco rode through the city in a motorcade and Margaret went out to see them pass, along with over a million Spaniards. As the open-top Rolls Royce with Franco and Nixon drove by, surrounded by cavalry, her world contracted. “The only sound was that of the horses’ hooves on the pavement, the polite applause of the crowed, and my own wild heartbeat,” Margaret wrote. Much like Paco Gómez when he first learned of Margaret’s identity, she rushed home. She had just beheld a true soldier of God, and since for her aesthetic and spiritual experience were one and the same, back at the apartment she sketched Franco’s dark eyes, which she was sure had met hers as he passed. She felt a burning need to paint him, the same as she had done with Henry Miller. Over the next three years, Margaret attended every public appearance by Franco that she could make it to, each time bringing home more of his essence to commit to canvas. By the fall of 1973, she had completed her portrait: Generalísimo Franco, “Tú que vives al abrigo del Alitísimo, y habitas a la sombra del Omnipotente,” whose translation is roughly, “You who live sheltered by the Highest One, and dwell in the shadow of the Omnipotent One.” She and Elmer both spoke of the pre-Civil Rights area in the United States in Edenic terms, a time of less turmoil, and through the lens of their privileges transplanted to Spain they similarly saw the order and calm of Franco’s dominion exclusively in relation to the benefits of oppression, not its costs and pain. A high-placed Spanish lawyer was so moved by her portrait of the dictator—who she had painted alongside a symbolic lion and lamb—that he vowed to use his relationship with Luis Carrero Blanco, the prime minister and Franco’s right hand, to ensure it ended up hung in a palace. Margaret was ecstatic. In December, however, this plan unraveled when the Basque terrorist group ETA assassinated Carrero Blanco with a car bomb. The lawyer wrote Margaret a regretful letter. As always, Margaret and Elmer persisted. Five years later, in 1987, she at last secured the opportunity she had been working towards her whole career: a solo show of her work. It would be held in the gallery of the Circulo de Bellas Artes, a celebrated arts venue in the center of Madrid. On display would be thirty-nine oil paintings and eighteen silverpoint drawings. “I have fulfilled my dream,” Margaret wrote to her family. [[{"fid":"6705516","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":{"8":{"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":"8"}}]] The opening, on October 2, was by many measures a success. Henry Miller contributed a piece on Margaret’s art; her two sisters who she hadn’t seen in twenty-five years came; a swath of the Madrid culturati turned out in force; and reviews of the show were positive, a few even over-the-top in their praise. Yet in spite of this reception, her work didn’t sell, and more critically for an artist so comfortable with poverty but so uncomfortable with anonymity, word of Margaret’s artwork didn’t spread beyond the conservative publications that applauded it. Although she and Elmer couldn’t see it, this was only natural. Abstract expressionism, minimalism, and pop art had long since redrawn the landscape of the art world, and land art, performance, and conceptual art had likewise transformed visual expression. And yet there Margaret was, dedicated to an atavistic surrealism with renaissance-style religious themes, seemingly unaware that not only had art moved on aesthetically, but so had Spain politically. Franco had died in the fall of 1975, a sorrowful event for Margaret and Elmer, and the newly formed Spanish congress would ratify a democratic constitution two months after her opening. Two years later, in 1980, an unknown director named Pedró Almodóvar would release his first film, spitting in the space of traditional values and aesthetics, and soon La Movida, a wild and explosive countercultural movement of music and art, would take over Madrid. Margaret had left her home in the US for a country she felt spoke to her soul, but that country had changed. She and Elmer would spend the next two decades in their Calle Pez apartment, drowning in rising waters of obscurity as he acted and Margaret painted as monomaniacally as ever, neither ever ceasing to believe in her greatness. They maintained that all their dreams had come true in Spain. And in a sense, they would come true thanks to a person as single-minded as Margaret, a person who, like the Modlins, longed for an extraordinary story: Paco Gómez.  [[{"fid":"6705501","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":{"5":{"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":"5"}}]]  When Gómez finally beheld Margaret’s paintings, he felt deflated. While he had fantasized about apocalyptic masterpieces of the greatest unknown painter of her time, as he stood in the storage facility in the outskirts of Madrid where Miguel Cervantes had taken him, he saw something else—derivative Dalí, esoterically insistent symbolism, and idiosyncrasy that was just eyebrow-raising rather than transporting. The paintings shone with technical virtuosity, sure, but it was hard to see their value beyond the strictly biographical. But, seeing the paintings, Gómez finally understood the cache of photos that had set him off on this strange journey. “I discovered that the photos were representations of the characters that lived inside the apocalyptic imagination of Margaret and that she used as the models to compose her canvasses,” he wrote. “It was so evident that it had never even occurred to me.” Elmer, Margaret, and Nelson weren’t in a cult or practitioners of disturbing private rites. They had simply been posing for her paintings. After seeing Margaret’s work, Gómez continued pursuing the Modlins with renewed urgency. He pestered the Catholic organization that owned their building until it let him go inside. There, amid the melancholy abandonment, he found three blue notebooks, professionally bound and with title pages: Elmer and Margaret’s personal writings and copies of letters. The mysteries of the Modlins broke open once and for all. [[{"fid":"6705511","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":{"7":{"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":"7"}}]] The secrets of the family were all there: their lives in the US, their relationship with Henry Miller, their years in Spain. And on a second visit to the house, Gómez found another document, one that seemed to explain Elmer’s colossal dedication to Margaret’s art and an art-filled life: a description of his experience as a young soldier as one of the first people to arrive in Nagasaki after the US dropped a nuclear bomb on the city. Amid the ruined landscape, full of dead bodies and traumatized survivors, he saw the worst of what humanity could do, and it had scarred him. Why wouldn’t he dedicate the rest of his life to art and beauty? It wasn’t the agreement the young couple had made on arriving in Los Angeles in 1950 about who got the first break. It was Elmer’s need for art to redeem life, as he believed his wife’s work did. By now, the Modlins’ artistic universe had bled into Gómez’s own. He had begun using people as models to recreate the Modlins’ photos, posing them in the same places and postures as if this could bridge the passage of time that separated him from the family. He even tracked down a family that had posed for Margaret long ago; they were happy to pose for Gómez, recalling how Margaret’s artistic world had briefly and magically transformed their own. Meanwhile, he also learned the details of Margaret’s death—a heart attack at age seventy—and Elmer’s subsequent physical and emotional decline. But one last mystery remained: Nelson. He had died between his mother and his father in 2002 at the premature age of fifty. What had happened to him? Once again, Gómez’s investigative tenacity quickly produced results. On a tip from Miguel Cervantes, he located Nelson’s best friend, Jim Lipton, who still lived in Madrid. Gómez interviewed him and learned about Nelson’s life: his exasperation with his parents, his workaholism with his own audio business in the radio and film industry as an adult, his generosity as a person, his three wives. Shortly before his death he had found great peace, buying a small rural property in Brihuega, northwest of Madrid. Gómez was able to speak with his second wife, Berta, who shared warm memories of Nelson. His obsession with work had driven them apart and they separated around the time of Margaret’s death, only to speak again the month before his death—a heart attack at home in his apartment. Nelson had loved and been loved and left countless friends bereft. [[{"fid":"6705506","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":{"6":{"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":"6"}}]] It was the spring of 2007 now, four years since Gómez had first seen the Modlins in the photos he had scavenged, and he felt that his odyssey was nearing its end. He had uncovered more about them then he ever could have imagined, and the wonder it had filled him with likewise had exceeded all of his expectations. It was time to share the buried story he had uncovered, so he published a few articles, and then El País’s weekend magazine did a feature to coincide with a full-circle event Gómez had put together: a show of Margaret’s work at a Madrid gallery. The opening was on a Thursday and the gallery was full. Gómez’s friends were there, as well as people from the Modlin universe that he now knew, and also people he had never seen before. Amid the clamor of the show, Gómez found a moment to enjoy this apotheosis of sorts, the merging of his life and the Modlins. Now that he saw the paintings hung in a gallery, they looked changed to him, even remade. “Margaret’s paintings seemed like different ones,” he recalled, “they were still strange, but had their own life and character.” She was no longer trapped in forgetting, and he was no longer a lone obsessive like she had been. Margaret and Elmer and Nelson weren’t suddenly famous, but the Modlins were no longer ghosts in a north-facing Malasaña apartment. Their story had escaped out into the Spanish city where they had lived for some thirty years. Paco Gómez would go on to self-publish a book with photos about the Modlins, which would lead to more discoveries about the family crowd-sourced by passionate readers—everything from footage of them visiting Franco lying in state to clips of Elmer in forgotten films. It was as if an ocean of memories had been floating in space, just waiting for “divine creativity” to piece them into a cohesive composition. Gómez felt he had completed a work they had left unfinished. But the Modlin family’s most poetic role was in Gómez’s own household, where his kids looked at photos of them in the living room and talked about them as if they were relatives. Soon after the gallery show of Margaret’s work in Madrid, Gómez was walking on Calle Pez and noticed a white sticker on the callbox of the Modlins’ building. He went to have a look. It said: The Modlins lived here. Remember them.
‘A Wild and Contrary Act of Acceptance’: An Interview with Mary H.K. Choi

The author of Permanent Record on families of origin, emotional expense, and bodega cats. 

In her collection of essays Oh, Never Mind, Mary H.K. Choi summed up 2014 in three crucial lines: “The Internet has turned us all into pure energy. Doesn’t it feel rad? Send help.” Choi would know because she covers the internet (and more) on the internet (and in print) for publications like Wired, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, The Atlantic, and The Fader. In 2016, she embedded herself in a group of teens for Wired and probed them on their online behaviour. It’s what ultimately led her to write her debut novel, Emergency Contact, where the internet cultivates a safe space for a burgeoning relationship. Barista Sam is insecure about his own poverty while college freshman Penny is simply awkward. “It’s the intimacy that comes from when you are unencumbered by your mouth-breathing meatsuit of awkwardness,” explains Choi. “The fact that they can just give each other their best, which is just asking good questions and receiving each other and holding space for what the other person is saying and processing it—that is such an act of service and selflessness and I think that is a beautiful aspect of the intimacy we can find in certain digital spaces.” In 2019’s Permanent Record (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers), social media is less of a conversational buffer and more of a self-harm tool. College dropout Pablo Neruda Rind gets swept up in pop star Leanna Smart’s life so he can avoid his own debt and stasis. It’s a role reversal with a twist: a realistic Notting Hill with younger people who Choi says “eventually go back to their corners and finish cooking.”   I sat down with Choi in a hotel lobby that featured a Beauty and the Beast library, but with vases instead of books. We sat there, contemplating the objets d’art, New York and the gritty in-betweens of success.  Sara Black McCulloch: In Emergency Contact and Permanent Record, you focus on the families that we’re born into and the ones we get to choose. In a lot of ways, your characters are coming to terms with their parents being human but also the fact that their parents can’t always give them what they need as adults. You don’t see that particular approach to family dynamics often, especially in YA. Is this something you’re seeing in your own life? Mary H.K. Choi: I think there are a couple of things. As the child of immigrants, there’s always a schism in terms of what you’re experiencing and what they have experienced. In my own life, we immigrated to Hong Kong when I was eleven months old. My parents were in their very early thirties, and there was this trapped-in-amber aspect to their childhood. When they left their mother country, they had this set reality that travelled with them and it didn’t age or evolve. Korea went from having the GDP of a small nation to now becoming a global power, and so there are a lot of things that have iteratively changed and become a lot more contemporary that my parents simply missed out on. Other than the fact that they have KaKaoTalk—the one texting app that all Koreans love—and the fact that now they can stream TV from Korea, they still have a lot of social mores that I think are trapped in amber and really speak to a bygone era. And so there’s been a lot of struggle with me living in a different civilization and growing up and them being trapped in this one thing. That particular gap can widen over the years. Prior to getting older, it was about me having to rebel and feeling as though the way that I wanted to be was something that they could never possibly understand. It was really important to me, with Emergency Contact, that Penny’s mom Celeste wasn’t what you would typically see as the matriarchal figure in a lot of Asian pop culture, which is the tiger moms with all these expectations. So I really wanted to start off with a relationship that was a lot more like Lorelai and Rory Gilmore or, if not, then Edina and Saffy Monsoon, where it’s a role reversal, where the kid is always worried about the mother’s welfare instead of the other way around. It was also very important for me that Celeste be somewhat assimilated into American culture and so it wasn’t the cultural gap so much as it was just expectations, which is something that anyone can relate to. With Pablo and his mother, I wanted to peel back the layers of what those expectations felt like—I mean that filial piety, fidelity and that first-born son expectation—and then just keep going with it. What we find in the second book is that a lot of those expectations come from fear. It’s a fear that is not only specific to East Asian or South Asian parents: you could ask any Haitian, Nigerian, Taiwanese, British parents—anyone! People want their kids to be successful and a lot of that lingua franca, that irrefutable co-sign, comes from name brand schools, vocations that pay very well and are universally respected. Is there a risk of being too prescriptive, though? As a person who is a little bit older writing for young people, I don’t want to be prescriptive in what I’m saying, but I do want to just allow for certain things to be the way they are without imbuing them with morality. For me, in my more recent years, it’s been about receiving my parents where they’re at and understanding that as grateful as we can be to our family of origin, it’s simply a repeated, cyclical trap of resentment to keep going to your family of origin for things that they don’t have. I’m in recovery and 12-step for different kinds of addiction and an eating disorder and there is this saying in meetings: “Don’t go to the hardware store for orange juice.” At a certain point, you know what your family of origin has a capacity for and to expect them to miraculously be different because you want them to be is just a recipe for prolonged and sustained heartbreak and suffering. The only thing you can actually exert control over is your framing around that, and changing your own expectations. And that’s okay. It’s not rejection and it doesn’t have to be. It’s this wild and contrary act of acceptance. I think that’s the only point that growth, mutual appreciation and understanding of each other’s humanity can actually come from.  It’s hard being a parent, too. Everyone has intergenerational trauma. It’s not something that’s wholly new to us as a generation just because we have all these social media outlets where we can complain or even have the language for it. My mother knew famine as a child during the Japanese occupation of Korea. It’s a very real thing: that fear comes from personal experience and actual testimony. I can’t fault her for that. If anything, it’s an invitation for me to experience compassion and to know that there’s so much about my parents that I won’t ever know. It goes both ways and I think that there’s so much reparenting that has to happen on both sides. Has that approach to compassion altered the way you now engage with other people? Totally. We’re all so broken! And it’s really beautiful. Anytime anyone has been particularly vindictive or contemptuous towards me, I recognize that what I’m witnessing is a tantrum and sure, the shrapnel is getting on me, but what I’m witnessing is someone else’s pain and that doesn’t mean I have to stick around for it or experience a co-dependency with their happiness, but it is not something I can then use as artillery either. It’s not something I even have to hold onto! It’s been a really beautiful reminder that whatever interaction I’m having with someone else, their rendition of it isn’t something I’m going to wholly understand and I have to be okay with that. Do you find that with career prospects, too? Or even with writing, which is not an easy thing to do. Oh my god, it’s so hard. Now that I’m a quote-unquote author (or scare quotes, rather), I talk to so many other writers and we’re constantly so shell-shocked that we’ve signed onto this vocation where we have homework for the rest of our lives. And there’s nothing more existentially harrowing than having to produce on a daily basis. Also, fiction is wild: So let me get this straight, you’re just sitting there, making shit up? What is that about? It’s so subjective and human—this compulsion to create art.  There’s also another facet—selling yourself as a writer—that’s weird, too. I’m thinking of that piece that was published recently, about the journalist being an influencer. How do you mitigate that role and the expectations that come with it? I think about this a lot because when I’m trying to straddle those two perspectives, I get in a lot of trouble. There is nothing more stultifying, in terms of being able to create, than that. Nothing hogties me more than writing while I’m editing while reading while receiving while thinking about the audience. I liken it very inelegantly to the fact that you just can’t poop and eat at the same time. Anytime I sit in my own audience and anytime I’m worried about how someone will receive this based on the merit of my previous work, that is when I cannot write anything with value. I can’t write and aim at the same time. If you’re aiming, you’re aiming for a lot of different targets—for any made-up version of a reviewer or an audience member that you’re imagining. I can’t think of anything more scattershot! I can only write for me, and I know that people say that so much and it sounds like such a stereotypical bromide but I can only move in one direction and so I may as well move in the direction that feels clear to me. Otherwise that’s a guessing game! It’s hard enough to listen to my own intuition versus sitting here, making up what I think other people’s expectations will be. There’s also this idea (or ideal) of objectivity in journalism, which often extends into writing. I think it’s a lofty goal, but it’s ultimately impossible. Is it that people just don’t want to acknowledge their own biases?  It’s so impossible! We should also surrender that completely. It’s so interesting because New Journalism, the long tail of it, went from writing in the first person, to interjecting your point of view, doing write-arounds and talking about people contextually and not just what they’re saying and wearing or—god forbid you only have forty minutes for a cover story—what they’re eating. It’s always going to be distorted by you having been there. And I think that if everybody just accepts that, it’s a good baseline. And then other people, having enough integrity, can just not make facts up. That would be great in this day and age! The thing about biases is that largely we don’t know that we have them and that’s not good or bad, it just is what it is. I think it’s compounded with this notion, too, of how we presume social media is straight from the horse’s mouth. I think that can be really confusing because everything is a performance and so everyone, on any day, for every mood and filter should be taken with a grain of salt. In Permanent Record, Pablo really gets caught in the “best life” aspects of Instagram. Yet, he completely overlooks the fact that he has this incredible lifeline: the people who are looking out for him. I mean, both his friends and his parents align in their observations about him. It’s funny because if you were to ask your best friend, “Do I isolate? Am I selfish? Am I grandiose?” Your friend would tell you, “Oh yeah, 100%.” But you have to ask them point blank. It takes a lot for those people to say that to you because it’s so obvious to them that it never occurs to them to tell you that you are these things. Anytime I feel hysterical about someone saying something to me—like if I get that jolt of contempt and I’m filled with moral outrage and righteous indignation—generally, I find that that stuff is accurate. We’re not a cipher! The people who know us, know us. That’s the you. It’s the difference between your recorded voice and the voice you hear. No one thinks their recorded voice sounds better! Like, you think you’re out here shining, and your friends are like “No, you’re doing this weird thing, a weird squirrely dance that you’re trying to hide.”  What was it like analyzing male friendships from that perspective? When I was in edits for this it was during #MeToo and Cosby and all I wanted was to write a tender, sweet and true-hearted boy. I wanted to write emo, loving demonstrative friends because that’s what I’ve actually seen in New York by dint of all of us being squished together with very finite resources. My male friends have the most beautiful, supportive and edifying conversations with each other. They really hold each other up and it’s fucking beautiful. I thought that was a particular dynamic that just didn’t get enough attention at all. I also think that in New York, you need to be surrounded by a group of people who will support you because you will need them. I’m a writer in New York. I have needed my friends. I have sometimes needed them financially. My colleagues, my friends, my cronies have supported me during very lean times. I survived 2008 and 2009 in media in New York. I will always be grateful to them for that because it takes a village and if I shine, then you shine. You take turns supporting each other. You take turns reparenting each other. And that’s just part of it. And being happy for someone in the way that you would sometimes hope your parents would be but can’t and so you have people celebrating you with deep, deep love and understanding of what it took to accomplish something. I mean, they put up with your ass in the lead up to this shit! So you bet they will celebrate you. It’s the in-betweens we often overlook. They get left out of those success narratives too. Permanent Record analyzes the Western ideals of success, ambition and straightforward career trajectories. Pablo keeps watching these Secret-like Youtube videos, and yet he can never connect to them. As he starts changing and accepting his own shortcomings, he finally encounters success narratives that resonate with him. Why was it important for you to include that in the book? The thing that the supercut doesn’t show you on Youtube, as the person makes their millions or gets their free ride to Columbia or whatever, is all the disgusting actual work that had to take place. When you’re starting out, your output is repulsive. Ira Glass has that great quote about how your output never matches your taste for a long time and that’s a really important thing to hear because Permanent Record comes from this notion, this data that follows you in terms of your successes and your failings: your FICA score and your credit and all this stuff. It’s also this notion of permanent record, which is the reality distortion of social media, where you feel so much pressure that you feel like you cannot afford to make mistakes. We love the story of the beauty blogger who made billions, or the one about the person disrupting hotels or the child disrupting the salad industry, or Forbes’ 30 Under 30. Now, it’s all about getting a Ted Talk before you’re out of middle school. The bloodsport has gotten so aggressive that it’s sort of laughable. That narrative—jinned by the 24-hour news cycle and the pyrotechnics that we need for every viral hit— really does a disservice to the countless majority of people who just grind. The other thing is that I wanted Pablo to have uncertainty around his own career but also acknowledge that there are a lot of people who are successful doing things that you won’t hear about on your local news channel. I think that there’s a lot of grace in that. And acknowledging that as a path that can lead to happiness is important.   Pablo’s dad, Bilal, talks about the notion of autotelism, the act of doing it and the satisfaction in doing it. It’s not about the accomplishment, it’s about the very slow and grueling work of just getting better at something over time. It always takes time. It’s fine to want and it’s fine to try, but the second you try it and it doesn’t work, please try working a lot!   Bilal also talks about how the root of all creativity is abundance: wanting what you already have.   How ephemeral is getting what you want? I’ve gotten so much in my life and it’s so amazing how quickly it turns to resentment or this voraciousness, that will never be sated, for the next thing. When your first book did very well, like New York Times Best Seller-well, did that make you nervous or even resentful of your own success? Oh, it completely fucked me up so hard. What happened with the first one was that I had written it and rewritten it and it sat in a drawer for eight months because my agent didn’t like it. A different agent reached out saying they were a big fan and asked if I would ever write a book. I told him I already did and he asked to read it. He read it and had notes, so I tackled the notes. And then he told me he could sell it and it went to auction and it did really well. But what happened with that is that because I had zero expectation that the book would ever sell, I had another job on camera for HBO’s VICE and I was just on a different wave during that time. Emergency Contact had sold, but before it came out, I had written a draft of Permanent Record. I told myself, if the book tanks, I’m never going to be able to write again and I have this idea for another book so I’ve got to write it now. While I was shielded for the first draft, I didn’t know that promoting a book would be all-consuming and just emotionally expensive. It didn’t make the NY Times best-seller list the first week out, it made the list on the second week, which very rarely happens, and then stayed there for a month. During that time, I was rewriting Permanent Record and that was the most...I mean if you want to talk about scattershot, I didn’t know what I was doing. There were so many edits where I just rewrote the whole thing and then could not accept changes because what I had written was just nonsense and I didn’t know what it was and I got further away from it. I was more out to sea and that was a really big lesson. I told myself it was just the sophomore thing, because I don’t know how to write a book. I’ve only done it once before, like, who the fuck am I to say that I can write a book? I won the lotto once.   It wasn’t until I got away from all that that I realized what I had done and how much my final actual draft resembled my first early draft. I realized how you could get burned out without producing anything. There were so many honest conversations about money, credit and debt and the insanity that is having an 18-year-old figure out the rest of their lives and place a huge bet on that decision (with an insane loan). I mean, we’re all so scared to talk about money and we avoid it altogether because my god, that pressure! And a loan of that size! I mean, you really do mortgage your entire future and it’s like you’re betting on a level of financial solvency by a certain age so that you can recoup on this initial investment and pay people back because, as the clock is ticking, all of these loans are metastasizing. And I really wanted to talk about that. It’s great if you get into Columbia, Duke, and NYU, but how are you going to pay for any of it? How do you enter the workforce in this day and age with that much volatility—with a house strapped to your back? Why don’t you own a house for how much you owe? And then graduate school: do you really want to pursue that or is it an issue of sunk cost where you need to do that extra thing because you haven’t questioned what you wanted to do, and now it’s a question of what you can do to get the money back doing what you’re doing? How will you ever know what you want in your quietest self? How will you ever find your due North if you’re completely saddled by this clock and this money?  It leaves you with little room to fuck up, no? You can’t afford to! And if you fuck up you better not tell anybody and you better hide it and again, even if people find out, you better play it off and tell everyone that you’ve got it figured out. And you best hope that watching the right Youtube video will help you figure it out because I don’t know how else you would. There is a great divide and there is so much otherizing and fetishizing that happens with each generation as technology changes at a rapid pace. It was, first, about otherizing Millennials—and it’s not the reductive aspect of it, it’s the difference that you’re creating. And with that comes a great breakdown in communication and apprenticeship. You have people who are in such a scarcity mentality about these people taking all the jobs, so they keep all their institutional knowledge to themselves, and the new people coming have no idea how to deal with that hostility, but they also don’t want to fuck up and so they don’t ask any questions. You now have so many people who have a very specific skill set, and that’s wonderful, but they don’t know how to do fundamental things like ask a question, make a mistake, remedy it and call attention to it in the right way. The result is that everyone is now like “Don’t trust Gen Y,” and Gen Y is saying that you can’t trust Gen X-ers. It’s this incredible communication breakdown that breaks my heart and as a person who is older talking to younger people, I just want everyone to hang on, and not go to AskJeeves to figure out how to write a cover letter! Ask someone and admit to that vulnerability and have that person help you out. I think a lot of that responsibility falls on our shoulders because we don’t make it easy to ask us things and that’s fucked up. It would just be so much better if everyone talked to each other. The food in Permanent Record, especially those snack combinations, really brings everyone together, and showcases their resourcefulness. It also facilitates some difficult conversations. How was it writing about that? It was really beautiful. I wrote a New York Times Magazine article about candy a while ago and it was really short and joyful but that was really triggering. And I realized I was definitely a sugar addict. It’s that recursive nature of disordered thinking. When I’m in that mode of thinking, it’s all I can think about and it was really interesting. I had enough awareness to be like “Holy shit, you’re catching a weird ass contact high.” With this, I knew that food was going to be a big part of it because of Pablo’s mixed race. It’s the one arena in which he doesn’t feel like an impostor, where he doesn’t feel tested, where he doesn’t feel like it’s a pop quiz he’s going to fail. Even if Pablo were at church or at a wedding or around his parents’ friends, he might feel uncomfortable, or might feel as though they’re about to give him a pop quiz about how much of his culture he can actually be familiar with. He doesn’t have that with food. It’s his love language, the way he shows up for people in his life and he doesn’t ever worry about the cultural authenticity of it. And I wanted him to have freedom in some arena. With my own personal history around it, it was a really beautiful thing where I could experience joy around food again and where food was appropriate in my life: you could be excited about it and be happy about it and feel abundance in it, but you don’t have to be drunk on it. And it doesn’t have to be the only thing that you think about. The way I knew I had an eating disorder, even though for years I thought I didn’t qualify as a bulimic anymore, was that someone told me that if you believe that being a different size will change everything about your life, you probably have an eating disorder. And that blew my mind because I thought I didn’t have an eating disorder but I was alternately paleo, or vegan or on some crazy regimen or not eating this or orthorexic or whatever, but thought it was a coastal elite thing or whatever. Now, I know that was really disordered. Now, you eat a meal and you forget about it—that’s what life is actually like. You have life in between meals. It’s not eating something and trying to figure out ways to game it or get rid of it for the next six hours. It was also really important, like an amends to myself or a healing practice, I think, to create a character in Leanna where she’s like ostentatiously famous, where her body is so renowned and admired and gawked at, and she doesn’t have an eating disorder. It makes me weepy to think about a young woman who is that scrutinized who chooses to feed her body and chooses to nourish it lovingly and have an appreciation for what her body is capable of doing. Just the idea of having a woman like that felt like such wild subversion and that was really beautiful for me as someone who is older to just write a love letter to a person like that. I think that that helped me do a lot of forgiveness around all this abuse and turmoil I put my body through and the dissociation and just how I left my body in different places in my life. Leanna, as a mega pop star, is the source of a lot of body anxiety and dysmorphia for other people, but she isn’t absorbed in it at all. Absolutely. She just doesn’t take that on. Leanna is fucking awesome in so many ways. She’s hugely flawed and she’s very young. Someone even told me that I vilify her and I really don’t. I don’t think there’s a single smart woman in this world who has even a modicum of ambition who wouldn’t understand exactly why she does the things that she does. This famous person is surrounded by this cacophony, this overwhelming din. It’s the age and the level of celebrity that we have to grapple with. This is a person, as far as you know and think, but the celebrity industrial complex is a great many other external forces and people. She is the head of her personal brand: she is the CEO, CFO, COO, but also there are people she is answerable to and that’s a real part of her life. But Leanna is also quite whitewashed as a pop star.   I really wanted to talk about that. I remember when I interviewed Rihanna for one of her first cover stories for Complex (when Good Girl Gone Bad came out). She had just cut her hair and people were figuring out that Rihanna was stylish. And she told me that she was really excited to have a little bit more autonomy in her career. I asked her what she meant by that and she said that she was singing in her actual accent. I think that there is this coming of age that happens twice when you are not of the majority. You have your coming of age just like in life: your Saturn Return or whatever. And then you have this coming of age where you realize that you have inherited this double consciousness, like what your contribution is as an artist of colour. I certainly had the same thing. And I’m so grateful that I started writing when I was older because I could work all that out and figure out where I was at with it and then produce from there.   With Leanna, she gets really excited when the industry changes enough that she’s finally in a position where she can have a Spanish-language release. That was something she felt she had to earn. I wanted that to be an issue, even for her and for how powerful she is: if she’s coming through that Disney entertainment factory (we’ll use that as an example), then what does that mean and how does that affect how people receive her? And then what she can claim for herself later? The centre of gravity for this book, and the source of food and cravings, is the bodega — it’s where everything begins and reconnects. Pablo’s job is a service job and it’s a low-valued job, and it requires a lot of expertise that’s often overlooked. Why was that crucial to you? I didn’t want this to be a dissertation on or contemplation of city living where we don’t know each other and the death of intimacy. It’s more like that New York thing where we’re all crammed in together and you end up gleaning the weirdest parts of each other. And I love the bodega because it’s the place I missed the most when I briefly lived in California for work. I just wanted a bodega! I didn’t want to get in my car to go to Target for Advil! I just wanted the two-pack to swallow dry on the train! But the bodega is a 24-hour way station for a lot of different types of addiction. There are witnesses to your personal crises.  All under those horrible lights! And those cameras! It’s just like Russian Doll! That’s the nexus. We’re all glitches in each other’s Matrices. And then there’s that fucking judgmental bodega cat. As much as we think that technology is creating a rift, there are still these little things we have to do that force us to interact with each other.   Reluctantly! That’s a really beautiful part of New York: you’re forced into those situations. Like mass transit: the fact that we have to mutually tolerate this broken railway system is just hilarious to me. It’s the source of so much drama and strife and the bodega is definitely another touchpoint where we just all have to put up with each other. We all have to get in that fucking line and god forbid you have to go in the morning and everyone before you is ordering an egg sandwich because you’re going to be there for 37 minutes. With your work, how do you reconcile something that you love bringing you closer to the thing you hate (overworking, capitalism, burnout)?   It’s really hard but it’s a scarcity mentality. It’s also something I can speak to from a place of great privilege. I have never been in a position where I had to spend an advance cheque on life. I’ve always had jobs in between the creative moments. I’ve always had a job, feathered the nest, and then did all speculative weird stuff. I keep the pragmatism with those jobs and I keep the high-risk stuff high risk. I also don’t worry about money insofar as I never do something for money because that’s always gotten me in trouble. I call it that Tahiti test: if this thing went away to Tahiti, is there a part of you that would have some regret? Or are you relieved? And if I’m relieved, then I’m not allowed to do it. If I’m regretful over some aspect of it, then I have to sit there and contemplate it. I never send things to Tahiti when it’s just money-based and if I don’t experience true relief. I’ve never done anything solely for money because it’s just too emotionally expensive that way. I’ll do stuff for money that I’m interested in or that I find entertaining or do it because I can’t believe that people can be paid to do it. Doing something expressly for money has only ever made me resentful, has taken three to four times longer than I think it will and has only ever brought me just butt-hurtness. It’s only ever tarnished the work that I do. I just don’t want to be embarrassed about anything that I make and that threshold is low—I mean, I survived being a writer. 
‘Real Children in Extreme Circumstances’: An Interview with Michael Crummey

The author of The Innocents on growing up, survival, and giving your characters dignity. 

Since his 2001 debut novel River Thieves, Michael Crummey has woven together Newfoundland’s rich and often ignored history with fiction. His latest novel, The Innocents (Doubleday Canada), took years to begin and was written almost out of compulsion after a trip to an archival library. The novel follows two young siblings, Ada and Evered, following the death of their parents and baby sister. With very little contact with the outside world, the brother and sister survive the harshest conditions. Having only each other to rely on, the siblings form a bond that is tested as they grow into adolescence. The siblings endure unimaginable hardships, giving the reader a highly complex and rich coming of age narrative, one that Crummey was almost too afraid to explore. Through his writing, we see an empathetic portrait of what becomes of familial bonds when tested beyond their usual limits. Sarah Hagi: You’ve mentioned how this story came to be, through reading about a clergyman’s findings. Can you get into that a bit more?  Michael Crummey: I was at the provincial archives in St. John's. I spent a lot of time there for a bunch of different projects so I was there working on something else, I don't remember what it was and it was quite a while ago. Just in the process of poking through things, I just happened on this one paragraph. It was from way back, so possibly a newspaper. And I don't know if it was the clergyman himself writing it, or if it was somebody reporting what he'd been told by the clergy. But this clergyman was traveling around the island, which was not unusual because most places didn't have a church or a clergyman. In the course of traveling around the islands, he came upon an orphaned brother and sister who were living alone in an isolated cove. It became obvious to him very quickly that the sister was pregnant and he immediately assumed that the brother was the father. The brother ended up driving him off with a rifle. There was no more information about who the brother and sister were or how old they were. I immediately thought that would be a story, and I immediately rejected it. Like, I didn't want anything to do with it. Yeah, so I didn't take note of  the source material or anything, I just sort of, I read it, and I just kept going with whatever the business was. And I mostly forgot about it, I think, But, but not completely, obviously.  What was it that stuck with you? Every now and then I would think about those youngsters. And I think the thing that really hooked me was thinking about them in relation to my own childhood, and what it was like for me growing up. Just how unbelievably confusing it was trying to come to grips with those kinds of changes that were happening within me. Even though I grew up in a place where I had some resources and there were bits and pieces that I could try to cobble together into a picture that said something about what I was feeling, it was just appallingly confusing. And so thinking about these two children who had been left on their own completely, with no resources, with no one to turn to, and guessing that they wouldn't even really be able to have words to even try to describe what was happening, and then to end up in the situation that they ended up in, I guess I was kind of heartbroken for them. In a way I wanted to tell a story that did the opposite of what the clergyman did. I was hoping that by the end of it, that they would be left with some kind of dignity, but I didn't know how to go about that at all.  I imagine it was very difficult to write about.   I mean, one of the things I wanted to do was to provide them with a life that was more than that. I don’t want it to be the incest book. I decided what I had to do was try to put them into a life in which what happened between them, in that intimate way, was just one of the things that happened to them in the stream of things they had to deal with. Their entire family dies within the first ten pages of the book. When you’re writing these two characters and there’s so much left to the story until the end, how was it dealing with that grief they obviously felt and with them becoming adolescents? I mean, it's no wonder that I went so long not touching this book. I wrote that opening actually quite a while ago, maybe three and a half years ago. Then I just put it away—I thought, “I can't do it.” I didn't know if I had it in me to tell that story in a way that felt believable, and that wouldn’t just be a misery trek for readers. It wasn't until my editor Martha called me. I didn't really have anything except this [opening], it's about three thousand words. After she read it, she said, “I'd like to know more about those children.” So I kind of thought about it, as a story about childhood. I just tried to write them as real children in extreme circumstances. What was it like dealing with the survivalist aspects of the story?  That was part of me wanting them to be situated very clearly in the rhythms of the life that people would have had at the time. My father was born in 1930. But he started fishing with his father when he was nine, down on the Labrador Coast. He says he didn't take a full share of the crew until he was eleven. And I think that's part of the reason I picked the ages I did. They’re eleven and nine when the book opens, because I thought, okay, at that point, they actually would be able to survive. They've been working their entire lives, really, to that point they have probably reached a stage where it's not out of the realm of possibility that they would be able to make a go of it. All of the survival stuff was basically just putting them in the landscape and letting the landscape happen to them. Even though they’re so isolated, the story very clearly takes place in Newfoundland. I feel like it couldn't have happened anywhere else.   I've always said that the books that I've written have been an attempt to get Newfoundland down on paper, and to create a real sense for readers of what the place is like, and how people have lived there. With this book, I had a slightly different feeling, because I felt like the story of the brother and sister could have happened anywhere. I was just sort of happenstance that this particular story happened. But then the fact that they were in Newfoundland shaped almost the entire narrative, because the place itself was such a presence in the lives of people at the time. Just in terms of what you had to do to survive and how you could or couldn't live in that landscape. You mentioned feeling the need to write this story to do these kids justice, do you feel like you accomplished that? It was kind of like Martha pushed me off a ledge in a good way. I always doubt a book when I start it. But about halfway through the book, I started thinking, “I hope I don't die before I finish it.” I just had that sense that this was a story that I really wanted to see told and that I was telling it in a way that I felt good about. There was a real sense, when I was done, that it was pretty much what I hoped for. I’m happy to have it out in the world.
‘The Future is Very Opaque’: An Interview with Jia Tolentino

The author of Trick Mirror on the self as a lens on the system, scams, and the internet beat. 

Over the last several years, at the Hairpin, Jezebel, and now the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino has cemented herself as almost peerless in her ability to capture our current cultural zeitgeist in a world that sometimes moves so quickly it can be hard to define what the zeitgeist may be. With her book of original essays, Trick Mirror (Random House), Tolentino weaves together online culture with real life in a way that not only captures the present, but how the past and perceived future shape our understanding of the world as it continues to change.  Right on the heels of an extensive book tour and becoming a newly minted New York Times best selling author, I spoke to Tolentino about the delicate balance of writing about topics so of the moment and how we can feel less alone. Sarah Hagi: Your book has been doing incredibly well—it sold out everywhere. What’s that been like? Jia Tolentino: I really, really, really did not expect it to be successful in this way. The book is pretty dense. Parts of it are kind of academic and it's kind of hardline anti-capitalist to some degree, right? And I just didn't expect that people would be down. Like, it's really crazy. I only ever thought about finishing the book, all I wanted was to finish the book and be happy with it. You never know how something is going to do when it comes to writing. The thing that has made me feel truly validated in a deep way is this instinct that I didn’t really want to write a book with any obvious takeaways. That’s really the reason why I’m surprised it’s doing so well: I very deliberately wanted to try writing a book that didn't propose any solutions. It feels really good to realize the desire for that is really widespread. Talking about the book so much, it's helped me realize things that are underneath it that I didn't understand while writing it. One of the things I have been trying to think about is that all of the structural forces that govern our lives with the internet, and male power, and capitalism, they want us to be isolated individuals just running as fast as we can. They make us feel like we’re alone in these anxieties that we have and that we have to solve them by putting our heads down and working harder. A cold consolation is that one of the ways in which we are actually very connected and interdependent are all these fears and subtle dreads that wade through our lives. Like, “Oh yeah, we’re all feeling this all the time.” You weave in a lot of personal experience throughout the book. Was there anything you were surprised to learn about yourself and your understanding of the world while writing this?  I do write in the first person a lot, and I have this everyday narcissism and probably a lot more of it than the average person given I’m trying to make my career around this super individualistic, self centered thing. I don't feel, on an everyday basis, particularly interested in myself. But I am interested in the way that the self is literally your only lens for your experience of the world and of systems. I think I did learn some things about myself while writing because I never learn anything except through writing, and inevitably I figured out some stuff about myself. I think I've developed this much stronger sense of my interest in the self, really, insofar as it is the only way we experience the world. It’s like this thing that walks around and can gather evidence about the things you're actually interested in.  So much of what you write about in Trick Mirror is stuff that very online people know about, but someone who isn’t online as much can understand. Was that difficult to balance out?  I mean, embarrassingly, my beat is the internet, right? But increasingly, that's the only beat, right? I started realizing that the internet, no matter what you’re writing about, is a part of it. If you’re writing about ISIS, the internet’s a part of it. If you’re writing about climate change, globalization—the internet is woven into anything, like any other overarching structure, and it’s done that so quickly. I was definitely aware that, especially in the first chapter, these are unbearable things to talk about in real life. I pretty strongly try not to talk about the internet in real life, but I felt like an essay like that is a good use of the stuff that occupies a lot of my online attention but is so fucking boring to talk about in real life. I think that, in general in my life, I’m trying to see the internet for how we underestimate its importance, and also how we overestimate it at the same time, and constantly sort of adjusting my understanding of how important something is. But yeah, that was something that I consciously wanted to do with the book. It was hard, but the things I like writing about are the things that are hard to get right tonally. You go deep with bringing in the past and present together. Do you think about how a lot of it will read five or ten years from now? Oh, no, I never think about that! Already, my first job that was so important to me and probably shaped the way I write more than anything, I can’t find half of the shit I wrote there. Coming into writing with a sense of the fact that the industry was in such a crisis, it felt like it was a total fluke I was there until recently, like it was a total accident that could go away at any second. That’s really how I felt until close to when this book came out. I’m bad about thinking about the future in any specific terms. The idea that anyone would be reading my work five or ten years from now is not something I think about or hope for. I think, subconsciously, I'm probably trying to work in such a way that this will be a book about the present that will be readable in five years, like it won't seem so obviously dated, like a lot of work that concerns zeitgeisty stuff does. I guess it has occurred to me that a lot of pop culture essay collections are pretty fucking dated in a bad way when you read them, like, four years later, but I think it's hard to calculate. The future is very opaque. How does the future seem to you? I only think of the future because I'm like, “I haven't lived a life yet so there has to be more!” I have just this unshutoffable thing about myself, I’m trying to do so much shit that it’s so much harder to turn it off than it is to keep going. I can trust that my automatic instinct will just make me do all this shit. I think that’s one way that I work and live—I try to get the underlying drives and then not think about the rest at all, and just hope that takes care of it. I think that's one way in which I've been absolved of even the question of thinking about the future. It's just because, for whatever reason, I've been formed into this person that is so attracted to work and effort in a way that I don't think is really healthy. But it's like, I could just trust that machine will just keep running, I had to find it really hard to just turn it off.  One essay that really stuck out was “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” and how not all of these scams immediately stuck out as being scams or even similar to one another. How do you define scams? They’re all pretty normalized and valued. To be a banker, or to take out a loan for college, or be a girlboss or disruptor—these are all very highly valued scams. They are genuinely presented as a way to live. Before I wrote that chapter, I read a lot of books about the history of scamming in America that never really made it in. For example, every time there was a shift in the banking structure, there was a massive uptick in scams of various sorts. And a lot of them would be like this full on counterfeit money scams, a lot would be more complicated. They would sort of give rise to these cultural corollaries. So, it became clear to me that around times of transition, it becomes really easy to do. If you boil scamming down to the basic definition, which is the abuse of trust for profit, it's like, what doesn't that seem like? Social media in general has been the abuse of trust for profit, some of it has been inadvertent. Zuckerberg didn’t know he was going out to build this fake advertising business, he thought he was just making a face book. But we have been able to successfully do the real scam of social media, which is making a personal brand, a safety net. It's like making us put our lives online in case we need it financially because we don't have any other safety nets, really.
‘The Way One Sees Oneself is Shifting Every Day’: An Interview with Natasha Stagg

The author of Sleeveless on 2010s New York, jealousy, and being out of touch. 

In her book of critical essays on artists Forty-One False Starts, Janet Malcolm writes, “There are places in New York where the city’s anarchic, accommodating spirit, its fundamental irrepressible aimlessness and heedlessness have found especially firm footholds.” Opening a copy of Natasha Stagg’s Sleeveless (Semiotext(e)) is like entering one of those footholds, be it the red glow of China Chalet at 3 a.m., a corporate warehouse party where everyone is beautiful and no one talks to each other, or a downtown coffee shop buzzing with nervous, striving energy where the person at the next table happens to be Coco Gordon Moore. Sleeveless covers the glittering void of 2010s New York, which Stagg chronicled first as a contributor for the underground art magazine DIS, then as a senior editor at fashion glossy V, and now from the aerial view of a copywriter shilling for the brands she used to cover. It’s an endless parade of free cocktails and vacuous conversations where Stagg serves as both participant and observer; a bit like Andy Warhol’s diaries if they were written by a millennial, populated by shiny happy people until an unflattering zoom reveals the rot festering inside. Stagg writes, “I love expensive things but I hate being around people who can afford them,” which may well serve as a metaphor for the entire book. Stagg’s New York is nearly fifty years past the decadent heyday chronicled in Patti Smith’s Just Kids, David Wojnarowicz’s Close to Knives and fictional texts like Slaves of New York and Bright Lights, Big City. But instead of complaining about missing out on all the good times, Stagg ventures into the fraught territory of chronicling her own era, which is still ripe with the turmoil, angst, and ennui that make New York both unbearable and the greatest place in the world. Isabel Slone: It occurred to me while reading Sleeveless that you’ve managed to capture and preserve a specific era of New York in amber, specifically the intertwined fashion and literary scenes of the 2010s. Did you set out to write a quintessential New York book? Natasha Stagg: I had been trying to write another novel—I wrote a novel a few years ago—and was pretty stuck trying to write another one for a bunch of different reasons, then realized the whole world is too bizarre to write something fictional right now. Most of this work was not done in preparation for a book, but on assignment. The intention of editing all of these stories together was to capture a moment and to kind of challenge myself to not be afraid of doing that. I think a lot of writers are afraid of sounding dated when they just write about one particular time period. I guess I was just thinking, "If I’m not writing a novel, what do I have? What am I doing? Am I going to be able to write something ever again?" Then I try to motivate myself by looking at things I wrote for some other reason. I have all these folders on my computer and looking through them, I realized there was enough for two books and all I had to do was figure out how to make them feel cohesive. I ended up just sending a big folder of work to Chris Kraus, she’s my editor, and she was like, "Basically don’t change the format here, this is just chapters." When you were going through the folders on your computer, was there a reason for selecting the pieces you chose to single out and rework for the book? I started seeing a theme of articles that were questioning personal image, personal brands and the way one sees oneself in this era, which is shifting a lot every day. Whatever I wrote ten years ago, I would probably write differently now, but it’s interesting to see what I was imagining would happen in the future back then. Most of the articles I chose weren’t about a typical celebrity. They’re about a person that is in a very precarious place in terms of their status and visibility. That added to this longer narrative I had in my mind of what is going on with the way people view themselves in this age, whatever you want to call it, and all the changes that have occurred in the past 10 years in terms of media. The precariousness you mention also applies to the way the book is narrated; it often feels as if you’re this dual character, playing the role of participant and observer at the same time. I’m curious, how did you end up working in fashion in the first place? When I moved to New York, the first job I got was at Beacon’s Closet. To me, it was the best job ever, because I met so many interesting people. It’s this unique place that attracts really interesting people like stylists, fashion journalists, drag queens and all these other kinds of performers. Before I moved to New York, I was writing a column for DIS magazine, so I met a lot of people through them, and Beacon’s Closet, and just living here. Very quickly, within a year of living here, I got the job at V magazine. I worked with Patrik Sandberg who has become a very close friend of mine over the years. After that, I took all these other writing jobs and now I work for a few different brands through a design firm and do my own freelance stuff writing press copy and articles for magazines whenever I want to. In the book, you refer to fashion as “the most insecure of any art form,” and I’d like to discuss that statement specifically in regards to fashion writing. Often I’ll see someone on Twitter asking for a recommendation for "good fashion writing," as if it’s this excruciatingly rare thing that’s impossible to find. It almost seems like people choose to actively ignore all of the good fashion writing getting published in order to preserve the idea that its difficult to be a rigorous thinker on the subject of fashion. What do you think about that?  This happened to me yesterday. I was at a talk and somebody asked for a recommendation for good fashion writing, and the panel’s response was to seek out participants in call-out culture, like Diet Prada. You know, the kind of Instagram accounts responding to culture and saying, "This is what you should know about this collection that the critics won’t tell you because they’re getting paid and I’m not." I think there is really good critical fashion writing out there and what’s stopping people from finding it is they’re looking at fashion magazines for it. Those magazines can’t afford to be critical of their advertisers. What is unique about fashion is that there’s this exclusive component. With art writing, anybody can go to a gallery opening, you don’t have to be on the list. You do have to become a networker to get exclusives on artists, it’s the same with any type of journalism, but there isn’t this exalted status of fashion journalist where you get to show up and borrow clothes and be in this inner circle. It all looks very rich and exciting and they basically become a brand ambassador when they’re invited to be a critic at the same time. There is something unique about fashion criticism: it kills itself eventually. Anybody who is looking to become a good fashion journalist is easily brought into the fold, which means they can’t be a good fashion journalist because they’re too biased. One of the main themes in the book is jealousy: romantic, professional and otherwise. You write, “Jealousy is the most poisonous emotion and admiration is always laced with it.” What drives you to explore jealousy and get cozy with that sick feeling? I experience it a lot. People lie to themselves if they say they don’t. Most of the time, if they’re participating in social media, they’re participating in an endless trap of jealousy. That’s the reason why all these apps are so addictive, probably; this sick jealousy that we all have needs to feed itself. Then it drives us to project our own actions just to make sure everyone knows that we’re not jealous or doing something people could also be jealous of. Everyone is super jealous of everybody’s lives no matter who they are. It’s the way that jealousy has shaped the media I find interesting. I’ve always been obsessed with celebrities throughout my life, but then we all discovered that you could also be obsessed with a non-celebrity, and that is the idea behind influencers. Technically everybody is an influencer and therefore everybody can be influenced. That you can actually put numbers on the level of jealousy we experience daily is so interesting to me. Imagine living 100 years ago, when there were no numbers behind any of these emotions and now its quantifiable. Well, except that it’s not. All those numbers are phony in their own way. But I think the impulse to make everything into a chart and a graph is a fascinating one. Your novel Surveys is essentially written about an influencer before the term became ubiquitous. Now people are having conversations about whether or not the influencer bubble is going to burst. Do you have a perspective on that? My instinct tells me that it will burst. In its current form, the influencer marketing strategy will become defunct in some way. Like all advertising, people get wise to a certain strategy and then they don’t trust it, so advertisers need to find a new way to capture their attention or their trust. I don’t think that will ever end. There’s no way advertisers will stop being super creative in ways to manipulate their audience into thinking someone they know or admire uses a product. At least I notice that everything getting sent to my feed is more and more appropriate. I think, "Oh that is an interesting new brand, and it’s sustainable and I can buy it right now." The algorithm that produces the content is directly doing its job. I don’t see someone’s face and think, "Because she uses it, I should use it," but it’s the same kind of shit. Somebody has found out what I look at, suggested that if I look at that, then I should look at this. It’s not that different. I’m still being fed a lifestyle that should influence me. I really liked when you wrote, "I could always sway people in a conversation by using the phrase 'out of touch.’” Who do you think is out of touch right now? Sometimes I say that about myself, you know? "Well, don’t ask me, I’m out of touch." It’s just this perfect way of getting out of something. Most of the time when I say that in meetings it’s not even accurate, I just don’t want to keep talking about a certain person. It’s so bizarre to me. Remember a few years ago, when every single fashion brand wanted A$AP Rocky to be their mascot? In hindsight, that makes so much sense. They wanted to check a lot of boxes; he was very safe in a lot of ways but also dangerous in the right ways and interested in fashion, whatever. I feel like that person for right now is Billie Eilish. Oh totally. She checks so many boxes of what a quintessential person of today should look like and behave like. Whenever this happens, I get so sick of hearing their name, it makes me feel their time is almost up. So I have to say, "I think that’s kind of out of touch," or, "I think that’s kind of over." But nobody listens to me anyways. I’m not like some bigshot in any advertising meetings ever, I’m just kind of there.
City of the Mute

To visit Drancy is to confront dark and unsettled questions of who is remembered, who is heard, who can speak, and why.

The wind blows south over Drancy. It blows south along the horseshoe of boxlike buildings, south through the dark cluster of trees they enclose. It blows south as it musses the hair and scarves of the residents of Drancy as they make their way to and from the towers in which they live, and it blows south until it strikes the strange structure that has been erected in the center of the ring: a repurposed cattle car, at the base of which is a plaque that reads, “The French Republic in hommage to the victims of racist and antisemitic persicutions and the crimes against humanity commited on the authority of the de facto ‘Government of the French State.’” [sic] Most of the Parisian friends I tell about my plans to visit Drancy have never heard of the place: hugging close to Charles de Gaulle Airport, some hour and a half outside of the centre-ville, it’s a suburb both geographically and psychically at Paris’s perimeter, out of sight and out of mind, a place where you wouldn't wind up without a very specific reason for going there. Though Paris’s subway system is so extensive that its maps resemble a plate of spaghetti, Drancy is not hooked up to it; to get to where I need to go—a modest housing development known as la Cité de la Muette—requires a commuter train journey followed by a mile of walking. Now home to low-income residents primarily from France’s former colonies in the Middle East and North Africa, the tower blocks that make up Drancy’s Cité de la Muette constitute France’s cheapest social housing, and some of its least desirable. But at its inception almost a century ago, the complex was intended to be a shining model of salubrious modern design, a haven to which Parisians tired of the cramped and crowded central city might retreat by choice, not by last resort. Between its origins as a starry architectural project and its current fate as a graying banlieu of which most city residents are scarcely aware lies one of the darkest phases of France’s history: that of its wholesale collaboration with the Nazi occupation, during which time Drancy would imprison between 67,000 and 74,000 Jews, many of whom would die either within the complex’s walls or upon their transportation to concentration camps in the east. As such, to visit Drancy is to confront dark and unsettled questions—in France and elsewhere—of who is remembered, who is heard, who can speak, and why. * En route to la Cité from the rail station, it strikes me that the urban planning of the surrounding area seems in many ways an apologia for the history it plasters over. There’s a Rue Charles Fourrier, a misspelt tribute to the eighteenth-century French thinker whose proto-socialist ideas about utopian communities would collectively be known as Fourierism (note the one r). Farther along, there’s another street named after Paul Lossing, a member of the French Resistance who was shot by the Nazis in 1943. There’s a Rue Dr. Albert Schweitzer and a Rue Nelson Mandela and a Rue Sacco et Vanzetti. Elsewhere in the district, the street names morph from homages to freedom-fighters, radicals, and humanitarians into simple prayers for social good: Rue de l’Harmonie, Rue de la Prospérité, Rue de la Liberté. Yet as I walk through the area it is impossible not to note—or perhaps, given that I am psychologically primed, to project—a certain aura of death. I see multiple funeral homes, multiple gravestone sellers with their wares parked out front like Toyota Camrys at a used car dealership. My route passes through a walled cemetery, packed with graves and deeply ugly especially in comparison with the stately central Parisian necropoles of Père Lachaise and Montmartre. Placed on several of the graves are plaques by the National Federation of Deported and Imprisoned Resistance Fighters and Patriots, in memory of the death of one of their members. It was a blistering day: I see few people about, hear few voices. There is no grass for the breeze to rustle. The name Cité de la Muette means the silent city, the city of the mute. Describing the slum he lived in during the late 1920s in Down and out in Paris and London, George Orwell recalled rooms so mite-infested that residents had resorted to burning sulfur as a bug repellant; the street itself, he wrote, was a “ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had been frozen in the act of collapse…and packed to the tiles with lodgers.” The opening of the book memorably sketches the nerve-jangling din that characterized everyday life in that place: “quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawkers, and the shouts of children chasing orange-peel over the cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse carts, made up the atmosphere of the street.” If life in the city’s most overcrowded and unhealthy districts was marked first and foremost by incessant, calm-shattering noise, the Silent City stood apart as something new, modern, clean, and above all quiet. With its generously sized lodgings, quality ventilation, and signature peaceful atmosphere, the development contrasted sharply with much of the housing stock that would have been available to most Parisians at the time. This combined with its broad central green and large-windowed apartments that let in plentiful light created a sense of utopia, a serene oasis at the edge of the city. It seemed to point a way forward, to a future in which all could afford to live in the kind of serenity that had previously been the preserve of the wealthy. The large-scale development was composed of several buildings: an exclamation-mark suite of five fifteen-storey towers accompanied by long, low buildings, and then, at the end, a final building in the shape of a U. Constructed using exposed concrete and an iron armature, the buildings were avant-garde both in style and execution. What’s more, the fifteen-story highrises were Paris’s first skyscrapers: eager tourists bought up Drancy postcards and attended guided tours of the site. In 1939, seven years after construction had begun, Drancy’s design was showcased as part of Houses and Housing: Industrial Art, an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that aimed to showcase the best of public housing around the world. At the MoMA show, Drancy was placed on par with contributions from the likes of Alvar Aalto, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier. Its designers, Eugène Beaudouin and Marcel Lods, envisioned copycat colonies springing up as more and more people were won over by the concept of the decentralized, green “garden city” approach to urbanism. That vision was never realized: on May 10, 1940, the Germans launched the invasion of France; by the beginning of June, they had begun an assault on Paris; and by June 24, the French government officially surrendered. Hitler inspected the broad Haussmannienne boulevards, walked the plaza over which arched the bowed base of the Eiffel Tower, visited Napoleon’s tomb, and left after only three hours. Arrests of Jews began that year. At this time the apartment blocks that had once been postcard fodder for eager visitors were in a sad state of half-construction. The economic difficulties of the Great Depression had put construction on ice: beginning in 1939, the as-yet-unfinished buildings were put to use by the French government to intern communists (the Communist Party having been officially outlawed that year). Following France’s surrender to the Germans, the Nazis originally converted the site into a prison camp for French and British POWs. But when the major roundups of French Jews began in Paris, Nazi officials decided to put the buildings to a different purpose. Other aspects of the location made it attractive to the Nazi administrators as well: the horseshoe-shaped block, designed to curb the flow of the wind, was easy to close off with barbed wire and the addition of a couple guard towers. Once that was done, the open central green—which the designers had once envisioned as a place of afternoon strolls and weekend relaxation—became instead a place where Jewish internees could be kept and easily monitored. Elements that had been intended as building blocks for utopian design were put to use for dystopian purposes with amazing ease and speed: the distance between the two poles, in the end, proved frighteningly small. Camp conditions quickly deteriorated—Drancy was at one point filled to ten times the buildings’ maximum capacity, and woefully inadequate nutrition combined with squalid conditions to produce rampant and deadly disease outbreaks. In a sardonic twist on the development’s earlier life as an ideal dwelling place, internees referred to the latrines (located in one building put up in the courtyard, as the apartments’ plumbing installation had never been completed) as the “chateau” (a reference, said one internee in a later interview, to the idea that wealthy prisoners had swallowed their diamonds rather than letting them be seized). In other moments, internees were forced to ape a paradise they did not know: of the five extant sets of photographs taken when the Drancy camp was in operation, four of them were staged propaganda shoots, either for French newspapers or to hoodwink the Red Cross. And in the meantime, except for these visits, the camp was sealed off; roundup after roundup of Jewish prisoners was forced to live in conditions that were increasingly squalid, and beginning in 1942, trainful after trainful were sent to the east. Those outside of Drancy said nothing at the disappearance of their neighbors; those inside it could not speak, or if they could, would not be heard. This was a silence of a different kind. * “I’m not at ease at Drancy,” says Jacques Saurel. “They hurt me, these buildings.” I’m listening to recordings of Drancy survivors at the Shoah Memorial of Drancy, a museum located just across the street from what used to be the outer walls of the camp. Marked by minimalist restraint of design, the building is easy to walk past even if you are looking for it. On its north façade, floor-to-ceiling windows turn their unblinking gaze at the site, a request for contemplation that is direct yet unspoken. The archive, library, and galleries that comprise the Shoah Memorial represents perhaps the deepest of the many attempts to commemorate the tragedy of Drancy: if the site itself is marked by a kind of silencing, its monuments constitute a visual argument of styles and opinions. The first was Shelomo Seligman’s 1976 modernist sculpture, whose title, The Gates of Hell, references Rodin’s famous work. The sculpture is composed of three parts, all rendered in pinkish stone: two bracket-like monoliths (upon which a dedicatory inscription has been carved) and a central sculpture of writhing and oddly suggestive masses. The red lettering, the rough-hewn style of the sculpture, the reach upwards—all of these are visual cues that on paper should sum to something. But in person they repel more than they provoke, producing neither an articulate statement nor a plain surface upon which to project one’s own. The train car standing not far off––which viewers approach by walking along a train track—is a more scrutable memorial, an obvious emblem of the fate that so many of Drancy’s internees eventually suffered. As well as these installations, however, there is the ever-present question of whether or not the entirety of the site should constitute a memorial to itself. In the years following the end of the war and the eventual liberation of Drancy, Paris faced a massive housing crisis. The former camp buildings that had until recently served as a temporary waystation between life and death were unceremoniously put into use as social housing. Drancy became a no-frills, no-luxury, no illusions home of last resort in which people were billetted because they had nowhere else to go. Drancy’s transformation into an undesirable housing block also mirrored a larger demographic shift in Paris’s urban geography whereby the periphery became the province of the poor—and increasingly the ethnic minority—mired in low-wage work that had left them unable to afford the skyrocketing prices of the central arrondissements. The Shoah Memorial’s archive of interviews with Drancy’s survivors reveal contradictory attitudes about what should be done with the site. Henri Gotainer, who was taken to Drancy in 1942 at the age of 11, said he had been back only once, for the inauguration of the train car memorial, though he has visited Auschwitz (where he was never interned) several times. For Gotainer, the need for people and place to move on is not only natural but essential to survival: “If I lived permanently in these memories,” he said, “It would be intolerable.” For others, however, the question is more complicated. Jacques Saurel, who was taken from Drancy to Bergen-Belsen, describes “coming out of [his] muteness” about the war after reading that a memorial for those who died at Bergen-Belsen would be erected at Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Shortly thereafter, he says, something took hold of him: he got in his car and drove to Drancy. “It was history that accompanied me,” he said of the journey, which he had never thought of making before. But though Saurel has since returned, the place remains indelibly associated with the pain and suffering he witnessed there. Sometimes, Saurel says towards the end of his interview, he thinks it would be better after all to turn the whole place into a museum: “It’s a question I haven’t found the answer to.” Saurel’s uncertainty and discomfort point to one of the central tensions of Drancy: that even if one accepts that life must go on in places of tragedy, the degree to which normal life is contingent upon a certain degree of forgetting makes it seem somehow deeply wrong. Today, the majority of Drancy’s residents are Muslim immigrants from former French colonies in the Middle East and Africa. The fact that many of these low-income residents lack the means to move elsewhere renders the question of whether or not they would prefer to live in a place with a less gruesome past something of a moot point. This particular lack of freedom points to the ways in which those who are marginalized today are forced to live with the ghosts of history, the places haunted by deaths at the hands of people whose ancestors now quietly choose to look away. Given Drancy’s current demographic makeup, the question of memorialization becomes a fraught one: razing the entire site or converting to whole area into an open-air museum would render homeless residents who had no part in the historic wrongs committed there. As Katherine Fleming writes in “What Remains? Sites of Deportation in Contemporary European Daily Life: The Case of Drancy,” Drancy plays host to some of the most difficult problems in modern French public discourse, including “questions relating to the memory of the Holocaust in contemporary France, on the one hand, and the place of (largely Muslim) immigrants, on the other. In many ways, these debates are two different historical instantiations of the same ‘problem,’ the ‘problem’ of the outsider. In Drancy, they collide.” These residents, too, have been silenced. This is the defining characteristic of Drancy, its ability to swallow all sound like freshly fallen snow. * Of Drancy’s many silences, perhaps the most pointed one is that of the question of French complicity. A Parisian Jewish friend of mine once posed the following question to me: how many Jews did the Germans deport from France? The answer: none—because the French were so willing to lend a helping hand and do it themselves. One of the reasons Alain Resnais’s seminal Holocaust documentary Night and Fog was banned in its director’s native country until almost a decade after it was made is that one of the shots of deportation trains being loaded with people shows a French gendarme on the station platform, overseeing what was effectively the administration of a mass death sentence. This was the rule for Drancy as well: though the site was planned by Nazi overseers, the entire camp was largely run—and its prisoners supplied—by French police and government bureaucrats who proved more than willing to collaborate. French officers conducted the round-ups; French officers stripped Jews of their possessions upon arrival; French officers profiteered from Drancy’s black market. But the 1976 tear-down of all but the Cité’s U-complex marked the irreparable destruction of physical evidence of the French guards who had been billetted in the adjoining tower blocks. The fight over the acknowledgment of French culpability cannot be understood without a full acknowledgment of France’s antisemitism, which is not a confined historical phenomenon but a living strain of thought that continues to draw blood in the present. It was not until 1995 that the French government (then headed by Jacques Chirac) admitted to culpability in the Holocaust, but more recent statements by politicians on the far right—most notably Marine Le Pen during her unsuccessful presidential bid in 2017—have rejected the idea that France was in any way to blame for the deaths of over 70,000 of its Jews. Such hand-washing statements come against a backdrop of increasing antisemitic violence across the country. In March of 2018, two assailants broke into Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll’s Paris apartment, stabbed her to death, and then set her body on fire, allegedly under the assumption that because she was Jewish she would have money to steal. Knoll’s funeral attracted thousands of mourner-protesters. Hers is only the latest in a string of murders motivated by antisemitism that have collectively contributed to what the president of the European Jewish Council has described as an “increasing sense of emergency.” As a site of confrontation with France’s collaborationist past, Drancy is not unique: many major French urban areas were affixed with “silent cities” of their own, internment and transportation camps created on their outskirts of which even locals today are largely ignorant. Near Toulouse, there is Saint-Sulpice-La-Point and Recebedou; near Pau, there is Gurs; near Aix-en-Provence, there is the Camp des Milles. But none of these are comparable to Drancy when it comes to the fact that at the latter the living of the present occupy the exact same space as the murdered of the past and lead lives whose normalcy depends, at least in part, upon the mental shelving of this fact. Drancy was not a purpose-built containment site for evil; it was a normal place in which horrific things occurred. This too is not unique: the most infamous of France’s wartime roundups took place at a bicycle track. Transport to camps was often undertaken using requisitioned public buses. There is no kind of space that cannot play host to the crimes of history, just as there is no human heart in which evil will not roost. Perhaps what is most disturbing about visiting the Cité de la Muette is the disjuncture between my knowledge of what happened there and how little of this I would be able to glean on my own had I stumbled upon this place ignorant of what it was. People commonly speak of “energies” or “auras” exuded by certain places, of a permanent eeriness or chill left by the ghastly events of the past, but in truth as I circumambulated the courtyard I could feel nothing of this kind. Views of the indoor entryways often revealed peeling paint or dirty stairwells, but the exterior walk was swept clean, the doors painted a cheery pink. There is a center for the elderly; there is a maternal health clinic; there is a wooded park, though no one is there. It is comforting to think of places of great evil as perceptibly, palpably marked out; the truth, that time is capable of rendering invisible even the most horrible of crimes to the naked eye, is far more frightening. Drancy is not, candidly, a beautiful place, but nor is it scarred by the kind of ugliness that its moral history would merit. Had I come to this place not knowing what it was—and were it not for the memorials there to teach me—I might even have found the place pleasant.
‘Doubt Can Be a Formidable Ally’: An Interview with Josephine Rowe

The author of Here Until August on the cruelty of language, fiction as a form of introspection, and writing as an act against ventriloquism.

Josephine Rowe’s latest short story collection Here Until August (Catapult) is full of people leaving, returning, and biding their time. Seven years in the making, many of these stories take place all over the world: from Australia to the Catskills to Newfoundland. There’s an interiority in the work; of secret passageways, bated breath, family history and inside jokes reserved for old friends. As a poet, Rowe demonstrates a dislike of wastage in her work: every word counts. Her debut novel—A Loving, Faithful Animal—is just under 200 pages, and explores intergenerational trauma through a group of siblings growing up in 1990s southeast Australia. Josephine and I spoke while she was on assignment in Western Australia as a journalist, before returning to Melbourne for the launch of Here Until August.  Nathania Gilson: As I read the stories from Here Until August, I was struck by the Australian-isms that sung out on some of the pages: “runners,” “pissing contest,” “reffos,” “bogans,” “hauled arse,” “lark." What is it about this kind of colloquial syntax that deserves its place in a story (even at the risk of losing or confusing readers outside of Australia)?  Josephine Rowe: I’ve never really understood that a writer might run the risk of alienating or losing readers—especially those who’ve elected to read a book by a foreign writer—by using an unfamiliar word.  Reading—however you’re coming to it—is a willful act of discovery. Of engaging. So, I’m not sure who that reader is, but I hope never to be stuck in a lift with them. It would be a dreary wait. That said, colloquialisms probably tell us something more pointed about people than standard language. For instance, the word “reffos” makes me cringe. In the story, it’s treated as a harmful and dehumanizing word—which it is. It trivializes the experience of dispossession; of unfathomable loss (of country, and more) while seeking to shrug off our national responsibility to extend asylum to those in need of it. Not everyone who uses that word—children, for example, as is the case in the story—does so in full consciousness of its cruelty. But what does it say about Australia as a country for that word to be so prevalent in the lexicon? So many of the characters in this new collection of stories are so attentive to language: they hear words as though they’ve “been kept in the wrappers they came in.” They compile mental lists of words that sound differently when spoken than they do  written down—“vital and gleaming.” In your own life, do you have any language-based rituals or systems that you use to collect words, sounds, sentences, or turns of phrase that catch your attention? How do you make the most of noticing things?  How to make the most of noticing things—this might be the perfect mission statement for much writing, and much of art. I just write things down on whatever’s to hand—notebook, envelope, wrist—then often forget about them just as quickly. But your question makes me suspect I’m being left out of some terrific methodology of cataloguing.  Certain things I’ve probably internalized without consciously recording. The speech patterns and idioms of friends, or the various ways that English breaks when spoken as a supplementary language. I remember studying your work at uni, and being shown evidence that published short stories need only be one sentence long, that more words didn’t necessarily mean better (or more interesting) narratives—especially from your early short stories and Tarcutta Wake. These stories were published not long after the introduction of Twitter, which was envisioned at the time as “like texting, but not.” I wonder what you set out to achieve—or rebel against?—at a time when short stories (or flash- or micro-fiction) may not necessarily have been in vogue, seen as profitable, or a thing to "aspire" to, as a writer?  Writing those earlier collections, social media wasn’t remotely on my mind (I was a latecomer to social media; also, the term “flash-fiction” always seemed like weird, time-poor branding to me).  I wasn’t rebelling, either, even though I was told often enough that I was doing something unpopular or unsaleable. But it was only ever publishers who told me that—“five-finger exercises,” one man dismissed them as. I was just writing in the mode that I felt fueled to write in, and that I’ve always loved to read in. We don’t have to reach very far for galvanizing examples of writers who are exceptional—and often at their best—in shorter forms: Yasunari Kawabata, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ali Smith, Lucia Berlin, Sandra Cisneros, Michael Ondaatje (in his early novels). Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Carver, Eliot Weinberger, Janet Frame—pretty much any fiction writer who is also a poet, as they are more likely have the patience and the reverence for distillation.  The stories in August being generally longer (if not necessarily better or more interesting!) might have something to do with them being further from autobiography (which I’ve delved into elsewhere) but also simply the luxury of time. I say “luxury” to mean something closer to a self-imposed effort towards patience. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older, or several years further into things. Thinking on it, perhaps there was a particular urgency early on—that the twenty-something-year-old writing those stories didn’t believe she’d make it to thirty. Post-thirty (and then some), I’ve at least a slightly longer view: I quite like the process of a story accruing over many months, or years. I think in many ways I’m working from the same instincts, with the same sensibilities—definitely from the same methodological disarray, and occasionally from the same sense of urgency—as I was with those shorter stories. But if we were to break it down to say, the attention that's gone into a sentence, then there’s probably no difference between my approach to a long story or short: the sentence would be holding the same amount of time (and ghost versions of itself). Several books into your writing career now, how do you motivate yourself to keep writing? I was speaking recently with my oldest friend, a cellist, about how much can be meaningfully addressed (not just expressed) through our respective artforms.  Whether there might still be time to become qualified in something more practicably beneficial to the environment or to others. Or, are these vocations that we both came to honestly, worked shitty jobs to support, with no real expectation of ever making a living by them (even a modest, no-car-no-kids living) what we are beholden to push forward with? To find a way of ensuring they’re relevant, in the service of the right things.  (For the record, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a perennial crisis about this, so long as you keep moving.) What keeps me writing is some blend of that innate compulsion, not quite articulable, and the desire to hitch it to something definitive. And—shorter, straighter—I write because it’s the best means I have of figuring things out. In the final short story at the end of Here Until August, a couple drives past a frozen pond. They want to walk out onto the ice just to see if it’ll hold their weight. Of the trust required to believe the ice will hold their weight, they remark, out of superstition: “It is magic in the sense that there is no metaphor you can build out of it that will not undermine its magic.” There’s a sense of being dumbfounded by nature there, I think. Wanting to be impressed by the force of it, but not necessarily getting wrapped up in how things might actually come into being. Earlier this year, you wrote a weather report on global warming for The Believer.  In the piece, you name the environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht who coined the term “solastalgia” which was widely adopted as a watchword to describe existential crises brought about by environmental crises. I’m wondering how you grapple with writing about home, homesickness, and a sense of place in the age of climate change and the looming realities that impact our physical sense of where we come from? While the stories in Here Until August do have human lives as their fulcrum, the non-human world—animal and elemental—is very present. And the characters in each story, even if they’re somewhat bulwarked by city life, are moved by these forces whether they’re conscious of it or not. But these stories were collected over seven years. And seven years ago, like most of the attention-paying world, I was less afraid (at least in regards to the climate).  So much has happened, or come to light, in the intervening years that locates us in the tipping point, not simply bracing for it. In The Believer essay I mention last summer’s news cycle—within the same report there’d be fires, floods, the mass death of fish in one of our most significant river systems. New colors appearing on the temperature map as record highs were consistently broken. If the stories here are reflective of the concerns I have about those looming realities, then great. But I don’t think they speak as loudly to them as I presume my next book will. At present, I’m probably more likely to confront these things directly in essay and non-fiction. Which is not to say that they shouldn’t be a focal point in fictional narratives; absolutely, they should. Only that sometimes overtly assigning a character one’s own agenda can feel like a flimsy act of ventriloquism. After a point, the story resists. In non-fiction, that isn’t a problem. I don’t have to worry about whether it would be believable of X to think deeply and at considerable length about Y.  So much of your work reveals the thrill of being understood—and the devastation of being misunderstood. I’m thinking of in “Real Life,” the Yukon Jack girls, whose neighbours can never tell if they’re fucking or fighting. When the narrator in “Repairs” removes the “s” arm off her typewriter so she can’t spell her ex’s name. Instead, she types: “Bezt. Regardz. Cheerz. Xincerely. Thanx.” Short stories often come with intentional gaps or unfinished business—how does the form help you resolve or contain things that don’t necessarily work themselves out as you’d like to in real life?  It does help, but it might take a lifetime to get to the why. Maybe writing neither resolves nor contains these things, but rather opens to air, or helps to metabolize. My own clearest example of this were the realizations I came to in writing A Loving, Faithful Animal, my first novel, and a quintessential first novel in many regards (very close to the bone). But also, this is not the only reason I write. Are there narrative forms beyond the short story and novel that you have experimented with and found a new voice in, or that you’re interested in exploring? I’m not sure about a new voice—for better or worse I think I’m fixed to this one, at least authorially—though I do hope characters’ voices are distinct from this.  But I do write in other forms—and perhaps feel most myself in fragmentary, genre-eliding works. But where to house these? So, they don’t often make it as far in finding an audience, and that’s okay. Once something’s published it’s essentially set, and there’s something comforting about the prospect of works that might stay malleable and in-progress for an indefinite period of time, something you may never have to call finished. (And also, I should say that I appreciate very much the outward attention that an essay or profile requires, if we might include these as narrative forms. Being brought out, blinking, from the grainy introspection of fiction. I find it’s necessary.) What advice would you have for young writers who doubt themselves and the stories they want to tell?  Firstly, that doubt can be a formidable ally, indicative of many favorable and necessary attributes; that you take your work and the story you’re trying to tell seriously. Probably that you have a moral compass, believe in accountability, etc. Of course, doubt can be entirely inhibiting, so we have little choice but to make a friend of it.  I say this with the caveat that some doubt is well-founded, so we’re continually tasked with determining whether we hesitate because we are ill-equipped, or because we are simply afraid, and undervalue our voices. A friend sent me a Georgia O’Keefe quote a couple of weeks ago: “I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” I can’t claim the same, exactly (of never allowing fear to scupper my ambition or desire) but it’s a good stone to have in your pocket, remembering that the most courageous and dedicated people we know and admire are generally also scared witless, in one way or another.
‘I Like Writing Stories That Get Carried Away’: An Interview with Michael DeForge

Talking to the author and artist of Leaving Richard’s Valley and Stunt about addressing working conditions in comics, benevolent cults, and the pleasure of soliloquies.

Leaving Richard's Valley, the graphic novel by Michael DeForge published earlier this year by Drawn & Quarterly, begins with half the cast fleeing paradise, banished from their anti-technology cult for importing forbidden "toxins." They're all talking animals, heart-shaped raccoons and pasta-legged spiders, as if the fauna got thrown out of Eden rather than the humans. DeForge follows them from that Toronto park to DIY venues and alternative schools, affectionately satirizing the city's history of experimental living. Anxiety prevails: Lyle the raccoon spends much of his time sickly and weeping, while buff frog Caroline tries manipulating her way into the human guru's heart. ("I love Richard so much, sometimes I want to hug him until his head explodes. I want to kiss his arms until they become skeleton arms.") Even Richard himself proves to be less of a cult leader than a lost, forlorn mystic. DeForge originally serialized Leaving Richard's Valley on Instagram, with an episodic structure of four-panel scenes—a contrast from his new book Stunt, which scales the heights of theatrical obsession. It matches the pace of a place devoured by capitalism, one where property receives care denied to mere tenants. Midway through the book, one exile asks: "Do you ever get this feeling that living in a city is kind of like being at a party that's gone on too long, and all the cool people left way earlier in the night and the only ones still sticking around are just a bunch of desperate losers?" Chris Randle: One of the things I loved about this book is the way you braid together all these strands of Toronto subculture, from '70s experiments like Rochdale College up to the precarious spaces where people try to throw noise concerts or whatever now. I mean, there's a Cineforum joke in it, that's a pretty deep cut. How did you begin synthesizing that history? Michael DeForge: I didn't want to pretend that I could do a very comprehensive history, but Rochdale was certainly something I wanted to at least evoke. I tried to map out a lot of my own experiences in Toronto, that are specific to art spaces or DIY spaces here, which is why they were a little more prominent in the present-day storyline. Rochdale is sort of alluded to as something from the past. A lot of the time I did feel like I was writing it for other Torontonians, and I wanted them to be able to recognize their city in it. I hope it's accessible enough that anyone can read it, but I did hope that people from Toronto would recognize it. I feel like Toronto is also unusual—in a place like New York, most of these stories have been told many times across decades, '70s New York has been mythologized to an absurd degree. Some people enjoy careers from being around back then. Whereas Toronto really was a colonial backwater for so long. Wyndham Lewis called it a "sanctimonious icebox" when he was living here in the 1940s, that conservatism and cursed Methodist repression. Here it feels like more of a rupture from what came before. Did you do a lot of research, or was it sort of stuff you already knew about? I didn't do much research, just because that's not the type of writer I generally am. There are parts of the city's history that I've sought out because it's something I'm interested in, but I didn't do research specifically for this book. Things like Rochdale, or things like Therafields, or histories of certain neighborhoods are just something I'm naturally interested in, but I wouldn't want to pretend to be a historian or do a very good job of that, which is why a certain amount of the book is made-up stuff ... I'm interested in the history of the city, the history of different communes here or different art spaces, and specific to this book, certain cults. I thought it was interesting that you go into Richard's history as well. There's this ambivalence about him—I love that early shot of him mantled in shadow, striking a commanding pose, while he also has a tiny frog on his shoulder. He kind of wavers between creepy and laughable. Did you have a particular cult leader in mind, or...? I didn't want to model him after anyone in particular, but the types of cults I've always been interested in tend not to be the ones run by people who are just bad-faith actors from the beginning. Outright con artists, or sociopaths, or whatever. I've always been interested in ones that maybe start out well-meaning, and it brings out some aspect of a leader's personality, or there's something inherently flawed or toxic about the power structure. I remember reading, because he died recently—it was this obituary of Lyndon LaRouche in Jacobin. I didn't know that he had been a goofy but broadly conventional leftist-intellectual wannabe in the 1950s, and only later on started claiming things like the Beatles being a psy-ops plot created by the royal family. In general I like writing stories that get carried away, and in Valley I wanted that to be Richard's arc, that things maybe just got away from him and he sort of becomes aware of it at some point, like, "Oh, I started a cult." Did you ever see The Master? Oh yeah, I love that movie. One of the things I love about that movie is how the central relationship feels so unstable, their co-dependency. There's a father/son dynamic, but also audience/performer, and at the end, this gesture towards being thwarted lovers. I think the characters here were similarly complicated. Yeah. The Source Family was another one that I thought of, they operated in California. As far as cults go, they were... fairly benevolent? I don't know if that's the right word, but their leader didn't necessarily set out to deceive anyone. And they mostly funded themselves off of money they made from one of the earliest vegetarian restaurants, one of the first health food restaurants in the U.S. And they made a lot of music together, Sky Saxon [of the Seeds] was one of the more famous members. They've reissued a bunch of those records. The park that the valley of the title sits inside, is that a specific location? I wanted it to take place in High Park, but it's not important that it takes place there. Do you think running has changed the way that you see the cityscape? I was thinking of that thing you did on Instagram, when you got locked out while training, that really funny series of stories responding to events around you. Only in that I see more of it than I would if I were just using transit or just walking, because running for so long, you end up in new nooks and crannies out of sheer boredom, you want to change up the route... I thought the idea of a group living in a park was funny, and I liked the joke of the early strips being them secluded in nature and then realizing if you just walk 300 feet there's, like, a traffic jam or something. I really liked the set design of those scenes, the cobwebs and rocks lying around. Do you feel like working on prop design for Adventure Time influenced that? I don't know about that, but part of the premise of the characters going through a city was it having a road-trip feel at different points, seasons changing, that I could switch up the settings a lot. Knowing I'd be working on the strip every day, I wanted to be flexible enough that I wouldn't get bored, and if I did have it take place entirely in the park or entirely on one sidewalk or whatever, I would get bored just drawing bricks all the time, drawing leaves all the time. I feel like so many of my design choices in comics are just ways of tricking myself into staying interested, because it's so boring to draw the same characters with the same setting over and over again. I think a lot of my favorite writers or artists don't really care about plot. I mean, I respect people who are good at that, but—I remember you said once that Gilbert Hernandez was your favourite living cartoonist? Yep. I feel the same way, and one reason for that is that he has these obsessions, some of which are... easy to spot, and he just goes ham on them, but not in a repetitive way. Elaborating on them over and over. Yeah, especially where he's taken his genre work lately, where each one feels like he's expanding on—the way he keeps expanding on his world is so inspiring to read. I've noticed there's one technique you return to often, sort of direct address, when characters are speaking directly to the camera, as it were. And in this book there's the musical interlude, which might be a new variation, the Sondheim-style emotional plea. Why do you think you keep going back to that? Some of that was just switching up—doing a daily strip, I think I would've had a hard time if it was just back-and-forth dialogue, or if it was only narration, so being able to switch it up was interesting to me. But I think in general I like having characters that deliver a lot of soliloquies. I just think that's a funny comic-book thing, like, walking along and delivering some big speech. I always found that funny. There's a joke with Richard's Valley where I wanted each character to be secretly a musical-theatre nerd, which is also why I have them sing all the time, I wanted that to be a part of it that never actually got addressed. There's a scene in Richard's Valley where this male model speaks out in defense of labour rights and the evil of unpaid internships. How do you feel about the state of labour organizing in comics specifically? Speaking about working conditions in comics can be a little frustrating, because we spent so long making sure comics could be accepted, or a reputable art form, and we've gotten there. A lot of people could identify Robert Crumb or Rocket Raccoon on sight, we're on magazine covers and art galleries, whatever. But that hasn't improved the working conditions of comics that much, and there's clearly money to be made in comics, because if there wasn't there wouldn't be film studios or the world of illustration or animation all pilfering from us. It's just rarely cartoonists making that money. So it can be very frustrating, because we still end up getting sidetracked by these conversations about respectability when I don't think that's the conversation. And I'm speaking as someone who's lucky, I get to make a living off of my art. My publishers have given me a pretty fair shake, they've always looked out for me, which is not the case with most people and their experience with publishers, either on the mainstream or alternative side of comics... It's a weird thing where comics are big, comics are everywhere, why is it so impossible to make a living as a cartoonist? There's a disconnect, and I feel like fixing that should be the problem, not just boosting the visibility of comics or whatever. I haven't lived in Toronto for several years now, but whenever people post apartment listings online, when friends are looking for a place, it just seems nightmarish. Yeah, I've said this when talking about this book before, my relationship with Toronto. And I don't think I would—if I moved here now at the age when I first did, I wouldn't be able to live here. I probably wouldn't even have considered it, and I wouldn't have been able to make the connections that I made and build the peer group that I built, because so much of that was because I was able to do a lot of low-stakes experiments with friends. And I don't think there's space to do that here, and it really freaks me out—I don't know if it's too late or not, but that's a death knell for an arts scene, when there's so much pressure to turn a profit off of your work. That's how you end up with an arts scene like New York's, where nothing can blossom except under extreme duress. I don't want that for Toronto, or for any city. It's not related to Richard's Valley in particular, but I know we both adore Derek Jarman's films, and I've never seen anyone ask you about him in interviews. What is it that you love about his work? The thing that first attracted me to his work was his set design, because I watched [Ken Russell's] The Devils before I'd watched any of the movies Jarman directed. And I really liked how intricate it was, but also how slapdash, and reading about the process behind those sets was especially fascinating. It was all just, like, leftover brick material, and I found that really inspiring. That carried over to my interest in his movies, and I like that they're so humane and thoughtful and funny and devastating. I love how funny he is, I think he's kind of underrated as a comic director. Wittgenstein has shots that are almost like sight gags. Yeah, all of his movies have those sorts of tableaux, like, gags. I don't go very deep with movies generally, but I've always loved Jarman's. You are someone who plays the card game Magic: The Gathering [laughs] ... If you've been drawing for eight hours, do you find that it's a good way to, I don't know, relax? Or is running better for that? Running's better. I get kind of worked up with Magic. I've realized that I really enjoy forms of gambling, and Magic is the least damaging way I can indulge that [laughter]. The one and only time I went to Vegas, I fell asleep at a slot machine. Somebody had to pull me away. So, I couldn't say that Magic is a cheap hobby, but it's like one of the least harmful ways I can indulge that. I feel like I have a similarly compulsive personality in that way, and yeah, nobody's going to break your legs over Magic. I had to put certain limits around how seriously I could take it and how much I would play, because in general, yeah, when I get into something I tend to get pretty obsessive about it, whether it's running or butter tarts or whatever, I have a hard time doing anything halfway, that's just the type of personality I have. I have a hard time picking up a casual hobby. So I had to put limits around Magic, like, I can't play more than X number of hours per day, I should never spend more than X amount of dollars on it, all these things, because it's such a time suck. Can you tell me about Stunt? It's one of the last comics Koyama Press will ever publish, right? It's the last one that I'll be working on with Anne [Koyama], I think this fall lineup is—she'll still be operating as a publisher for another year or two after, but this will be her final lineup of releases, I think. [Stunt] is a short one. I had a lot of trouble with it. It's about a stunt double who gets hired to impersonate this actor in his real life, and he starts asking him to do increasingly self-destructive acts on his behalf, sabotaging his career and personal life. It's 72 pages, a small book, and a lot of it ends up being about trying to write about suicidal ideation. It's a pretty personal book because of that, and I actually considered not publishing it—I serialized a version of it on my Patreon, and I changed a lot since then. Even though I'm writing about personal experiences, I almost considered keeping this one unpublished, but I don't know, someone talked me into it [laughter]. This was one that I agonized over a lot, more than others, and like many of my comics I'm sure someone might read it and not assume how personal it is, but for me it is, so I feel some amount of embarrassment. But I'm sure it'll be fine once it's out there. I feel like the former cult members in Richard's Valley are dealing with traumatic experiences, but they're all these cute animal characters, which displaces it a little, and they don't recognize what happened. They're making deadpan jokes, like: "My mom is Richard's wife now!" It sounds like Stunt goes into that more overtly. I do still hope it's funny [laughs]. I have all these hangups about it and all these anxieties about it, but I also recognize that, for most readers, it's just going to be another one of my comics, and probably reads the same. My usual bullshit [laughter]. Is there anything else coming out that you're excited about?I'm working on a graphic novel that will hopefully be done this year, it's a science fiction one. I guess I've done a few science-fiction short stories, but I don't even know how to explain this book [laughs]. I'm excited to be halfway through it. Is it like Samuel Delany science fiction or space-opera science fiction?It's more Delany than space opera. I don't know if I have a space opera in me. You know that he wrote a couple of Wonder Woman comics back in the day, right? Those were a little disappointing. I spent a long time hunting them down at some comics convention years ago, and I don't remember them being cheap either—I had high hopes for them, and they were a little disappointing, because I do like Delany a lot.You're expecting a Wonder Woman character to cycle through three different sexual orientations in this story, or the villain will be a fascist supercomputer, and then it's just, like... a pretty good Wonder Woman comic. Yeah, I was expecting at least a spectacular failure, but they ended up reading just like something he did for extra cash. Is there anything you can say about Koyama Press in general? Only that I've just been so grateful for her. And she's such a dear friend I'm sad that I won't be able to work with her professionally anymore, but as a friend I'm happy that she gets a vacation. I don't know anyone who works harder than her, so the idea of her being able to have more time for herself makes me really happy. It's bittersweet to see that Koyama Press won't be publishing anymore, but I love her so much. I've spoken a lot about how big a risk it was that she printed me to begin with. And just the fact that she's alive is kind of miraculous, from what I understand [Anne Koyama had received what was thought to be a terminal medical diagnosis before going into comics publishing]. Oh yeah, I mean, her story is so inspiring. But even taking chances on new artists isn't something that a lot of publishers do, and I think that doesn't get spoken about enough. Now there's an expectation, I think in every arts scene but certainly in comics, where you build an audience yourself, and then a publisher picks you up and gives you distribution or publicity or whatever. But that's not the case with Anne, she still has that old—like when Drawn & Quarterly first published [Seth's] Palookaville, working with someone who's raw and an unknown quantity. There aren't many publishers that still work that way, that's just not the model anymore, for a bunch of different reasons. So to have someone in your corner who's an actual advocate was so huge. Not every artist can build an audience for themselves. Or they're encouraged to do it by making, like, fan art.  Yeah. Not everyone is making work that's easily marketable, not everyone is good at being a cheerleader for themselves. People talk about how the internet has democratized art, and it's like, well, yes and no. Because not everyone can do that, and to have someone who can advocate for you, contextualize your work, that's the real value of a publisher, an editor, a curator, rather than just being a gatekeeper. That's what Anne did for me, and I'm just so grateful for it.
‘Identity is So Inconsistent’: An Interview with Jenny Heijun Wills

The author of Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. on which adoption narratives get to be good, surveillance, and memoir as reclamation. 

The reunion tale is a familiar feel-good adoption story—a satisfying quest narrative in which an adoptee overcomes all the odds and, in the end, triumphs in finding the truth. But for adoptees and their families, both adopted and birth, the story doesn’t actually end there. A new crop of adoptee writers is exploring what happens after the reunion and challenging the assumption that truth is something that can ever be fully known. Jenny Heijun Wills was born in Seoul, South Korea. She was adopted by a white family, whereupon she was issued a temporary passport, sent on a flight to Canada as an infant and raised in Southern Ontario, with another name. As an adult, Wills navigated the post-adoption system, found her Korean kin and discovered her name at birth, Heijun. Her memoir, Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related (McClelland & Stewart) tells the extraordinary story of her return to Korea to meet and try to forge a relationship with her Korean family, and how she painstakingly pieces together a sense of identity and connection to her ancestral past from what was lost and found.  Yet the path to reclamation and understanding is fraught. It’s a different culture, she doesn’t speak the language and she, and her entire family, must face their own traumas as a result of the separation. In lyrical prose that’s both candid and compelling, Wills delves deeply into the often-heartbreaking complexities of transracial adoption and her lived experience of its long-lasting impact.  I know full well the impact of family separation and intergenerational trauma as a post-reunion adoptee myself, and as such this interview is a sharing of common ground and mutual understanding. At times during our chat I could feel us both nodding in agreement over the phone line. At the same time, I’m a transcultural adoptee who grew up looking passably similar to my adopted family, and I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Wills’s experience as a transracial adoptee. Recently, Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related was named to the 2019 shortlist for The Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction. Wills works as an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg. Suzanne Alyssa Andrew: As an adoptee myself, I know it can be difficult for adoptees to talk about their experiences. What did it take for you to come to the writing of this book, and what was the process like for you? Jenny Heijun Wills: All of my scholarly writing has been in the field of race, and more specifically Asian adoption literatures or transracial adoption literatures. It was the guidance of those amazing books that started me down this pathway, including memoirs like Jane Jeong Trenka’s The Language of Blood and novels like Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life and Larissa Lai’s When Fox is a Thousand. When I began writing this book I was on sabbatical in Palo Alto, California and it was the first time since my reunion with my Korean birth/first family that I had some time off. It was having that time to sit with some of my experiences that motivated me to write. When you began to write, did you find you had a momentum with it? Yes, I couldn’t help myself. People ask me, “Was there catharsis, or a therapeutic process?” I didn’t feel it was therapeutic as I was writing, but it does allow me some sense of emotional relief when I read my story now. When you were in Toronto in early September you had an opportunity to teach a writing workshop to a group of adult adoptees. How did that go? It was inspiring, because the beauty, as you know, of being in conversation with other adopted people is that for the most part you can take for granted that they understand the core of where you’re coming from. You don’t have to start from the beginning and articulate adoption always comes from a starting point of grief, a trauma, a pain—that it doesn’t start off as something that’s celebratory, even if for some people it becomes that. It was really nice to have an opportunity to talk about writing, genre and themes of anger and expression. It feels like more adoptees are writing about their experiences and I think that’s helpful. What was your goal with the workshop?   For the Koffler Centre that hosted my launch in Toronto, part of the series of events was providing a writing workshop and when they told me they’d reached out to adult adoptees I was very touched they had thought of that. It’s really unique for an organization to have that sensitivity. One of the great outcomes of the workshop is confirmation that people already are writing, maybe not with the ambition of publishing, but they are working on these creative expressions of their experiences, which is so exciting to me. One of the things we talked about is the difficulty for adoptee writers to fit within genres of memoir or creative non-fiction or life writing because of the expectation of truth telling that comes with those forms, and as you know, the idea of truth is so abstract, amorphous and even pernicious to people like us. We talked about how adoptees can be part of a movement that’s challenging expectations of genre; and how we can accept writers who are telling their version of the truth at that particular moment because truth is temporal for some adoptees. How, as readers and audiences, might we be willing to let go of some of those demands for a concrete version of truth? I find that fascinating, because for so many of us, certain details are just not available.   Yes, not available, or they change what the story is midway into your life, so all of a sudden, you’re born on a different day and in a different place, with a different name. Identity is proven to be so potentially inconsistent. One of the details I find especially poignant in your book, because I share this experience, is finding ways to discover, reclaim your birth name and pronounce it.   That’s a big thing. Names are so meaningful to us but we also know they’re insignificant. It’s such a paradox. My birth name, Heijun, makes me both happy and sad because I think it’s a beautiful name but it makes me sad because in Korean culture often siblings will share the first syllable of their names. Korean names are typically two syllables long and siblings will have the same first syllable. I don’t share a first syllable with any of my siblings. It’s a reminder I was never meant to be fully part of that family.  You write when you moved to Toronto to study you were learning to be a woman of colour. When you were growing up with your adopted parents did you feel a sense of pressure to try to be like them?  I felt a self-imposed anxiety over being physically different from everyone in my world, not just my parents and my sister. Somehow, I felt it wasn’t a comfortable topic of conversation either. My parents adopted me in the assimilation era of transnational and transracial adoption where it was considered good adoptive parenting to try to erase racial and ethnic differences. Yet I always felt drawn to my own Korean-Canadian community, if I can claim to be part of it, or Asian Canadians. The struggle was when I arrived in Toronto it became apparent having not been raised in a Korean-Canadian family also meant I would never fully be included within that community either. They’d always speak Korean and I don’t speak Korean. It’s another reminder of being in between these cultures.  I was amazed by the way you travelled to South Korea and learned about your culture and worked to learn the language and immerse yourself in it. I tried to. If you asked my Korean family they would say that I have not made any progress at all. I haven’t. I’m very unskilled in Korean language. That’s such a challenge. When I visit my Ukrainian-Canadian family I look exactly like them, but I don’t have the culture. It’s a really odd position to be in to look like people but, it’s like you were saying, I don’t have the skills. It’s this discomfort of wanting something so badly and loving people so hard, but not fully understanding how, or why, beyond the obvious. That’s one of the things I try to work through in the book. There are things that we do in the name of loving people whom we actually don’t know beyond genetically. There’s so much pressure—on that love, on that language and to understand that culture—it’s almost like we find ourselves in these positions where we’re always made to feel a complicated relationship to them. Whether it’s because we’re overperforming or underperforming any of these things, it’s never just right. There are all these challenges built in, like you having to talk to your Korean family through a translator. I had to talk with some of my elder Ukrainian relatives through translation and it’s awkward. Absolutely. It’s wanting to have these intimate conversations before people die—conversations that are sometimes about things people are ashamed of, or that people haven’t confessed to other family members—and having to require a stranger. In Korea it’s also hierarchical in terms of class, age and gender, so sometimes translators are too ashamed to even ask the questions or say the things that need to be spoken. Then you realize their role of being a translator for you in this intimate and precious moment is impacted by their self-censorship because of the cultural way they’ve been raised but you haven’t. It’s so multi-layered. Another thing a lot of adoptees share is being able to talk about feelings towards your adopted parents. That’s a complicated relationship too. A lot of adoptee writers talk about having to protect the feelings of their adopted parents, waiting until their adoptive parents have died before they can write their memoirs, talk about these things or go on birth searches, and it sometimes saddens me that so often we’re put in a position where we’re protecting the fragility and feelings of those who were gifted the opportunity to protect us. I think there are so many myths about the adoptee experience. Do you feel that? Some of the canonical stories that we love the most are about orphans and adoptees who are able to, through resilience, succeed in fighting their condition. Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter, all of these texts are about people who supposedly are parentless (but we also know that’s a myth sometimes) who are being saved. And this is too comfortable a narrative for people to give up. What do you want people to know about the adoptee experience?  What I want people to know is that it’s not about whether adoption is good or bad or whether we should do it or not. It’s about needing to be more critical about the way we approach the stories we’re given and thinking about who’s representing those stories, and why we have such a cultural stake in protecting certain versions of those stories over others.  Also, there is some irony of being a memoirist who is adamant about privacy and the public not having free access to all of you. In my case because I’m a transracial adoptee my experience of being an adoptee has always been visible from the time I was a baby, and so with that came narratives, assumptions, questions and comments from strangers that remind you that you’re always under surveillance. It’s important for me to undertake this kind of work because I’m trying to reclaim how I’m looked at, talked about and how much is shared about me. Do you mean that by writing the memoir you have the opportunity to control the narrative, and it’s your story to tell in your way? Yes. I’m trying to have some sort of agency over what the assumptions are about my family’s past, both biological and adoptive. People make assumptions about our first families and their class and the gender dynamics and why they supposedly placed children for adoption. The assumption in the very first place is that they were the ones who chose to do it. That’s the first series of myths that need to be broken. But people also make assumptions about adoptive parents and their reproductive histories, their class, cultural intentions and religions. Part of my memoir points to some of those elements which are true for me in my personal experience, but a lot of them aren’t. My editor once told me that my book is more about asking questions than providing answers, and I think she’s right. My life has been a series of questions, some answered, many not. I’ve come to understand that what is important to me isn’t finding a solution or solving a mystery. It’s finding the words to ask the questions that are important to me at any given time and being resilient enough to be okay when there is no response, when the response changes over time, and when the response is distressing or is, it turns out, a complete lie.
The Junket

I am now one of a small number of people to have actually seen The Four in the flesh. Well, not quite the flesh.

The Pentagon press guy emails us to show up at the Army base between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. His name is Greg. Greg’s email is confusing. Were we meant to show up no earlier than 4 a.m. and no later than 8 a.m.? Or were we meant to be present for the entire 4-8 a.m. window? I choose the latter. I choose wrong. At 8 a.m. on the dot Greg pulls up in a white Ford F-150. “I don’t usually do the A-SIG route,” he says, by way, I suppose, of mildly apologizing for the fact I’ve been there for hours, in a pre-dawn mid-Atlantic semi-frost, for no particular reason. “I’m with SecDef.” I nod. “We’re currently game-planning a big trip through the North Eurasia Corridor.” I nod again. I get in the truck and Greg drives us to a teeny airport terminal. Some people are in military dress, like Greg. But some look like they’re gangs of old pals hitting Barbados together. Greg is in the casual-khakis version of the Army uniform, with a little peaked sidecap folded in one hand. The Barbados set are wearing thick, decadent flip-flops. One woman has a large white cardboard box of Krispy Kreme. One man has a large white plastic bag of Barney Greengrass. On the plane I meet Kurt, a reporter whom I’ve read a bunch of times. Kurt Oolhaus. He’s forty-something and writes for a specialty legal news site. We make small talk, and he rattles off all kinds of inanities that, although I try my best to not show it, are blowing my mind. I have consumed massive amounts of A-SIG content. And I’ve never heard this stuff. Kurt tells me, with a well-worn yet still muted whimsy, that everything the A-SIG Four communicate is considered classified. But the A-SIG Four are also not allowed to know classified information. “So,” he says, “if John tells his lawyer that once, at some black site, he was hung from the rig, and then the lawyer wants to ask a follow-up question like, ‘Was it cold outside while they hung you for hours in the rig?’ then that lawyer would technically be sharing classified information.” He pops a piece of Nicorette gum and chews heavily. “I’ve been going to A-SIG for a long time,” he says. “For a looooong time. But, you know. Not since the beginning.” In the beginning A-SIG was a constant national concern. Back then, with a few exceptions, it was only the major outlets that could get there. Kurt hadn’t been fancy enough to get on then. He had started going a few years back, which is to say a few years after the mania had died down. Reporting on the place has never actually stopped. At the very least, those same major outlets are still doing their anniversary specials. “Eleven Years Since Contact,” “Twelve Years Since Contact.” Every year, as reliable as you like. But they’ve pulled back their full-time A-SIG correspondents. And to me, at least, the coverage that they do still do doesn’t feel the same. It’s not that it’s perfunctory—it’s more that it has an edge to it. It’s subdued, maybe, but I’m telling you, it’s there: a resentment. I think the media tasted blood all those years back, and I think they never truly got their fill. So, anyway: Kurt knows more. More than me, of course, but more than Greg, too. He doesn’t make us feel bad about it, though, which I appreciate. Greg sees us onto the plane and waves goodbye. I had imagined it as a proper military cargo plane. It turns out to be a chartered commercial flight. Before we take off, Kurt asks, “Do you have your BN-9?” This is official paperwork. I was meant to have filled it out. I feel a surge of panic and I start to explain that I certainly do not have my BN-9, but that it is not my fault, that fucking Greg never said anything about any BN-9, but the plane is taking off so it seems pointless to evade responsibility now. Kurt makes a grunt-noise that lands somewhere between curious and concerned. Then he locks eye contact and placates me: “Everything will probably be fine.” I’m worried this is just his innate relaxed demeanor and that, in fact, once I get there they’ll put me up somewhere in some semi-official Army limbo, waiting for the return flight, which isn’t for two weeks. I think about my younger brother, with whom I’ve spent oodles of hours co-obsessing over A-SIG. He would surely suggest that would be a very “me” thing to do, getting as far as A-SIG but not actually getting into A-SIG. I take turns sleeping and panicking, sleeping and panicking. We get some warmish soda (they’ve run out of ice, they tell us) and a baguette with ham (no cheese, but no indication whether they’ve run out of it or never intended to place it there in the first place). Twelve hours in, we’re over Turkmenistan. Sixteen hours in, we can see the desert. The Badain Jaran. Thirty minutes later we land directly onto the A-SIG airstrip. The pilot says, “Welcome to sunny Alpha Signatooooory!" In the ’50s and ’60s, Mao’s China ran a brutal labor prison here named Jiabiangou. By the time the A-SIG Four showed up, Jiabiangou hadn’t been used in years. Families of Jiabiangou victims would file official applications to visit, to see the last known location of their lost family members, and they would be summarily rejected. The Chinese government had kept it off limits and, therefore, strangely, relatively pristine. They didn’t want it to become a shrine to its victims. Which is why Jiabiangou was just there, ready for renting, and for re-branding. I go through a small check-in area melodramatically labeled Checkpoint Columbus. It’s a security hut, really. The soldiers are young and polite and wildly disinterested; they scan my ID without a word about a BN-9. Everything, it appears, is in order without the BN-9. I wonder how much standards have slipped, at least as far as the BN-9 is concerned, in the years since contact. The soldiers that pick us up are even younger than the ones at Checkpoint Columbus. I can’t tell exactly how young because fatigues kind of blur things like age. There is a young man named Lee and a young woman named Jamie. They’re polite, smiley, and professional; they have good posture and very-recent and nearly-matching haircuts. Lee offers us club soda. I momentarily entertain a heavy thought: Is accepting goodwill from the US government presence on A-SIG akin to complicity with the jailors? Then I let the thought crumble and accept the club soda. It is very hot and the club soda is very refreshing. It’s also cold. Apparently, at A-SIG, they do have ice. We all pile onto a transport bus. A faded-yellow open-top double-decker. I go up top and take in the sun as the bus pushes lazily through an abandoned two-lane road. Kurt’s up here, too. He tells me more: about the military commission, about the defense lawyers, about some of the bonkers off-the-record stuff they’ve told him about over the years from working with the Four. The A-SIG Four don’t actually speak, of course—not in the conventional sense of the word. They’d been taught American Sign Language early in their detention. Part of the comically thin trickle of information in the early days after contact had included that factoid. According to then-contemporaneous accounts, they had picked it up fairly easily. Looking at it rationally, teaching them sign language was a plainly necessary thing to do. Some sort of communication method needed to be established. But even that bit of purely practical education was met with howls of opprobrium. A sizeable sector of the population believed the A-SIG Four should have been locked in a lightless hole forever. Naturally, while there had been chatter over the years about bringing in linguists and specialists to enhance the communication possibilities—to introduce some nuance, or perhaps even feeling, into these radical conversations—the political climate meant it had never happened. So ASL, selected arbitrarily in the fury of the early days, was it. In some strange bit of irony, despite all that rage—then very much active, now dormant but still potent—their nicknames stuck, too. Outside of the heavy-duty newspapers, the A-SIG Four were never referred to by their proper Department of Homeland Security identity numbers. And it didn’t seem to matter to anyone that they were not actually male. (Again, in the conventional sense of the word.) (Not that much information was ever released as far as that went, either.) (And not that photos ever were, either: the only thing the world had ever seen after the initial capture shots were courtroom sketches.) But the reality of the situation didn’t matter much, anyway. All it took was the one early press conference, when a DHS spokesperson referred to them, vaguely and ominously, as “the Four.” The tabloids, happily and cynically ginning up the mania, started calling them the Fab Four. And from there it was a quick and easy leap to John, Paul, George, and Ringo. *** After twenty minutes, the yellow bus pulls onto a drop-off point. It’s a sprawling stretch of concrete. On one side is a decrepit airplane hangar. On the other are rows and rows of Army tents. And in the middle is the Potentiary Court, known to all as the Cathedral. This is the makeshift space where the A-SIG trial is happening. Well, allegedly happening. Where it has been allegedly happening for years. To accommodate the Four’s size, it was erected as a massive structure the height of, yes, an old European house of worship. But seeing it in person, I realize, that’s where the grandness ends. The Cathedral is truly an overly fanciful name for what’s little more than an unsettlingly large trailer. The actual prisons are on the opposite, western, side of A-SIG. That’s where the Four are held. Every day of court they’re transported by hollowed-out buses to the Cathedral, and then back into their living tombs. That had been the setup when they first arrived and nothing much has changed. The US Army hadn’t actually built onto Jiabiangou, because they hadn’t actually expected to be here this long. This was always supposed to be temporary. So everything, aside from the weathered original Jiabiangou infrastructure, looks like it was pulled in on flatbeds and left here weeks ago, ready to be picked up. Around the Cathedral are layers of fencing topped with barbed wire and covered with tattered black netting. Every few feet signs read “No Photography.” In orientation, Lee tells us, “You can’t photograph anything covered by the ‘No Photography’ sign.” Very reasonable, I think. Then he provides an unexpected twist: “The actual sign, though, you can photograph.” I put my bags in our tent. They’re neatly spaced and spread out for hundreds of yards. This had all been arranged to meet the initial demand. But in our time here, only four or five will be occupied. Along with press, there are two other entities sparsely represented: the IHROs, the International Human Rights Observers, and the CCs, the Concerned Citizens. The IHROs are still here as a nod to some understanding of the importance of due process; they’re a loose collection of folks from NGOs throughout the world that shuffle in and out to—ostensibly, at least—keep an eye on the legal proceedings. The CCs are international, too, but they have their roots in Altoona, Iowa. They sprung up soon after contact. Their role is to full-throatedly voice their displeasure that the A-SIG Four are being treated—again, ostensibly, at least—to a military tribunal at all. Over the years, representatives from the CCs and the IHROs have found themselves in tiffs waged in dueling op-eds and on talking-head TV panels. The IHROs fulfill clichés of those that at least aspire to unconditional love. The CCs love to point out the irrelevance of the “H” in IHRO. The tent Kurt and I are assigned is at the corner of the lot, the last one before a loose scattering of plastic barriers laid over patchy concrete. It’s marked “Press (Male).” In it are four separate compartment-type rooms. They’re makeshift pods, each half-heartedly blocked off with raw wood barriers. Each pod has a bed and a dresser and potted plastic plant. The air conditioning is on full-tilt blast. It is preposterously, aggressively frigid. Another tent is labeled “Liaisons.” Another is labeled “Latrine.” The only other reporter there other than me and Kurt is Ingrid, a fiftysomething newspaper veteran from the Des Moines Register. Ingrid Waller. Unlike Kurt, she actually has been coming to A-SIG since the beginning. In the early days, when the competition for access was still fierce, the newspaper correspondents from the world’s major cities dominated. And yet Ingrid managed to become a regular, too. It wasn’t a simple thing, to lecture the Pentagon on the paramount importance of local reporting. But somehow, she managed it. She became an obsessive and the Des Moines Register, unlikely as it was, became the finest resource on the story in the world. And even as those big-name correspondents started fading away, even as A-SIG cooled into its current state—a story, impossible as it may have felt at first, circling insignificance—Ingrid never stopped coming. The masses had their own sources; the conspiracy theorists, of course, had theirs. But ask a hardcore, clear-minded A-SIG obsessive, and they’ve probably been reading Ingrid for years. I’ve been reading Ingrid for years. I in no way want to communicate this to her. But I am, like, a pretty big fan. So I can’t help but feel intimidated by Ingrid. And Ingrid, to her credit, does nothing to make me feel otherwise. Over the next few days, she and Kurt regularly fall into the patter of old buddies. Ingrid often talks as if I’m not present, as if it’s just her and Kurt making decisions about where to eat. I guess it pretty much is their decision. And it is nice enough they let me tag along. But I also think it wouldn’t be that hard to nominally include me in the decision-making process. It’s a bummer that Ingrid seems to have a vague distaste for me, but I’m not confused as to why. I admitted to her early that, yes, I was here as press, but that my credentials were acquired through a website where I was a regular contributor but not quite a staff writer, and that in my opinion it was a pretty good website, scrappy and new, but yes most people had never heard of it, and that I had submitted my paperwork for the A-SIG press visit almost as a lark, and that I was honestly actually shocked that they accepted it, and yes, I’m here to write something but that I don’t actually know what that something is. Basically, I was youngish, and I had vague ambitions. I thought A-SIG could be a route. I’d write something big, something heartfelt, something true. I wasn’t exactly cocky about it. I had just enough confidence to take a swing. In the real world, informally speaking, A-SIG was my thing. In bars, at dinners, in taxis — no one could touch me on A-SIG. As a dilettante, I was top notch. But at A-SIG, it is, understandably, different. And Ingrid knows I’m not a journalist. Not like her. And she knows I’m going to come just this once and leave and never come back. During orientation, Ingrid leans back in her chair in the last row like the coolest kid in class. At one point she loudly interrupts the session with an anecdote about being stuck at A-SIG during the last Yom Kippur. She’d checked out some services, she shout-talks—ostensibly to Kurt, but we’re all listening—and they were, in her opinion, subpar. “The guy leading it was wearing a skullcap made of battle dress! They didn't have enough for a minyan!” I don’t know how many times she’s sat through this same stultifying orientation; it’s mandatory, she explains to us later, every time she comes. *** On the first day of court I pop up at the sound of my first cell phone alarm, and, in the frigid air of my tent-pod, scramble out of my blanket and into slacks and a tucked-in dress shirt. Then I stumble outside and realize it’s really way too hot out for those kinds of clothes. Kurt wants to make sure we see the A-SIG Four. “Once they’re in the Cathedral they face the front of the courtroom,” Kurt says. “So your best chance of actually seeing seeing, like fully seeing them, is just as they come in.” He doesn’t need to work to convince me. Ingrid stays behind in the hangar, where our press room is, to watch the livestream. She’s done it all enough times before. And they don’t let you bring your phone into the Cathedral. Lee walks us to court. This is the first time I realize he has a drawl. Turns out he’s from Alabama. Turns out everyone in Lee and Jamie’s unit is from Alabama; they all came from Fort Rucker Army Base in Dale County, Alabama. I hadn’t picked up on that before. Lee is tall and broad and blond and he’s incredibly unabashed about finding practical lanes into small talk. The first thing he says to us this morning is, “Are y’all into sports at all?” Kurt and I both acknowledge that yeah, we are, more or less. The second thing he asks us is, “Which teams you like?” As we walk to court and single-file through security we start talking earnestly and eventually end up having a wholesome conversation about Al Horford. In the back of the Cathedral, there is the viewing gallery. This is where the press and the IHROs and the CCs all sit. Then comes three feet of glass. Then comes the court itself. It’s a long, wide, and high room. All-white. No wood or pews or any other decorous touches you might expect in a sui generis high court of justice. It’s bare-bones and functional and garishly fluorescently lit. There are long tables with binders stuffed with papers and chattering lawyers and ASL translators in dresses and suits and pantsuits and rows of stern mute soldiers, lining each wall, in fatigues. They bring the detainees in one at a time. The first detainee in that morning is John. A back wall is yanked up by a pulley. The sunlight pours in, and, within it, he moves forward carefully. I’d prepped myself, but I still involuntarily gasp. Kurt, chewing a heavy wad of Nicorette, looks at me, and smiles with his mouth open. The particulars of the A-SIG Four’s physiognomy have been picked apart to death and at this point, even without live and recent photos, their appearance is not a mystery to me. But two things still give me a heart attack. First, it’s the size of him, of John, that astounds. In any context, seeing a figure this big and this dexterous would be remarkable. In this context—in this military courtroom, in a murder trial—it’s impossible. I have daydreamed about this moment. I have daydreamed about what it would be like to sit in the Cathedral and see John. But I had no context for it. I couldn’t guess what would get me. Now I know—it’s the size. It is a size that is not supposed to be here. It’s the size that sends ripples down my spine. Intensely pleasurable ASMR ripples. Ripples of which I do not want to let go. Second, it’s this: it’s clear that he’s aging. I hadn’t expected that. Hadn’t really thought about it, to be honest. It’s not gray hairs. Not exactly wrinkles. But I can see, now, that he has, slowly, slowly, been getting older. Then come Paul, George, and Ringo. There they are: the historically portentous A-SIG Four. In the courtroom sketches they’ve always been, incongruously enough, in orange jumpsuits. Nothing has changed; their sail-like jumpsuits cover them fully. They seem, perhaps unsurprisingly after all these years, comfortable enough in them. I am now one of a small number of people to have actually seen them in the flesh. And it’s because I filed an application in the proper manner. Well, not quite the flesh. The thick glass is still here to provide the appropriate separation. John has long been understood as the leader and so, naturally, as the most culpable for the murders. IHRO-types point out that understanding was almost entirely based on the fact that he was physically closest to the bodies when they were discovered. Ringo is the most animated. He swivels to look at Paul and George and gestures constantly. His head juts as he makes his points. I can’t begin to guess what it is they’re talking about. They seem completely divorced from the case. Paul seems to answer, at least here and there; George seems sullen and lost in thought. John is seated farthest up in the room, with his back to the other three. There is the air of the taciturn boss to him. I know that I’m projecting my own understanding of interpersonal relationships onto these four. But I know that I can’t help it. In court they don’t actually use their nicknames, of course, but their Homeland Security numbers. The numbers are said again and again. As are their crimes, as are the blunt facts of their torture. A lawyer for Ringo asks for information about his detention. About his treatment in the black site in Stare Kiejkuty, in north Poland, before they were brought to A-SIG. She talks about the walls he was allegedly smashed into. She doesn’t go into detail here, but I know from reading the MondoLeaks A-SIG cables that at some of the black sites they were all snapped into harnesses in improvised, automated “security protocol rigs” and that at least a few of the more motivated interrogators took the opportunity to swing them into walls using those exact “security protocol rigs.” She wants to know, “did these walls have any give?” She slaps her hands together on “give.” “The torture has damaged him in ways we cannot understand,” she says of Ringo, “and continues to damage him to this day.” He doesn’t react. And then something is deemed potentially classified. The court gallery is cleared. Outside, we stand around as a junior lawyer for George’s defense punches numbers into the vending machine and cracks, to no one in particular, “These are classified Cheetos.” We watch a beefy desert lizard scurrying about. Out of nowhere, a soldier pipes up: “Here, it’s a ten thousand renminbi fine for killing one. In some places they’d pay you for it. Horned lizards get shish kebab’d in Puerto Rico.” He pauses, then answers the question everyone was thinking but no one had actually asked. “It’s chewier than you’d like, but it’s a very clean meat.” *** That night, Kurt and Ingrid decide we should go to The Windjammer for cheeseburgers. The staff of The Windjammer is entirely Han Chinese, from Gansu Province, the province within which Jiabiangou resides. They come in to work the facilities for A-SIG. The Army flies in enough Americans to run the place that you’d think a few more support staff wouldn’t be all that hard to manage, but I can also guess why the Army might want as few Americans here as possible. Ingrid tells us that near our tents there’s also a kind of secret all-night locals hangout club. “Foreigners almost never get in,” Ingrid says. She pauses, with calculated oomph. “Although I’ve been.” Another pause, quicker this time. “Wild times.” I look at Kurt to see if Ingrid is bullshitting. If he knows the truth, he’s not giving it away. He stares straight ahead, with maybe a wisp of a raised eyebrow. We get in the van and Lee and Jamie drive us to The Windjammer. On the way I ask Jamie what she was gonna get up to the rest of the week, just in the way of making pragmatic small talk, like Lee had shown us. Jamie says, with a warm smile, “Well, uh, basically, anything you guys do, we do.” For some reason I hadn’t actually thought that through—that Lee and Jamie’s jobs, like their full jobs, are to watch us and drive us around. “So everything we do, you have to do?” I ask. “Pretty much,” Jamie says. “What if we get really drunk right now at The Windjammer? Would you have to do that too?” “That’s like… we’re not really supposed to drink with you,” Jamie says. I think about it for a second. That makes sense. And yet— “But you’re not supposed to stop us from getting really drunk, either?” “Um, no. We’re not, like, babysitters.” I think about it some more. “Okay. So if I get drunk and I start a bar fight—would you have to fight with me?” Lee squints his eyes, doing me the privilege of letting me know he’s thinking about it. “Well. Okay. We wouldn’t stop you from drinking, necessarily. But really the goal would be to prevent you from getting in a bar fight in the first place.” “Okay, but, well, you’ve already acknowledged that you couldn’t or wouldn’t stop me from drinking...” “Correct,” Lee acknowledges. “Yeah, pretty much.” “And let’s be honest—someone gets drunk, they’re far from home, they don’t know anyone, they’re in a strange place. They’re liable to end up in a bar fight...” “Um. I guess so?” “So would you or would you not get in a bar fight with me?” Lee thinks about it some more. “I wouldn’t let you lose a bar fight.” “That’s my guy right there!” I yell while slapping the back of his head rest. I look around the van at Ingrid, who is not amused, and Kurt, who is maybe a tiny bit amused. “For the record,” I tell them, “I’ve never actually been in a bar fight.” No one responds. At The Windjammer a sign is posted on a bulletin board. It says Monday is no longer karaoke night. It says Wednesday is now karaoke night. One of the burgers is called the “A-SIG Burger.” Another is called “Our Famous A-SIG Smokehouse Burger.’” Another is just “Double Burger.” I get the “Our Famous A-SIG Smokehouse Burger.” It’s pretty good. Once inside, Ingrid buys Kurt and me a round of Buds and shots of Jameson and proposes a toast: “To transparency at A-SIG!” This is the nicest she’s been to me all week. I can’t tell if it’s because she’s warming up to me or because she just wants to do shots. By the time we got back to the tents I’m pretty drunk. I get a cigarette off Kurt—he’d chewed through his Nicorettes within days of us landing—and I wave him goodnight and I go around back of our tent and I smoke it while staring out towards nothing. Then I stamp it out and walk back in the tent. And I realize, with escalating horror, that nothing is in the right place. It’s pitch black in here, and someone has very slightly, very pointlessly scrambled the basic tenets of my reality. I can’t find my bed. I can’t find Kurt. I can’t find anything. I am in a hole? Of some kind? Suddenly, outside, shrieking, freakish sounds begin to whistle. My heart pumps. My mind flashes to an image: a wounded desert beast, still-mobile, crooning in pain, coming for me. I am ready for instant death. Then I remember: the dunes. The fucking dunes. They’ve started to sing. Lee and Jamie had told us about it at orientation: “A natural phenomenon, known only to the Badain Jaran.” Jamie had rattled it off with a PowerPoint slide. I’d forgotten the specifics of the physics of the thing. It was the wind and the layering of the sand and the electrostatic charges emitted. All I really know is that this particular desert is the only desert in the world that has dunes that make noises. And here they are, right as I’ve entered this scrambled universe. I do the only thing I can think of: I move forward into the blackness. I screw my eyes shut, since I can’t see anything anyway, and I push two palms flat in front of me, and I shriek along with the desert. All there is is my heavy breathing, and my shrieks. I pray that when I open my eyes next, there will be light. I bang into a dresser and knock something over. It sounds like the soft thud of a small plastic potted plant hitting dry wood planks. So then I get it. I’d walked into the wrong tent. After Kurt left, I had lost my bearings. This is the tent just one over from ours. I open my eyes, still in darkness. I reach out and grasp and miss a few times but then I finally connect with the tent flap. I pull it to the side, and a sliver of the moonlight comes in. *** By the start of our second week I am in an A-SIG groove. Or a rut? It’s hard to tell sometimes if you’re in a groove or a rut. We go to court and watch the process grind forward. Some days all four of the Four are there; some days just one or two. The defense lawyers do their job by relitigating anything they can: for one, they want all pre-tribunal testimony invalidated. They try, constantly, to emphasize that nothing about this is normal. As such, they try to provide some semblance of normal jurisprudence. The government lawyers, for their part, press on for the “speedy” part of a “speedy and fair trial.” Everyone seems to have wordlessly agreed that the A-SIG Four are bound to die in US captivity. But the prevailing feeling day in, day out in court isn’t despair, or horror. It’s tedium. Most nights we sit outside on metal picnic benches drinking Buds and Jameson and smoking cigarettes and swatting away flies and listening to the dunes. The A-SIG supermarket has all kinds of booze and beers but for some reason, Ingrid and Kurt gravitate to Buds, and so when it’s my turn to buy, I do the same. Ingrid shares stories about past times smoking and drinking—about other reporters, famous reporters, that had been here before and how wasted everyone got when they came. I laugh along and can’t help but feel like I’m letting her and Kurt down a little bit by not being a better drinker and not being more famous. On an off day from court we go to the souvenir shop. It’s just a wide room tucked into a strip mall, but I could stay here for hours. The merch is bountiful and it is strange; there’s lots of stuff about “Desert Life” and “Desert Grit” and various other mottos suggesting that living in the desert makes you tougher and therefore better than other people. And whatever its symbolic significance, or lack thereof, seeing the words Alpha Signatory slapped on 100% cotton sweatpants is disconcerting. One mug is bright orange and has a desert oasis image and reads, “Relax! You’re on A-SIG time!” Ingrid takes photos of us shopping for her column for the Register. “I have to file something,” she huffs. A few days later, maybe sensing a restlessness, Lee and Jamie suggest we do the border visit. I’m all for it. It turns out to be this whole properly organized thing: we meet early in the morning and get on another double-decker school bus. There’s a bunch of people there and I’m reminded of the folks in the flip-flops with the Krispy Kreme and of the fact that there are all kinds of jobs that get people to come to A-SIG. We reach the border and see the fencing and guideposts and the various other accoutrements keeping this weird little slice of official America away from the Badain Jaran desert. There’s a flagpole on the American side and a flagpole on the Chinese side. The guide says that local government officials—who’d had no say in the decision, made by Beijing, to rent Jiabiangou to the Americans—had carried out a small act of dissension by hoisting a massive Chinese flag. “Originally, we had the bigger flagpole,” the tour guide says, “and then the desert Chinese built the bigger one, and then it went like that for a while until it reached the current situation, which is a kind of tacit status quo where neither side exactly knows whose flagpole really is bigger.” Pause. “But we still say ours is bigger because that’s the way we are and we love America.” The guy doing the tour is in uniform and has this extreme deadpan. I can’t tell if he’s doing it on purpose or not but I don’t care because it is immaculate. Through the fence you can see a sign with, the tour guide says, Mandarin characters. He tells us it reads, “The free and eternal People’s Republic of China.” The next day is our last court day before we fly back. I am here early again, to see the A-SIG Four brought in. This time I’m alone. I watch them come in again, the Four. Over the last two weeks, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen them. But I have that same ASMR feeling. I let it take over me. And I let my mind wander. Since I’ve been here, I’ve emailed my brother a few times. He keeps asking long questions but I haven’t felt in a mood to answer. I’ve sent back filler about the weather and deflected by asking him a lot of questions back. I haven’t sent any photos. I haven’t said much of anything specifically. I wonder what our conversations will be like when I get back. I start piecing together anecdotes. I think of how they might all fit together. Then I think about how I have to file something to my editor, and I feel a panic surge. I let the panic rise. I try not to fight it. I try to let it come, and fall away again. I come back to the room when I hear a government lawyer detailing the crime scene. Recalling the murders one more time. “It was a regular fall evening in Altoona,” he says in a gravely, whispered, forced-gravitas monotone. “The weather had started to turn. The children on Mornington Terrace had ridden their bikes and scooters home. Most Altoonians were settling in for dinner, some conversation, some catch-up on the day. The first person to hear the noise was Julie Cavanaugh, the Randolphs’ 11-year-old next door neighbor. She heard what she’d later describe as a sawing—a low, incessant sawing. She went downstairs, where her mother, Joan Cavanaugh, was preparing roast chicken and potatoes, and told her about the noise. Joan could hear it too. Then, sharply, the sound blasted louder. Running next door, little Julie and her mother Joan were the first people on earth to see those killers.” At this, the lawyer points at the Four: John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The Four don’t acknowledge the gesture in any way. The lawyer keeps talking. I know the rest well enough by heart. Julie and Joan Cavanaugh came across the A-SIG Four standing stock still in front of the Randolphs’ home. The house itself showed no signs of commotion. There was no indication that the Four had entered, or that they could even physically enter a house that size. And yet laid neatly in front of the Four were the bodies of Lori Randolph, 37 years old; her husband Tim Randolph, 39 years old; Peter, their 13-year-old son, known as “Pete”; Alicia, their 9-year-old daughter, known as “Buzz”; and Charles, their 7-year-old son, known as “Charlie.” After court, we go to the official press conference. It’s a regular occurrence after two weeks of hearings: the CCs speak to the press. I’d read quotes from this same press conference in past years, and had pictured rowdy rooms, hands outstretched, shouts. But today Ingrid, Kurt, and I are all the press there is. A woman in a black pantsuit is first. She says, “I’m a proud fourth-generation Altoonian and my message is to the defense lawyers. I know you are doing your job but I need you to know that your job is betrayal.” A twenty-something man, in cargo shorts and a T-shirt, tells us he grew up across the street from the Randolphs. He says he was best friends with Pete. He would have been 13 or 14 himself when it happened. He says, “Every day I think about what Pete would be like now. Every day I want to call him.” *** On our last night in A-SIG, Ingrid, Kurt, and I end up going to the IHROs’ tent, something a little different than drinking on the benches and swatting away flies. No one actually says it out loud, but I guess maybe we’d actually grown to like each other enough to want a proper send-off. And no one had actually said this part out loud either, as far as I recall, but it seemed to be an established fact: the IHROs like to party. They’ve been around all week, with us in the back of the courtrooms and at The Windjammer and stuff, but we hadn’t really talked to them much. Now a hardcore contingent is left and they are completely, admirably wasted. Their tent is bigger than ours, and much better lit, and has proper benches for an indoor camp-site feel. They’re drinking whiskey in plastic cups. There’s no ice left, but there is still a lot of whiskey, which they happily share, which is nice. Five girls, one dude, and one minder: Boon, a Navy Airman, a tall broad man who is joyously deleterious in his duties. The dynamics make themselves clear pretty quickly. Nobody likes the one IHRO dude: he is priggish and self-serious, if harmless enough. The IHRO dude doesn’t like anyone else, either: he considers them non-serious. Also, Boon and one of the girls are maintaining a flirtation. It is mostly unspoken although they do pubescently smack each other’s butts a few times. The non-dude IHROs all act like best friends, but it turns out they’d all only met at the same time I’d met Kurt and Ingrid, when we all got to A-SIG. Ingrid manages to hold court, but for a while Kurt and I can’t really get into the flow of conversation. When it’s not Ingrid talking it’s the IHROs, and they’re all either doing bits we aren’t familiar with or bickering with the priggish dude. When I can get in, it’s just to talk to the dude and while I don’t think he’s all that bad, the natural pull of the summer-camp-esque group dynamics make me want to be a part of the central action, not the pitiable side action. Then Boon’s buddy Bill shows up. He’s a veteran Army guy, in the sense that he’s been in the Army a very long time, not that he’s been in some wars. He’s a little bit older and he starts telling us insane stories about his family in the farm country of Indiana, namely his three little boys, and all the various things they blow up. Apparently Bill likes explosives and apparently Bill has shared that passion with his kids. “Exploded an Oldsmobile once,” he tells us. “Stuffed it full of pumpkins and then stuffed the pumpkins themselves full of moldable PE-4, and we triggered that PE-4 by retreating about 20 feet back in the clearing of the woods behind my home and letting go with .22s in the manner of a classic firing squad.” Pretty soon after Bill arrives, the stiff social dynamics dissolve. Now it’s like Kurt and Ingrid and I had been in the summer camp with the IHROS all this time, too. One of the IHROs tells us about how her husband had just, like, a week ago revealed to her that he’d been maintaining a highly emotional, highly romantic secret correspondence with a woman from his bowling team. I tell everyone about this time when I was a kid and I watched a squirrel in our backyard suddenly seize up and die; when my dad came home we buried it. That makes it sound like I lived in some rural backcountry but really it was the suburbs of Hartford. Still, we were all bonding for sure. Boon doesn’t really say much but he cackles a lot. He starts a story then breaks up before it gets any forward momentum. He also shares a lot of eye contact with his would-be paramour. I wonder what’s keeping them apart, other than propriety. Also, Boon maybe has a girlfriend? It’s unclear, in the haze of drunken laughter. After a while the whiskey runs out and Bill says “follow me” and “I got something to show y’all.” Bill has by far had the best stories so far so there’s no reason not to trust him. We move, single-file for some reason, through the dark. There are no dunes whistling tonight but, after a while, there is a sound. It’s a song I know. An old one. One from when I was a kid. What the fuck is it? It comes to me: it’s Keith Ape. A rapper from South Korea. He had a moment of internet fame. He had a banger. It’s… it’s… it’s “It G, Ma”! Wow. Hmm. Okay. As we walk through the tents we hear it louder and louder, and then really loud, because suddenly, after one last particularly little shoved-together cluster of tents, we push through until we get to a bar. Behind the tents, like a ghostly apparition, in the dark of the night, there is a bar. The secret locals hangout. We made it to the secret fucking locals hangout. “I built it for the crew here,” Bill says. “Zhang, he tapped me do it.” “Bill,” I ask, with patience and genuine awe, “who is Zhang?” “You don’t know Zhang? Zhang runs the A-SIG labor union. He’s the boss around here, man. You don’t know shit!” Apparently there is not just a secret locals hangout on A-SIG but an A-SIG labor union, too. And here as well, in front of us, is an array of picnic tables full of locals fully enjoying the fruits of their labors. There is also a ping pong table. I make Bill explain it to me. “Zhang gave me a construction budget and offered compensation on top for my troubles. I tell you, it was a hearty sum. I said what the hell—I’ll build the thing for free. I mean, I’ll get to party here too, right?” I didn’t know what the Army was paying Bill but it was definitely too much. I see that it’s kind of an informal situation as far as pouring drinks goes—you just go back behind the bar and see about it yourself. So I do that. I also pretend to know how to do Cocktail-esque flair bartending. I feel for sure we are in a mirage—that if I come back here tomorrow morning there’ll be nothing but tents, and then when I kick around some dirt I’ll see, you know, a little bit of the paper from Kurt’s soft pack of Camels. Kurt and Ingrid are sitting in front of me. My loyal customers. I take a cig out of Kurt’s pack and light it and hand it to Ingrid, hoping she’ll accept. She does. Then I light one for myself. “Have you ever actually been here before?” I ask her. She doesn’t make eye contact, but smiles. “Of course.” Then she looks at me. “I’m pretty sure, at least.” “Do you think we’ll ever find out anything more about the Four?” “Nah.” “Why do you keep coming?” “I don’t know. Why’d you come?” “I don’t know. Do you like it here?” “Yeah, I guess so. Yeah, in a way.” “What do you like about it?” She doesn’t answer. “What should I write?” “I don’t care. I mean, no one really gives a fuck.” She takes a sip. “That’s not … I don’t mean to be a bummer. I mean, you know. Don’t ask me that. It’s good you came. Just don’t ask me what to write, for fuck’s sake.” “Do you respect me?” She laughs. “Nah.” “Do you think you’ll ever stop coming?” Ingrid takes a deep drag, a performatively cinematic drag, then exhales and gets the smoke in her eyes and too far down her lungs, so she’s flapping her hand in front of her brow and coughing at the same time. Then she calms down enough to answer. “Nah.” After a while Kurt gets really squinty and smiley and no one wants to see my fake bottle-flipping tricks anymore. I stand off to the side with a washcloth fake-wiping down glasses with the one IHRO whose husband had the emotional affair. “What should I do?” she asks, sounding like she does actually want some answer. “You can leave him,” I tell her, with confidence, and she nods. They don’t have any kids. Why stay if she doesn’t want to? But truly, truly, I think, what the fuck do I know? *** The next morning, we get back in the van with Lee and Jamie so they can drive us across that patch of concrete and to the double-decker bus that will take us into the terminal where we’ll get on another sixteen-hour flight and head back to America. Ingrid, true to type, had managed to get on a flight before us, somehow. She left a note on the whiteboard in our press room: “See you in the real world.” Kurt and I are hungover in the back of the van and keep exchanging looks and smiles like, “Bro are you hungover, yeah me too.” I say, to Lee and Jamie, “Did you know there’s…” What I’m going to say is, “Did you know there’s a secret locals bar back there?” but I cut myself off because I don’t even know if it’s legal and despite Bill’s various intransigencia I don’t want to get him in any trouble. They look at me and I say, “Uh, never mind,” and it’s awkward but what do they care. Instead, we all talk for a bit about how we’ll miss each other, which feels genuine and true, although we don’t actually exchange contact information. Then the van bumps along some more and everyone’s eyes wander out the window and everyone gets quiet.
Beanstalk Country

“This is meant to be the loneliest part of the ride.”

Liv was on her own for hours. Every now and then she passed fishermen who stared at her, grim and suspicious as they hauled their boats in, and once she rode past a flock of tern who were picking over the remains of a picnic and took off in a great riotous flurry when she toiled by. When she turned her face to her arm, rubbing her itchy nose against her sweater, the lake was long and bland, further than she could see, light sinking into it like lead. Her bicycle veered. It didn’t matter; there was no one else on the road for a long, long time. By the time she rounded a gentle curve and saw the dark smudge of a figure waiting in the distance, she was near-blind with fury. It took another twenty minutes of battling the headwind before she could see Sidra clearly. Her hair was pulled back in a small, curly knot at the nape of her neck, her white sweater marked with dust and grime and rolled up over her tanned forearms. She was leaning on her bike’s handlebars, every line of her body loose and relaxed as though she was waiting for Liv on the corner outside her apartment. Liv didn’t slow as she approached, but when she was within shouting distance Sidra swung lazily back onto her bike and moved into position alongside her. “Sorry,” Sidra said. “Lost you for a while.” “Yep.” Liv squinted towards the horizon. The sun had been dipping steadily for hours but the light stayed flat and broad. The lake complicated the push of evening. She couldn’t tell when it was going to get dark. Her legs were shaking with every rotation, muscles hot and dripping liquid pain. “I think we can camp pretty much wherever along here,” Sidra said. “You say when.” Liv tried to shrug, her back knotted with tension. “Up to you.” Sidra tossed her an unapologetic look. Her mouth was quirking at the corners, like an indulgent older sister. “All right,” she said, accent light around the consonants, and sped up, whirling along the path as though the wind was another cyclist to beat. Liv put her head down and followed her. She was stronger now than she’d been when they first set their bikes down on the road in St. Petersburg, and if she couldn’t beat Sidra, she could at least keep up. Her jaw ached from grinding her teeth. She wondered how far it was to the closest city, closest airport, closest exit. They stopped when the slopes of dirty sand by the lake shore gave way to grass and huddled trees. Sidra dropped her bike on the ground and the bell made an involuntary noise, the hum of struck metal hanging in the air. There was a tanging cluster of nerves in Liv’s arse, strung tight down on one cheek and slipping into her thigh. She lay down on the ground and pulled her knees up to her chest, straightened her legs out. In her peripheral vision Sidra unpacked the tent with easy flicks of strong forearms and silver tent poles. Liv ignored her, stretched her legs out, pulled them back in again, panting a little and making high, hurt noises when her back stuck. “Still sore?” Sidra said, sympathetic. Liv ignored her and stared up at the flat sky, dipping into blue and dusk. Sidra disappeared in a tangle of mesh. When she sat up again the tent was done and Sidra was sheathing out of her cycling trousers, shins tanned brown and knees rough with scabs. She put on the black sweatpants that hung loose around her waist and tight around her ankles, dust-stained and paint-smeared from repainting Liv’s apartment last spring. Sidra was usually only stylish by accident. Just then in the lowlight of the dying day, her curls scraped back with sweat, her eyebrows heavy, she looked almost ugly. Liv stared at her, resentful. In twenty-one days they had to be back in Berlin for the party.  ***  They cycled along Lake Peipus for another three days, weaving in and out of swampy forest and back to the shore. Clumps of civilisation sprang up: wooden houses with head-scarfed women leaning out their windows to watch Sidra and Liv with bronzed, careful faces, and then disappeared in the low glare of the horizon. Liv stared at the neat garden plots bristling with glossy fat green. It took her twenty kilometers to realise they were onion plants. Sidra cycled by Liv’s side as though she had and would never leave it, handlebar-to-handlebar, nearly jostling at her shoulders. “They’re the old believers,” Liv said, and then, when Sidra rolled her eyes, “No, really! I read about it. When the Russian Orthodox Church was reformed in the eighteenth century, they didn’t like it, they left. They came here instead.” “For peace,” Sidra said, only half-interested. “I guess,” Liv said. She shrugged, legs pumping. The sun had come out today, making the Baltic pastoral green seem somehow more appealing. “You know those wooden prayer-houses, see? When the authorities tried to make them join up with the reformed church again, they would lock themselves inside and set it on fire.” Sidra looked at her, considering. She could have been an alien, Liv thought, or a dog, friendly and unknowable. “But not anymore,” she said. “No.” “So they are like Russian amigos,” Sidra said. Liv nearly braked. “What?” “Oof, no.” Sidra waved a hand lazily, encompassing her disinterest in the whole feral borders of English. “Not that word. Something like it. The ones in America, who don’t have telephones—” “Oh,” Liv said, and laughed. “Amish. Yeah.” “Mm,” Sidra said. She let her eyes wander over the wooden houses, the garden plots, the women watching in rows. Liv wondered where all the men were: working elsewhere, maybe, or drinking, or asleep. She’d forgotten the day of the week. It couldn't be Sunday—there were no bells. But she also remembered reading something that said the old believers down here didn’t use church bells, thought they were gratuitous and vulgar. She thought about asking Sidra what day it was a dozen times, but never said it aloud. That night Liv wandered down as close to the lakeside as she could get while Sidra put up the tent. The ground was dense and overgrown, thickety with hidden slip traps, mud, and mosquitos buzzing. Liv found a long, twisted branch and prodded it out but still couldn’t reach the water, not even the vague blur where wetlands and lake met. A few hundred metres away was a man-made canal, carved out by locals. Liv dipped her hand into it and angled it so it would grow, fattened and ominously large, a giant at the end of her wrist. She stretched again, on her back and then sitting up, one knee pulled over the other, ankle tucked towards her seat, gritting her teeth and feeling something stretch long and loathsome into place. “Is it feeling better today?” Sidra asked, coming over. “You look a bit better.” “A bit, yeah,” Liv said. “You’re probably still getting used to the bike,” Sidra said. “Your body was just in shock.” “Maybe,” Liv said. She scuffled her feet against the ground. “You shouldn’t ride off that far in front without me.” “Like yesterday?” “Yeah,” Liv said. Sidra nodded. “Okay.” “My phone’s out of battery,” Liv said. “I’m not even sure we’d get reception here, or if I could call, whatever. I’m not being a baby. It’s unsafe.” “Yes,” Sidra said, watching her, eyes flecked green. Like river stones, shiny and slick. “I mean,” Liv said. She nudged her chin against her shoulder, mouth curving down. “You can go on ahead, whatever. Just check on me once in a while. What if I’d fallen?” “I will check,” Sidra said, and put her hand on Liv’s head, curving over her scalp like a cap. Her fingers didn’t twitch, didn’t stroke or pet. Liv bowed her head under the weight. After a while they split a Snickers bar and went to sleep.  *** They pulled over when the summer rain turned into a downpour, dragging the bikes further into the woods and sitting under a cluster of pines. Liv dug around in her pockets for the remains of a bread roll they’d bought passing through a village. “This is meant to be the loneliest part of the ride,” Sidra said. “Hasn’t been too bad. We’ve seen other people every day.” “Oh, little old Europe cannot compete with the great emptiness of Australia.” “It’s not empty,” Liv said. She leaned her head against the bark. She and Sidra were beginning to smell the same: clean sweat, dirty hair, the cool iron of their bikes adhering to their palms and bare shins. The night before, when Liv was drifting off and had thought Sidra was asleep, she heard, clear-voiced and startled, “When did I cut myself?” “That’s my hand,” Liv told her, flexing fingers scraped pink. “I jammed it in my chain earlier.” “Oh,” Sidra said, sleepily reassured and somehow not amused. It should have been funny, but Liv didn’t want to be like that. She liked knowing exactly where her limbs ended, the neat container of space that Sidra silently demanded and so Liv guarded with jealous pettiness. She flinched away when Sidra touched her. She glared when Sidra borrowed her toothbrush without asking. A friend of hers from high school had come out on Facebook and was now marrying a woman with the same name, and Liv had silently scorned them both. She imagined living like that with distaste, calling your own name back and forth all day.  ***  Four days before their flight to Saint Petersburg, Liv had taken three beers and a bottle of cheap vodka to Sidra’s flat. Outside the building she’d necked two shots of the vodka. She felt sick of herself and ready to crawl out of her own skin. She went upstairs and gave Sidra a beer. Then she said that she wasn’t sure if a month long cycling trip together was such a good idea, because she was in love with Sidra and Sidra didn’t love her. Sidra looked up at her mildly. “I love you,” she said. “You don’t want to fuck me,” Liv said. Her eyesight was blurring at the edges, crinkly dark through salt water. Sidra turned back to the equipment she was carefully laying out: shock cables, maps, lanolin, chain lube. “I don’t think we should worry about it,” she said. Liv had stared at her. “What?” “I just don’t think it will be a problem,” Sidra said, and showed Liv the puncture kit that had arrived in the post that morning.  ***  The rain was shockingly cold where it broke through the leaves, slicing through the thick air of the afternoon. Sidra stuck her feet out into it and it hit her dusty legs, leaving its own hurried pattern behind. “We’re meant to ride another 20k today,” Liv said. Sidra rummaged around in one of the corners of her heavy satchel until she found a bag of dried apricot. She dug her fingers into the thin plastic, wasting the container, tearing it open without trying the knot. She passed it to Liv first. “Plenty of time,” Sidra said. “Mm,” Liv said. They’d calculated that it should take them about twenty-nine days, with rest stops built in, and they’d given themselves thirty-two, in case of emergencies. They couldn’t be late. Jonno was turning forty and had been planning his birthday party for at least the three years that Liv had known him. He was as serious and greedy about it as a small child: talking the details over quietly, assured of its importance. It would be a garden party, with long tables stretched out in Jonno’s sprawling backyard and a catered feast and musicians, at the end of August when the evenings in Berlin slowed and stayed, humming on, hot and golden. Sidra was going to give one of what Liv assumed were several scheduled toasts, and Liv herself had a new dress hanging in her closet, one that she had picked out months earlier with Jonno’s wife. She ate another dried apricot. It felt fleshy, stringy, the golden core startling her, and she choked on it, gasping into the cool air while Sidra pounded her back with her fist. The rain was easing up. *** They had to cross back into Russia the next day, waiting in a queue for two hours with the sun on their heads and their hands tight around their handles. A few men leaned out of a truck to hoot at them in an unfamiliar language and Liv followed Sidra as she rolled her bike calmly up the queue and out of sight. The border guards had heavy guns and gave their passports and visas lazy, sweeping looks. “You’ve already been in Russia,” one said. “We’re cycling from St. Petersburg to Berlin,” Liv said. “It’s the European R1 cycle route.” “I do not know this thing,” the guard said. He looked at another guard, eyebrows raised. The other shook his head. “How long will you be in Kalingrad?” “Two days,” Liv said. “Three at the most, depending how fast we go.” “You are not staying? Not working?” Liv’s mouth was dry. She wished Sidra didn’t look so scornful, gazing with her German blankness at the border guard as though he was nothing more than a colossal waste of her time. Liv said, “No.” “Going back to Australia?” “I live in Germany,” Liv said. His eyebrows went higher, incredulous. Liv stared back at him, jaw set. “Hmm,” the guard said, flicking through their passports again. “Wait, please.” He said something quick in Russian to his colleague and they both walked away, their hips angular with the jutting off bone of the rifles. Liv turned to Sidra, holding her face carefully still. “They should have a separate path for the bicycles,” Sidra said, disapproving. Exhaust fumes dragged along the ground, swept at their shins. “I shouldn’t have let them take our passports.” “They’ll give them back if they don’t let us in,” Sidra said. “We’ll just have to fly to Latvia.” Liv didn’t say anything. She shifted from foot to foot. They waited another forty minutes and then the guard came back and gave them their passports and waved them through.  ***  They took Kalingrad at a burst. Kalingrad, Liv’s friendly and unhelpful guide book had told her, often unfolds to many visitors only at the second glance. The Baltic looked oily, slick and unwelcoming, and locals stared at them. They zipped along seaside roads and scummy streets, barely looking at each other, barely giving the land even one glance. Nearly a third of the way through their trip, Liv felt the push of time, and she was relieved when they came to their second border and passed simply into Latvia. The Baltic stayed to Liv’s right. Sometimes they stopped for lunch to eat on the sand. Sidra swam when the beaches were empty enough, stripping down to black underwear and heading into the froth. Liv stayed where she was and watched out for Sidra’s elbows slicing above the foam, or she went and walked barefoot where the waves would break around her feet and send the lines of her body wavering again. It was icy cold, made her toes cramp up and look for a pedal. In Riga they bought Frappuccinos from the first coffee chain they could find. They walked into the central markets with beige liquid and ice cubes rattling, Sidra’s eyes wide. “This is fantastic,” she said. “Fantastic,” and Liv laughed. She kept looking over her shoulder. She didn’t like having left their bikes behind, out of sight. Their backpacks shoved into a locker at the train station, her compass out of reach. They’d stopped in the coffee shop for long enough to charge their phones and now hers was buzzing steadily in her pocket, messages dripping through one by one. They were mostly from her mum. “I dunno,” Liv said. “Do you really want to stay at a hostel tonight?” “Oh, Liv,” Sidra said affectionately. “You’ve lost your taste for cities.” The town looked like it was carved out of different fairy tales. Liv resented the mismatch. They walked through baking heat to Town Hall Square and stood with the crowd of tourists staring up at pink-orange buildings and elaborately wrought steeples. “It looks like a wedding cake,” Liv said. “Fussy,” Sidra agreed. She shouldered past people. Liv ignored the instinct to follow and stood watching her instead, Sidra’s short blocky form moving steadfastly to the front, certain of herself. She stooped over a scarred grey plaque and came back grinning. “It’s not even the original building,” she said. “It was reconstructed in 1995. It was bombed in the war, and the Soviets demolished it after that.” “You probably shouldn’t look so proud, with that accent of yours,” Liv said, amused. “I knew it,” Sidra said. “It’s less than thirty years old. It’s like a Barbie Dreamhouse.” Liv shot her a look. “Barbie?” “I am a lesbian, not an alien,” Sidra said, as though Liv wasn’t too. “I know about all kinds of things. Come on.” She led Liv across the square to a tourist trap restaurant where a waiter brought them cones of gelati and a pitcher of lemonade at an unreasonable price. Sidra leaned back in her chair, sunglasses on, and watched the crowds of tourists moving back and forth in neat tidal patterns with great interest. Liv got out her book. Jonno’s wife Marlene had given it to her, saying that the main character reminded her of Liv, and the book had become fiercely irritating to her, a labour to be toiled through. Every time the heroine thought anything Liv was overcome with a crawling dislike, and all the heroine did was think things. “I can’t tell anymore if I would like this if Marlene hadn’t said I was like the main character,” she said at last, and laid the book down on its face, watching its pages crinkle with calm malicious pleasure. “But that’s how Marlene understands art,” Sidra said, without looking away from the square. “She fits it into her world.” “She makes art smaller,” Liv said. “But her world bigger,” Sidra said, “and Marlene is very pragmatic.” She turned back to flash Liv a shark smile. “Do you think you are like this book girl?” “I don’t know,” Liv said. “I’m worried I am. She’s silent all the time and too passive and shy.” “People are frequently telling me you’re shy,” Sidra said. “I always want to tell them that I think you’re just not that interested in talking to them.” Liv thought this over. She had the feeling she had been paid a great and terrible compliment and wasn’t sure how to react. “This girl in the book never wants anything,” she said. “She has sex with people because they want her and she doesn’t have the energy to say no. She does whatever people tell her to do. I know I can be quiet, but I want things.” “Yes,” Sidra said, and cracked her knuckles one by one, tugging each finger thoughtfully. Anyway, Liv thought, Sidra didn’t talk much, and nobody thought she was lost. It took her hours to sleep in their hostel that night, discomforted by the restless noises of eight strangers and the parties that stumbled back at one AM and then again at three. Eventually she tuned in on Sidra’s breath, the hitch in her lungs where her mild sleep apnea kicked in, and fell asleep straining her ears for the next inhalation. She was relieved to pick up their bikes the next day, whole and unharmed, and to ride back onto the road that was their main track and nearly deserted in every other way. *** Liv finally fell halfway along the Curonian Spit. The light came dappled and strange through the trees, slipping from burnt honey into deep shadow, the pines twisting and unfamiliar, and Liv, out of her head with the weird beauty of it, caught her wheel under a tree root as she spun along and went right over her handlebars. She sat on the ground winded, the heels of her hands as grittily pink as the morning’s sunrise. There were long dirty scrapes along her knees. She gasped for breath, caught it on a sob. She looked at her bike’s wheel spinning. She thought, a little amused, Well, that’s that. It was unclear to her what was over, but she felt very certain that something was. Shortly after she heard the scuffling thud of wheels through leaves and Sidra came back around the bend in the path. She jumped off her bike and knelt by Liv’s side. “Oh, no,” she said, half-absently, like she was talking to herself. She took Liv’s wrist in her palms, cradled it carefully, turning it back and forth. She ran her strong hands down Liv’s shins, brushing off some of the dirt and looking at the grit that welled up underneath. “What happened?” “How did you get back so fast?” Liv said, staring. “You were singing,” Sidra said. “I heard when you stopped.” They looked at each other for a moment, Sidra’s hands cupped around Liv’s knees.  “Does it hurt very badly?” Sidra asked. Liv shrugged. Sidra said, “Well, I have alcohol wipes,” and set to cleaning the scrapes. She put thick pink bandages down over Liv’s knees, standing out clean and fleshy against Liv’s tanned legs and dark hair. She spent longer on Liv’s hand, picking out the tiny stones and splinters that had lodged in it, her eyebrows drawn together, intensely focused, quietly rotating Liv’s wrist and listening to the way she hissed. It hurt a great deal, but Liv felt weirdly peaceful, up high, like she’d given the pain over into Sidra’s hands and didn’t mind what Sidra did with it. “I think it is not sprained, only a bad landing,” Sidra said finally, strapping Liv’s weak wrist up tightly with some of the clean white bandage from her medical pack. It reminded Liv of being a kid and begging her grandmother to tuck her into bed, her grandma laughing above her and pulling the sheets so tight that Liv couldn’t move, her shoulders pinned to the mattress, her feet slipping helplessly to the side because there wasn’t enough room to point up. She’d spend ages falling asleep, not out of discomfort, just unwilling to give up the painful security of it all, knowing she’d wake up in the morning having fought herself free. Liv looked up at Sidra, dazed. Sidra laughed. “You look drugged,” she said. “You want some painkillers?” “Ibuprofen in my saddle bag,” Liv remembered. Sidra came back with the packet and Liv swallowed two dry, the sugar casing sliding slick over her tongue. “Well,” Sidra said. She tilted her head to the side. “I’ll be all right in a minute,” Liv said, but Sidra shook her head. “No hurry,” she said, and shrugged. “Let’s camp here today.” Liv stared. “It’s only midday.” “So?” “We’re meant to get to Poland today.” “We have time,” Sidra said mildly. “This is what we planned the extra days for.” “For emergencies,” Liv said, and felt tears prick in the corners of her eyes. “This isn’t an emergency.” “This can count,” Sidra said. She put a hand on Liv’s shoulder. “What’s the rush?” Liv started to cry, ragged embarrassing sobs. She thought about how Sidra had heard her singing, how other cyclists would probably hear this. Sidra looked taken aback. She sat awkwardly next to Liv and put her arm around her shoulders. Liv leaned into her, crying harder. “I think I should be offended,” Sidra said. “I am often nice. It is not so unusual you need to cry.” Liv laughed, choked through her tears. She dragged her sticky face against Sidra’s pullover. “Come on,” Sidra said. “You can walk a little? Let’s get off the path. Wait, let me hide the bikes.” She took the bags off Liv’s bike and deposited them neatly by Liv, then slung Liv’s bike up over one shoulder. She took a firm grip of her own bike’s handlebars and steered it away into the woods. Liv looked away so she wouldn’t watch the taut curving line of Sidra’s biceps. She came back five minutes later a little breathless and said, “There’s a clearing not so far,” and hauled all of Liv’s bags up onto her shoulders. “Wait a moment.” When she came back Liv had levered herself up to standing, leaning against a tree. Her legs didn’t feel jammed and unknown the way her hand did, like someone had slabbed something new on her without paying any attention to how well it matched, but they were still trembling and the grazes stung. She let Sidra gather her against her side without protest. She imagined Sidra dissembling her the way she did with the bikes, hauling Liv over one shoulder without ceremony. They made their way into the little clearing, where Sidra deposited Liv on a tree stump and they ate lunch, their latest sandwiches thick with Lithuanian ham that tasted processed and tinny. “Ehrlich gesagt, I don’t mind staying here an extra day,” Sidra said. She frowned, blinked. Liv didn’t say anything. She liked it when Sidra slipped between German and English, when they were so quiet and close that it was hard to remember what to think in. “Strange to have only one day in a country.” Liv shrugged. “It’s pretty,” she said. “Shall I tell you the facts?” Sidra said. Liv laughed. “The facts I have learned for you! I did not want to be caught out. I did not want another Russian amigos situation. Though I’m sure you know them all. Do you know about the giantess?” “I stopped reading my guidebook,” Liv said. “I’m building up the nerve to use it for fuel. The what?” Sidra threw her head back and laughed. “You’re too good for it?” “The maps are useful but everything else was depressing me,” Liv said. “It kept saying things like this area takes a while to grow on you and although not immediately obvious, Latvia is very beautiful. I was wrong if I thought wherever we were was pretty and wrong if I didn’t. It was all about second glances and second chances, and we can’t be late.” “You could tear out the maps and keep them,” Sidra suggested, “and burn the rest.” “Yeah, maybe,” Liv said, not sure if she could reconcile herself to such a final action. “What about the giantess?” “Can you walk?” Sidra said. “You’ve had some food. I think it’s good if you move your body a little, don’t let it… calcify.” Liv wanted, immediately, to say no. Sidra stood up and held out her hand and Liv glared up at her, sullen like a child. But Sidra was implacable, immoveable, her face clear as the sky. Liv took her hand. They walked slowly back towards the cycle path and then across it and through the break of trees. “So in the stories the giantess lived here,” Sidra said. “Her name was Neringa and she was not so much with the — the — what does he say?” “Fee-fi-fo-fum,” Liv said, and noticed a shell, buried deep in the forest mud. She knelt on stinging knees and picked it up, rubbing her thumb over the whorl. Sidra waited patiently, turned over and then back again several beetles with electric blue backs, before they kept walking. “Yes, that’s it,” Sidra said. “My mother always used to say fee-fi-fo-fummy. Anyway, Neringa was not like that, she was very nice and she was friends with all the villagers, and she used to sit with them and eat their food and talk with them and carry the village children around on her shoulders. And she liked that they lived here, so she built up a mound of sand to keep the Baltic waves from hurting the village. And so the bay.” “Right,” Liv said, and they pushed through the last ragged gasp of trees. Sea in front of them and lagoon behind. Liv thought of lagoons with tropical weather and palm trees sheltered all around; this water was dark and deep. “So they lived here?” “No,” Sidra said, pointing back beyond the lagoon to the mainland. “There. The problem was, there was a horrible sea dragon—” “Sea serpent?” “Both. Either. His name was Naglis, and he fell terribly in love with Neringa, and brought her gifts from the sea, pretty pearl crowns or lost shipwreck treasures, and always the best fish for her and her villagers. Sometimes he brought driftwood that the villagers built houses from. And for a time Neringa was happy to have Naglis there to fight off the other dangers of the sea, and to bring such nice things, and especially during the winter, when it was too dangerous for the fishermen to go out on the sea.” “Handy,” Liv agreed. [[{"fid":"6705796","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"}}]] “But eventually, Naglis realised that Neringa did not love him in return, and he grew very angry and very sad. At first he just took back his gifts, the jewellery and the treasures, and dropped them jealously at the bottom of the sea. Then he burned down the houses that had been built with his driftwood. It was all his, he thought, and it was his right to take it back.” She turned to look at Liv, because Liv had stopped walking. “But he couldn’t take back the fish that had been eaten or the lives that had been saved, so instead he began to eat the villagers, one by one, all of Neringa’s friends, every mouth that had tasted the fish Naglis brought for them, every hand that hadn’t had to hold a sail in a winter storm. And then Neringa became very sad, and very worried.” Sidra pointed, down at the ground they stood on. “So she built this strip of sand between the bay and the Baltic, and the dragon was kept away forever, and he could not hurt any of her subjects again.” “Cool,” Liv said. “Fuck you, Sidra.” Sidra glanced up at her, startled. “You don’t like—” “You’re a nasty fucking piece of work,” Liv said, and turned back for the campsite. She hurried at first, but her knees hurt and her wrist was throbbing and after a while it became apparent that Sidra wasn’t following her. She slowed to a limp. Her throat pulsed with heat. She thought about the cool barrier of a strip of sand. Well, Sidra wasn’t that fucking strong. She was sitting on her tree stump pretending to read when Sidra came back. She was too furious, too embarrassed, to focus on the text; the words crawled boring and hateful over the page. She didn’t look up at the sound of Sidra’s footsteps, and Sidra said, “Ah, you are still angry.” Liv stayed silent, felt it like a wall. “I didn’t mean it like that,” Sidra said. She sounded almost apologetic, which was rare. “I didn’t think you would take it like that. I don’t see you as a dragon, I didn’t think you would.” Liv’s cheeks burned hot. “Liv,” Sidra said. “You know it is complicated.” “It’s not complicated,” Liv said. “You forced me out here. I didn’t even want to be on this trip.” “That’s not what I’m talking about,” Sidra said. She stood in front of Liv for a long time, hands open and waiting. Finally, she said, “Obviously I want to fuck you.” Heat slammed into Liv’s spine. She didn’t say anything. After a while Sidra turned away and began to set up the tent. As soon as she was done Liv crawled into it. She wasn’t used to being in the tent during the day; the light was all red and yellow, filtered through the fabric, and it was hot and warm, so close that she felt like she was lying under a bed, trapped somewhere with just enough air for her. She pressed her face against the pillow. She only meant to nap, or sulk, but she fell into a deeper sleep than she expected; when she woke up it was dark and Sidra was asleep by her side, curled politely away. Liv climbed out of the tent. The stars were all out; she thought it had to be past midnight. It was still quite warm, though the breeze was cool. She wandered in a slow circle around their campsite, squatted by a tree at the edge of the clearing to piss. She couldn’t hear any animals but she could hear the sea on either side of them, the waves breaking and the hiss of foam caught by the wind further out. She flexed her hands by her side. The air smelled clean like salt. Right then Liv wanted to be clean very badly. In silent agreement they packed up the tent early the next morning and got straight back on the cycle path. Liv’s hand had gone back to normal overnight, just a little tender, and the scrapes along her knees and shins weren’t so bad. Sidra rode ahead, but not very far, never out of sight. Finally, she slowed until Liv caught up with her. “Look,” she said, pointing to a crossroad sign up ahead. “I think that is Polish, not Lithuanian.” “You don’t think they would have signposted the border?” Liv said. Sidra shrugged. “Maybe. We might have missed it.” Liv felt sure that they hadn’t, that instead the cycle path had given up on them, was letting them fall through countries and borders with no attention or care. They had ten days until Jonno’s party. But after a little while longer they came across the Vistula, so they must have been on Polish ground. The first country Liv had been to before, like a rope leading her home. After a silent roadside lunch with supplies from the latest village, when the sun was beginning to sink again, the little dark shadow of Sidra ahead tilted sharply sideways and split in two. Liv squinted. She rode further and sped up, but by the time she got to where Sidra had fallen she was already standing, dusting off her knees, examining the graze on her elbows with sheepish interest. “Are you hurt?” Liv asked dumbly. She thought of how easily Sidra had taken control of the situation yesterday. She wasn’t sure she could. “No, I’m fine,” Sidra said. Liv got off her bike and padded over to look at Sidra’s elbow. Sidra watched her, eyes wide and surprised. Something shifted in Liv, grudgingly, like a stone shouldered to the side. “I can’t believe you fell right after me,” Liv said. “You’re trying to steal my thunder.” “No,” Sidra said. She bent her head to Liv’s, still surprised. “You just reminded me I could.” *** They swam in the Vistula. A terrible name, Liv told Sidra, it sounded like fistula, it sounded nothing like it was, this blue stretch, heat wavering above it, dipping in and out of cities, bending back and forth from their path like a hesitant friend. Sidra stayed where she was, floating on her back in the sunshine, eyes closed, and said, “Mm, well, it’s Wisla in Polish.” “We should call it that in English, then,” Liv said, indignant. “What do they call it in German?” Sidra didn’t answer, near asleep and cradled by the effortless gravity of the water. They swam every day. The Vistula was warm the way the Baltic hadn’t managed even on the hottest days, and the roads were deserted. They swam before lunch, to get their appetite up, and in mid-afternoon, when the dust of the road was sticking to them and Liv’s shoulders tensed up and knotted from her bad posture. They swam in the early evenings and mornings, when the moon hung at the same clear spot above them. Sidra swam naked. After the first awkward day Liv did too. There was never anyone else around, as though the whole continent but them had given up on the bike path, and the two of them pretended not to look. Liv saw Sidra in flashes: her short, strong legs striped shadowy with hair, the swollen peak of a nipple, her shoulder blades tense in her back, shifting as she prowled across the bank. Liv ducked her head, shouldered in with a wriggle. She hadn’t been home in three years but sometimes she felt all the weird heft of her Australian-ness.  She surfaced and scrubbed her knuckles against her shoulders, searching for salt. It was still odd to swim in freshwater, she was a girl used to seas, and the silty coolness of the river made her skin feel unfamiliar. She kicked hard to stay in the same spot, while Sidra fought idle battles with a lazy tide. They lay on the grassy bank to dry out. They were indulgent with their hours, now that they were in the final stretch and making better time than either of them had expected. That old knot of pain in Liv’s thigh and arse was long gone; her body felt newly made and strong. She wanted to prove its strength. Every time Sidra looked at her the sky seemed bluer and larger and full of possibilities, and Sidra kept looking. “Did you get Jonno a present?” Sidra asked, startling Liv out of her doze. Liv propped herself up on one elbow in the long grass, but Sidra was still lying there with her eyes closed, her hair wispy at her shoulders. “Of course. Wait, did you?” “I ran out of time,” Sidra said. “How is that possible?” Liv demanded. “He’s been talking about this for years. He sent out the save-the-dates in February!” “I know, well, that was very early,” Sidra said. “So I didn’t worry about it then. I looked a little before we went away but there was so much to do for this trip…” “Sidra,” Liv said, laughing helplessly. “What did you get him?” “A sweater,” Liv said, and then, when Sidra squinted open one eye, “It’s a really nice sweater.” It was, and Jonno was vain. “I can’t believe you haven’t got him anything. He’s your friend, really.” “He knows not to expect anything, then,” Sidra said, and Liv supposed that was true. Sidra and Jonno had been friends for an impossibly long time, nearly twelve years, having met when Sidra worked at the cafe where Jonno had spent several months trying to write the Great Expat Novel. He didn’t do much writing and it wasn’t long after that that he switched his attention to early SEO work, which had paid off better in the long run. For reasons Liv still struggled to understand Sidra had befriended him and in the evenings the two of them had gone to Kneipes and argued about Merkel and Howard in mangled German and English. Sidra was nine years younger than Jonno but treated him with all the fondness and dismissal of a little brother, and Jonno regarded Sidra with a certain degree of seriousness that was unusual in his life. And it was Sidra, too, who had introduced Jonno to Marlene, in a constellation of events and people that made Liv feel especially young and intrusive, aware that there was some secret or history here unknown or untold to outsiders, reminding her of her own new status within the group. Marlene had been Sidra’s professor in her never-quite-finished Masters degree, an art historian who’d taken a liking to Sidra. They’d transitioned from long, fevered—often angry, Sidra had once mentioned, which seemed dangerous—discussions in Marlene’s office hours to glasses of wine at graduate conferences. Marlene invited Sidra to dinner parties at Marlene’s beautiful, expensive flat in Schöneburg, late night affairs with a range of academics and favoured students and visitors from Marlene’s exotic circle of contacts, and one night, for reasons that Liv still found foggy at best, Sidra had brought Jonno along with her. Liv would allow that she could see the attraction once he’d arrived: Jonno’s straightforward pleasure in Marlene’s intelligence, her looks, her glittering circle; his brash Australian laugh; the “refreshing,” Marlene said, “quality of his commentary.” They’d married six months later. Sidra rolled over, laid her face against the grass and sighed. She was closer now, though not closer than the nights in their shared tent. Without thinking about it, Liv said, “Did you and Marlene ever sleep together?” “No,” Sidra said sleepily. “We discussed it but it never happened.” “You discussed it?” Liv stared, but Sidra didn’t like echoed questions and didn’t respond. Liv said, “Has Marlene ever been with a woman?” “Mm, of course,” Sidra said. “Was she ever in a relationship with one?” Sidra squinted open one eye, turning her face to the side, her nose squashed against her arm. “Not as far as I know. Is it important?” “Not really,” Liv said. She let out a breath. “Why didn’t you, then? What did you discuss?” “We decided it wouldn’t be constructive,” Sidra said. The soles of Liv’s feet were tingling. “Does sex have to be constructive?” “Not necessarily,” Sidra said. Her eyes were closed again. “Was it because she wanted a relationship,” Liv said, not quite able to control the mocking ring to her voice, “and you can’t be tied down—” “No, no,” Sidra said, “I would have probably dated her, at the time.” Liv shut her mouth. Sidra stretched, sighed. “Perhaps I will buy him a book,” she said, “or a… watch.” “What do men want,” Liv said, still with that awful mocking note she couldn’t spit out. Sidra smiled, but didn’t open her eyes. Liv said, “Oh, you can discuss it with Marlene but not with me?” “We can discuss it if you like,” Sidra said. “I’m not sure it will help.” Liv bounced her tongue against her teeth. The sun was so warm, just hot enough to exert pressure, like someone was weighing her down with a rock in each palm, riverstones fitted to the hollows of her ankles. All of a sudden she wanted to be moving swiftly by a lake again, something huge but contained. She was done with rivers. “We should start riding again,” Sidra murmured, and groped for her underwear. She slid it on, and then pulled on her t-shirt with that sweet jerk of the collar over her head, the dyke-shrug, tugging it bare over her breasts. She looked at Liv, raised an eyebrow. Liv stretched out in the sunshine and Sidra laughed. She slid her hand into Liv’s wet hair and gave her a gentle shake. “Come on.” “Yeah, yeah,” Liv said, getting dressed, and let Sidra pull her to her feet. She stood smiling at Sidra and that afternoon they rode fast, chasing each other along the green flat of the country.  *** Two nights before the party they camped by the Polish border. It was an uninspiring spot, an unwelcoming backyard charging 20 Zloty for a pitch, but there were too many highways and suburbs around to find much in the way of wild camping. Liv walked alone to the tin shed operating as a unisex bathroom and brushed her teeth while a twenty-year-old guy leered at her. He said something in Italian, then English. Liv ignored him. She jumped, her mouth full of foam, and tapped her hand against the shivery timbers holding up the roof, felt her thighs bunch and release. She was half-swaggering when she went back to their tent. Sidra sat half-in and half-out. “I’m very sick of these,” she said, holding up a protein bar. It was her first complaint of the trip; Liv wondered if she’d been holding onto it all these weeks or if it had only just wandered across her mind. Either seemed equally likely. Liv sat cross-legged in front of her on the patchy grass. “Do you think I could beat someone up now?” Sidra looked amused. “I am not sure cycling gives you very strong fists.” “Well, we’ll see,” Liv said, flexing her fingers extravagantly and eyeing the campground. They played 66 until it got too dark to see the cards, and then they crawled into the tent and lay awake, murmuring to each other, rehearsing highlights, feeling out the partnered anecdotes they’d present. “The girl with the white cat in a basket in Valka,” Liv said. “That salmon brötchen before we caught the ferry at the edge of Kalingrad—” “The couple who put their tent up directly under a lamp post, and you said they were afraid of the dark—” “The one nice dinner place in Riga, with the pasta, what was it—” “Mint, capers, tomatoes, parmesan, tagliatelle—and you had to leave and get change because they couldn’t cash a 50 Euro note—” “The period where I bled so much without noticing my jeans were stiff like plastic—” “And you thought animals might smell it—” “That pilgrimage trail in Estonia—God, we should have done that, let’s go back and do it—” The night went cold, some last finger of winter. They rolled in close in their sleeping bags like two very clumsy and stupid but affectionate slugs. Liv knocked her forehead against Sidra’s shoulder, grinned up at her, and Sidra laughed at her, let Liv nuzzle in, her face tucked against Sidra’s throat. Right then the fact that Sidra was not in love with her did not feel so very terrible: they had ridden two thousand kilometres together, across the long lovely breadth of the continent. Liv pressed her closed eye against the sharp point of Sidra’s chin and pushed up just enough that the ache felt curious. Her eyelashes fluttered, twitching, and Sidra kept laughing, as though Liv and her love were a gift and not something to be kindly borne. [[{"fid":"6705801","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"}}]] In the morning they crossed the border into Germany and rode their last hundred kilometres. It barely took five hours. Brandenburg’s forests were spring-filthy, birds sweeping above rotting green mulch and fields lousy with grass seed. In Buckow’s sunny hostility Sidra said, “You know, we could just get the train from here,” and Liv threw her a look of disdain and sped up. Sidra overtook her as easily as ever but at least she didn’t offer that again, not even when they passed the first S-Bahn stations. Berlin had woken while they were gone. The light was blue-golden and sweet, drifting welcoming through the streets, and there were people wandering by the canal, having late lunches with beer out on the corners, eyeing Sidra and Liv and their grimy loads with blank interest. Other cyclists zipped around them, thin backpacks on unburdened steel frames. Liv swerved to avoid a pedestrian and felt slow for the first time in a month. At Paul-Lincke-Ufer Sidra braked and Liv froze in the middle of the street. A car horn blared and she startled into unsteady motion, flushing and making the faintly aggressive hand motion, all that was left of her muscle memory, while the driver yelled at her through his window. She pulled up next to Sidra. “This is my turning,” Sidra said. For the first time Liv noticed the dark shadows under her eyes. “Right,” she said. “I am sure all of our things are mixed up,” Sidra said, gesturing between their separate saddle bags. “But it can wait, I think. I’ll see you tomorrow?” “I—right,” Liv said. Sidra raised her eyebrows. “Unless you want to get a coffee?” “No, I should—I should unpack,” Liv said. She felt the gentle weight of real life hovering, like a coat someone else was still settling around her shoulders. “And do some laundry, maybe. And have a real shower.” “I am going to sleep in my own bed,” Sidra said, a little dreamily. “I am going to sleep all day.” “Yeah,” Liv said. Sidra leaned in and Liv flinched back. She rode home with Sidra’s attempted hug stewing in her head. Her house was quiet and clean, its walls so empty that it felt like a monk’s cell, whitewashed and simple. She dumped her stuff and then went to the Turkish bakery on the corner, bought dark knotted bread and milk and butter. At home she discovered she was out of teabags and drank hot water diluted with milk, like a child at a tea party. She ate the toast with the butter slathered on and melted in and salt sprinkled over the top. She took a long, long shower. She put on a t-shirt that she hadn’t worn in almost six months, a faded logo at the top from a tech conference. She plugged her phone in and left it in the kitchen. She went to her bed, fell onto her face and her hand, heel of her palm pressing anxiously at her pelvic bone, clean underwear already ruined. *** “Darling,” Marlene said, and took Liv into her arms, hugging her close then pushing her back, long delicate fingers on Liv’s shoulders, holding her at arms length and taking a long look at her. “Goodness. How brown you are.” Liv twitched a little in her grip. “Hiya,” she said. “We’ve missed you,” Marlene said, and led her inside. Marlene and Jonno were the only people Liv knew in Berlin who didn’t live in an apartment building, though Marlene had held onto her old Schöneburg apartment, subletting it for long stretches of time—once to Liv. Their house was in Krumme Lanke, tucked on a hillside corner, a rabbit warren of rooms and a backyard with a view down onto the lake. It was the most hopelessly adult house Liv had known since her parents’, and right then it was bustling with preparation; caterers carrying silver trays through the living room, construction workers wandering past the windows, the dog bounding round yelping joyfully at everyone. Liv blinked, looking around. “Why did you tell me to come so early?” she said. “Marlene, this is crazy—” “But we wanted to see you,” Marlene said. “You’ve been gone so long.” “A month,” Liv said. Truthfully, she thought it would not be unusual for her to see Marlene and Jonno only once every fortnight or so. She eyed Marlene, suspicion crawling up her neck. “You know what parties are like,” Marlene said, “I wanted to get a chance to talk to you,” and she touched the small of Liv’s back and led her through the house. “Let’s go outside, it’s calmer there. You don’t mind the noise, do you?” In the backyard Jonno was presiding over a small crew assembling a long beechwood table, sawdust gathering in the corners. The pavilion was collapsed on the ground beside it, a hung bundle of tent poles and fabric, and across the long sweep of grass cornflowers lay dappled as though they’d sprung up in his path. A half-drooping trail of unfinished birthday garlands tangled around the crooked knot of the big oak tree, and everywhere marigolds with their bright heads came cropping up. Jonno spotted Marlene and Liv and jogged over, raising a hand and a boyish smile. “Welcome back, mate,” he said, and hugged her. She kissed his bristly cheek. “Christ, you’re tanned. Want a beer?” “Sure,” Liv said. “Happy birthday!” “Well, it’s not until Tuesday,” Jonno said, grinning hugely and retreating to the esky to get an Augustiner for her. He knocked its cap off against the corner of the unfinished table, untroubled by the scowls of the German workmen. “On the actual night we will have a vigil,” Marlene said. “We will wear homespun clothes and eat only a little fish and greens and pray.” “No, no,” Jonno said and handed Liv the beer. “We’ll just get takeout and go see a movie or something.” “Hmm,” Marlene said. Liv laughed. “Or maybe you’ll still be hungover from tonight.” “It’s possible,” Jonno said. “But tell us about the grand trip! Sidra won’t even answer her phone, I take it you didn’t kill her—” “She’s probably still sleeping,” Liv said. “It was—it was great. I don’t know. It was a lot of cycling.” “Three and a half thousand k, jaysus,” Jonno said, shaking his head, and Liv started to correct him, explain how they’d had to chop off the last thousand or so kilometres, but one end of the table collapsed and Jonno hurried back to start cheerfully arguing in badly accented German with the guys setting it up. Marlene drew Liv over to a corner of the backyard where it was a little quieter; they lay down in the clover and Liv answered Marlene’s questions haltingly, tried to explain the long, painful dream of it. Then Marlene was called away to direct the pavilion erection and then the catering and never quite came back. Liv didn’t mind. She sipped her beer so slowly it went flat as she drank it and napped in her spot of sun. She felt luxurious and beautiful in her black party dress, with its sheer sleeves and the low hem hovering halfway down her newly dark thighs; felt clean and triumphant. She would lie here in the grass and wait, she thought, as though Sidra was an arrow who would make her fleet helpless way to Liv. Liv already had the pain of it, she just needed the moment of strike, the collision, and today had to be the day it would come, their first twenty-four hours of separation in a month endured, the quiet certainty of knowledge that this was it. She lay half-dreaming, listening to the party growing around her: the heaving up of the pavilion, the testing of the speakers and then the chopping shuffle of Jonno’s particular brand of indie folk, the popping of the first bottles of champagne and a low lovely clinking as glasses were arrayed all up and down the long table. When someone settled in beside her she smiled and didn’t open her eyes, her ankles crossed neatly, but the touch on the inside of her elbow was hesitant and when she looked it was only Elisa, one of the regulars at Marlene’s favourite bar. The party assembled itself with light gravity. The last signs of preparations disappeared as the crowd filtered in, and the sky went the hazy warm blue it would stay for hours. Liv smacked her lips at the unfamiliar taste of lipstick, but her second beer went down easier than her first, and her third even better. She drifted from group to group. Everyone had heard about the bike trip; everyone asked. Liv tried out a few of the anecdotes to decent effect. Her neck prickled everywhere she went, and she kept stumbling, as though people were standing on the edge of her shadow. She was glad she hadn’t worn heels. Everything was warm. Liv thought about hot air rising and wondered if she could be caught by one of the drifts in the night. She switched to champagne. The bubbles were stinging at her dry nose when Sidra put her palm on Liv’s shoulder. Liv swung to her; Sidra was already distracted, smiling across the backyard to where someone was calling her name. “Hullo, friend,” Sidra said. “Hallo, friend,” Liv said. Sidra was wearing green high-waisted trousers and a white linen shirt, lazily buttoned. She looked handsome and untouchable, the rough ragged lines of her hidden away. She looked neat and contained, and Liv resented the lie. “Did you get some sleep?” Liv said. “Mm, yes,” Sidra said. She kept her hand on Liv’s shoulder but her gaze was tracking across the backyard, taking in the people, lingering on strangers, smiling when she caught sight of Jonno gesturing exuberantly. “And Marlene and I went to Geist im Glas this morning—I had forgotten how good pancakes could be. What?” she added, as Liv stared. “Marlene said she hadn’t spoken to you,” Liv said, frowning, and then amended, “well, Jonno said it—” “I did not see Jonno,” Sidra said, shrugging. “But Marlene was right there.” Liv passed her hand against her brow; pricks of sweat beading there, too many people here and her black dress soaked in evening sun. She felt confused, as though she had been told some pointless lie that she couldn’t understand. “She was nodding…” Sidra’s hand screwed tighter around Liv’s shoulder. “You look very pretty,” she said. Liv looked at the ground. She was drunk, she realised. Nothing made sense. Someone called Sidra’s name, and Sidra told Liv that she would see her in a bit, unhooked herself, and sailed away. Liv went looking for more champagne and was given a glass of Sauvignon Blanc instead, good enough to taste more like mineral water than wine, slipping through her. She tried to remember if they’d drank at all on the trip; she thought they might have bought a few bottles of beer one afternoon in Latvia on the seashore, but all she could recall was the taste of ginger ale. She mentioned this to a passing Marlene, who misunderstood and brought her a Moscow Mule. Dinner was brought out in glass bowls and wooden platters, a long spread of salads: mango with bright sparks of chillies and coriander; thin green slices of apple and fennel; potato salad made with turmeric so it was a sweet burnished gold; penne tossed with zucchini and basil pesto. And heavy round loaves of Turkish bread, cold cuts, hummus streaked with paprika in matte silver bowls. Liv passed along it, dazed. She felt as though she was recovering from a very long illness, and ate sparingly. She spent quite a long time talking to another Australian, a fashionably bearded guy from Sydney who’d only moved to Germany nine months ago. He told her his impressions of Berlin in great and authoritative detail. When she mentioned the bike trip he became exhaustingly enthusiastic and asked her a lot of questions, touching her more and more as she responded, his hand on her elbow or her waist. She excused herself and went to the bathroom, put her head against her knees. She came back out and drank some water. Marlene rang a heavy antique bell, indulgent. Everyone gathered into a crowd. Champagne was passed around. Liv expected Marlene to make a speech, but instead Sidra came forward. She climbed on a chair, one hand balancing on Jonno’s shoulder. She said, “Well, I rode two thousand kilometers to get to this party, and I guess it was worth it.” Jonno beamed up at her. Liv wanted to heckle. Sidra gave a short, abrupt speech about Jonno: his warmth, his confusing Australian habit of ending normal statements as though they were questions, his ability to make the best of any situation. “Once we were on the U-bahn,” Sidra said, “and the train stopped suddenly between the stations. It went dark, there was a lot of static, people were worried and children were crying, and Jonno turned to me and said, ‘thank God, I thought I’d never get the chance to finish my book.’”                       Liv had never made the best of any situation in her life. Marlene stepped forward and said, “My husband,” and something else Liv didn’t catch, and then people started clapping, parting as the cake was brought out to a cheer and a halting round of Happy birthday to you, Jonno’s face bright in the glow. Liv slipped away and went to vomit tidily in the bushes. The next beer tasted awful, made her stomach swell. She shook her head when someone offered her a slice of cake. “Liv,” Marlene said, appearing beside her. She put a cool arm around Liv, who pressed her hot brow against Marlene’s shoulder. “I think I’m going to leave Berlin,” Liv said. “It’s time to go back home.” “Okay.” “I’m not joking.” “I know you’re not,” Marlene said, smoothing Liv’s sticky hair back. “But you don’t believe me,” Liv said. “I believe you,” Marlene said. “But you often want to leave Berlin when you’re upset. Where will you go?” “Sorry,” Liv said. “I’ve had too much to drink.” Marlene turned and tucked Liv’s face against her collarbone. “My poor girl,” she said. “There are worse things in the world than someone not loving you back,” which meant Sidra had told her everything, or worse, hadn’t had to, and Marlene had read Liv’s dumb unhappy face as capably as Sidra herself. Liv breathed out. Marlene took Liv’s hand in hers and they swayed back and forth, just conceivably dancing. “I hated that book you gave me,” Liv murmured, but Marlene didn’t hear her. When Marlene was distracted Liv slipped away. The last of the light had disappeared while her head was hidden against Marlene’s party dress, and Liv walked to the train station in the dark, her mesh bag so weightless now that its present was gone that she felt worryingly untethered. The train moved so easily. Liv stood leaning against the doors, contemptuous. Liv had just left her station when her phone rang and she picked it up without thinking. “Hi,” she said, sulky as a child waiting to be told off, but Sidra only said, “Hello.” She sounded breathless and far away, no music, no conversation, just a weird rustling on the other end of the line and her voice tinny. Liv wondered if she’d forgotten what Sidra’s voice sounded like when it wasn’t dropped directly into her ear, but then Sidra said, “Can you hear me? I’m riding.” The image hit Liv like a fist: Sidra on her bike, lit by that huge golden moon, no helmet, one earbud in and the other flicking out like a thin white tail in the night. Though all she said was, “Did you seriously bike to the party?” “Of course,” Sidra said. “You didn’t want a break?” “I love my bike,” Sidra said, faintly surprised, and Liv laughed loud and long enough that she knew she was still drunk. “I know,” she said, “I know you do. I’m just surprised you’re leaving so early.” “I’m not,” Sidra said. “I’m going back. Jonno is panicking that they’re running out of ice, I’m riding to the 24-hour Edeka. You left, though.” “Yeah,” Liv said. Sidra didn’t say anything else, though Liv could hear the light labour of her breath and the low squeak her brakes had started making somewhere in Lithuania, as familiar to Liv as the sound of her own footsteps. More familiar. “Walking feels really slow,” Liv said, “all of a sudden.” “Mm,” Sidra said, then, “fuck, I went the wrong way.” “You gotta go right on—” “Right on Forckenbeckstraße, I know,” Sidra said. “I was distracted; I was thinking about you.” “Sidra—” “I think the best thing we can do,” Sidra said cheerfully, “is ignore it.” “You think that because you’re not the one getting hurt.” “Still,” Sidra said, “I am not having the best time.” “I’m sorry it’s such a bummer to not be able to fuck me because you know I’ll get too invested.” There was the low jingle of Sidra jumping off her bike and getting out her lock. “Well, Liv, I am all ready and waiting for your big idea.” Liv thought about repeating what she had told Marlene, that she wanted to leave Berlin. She reached her apartment steps and sat on them, holding her keys in one tight fist. She said, “We could fuck anyway.” “While you are too invested?” “It might not be so bad,” Liv said. “For a little while.” She paused, thought through rapid misery and Sidra’s hands on her. “I’ll tell you before I start eating your villagers.” Sidra laughed. “Well,” she said. “I have to get the ice first. Bis bald.” “Bye,” Liv said. At home she took her dress and bra off and put on a sweatshirt she’d stolen from Sidra long ago, pale green with Frauenschmiede stamped over her right breast. The sleeves were already too short and she rolled them up more, eyed herself in the mirror. Everyone was right: she was tanned. Her hair was overgrown and tangled. Her arms were lean and her thighs thick with muscle. She even looked taller; actually, she had always been taller than Sidra.
‘I Wanted to Write a Book That Felt Supernaturally Slippery and Alive’: An Interview with Sara Peters

Talking to the author of I Become a Delight to My Enemies about writing as a natural act (or not) that fixes your life (or doesn’t), humour as a balm, and the power of shame.

Sara Peters and I began our email correspondence on a beautiful September afternoon. Outside, the birds were frenzied. My neighbour blared electronica. Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry. It was as if the world was trying to compete with Sara's brilliant, glittering, hilarious, and brutal stampede of a book, I Become a Delight to My Enemies (Strange Light). Well, the world did not stand a chance. Described as experimental fiction, Peters' novel is the story of a town built upon an underground lake. The town has all of the indicators of civilization: a school, a convenience store, a mayor, discarded wifi networks, marzipan, gold nail polish, factory meat, many hospitals, and a "Farmhouse" for unwanted girls. The story is told by both the living and the dead-a polyphonic choir of female ghosts. Composed of vignettes, marginalia, and transcription—no page numbers—Enemies is, in the truest sense, its own animal. And yet, this wildness is met head on by Peters' knife-sharp prose, deep humour, and critical intelligence. While I was filled with awe and other darker and more dangerous emotions, I was never without orientation. Our correspondence took on this same quality as we spoke directly and openly about control, loss, shame, and that tricky outfit known as the female human body. Here is how it began: Dear Sara, Please interject "as you wish" (Princess Bride). I'm hoping our correspondence will be pulsing and spontaneous within this old school approach of exchanging telegrams. xx. from my attic studio in an overlarge tracksuit with SAD lamp blazing. Sara: This sounds perfect. I've put on track pants in your honour, and I'm covered in cat hair, listening to Pharoah Sanders and fucking with my split ends. Claudia Dey: This may be an impossible way for us to begin, but I have to tell you that I have never had a reading experience—until Enemies—wherein I wanted to both read the book and consume it. I finally understand why women tattoo Anne Carson passages to their necks and biceps and hipbones with anatomical drawings as backgrounds for her lines. The neurologists say that, in terms of brain response, reading is only second to lived experience. So thank you, Sara, for the deep haunting and cellular rearrangement. Alright, now here is my question. Can you pinpoint the moment Enemies began for you? Maybe I'm trying to break up its spell into parts? Identify the source? Some writers talk about this moment as an anguish, a possession. For me, it presents the way an infection might. I draw the curtains and sort of take sick with images and voices, and the only way to cure myself is to write them. Can you take us back to the beginnings? How did Enemies take hold of you? Sara Peters: Hello Claudia!! Thank you so much for this description—I am unbelievably grateful to you for reading my book, even more grateful that you wanted to consume it, that makes me want to scream and joyously break everything in reach. How it began: I was in Robarts Library at University of Toronto with my dear friend Anastasia (we had made a pact to work together). We sat at one of those eight-foot tables on the first floor, and she vanished industriously into her laptop and I put my head on my folded-up jacket and took an 80-minute nap. When I woke up I remembered reading—or hearing—something about an animal that would run from predators until its hooves wore down to nubs. And I wondered what would happen if that animal kept running, and then I wondered what would happen if that animal were a woman, and then I started to write about it, and I eventually called what I wrote "Hooves." Because the premise was "impossible" (in the piece the speaker "runs" until her body has entirely worn away, except for her head and shoulders) I felt immediately that I wanted to write out of, or about, a different world, and that's how I came to think about the town. I wanted to write a book that felt supernaturally slippery and alive. I think that was also the (more explicit) beginning of my interest in writing about shame, which I will definitely return to again and again in life, and likely in this conversation! It's funny: I long for the kind of sickness and possession you describe, but I have never felt it, in my writing. I have never felt that my characters or stories or whatever were anything other than under my control, and sourced in my own mind. I am almost never taken off guard—I want to be! When I hear other writers talk about characters or stories breaking the leash, or doing things they hadn't planned on, morphing in unexpected ways, I am astonished and envious. For me, one of the deep frustrations of writing can be the predictability and scale-ability of my own brain or psyche or whatever you want to call it. I always feel hyper-conscious of my own absolute agency. I am never possessed; I am never transported. I am always the one making the decisions. I am a frequently-bored despot. I am so curious about your experience of this! Do the images and voices feel immediately in relationship with each other, emotionally and/or atmospherically? Or are they more discrete/closed systems? O what a beautiful answer. We could swap brains? I could be the yawning despot and you could be the channeler? I would say that yes, for me, the voices and images are in a relationship that slowly makes sense of itself—over time. Together they are the asteroid crashing into the earth and lighting everything up, gorgeously, catastrophically (they signal I will be behind a door for three years). I have very little control until midway through the process when I start to impose systems, markers and so forth, scalpel-edits. Until then, I just try to stay porous and let all my angels and demons into the room. I've tried to plan things out in the past, but find I just ruin everything that way. I want to get to Shame, a woman's meanest, dearest friend, Shame. But first, the town. The town could, on its welcome sign staked into the ground, have SHAME carved into it with the population beneath? Alright. The town is "slippery." It is quite literally built above an underground lake. Its story is told by its occupants. These occupants are both living and returned from the dead—a choir of ghost voices loosed in the book's opening pages from the northeast cliff. In order to receive the truth, we must hear from all souls, yes? The fragile boundary between worlds—living and dead, land and water—is so unnervingly present throughout the book. I think the title operates perfectly. It is the indirect, clean entry to the book. It sets us up for this flux and instability—you place Delight beside Enemies for starters. Can you tell me about the title? This discarded wifi network?... I was recently thinking about the wifi networks in response to a (wonderful) question that was posed to me about them. I wanted the title to be extremely specific, yet general; apparently first-person yet untraceable; impossible to absolutely define, perhaps paradoxical, but hopefully rich in particular emotional meanings. To me, wifi network names are fascinating visions into time/place/culture. And I wanted my book's title to be a public secret: someone chose it, but who, and why? (I am so envious of your description! I want this asteroid crash and everything associated with it to happen to me!) I think that a huge part of the issue, for me, is that writing has never felt like a "natural" act (whatever that means). I've done it my whole life, but I can't remember a time when I entered into the TASK of it feeling anything less than reluctance, and a slight amount of anger plus despair. I used to feel deeply weird about my sour and twisted relationship with writing; now, I don't care. I am in awe of people who write joyously and/or easily; people to whom it feels necessary, organic. I have decided that I don't need it to feel natural—actually, that I think that's a specious and largely meaningless descriptor. Do you believe in this idea that—I love its plainness/classic Lucia Berlin to articulate something so big so cleanly—this idea that writing fixes or repairs your life? I don't think I believe in permanent fixes, and as for repairs... I don't know. I feel that for other people, this could very well be the case—I can imagine writing providing solace, solidity, occasional answers. It feels impossible to speak generally. For me, writing can force clearer articulations of emotional, psychological, philosophical, and political ideas and realities—my own, and what I imagine of other people's. I think I understand this—a repair has that on-switch feeling of the word miracle, which has always sounded like an ice cream flavour or a stripper name to me. Maybe more along the lines of Ottesa Moshfegh (whom I think is a kind of prose cousin to you; she once described her work as both refined and corporeal—“like seeing Kate Moss take a shit"). She talks about writing as a way to "rise up to a higher realm of existence." Okay. On the subject of "clearer articulations of... realities"—both your own and other people's... I have a friend who has experienced too many losses in her life. She has started to meet with a woman in a carpeted office, and this woman brings my friend's dead into the room. I pictured you this way—as both the medium and my friend with her losses. I don't want to read into your private life for a second, but I do want to address the many voices of the book. Does this image of the women in the carpeted office make sense to you? I am a fan of Ottessa Moshfegh! Especially McGlue. (And Lucia Berlin, of course.) The image of the women in the carpeted office makes immediate sense to me symbolically and also literally (slash factually). The literal/factual part is that I am a therapist (in training), and I've been seeing clients in private practice for about three years. I have also worked with various therapists (as a client) for many years, so I have been, and will continue to be, both women in that room. The many voices in the book... it's funny, as I think about them right now, in this moment, my mind feels very empty. I would love to say something smart and complex and incisive about the decision to make the book polyvocal: what I hoped to accomplish, what I hoped to resist, etcccccccccc. I had so many reasons and ideas and justifications and aesthetic arguments, and now I can't remember any of them, so I wonder how much they actually mattered to me. I am thinking about your friend. I always wonder about people experiencing profound loss and grief, and how best to support them, therapeutically. How to try to be with them in their agony, without... making assumptions about how they feel, or what they need. Or (internally) comparing their stories too much to my own, in an attempt to find a shared landscape. I can personally imagine feeling very resistant to a therapist-stranger doing any sort of conjuring around my own dead; my reflexive impulse would be to say: Don't touch this, you didn't know them, you can't know them. Don't fake it, and perhaps don't even try. Regarding conjuring... I think your book achieves this delicate and profound effect of resurrecting ghosts without laying claim to them... I want to move on to the female human body. You write the mad and unwanted girls who are sent to the "Farmhouse." The Farmhouse is lorded over by the Chancellor in his throne, rubbing softening cream into his hands. A thousand rapes and murders came into my mind as I read about the Farmhouse. Robert Pickton, Marc Lepine—though the book is far from a victimology. In "Third State," you write: We no longer felt tethered to human vanities: we played host to all manner of insects and parasites. Being female, we had been taught to wonder when we would break off into factions and assemble against each other. We waited for the lies and betrayals to begin, and when they did not we knew that, in this way, we had defeated the gunman. You write the stories of twins, the result of incest; a six-fingered woman who saves a drowning boy, teaches the piano and weeps without apparent provocation; teenagers in the fluorescent night light of a convenience store in complicated bras, under transparent umbrellas, looking for shelter; a teacher whose pants are too tight—she is allergic to chalk, and ages at hyperspeed like a face in a horror film. You write "Hooves"—the dream that started the book wherein a woman is worn down to her face and shoulder blades as she transits the earth, picking up cigarette butts, running into hydro poles etc. You get the humiliations and the glories of the female human body. The female body that can multiply and produce other bodies. The female body that can be saviour, oracle, prey to male violence. This is our moment to come back to shame. Why do you revisit shame in your work? I revisit shame because I think it is the most nefarious and contagious emotion; the most isolating; the most linked to self-hatred, the most linked to a sense of being contaminated, disgusting, stupid, alone, apart. And, obviously, it can so often become lodged in us after experiences with abusive people (as in: sexual assault, physical violence, emotional abuse) and abusive systems of power (white supremacy, colonialism, misogyny, transphobia, to list only a few). I have felt an enormous amount of shame, in my life. It was a corrosive force within me for many years. But I don't want to speak entirely in past tense: of course I am not shame-free, of course I never will be! I write about shame because: 1. It is the emotion that most of us would do almost anything to avoid feeling. 2. Most people hate talking about it. 3. For me, it is very difficult to write about. 4. It exerts tremendous power, often invisibly. 5. It is closely linked with control. 6. it is closely linked with privacy, and exposure. 7. It lies to people and it kills people. And its lies limit our lives, and make us feel unworthy of love, care, empathy, and connection. I just felt profound relief that your writing about shame in this interview will be published on the internet. This is an example of when writing can function as an empathy machine. Thank you, Sara. There were times, as I was reading, when I wondered if you had a kind of hazmat suit to protect your being as you wrote-because you scrape up against everything that hurts. But I want to pivot here. Really pivot. To my surprise and delight, Enemies is often deeply and unnervingly funny. I want to talk about funny. An aside I guess: my feeling about the dominant culture is that it doesn't find it easy to acknowledge that women artists are funny. More important, this book, this book—the emotional and bodily gore of this book—Enemies makes Blue Velvet look like a pastoral—this book is so immediately and naturally funny. The funny is never manufactured, never inserted. Here's my question: what is your relationship to funny? Your need for funny? Is it a kind of salvation or oxygen? I would love a hazmat suit, but for fashion!! I'm thrilled that you found the book funny, and that the humour didn't feel manufactured or inserted. Humour is so important to me, personally and aesthetically. It feels crucial as a balm and a balancer, and also as a way to take myself and ***MY WRITING*** less seriously. Or, rather, I want to take both of those "things"‚the me-thing and the writing-thing—extremely seriously, and not seriously, at all. I wanted the book to feel emotionally prismatic, and I also wanted to talk about trauma and shame in ways that felt accessible, immediate, and real. And, for me, there is great freedom and release and defiance in finding ways to laugh-genuinely-about the most devastating aspects of my life. And oh god, yes, the whole women-can't-be-funny thing. It is so culturally present, as you note. And so wildly, contemptibly stupid.