The author of Blue Ticket on leaving things unsaid, weaponizing humour, and bodily autonomy.
Sanctioning the buffoonery of Joel Schumacher.
The author of Feminist City on intersectional urban planning, care work, and feminist geography.
Turns out, snow plows are sexist. Not the machines themselves, per se, but the way our cities go about using them. See also: our bus schedules, street lights, or that urban classic, “a disgusting basement bathroom down a treacherous flight of stairs.” All are examined in Leslie Kern’s Feminist City (Verso Books), a work of feminist geography exploring the ways gender and other identity valences complicate the experience of living and working in the modern city. The book examines the city’s paradoxical ability to oppress and emancipate—how an environment teeming with gendered inconvenience, racial discrimination, and sexual violence can also be a locus of queer independence, community care, and emancipatory feminist world-making. Heavily researched but accessibly written, Kern cites Baudelaire on one page and extols the virtues of a teenage day at the mall on the next. The book is a dynamic mix of high and low, facts and feelings, research and reality. Reading it, I spent a lot of time grumbling, “god, that too?” as more and more daily inconveniences were revealed, not as flaws in the place I pay $1800 per month to live, but signs it is functioning as planned. Kern, an associate professor and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University, grounds her book in “the geography closest in”—that is, her own experience. Traversing a childhood in Toronto, family trips to New York City, new motherhood in London, and an academic career in Sackville, New Brunswick, Kern examines times she has encountered the city as, to borrow a phrase from feminist geographer Jane Darke, “patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.” Aware that these experiences are necessarily limited in scope and directed by her various privileges, Kern visits other cities and perspectives through case studies and the work of other critics, writers, and activists. She’s also refreshingly realistic about the extent to which academic discussions of issues like gentrification or the housing crisis can help, looking often to the practical work being done to solve these problems by everyday women, people of colour, queer and non-binary communities. Giving equal space to formal urban policy and improvised methods of community care, Kern’s work acknowledges that studies and statistics don’t guarantee institutional change, and that privileging the well-being of marginalized people is a responsibility of citizens at every level. From our homes in two very different shutdown cities (London, UK, and Sackville, New Brunswick) Kern and I corresponded about feminist-worldbuilding, what COVID-19 can teach us about community, and whether my “Golden Girls commune” retirement fantasy is problematic. Monica Heisey: Let’s start with the city. What, historically, have been some of the promises of the urban environment? Leslie Kern: The promises of the urban environment—and whether they’re kept or not—depend a lot on factors like gender, class, and race, but for most people, the promises would probably fall mainly into the categories of work, finding community, and accessing the public realm. By “public realm” I mean everything from the world of politics to the basic public infrastructures of education, health care, and social services. Less tangibly, the promises of pleasure, freedom, excitement, opportunity, and encounter run through narratives of the city historically and today. The city promises anonymity in ways that small town life can’t, which should open up a lot more possibilities for women to live their lives in ways that don’t conform to strict social norms. Paradoxically, though, women also experience a sort of hypervisibility in public space. You don’t feel very anonymous when you’re being cat-called on the street or groped on the subway. Perhaps the greatest paradox is that whatever freedoms the city does offer depend a lot on women being more like men in terms of their roles and lifestyles. As soon as you “fall” into the traditional roles of mother, caregiver, wife, the city is much less supportive of your needs. For me personally, my first inkling that sexism might have a relationship to the built environment came from my experience of motherhood, of trying to navigate cities—London and Toronto—with a baby. The former seamless mobility of the city for me as an able-bodied person, punctuated by the occasional bout of sexist harassment, was suddenly a maze of barriers that made it very clear that the city wasn’t set up for me. One of the heartening takeaways from your book is that solutions for one demographic—say, new mothers—often benefit others. Accommodating a stroller can make the subway easier to navigate for people with walkers or wheelchairs, for example. There are lots of ways that improvements for one group can benefit others; the converse is also true, though, and that’s where an intersectional analysis is crucial. Policies that, on their face, are supposed to contribute to women’s safety, might actually just be ways to expand policing, extend the reach of the criminal justice system, and justify the harassment and surveillance of poor people, homeless people, queer and trans folks, and people of colour. If “taking back the night” makes the city less safe for people like sex workers, drug users, and homeless people, then there’s nothing particularly feminist about it. If efforts to increase access and safety for public restrooms reproduce a regressive and strict gender binary, making them unsafe for trans, gender fluid, or non-binary people, or anyone not fitting into a narrow box of gender presentation, then those efforts also aren’t feminist, in my opinion. So, for me, the idea of feminist city has to be germinated out of the experiences of those who struggle the most to find a place in the city. Feminist geography is a relatively new field. Can you explain a bit about what your work involves, and what it means to envision a “feminist city?” In many cases, we’re still struggling just to add women and non-men to the picture, for example by gathering gender sensitive data, as Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women details so well. Then there’s the level where we’re trying to figure out how gendered and other identities are constructed in relation to place. We’re also concerned with how power circulates and gets built into the human-made environment. Envisioning a feminist city means thinking about all the ways the spaces of the city and their social norms uphold gender inequalities, and doing it intersectionally, so it doesn’t just reflect the needs of, for example, relatively privileged middle-class white women. I’d also note that even though feminist geography is relatively new, women have been proposing their own designs for homes, neighbourhoods, and cities since the 19th century. They recognized that the organization of these spaces contributed to women’s inequality, and that movement toward women’s education and financial independence would require new spatial arrangements. While reading your book I was struck by urban planners’ insistent failure to understand the needs of their own demographics. You write that cities are designed for a “typical citizen” who’s white, straight, male, able bodied, works a 9-5 job, etc. Surely every census would make clear that the “typical citizen” as he’s been imagined for so long is anything but; cities have access to so much data about their residents! What’s going on here? Part of the answer might be that planning—along with associated professions like architecture, urban design, and even urban politics—is still a male-dominated field. The range of perspectives that are at the table is much narrower than the range of identities that make up the modern city. There’s also the paradox that planners, while thinking ahead to the needs of tomorrow, are very much working with the built environment of the past; buildings are durable, they last long after the social norms that produced them in many cases. And planners are also steeped in social norms, which are not as progressive as many of us would like to imagine. After all, there’s still stigma attached to being child free, single after thirty, divorced, a single parent, polyamorous, living with multiple generations in one home, renting, being queer, etc., even though taken together we are likely a majority in most places. What’s behind this urge to detach the social world from the built environment? Well, the social world is messy, isn’t it? It’s complicated, it involves bodies and feelings and all kinds of “irrational” behaviors, driven by fear and love and desire and greed and compassion in unpredictable and confounding ways. Planning is, by its nature, forward thinking: you’re planning for something, and in order to do that you need the world to seem ordered, predictable, and rational. Too many variables make the map too complicated. But it’s also about priorities. For many cities, economic development, expanding tax bases, and growth have been the highest planning priorities. Next to these goals, social concerns are secondary. The book returns a number of times to co-op community models, and, in the female friendship chapter, to Golden Girls-style retirement communities. I really related—my friends and I imagine this often. Why do we all reserve this fantasy for retirement? Because men have shorter life spans? I jest. Let’s face it, friendship is pretty much forced to take a backseat to romantic relationships and parenthood for a good chunk of many peoples’ adult lives. It’s maybe only at retirement that we can imagine a time when the kinds of friendships we had in our teens and twenties can truly re-emerge. Maybe for women, this is when we start to imagine—or hope?—that some of our endless caregiving responsibilities will let up and we can have more time for ourselves and the relationships that energize us. So many of the potential solutions outlined in your book are about accommodating increased demand on women for care work; is getting men to carry more of this burden an option? How do we get them, like... interested in that? If I knew, I would’ve written that book and made a million dollars. Thinking about it makes me tired in my bones. There might be some things we can do in our individual households. In my first marriage I stopped picking up after my husband or washing his clothes. Effective, but we did get divorced. Ultimately, we have to build a society where it’s impossible for men not to do their share of care work, and that is totally revolutionary. It would mean eliminating the wage gap, so households don’t default to men’s work being more important. It would mean that care work wasn’t looked down upon and devalued. It would mean setting up our cities in ways that didn’t make it seem easier for women to stay home or work from home. It would mean that there is no economic punishment for doing care work—women are supposed to, and do, accept this; men never would. Another group the book doesn’t have much faith in is government. You return often to the reality that we can’t rely on state or urban policy intervention; what can we do to make our cities more liveable for everyone in them? It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t put all my eggs in the urban policy basket. Over the last several decades, cities all over the world have embraced neoliberal agendas designed to put profits over the needs of people, resulting in crises of affordability, privatization of services, and the militarization of public space. How’s that working out for us? Not so great, as this crisis has shown. What’s remarkable is that under this intense pressure, nations and cities have miraculously been able to find ways to fund certain kinds of social services. Imagine! So, while I definitely look to more community-based efforts in general, this crisis reminds me, and maybe all of us, that the state is not powerless to act to redress inequalities. Let’s have a long-term freeze on rent increases. Let’s pay everyone a living wage. We can do it. A favourite passage of mine: Feminist visions of the city have been here all along. Some were never fully realized, and some are in the past, but there are examples of both practices and ideals that are being lived right now, under our noses. What might exist as pockets of resistance or simply alternative ways of organizing care, work, food, and more are sites of possibility for a broader, more transformative vision. It’s empowering to remember that so much of this work is going on already, whether or not it’s formally recognized, and that anyone can decide to be a part of it. Although I would love to see gender truly taken seriously at the urban policy level, I don’t think we have to wait for that shift before we start our feminist world-making projects in our own backyards. For example, artist OlaRonke Akinmowo created the Free Black Women’s Library, a mobile pop-up trading library of books by Black women, especially feminists, that circulates through Brooklyn and beyond. People come to trade books, talk, ask questions, and socialize at the library, which embodies a feminist, anti-capitalist ethos. Another example is the work of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, which serves an extremely marginalized community that includes sex workers, recent immigrants, Indigenous women, homeless women, women escaping violence, and women with addictions. They’re located at one of the geographic centers of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis. Their recent Red Woman Rising report centered Indigenous women survivors in a compelling call to action on gendered colonial violence and a life-affirming focus on healing. These two very different examples both highlight intersectionality and embody a grassroots, women-centred approach to making women’s urban lives more liveable. “The non-sexist city” often sounds like a bunch of connected but independent supportive communities. Is it possible that we just need to re-envision the city as a cluster of small towns? Yeah, it’s very tempting to see all of this as a problem of scale. But for many, the city is an escape from the confines and problems of small town life. There are things that people really value about the city—anonymity, diversity, a productive clash of cultures—that aren’t readily available in most small towns or communities. Any community, no matter its size, reproduces inclusions and exclusions of various sorts. But it’s true that within the city, people do create smaller scale communities that include face-to-face relationships and networks of care. It might not always be possible to scale those up, but I do think we as a society could find ways to better support and value those networks. I relocated to London recently, in part because I was feeling disillusioned with Toronto. It sort of seems like the benefits of living in a big city aren’t reliably accessible there, while the negatives are multiplying by the day. My friends and I talk fondly about moving to the countryside or a small town, and in London at least, the movement of young creatives out of town to places like Margate is already happening. Do you think that’s going to continue? But also, is this just a kind of new twist on the gentrification impulse? Basically: am I part of the problem? Well, yes. But focusing on you or me or our friends doesn’t actually get us very far in our analysis of the problem. My love of avocados is not responsible for Toronto’s condo boom any more than your romanticization of Margate is responsible for the outrageous levels of property speculation in London that have left the city with a tiny vacancy rate and the “opportunity” to rent someone’s walk-in closet for two hundred quid a week. The things that have left you disillusioned aren’t merely matters of taste; they’re serious problems that affect how you and many others live, work, care, and survive in cities. Many people simply can’t afford to do it anymore. Now, perhaps you have a little more choice in terms of when and where you might go, and that might entail some responsibility to think about what you’re bringing to a new community, how you’ll prioritize the needs and knowledges of locals, etc. But overall, we have to worry less about individual choices and more about the structures that drive displacement. Okay, this is sort of a COVID bonus round: is this pandemic an interesting time to be an urban geographer? What do you hope to learn from this global lockdown? At the moment I’m a little removed from the direct urban experience, but the question of what “we” have learned is so interesting because it really depends on who the “we” is. Broadly speaking, “we” have learned what feminists and people from marginalized communities have been shouting ourselves hoarse about for decades: that care work, broadly defined, both paid and unpaid, is literally what allows all of THIS to work, and when it’s disrupted, a crisis can become a catastrophe. So, the organization of this work in terms of both who does it, and where it is done, becomes really important to acknowledge and reconsider. Have we set our cities and social safety nets up to sustain us when crisis hits? Clearly not. So now we have to figure out what we must do going forward into the next pandemic, and into that other crisis that’s already here, climate change. I started self-isolating sort of excited at the possibility that this would involve a major social restructuring. These days, I’m not so sure. Do you think the pandemic will alter the way we think about “key workers,” and maybe force policymakers to prioritize—or at least accommodate—their needs? I’d also like to think that we won’t immediately forget people like grocery store workers and cleaners as we move beyond the immediate crisis. A lot of how we value work, though, depends on who does it and how we see those people and their contributions to the economy and to society. So, if that work is done by women, people of colour, immigrants, youth, and older people and in general we devalue their contributions, then we might not see a major shift. This could also be a moment where some places actively roll back gains; we’re seeing opportunistic right wing states and nations take hold of the crisis as a chance to limit abortion access and LGBTQ+ rights. I think it’s too soon to say whether we’re barrelling towards the Handmaid future or something else, but you know, the discourse matters. The fact that we can talk about universal basic income without the idea being laughed out the room instantly is a good sign.
This wasn’t the first time I had become obsessed with drowning.
Last winter, I took a train to Höchst im Odenwald, a small town an hour south of Frankfurt. Clusters of white rooftops poked above the trees, spindly pines scraping the pale blue sky. The air smelled of chimney smoke. Forests gave way to wide pastures, where cows and sheep grazed and starlings swooped low in search of seeds. Elke Hilbert picked me up at the train station in a wheezing stick shift and told me families took summertime boat trips on the nearby Main River. Her family took a boat there once, when her son Max was a child. She thinks about that trip often. We took a roundabout route to Elke’s home. She showed me Max’s primary school, the traveler’s hostel where he worked as a teenager, the soccer pitch where he used to practice. Later, in the house, I sat at the kitchen table, and Elke brought me coffee and a tray of heart-shaped muffins she’d baked for Valentine’s Day. A neighbor rang the doorbell and gave Elke a basket of black and white cookies. “Please, eat them,” Elke said, pushing the treats toward me. I pulled out my recorder, and for the next five hours we talked about Max. He died in 2015 at nineteen, an apparent drowning in a Galician fishing village. When I visited Elke, he would have been twenty-three. My age. I learned about Max after I walked the Camino de Santiago to Fisterra, a village on Galicia’s Costa da Morte. Fisterra means End of the Earth in Gallego, the local language. The landscape there is austere. Rugged cliffs cut into choppy water. During the wintertime, waves can reach up to forty feet high. The regional delicacy is a barnacle called percebe, and percebeiros risk their lives scrambling down rocks to collect them. Residents told me Fisterra saw a handful of drownings a year—most often pilgrims who underestimated the power of the current, but sometimes fishermen and percebeiros, too. The rocky coast was also notorious for shipwrecks. With any tragedy on the sea, the first to arrive on the scene were fishermen, the people who knew the coast best. Later, a local poet would tell me, “We know death well here.” *** After I left Galicia, I spent a few hours browsing the Internet for reports of drownings in Fisterra. One webpage provided a list of people who died walking the Camino each year—heatstroke, heart attack, a twenty-six-year-old run over by a train. Further searching led me to a news article about a young German man named Max who had gone swimming in frigid water, and the fisherman who had spent weeks searching for him when he disappeared. I googled images of Max, and photos popped up: Bright blonde hair, piercing blue eyes. More searching got me his mother’s email address, and a month later, Elke responded to my interview request. “I think that speaking with you about my beloved son Max could be a kind of ‘psychotherapy’ for me, an effective medicine for both my soul and my heart,” she wrote. We spoke by Skype in October of 2018. I took the call in my pajamas. It was two a.m. in California, where I was visiting my family, and I spoke quietly from a dim corner of the living room, wary of waking my parents. Elke had white-blonde hair and blue eyes like her son, and she apologized repeatedly for her English, though it was near-perfect. As we talked, she told me about Max’s penchant for philosophy and his lust for traveling. She was more reticent to speak of his mental health problems. She mentioned a “psychotic break” and marijuana use but didn’t want to say more. *** People usually have a personal reason for walking the Camino de Santiago, a ready-made answer to the question, “Why are you walking?” Some people walk because they have quit their jobs; others quit their jobs to walk. One man I met while walking had just broken up with a long-time girlfriend. The summer I walked, I walked because I didn’t want to do anything else. I wanted to think of nothing but my surroundings. I wanted to be in motion. Max’s friend Jenny Gast told me he walked because he felt stifled at home. He’d lived there the year after graduating high school, uncertain about his future. He’d excelled in school and considered studying philosophy or literature at university. But after he graduated, his sense of self and purpose began to deteriorate. Sometimes, Jenny told me, Max would come over to her house. They would sip tea on the balcony and talk about the future, their families. His parents were strict, suspicious that his friends were bad influences. They didn’t know how to help him. During one of his examinations the year before, he felt his mind go blank and bolted from the classroom. After disappearing for several hours, he showed up at home, soaking wet, his cellphone damaged. He’d taken a train to a nearby town and stood in the river, contemplating drifting away with the current. Just before he left for Spain, in April of 2015, Max and Jenny, who then lived in Munich, took a meandering drive through Höchst. Why don’t you move to Munich, where doctors could help you? Jenny asked. She thought it was a bad idea to walk the Camino de Santiago, given his mental health. But Max felt that nothing was helping: not the pills doctors made him take, not the time spent resting at home. He was stuck in his head. I need to do something with my body, he told her. I need to walk. *** I visited Fisterra again in December. It rained every day, pounding rain whose roar blended with the crashing surf. The pilgrims were gone, the hotels shuttered, the only remaining people locals. The town was a dreary shell of its summer self. I met Guillermo Traba, a fisherman who had searched for Max and who claimed he could hold his breath underwater for fifteen minutes. When we met for coffee at a dim restaurant on the port, he told me the water was murky the day he started searching for Max. Shadows of algae on the sea floor had looked like ghostly bodies, rocking in the current. Guillermo spent his days diving for razor shell clams and suddenly found himself leading the search for a missing German pilgrim, spending every morning swimming and scanning the water for clues. That search ended, two weeks later, with the discovery of a body floating in the sea. *** This wasn’t the first time I had become obsessed with drowning. A few years before, I had spent a summer writing about deaths on the Kern River in central California, following a rescue team around the valley as they raced to save stranded swimmers and search for bodies. I saw the power and terror of water firsthand. Water could snatch a life away. Bodies sank, released gases, then floated. Professional divers were trained to recover corpses. They trawled the sea, sped down rivers in boats. It was divers like this who had recovered the body of my friend Haley Rue when she drowned. She had fallen into a whirlpool the summer after our first year in college. We’d been backpacking in Europe—she in Austria, Hungary, and Germany, I in Spain and Portugal. We talked every day. I would send her messages from bars and cafés, recounting to her the day’s adventures and the interminable loneliness I felt while traveling from city to city. Once, I wrote her from a corner store in Ibiza. A few hours earlier, I had missed the last bus from the the north side of the island and walked twenty kilometers along the side of the highway, arriving back to my hostel just as night fell. You’re crazy, Haley wrote me, then asked how I was doing. She, in turn, would tell me about the quirky people she met in her hostels and her favorite foods from each city—schnitzel, chocolate cake, cherries. One day in July the conversation stopped. That evening, I read about her death on Facebook. There was a post from a family friend. It said something about prayers, and a river, and Haley. The word drowned. In the years after, I couldn’t stop imagining my friend’s death. I had a running list of questions. How long did it take for her to die? Had she been conscious? Did she know what was happening? Did she struggle? What was the last thing she saw—water or sky? *** After I spoke to his mother, I started thinking about Max as though he were alive. As I wrote alone in my small bedroom, staring at the walls when I felt stuck, I would speak to Max. I’d sit in the grey morning light and throw my questions into the air—Why didn’t you go to Munich like Jenny asked? Why did you keep swimming when the water was so cold? His presence in my life was a constant. I had just moved to Barcelona, my fifth city in two years. I had no friends, no sense of direction. I sort of just ended up here, I’d say when people asked—explanations are always too long. When I wasn’t sending story ideas to editors, I walked around the port of Barcelona and watched the boats come in and out, trying to keep my mind off my loneliness. Writing about Max gave me purpose, a way to spend my days. I turned to his friends, his text messages, his diary, spoke with the last people who saw him alive. Natalie Kapahnke, who had walked for a week with Max through Cantabria, wrote me an 1,800-word email. Max felt like a little brother, she wrote, “the little brother you look after and care for.” They walked with a group, exploring lighthouses along the coast and talking deep into the night. On one of their last evenings together, they made pizza and salad at a hostel. “Max told me that he understood that he has to change and that he misses his family,” she wrote. “Still, he knew that the Camino and the distance was the best for him at this moment.” Asli Hanci, Max’s girlfriend at the time of his death, sent me a few of their last Facebook messages. The messages are quotidian updates, small windows into Max’s mind. In one, Max describes finishing forty kilometers in one day—his longest stretch of walking—and going to eat a quarter-pounder as a celebration. In another, he feels homesick and ambivalent about having left Höchst. He tells Asli to call his parents and let them know he’s fine. He sent his last message to Asli on May 28, arranging to meet her back in Frankfurt or Höchst once he finished walking. He did not mention he planned to go to Fisterra the following day. Juan Mayan had been in Fisterra the day Max disappeared. That evening, while relaxing on the beach, Juan and his wife had seen a young man sitting nearby, smoking a cigarette and staring out to the water. After a while, the man left his backpack on shore and waded into the sea. He swam farther and farther until his body became a speck. When daylight began to fade, Juan and his wife left. The next morning, Juan took a stroll along the beach and saw the backpack untouched. Later, he would learn that though the sea had been calm on May 29, the water was frigid: twelve degrees Celsius—cold enough to cause a body to go into shock. I got a coffee with Max’s friend Jakob. We sat on a terrace in a village north of Frankfurt, drinking in the late-afternoon sunlight. Jakob rolled a cigarette and told me that during high school, he and Max would walk through the forest. They’d sit under a peach tree, or climb a tall oak and lounge in the branches, talking. Jakob still struggles with Max’s death. Did Max want to die? Did he have a psychotic break when he was alone on the beach? Jakob shrugged. It didn’t matter—nothing would change Max’s death. But he wanted to know everything. He wanted to go to Fisterra, see what Max saw. I told Jakob about Haley, how I wanted to know what she’d seen too. As we talked, I thought about one of the first times I’d written about death, when I was a freshman in college and a student had killed himself. After we published the story in the student newspaper, I kept speaking with his friends, even though their quotes would never leave my notebook. It was nice, we thought, just to have someone to talk to, someone who would listen. *** After a few hours at the table with Elke as she recounted the worst days of her life, I felt I owed her an explanation. Why did I want to write about her son? she asked. I told her about Haley. We had met in our first year of college and would have been roommates the following year. We were both from the West Coast and, that first college spring, had experienced a shapeless sense of loss. We missed home and who we had been at home, a world away from the pressure of academics and college social life. On a sunny April day, we skipped class and went to a park. As we were looking at the sky, Haley told me she wanted to move to the Grand Canyon. She liked how big it was, how it was so far away. What would you do there? I asked, and she was quiet for a minute. Maybe be a guide, she said. That sounds nice, I said. An escape. She smiled with her whole face. I like the way you talk, she said. That’s the only sentence I remember in her voice. In July, when I was in Lisbon, Haley went to Innsbruck, Austria. She was in love with everything: the job, the food, the landscape, the people. In Innsbruck, Haley bought a carton of cherries and ate them, one by one, as she walked barefoot on the hot asphalt back to her hostel. In Innsbruck, Haley hiked up a mountain, ate strudel at the top, and tripped a few times on her way down. “In Innsbruck,” Haley wrote on her blog, “I’m a little girl.” A week later, I sat on my hostel bed fanning my face. It was 11 p.m. and hot. I opened my laptop to check Facebook. I saw the post. I couldn’t close my laptop. I tiptoed to the hostel kitchen for a glass of water and screamed. I lay face down on the wood floor and breathed dust until I choked. I texted Haley but the messages didn’t go through. They appeared on my phone screen with a red exclamation point. A few days later, I learned she had fallen into a whirlpool in Germany. She was nineteen. In 2018, I went to Munich to visit the place where Haley died. A friend who had been with her at the river picked me up and drove me to the mountains. We stopped at a forest. The earth was damp from a recent rainstorm, and lightning had felled several large trees. A guide showed up, and he gave me a wetsuit. The friend went to read in a restaurant, and the guide took me up the river. As I clambered and slipped, he showed me how to look out for dangerous rapids. A safe rapid was formed by a pillow of water that rushed against a rock’s surface. A dangerous rapid looked like nothing special: a rock wedged in the current. But moving water needs somewhere to go. If a water pillow wasn’t there, that meant there was a hole in the rock. A hole sucks things—twigs, leaves, animals—with a crushing force. I didn’t want to think about the rocks, but they surrounded us, on the banks, on the riverbed, under my feet. I heard it before I saw it. Crashing water. A wall of sound thundering against my ears. The sound was hidden behind a mass of rock. The whirlpool. There was a hole in the rock, at the bottom. As I sat with Elke, I thought about rivers, and currents, and water that steals young lives. I’d outlived Max and Haley by four years. I told Elke I wanted to write about her son because I was figuring out how to live without Haley. Writing was a way to process, to understand, to mourn. Speaking was, too. Over pizza that night, Elke said that Max and I would have been friends. *** I started writing about Haley. Piecing together nearly five years, recounting all the times I thought about her: when I was hot and facing an open window and a breeze cooled my skin; while lying on grass and staring at the sky; while eating a handful of M&Ms or waffles with whipped cream. I thought of Haley at the beach, in the mountains, on dusty paths that cut through the countryside. I thought of Haley when I stole packets of hazelnut cream from hostels. I thought of Haley when I bought cartons of cherries. I thought of Haley when I wore my traveler’s backpack, when my sandals gave me tan lines, when I sat at a bar alone, when I craved a piece of cake, when I went for long walks. Haley Haley Haley Haley Haley Haley Haley Haley. The story never felt finished. But I thought by letting those words live outside of my head, something else might start. Maybe a stranger would send me an email and we would speak on the phone about the friends we had lost. Perhaps someone would ask for Haley’s mother’s email, or Elke’s email, and they could start correspondences with people around the world. They could discover new ways to think about their children. Strangers could know about Max. They could know about Haley. Imagine: a dozen of us talking into the early morning, across time zones, in our pajamas, making new meaning. The dead could keep on living. Last summer, when the air grew humid in Barcelona, I left Spain. In Berlin, I walked twenty miles in a single day. In Bratislava, I walked down a path until I ran out of road. Being in motion distracts me. I think I’m going somewhere. Fisterra. Fin de Tierra. End of the Earth. Max Hilbert had heard of the town before he began walking the Camino de Santiago in April of 2015, but he didn’t know much about it. As with most good things on the Camino, like the best places to spend the night and the mysterious water fountains that poured red wine, Max had heard about the town through word of mouth. He had been walking for a month and felt stronger than he had in a long time. He wanted to keep going. “I have the feeling, somehow, that I have not finished walking,” Max wrote in his journal. “So I’ll go to Fisterra.” *** Every year, on the anniversary of Haley’s death, I send an email to her mother. I write to her about all my new cities, all the places I’ve visited and people I’ve met these past five years. She writes to me about life in Tacoma, where Haley was raised, and the hours she spends in the garden, thinking about her daughter. During the springtime, after her mother had picked fresh fruit, the two had a ritual. “The first ripe radish, raspberry or cherry tomato,” Haley’s mother once wrote to me, “would always be divided down the middle to share.” A few years ago, I caught a plane to Seattle. Haley’s mother picked me up at the airport and took me to Tacoma. Puget Sound glinted under the late-afternoon sun and the lavender Mount Rainier hovered in the distance. At the house, I put my backpack in Haley’s room, and her mother drove me to Haley’s elementary school, the boardwalk where she had liked to walk, the places where she used to go running. The next morning, I woke up late. I sat at the kitchen table and looked out the window. Haley’s mother, wearing a pink bathrobe, was in the garden, crouched over a bush. When she returned to the kitchen, she set a bowl of blueberries on the counter and searched the cupboard for flour. I haven’t made blueberry pancakes in years, she told me. We sat at the table and ate slowly. I took another pancake, relishing the long, quiet morning, the way the sun streamed through the window, the sweet smell of butter and fruit. I wished I could stay at that table forever. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t need to walk away. I didn’t need to move. There was nowhere else to be.
The author of Blue Ticket on leaving things unsaid, weaponizing humour, and bodily autonomy.
Sophie Mackintosh’s second novel imagines a world in which women’s decisions around pregnancy and childbearing are decided by a lottery. A white ticket gives you children. A blue ticket gives you freedom. The novel’s anti-heroine, Calla, soon falls pregnant even though it was her predetermined destiny not to. She hatches an escape plan, but discovers it’s not so easy to make a clean getaway, or figure out who you truly belong with. Mackintosh isn’t one to shy away from difficult, messy, daring interrogations of how women are seen—and treated—in so-called modern society. Earlier this year, she told British Vogue, “I want to be doing work that makes a change”. A Welsh writer based in London, her debut novel The Water Cure, which was long-listed for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is a multi-voiced, slow-burning novel told from the perspective of three sisters stuck on a remote island. Their parents run elaborate, primitive purification treatments for women harmed by men from the outside world. Written during Brexit and the rise of Trump’s political power, the narrative considered the depths of toxic masculinity: what does it mean to be poisonous to those around you? How does unfairness spread like a disease? “We need a wider range of language to describe these books instead of writing them off as angry feminist dystopia,” Mackintosh pointed out in an interview with BOMB Magazine last year. “These are our real concerns that we’re writing about.” Blue Ticket (Hamish Hamilton) considers female pain, power dynamics, and how we define the true self in a way that sometimes makes the prose physically painful to read. Yet underneath the layers of toughness, a tenderness comes through—one that asks not to be judged; an understanding that resists being reductive. Sophie and I spoke in the lead-up to the North American release of Blue Ticket, while the city of London was still in lockdown. Nathania Gilson: In the acknowledgements of Blue Ticket, you mentioned that you spoke to many people about their experiences of motherhood and babies as part of your research for this novel. What surprised you the most? Sophie Mackintosh: Seeing first-hand the exhaustion and shock of new mothers; the fragmentation and the loss of sense of time really made me understand, a little more, the magnitude of the change. I knew it changes your life, of course, but I didn’t fully understand that a newborn only sleeps for a couple of hours at a stretch, even in the night; that their tiny stomachs mean they need to be fed near-constantly. I somehow had the romantic idea that you have the baby and the first weeks and months are this milky, dreamy time where the baby just sleeps while you regather yourself, and then you just carry the baby around with you and carry on as normal. Also hearing about the physical effects. There are so many weirdly occult, horror-movie elements to it. The nightmarish idea of a forty-eight-hour labour before somehow being discharged with a new baby that needs you so much and a sleep debt you’ll never pay off; of bleeding and tearing, pelvic fractures, the sheer bloodiness and danger of pregnancy itself. For example, I read somewhere the theory that we evolved periods because pregnancy is such a risk—a biological tug-of-war with the mother’s body—that our uteruses just violently purge themselves monthly in order to take no chances. And that newborns will have a tiny period because they’re full of all the mother’s hormones. That freaked me out! And yet, having seen all this and heard of all this and learned all this, I still want to do it. Hearing you talk about the painful reality of being a mother or bringing a baby into the world, it reminds me how much “baby literature” exists in the world. Not just the self-help books that try to prepare you for it, but the myth-making involved, too. Babies being thought of as miniature sphinxes, dignified emperors sat in their prams, seeming powerful and fearless when they refuse to cry. I’m thinking of the Rachel Cusks, Sheila Hetis, Jenny Offills, Pamela Erenses, Lydia Davises, Raymond Carvers, and so on, who have their own interpretations. In the Western world, where it can seem like canonizing or creating “important” literature is the end goal, perhaps, how do you go about making your work feel like it’s yours? I think maybe by keeping my expectations low, or maybe a process of acceptance. To both know that I’m writing about subjects that historically have maybe not been seen as important, and also to know that, in the scheme of things, my book is just a book. To recognize realistically and humbly the smallness of my work, maybe. Not in a way that's self-deprecating, but in a way that's freeing. To realize that there are a million takes one can have on any subject, and this is just mine. And to think of it in conversation with the others, perhaps, but finding its own way and interpretation. Blue Ticket is so full of sights, smells, and sounds that make it feel not so far away from the world we’re in now, and yet. There’s a certain rhythm and cadence to Calla’s thoughts that feels hypnotic and otherworldly. I was wondering how films influence your writing process, or if the experience of watching films is a space where ideas come to life for you? Often when writing I am trying to pin down a feeling as much as an image, and using every tool at my disposal to try and get there. By the end of writing a book, it feels like its own film which takes place in my head. Some films that I was thinking about and watching or re-watching when writing Blue Ticket include [Yorgos Lanthimos’] The Lobster, [Michael Haneke’s] The Piano Teacher, and [Lynne Ramsay’s] Morvern Callar, as well as road-trip movies like [Ridley Scott’s] Thelma and Louise. I'm easily soothed by beautiful images. I feel a certain shame sometimes that my approach to writing is more emotional rather than academic—I feel like I should just know more about theory, or the process of writing as an art form. Instead it sometimes feels like blundering around a thousand messy drafts trying to get at something more indefinable, the way a song can transport you or remind you suddenly of somewhere you’ve never actually been. That subconscious feeling you describe reminds me of an interview that the novelist and visual artist Leonora Carrington gives, where she tells off her great-niece for trying so desperately to intellectualize art. She said we should trust our own feelings about things instead. Instead of “getting” something, we can try accessing the part of our brain that feels more honest, because it’s less weighed down by ego. I think intuition and heart (for want of a better word) count for a lot. You could execute the most technically brilliant and flawlessly researched novel in the world, and it could leave you cold. I like the unconscious connections, the things that come together when you're least expecting it, and the messiness of my own writing process facilitates this; I redraft and rewrite and distill obsessively because I never know what tangent I've gone off is going to prove to be the unexpected core of the work. Though maybe it's easier for me to think like this rather than interrogate what could be my intellectual laziness, so I'm more conscious now of striking a balance. I think some of it also comes from feeling slightly like an imposter. I used to get anxious discussing my own work, as if I could somehow get that “wrong,” when I wrote it, which is absurd, really! If I had built myself a fortress of theory and technique it might have been easier to talk about it. If something does come from an emotional place, it does make it that much more tender. Desire, luck, choice, and “badness” (as the opposite of goodness) come up frequently in the novel. How was the writing of this story a way to shift or challenge the binary of what is possible for women in this world? I think we internalize—and externalize!—the concept of “good” or “deserving” so much, and especially when it comes to women, and then further still when it comes to mothers. There’s still this expectation that you have to be obviously maternal. Some readers find it hard to accept that someone like Calla would have a baby, or should have one. There’s still so much buy-in to the Madonna-whore dichotomy culturally, and I’m interested in how we interrogate that. This expectation of docility; how reproductive sex—as opposed to sex for pleasure—seems a whole different beast in the way we regard it (although I don’t know why that still strikes me as faintly absurd because I know we exist in a puritanical society where pleasure for pleasure’s sake isn’t really trusted). Also, I wanted to challenge the idea that only a “good” or “nice” character is deserving of being loved, or getting what she wants. Because, actually, having a baby is both quite democratic and wildly unfair. Women castigated culturally as “bad” mothers can do it and “good” mothers can have fertility problems, and everything in between. No matter how maternal we are, our bodies can betray us. Maybe we cling to these ideas because they give us some sense of control; that if we’re “good,” we’ll get what we deserve. I know Calla does that sort of bargaining [in the book], and I’m familiar with it, too. I’m aware that she’s a difficult character to root for because she does go against our ideas of what a “deserving” mother looks like—there’s drinking and there’s smoking and there’s indiscriminate sex and selfishness—and you know these things are actually not so bad in the larger scheme of things, but for a mother to be these things still does feel like a taboo. And what does that say about us? It’s quite revealing. We can be as modern as we like but we still assign these moral values. When you were a teenager, what books made you feel known and seen? Do these books still matter to you now, or have other books been important to shaping how you think? I think the main one for me was The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter, which was important to me both because of the language and style. It was so eerie, gothic, and lavish—otherworldly whilst also still being part of the world—and because it gave gravity to the experiences and internal life of a fifteen-year-old girl, which at the time (alongside reading mostly the Great Male Writers and plenty not-so-great), I didn’t know was necessarily something that could be the subject of literature. Every couple of years I’ll read a book (like Bluets by Maggie Nelson, or In The Cut by Susanna Moore), which totally cuts through everything I thought I knew and reinforces for me the power of language. How has growing up in Wales influenced the way you see the world? I felt quite isolated growing up, always very eager to get out, but at the same time it was a very special place to grow up (though when I was younger I was very indoors and definitely took this beauty for granted, I just wanted to be inside). The entire coastline of Pembrokeshire, where I’m from, is a National Park. The landscape feeds into my work for sure, most obviously in The Water Cure, which is based on a real beach that I’m familiar with. I’m fascinated with both the beauty and the uncanniness of the natural world. In the places as remote as where I grew up, it’s quite overwhelming, but also quite eerie. You can imagine magical or unreal things taking place. And dangerous things, too. I’m aware that nature can really turn on you; that you never know what rip-tides are underneath a smooth surface. As I got older, and more independent, I started to realize the possibilities of such a landscape; of a kind of freedom, and started to appreciate it more. I was also educated through the medium of Welsh until I was eighteen, so I’m a fluent speaker, and while it’s a cliché to call it musical it just really is a musical language! My school was very big on making us learn Welsh poems and songs. So, I can see how this switching between languages and the emphasis on the lyrical, rhythmic side of it has influenced my writing. I always do entire read-throughs of my work to myself to see how it feels and sounds. Rage, anxiety, and compulsion spill out a lot in Blue Ticket. The characters are not always kind to each other, or themselves, in a universe where it’s hard to know who to trust. I was wondering how you find—or create—healthy ways of channeling these emotions into your writing? I was also interested in the challenges of writing visceral terror or violence in a way that feels familiar (or easy to empathize with) to the reader? When writing visceral emotions I usually start from thinking about it bodily; really slowing it down. This is something I still do now when I feel something uncomfortable. I think about exactly how I’m feeling in my stomach, my limbs. I try to name the feeling, and make time stop. But I don't want to be gratuitous when describing violence, and I think that leaving things unsaid can often be more powerful. I think we often disregard female pain and anger as histrionic or self-indulgent, but it feels important and interesting to me—worth writing and thinking about. Some people will lose patience with Calla making terrible decisions again and again, and the fact that she’s not necessarily repentant about her compulsive or bad behaviour. It’s not all from a place of emptiness—she also just is quite selfish and likes to have a good time without really thinking about the consequences, and also would really like to be a mother, and actually, those things can all coexist. The characters in Blue Ticket are pregnant women essentially competing against each other for resources, unable to really trust anyone, and underneath it they can barely trust themselves, because their bodies are changing and their desires are alien to them. That sense of dislocation was important for me to represent, and the idea that a pregnant woman isn’t necessarily sweetly domestic, but rather could be very ruthless if needed; rageful. There’s an incredible, incidental scene where Calla’s wandering around in the supermarket at her own leisure, and it struck me, as we navigate a global pandemic, how her experience of it challenges the rituals we have—or have lost—now. She says, “The supermarket made me feel safe. Even in childhood I had believed that nothing bad could happen in a place of plenty.” People often think dystopia is the blockbuster film with special effects, complex choreography and a dramatic soundtrack. How do you set out to write against this—or perhaps, point our attention elsewhere? A funny thing is that I wasn’t really setting out to write a dystopia. I didn't with The Water Cure, either, and am not even totally sure I did. I wanted to write a place that wasn’t ours, in which the rules can be different, and that automatically puts you in a dystopia and then sets up many expectations; the world-building. Perhaps my books are more quiet dystopias. Semi-dystopias? They’re always more focused on how someone navigates the world rather than on how that world came to be. The hypothetical bind is the thing. I think many people can identify with that secret fear that you are one sort of person, and you want to be another sort of person but even if you try very hard to change, to be “better” or even just different, you can never really shake that off—that there’s something intrinsic in you, often something shameful or small that you’re afraid of people seeing. It’s kind of a nightmare, that idea that your soul is basically visible, and found lacking somehow. That Calla wants this thing so desperately, and the judgement is that it’s not for her; she hasn’t reached some kind of invisible and arbitrary standard, and never will. That’s before even thinking about all the societal expectations around motherhood, and the fact that we still live in a world where many women lack bodily autonomy. I’m trying to dig into our deepest fears rather than make a political statement. I wanted the world to feel real to us, to be populated with feelings we can understand and set-pieces we recognize, so that when things are off-kilter we feel that jarring somewhere deep inside us, that sense of something being wrong, somewhere. Blue Ticket did start off more explicitly as a horror, actually. I started with the image of a bloodthirsty, cannibalistic pregnant woman tearing people to shreds. And I’m working on a weird historical fiction at the moment, which nobody could ever describe as dystopian, and yet the process of writing historical fiction also feels, to me, embedded in a speculative tradition: “This could have happened, but this happened instead. But what if it happened this way?” I wasn’t expecting Blue Ticket to make me laugh. But it has moments of humour that sneak up on you. There’s a scene in the book where Calla walks around a hotel barefoot, and meets a man at the bar. “I ate them,” she says, when pressed for an explanation about her shoes. Why is humour an ideal coping mechanism in a universe where so many things can go wrong when you’re a woman? Humour can be such a shield. If you laugh at something, you can pretend you’re not bothered by it. For someone like Calla, who doesn’t want to reveal herself and wants to make sure she comes across as cold and ruthless, laughter can be a weapon, too. A way to take people down a notch as well as distancing herself from having to care. She doesn’t have much else except for her sense of self and ability to react to a situation. So, laughter it is. The names women make up for each other in this world out of affection, or to hurt each other, stood out to me: “swamp monster,” “queen ant,” “cold fish.” Why the comparisons, rather than using birth names or initials? I wanted them to develop something like their own intimate, coded language, the way that lovers and friends do. It’s primarily affectionate, but also hurtful when you turn an affectionate name or mechanism of naming around and use it to be negative. Also, I kind of saw it as their feeling an affinity more with the natural world around them, which to them at various points has been terror and salvation, their turning away from the cities and pasts that has saved them. Calla refers to herself as a failed experiment in the book. Her doctor echoes this sentiment at one point: “I thought you had potential,” he says. “Sometimes I made admiring notes.” What advice would you have for writers who are sweating over the details of career trajectories, and perhaps afraid of the future? There are so many ways to be a writer, so many trajectories you could follow, and so many timescales. There’s a lot happening under the surface, but publishing loves a shiny story rather than thinking about the—frankly dull—legwork that goes into creating books. Plus, we all have lives. Things happen to us whether we choose them or not. I've had the luxury of a quiet few years where I wasn’t caring for anyone or moving around a lot or experiencing major tragedy or change, where my primary responsibility has been to pay rent. I had a full-time office job that was interesting and left me with the energy and headspace to create things. I didn't feel lucky for all this at the time because I was too busy comparing myself with other writers who were living much more successful and glamorous-seeming lives with not a water-cooler and commute in sight. But I really, really do feel lucky now (especially now). Give yourself a break, basically. Because it’s easy to look at biographies and think: Oh, this person went to this prestigious university, and then gained this prestigious MFA right after, and all the while was being published widely, and of course their first novel was snapped up for a giant advance at the age of twenty-three, or whatever. To think that’s the trajectory for everybody, and if you’re not on that trajectory yourself, that you’re failing already... That wasn't my trajectory by any means (I got rejected from every MFA I applied to and wasn't widely published), and it's not the trajectory for so many writers. I can understand being afraid of the future, especially now, because everything feels different; everything feels so up in the air. Talking about trajectories almost feels odd, because what is a trajectory now? How do we move forward and what will the systems we're familiar with look like? So, I think it's more important than ever to concentrate on your own writing journey, however you're able and whatever that looks like for you, rather than try and keep yourself on some arbitrary path or timescale. It might look different to what you expected, but it's yours. Write what nourishes you and what speaks to you in this weird, strange time. Write and don't be scared to write or feel that it's pointless, because I don't ever see a time where we won't need books, where we won’t need to see our world refigured and reflected, to know we’re not alone.
The author of Exciting Times on spreading goodwill, navigating and honouring difference, and the lie of meritocracy.
Naoise Dolan’s debut novel, Exciting Times (HarperCollins), follows twenty-two-year-old Ava as she leaves Ireland for the first time for a teaching job in Hong Kong. It’s a story about taking a not-quite gap year to see what else is out there, and how much money you can make in circumstances different to the ones you grew up in. But it’s also a story about class, gender, sexuality, language, and the danger of the space between how we see ourselves and how others see us. This is Ava’s story, but other people’s feelings and pride are at stake, too. There’s Julian, a British banker, coolly self-aware of his privileges yet non-committal about the arrangement he seems to be in with Ava (living together, sleeping together, a “let me know if you need anything” attitude towards cash and credit cards). And Edith—a twenty-two-year-old Hong Kong local, unapologetically earnest, a lawyer with a “churchy” accent who’d studied abroad in the UK. Both form an unlikely love triangle with Ava who is hungry for connection and belonging as she figures out who she is away from home. The novel hums with the intermingling thoughts of people wanting to be understood, avoiding, oversharing, reading and misreading each other: through drafted text messages that accidentally get sent; international phone calls; thoughts that don’t get verbalized, and things said out loud that should’ve remained a thought. It’s also a story about anticipation: how your whole life can change depending on the people you choose to have—and keep—around. I spoke to Naoise Dolan in the lead-up to the North American release of Exciting Times, in the midst of a global pandemic. Nathania Gilson: I remember how you’d mentioned last year that apologising wasn’t just something women did, but an inherently Irish thing, too—I was wondering if you ever thought about this as you were writing out Ava’s thoughts? There’s a bit in the novel where she says her favourite conversations are the ones where she says precisely what she thinks. I’m wondering how the character of Ava was a way of challenging what we think is difficult to change about ourselves? Naoise Dolan: I think there’s often a flattening honesty to how Irish people see ourselves. We keep everything in proportion, including our own egos. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad quality, although it can cause mild culture shock when we’re communicating internationally. The appropriate Irish response to a compliment is to give someone else the credit or to otherwise deflect it—and I find people from more individualistic countries tend to interpret that as us talking ourselves down, when it’s more that you don’t want to be singled out. You want to spread the goodwill. That said, I wasn’t seeking to claim anything general about being Irish, or even about being a person, in writing Exciting Times. I prefer to show individual characters doing whatever makes sense for them, and then let readers decide if it’s an experience they share. Ava is quite bald in her self-assessments—she’s often wrong, sometimes wildly so, but there’s an attempted honesty in her head that doesn’t come through in her conversations. I don’t think I was attempting to “challenge” that disjuncture between internal and external expression, in that I don’t know if the novel really takes a position on it. But nobody verbalises all their thoughts, so I guess that’s why Ava doesn’t. What Irish writers or poets did you read growing up that you think anyone on the other side of the world should know about? I loved Oscar Wilde when I was a kid, on the off chance his reputation needs my signal boost. Marita Conlon-McKenna wrote children’s books about the Irish Famine that grabbed my imagination for several months. I became obsessed with the Famine off the back of those novels, so much so that I then read Joseph O’Connor’s historical novel Star of the Sea, which also taught me about syphilis and incest at probably too tender an age. Emma Donoghue was pivotal in letting teenage me know that there was a place for Irish LGBT women in books. I don’t know if it’s available in translation, but I also think Máiréad Ní Ghráda’s Irish-language play An Triail is a great text for anyone who’s interested in Ireland’s history of reproductive injustice and misogyny. We studied An Triail in school, and I’ve never read anything in English that I’ve found as powerful on those issues. How did your experiences at Trinity College shape you as a writer? I don’t know if they did! I think to answer that question I’d need a clear sense of who I am as “a writer,” which is still a concept I’m confused by—like, does that category concern itself with my internal psychology and identity, or is it purely about the empirical work I produce? If it’s about the work itself then Trinity didn’t shape my writing at all, because none of my current published work was written there, none of it is set there, and so on. But to the extent that me “as a writer” is about me as an individual, or about where I initially developed various themes and concerns that perhaps later emerged in my writing—I can’t say if doing something else at that age would have made me a different person, or if I would have wound up the way I am regardless of whether I’d gone to Trinity. Like anyone just out of school, I had a lot of growing up to do; so, in that sense, Trinity was formative. But I’ve always liked books and I’ve always liked people, so I can’t imagine a version of myself who could have done something else without encountering books and people that would have shaped me. I was thinking about one of your recent tweets: Sometimes I’m writing something and then suddenly go: ‘am I making these characters male so they can have serious ideas about the world without people assuming I’m trying to parody them?’ As a reader, who do you think historically has gotten to have serious ideas about the world? As a writer, how do you navigate who gets to be taken seriously, and take up space in a story? When I have my characters express thoughts about the world, it’s most often because I think that having ideas is a major part of being human, and therefore a major part of convincingly portraying humans in fiction. I’d find it unconvincing if a character only thought about politics and philosophy, and never considered how to tie their shoes or what to have for breakfast; but I’d find it just as one-dimensional to write characters who never considered broader questions. There aren’t many overt big-ideas conversations in my fiction; it tends to be scattergun hints about how the characters approach things, because that’s the reality of it for me. I don’t voicenote my friends with: “Capitalism, good or bad?,” but my stance will surface as we discuss more immediate matters. Yet I think when novels put women on those planes of thought, people are likelier to assume that the author is using those characters to voice their own opinions, or that they’re trying to make fun of them. Maybe it’s just dialogue, you know? Maybe it’s just texture. Many of my characters’ thoughts are glib or underdeveloped, as are most of the soundbites I come out with in conversation. It’s just character development. It’s also possible, indeed commendable, to think about things without immediately forming an opinion—but I’ve yet to master that approach myself, so I’m loath to grant all my characters a level of intellectual restraint that I lack. I loved in Exciting Times how characters are often the beneficiaries of—and sometimes to blame for—perfectly exacting commentary on each other’s flaws. For example, when Ava says how Julian sees beyond her exterior sparkle to the interior layer of her that only clever people see. And when Edith tells Ava, “I think you want to feel special—which is fair, who doesn’t—but you won’t allow yourself to feel special in a good way, so you tell yourself you’re especially bad.” There’s that double bind of being able to learn about how people see you but also being confronted with something you didn’t notice on your own. I was wondering how you dealt with writing for—or against—this being interpreted as a coming of age novel, not just a romance or love triangle? Yeah, I think we—or certainly, I—want to feel we’re getting the most honest version of how other people see us. When we learn that someone has deceived us, it’s jarring not only because of the deceit itself, but because it suggests that other people might be harbouring perceptions of us that would crush us if we knew. “Please be honest with me” is often actually a request to lie extravagantly, and I think Ava definitely falls prey to that tendency. I wasn’t really concerned with how people would interpret the novel when I wrote it, though. I don’t think there are any categories of fiction that it’s inherently good or bad to belong to. I would find it annoying if people judged Exciting Times by whether it worked as a crime thriller or a Mills & Boon, but only because it would be a dreadful novel by those criteria and it stands a better chance of succeeding on other metrics. I’d never accept it if another author tried to make me apply a particular critical approach to their novel, so I think I have to allow other readers the same freedom with mine. Money—making your own, being controlled by how much other people have of it, the fear of not having any, borrowing some, gifting it, chasing it, subsidising it, not knowing what to do with it—has a big presence in the novel. Sometimes it comes up in a literal sense: a borrowed credit card to pay for drinks; other times, it’s more cultural capital, for example, profiting from listening to other people and collecting the things they tell you for later use. In the writing of this novel, did you discover if there is a normal relationship to have with money? Definitely not! I don’t think it’s normal to have a world where survival is tethered to whether billionaires need our labour. No normal relationship with money can flow from that basic setup. We can perhaps have normal relationships with money in the sense of “accustomed” relationships with it, or “unthinking” relationships with it; but I don’t think I’ll ever really get used to the fundamental weirdness of private property. I don’t really know what it’s like to feel normal in general, though. I’m not sure whether everyone feels as permanently alien as I do, or if that’s an especially autistic or queer experience—but in any event, the prospect of feeling ‘normal’ about anything seems so distant to me that I’m not sure I’d ever use fiction to reach towards that sensibility. I think I’m more interested in exploring ways of navigating and honouring difference while still being in the world with other people. I loved how much Ava noticed things about language—how she enjoys parsing through it; noticing accents; picking up on odd phrases (as Ava points out: real people talk, they don’t "touch base"). How much of this was driven by wanting to reveal the benefits of holding an outsider status, and how much of it was about demonstrating the lure of being an insider; part of the club; the in-joke; the big secret? I think the impact of that material really depends on the reader. For me, I enjoy learning about Irish English because it’s cathartic to understand why the English I read in books was often quite different to the English I heard around me as a child; why I alter my speech when I’m not in Ireland, and so on. It feels like an outsider lens to me because it’s taking a step back to analyze what normally comes to me as a lived experience. For a non-Irish person, though, the information about Irish English in Exciting Times might hold “part of the club” appeal—the sense of getting closer to something that they hadn’t known about previously. Language is tethered to social norms, so I also think it’s difficult to discuss phraseology without at least implicitly dealing with the unspoken aspects of how we relate to one another. There again, insider versus outsider appeal will depend on the reader. I tend to feel like I’m getting closer to social norms when I examine them; but if your instincts are better than mine, then that same analysis might feel more like taking a step back. This novel is set in 2018, before the constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland was removed. What does writing in the near-past, rather than the right now, or near future, allow you to do as a writer? Well, most novels are likelier than not to be about the near-past by the time they reach readers; I finished the first draft of Exciting Times in early 2017, and I think the time-lag between then and its 2020 publication is fairly typical. I couldn’t have set the novel much later than I did at the time. I suppose I could have edited it after Ireland repealed the abortion ban, but I don’t know if doing that would have hugely altered Ava’s consciousness; I think the scar of that law will always be there for anyone who grew up under it. I don’t know if I’d ever deliberately set something in the near-past when I began writing it. It’s likelier, going forward, that I’ll keep giving my characters whatever political consciousness I think they would realistically have; and if the world changes after I’ve finished whatever I’m writing, then I’ll happily think of it as reflecting a now-altered set of conditions. And it’s worth noting that awareness fluctuates—Ava doesn’t think about the level of abortion access in Hong Kong, for instance, because financial barriers become far less of a concern for her there. Omissions are just as telling as inclusions. If I’d written an Irish narrator who hadn’t been thinking about abortion in Ireland, then that would have told us that they had the level of access to money in Ireland that Ava comes to have in Hong Kong. Having Ava never think about abortion in Ireland in 2016-17 would have “set” the novel, and “set” her character, just as much as having her consider it. As a reader who lives on the other side of the world—and isn’t Irish, or English—but has lived abroad as an expat, what stayed with me after reading the novel was the struggle of making sense of who you are, when who you are might not be seen as useful, appreciated, or good. Ava says, "The English taught us English to teach us they were right.” How is novel writing a way to claim who you are, or challenge how much identity should dictate our creative work? Writing novels is, in the immediate, a way for me to stop thinking about myself and do other things that I find more pleasant. Sometimes that’s creating or analyzing a character, sometimes it’s reaching for the best adjective to describe a chair, sometimes it’s deciding whether to end a scene or stretch it out a little bit longer … All those decisions are enjoyable for me because they take me out of my immediate circumstances and into a place where I can have a bit more fun. But when you actually publish a novel, you’re constantly asked about yourself, and people often seek to make connections between you and that novel. There’s no universal identity, so considering the particularities of an author’s circumstances can be illuminating, particularly if they would otherwise be assigned an incorrect label; I’m open about being queer and autistic mainly because I know that many people would otherwise assume that I’m straight and allistic. So, I think ultimately, people are free to make whatever connections they wish between my identity and my work—but I don’t like being asked about it, largely because I would rather talk about things besides myself in general. I’m reading a book about pre-Raphaelite art at the moment, and I find that topic considerably more engaging. You mentioned in the acknowledgements of your novel that everyone deserves to write books if they want to. What advice would you have for someone who might not have the odds in their favor? I’d say focus on whatever’s within your control. There are countless inequalities dictating whether, or when, the literary establishment recognizes and rewards writers. Before it even gets to that point, there are manifold barriers to carving out enough time and energy to finish a novel in the first place. But to whatever degree you’re able to muster the time and energy, it’s within your power to keep your head down and work on something you love. Meritocracy is a lie in terms of eternal reception; but privately, on your own terms, you can produce something brilliant, even if it’s a paragraph a day. That’s not to excuse the unfairness of who gets published and who doesn’t. We absolutely need to stay angry about that, and use that anger to reform the industry. But that’s how I’d advise aspiring novelists to proceed: paragraph by paragraph.
Talking to the author of Strange Hotel about the tolerance and patience of readers, writing “difficult” books, and the urgency that comes with age.
Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, and its follow up, The Lesser Bohemians, were dazzling reminders to the mainstream anglophone literary scene that fiction could still be a language event. Innovative and uncompromising Bildungsromane tracing the formative, furtive, often brutal experiences of their young female protagonists, both books were distinguished above all by the shattering linguistic inventiveness of their first-person voices. McBride’s prose was protean, agitated, and exquisitely receptive, intent on barrelling past mere communication toward a state of total visceral embodiment. Here were sentences and sentence-fragments that seemed wired into the very nerve-ends of their protagonists, capable of registering their every minute physical and emotional perturbation. Strange Hotel (McClelland & Stewart), by contrast, is written in the third person rather than the first, in sentences that, while still rich with McBridean obliquity and a forensic attentiveness to the subtle, incessant fluctuations of the senses and the mind, nonetheless more closely approach conventional syntactic units. But even a more traditionally shaped McBride sentence is rife with inimitable turns of phrase and is still intent on interrogating to the limit what can be registered and expressed in language. If the self is sui generis, requiring, as in McBride’s first two novels, the total breaking apart of language in order to remake language in the self’s own singular image, what does that mean for a self that remains within the boundaries of what might be called conventional expression? Is that self seeking expression, an image of itself, at all? Does it want to be seen? And if not, why not? That self, the protagonist of Strange Hotel, is a woman with a name we do not know and about whom, in many respects, we get to know very little. What we do know is that she is approaching middle age, and that whatever her occupation is—several passages in the book emphasize it has something to do with language—it requires her to travel extensively. A list of cities transitions the reader from one scene to the next. Each scene takes place in another hotel room in another city. The present tense action consists of little more than the woman ordering wine from room service, idly considering if the drop from the balcony would be sufficient to kill her, or watching the sleeping back of a one night stand; what preoccupies her is her past, and the distance, geographically as well as temporally, she might achieve from it in the purposeful anonymity of these hotel rooms. There is something she wants to forget, or more precisely, not remember: "… allowing memory, or any of its variables, admittance is invariably a mistake. Nonetheless, and even knowing that much, time makes a ladder of her anyway." This interview was conducted via phone call in early June. * Colin Barrett: In the opening scene of Strange Hotel, a woman walks into a hotel room in Avignon and suddenly realizes she has been here before. This mundane cosmic coincidence opens a rich seam of memory in her. As she tries to recall the particulars of her previous stay, we come to realize that she is trying to keep other memories at bay, and that she is trying to achieve that by being hyper-focused on the present. As the book proceeds, we see her traverse an endless chain of hotel rooms. Did this premise come first, or did it emerge out of your sense of this particular character, who is capable of elaborating at length on certain things, but being scrupulously reticent about others? Can you even make a distinction between the premise and the characters on one hand, and the writing style on the other? Eimear McBride: I find it quite hard to separate them out. Writing is a complete process of discovery beginning to end. I don’t arrive with the plot ready, or the characters, or the style in which I want to write. It all emerges in a sort of rush and mess together, and it’s my job to pick my way through it and make sense of it. Strange Hotel originally started as a short story, which is unusual for me because I’m really not a short story writer, and clearly, I’m still not a short story writer [laughs]. At the beginning I felt there was a gain in going against what I’d written in the past, and so rather than use fractured perspective, narrative, and syntax to bring the character closer to the reader, I wanted to use language in a really different way. I wanted to write about someone using language as a means of creating distance, not only with the reader but within themselves. It was fun being contrary about that because there had been some criticism of how opaque my other books were, how difficult they were. So it was fun to use really formal, correct, linear sentences, where everything was correctly punctuated, in order to show how even straightforward language doesn’t actually aid communication. I’d written two books about much younger women and I felt the language they were written in really conveyed urgency, that experience of life when you’re young, the almost overwhelming nature of it. In this book the protagonist is someone who is not very inclined to be overwhelmed, who wants to keep her distance, who doesn’t want to be very close to her memories or her pain or to the people around her. Somebody who is going to be much older. And so I realised early on I would be writing about a middle aged woman instead of a young woman. Even though the book is written in the third person, and the reader sees the woman from “outside” herself, there is still, by conventional standards, a paucity of expositional detail about who she is and what her backstory is, to use an industry term. We don’t know her name, why she is in any of the places she is in, etc. Holding back that information while writing in the third person presents its own challenges. What was it that compelled you to make the decision to write this way? I thought, “I’ll have a go.” Of course it’s not proper third person at all, it’s close third. The reader is allowed into her thought process as it’s going along, which is why there is no explanation, why she is thinking the things she’s thinking, and you just have to pick up what the details are, what the backstory is, in the way that you do when you think about your life, when you think about something that happened. You don’t think about the things that led up to it, that’s not how the thought process works. In a way we take lots for granted, our understanding of ourselves. So part of the challenge was to make sure there was enough there to suggest to the reader the bigger picture, but at the same time not succumb to that convention of the character looking in the mirror, describing how they look, etc. That makes sense. I mean, when we are experiencing our memories, thinking about our past, we don’t do so in an ordered, detailed sequence, the way it tends to be delivered in stories. Another trait of the character, and the writing itself, is the heightened attention, the granular focus, she gives to even the completely mundane and generic fixtures in and around the various hotels she’s staying in, the way the light falls on a hallway wall through the slats on the windows, the difference in textures between the filters of British versus European cigarettes stubbed out in the sand on the beach… She does not prioritize deep thoughts. She is not interested in cultivating great moments of revelation, or thinking about works of art or anything profound. What I was interested in is the diplomatic thing the eye does when it falls on anything, it gives the thing the attention it wants to give it, rather than the attention that thing might or might not deserve. Character is the thing I’m most interested in, and how language serves that. In this case, there is a character who is not interested in feeling. At the moment I’m feeling exhausted by how much feeling everyone is having all the time, and how much shouting there is going on, on the internet, etc. Everyone is expressing everything all the time. It was a relief to write about a character who wasn’t interested in making sure everyone knew how she felt. She is someone who is really, really quite preoccupied with not being at the mercy of her emotions. So it was really about writing a book that was about thinking about feeling, rather than feeling itself. The book does definitely have a plot, and she definitely does have a backstory, but her history is revealed in brief, allusive glimpses rather than in chunks of direct exposition. You said you think of character first; in relation to the reader did you agonize over that stuff, about how explicit you should be in fleshing out the character? Did you always know what the key points of her past were, or did it surprise you as you were writing it? It did surprise me. It’s something I always thinks about in the second draft more than the first draft. You can’t just write what you’re writing, you have to be a writer. You are aware of wanting to be read, and while you don’t cater to what you think the reader’s expectations will be, at the same time you have to acknowledge that you are not really writing it to put it in the drawer. You have to give enough to the reader to allow them to make the picture for themselves. But it is very hard to assess that, the writer’s instinct has to try and gauge that, and you can’t know whether you’ve gauged it correctly or not until it’s published and people read it. They understand or they don’t understand. But I think it’s an impossible thing to plan for. I do think that readers are far more tolerant and patient than they are given credit for, and all the faff to get Girl published and all the publishers who thought no one would ever read a book like that, it was proved that that was not the case. There are plenty of readers willing to have a go. It’s not that they necessarily love it or want to read lots of books like that, but they enjoy being obliged to engage with writing in a different sort of way, not just the usual, “Here’s the story, here’s the characters, here’s what happened, the end.” I think there are readers for whom process is enough. It’s not about the big finish. Readers are interested in character. It’s the endless fight isn’t it, the pushing, pushing, pushing, the prioritisation of plot above all else, but there are plenty of readers for whom that is not the be-all and end-all of the reading experience. It’s okay for some books not to have to engage readers in that way, although you’d think from the reaction of the critical press it was the most terrible thing you can do to a reader, expect them to pay attention to a book. That interests me. And I hope there’s enough weirdos out there like me, who are also interested in that! I wanted to ask about the treatment of time. It’s a short book, it traverses huge expanses of time and space, taking place all over the world and over a number of years. Yet each scene takes place in a kind of cool, dead, parenthetical interval, where on the surface nothing much is happening. Things have happened to the character, but each time we see her she is stuck in the present, in nowhere, a kind of nowhere time. When you’re younger, you don’t think about time, and when you’re older things become more urgent. Things feel like they have already slipped by, things have been missed, and I suppose in the midst of the travelling and the hotel rooms there is the idea that wherever you go and however freeing the anonymity is, there is, ultimately, no escape from the self—your self—that is continuing to move through time whether you want it to or not. She really would prefer time not be moving on, not because she doesn’t want to be older, not because she wants to be a young woman again, but because, as becomes clear, she feels that everything that is going to happen has happened. She is seeking a kind of stasis. What she can control is her interactions with other people and so she is seeking to stop the possibility of all that, of future intimacy and closeness. She wants to stop time within herself in a bid to hold herself close to the time that was once meaningful. She’s stuck. She does not want to move on, but also is trying to barricade herself psychically against the encroachment of her own past. She seems to be pursuing the idea that she can will herself into anonymity, disintegrate her personality, allow it to take on new shapes, or no shape at all. But the more she tries to do exactly that, the more she seems to loop back to her foundational concerns, to the matrix of her personality… I think she wishes she could do that. She is able to dissolve herself to a degree, but continuously returns to this very firm sense of herself. That sense of self doesn’t necessarily follow, or isn’t expressed, in all the usual markers of identity, like family, job, financial status, but it’s still there, this fundamental knowledge that she cannot escape, even though she wishes to. I don’t think of the self as being amorphous. While there are all these markers of identity that we display as emblems of self, beyond all that there is a harder, darker, colder bit, right at our centre. A bit that maybe we find harder to live with, but it is the bit that counts, that never changes, that never becomes anything else and which is quite hard to deal with. Lastly, the book got me thinking about hotels. In the book they function as as these sort temporal waystations, outside of time almost, where the protagonists can think about time, her own experiences in time. And above being either luxuries or expediencies, that’s what hotels are, these interstitial spaces that operate by their own logic of time, outside of ordinary time. Wherever you go a hotel operates on hotel time, and you really begin to feel it if you stay in one for more than a handful of nights. You can go get a drink, or have a swim or whatever if there’s a pool, but it’s all preset, on a loop… it gets weird after a time. A hotel is a place you go to wait. You are waiting for a thing to happen, or you are waiting to leave. Eventually, you realize that it’s just you in a space, and there’s nothing else. You don’t have to go cook the dinner, or help with homework, or walk the dog, there’s nothing to distract you. You are a body floating in space, in this anonymous space, just being yourself, and either engaging with that self or trying not to engage with yourself. You don’t have to do anything, that’s the rationale behind a hotel, you don’t have to do anything. I don’t know how comfortable most people are with that... Maybe you should have to make your own bed when you arrive! It would be something to do. Well, that would invest you in some way, into the experience of the room. You realize there’s a whole machinery working around you; of people that are invested in their jobs, in their relations with their co-workers, the welfare of the guests, but you—the guest—are not part of that. You are outside of all that. You are the reason everyone is there. But you yourself, you have no reason.
Sanctioning the buffoonery of Joel Schumacher.
It has been three months since the murder. At the insistence of a shadowy tutor, the neglected ingénue Christine Daaé has been catapulted to stardom. Toggling between her and their (exhausted and exhausting) resident diva La Carlotta, the Opera Populaire has seen a period of quiet, comfortable success: a bustling box office and contented patrons, tepidly applauding familiar, easy repertory French farces such as Il Muto—works that feature but do not challenge their new star or the city’s bourgeois sensibilities. Three months of relief and of delight—no more ghosts, and no more notes.And then the Phantom returns.Crashing their New Year’s Eve masquerade in exquisitely bad taste, the Phantom delivers the manuscript for his new project: a feverish, frenzied adaptation of the story of a damned lothario, Don Juan Triumphant. The score, the hostage company discovers, is a cacophony of discordant, unpleasant wails and jangles; the enclosed sketches for its set design are a lugubrious nightmare; its projected “hero” is a sex pest who is finally swallowed by the Hell he has certainly earned in an end that no audience will ever mourn. Amid the Phantom’s tyrannical and absurdly sedulous demands (beefing with the orchestra’s struggling third trombone, body-shaming the chubby male lead), the cast reacts in horror. Ugly, unsingable, barely music or theatre at all, the tasteless Don Juan will certainly be laughed off the stage. In a sequence added to the 2006 film adaptation by director Joel Schumacher, Miranda Richardson’s Madame Giry—the dance instructor who once saved the young Phantom and is, bizarrely, the only character in a film set in Paris who speaks with a French accent—breaks down in a hallway as our stalwart romantic lead Raoul (played by a staggeringly handsome Patrick Wilson) comforts her. She weeps for the young boy she saved: “He is a genius! An architect, a designer, a composer, a magician! A genius!” “Yes, Madame Giry,” dim, sweet Raoul says soothingly, “but clearly genius has turned to madness.” * I turned thirteen in the summer of 1997—deeply closeted and, headed in the fall to an all-boys Catholic private school far from the suburbs, about to become more closeted still. The key to surviving in the closet is plausible deniability. You frequently do not really need to pass; you just need to provide adequate cover, and signal a sufficient threshold of shame. The Nineties superhero comics that littered my bedroom—rife with rippling male physiques, full of gooey alien symbiotes menacing a half-naked Peter Parker, Superman’s clothes-shredding pietas, and the queer idylls of Charles Xavier’s welcoming school for the different—always had the optics of simple, normal, four-colour escapism, and so they survived a household that insisted by dizzying turns on suffocating religious devotion and paralyzing macho gruffness. It was under these conditions that on my birthday—a teenager at last—my best friend and I went to the Cinema 8 in Pickering, Ontario, to see Batman & Robin. From the opening shots, it was very clear something had gone horribly wrong; as the montage smash-cut from close-ups of male crotch to buttocks and back again, I felt, with a horrible sinking feeling, as plausible deniability seeped away like so much alien goo. I returned home that night with a feeling I’d never felt in a movie theatre and whose meaning I struggled to coordinate: I felt ashamed. I slunk into the basement, using the dial-up modem on our ancient Hewlett-Packard (which I mostly used to play endless hours of multiplayer DOOM 2) to log onto AintitCoolNews. My cheeks still hot with confusion, I found the review I’d been scrupulously avoiding because of spoilers. I read Harry Knowles say this: “First, let me say that Joel Schumacher should be shot and killed. I will pay a handsome bounty to the man (or woman) who delivers me the head of this Anti Christ.”Over the next months, the film and its director rapidly became a punchline. In an episode of Batman the Animated Series, a lisping, mincing teen wrapped in a feather boa under a sign that says “Shoemaker” squeals with delight when he hears some other kids talking about Batman: “I love Batman! All those muscles, the tight rubber armor, and that flashy car—I heard it can drive up walls!” The other teens roll their eyes: “Yeah, sure, Joel.” Knowles meanwhile spearheaded a blitzkrieg of frothing bad press for the film, himself penning 52 separate negative reviews riddled with his characteristic homophobia and misogyny (the paparazzi dubbed star Alicia Silverstone, whom they felt had been insufficiently sexualized in the role, “Fatgirl”), and it bombed egregiously with critics and fans alike, tanking not just the franchise but badly damaging the studio as a whole. I may have felt ashamed, but the film hadn’t. And I learned a little more about what being unashamed can cost. * A fluffy, tufted gorilla suit makes its way clumsily through a crowd of oafish glitterati. It seems to be just part of the party’s awful, kitschy tiki-pastiche décor, but once the lumbering ape reaches the dais, with a sinuous, sensuous slink on the soundtrack, the beast begins to gyrate, and the crowd turns to stare. One glove slips off, then another, exposing elegant, manicured hands, and at last the fursuit falls away to reveal not just a woman, but the woman, blowing a kiss that leaves the striptease’s audience—onscreen and off—under her spell.It is the showstopping cabaret number in Blonde Venus, the 1932 Cary Grant vehicle that introduced German émigré and bisexual icon Marlene Dietrich to American audiences. But it is also, shot for shot, the introduction of Batman & Robin’s villainous Poison Ivy—played by Uma Thurman, who oscillates wildly between a broad, aloof Mae West drawl and a mousy, twitchy academic, without ever clarifying which is the real and which the drag (Ivy twice disguises herself by pulling on a “wig” of Thurman’s own hair, while in the front seat her enormous goon Bane discreetly dons a chauffeur hat over his bio-mechanical luchador mask). In her Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag credits one of the term’s earliest definitions to Isherwood’s The World in the Evening: “a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich”; in its Blonde Venus burlesque, then, and in the animated series’ cruel mockery of its director, Batman & Robin takes camp almost to its absolute taxonomic source. But Isherwood also there warns that camp cannot exist without a profound appreciation and close reading of its target: “You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. […] You're expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. Baroque art is basically camp about religion. The ballet is camp about love.” Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (like Batman Forever, the film that preceded it) is a film in delirious love with its subject, and that subject is the goofy, gay beauty of the modern myth of the superhero. Overt in its desires and its delights, the film stares with incredible, lingering longing at Chris O’Donnell’s bedewed lips, submerges the cold, aloof Bruce Wayne beneath the warm, kind smirk of George Clooney (a Batman who smiles!), and—most unforgiveable of all—it put nipples on the bat-suit. I will tell you the secret of why Batman’s nipples so enrage its critics: because the charade is over. The swells and dips of the lovingly sculpted male torso can be explained, and therefore explained away: these muscles are the site of masculine power; they speak, surely, of strength, of solidity and unremitting training. It is no accident that every femme fatale in Batman’s cinematic rogues gallery fans her hands across these rubberized zones, seeking the chink in the armor. But the male nipple has no such function, no exculpatory capacity for war; the nipple is the site of weakness, of sensitivity—and of pleasure. Plausible deniability is gone. Put a nipple on the batsuit, and you admit to having fun.Unproductive fun, perverse fun, queer fun—the Schumacher Batman films are, in Jonathan Goldberg’s analysis of a parallel vein in queer texts by Shakespeare and Marlowe, sodomitical, wholly uninterested in the patina of virtuous grimaces or generative reconstitutions of order (grim and grimy and gritty—the superhero equivalent of making love missionary-style through a bedsheet) and instead reveling in the spectacular and preposterous (a term that literally means “putting the ass first,” which is indeed both a Renaissance euphemism for gay sex and also literally how the films’ glorious butt-shots kick off their action). It is not just this celebration of the beauty of the male form that marks Schumacher’s auteurism, but a wild, debauched excess of style and narratives that foreground the displaced, lost other. From Jim Carrey’s Riddler’s obsessive, yearning lust for Bruce Wayne to Chris O’Donnell’s martial arts laundry skills to a neon-noir Gotham City peopled by Day-Glo supermodel pompadour gangs, the films are wall-to-wall pageantry and faggotry, and they do not apologize for it. Instead, they create a sensitively observed and minutely detailed love-letter to the wry surrealist goofiness of the 1966 Adam West/Burt Ward series that had saved the property from obscurity and catapulted Batman so immovably into pop celebrity, and itself made by a rogues gallery of Sixties counter-cultural icons. Indeed, Carrey’s zany hyperkinetics—clad in gorgeous crystal-studded leotards and with dazzlingly acrobatic cane-work—pay meticulous homage to Frank Gorshin’s own Riddler, whose giggling fiendishness nearly earned him an Emmy. “Remember,” Schumacher was fond of saying to the actors on set, “you’re in a cartoon!”This style is not without its critics. Even on-set, Carrey struggled to connect with cackling co-villain Tommy Lee Jones; pleading to be liked, Carrey says he cornered Jones, who told him openly he detested the man—then, needled for more to go on, looked Carrey dead in the eye and rasped: “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.”* Schumacher’s broader oeuvre, even in films with budgets in the hundreds of millions, is consistently obsessed with the outsider, the misfit, the buffoon. His early endeavours include cult classic musical Sparkle (the prototype for Dreamgirls), followed by Car Wash—a film now infamous for queer icon Lindy, who responds to being called a “sorry-looking faggot” with an imperious “who’re you calling ‘sorry-looking’?” and rejoinders “I am more man than you’ll ever be, and more woman than you’ll ever get.” In 1978, Schumacher penned the screenplay that took the quintessential American myth—The Wizard of Oz—and transformed into a critique of the American effacement of Black culture and labour: The Wiz. There, even the thoughtlessness of L. Frank Baum’s Scarecrow becomes a fable of systemic oppression, as the crows make the painfully sensitive dummy sing a song of their own devising about his own misfit uselessness that keeps him helpless upon his perch; when he doffs his hat to Dorothy, his head is not empty, but to her horror has been filled up by those who would keep him docile with “garbage.” The critics that revile Schumacher ignore that he was perfectly capable of making tight, hardboiled films—the impossibly taut Phonebooth, the dismaying hopelessness of Falling Down—and instead just as often would, like Bartleby, prefer not to. The Lost Boys may be a shrewd glance at the AIDS crisis and at the rootlessness and poverty of so many young queer lives, but the film is also a roaringly energetic comedy that delights in chaos and cute moody boys and loud, rowdy found family. “Take off that earring; it doesn’t suit you at all,” the mean-spirited young brother hisses at the breathtakingly beautiful male lead Jason Patric (whose vampiric style now trends to the androgynous and whose resemblance to Jim Morrison is emphasized by a matching dissolve), then adds with a sneer: “Have you been watching too much Dynasty?” By film’s end, however, the two have made peace and forged an acceptance of Michael’s outré new alternative lifestyle: “You’re my brother, even if you are a vampire.” The malevolent father figure (played by Edward Hermann with the same avuncular dweebishness he brought to Gilmore Girls), however, who tries to reinstantiate the stability of heteronormative family, is quite thoroughly and satisfyingly exploded. As an artist, Schumacher recognized there is something important, transformative, and transcendent about joy as resistance; he had as instinct what every poor NYC club kid knows: the revolution, when it comes, must be opulent. He extended this interest in underdogs to fostering underseen talent, launched the careers of many of Hollywood’s best-known faces, shepherding the Brat Pack, Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Colin Farrell, Gerard Butler, Matthew McConaughey, and many others into the public eye, frequently sacrificing established bankability to mint a new star. Pop singer Seal credits Schumacher with turning “Kiss from a Rose” from relative obscurity to karaoke staple, while Jim Carrey, whose buffoonery Schumacher had sanctioned not just in Forever but in Number 23, said that Schumacher “saw deeper things in me than most and he lived a wonderfully creative and heroic life. I am grateful to have had him as a friend.” Remembering working with him on Phantom of the Opera (in which she plays the past-her-prime diva), Minnie Driver meanwhile recalled this week that “once, on set, an actress was complaining about me within earshot [about] how I was dreadfully over the top (I was).” Driver said that Schumacher “barely looked up from his New York Times” and replied: “Oh honey, no one ever paid to see under the top.” * The climaxes of Don Juan Triumphant and Phantom of the Opera itself dovetail in a final number—“The Point of No Return,” in which the Phantom replaces the murdered lead actor Piangi as Don Juan (himself disguised, in the tissue of the play, as his own servant, Passerino, to effect a last cruel “seduction” before his damnation). The company knew if his opera was staged, he was certain to attend, and have laid traps for him—everywhere except onstage. Now they watch, helpless from the wings, as he stalks opposite the ingénue who consumes him, intent to abduct her at last. The moment is badly, almost fatally, under-imagined in stage productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, with the Phantom in a black shroud, completely illegible, and the stage half-heartedly dressed with a dinner table to facilitate a cheap disappearance trick at the end: a pretty melody, wasted.In the film, however, Schumacher transforms it into a shocking, bizarre set-piece: the stage, ablaze with a hideously avant-garde depiction of the hell-mouth that has come to swallow Don Juan to his damnation. Surrounded by expressionist cut-outs of flame and jarring tilted-angle smash-cuts to sweaty flamenco dancers moving with jerky arrhythmia, the Phantom (here restyled as a beautiful baroque toreador) and Christine now climb up parallel winding staircases to Hell, as the score palpates and whirls with bleats and trumpeting and the theatre’s patrons recoil in visible confusion and disgust.The coup de grace is the Phantom, whose disguise is no disguise at all: Gerard Butler’s own face, in a mere domino mask, only revealed in close-up at the last second of his unmasking to be part of an elaborate hair-and-makeup prosthesis to conceal his othering disfigurement. His disguise ripped away—Passerino is not Don Juan is not Piangi is not the Phantom is not even the handsome “real” of Gerard Butler—he slices through a cord, plunging down the onstage shaft of Hell with his prize as, from above the crowd, the chandelier falls to crush the paper-fire set and consume the Opera Populaire and its screaming, tacky arriviste audience in gouts of burning wreckage. This week we lost Joel Schumacher. He was a denizen of the NYC queer underground, a department store window-dresser, a fashion designer, a screenwriter, and finally one of cinema’s most iconic and reviled directors. He was eighty years old.He left the audience disgusted, and the theatre aflame.
Talking to the author of Glitter Up the Dark about Savage Garden as entry-point to fandom, missing shitty clubs in the midst of a pandemic, and Britney Spears’s communist reblogs.
“Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability,” the New York Times critic Jack Gould fumed in 1956. “His one specialty is an accented movement of the body that heretofore has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blonde bombshells of the burlesque runway.” In their new book Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, the slyer critic Sasha Geffen notes that he could’ve just called Elvis a male bimbo. Geffen scours a century of music for these glinting crystals, from 1920s blues singers to early synth experiments, Beatlemania to grunge, with Prince as a genre unto himself. Even the most harmonic among them carried notes of dissonance, rupturing the carefully gendered voice. Geffen invokes canonical artists with wan mischief—“Titless, he struts like he’s got his tits out for all to see,” they write of Iggy Pop—and keeps finding curious historical details, like how Klaus Nomi settled on his abstracted outfit because a full costume would’ve been too expensive. They also hit on the ways capitalism tries to recuperate each moment of subversion: “If it can’t get rid of them, patriarchy tends to devour its threats.” But that process never moves in only one direction, and Glitter Up the Dark lovingly describes the affinities drawn together by the act of listening. “Inside a song,” Geffen writes, “every singer is exactly who she says she is in the moment her voice passes through her throat.” Chris Randle: After the prologue where you talk about early modern American music, like, the blues, Harlem Renaissance people, why did you decide to start the book with the Beatles, and specifically their first pop covers? Were you looking to invert the canon? Sasha Geffen: I don't know if it's an inversion, necessarily, but I wanted to point to a moment that I saw as the beginning of pop culture and fandom as I think it still is now. This gathering of attention around a band on a mass scale, with heavy consumerism involved too. And I thought the Beatles were a pretty reliable starting point when it comes to pop as a mass cultural phenomenon, because even though pop is 50, 60, 70 years old, depending on when you want to mark it, that's the first time that someone makes dolls out of a band that I could find. Action figures, wigs, merch. And it also seemed to be a sea change in the way that fans oriented themselves around bands, taking bands as these objects that generated identity. So it wasn't that I see the Beatles as the beginning of pop music, because they're not, but they did seem to mark a shift that made a good starting point for this discussion. Yeah, my sense is that, at least before World War Two, stardom didn't work in quite the same way. Like, more often the songs would become famous and the stars would be Artie Shaw, or whoever. Right, it feels like the song was more the defining unit of liking pop music. And the Beatles came along in a decade where the teenager had just been established as a post-war phenomenon, where there was all this money concentrated in the hands of young white people, and a lot of capitalists were eager to draw it away from them by any means possible [laughs]. And Elvis kind of started with that too, but I think the Beatles really raised the stakes to another level, the level of urgency around Beatles fandom was unparalleled at the time. Even just, like, the hair. I actually love how much attention you lavish on that [laughs]. It's more interesting than the music, I think. Just the way they looked is so fascinating, it's so specific. There's an old Hannah Black tweet that went, "Gender is 50% hair." It's true. It's the first thing that people notice when they see you. Do you remember a moment earlier in your own life when you saw a music video, or heard a song on the radio, and sensed everything turning liquid in that way? Yeah, I can tell you my Savage Garden origin story! That was my first experience with fandom, and it's really dorky. When I was maybe nine or ten years old, I was really into being online, and went to all these different goofy fandom things, games, virtual pets. That whole '90s culture of having your own colorful home page: "Here's this GIF of a cartoon cat that I adopted from someone else's website." And one of the sites I went to had this auto-playing MIDI rendition of the Savage Garden song "Truly Madly Deeply." I would hear it every single day, and I didn't know what it was, and it was just a melody without lyrics so you couldn't look it up. Then I was on a plane, listening to the looping airplane radio, and that song came on, and I was like, holy shit, it's the song from the cat website that I visit all the time. There was a pre-recorded announcer who identified the band as Savage Garden, so I went home—I think one of their newer songs was playing on the radio too, from the second album. So I convinced my parents to buy me both albums, and I had this ritual of putting in the first self-titled record, the little orange CD, into my mom's computer right before I would go online, and go into my chat rooms pretending to be this gender-morphing fantasy creature. I think that voice triggered something in me for sure, because Darren Hayes's voice is so effeminate and so androgynous, so interestingly coarse. It's very high, and he uses his falsetto, but it also feels kind of crimped and faltering at points. There's a lot of failure hard-coded into it. In retrospect I could see that speaking to my own bodily situation, of being about to go through puberty not really knowing what I was in for, and excited to become a sexual being but also obviously not doing it the right way, according to the feedback I got from my peers [laughs]. Being told that my relationship to myself was weird or wrong or gross, all that fun baby gay shit where you don't know what's happening yet, but everyone's like, "You're disgusting." And you're like, "I'm just here trying to be a person, I don't know what's happening." So that band was like a sanctuary for me at 11 or 12, I was obsessed to the point where it was my schtick. When you're in middle school and no one knows what to do with you, they just assign you a schtick. I had a VHS and a DVD of their music videos, and I just watched them obsessively. The "I Want You" music video, I think I write about it in the book, because that was a big one for me. He's got that gross chin-length stringy hair, looks really young and androgynous, he's in this cool cyberpunk environment. I actually got my hair cut like that, or tried to, it didn't really work because I've got Jewish hair. I had printed out this black-and-white photo of Darren Hayes at his most androgynous, and I brought it to the person who cut my hair at the time like, turn me into this please. That's kind of the root of my whole desire to see the gender in music, I guess, because they were both so intricately bound up for me from a young age. Was there anything that turned up from research that really surprised you? I love the detail about Wendy Carlos, that she had to do her first publicity appearances in male drag. Yeah! That was a fun one. I guess I didn't know a lot about Alice Cooper, especially his early work and early appearances, how he was spouting lines that sound very much like Tumblr-queer jargon now. "Everybody has a little male and female in them, it's a biological fact." Which sounds like an infographic you'd see among social justice communities, but he was saying it to be provocative, because in the early '70s you couldn't just do media interviews and say that shit without making some people upset. And of course his whole getup was designed to be freakish, it wasn't like Alice Cooper was wearing makeup to be pretty, it was to look garish. What also surprised me, kind of from that same era, is how you see the young proto-punks like the Stooges being really into the Beatles, because they're so frightening to their surroundings. Like being into Nazi imagery and being into Beatles imagery were equally provocative. It's mind-boggling to me, because the Beatles seem so tame and anodyne now, it's like dad culture. But people would get catcalled, you'd get called "Beatle" on the street if you had long hair with the venom of a slur. That shifted my preconceptions around these eras I was studying. I feel like you don't always know the norms of a particular musical era, even if you know the music pretty well, so reading a bunch of contemporary interviews was really interesting, because you could see the shock happening in real time [laughs]. Seeing very square, very straight music journalists getting up in arms over what Lou Reed or Alice Cooper were doing was funny and revealing. You spend a lot of this book writing about the ambiguity of voices. Why do you think they're so malleable in that way? I think just the fact that they're the one musical sound that comes directly from the body, and that the body by necessity has to be malleable and flexible. Humans are very adaptable, and at least in hearing communities we communicate primarily through voice—communication isn't just done through actual words, it's intonation, accents, all kinds of subtle variations in the way voice is used. I think that extends to music, maybe it's even intensified in music, because music is this heightened dream-space. When you're singing it's not the same as speaking, it's this gauzy detachment from linear reality, where the song is looping in perpetuity, if that makes sense. Especially since recording began, individual vocal takes are frozen in time forever, kind of in their own reality. So I see voice as an opportunity to try out ways of being, ways of expression, that don't necessarily have to be rooted in the material conditions of your life. You can sing an alternate reality, an alternate mode of relations, and it doesn't mean you have to be that person that you're playing. It's almost embodied and disembodied at the same time. Like, an impression of the singer with no visual. Totally. Yeah. And in many cases an impression of a singer who's no longer alive, who no longer has a body to which that voice corresponds, but this ghostly after-impression of their voice still lives on. I think that makes it ripe for a lot of tension and conflict, and that's where I see a lot of these themes of gender-weirdness coming out. Early on you mention those wax-cylinder recordings of the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, and it made me think of—do you know this book called Making Sex, by Thomas Laqueur? I think you've mentioned it to me before, it's on my list of things I should be reading but haven't yet, because I'm a very bad procrastinator and a slow reader. I've gotten better, but I get disillusioned. Sadie Dupuis [guitarist/vocalist of Speedy Ortiz] just posted her April books pile, and it was like eight books, and I'm like, shut the fuck up [laughs]. I've been inching my way through Faulkner and Alice Walker right now, these classics that were on my bookshelf, but I've been doing it every day, which is progress. It's funny, because Making Sex is a book from the early '90s by this middle-aged cis professor that doesn't explicitly mention trans people at all ever, but it's about the endlessly changing and contradictory "scientific" definitions of sex. Starting with the Aristotelian one, where he was like, "Women are cold and wet, which corresponds with the elements of..." Right, women are like 3D printers for the male form. Laqueur writes that all of these definitions of sex contain claims about gender. There's a part on the Renaissance where he discusses various cases of intersex people, what became of them, the formal decision on their identity from the local duke or whomever. He says that, generally, "as long as sign matched status, all was well." And in so much popular music sign does not match status. It reminded me of that great essay you did about robotic voices—I actually have this giant quote from it pasted into my phone: "When grafted onto robots, alpha masculinity becomes distended and uncanny; Robocop and the Terminator supplant organic masculinity with a hilariously overwrought form of butch. Others present a beta masculinity ripe with pathos: the tragically named Alpha from Power Rangers, whose neuroses constantly short-circuit him, or Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Data..." I guess I'm wondering, how do you feel those cinematic robots relate to synth-pop and vocoders? I think you see a lot of overlap in Laurie Anderson, who I write about in the book, who created a caricature of masculinity using vocoders and pitch-shifters, which was deployed to a subtle comedic effect. It's a character that she uses a lot throughout the early '80s to poke fun at the idea of competent masculinity, masculinity as the harbinger of the future and as the natural subject of America. The comic effect of roboticizing masculinity definitely appears there, like, how powerful can masculinity be if it's so easily mimicked by something that's not a man? And that's true for failing robots like Data, it's true for someone like Laurie Anderson, and I think more recently you see Dorian Electra working in a similar vein, where they're doing office drag and singing through vocoder about being a "career boy." Performing all these stereotypical male roles ... The idea that masculinity is kind of inherently comic, because it's so stilted and brittle, comes into play there. And robots are a good excuse to magnify that, because they're so easy to break, and ill-fitting in the role of human in a similar way that men are. It's interesting that Daft Punk, the other artists who had a Billboard hit while dressed as robots, have always been smoothly asexual in their persona. But not the camp C-3PO thing, or even that Data type, more like the Terminator if it were just making house jams ... In the Prince chapter, you talk about him in these Sapphic terms, echoing Wendy & Lisa's own description of him as a "fancy lesbian." I was thinking about the inverse, divas with a homoerotic affect, like Madonna. I couldn't find a way to slot Madonna in. There were moments, but I couldn't make them cohere into an argument, whereas Prince, the chapter could've been longer ... He was so specific with such widespread appeal. I don't know any other pop star who managed to be that consistently strange and opaque and elusive and still so massively popular. So insistent on his own displacement from his surroundings, in terms of gender, the way he produced his music, and his relationships with the rest of the band. He's my favourite musician, and I find "If I Was Your Girlfriend" so moving in the way that it takes this fantasy of perfect mastery—Prince writing and performing and producing every element of every song, shifting between genders effortlessly—and crushes it down into the narrow intimacies of heterosexuality. Yeah, and I feel like there's this longing for a feminized mastery within the lyrics, right? This caretaking that he doesn't necessarily have access to in his male form, as a man who loves women. There's this whole realm of mastery that he's sealed off from, and the best he can do is use his mastery of music to simulate it, or try to find a way in to pantomime it. In the chapters on dance music, you write a lot about these distended experiences of time: The improvised circuit of DJ and dancers, the stopped clock at the Loft. It feels very appropriate now that we're living in this endless suspended present. What do you think distinguishes the two? Why is one of them euphoric and the other nightmarish? There's a point to the former, right? Being in a place where there's a lot of sensory input, you're hearing music that's really loud, you're surrounded by other people, maybe your end goal is just to dance, or maybe it's to get high and peak at some point during the night, or to have sex or whatever. Even though the moment is extended, there's direction within it, there's narrative. And that narrative doesn't necessarily conform to clock time, it's on its own timeline, but it does have peaks and valleys, it does begin and eventually end. Whereas what we're doing now, there's no end to it, it seems so yawning and empty. And obviously we can't be around other people, so all the sensory overload and the sensuality of the dance floor is drained out of the picture. It's interesting how it's even drained out of musical experiences that are happening. I totally get that musicians have to do something to survive when they can't tour, because for so many musicians that's their only source of income, so playing Zoom shows makes sense, but I feel like it's such a different experience from an actual concert. Where you feel the vibrations from the speakers in your body, and you're near other people reacting at the same time. The lack of any sensory shift makes the moment impoverished, I think. It's so weird, I had that thought of, wow, this really shows how time is conditional. The fact that March took 400 years and April didn't really ... happen? It doesn't seem like April happened, there was no demarcation there. There's no narrative to it because everything is just bad all the time and slowly getting worse ... I thought that I would be fine through this, I kind of dug in my heels like, whatever, I'm in my house anyways so it doesn't really matter that I have to stay inside my house. But the psychological effect of everyone I know being stuck and suffering for it... The idea that something bad is happening and there's nothing you can do about it except stay home is hard to swallow. All of that makes this hellish. But it's a good example, or at least an effective example [laughs], of how time is conditional. I wish I could be on a dance floor. Ever since I moved to Denver I haven't been to as many shows or dance nights as I once went to in Chicago, because I knew the environment, knew the layout of the city a little bit better. Here there's a lot of—I don't want to bad-talk Denver, but there's a lot of EDM and jam bands, just not as much of an abundance of stuff I like. But I didn't really miss it before all this, I was like, alright, that's fine, I'll get my few shows out, that scratches the itch as I'm getting older. And now I need to be in a shitty club with sticky floors and concrete walls, where I can't hear anything but feedback, with a bunch of drunk people [laughs]. That's something I miss that I didn't think I would miss. Your book made me return to that Octo Octa album from last year [Resonant Body], where she gestures towards '90s rave anthems without just pastiching them or lapsing into melancholy. It feels like this intense solidarity. Totally. She goes through those gestures with such a light touch, it feels like there's room for forward motion. Right, it feels purposeful. And I feel like that's the challenge in a larger sense too, how to care for and remember all the people who are sick and dying. It's strange to try to be present without being present right now. It's also troubling how conveniently dependent we are on internet technologies to communicate now and care for each other in whatever ways we can, like, with the refusal to bail out the postal service. Any non-corporate communication we have is being starved. One of your recurring themes is how the gender expression of marginalized people gets eyed up and repackaged by capitalism. Have you read that Elijah Wald book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock & Roll? No, I haven't. The title is very inflammatory [laughs], there's only, like, one chapter about the Beatles. It's more a secret history of American pop music, touching on some fantastically unfashionable artists like Pat Boone or Paul Whiteman, because people were listening to them. And one of his recurring themes is the way that music-making gets shaped by recording technology. He argues that a big influence behind the rise of the album in the '60s was—I'm not really an audiophile, I forget exactly what changed to allow for longer LPs, but something did. Before music was a recorded commodity, people would take songs and adapt them and put their own twist on them—it's a very human impulse, I think, to do that. But when the music industry comes along that becomes part of capitalism's repertoire. How do you feel that's all been accelerated and complicated by digital technology? I'm thinking of Arca sequencing her album to confound streaming services. That whole phenomenon just has accelerated, right? As soon as something's published online it can be devoured. A somewhat recent example is Rihanna's Saturday Night Live performance [in 2012], where she or her creative design team borrowed elements from seapunk, which was this small semi-comedic vaporwave offshoot out of Chicago led by a trans girl and a cis girl, just making lots of '90s-nostalgic synth music. Lots of Ecco the Dolphin visuals. Lots of digital replications of paradises, beaches and oceans and palm trees, that made it into this Rihanna performance. Very quickly things from the fringes were scooped up and repackaged around a mainstream pop star. I think maybe what you're seeing is a new generation of artists kind of accepting that as inevitable? Making work so quickly that the swagger-jackers can't keep up. You see a lot of trans artists in particular putting out a ton of stuff, like Black Dresses and Ada Rook and that whole network, releasing three or four albums a year sometimes. Pouring out music at the rate that they're making it, and not necessarily working through a label or thinking so much about marketing. It's interesting because that's almost the speed at which the Beatles were releasing albums, back when an album didn't have to have these high levels of production, you could have four cover songs and it wasn't a big deal. You only have to write four to six songs, and then you record it all over two days. Before the album became this art object, when it was just a convenient package for songs by popular artists, you saw things happening a lot faster. Now that the internet is what it is, and has messed with many people's ability to make a living making music, you see that same rate for different reasons. I think most of the albums that I'm talking about are considered as full-length narratives, it's more about not needing a label to mediate between you and your listeners. I love how you keep returning to that search for unlikely affinities. It's the "Crush With Eyeliner" thing, two people swerving towards each other while conspicuously failing at gender. Where are you finding those affinities these days? In music? Anywhere! It's the last question, it could be anything. That photo of Daniel Radcliffe walking all the dogs [laughs]. Oh boy. Honestly, the insane, powerful singing that my body used to do when I saw pictures of abject males has quieted a little bit since I got top surgery, so I don't explode in longing when I see a picture of Daniel Radcliffe looking at his phone while tied to 17 dogs quite the way I used to. I used to go to Twenty One Pilots a lot for that, because there's a lot of homoerotic play between the two of them. My fandom for them is like the adult version of my Savage Garden fandom ... any kind of beta-male affinity. You mentioned R.E.M., and I'm actually researching for a potential book about Michael Stipe, a false hagiography or critical biography, because I feel like he's going to write his own at some point, I can't do that for him. That seems illegal. But I want to write something about his place in culture from the position of a fan. I feel like I'm also getting it in Britney Spears's communist reblogs. The idea that this person who was the one symbol of Y2K consumerism, everything wrong with the way capitalism has infiltrated music, is now like, "I was never a willing participant in my own exploitation." Her working against her own interpretation has been really productive, not in the erotic sense that you were asking about, but in the sense that she was held up as this image of perfection and now she's actively embracing her own failure ... I get a lot of vibrations just from seeing other trans people on the internet, seeing what we're all doing with ourselves in this weird time. The fact that people are looser with what they post, maybe, not necessarily in a lewd sense, just more casual. I wish I had a better answer to your question than Twenty One Pilots [laughs]. No, I love that answer! It's one point where I feel like I have no agreement from the rest of music-critic Twitter, that this is a good band. But I also just festooned them with my transmasculine hopes and dreams, and now I can't get rid of them. They're a comfort band for sure. I used to watch a lot of their music videos compulsively, in the same way that I would with Savage Garden. "What if I had that body? Wouldn't that be cool?" What if I could look and move like that in this weird, failed rock stardom? Because that is a band that's all about pushing against the bombast of their alt-rock predecessors ... Imagine Dragons, Kings of Leon, those post-Arcade-Fire what if we ran away from this world together male survivalist fantasies of the post-apocalypse. And then Twenty One Pilots were like, what if we were dweebs in the post-apocalypse instead? What if we were just nervous, insecure, vaguely homoerotic bros in this world those alpha males are ruling? I had never actually looked up a photo of Twenty One Pilots before. All their publicity shots look like they just got signed to an esports team. Yeah, Tyler just stoops! He's got the muscles and the big black tattoos but he just looks like a sad little boy. It's such a contrast, and so relevant to my own interior experience of being a person. So, if Elvis was a male bimbo, does that mean Savage Garden are catboys? Yeah, they can be catboys! I like that. I was active on Savage Garden message boards and fanfic communities when I was, like, 12, and I feel like that was probably something that got written at some point. Darren Hayes got turned into a cat and fucking loves it.
There was a creative storytelling aspect to sex, and a form of intimacy we didn’t share with boys.
There was a time when I had orgasms that had nothing whatsoever to do with fantasies. I had them by accident. I remember having them in gym class all the time. We had to prepare for some Canadian Fitness Exam. We had to take it very seriously. As a child, you are supposed to accept what adults put in front of you and denote as important. There is an element of nonsense in the life of any child. That was why Nonsense Literature is so appealing to children. In any case, we were told this was important and that we would be receiving an iron-on badge when our scores were submitted. I really wanted a gold badge to iron onto my grey hoodie. I was hanging from the chin up bars against the wall. My body hit the wall as I rocked and it brought me to a climax. I would hang there, oblivious to the time passing. My arms would have held me up even if I were 500 pounds. All of my body became focused on a singular feeling. I climbed up a rope and similarly achieved an orgasm. I had no idea what it was. * I befriended a girl named J. Her mother had three children with different fathers. They were each devastatingly beautiful. This meant her mother had beautiful genes. It was a lot of work to produce three beautiful children. After it she went to bed for the rest of her life. She sometimes left the bed to put on lipstick and go sit at the Jupiter Café. Her beautiful children roamed the neighborhood. Going mad, the way that unsupervised beautiful people do. We were delighted to find out we had both discovered our bodies had this wonderful feature. J loved to share with me the different ways she had discovered to masturbate. She told me about how she masturbated in the bathtub, scrunched up under the faucet. She had made love to every electrical appliance in the house, from the hair dryer to a vacuum cleaner. She made love to appliances in public too. She really had no shame. She didn’t have a washing machine in her house. She went to the laundromat. She wrapped her arms around a washing machine and held it as tightly as she could. We went to the swimming pool. She stood in front of the tube that new water poured through, her head tilted back in ecstasy. She had big eyes. And lips. When she closed her eyes, she looked as though she were in a permanent state of bliss. * I met a girl with long stringy, dirty, blonde hair. I liked kids who didn’t wash their hair regularly. It meant (to me anyways) that they were wild and had parents who were more permissive. She lived in a building right next to the swimming pool. She wore her bathing suit everywhere that summer. Another friend said we shouldn’t speak to her, as she was possibly amphibian. I put my bathing suit on to go and see her. I knocked on her door and, sure enough, she answered in her bathing suit. She tied a blindfold around my eyes and decided to tell me the definition of certain words that had to do with sex that I was unaware of. * A girl in my class came up and invited me over to her house. She had a peculiar style. She had bangs and two ponytails she wore oddly high on her head. I didn’t want to go because she always wore plaid and I had an aversion to it at the time. I don’t know how to say no to any girl’s invitation. But she told me her grandfather had moved into the duplex apartment underneath her. And rummaging through his unpacked things she had come across an entire box of dirty magazines. We sat in the narrow back staircase of her house. It was covered in yellow carpeting and we felt so snug sitting on the stairs. Our bums were crushed together and our running shoe clad feet were piled on top of one another. We turned the pages, looking at all the naked women and men in extreme postures. It was a rare find this box. It would most likely be seized at any moment. There was no time to be erotically stimulated. All we could do was consume the information the photographs contained before they were confiscated. Her grandfather had a right to look at all these naked female bodies, but we, as girls, did not. What I liked most about that day was that we were together, looking at the magazines together. We had triumphed over the adults. We were doing things they could never imagine us doing. It was our collective secret that we were obsessed with sex. Our sexuality was kept secret from us, while it was exhibited, examined and exploited by men. * The secrecy of it all made me feel guilty and troubled, of course. I thought I might be headed to a life of perdition. Until I befriended the most intelligent girl in my grade, named P. She had a thick black pony tail and baby hairs on her forehead. She had a collared shirt that she buttoned at the wrist and up to her neck. Her ability to concentrate was phenomenal. She was hardworking and conscientious. She was never late with her assignments. She was always taking notes as though the teacher had just given her winning lottery numbers. She was from Uruguay. She had an overweight sister who couldn’t get anything right. She was always daydreaming and fainting in gym class. They made a wonderful pair. She invited me over one day. She suggested we become best friends. She had examined the prospects in the class. She decided we had the most in common. Which meant we had the closest grade point average. We both were reading above our level. We both read in very different ways. There are as many different ways to read as there are people. P. brought me down to her basement. She had a tape recorder. She said she used her tape recorder to tell short stories. These seemed elaborate. But it was really to be expected of her organized personality. She asked if I would like to hear a story she had recorded. I said certainly. She played it. It was a very filthy story about her and a boy in her class. When it was done she looked at me and asked, “How did you like it? Did you think it was well written?” There is a creative storytelling aspect to sex. When the fantasies came, they were in the form of stories. When I was writing my novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel, I wanted to capture a childlike attitude to sexuality, perversity and pornography that I once had. * This was a form of intimacy we did not share with boys. They were already intimidated by the sexuality and bizarre amorous assertion of girls in the class. Girls would pursue them around the schoolyard trying desperately to kiss them. They would receive anonymous love letters and marriage propositions. I was more interested in the sexuality of girls and their physical presence back them myself. The girl who sat behind me one day reached forward and took my hair in her hands and began to braid it. It felt so good, as though each strand of my hair was coming out of my scalp and falling out around me. * I had a boyfriend when I was a teenager who had a job cleaning up a public library after hours. Whenever he would find a book in the remaindered section that he thought I might like, he would bring it home to me. He didn’t really know anything about books so his choices were always based on the covers. He brought me a book called The Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. I had heard of her before and was delighted. I loved the photograph on the front. It was of a girl in a cloche hat on a chair holding up her dress and revealing her skirt and slip so that one of her stockinged legs was exposed to the viewer. I saw clearly on the cover beneath the title that the word Erotica was written. He had either missed it or did not know the meaning of the word. He saw I had the book in my shoulder bag a few days later. “How is that book?” he asked. “It’s absolutely wonderful! It’s so dirty. People are having sex on every second page. You can’t sit down in this book without someone crawling on their knees to give you a blow job.” He insisted I hand the book back to him. He was furious that I had been reading porn. He demanded to know if I had masturbated while reading this book. I was taken aback. I mean, obviously. Was there something wrong with that? Why in the world did he feel threatened by a book? Especially since these were characters who had nothing to do with us. They were so pathetic. They lived in small attic apartments in Paris. They didn’t have refrigerators. They were always cold and couldn’t pay the rent. They dipped a stale baguette into a glass of wine and they were still hungry afterwards. They pushed the mice away from their plate with a fork. These people were no longer alive. What did it matter if they were turning me on from beyond the grave? It was surely a victimless crime. It seemed a pity because in giving back the book, I was giving him back any trust I had with him. * I gave up the boy but not reading porn. It seemed too fundamental a difference anyhow. * I hoped to grow up and meet someone as perverted as me. I wondered what this wonderful pervert would look like. Would he wear nothing but mismatched socks as he read paperback novels on the windowsill? He would be like nobody I knew. In part because nobody I knew loved me. That was what his perverted heart would be capable of doing. He would be capable of loving me. He would stand on coffee tables and say intelligent things. He would be broke because he would be much too cool to have a job. Ah! The life of artists. That would be a way I would get to be a pervert and be proud of it. I went to the library to find another copy of The Delta of Venus. I was young and filthy and it didn’t occur to me there might be something a little dingy about checking a dirty book out of the library. * I loved novelists who wrote about sex. Who included the perversity and filthiness of the whole thing. And the lovely awkwardness of it. The early twentieth century, any writer who lived in Paris was engaging in a miraculous sex life. It was so philosophical and political. They were trying to be free through having sex with as many people as possible. And why not? It was a noble pursuit. If you are a fallen woman, then you wouldn’t be able to be married. You would be outside conventional society. The women in Victorian novels decided they would kill themselves. But in the 1930s they went to Paris to join other groups of the fallen. And write and live to excess and discuss philosophy. And to write down their pensées which would change the way people thought about women and war. They would murder God. At which point it meant nothing to be fallen. I liked the 1930s as a time period, aesthetically. And I had been planning to write about it since I was very young. In The Lonely Hearts Hotel, one of the main characters, Rose, becomes involved in 1930s black and white pornography. I began researching it. One fascinating collection of pornographic photographs of prostitutes was taken by a man who called himself Monsieur X. They are beautiful and somehow speak, to a modern viewer, as portraits of innocence rather than wantonness. Unlike in modern pornographic photographs, the subjects seem like ordinary women who you can imagine having inner lives and interests that do not revolve around sex. Two girls sit reading a newspaper. Their legs are spread. They have no underwear on, but they are wearing stockings and pretty high heels. They look like they are two girls reading comics after a slumber party. They prefer not to look at the camera, as they are shy. Another pair of girls squat in an unnatural position to reveal their privates. They have the awkwardness of non-athletic girls in gym class. One has a run in her stockings. There is, of course, the messiness of pubic hair. One girl, alone in her photo, leaning on a chair partially undressed and smoking a cigarette, looks at the camera. She has a tinge of Henry Miller’s wife, June’s, pride about her. She doesn’t care that she is in a pornographic photo, she is still better and more accomplished than you. In a 1928 film called Le pompier des Folies-bergère, a fireman goes to see the naked dancing girls of Folies-bèrgere. When he comes out, the revue has made him lose his mind. He imagines every woman he sees naked, including a subway worker played by Josephine Baker. Every man he sees turns into a naked woman, including his fellow firemen, a priest, and a bus driver. He tiptoes around the city blowing kisses to everyone. These films seem like Charlie Chaplin movies until everyone takes their clothes off. There were films that were shown in Mutoscope peepshow machines. These were also called “What-the-Butler-Saw” machines, because they gave the viewer the perspective of looking at a scene through the peephole. You put a coin in and put your eyes against the goggles and saw a film created by a circular rotation of cards. It’s the same effect as when I was in high school and we all used to draw flip books on the sides of our dictionaries. Then we would pass them around. Little stick men would shoot each other in the head or a stick figure with a penis would have sex with a stick figure with breasts. In The Lonely Hearts Hotel, the character Pierrot sees Rose star in a movie in one of these machines and thinks it is the most beautiful, lovely film he has ever seen. Neither of them is ashamed of it and they love each other more because of their sexual pasts and experimentations and exploitations. Rose and Pierrot have a gender fluid relationship and they are best friends. They have been searching for one another since they were separated as children. There is something that remains childlike about their love and attraction for one another, causing them to be innocents. They share their sexual awakenings and desire with the same curiosity and wonder that I did with other girls. Even though society says girls are not as horny and perverted as boys, they truly, truly are. And when two people share the secrets of their perversions with one another, they become free of the false mores that society puts in place to clip our imaginative wings, not only in sex, but in all walks of life.
The author of Too Much on who gets to be excessive, whether Victorian protagonists would get along, and the privilege of seeing yourself in literature.
Has there ever been a better time to read Victorian novels? Their volume, their sheer scope, and their often-serialized origins all make for stories meant to be engrossing and enjoyed over a long period. Take your time; you have nowhere else to be. Rachel Vorona Cote knows her Victorians. With multiple degrees in literature, she applies her scholarly expertise to her modern obsessions in Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today (Grand Central Publishing). She traces a path from the Catherine Earnshaws and Dorothea Brookes of centuries past to contemporary characters, authors, and public figures, with a healthy dose of memoir tied in. The lessons that these books can teach us, Cote argues, are evergreen. The women who were maligned in the works of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot for being too emotional, too unstable, too sexual, can serve as a conduit for how we understand how women are maligned still today. Cote and I spoke on the phone in early March, the day her book had been launched, as she was embarking on a multi-city tour that would, one week later, be postponed indefinitely. Anna Fitzpatrick: Too Much is obviously rooted in the Victorian era, but you bring your subjects into the present, and cover a lot of literature over the twentieth century. Why did you decide to start with the Victorians? Rachel Vorona Cote: There's a logistical reason, and then there's a conceptual one. The logistical side of it is that my academic training is in Victorian studies. The nineteenth century was a period in which there was that sort of really intense institutional scrutiny and stigmatizing of women and women's emotional expression that veered towards the extremes. Sigmund Freud, he was a later Victorian. He came in at the tail end. You had a lot of white male doctors who were "treating" women who had maybe been sexually abused, or maybe had anxiety, really all sorts of afflictions, signs of distress. Rather than listening to them, rather than actually putting any importance on their testimony, their sense of what it meant to live in their own bodies, rather than listening to that, the catchall was hysteria. These women were hysterical because their wombs were running all over their bodies, whatever sort of nonsense medicine they were leaning into at the time. That was something that was quite prevalent. It kind of makes sense, because the Victorian period was really a bananas time in terms of the way people were navigating issues of gender, issues of sexuality. The Victorians were really quite obsessed with sex even when they tried to pretend they were really moralistic about it. Women were then, as now, they were kind of seen as illegible in a lot of ways. And frightening. Especially as you got to the turn of the century and women started saying, "We want to work outside the home, we want to earn money, maybe we don't want to get married.” It dredged up a lot of anxiety. What drew you specifically to the literature? It's an interesting question because I've been reading it for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, my mom started reading a lot of nineteenth century literature. She hadn't been a big reader when she was growing up, and then she started, I think she just wanted to fill in a bunch of gaps. She started reading Jane Austen, and she read the Brontes. I started reading these works alongside her. We'd watch film adaptations, like the BBC Pride and Prejudice, that was constant viewing in our household. In some ways it grew out of my relationship with my mom. I've always really appreciated the intensity. That sounds cliché, to say that considering the book I've written, but I think there was something very resonant for me in books that— [cuts out] Are you there? [a minute passes] Are you there? You cut out for a second. I think I accidentally started making a call. I do that all the time. When your cheek dials? Ha. So, the Victorians. They're extremely dramatic. Right. And I can see how that would be really, really aggravating for people. When people tell me they really don't like Victorian literature, or they're put off by it, I completely understand that. It's very specific, even though different writers are doing their own thing. There is a sort of emotional urgency that runs throughout. I appreciate that. I especially appreciate that in the women who emerge in the text, especially in the books written by women, women like George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte. Women who were, to be clear, very problematic in a lot of ways but who were very frustrated with their milieu and who were responding to it in certain ways, ways that we would understand. In the book, it seems that the things you love about this era and the things that really frustrate you are often very close together. I'm thinking of the chapter you have on Lucy Maud Montgomery, where you talk about how you didn't like Anne of Green Gables at first but you were very into Emily of New Moon. You wonder if Emily would have even liked Anne. I wonder how you felt about how so many of these women who are too much in their own ways, how they would interact with each other? There are a couple of shows right now where I think a bunch of characters from different nineteenth century novels are sort of thrown together. There's Penny Dreadful, which I haven't watched because I can be kind of a weenie about violence and I heard it's gory, and then there's one I heard about that's based in Dickens, but I love the idea of putting all these different women together. A lot of them would probably hate each other. If you put Cathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights in a room with Jane Eyre, she'd probably punch Jane in the face. If she even gave her that much time. They would probably spar for a while, and then Catherine would get a little violent. I think that it's really important to think about what sorts of characteristics or dispositions we regard as excessive, it's important to think about the sort of language that we use, and what causes us to regard certain people, certain practices, certain behaviours in this way, and to think about excessiveness as negative. The fact is, being excessive isn't necessarily positive. It can be true that a character like Catherine Earnshaw might be struggling under very patriarchal strictures. It can also be true that she's an asshole. She's not an especially kind or compassionate person, and she doesn't really think about other people. That's the most mild critique of her. She's a very compelling character, but I don't think anyone would make the mistake of calling her nice. I think when you've got all of these strong personalities, it's not the case that they would mesh. It might be, because of who these people are and what they're willing to give of themselves, or it could be because it is very, very easy to internalize misogyny. If you're feeling anxious or you feel some solicitousness about aspects of yourself that you think maybe are off-putting, I know that this is something that I've fallen into where I might be inclined to critique that in somebody else and probably I'm doing that because it's something that I'm anxious about. You talk about these Victorian constraints with fictional characters and real women in tandem with each other. How do these constraints apply themselves differently in reality? Whenever we're talking about real people, stakes are inevitably going to be different. I can appreciate characters in Victorian novels who might be kind of jerks. Maybe take the good with the bad. But I'm not going to give myself that sort of pass, just because I always want to do better. I think when we're actually having a talk about real women and real women thinking about the way that we navigate our excesses or what we are told are excesses and how we navigate that conversation, we can absolutely talk about this with literature too, but I think it's just more urgent that we have to think about the ethics of it, too. I want for us to be able to extend more empathy towards each other, and I think that's definitely a guiding motivation for me in writing the book. I also think it's facile to say that being excessive is good, or “do whatever you want, you can't say anything to me because you're just stigmatizing me.” It's much more nuanced than that. I think we have to think about, okay, what do we need to unlearn, what has made it difficult for us to live in the world, what sort of stigmas and ideologies have really shored up our subjugation, and the subjugation of people much more marginalized. Then there's also the question of, where's the boundary between that, and also thinking about how we have to navigate the world with other people. How do we honour ourselves and try to untangle ourselves from a whole lot of really nasty patriarchal and capitalist bullshit, for lack of a better term. How do we do that while holding ourselves accountable? Remembering that everybody is going to be living in the world in their own way. It's important to bear that in mind and remember that too, always. We can't think about ourselves as if we're inside of a vacuum. We're part of a web. I can't quote it directly, although maybe that makes me less of a nerd, but I really love the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan. There's a really wonderful line or two, it comes in the section that's narrated by Briony, but the basic premise is everyone in the world is as real as you are. The thrust of that being that everybody's inner life, we're all walking around with all of these loud voices and all these competing emotions, and it can be very easy to forget that everybody is doing that too. Of course, there's the fact that it can be comforting and humbling, in its way, to remember that and to remember that other people are definitely not thinking about you, but also that most people are just grappling with themselves and trying to get through the day as best they can. I've always loved the way that that novel demands a sort of recognition of the fact that everyone has a really, really vivid interiority. If I were to try to suss out a moral code, that would be part of mine. You identify as a woman who is Too Much, and you relate to a lot of Victorian heroines that way. Do you think it's possible for a woman to not be considered too much based on how you lay it out in the book? First of all, it's very easy for me to find heroines to identify with, especially Victorian heroines. They're all white and cisgender, and so am I. I had a lot of access growing up. There is privilege in the amount of resonance I found in literature. I think that the notion of one being excessive, I think it is lobbed at a lot of people who aren't performing normativity in a way that social norms insist that we do. That said, I think that some people are capable of performing normativity according to hegemonic ideals. Some are more capable of doing that than others. Sometimes maybe it comes down to disposition. I think oftentimes it does come down to privilege. That's where I have to check myself, because yes, I absolutely felt very often in my life as if I'm spilling all over the place. I'm very emotional, and I have to navigate some mental illness and that can feel unwieldy, and there's this and that, but I nonetheless have a lot of privilege. There's a lot about me that in fact would not be considered too much. That would not be considered fundamentally excessive. I'm able bodied, I'm white, again I'm cisgender, I'm queer but I'm married to a man, so I have privilege there. I think this is such a good question because it really emphasizes the extent to which, and I don't know if this is maybe the way you intended it, but it does emphasize the extent to which— [silence] Are you there? Are you still there? I don't know why my chin keeps doing that. I keep accidentally hitting mute. My chin is going all over the place. You cut out about a minute ago. Let me try to back track. What I was saying is, I think what is making me contend with and remember that however difficult it may be for me—or how difficult it may feel for me—to live in the world, to contend with the different sorts of expectations that still seem to prevail in terms of femininity, it is very much the case that it is going to be so much more difficult for so many other people. In America, people are just wholesale treated almost as excessive or extraneous if say, they need government support. If they're women of colour who need food stamps. That, according to the monsters running our government, well, that's too much. It's a continuum. That continuum is absolutely inextricable from white privilege and privileges of gender and orientation. That's been a really critical thing for me to keep in mind. I don't ever want to get drunk on the sense of my own subjugation. There are really pernicious trends and ideologies that I see as enduring, and it's distressing that there are so many continuities from the nineteenth century, but my book would be written a very different way by someone who was living a very different life from me.
Sometimes I think I can identify men who have daughters.
We were supposed to leave the house at 3 p.m. to walk to the mall but Catherine was slouched on a desk chair, totally absorbed with her phone. Not even a trip to the mall could get her attention. Her father, my friend, Moon, put on his tough-father voice, but she could tell that he was just putting on his tough-father voice so he was soundly ignored. I was watching the whole scene play out. I felt like I was behind a two-way mirror, observing a live demo of parenting. Daughter vs. Father: An Epic Battle to Leave the House. Moon got behind her and rolled the chair toward the door. She resisted by making herself heavy. Then he went away for a while. Moon and Catherine were vacationing with me for a week. Catherine’s mother couldn’t synch up her vacation time so she was back in Korea, working. When Moon returned to the room he was pinching Catherine’s shoes between his fingers. I thought he was going to issue another order. Instead he crouched down in front of Catherine. He held her foot between his knees, opened the flap of the shoe, put her feet in, adjusted the tongue, tightened the laces. Then he did the same with the other foot. I’ve seen my brother kneel and pull on his daughter’s sneakers as she held on to his shoulder for balance. She was a toddler at the time. Catherine is almost a teenager, the age of the ideal TaylorSwiftDuaLipaBTS fan. Yet here was my friend—a forty-five-year-old man, a man with whom I’ve been friends since our twenties, pre-marriage, pre-children—genuflecting before a girl on her phone. Whither went the person I knew who played videogames and drank until his neck went red? From whence did this other self emerge? Wherefore was this new man so tender? * When Kobe Bryant and his daughter died in a helicopter crash, #girldad trended on Twitter. An effusion of tweets, images, and video poured out of fathers and daughters. It was an atypically bright moment on Twitter. Fathers cradled newborns, fistpumped during birth-announcement parties (which is a thing, apparently). Some posted images of ultrasounds. I didn’t mention that Catherine is my goddaughter. In fact, Moon let me name her Catherine. I have a niece and a nephew and other godchildren but no children of my own so hashtags like girldad make me weirdly moody. I feel like I’m living in the unit below a happy family. Sometimes when I hear the happy-family footsteps above me, I turn up the volume of my TV to drown them out. And other times I stop whatever I’m doing and let the little echo of their life reach me. A daughter wobbles her bike down the street while her father holds the camera. #girldad A father takes a selfie while teaching his nervous daughter to drive. #girldad A father and a daughter tan side by side in the backyard. #girldad A daughter paints her father’s nails. #girldad A father with a goatee and eyeshadow poses fiercely next to his daughter. #girldad A daughter and a father hold the arms of her trophy. #girldad * Catherine might have giggled at the initial sensation of her father putting on her shoes but almost immediately she was oblivious again, lost in her phone. I’m not sure how much thought Catherine has given to her father’s life, whether she asks about the semiconductors at work or the quality of his hotel in Tel Aviv. Does she want to know what he was listening to in summer 2007? That was the summer his company sent him to Boston. I’d crash at his hotel during the week and he’d spend the weekends at my condo. During the long evenings, we drove around New England with our windows down, listening to the radio and looking for promising lakes to go fishing. Two songs were in heavy rotation: Gnarls Barkley’s pulsing hit “Crazy” and John Mayer’s pouty hit “Daughters.” Catherine was under six months old at the time. Yet her father and I were in my Honda, already singing about the moment when he would kneel before her and put on her glass sneaker: Fathers be good to your daughters. * When strangers ask about my book, I sometimes joke: It’s called Reproduction; I literally wrote the book on reproduction. No one has quipped back, Bit premature, no? Given your childlessness. Truth is, whether we have them or not, men of child-siring age think a lot about children. The desire for children is not solely the domain of women. A daughter benchpresses while her father spots her. #girldad A daughter on a boat holds up her catch by the mouth. #girldad A father embraces his daughter in her retro prom dress. #girldad A daughter feeds her father from her bottle. #girldad * Another time we were trying to leave the house while Catherine was deep into a graphic novel on the couch. Let’s go, Moon said. She made a sound without opening her mouth. She stretched out in the body-forgetful way of almost teenagers, totally passed out into the plot. Catherine! She sat up, turned a page, and flopped over in the other direction. She was in reading bliss, so near the end of her book. This time I intervened. Just let her finish, I said. I sat next to her and started reading my own book. She always does this, Moon said. But he was secretly pleased to see such a strong resemblance between his daughter and her godfather. I’m not sure how long we were like this, Catherine and me, reading on the couch together. Moon must have taken out the trash. I lost track of him until I heard the front door open and his coat rustling in the foyer. Still? he said. Two more minutes, I said. Catherine finished reading her book just as I finished reading an essay. We happened to sigh at the same time. Her father looked up from his phone when he heard us. How was it? I asked her. She nodded big loopy nods. So good, she said. Then Moon held open her coat and she sprung up and pushed her arms into the sleeves as if stepping into herself and we went wherever we were going. * A father and his two daughters bounce into the living room to perform a cheer routine. #girldad A husky father practises an upbeat dance routine alongside his limber daughter. #girldad The same father attempts to plié at a portable barre beside his daughter. #girldad I have a photo—but I did not post it—of a father putting on his daughter’s shoes. #girldad. * A few weeks later, when they were back in Korea, spending a lot of enforced social-distancing family time together, Moon sent me a photo of Catherine, unsmiling, with her hair braided into a dozen long plaits, holding up a gang sign, and looking very goth and gangsta. She had now officially stepped into her teen years and overnight had reinvented herself from a saccharine K-pop star to Billie Eilish. Who braided her hair? Probably Catherine herself or Catherine’s mom. Maybe a friend. But I’d like to imagine Moon doing it. It’s possible. I’ve seen my brother braid his daughter’s hair. She sat between his knees with a toy while he worked through her hair with a comb and some detangler. Sometimes I think I can identify men who have daughters. There’s usually a little dimple of evidence that marks them whatever the context. Such men listen carefully to younger female colleagues; they wiggle during a pop song; they touch the leaves of a plant; they wear their birthday gift even if it doesn’t match their style; they back away from chit chat with obnoxious men; they might not be able to tie elaborate knots but they can recognize a French braid. These men were not Neanderthals before fatherhood, but I reckon they weren’t always so mindful. So while I can’t credit fatherhood for socializing or civilizing them, it does seem to have refined them. Now that Catherine is officially thirteen, Moon’s worry seems to be, Is she going to leave the house like that? And, in a few years, inevitably, it will be: Is she going to leave the house? At some point, daughters drive down the street, car loaded up, while their fathers stand in the driveway waving, becoming smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror when they look back, if they look back at all. * At the security checkpoint in an airport, as her parents were returning to India, my friend tucked her sari between her legs, bent, and touched the feet of her parents. She didn’t explain to me what she was doing. Wikipedia says the gesture is called charanasparsha. I myself, as a grown man, have knelt before my mother to buckle the tiny ankle strap of her suede heels. I remember the prong had to go into the fourth punch hole for both tightness and comfort. Wikipedia calls the gesture I’m-zipped-into-this-dress-and-I-don’t-want-to-put-my-glasses-on. In a few decades, when Moon is absorbed in reading Semiconductors Digest and Catherine calls him from the front door to go to his doctor’s appointment, will she walk to his recliner with his shoes in her hand?
The author of Sharks in the Time of Saviors on mythmaking, magical realism, and the hero complex.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors (McClelland & Stewart), the debut novel by Kawai Strong Washburn, was the first book I’ve read. At least, that’s what it felt like. After two months in lockdown, unable to focus on little beyond refreshing the news, I began his book—first out of obligation (I had to read it for work, after all), which quickly turned into deep engrossment. Sharks is a surreal family drama that functions as its own best argument for the necessity of art. At the centre are the Floreses, a family of five that weave their own narratives within the larger mythologies of their native Hawai'i. The novel opens in 1995 Honaka’a when Nainoa, the youngest Flores son, falls off the side of a cruise ship, only to be rescued and returned to his mother by a passing school of sharks. This moment throws the family into a media spotlight, rescuing them temporarily from their financial troubles, and marking Nainoa as special, touched by the gods. He carries this burden of specialness with him as he enters adulthood. Washburn alternates narrators between chapters, letting Nainoa’s story unfold alongside his siblings: the brilliant Kaui, who despite her exceptional test scores still feels like she’s lacking as she follows in her brother’s shadow, and Dean, a talented basketball player who hopes his own burgeoning college athletic career will be the thing that ultimately pulls his family up through class stratification. The siblings leave Hawai’i to make their way on the mainland, trying to become the people they feel they’re supposed to be while never truly able to leave their homeland behind. Washburn was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island of Hawai'i. We had plans to speak in person, before his tour, like almost all events, had to be cancelled. Instead, I reached him by phone earlier this spring in Minneapolis where he lives with his family. Anna Fitzpatrick: It's a weird time to be launching a book, especially one that deals with illness and community and social inequality so head-on. What has that been like? Kawai Strong Washburn: I think for me more than anything it keeps what really matters in perspective. On one hand I appreciate people who have still been engaging with art and have seen that as a way to have some relief and release and to enjoy the sort of things that remind us of what makes life great. Art can be this lovely experience. Even though we're in the middle of an incredibly challenging time, that doesn't mean that art is completely irrelevant. It's nice to have people reading the book and enjoying art for art's sake. On the other hand, it's nice to be reminded that there are things, which I try to keep in perspective anyway, that the world has a lot of incredibly important challenges in front of it, and those things can render what feels like a normal daily life obsolete in a moment. It's tough to have a book come out at a time when people are scared and anxious and threatened in terms of their health and everyone's locked down, so talking about a book feels kind of strange and beside the point, but for me it's like, that's okay. The world has bigger problems right now. So, to the extent that this book coming out is overshadowed or bypassed because of this pandemic or what it's doing to this world, not only is it beyond my control but I totally understand why that would be the case. I keep both those things in mind at the same time. The people I've been talking to have either been doubling down and reading as an escape, or they just cannot focus at all on anything. What has your relationship to art been like? I think the thing that has been really stretched for my wife and I is that we have two children that are really young. Our older daughter is six and our younger daughter is two. We're both fortunate enough that we still have our jobs and we can work remotely, so as a result we're both still working mostly full-time, but we're also having to take care of our two children at home and trying to keep our schooling going for our six-year-old and trying to find ways to engage and nourish our two-year-old. Trying to balance all those roles leaves very little personal time to do things like read. I still find time and space to do that, even if it's as simple as a poem a day or things like that. I'm trying to get some nice time to enjoy poetry, or when I do have a spare little bit of time in the evening, I really enjoy it for that brief period of time. I don't think it's affected my ability to focus on reading, I just have less time to do it than I'd like. You would have been travelling right now if this wasn't going on, right? I think I would actually be in Sydney right now. I was going to be part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It's hard to remember. I've sort of jettisoned that whole alternative future. It's been ejected from my mind. I would have been in either Australia or Hawai'i right now for about the next week or so. As someone who writes about books, I always have that instinct to put them in a category, even with the knowledge that genre and labels can only go so far. Your book has been dubbed magical realism. How do you feel about that? I love books that are labelled as magical realism, and I think in general I'm cautious about labels that are applied to books. I take those as a general, as someone that tends to categorize a book that may or may not be easily categorized. I don't really mind the book being put into any category of this or that, unless it would be in some way insulting, and I don't think that's the case with magical realism. The novel does what magical realist books often do, which is it takes events that could be otherwise considered fantastical or "magical" and tries to have those things be rendered in a world that feels like an otherwise "real" world. The world itself seems like it applies the normal rules of physics, and it's a place that we all recognize as being the current times, and, yes, there are these magical or supernatural or unexplainable events that are occurring in that space. I think that at some level the book is trying to do that. I'm trying to write the portions that have to do with supernatural or magical elements [in a way that] that leaves a little bit of interpretation there for the reader, I'm hoping. You can see these things happening, and the question becomes, is this a supernatural event, is it somebody having a hallucination, are they interpreting things in a very specific way? Since this is through a rotating first-person perspective, and each person has their own interpretation of events that are happening to them, it gives the reader some room to interpret those things however they wish. Including that, as well as using language that renders those moments not as fantastically as they might otherwise have been, hopefully preserves that fun play between something that is maybe real and not real. During the passages that have such ambiguities, do you have your own master narrative in mind? I certainly have my own interpretation of what I think of the story, but I think leaving that room... once a piece of art leaves your hands as an artist, then there's no way you can control the interpretation that other people will have. Art in general, it's a conversation that happens across space and time. Like any conversation, all the parties involved are participants and the extent to which they do or don't engage with each other, it colours the way in which they have that conversation. Knowing that once the book goes out into the world, people are going to have their own interpretations of it that I may or may not agree with, that's just how art works. I wanted to write this book knowing that that would be the case, and I have my own interpretation of it, but I could write it in a way that doesn't force the reader to come to some specific conclusion because I want them to have that conclusion, then it makes the reading experience hopefully that much richer for readers that are engaged with it. So yeah, I have my interpretations of what's there, and I certainly have my belief of what the story describes, but other people might have different things. It's up to the reader. I don't know what they see at the end of the book, and what they think has happened or hasn't happened, but that's no more or less correct necessarily than my interpretation. You're writing a book that fits into a larger tradition of storytelling and mythology. I was reading about Hawai'ian mythology and how it pertains to sharks—something I knew nothing about going into your book—and I was wondering how large these stories loomed in your mind, both growing up and while you were writing the novel. Large in both cases. One of the things that I loved growing up in the islands, and one of the things that I think makes the culture of Hawai'i so rich and powerful, is the number of legends and myths that deify the natural world in a way that both upholds the interconnectedness of all things, of humans and the natural world, as well as rendering those things with the sort of awe and power they deserve. Growing up in the islands, yeah, there were legends all around and just interpretations of ongoing natural events through the lens of mythology and legend. When there's volcanic activity, people talking about that activity as a manifestation of Pele, who's the goddess of fire and volcano, that's the islands. Growing up there, that was the way I experienced the islands. Having that mythology as part of the daily life. And part of a larger confluence of different traditions, because the islands are full of immigrants from different countries and different ethnic backgrounds. The traditions and mythologies of those ethnic groups and those immigrants are mixed in with the myths and traditions of the islands, and that makes for an incredibly rich and powerful and just wonderful experience as a child. Just exchanging ghost stories with your friends, and getting exposure to all these different cultural traditions. When I was writing, that was one of the centre-pieces of the work, trying to bring that feeling to life. To express that, but also to use it as a vehicle to talk about what I had experienced in the United States in terms of the larger cultural... you could call it a disconnect, or friction. It's also one that has to do with the value of the greater United States in terms of how the natural world is often perceived, and how you can have a capitalist American perspective on the natural world as an expendable resource. Growing up in a place like the islands, I never felt my relationship with the natural world was defined on those terms. It was defined very definitely. That's one of the themes of the novel. As an expression, of the facet of the disconnect between people from other traditions and the central American myths and traditions that exist. That was how I wanted to take the things I experienced as a child and express them in this book as part of those larger thematic elements. That theme comes through with the three children characters in the novel, and their struggle to feel connected to their roles within the natural world and the mythologies they inherit, while also trying to forge these individual identities on the mainland. Speaking to that, what does it mean to be a saviour? In my view, and I think it comes through in the book as well, that is an incomplete idea. It speaks to individualism often, and for most people the concept of a saviour is something that speaks to a certain amount of individualism and exceptional individualism, in that there is one person whose abilities and fortune and characteristics of that specific individual are so much greater than anyone else, or even the collective. That is going to be the person to make an important or significant change in the world. When you look at some of the most significant changes that have happened, even just within the United States let alone the world, it's really more often the result of communities and people reaching out to each other and forging strong bonds. Having built those communities and making the expression of those communities lead to change, that's really where you see a lot of the most significant change happening in the world. And yet after the fact, people will often prescribe the change as having occurred as the result of a single individual. There's always this narrative that emerges when there's a change happening in the world, to try and simplify it. When you can simplify it by attaching the larger narrative to one specific individual, that obscures the larger collective work happening in the background. The idea of a saviour in my mind is that sort of incomplete story, where you try and take what's typically something that's of a larger collective experience, and try to ascribe it to a specific individual. This is such a different context, but I was thinking about it while reading your book. So many of these frontline workers, healthcare workers, service workers, there's this rhetoric that they're heroes. We're calling them saviours to absolve the collective responsibility of, no, we have to take care of our people. Not just call them heroes, but give them support and protection to do their jobs safely instead of being like, "Alright, bye, go save us." Exactly. I think that's one of the biggest challenges, in my opinion, with an economic or socioeconomic system like capitalism: the way in which it obfuscates things. You eat food that you get from a grocery store or restaurant, and there's so much that's hidden in terms of all the different people that have contributed to that food arriving on your plate. It's the same thing with clothing, with all the goods and things that are part of the material comfort of a late modern capitalist society, so much of that is hidden. You don't see the socioeconomic or environmental cost. You just have this final product that all of the stuff along the way, people and animals and natural resources, have been exploited for that thing to arrive at your doorstep. All those things are hidden. I think something like the COVID-19 Pandemic, it does what you're describing. It exposes the underlying interconnected nature of everybody's lives. The vast majority of people are living their lives in connection with other people whether they want to recognize that or not. Something like this exposes this very quickly, where there are things being provided to me at other people's risk and expense, and I cannot ignore that now. That comes back to the same idea of saviours, just the individualist narrative more generally, which is one of the things this book is looking at. The narrative of the family carries for a portion of the novel has a lot to do with trying to figure out whether this individual narrative, the story of our family, is it really all about just this one miraculous individual, or is it something larger than that? It really interrogates how isolating it can feel to be seen as a saviour. It's most clear with Nainoa, but also with Dean in the last act, trying to provide for his family in his own isolated way. Nainoa as a character was a struggle because I wanted the characters to all be complex, to have their faults and failures, and not to have any character be entirely good or entirely bad but to make characters that were complex. Have the same sort of internal contradictions that we all have. In the case of Nainoa, the thing that was a struggle was trying to find a way to have him have some level of privilege and arrogance. He receives this level of attention and prestige as a very young child. More often than not, at that age when you receive that level of attention and prestige, it's really hard not to come away with some level of arrogance, or feel like you're deserving of the things you're receiving in cases where you're not quite as great as everybody is saying you are. Trying to render him with some level of arrogance but also trying to recognize the burden that comes along with that, the same as it would be for any young person that's placed in a position of elevated attention and prestige, to balance those two things. In earlier drafts, a few people had read it and were like, "I kind of don't like him." I think that was because I biased a little bit too much towards arrogance and privilege. I tried to find a way to balance that, bring out a little bit of a balance as well. Anybody who's in a situation where they're part of a family in which economic hardship is central, when you have a family that's struggling, and you have something that can potentially provide economically, that's an incredible burden to have. To be somebody that other people are depending on and have an expectation to deliver something better than what you have currently. That's a burden. I think anybody who comes from families where that's the case, where they're somebody that's achieved above and beyond the family's current station in life, and the expectation that will help carry the family farther, that's hard. That burden of potential is something all the kids experience to an extent; being told you're destined for greatness, either academic or athletic or being a saviour with healing powers. There's a narrative the children have of themselves. I think the novel also examines the idea of a self-narrative versus an external narrative, and how those two things can be conflicting as well, and how you can have an idea of who you are and the story you tell yourself about who you are, and it can be very different than the story that other people are telling. Other people can be trying to define you a certain way. There can be resentment, and conflict, and delusion in all of those things. The novel tries to look at the ways in which each of the children in particular, the siblings, are struggling to define themselves on their own terms, but those terms are also in reaction to that initial miraculous event that set things in motion. I think anybody who's been in a family, who's just part of a family dynamic, right, everybody has an idea of who they are and the story they tell themselves within the context of the family, and it's usually a different story than what all the families have about you or have about each other. That was one of the things that was part of the story as well. I'm really interested in the way you used dialect, especially the Pidgin that Dean speaks. I think there are so many misconceptions about slang that doesn't follow dominant grammar rules, that there is no grammar to them, but you really captured the consistency of that language. Is that something you researched? Certainly, growing up, that was the default language where I was from. I grew up in a rural part of Hawai'i, that's what everybody was speaking. Everyone was swinging some different level of Pidgin. You can have it dialed up or dialed down, you can have people operating at different levels. It can get thicker depending on who's talking to who and in what situation and things like that, which is lovely and wonderful. I love that about language, the way Pidgin is an adapted form of English that also incorporates slang and language from a variety of different countries, cultures, ethnicities, in the sense that you can have like, Japanese words or Filipino words or Portuguese words, that are part of Pidgin along with words from Olelo Hawai'i, the native language of Hawai'i. You can have all those things mixed together, along with all these interesting grammatical constructions. I wanted to represent that in the novel, but also one of the things that might be controversial, that some people might think is a failure on my part or a blind spot is the fact that, the way that it's rendered on the page breaks with how you might traditionally render it. If you look at a lot of literature from the islands that is written with Pidgin, it will have very different spelling and punctuation than what I have with my rendering of it in this novel. That was intentional on my part, because as a reader, I read visually in a way that if there's too much punctuation and the words are spelled too phonically, it can really trip me up. If you take a bunch of words that I'm used to reading one way and the spelling is completely different, and there's punctuation, and the grammar has been constructed in a different way, it can be hard to settle into it and read through it. I think it's something about the way my eyes process the marks on the page. So, when I wrote this, I was writing this with myself as a reader primarily, because I didn't have a bunch of people I was working with on the book or that were reading along with me. When I wrote it, I was taking that into account. I wanted to take the language and render it as truthfully as possible in terms of the rhythm and the sound, while also not over punctuating or chopping up the spellings in a way that made it really hard for me, visually, to read it. I think there are probably some people who think that that is not an accurate depiction of language, which I can understand, but my work on that was very thoughtful and came from a place to incorporate my preferences as a reader along with the idea of the fluidity of the language. I also think you can have a variety of ways of rendering Pidgin on the page, and none of those is correct or incorrect. They're just different renderings. It's one of the things that makes it such a wonderful language. I can understand a protectiveness people may have, especially in what gets depicted and what gets left out in dominant narratives about Hawai'i. To me it speaks to the need for having more stories, more narratives, more voices coming out. I think it also behooves the readers who are interacting with the art to recognize that it's impossible to pin the universal on any specific story. You can't take the representation of a place or a people as something that can be universally depicted. It's impossible. I think the thing that happens, with underrepresented stories or places, people are like, "Oh, this must be speaking to the entire truth of this place, or this community, or this people." It's no more the case for something from Hawai'i than it is the case for something from Australia or Nigeria or like, Montana. There are just a plethora of stories and experiences that people from those places have had, with a diversity of experiences and opinions as a result. The life that somebody has growing up in Honokaʻa is going to be different than the life somebody has growing up in Kalihi or Nānākuli or Honolulu or Wailuku. These are all different cities and towns in Hawai'i, by the way. The idea that this story which is set in Honokaʻa and other parts of the islands is somehow going to be universally representative of Hawai'i, it's impossible. As people recognize more and more stories need to be told from different places and perspectives that are underrepresented, we also need to realize those stories themselves can never be the perfect representation. They are just a singular, subjective representation.
The author of My Meteorite on interconnectedness, chaos, and a sense of magic.
There’s a theory in quantum physics that two particles can affect one another no matter what distance you put between them. This is referred to as entanglement, or what Albert Einstein once dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” Though we can’t see the mysterious links, parallel dimensions and communication channels, that interconnectedness extends beyond the quantum realm. The proof is in the little particles that have recently forced us into a collective stillness, maintaining a safe distance between ourselves. In his new memoir, My Meteorite, Or Without the Random There Can be No New Thing (Penguin Books), multidisciplinary artist Harry Dodge explores the tiny links that influence the rhythm of our lives. Here, the connections are built around the ways we cull meaning from repetitions and coincidences. But the book’s catalyst is randomness—the way we’re initially shielded from the attachments, completely awestruck by the universe before we start to reason it. I talked to Dodge just before California instituted a lockdown in March. We discussed his book, but also how this pandemic has drawn attention to our interconnectedness. Sara Black McCulloch: I wanted to start by talking about memory and forgetting, especially how they play out in the book. Memory isn’t stable, and when people remember something, it’s reactivated in many ways. How does that tie in with virtual reality? Harry Dodge: Historically, whenever anyone has announced to me, “Hey, the work is about memory,” it would put me off—ugh—like everything is going to be sepia-toned photos on cross-dissolve, you know. But I read some science writing on memory and consciousness a couple years ago and that was when I started to think about it differently, as biological, as constitutive of intelligence, all that. Everything we know and do—even, or especially, our intelligence—is built on memory and recall. Mental and physical habits both qualify as memory—walking, putting on a pair of pants, all that. Identity, who we understand ourselves to be, is obviously built from things we remember consciously or unconsciously. When my dad got sick, his memory was in decline, I was surprised and fascinated by the deterioration. I don’t know what I expected, something purely physical I guess, some faltering with speech, or inability to walk, but the manifestation of the illness—the part I could see—was this ghostiness behind the eyes, his selfhood, was, in my estimation, more diaphanous, if you know what I mean. I started thinking about the nature of the relationship between one’s memory and one’s ability to feel and/or project a sense of self. Simultaneously, I was reading on matter, materiality and interconnectedness, quantum particles, and trying to think through this concept of the plural subject, the idea that we’re more permeable than we know and are formed by pressures we can’t even imagine, a plurality of forming forces. I wondered if this biding theoretical interest—the “melty self,” as it were—could map onto observations I was making about my dad. There’s that. But maybe you’re talking about something else, this weird way that misremembering is productive? The text certainly revolves around the idea of misremembering and the idea that that is generative. And there is the hovering related question of what exactly constitutes reality—is it something material, mental (virtual), or several things at once. I’m really interested in mental worlds and the imaginary—and the question of how, qualitatively, that can rhyme with, more or less, this idea of a virtual world. Your sculpture focuses on how we pair words with the use of an object, and if someone no longer has the ability to recall that function breaks down. So if I have a broom that is normally used for sweeping, and I can no longer remember that, then now this object has lost that intended use for me. That opens up a new realm of possibilities. Yes! There's a kind of surreality provoked in some of the sculptures, perhaps caused by a kind of refusal of the original purpose. You know, many years ago, someone said to me, “your work looks figurative, but it's actually really abstract.” Right? I try to defamiliarize objects—which suggests they were familiar in the first place. I am not what you call me. And my sculpture definitely does that—if it's functioning the way I want it to. Though the familiar, or nameable, is less and less a part of the set of terms that comprise my sculpture, it still occurs; I take bits of lumber or buckets especially or other planes, scrap wood, and kind of smash them into the space of strangeness. And, you know, a mode of defamiliarization in order to puncture holes into the banal is definitely important to me, though I think I handle it really differently in the book. The book, as I'm sure you noticed, once in a while, ascends into a poetic space, becomes poetic. (And by poetic I mean something so specific that it is still moving and therefore uncaught, or untamed.) The book is a long sculpture and, as such, builds on itself. There's a bunch of objects and fragments and pieces laid end to end. The book isn’t excerptable, it’s not a memoir, there are no slices that function as representative of the whole, one must read it all if one wants to experience the project. Things—by which I mean themes or say structural forms or word play—are repeated, slightly off-register, and they land in piles, eventually generate shapes like temporal diagrams of chaos almost repeat. Aperiodicity. (I have also, alternately, referred to the structure of the book as a fugue, a musical term describing a composition that adds novel maneuvers section-by-section, and—bit by bit—abandons phrases.) So the end song is a different song than the one we began, but there are connecting rods, linkages, segues and those obviously vary. The idea that there's something unspoken and unwritten starts to resonate: the figure emerges, but as anti-matter, this content I'm trying to evoke. Prose is a tool defined almost exclusively by an expectation of legibility. And I’m into that, but I’m also interested in one-to-oneness in an experience of language, prosody, poetics, specificity, unmastery and defamiliarization, like some 3-D sculpture, or a poem. It happens a lot faster in a sculpture, obviously, a viewer is like, “I know what that is—a bucket, and then the longer they stand there, maybe a minute and a half, it stops being a bucket. Now it has dimension, color, it’s no longer a bucket, it’s this weird thing. The comfort of mastery—this experience we crave—is only unmade at length...or reconfigured. Touching on that: no defined chronology in the book either, but a repetition of scenes. Is that right to say? Does that help us build into it? Because I think there's a lot more of an emotional register to these scenes the more we come back to them. Was that intentional? I have some favourite colours, in sculpture, for example—I use red, orange, yellow, and black a lot, gray too. If I bring in a colour, like blue or green, it's for a reason, an accent, some percussive conceptual messaging, a divider. And I also have emotional modalities, things I deploy again and again, in my videos, the time-based work. I am aware that those modes have been employed in the book too! I often open with something disorienting, a kind of survey—in media res, jumping into this weird spot. Hopefully you're drawn in by something, a kind of allure, you know, whether it's sentence structure or some image, and then you sort of read on into things that are sad or funny. Or gripping somehow. I think as a reader spends time with the work, trust builds, the idea is that a reader will allow the text to bring them into a very deep emotional place. The refrains help with that. I think they convey a sense of artistic intent. [Laughs] I don't ever want to get operatic or melodramatic or anything. I’m trying to let the reader, you know, find the emotional pockets—understated, unexpected and powerful. A kind of surprise, “Oh, for some reason that just killed me.” I'm into giving people space, whether I’m teaching, or parenting, or making art, you know. I’m trying to bring people to very deep places but with a light hand. From my understanding, you were working on User while you were writing the book, and there’s a short film in the exhibit called “Late Heavy Bombardment.” I watched it after reading the book and I don't know if I'm reading into this, but a lot of the things that you touched on in My Meteorite — transhumanism, AI and cyborgs — come up in both the book and the film. Were they influencing each other? When I'm making artwork, I am trying to—whether it's a book or a movie—I'm trying to find something hot inside myself, these pockets of interest, places where it's hot, you know, like a fever of sadness, or a fever of confusion. I believe in hanging around with confusion. Any sort of cognitive dissonance, apparent paradoxes in my thinking, are always great places to burrow into, for example. I just try to find those pockets and write from them, make from them no matter what I’m making. I think I was still finishing My Meteorite when I went to write this little short video last spring. It’s a great short animation with all these 3-D virtual characters in this lecture room trying to figure stuff out, share tips on bullying or whatever. So of course, while writing the script for this, all of these things are still hot for me and they're still on my mind, and they're still things that I'm wrestling with. Absolutely. And I'm glad that that's legible and it's because I'm telling the truth about my interests, my bewilderment; I’m scraping up or manifesting real-life thought processes, problems I’m working on. Trying to make meaning. As I see it, I’m lifting figures from the primal ooze. I always think that good artwork comes from that kind of hot confusion. [Laughs] Hence the volcano at the end of the short film. Yeah, exactly! Now we're in that volcano, we’re clinging to the side of the cone! [Laughs] The volcano at the end of that was symbolic of, like, the stress-testing of democracy, one, and climate change, two. I mean, right now, this pandemic, we’re at the beginning of it, it’s awful. Sad—should have been dealt with better. But also here we are again needing to balance our desire for safety with a preservation of our civil rights, and by that I’m talking about deep extreme surveillance, apps on phones that take our biological stats on the hour, track our whereabouts. Stuff like this is always a trade-off; we want measures to be temporary and they might turn out to be, but note that authoritarian regimes have plans ready for just such times and are all too happy to pull the trigger on some mind-shattering executive powers. Not to be a downer. Also Trump’s obviously planning on revving up hate and scapegoating—repurposing fear to amplify dischord. That's a big problem. Yeah. And it's still weird to me, that Bernie Sanders’s idea of universal health care, especially in a pandemic, is still being referred to as something radical, as opposed to something necessary. Yeah, I mean, you know, it's kind of crazy, but these ideas are flexible, and subject to transformation just by force of labeling or contextualization. Lamar Alexander blocked a bill suggesting taxpayers should pay furloughed workers, not the private sector, which may or may not be a good point, but what is that? Socialism. Not a stereotypically GOP modality. I’m into one-for-all. There needs to be more socialization, obviously, which is partially what the book is about: interconnectedness. We’ve got this sudden clear feeling of it, as we apprehend that a particle has travelled around the globe in a few months, the magnitude of the spread is overwhelming. And there’s aspects: some are affirmative like emergence and creativity, but also the awesome, sort of sublime part, which is our shared vulnerability. Navigating our vulnerability, our porousness, or “impressionability” is what gives life meaning—it’s some essential component from which a sense of meaning issues. Were you ever tempted to write My Meteorite from a different point of view? When I was writing My Meteorite, no, I mean, it was not something that I was tempted to do. The first person was enough! But moving forward yes. I am writing a book now where there are a few different characters, like a poetic short fiction. I just read Olivia Laing’s Crudo this summer, and it blew me away. I just loved the way she lightly pretended the whole time—the character of the author—that she was Kathy Acker. Have you read that book? Someone actually recommended it to me earlier this week. It blew my mind off! She also kind of flips from the first person to the third person really quickly—in one sentence sometimes!—it's super awkward on page one, but by the time it’s page two or three, turns out it’s a super beautiful magic trick. I’m very inspired by the way she flouts convention in the most unassuming way in the course of that short novel. Were you trying to challenge your reader in a similar way? Your book doesn't have a set chronology and we're used to that in a book, right? Were you ever also thinking about how readers interact with books and their expectations? I was saying to people, “I'm pretending to write a book,” which meant that I was taking notes on experiences through 2016 around the time my dad decided to move to California. I started writing in earnest at the moment he died. I understand the chronology of the book to be that 2016 and 2017 are intercut and generally in a forward progression, so my dad dies at the beginning and also at the end. I think that if the book is at all legible and easy to read, it's because there are a few stories, if you could say such a thing, that progress in linear fashion, which maybe is how most of us experience time. I don’t know. [Laughs]. I was trying to write something I would like to read and I don’t enjoy things that are straightforward really at all. I suppose I expect my readers to want the same thing: space to think in, a lot to think about, you know, fodder. Have you ever watched True Detective? Matthew McConaughey’s character says that “time is a flat circle.” [Laughs] Exactly—a flat circle. Not a linear progression, some kind of pooling of time, or sedimentary situation, and the book is about that, how we’re always deploying things we’ve learned, the past arrives into the present, constitutes it; deforms it, pluralizes it. Also there's these other things in the book, slipped in, that are out of time, that punctuate, for sure—things I always think of as “ugly legs.” They kind of hang off. And to tell you the truth, I didn't worry too much about that, it's just the way my brain works. Writing, finding form, there was something sculptural, about dimension, and motifs. That did seem like it was going to make the book better and more interesting, not necessarily super complex, more just a book I would like to read. We adapt. I think we underestimate how much we can adapt. We're not as hardwired or stubborn as we think. We're not that stubborn! A book teaches us how to read it and, you know, I believe in that. I trust the reader. I try to give people a reason to stay with any work of art that I offer. I'm a social being, my strategies oscillate between disorientation and familiarity or comfort, and I think of it as social—all the work I do. I’m interested in how you title your work because, with a book especially, it’s your first encounter, that’s not the right word—it can be a guiding principle sometimes? How does that come about? Is that something that you have in your mind? Or are you avoiding it until you’re finished writing? When I make a body of work, say sculpture and video, I'm usually reading a lot of theory and thinking about a lot of philosophy and even if the sculptures aren't diagrams or even rhyming structural messaging systems, and usually they’re not, I was still thinking about something when I made each one. So when I finish a body of work, I will sit for two or three or four days and do all the titles at once. And those range from weird theoretical allusions to low brow — I can't think of the word —cuss words just kind of staccato things. All the titles in the show taken together will also make a kind of text or texture. While writing My Meteorite, a lot of titles were coming to mind and they showed up at the beginning of the document. Sometimes there were up to 10 or 11 of them honestly. And so, as the first draft was winding down, I started to pare them down, canvassed a few people. Initially, I thought that My Meteorite was maybe too simple a title for me but it stuck. Working title during the intial draft was Without the Random There Can be No New Thing, a Gregory Bateson quotation by the way, and of course that was eventually relegated to subtitle. The short title, it can be thrown around, you know, like, “Have you read My Meteorite?” [Laughs] rather than this complicated mouthful. So again, something more legible and palpable, paired with something that's a bit more abstract. Throughout the book, there is magic in randomness, more specifically coincidences. Science works to dispel that magic; to explain it with logic. We're humans, so we seek out patterns, and not randomness. And that kind of takes the magic, I would say, from coincidences. What is your relationship to coincidences now? [Laughs] Science can be a bummer sometimes? Yeah. You know, in the book I was trying to evoke in readers a sense of the magic, of these natural constants even, the habits of matter—matter has stuff it likes to do! Amazing. I mean, if you've ever seen a documentary about gravity or the magnetic field that surrounds the earth, who cares if it’s measurable or knowable. It's still crazy. It's mind boggling. “Marvel” and “what is scientifically knowable” are not mutually exclusive. I wanted to crack that open, you know, re-enchant the material world, not necessarily peel away the magical from the palpable, but to just sort of like, smash open a sense of astonishment in the everyday. But there are these words that circulate in the book: this idea of the random, which could create a new thing versus this idea of pattern. The patterns, I write, are postulated to be the results of the habits of matter, which if they are absolute, would suggest a kind of predetermined—if unimaginably complex—world, and this scenario also sort of precludes free will. Right? It would mean that humans are just bags of vital particles and the particles have their own agenda. Philosophically this also does away with ethics and on and on, it’s pretty extreme. There’s a lot there let’s say. Too much for an interview like this. Some people think the book is a pro-randomness manifesto [laughs] but I don't feel that I've come down on one side or the other. Although I am pretty convinced by Bateson’s idea of the stochastic processes. He wrote that he thinks there are nonrandom elements that preserve this or that random event or flow. And according to him the dynamic is relevant not only to like genetic variation, but also macro-things like learning. Secretly just between you and I—I do feel that these natural habits of matter are more in charge than anybody is comfortable believing. I mean we’re freaked out by our own replacements and we made them—uncanny valley? It’s bizarre because it’s not quite right but it’s also too on the nose. And I think that in some ways, children do notice a lot of things in the world that we grow out of as adults. I'm really interested in amazement, this idea of marvelling. I reject the notion of a direct correlation between knowledge and mundanity. Édouard Glissant wrote, you know, that though we can't know everything it would be foolish not to try to know and that there's a kind of poetics—like a feverish poetics—we practice that is actually that, striking out into the unknown trying feverishly to know. When you were writing the book, because you do talk about events in your life, were you at all worried about the truth, or skewing it a little bit to test those theories out? Yeah, that was part of what I was doing. I'm aware that by all of these framing devices and word choices, juxtapositions, that I'm constructing something. And so there is an adjacency or a proximity or a rhyming with my life, rather than some presentation of facts, facticity—that was something I intoned—some broth I sipped while writing—but I wasn’t fretting about it, no. I was interested in being just a little surreal, which was why I didn't look consult the internet continually, and part of why I sometimes paraphrase or misquote this or that. The fact checkers—God bless them!—they would find things and query me, “You know, that wasn't really how many rings the tree had—the oldest tree in the world.” Because I well, yeah, I know, I’m doing this from memory. That was important to me, the fecundity of imagination. I didn't go back to look at the article I read about the guy cutting down the oldest tree in the world. I thought I was writing fiction, and just using the details of my life as ready spirited fodder. [Laughs] There were definitely a few things I corrected. And there were a couple things I didn't correct because the book is obviously about the misremembered sculpture, the rippling maw of possibility related to the figure of the birth mother. I just was trying to make a little space for this idea of the virtual, to try to tease some thoughts out about the virtual. You also unpack quite a bit of Blade Runner 2049 at the end of the book. I don’t want to give the ending of the book away, but with the movie, everyone went into it expecting some questions would be answered, but that doesn’t happen. It left us asking more questions. I wanted to know what you thought about legacy and how that connects to lineage. I was really moved by Agent K’s sudden strong desire to be Deckard’s son. He was like, “Oh my God. I'm actually born and you're actually…” you know, he went there! You’re kind of rooting for him, Yeah, it is true! You were born and you’re real! [Laughs] And so we felt awful when the facts started to bear out other realities, the fantasy started to fade...I write this all out in the book, but I did find it very moving. Watching this intense psychic world rev up, you know, once it was launched in his head, Agent K, he was like, “You’re my dad,” and he felt it, and after that, well, facts on the ground didn’t matter much. Love had happened and you know, the changes it wrought in him were unretractable. He was like, “Well I felt it man, and it filled me up for good.” In what way? Experiencing the joy of belonging, even if it’s illusory—or was it love. Even misapprehensions change things, have effects. I find that so fascinating. The idea is that this love—it budded in him, right? and regardless of facts on the ground, this love—the effects of it, the joy?—were already in motion, were not particularly flimsy or quenchable. My Meteorite is, in large part, a meditation on love, this thing that draws us into relation, and it’s about interconnectedness. In the book I’m puzzling through all manner of connection: touch; the fabric made by discourse; genetic linkages that evolve over decades without regard to time and space; in-person meetings which are constituted by the amplitude of risk; family bonds constituted by repetition, time and attention; the incredible remote connectedness of quantum fields which also do not heed the logics of the local; and even reverberating gravitational waves—centuries old—made by black holes colliding. It’s wild to be talking to you at the front end of this big, awful pandemic: a world in which everyone is suddenly flung into hyperawareness of how interconnected we are. A virus spread by touch, creature to creature, over the globe in a few months is breath-taking, because we can comprehend some part of it, the durational aspect of it, and the figure—a sometimes lethal virus—is frightening. I’m trying to put together thoughts right now, but it’s just so odd the way we want (and need) to disconnect physically but it’s also a kind of grand experiment in socializing remotely, by screen. For the technoparanoid, I think we’re going to be surprised at what’s possible. And, aside from the obvious, and though most of the results of this—economically-speaking—are a hazard for anyone living paycheck to paycheck, you know, something about the manifest failures might work as negative space around modalities that are promising for the future. Certain images cannot be unseen. Which is to say that we might batter open some new doors of relation, we might learn something amazing about what matters in our relationships, in the conveyance of our relationships, by this awful dress rehearsal and that is a hopeful tendril I’m trying to hang onto. There are choices about how to respond to the fact of interconnectedness, there are lots of ways to go, shame is one place to land, or fear, but balancing that with courage and service and the ecstasy of permeability is another—as is finding the affirmative possibilities of our bodies and our world as interdependent and co-constituting.