Hazlitt Magazine

The Kiss

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The Kiss

“Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.”

Brigid could see the stoop of her former writing professor’s shoulders—she’d once remarked to her husband that his posture was like a heavy coat on a wire hanger, he looked so dragged down. Her novel was in his hands. He was fifth in line at her book signing and now she couldn’t focus on what the woman in the red coat was saying. She narrowed in on the woman’s equally red lips—“I really hated your book at first”—but her former writing professor’s stare was as concentrated as a lover’s. He was old when he had been her professor and he was older now, his skin as grey, lined, and tough looking as elephant hide. The elephant man, she thought, even though he was still handsome, a certain sophisticated elegance, an old-fashioned movie-star quality, Sean Connery-like. He even had the soft, marbled voice of a Scotsman. “Could you also,” the woman in red said, leaning in so that her perfume wafted like a gust of wind, “write the first line of the book, too?” Why? That would take forever. She thought of how her former professor’s aching hips must feel on this snowy night in Manhattan, his knees; how awful it must be to wait in line to speak to her, his former student. All this hoopla about her debut novel, all this bubbling about. The introduction that had made her sound as if she’d conquered the world. Her former professor had written six books. They had done moderately well. A writer’s writer is what a person would call him. What was she? A woman’s writer. Someone scheduled to appear on morning television. God, shut up, she wanted to say to the woman in red. You’re turning this into a spectacle. Stop laughing! Stop looking so fucking unhinged! She did as she was told: she signed the book, then wrote the book’s first line: All the women of Barra are dead in their beds. * * * “Brigid. Hi.” Her former writing professor held out her novel, and she took it. She knew whatever she wrote needed to be full of gratitude: it was what the moment called for. Was she grateful? What had he done for her? Given her an A. Pointed out her country way of speaking—youse guys—but in a sweet, flirtatious way, so it hadn’t stung. She liked this man. She liked him enough. With love and indebtedness, she wrote, then drew an absurdly large B, which managed to look lewd, like a teenage boy’s rendition of giant breasts, or, worse, a ball sack. * * * When she returned from the reading, her husband, Jack, was outstretched on the hotel bed, his legs crossed at the ankles. Even in this New York hotel room, he looked like the Oregon poet that he was—dirty-blond hair falling into his face, wire-rimmed circular glasses, a navy-blue sweater with a hole in the elbow over a white button-down shirt, the collar askew. Like Kurt Cobain, she thought, if he hadn’t shot himself in the face. Her husband had removed his pants, and the hair on his legs stood at attention. He had on his elf boxers, a gag Christmas gift from her. Christmas had been three months ago. “Jack?” she said. Her husband had his faraway look, his face angled downward, his eyes elsewhere, not seeing the white duvet cover but something else, either from his past or in his future. She sat on the bed and twisted his leg hair. She could make it stand up in coils. “Ouch,” he said and moved away. “So, did he show up?” “Who?” “You know who.” She brought her knees to her chest. Jack was suspicious of all men but especially her former writing professor. “Yes,” she said. “And why would he do that?” he asked. She was suddenly exhausted. “Because he was my professor.” “He lives in Ithaca.” She wormed out of her clothing and burrowed under the white duvet, wishing it were a porthole to another world. She waited for Jack to interrogate her further but instead his hand found hers. “Listen,” he said. “I got a phone call while you were out.” Out. At the book signing. Not just at a coffee shop or buying pantyhose. “And?” It came out a little shrill. “I got the fellowship,” he said. The fellowship. A year in Glasgow to research his third book of poems. Her book had taken place in Scotland, too, but she hadn’t gone, had only done a significant number of Google searches. The faraway look—she recognized it now—was about whether he wanted her to go with him. * * * In August, they arrived. From the airplane, Scotland looked like the Grand Canyon, only smaller and covered in grass. Little white things, which looked like lint, littered the hills. She squinted—sheep. All the razzle-dazzle about her book was over. It had sold two thousand copies—a failure, although no one would tell her that until she tried to sell the next one. The publisher wanted to change the jacket art for the paperback. “To appeal to the book club crowd.” Who were they? They were somewhere in the wilds of America, dipping their hands into bags of potato chips. She and Jack were above it all, their plane about to touch down. “It’s Glas-go,” Jack said. The wheels hit the pavement, and the engine roared. “What’s that?” she said. “You keep saying Glas-gow.” “Oh,” she said. “Sorry.” They rented a flat beside a church with the skinniest spire in Europe. To turn on the hot water, she had to push a button that looked like it would set off an explosion in a distant land. No air conditioning. A fridge the size of a hotel-room minibar. No freezer. Their neighbor, Alastair McCullough, told them people bought things fresh. When she asked, “what about ice cream?” he said people went out to eat it. All details that should have been in her debut novel. It hadn’t come out in the UK. To her knowledge, no Scotsperson had read it or would read it. Jack’s first book had chronicled the death of his infant son—an event that had broken up his first marriage but also skyrocketed his career. The world was discovering that men could have a tender side, and Jack’s book was part of that discovery. His second book had sold well (for poetry), earning him a modest advance and this fellowship for what he was doing now: mining the Kelvin River, which was full of garbage. What he found in the river would be the subject of the poems. Every morning, he put on waders, tied his hair into a topknot and walked the length of the river in the August heat, trawling for trash. It was supposed to be a portrait of Glasgow, as told from the river’s garbage. But also a meditation on humanity. And also something else. She wasn’t trying to be glib when describing it to Alastair. She believed in Jack’s work, particularly his first two books, which were stunning. Still, she and Alastair were eying each other, lips quivering, on the verge of something—possibly dangerous, explosive laughter. * * * The first week behind them, she and Jack sat in the kitchen in their underwear, the bay window open, hoping for a breeze. She could hear Alastair’s voice through the thin walls. An argument. A lot of stomping. Then silence. “They’re fighting,” she said. “Who?” “Alastair,” she said, “and Ezra.” “Who?” He was utterly uninterested in their neighbors. She, however, couldn’t get enough of them. Well, of Alastair. Alastair’s boyfriend, Ezra, was an artist. He made sculptures that resembled large pieces of beef jerky in a studio around the corner, and Alastair worked twelve-hour shifts at Scottish Meats. Each must take some inspiration from the other, Brigid said to Jack, then waited for laughter, but he was busy cataloging what he’d found in the Kelvin that day: a toothbrush; a pacifier; a retainer. “Mouth things,” she said. “Hm?” said Jack, holding the pacifier, not looking up. “You know, he used to be a model,” she said, thinking of Alastair’s chiseled jaw, his eyes as blue as a Siberian husky’s, salt-and-pepper hair with an undercut so she could see the dark mole behind his left ear. “Huh?” “Alastair. He still does it sometimes. Modeling.” “Oh.” “He’s not just a meat guy.” * * * A double date. First to the “chippy,” then to a movie. They walked down Great Western Road, Alastair holding Ezra’s hand and Jack holding hers. The evening was cool. Two childless couples in their late thirties out on the town, Brigid thought. She was a veteran of two miscarriages. She had earned the right not to have a child. She was even wearing lipstick. It didn’t matter, though: Alastair eclipsed them all in skinny jeans, a tuxedo shirt, jean jacket, and cowboy boots. She thought he’d been joking when he told her Glasgow had a thriving cowboy scene, but indeed it did, and Alastair and Ezra were a big part of it. On Saturday nights they went to a club called the Grande Ole Opry. She and Jack had yet to join them. You had to be in the right mood to play cowboy, and that mood never seemed to strike. “This one,” said Ezra, pointing to a bleak-looking takeaway joint. “They have the best cheese.” He was shorter than Alastair, with a round, milky face and dark curly hair. He was a research fellow at the Glasgow School of Art, an exhibition in the Scottish Pavilion of the Venice Biennale already under his belt. But Alastair was the masterpiece, Brigid thought. She looked at Jack, waiting to feel an ignition of the heart. His hair had grown shaggy and he’d slicked it back with water. Fresh from mining the Kelvin River, he wore cargo shorts and a t-shirt, New Balance running shoes. Stripped from the pretence of his “rising star of Portland poetry” clothes, he looked like a guy who was exactly where he was from: the wilds of Eastern Oregon. They walked inside the takeaway shop and ordered two “chips ‘n cheese” to share. A drunk man in the back was eating deep-fried pizza. They sat at a grubby table, her facing Alastair, Jack facing Ezra. She felt Alastair’s eyes on her. She was wearing a black-and-white striped blouse, black mini skirt, and black pointed flats. “You look like a French porn star,” Jack had said before they left the flat. “And you look like,” she replied, “an American.” “You should see more of Scotland,” said Alastair, his Glaswegian accent repressed by a decade of modeling in London. “Edinburgh. Skye.” “Skye,” said Brigid. “The Isle of Skye?” “That’s the one,” he said. The drunk man rose to his feet, abandoning his pizza. He walked to the counter and leaned against it. “Deep-froyed dog fer takeaway,” he said. “Oh jeez,” Brigid whispered to Alastair. “Oh jeez what?” he whispered back. “I thought he was ordering a deep-fried dog!” “He did.” “No, a dog dog. Dog dog. Dog dog.” It was happening again. She felt something like carbonation rising inside her. Alastair’s eyes locked with hers. They laughed soundlessly, secretly. She glanced at Jack, who was peeling the cheese off his chips. “Should have gotten the pizza,” he said. If given the gift of time travel, she thought, her husband would use it only to order different things from restaurants. She imagined herself stopping some awful Amtrak accident—Don’t get on the train!—while Jack wandered back into the chippy, saying, "the chips have too much cheese." “Get the pizza next time,” she said, trying to recover. The drunk man pivoted on one foot, barely able to stand. * * * And then to the movie theater. They sat in the lobby and each drank a beer. The only thing to eat was something resembling sponge cake, so Brigid bought one. Jack was in the bathroom; Ezra buying the tickets. “What is it,” Alastair said, putting his hand over hers, “that you write about?” “Men,” she said. “Men who kill women.” “Right, then,” he said. She launched into her spiel about The Women of Barra. A virus kills every woman in Barra. Six hundred women. “The book tells the story of who invented the virus,” she said, “and how the island copes afterwards.” “A man did it, yeah?” Alastair said. She moved her hair from one shoulder to the other. “You’ll have to read it if you want to know more.” Too bleak, a reviewer had said. She had no new ideas. Her brain was a hollow vessel where nothing grew. “I will.” Ezra returned with the tickets, and Jack emerged from the bathroom. He’d lost sight of where they were sitting, and Brigid watched him scan the lobby—hands on hips, looking miserable—before he spotted her. They were here to see The Saddest Music in the World with Isabella Rossellini, then Guy Maddin was giving a talk. Alastair and Ezra were big Guy Maddin fans. Neither Jack nor Brigid had heard of him. “Can’t take that in with you,” Alastair said, gesturing at Brigid’s sponge cake, and then he and Ezra were hurrying into the theater, Alastair’s hand firmly on Ezra’s butt cheek. She offered the sponge cake to Jack, but he was glaring at her. “What?” she asked. “Tell me what man drives four hours—when it’s fucking snowing—to see his former student read.” “Please don’t start this right now,” she said. It was the beer. It made Jack paranoid. “Brigid,” he said. “Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.” Something waiting. She shook her head. No. Not this. She could feel Jack’s jealously like a fog, wrapping around her neck, around her wrists and ankles. “Why are you penalizing me for something he did? I didn’t ask him to come.” He paused to work the sponge cake out of his teeth. “You’ve done nothing but humiliate me tonight,” he said. “What are you talking about?” “You’re practically humping Alastair’s leg.” “Jesus, Jack.” Her cheeks flushed. “He’s gay.” “What difference,” said Jack, walking into the dark of the theater, “does that make?” * * * She woke to a horrible sound, like a bomb. She rushed to the kitchen’s bay window and scanned the Kelvin River, Jack somewhere within, trawling for inspiration, then over the bridge and past the subway station. The buildings were dirty and soot-encrusted, Dickensian. The bombing sound had stopped. All she could hear was the distant whine of bagpipes. “The sound of Scotland,” Jack had said when they first arrived. More like the sound of a thousand mosquitoes, she thought now. She looked the other way, over to the Mackintosh cathedral and the other flats that looked just like the one she was standing in. No bomb. Her hands were shaking. The sound had been so loud. The smell of meat. She could smell it under the door. Alastair usually didn’t get home until midnight—a day off? She checked her reflection in the mirror, shook out her hair with her hands. He answered the door in a bathrobe and white cowboy boots with spurs. “Hold on,” he said and disappeared. She heard the click of the stove being turned off. Loretta Lynn was playing in the background. The meat sizzled and popped. Her mouth watered. Her nipples grew against the fabric of her shirt. “You didn’t hear it?” she said when he reappeared. “Hear what?” “The big boom.” He went to the window, and she followed him. “I don’t see anything,” he said. He opened the window and leaned out. She could hear sirens now. “Oh,” he said. “Oh no.” He left her in the hall and returned fully dressed, his face red with either anger or shame. “I have to go.” “Go?” she said, but he was already headed down the red-carpeted stairs, then opening the huge front door. The bright light of day shot into the foyer, and then he was running down the street and around the corner, toward, what she could see now, was a scene of absolute chaos: ambulances, fire trucks, police cars—all surrounding a building, much like the one her flat was in. “Wait,” she called, but she found herself in a swarm of people, soot on their faces, fire fighters snaking white hoses through the crowd. She looked up and saw helicopters hovering like bees. The heat was unbearable, and she brought her hands to her face, as if to save the skin from peeling off. Above her, smoke poured into the sky. It wasn’t like in the movies—no one had blocked off the scene with yellow tape. No one seemed to be in charge. In front of her was a mountain of burnt rubble. No one stopped Alastair from climbing over it. “Alastair,” she cried. “What are you doing?” He disappeared into the darkness. In an instant she knew she was standing in front of the building where Ezra’s studio was. She remembered now—Ezra had been rambling about his latest art project after the Guy Maddin movie. Something about making a cube out of durable material, with a hole where Ezra would pipe gas into, then another tiny hole, big enough for a match head. It was supposed to make a big boom but then fizzle out. She couldn’t remember what it was supposed to symbolize or how it was related to the beef jerky. People hurried by, wearing masks, headlamps, carrying big red medical bags. She thought she heard someone yell at her to move, but the accent was still difficult for her, like everyone’s mouths were full of rocks. She turned to a woman who was leaning against an ambulance. She felt as if she didn’t speak to someone she would start weeping. And it would never stop. “My friends,” Brigid said, “they’re in there.” The woman shook her head and pointed to her ears. She was deaf from the blast. * * * She stood in the hallway with Alastair, listening to him tell her about Ezra with a raspy voice. Jack was in the shower, washing off the muck of the Kelvin. It was almost midnight. Ezra was alive. In hospital, as Alastair put it, on a respirator. His lungs full of soot and blood. He told the doctors he thought he was dead until Alastair touched his hand. “He fell,” Alastair said, gesturing upward. “He fell three stories.” She looked up. She imagined a ragged hole in the ceiling, revealing the smoke-filled sky. The floor disappearing underneath her feet. Falling. Her hair streaming out above her. A gas leak. It would have happened eventually. Ezra’s art hadn’t caused the explosion—he was just the first to light a match. In a gesture so bold she gasped, Alastair took her hands. He brought her so close their noses were touching. His whole body was shaking. “Alastair,” she said. She let his body rest against hers. Through the flat’s thin walls, she heard Jack turn off the water, then the slosh of his wet footsteps approaching. “He’s going to be okay,” she said and placed her hand on Alastair’s heart. * * * That night, Brigid lay in bed with Jack, the moon illuminating the room. White fitted sheet, white comforter. No one used top sheets here. Or dryers. She’d hung the fitted sheet out the window to dry, and it smelled of beer and vomit, of Alastair’s sizzling steaks. She turned to Jack. Her attraction to Alastair had reduced her self esteem to that of a crushed soda can. She kissed Jack’s lips, hoping to reanimate herself. They had fallen in love during their MFA. Back then Jack was a handsome, slightly broken-seeming guy from Oregon, his debut book of poems “making waves,” it being about the death of an infant, but from the perspective of a man. The father. It was hard not to fall under his aloof, west-coast spell. The life they would create together, the baby they would raise—here, in this Glaswegian flat, she replayed what he’d said the night he proposed. How lucky she’d felt. Now what she felt was nervousness. She took a lock of Jack’s hair between her fingers. “Time for a cut?” she said. He turned away. “Did you sleep with him?” Jack asked. “What? No.” She sat up and gathered her hair in her hands. Just as she had pulled away from Alastair, Jack had come into the hallway, a towel around his waist. “He’s a meat guy.” “I don’t mean Alastair,” he said. “I mean him.” “No,” she said. “Goddamn you, no.” “I’m allowed to like people,” she said to her husband. “And they’re allowed to like me. I’m allowed to like people—even as much as I like you.” He turned to her. “But not more than me.” “If that’s the rule,” she said, pausing to breathe in the beery sheets, “I haven’t broken it.” “Haven’t you, though?” “It’s our anniversary,” she said, lying down again. “This weekend.” “I know,” he said. He took off his glasses and moved toward her. Without his glasses, his eyes were darker, bigger, like someone else’s eyes. They had been married for five years and she still felt uncomfortable when he took off his glasses. “You hate me,” he said. “I don’t.” “You hate all men.” “That doesn’t include you.” “So many footnotes,” he said. “What?” “Everything with you has a footnote. You hate men. But, footnote, not me.” Two miscarriages, she wanted to say. I’ve had two miscarriages because of you. “Please don’t do that thing,” she said instead, “where you confuse what I’ve written with who I am.” “As if you don’t go looking for yourself in my poems.” “There’s nothing to look for,” she said. “You don’t write about me.” An old argument. Nothing more to say. He rolled onto his back and she put her head on his shoulder. She felt his muscles relax, the familiar letting-go as he started to fall asleep. “Let’s go to Skye,” she whispered. “What’s there?” he whispered back. His fingers came alive on her skin. He lifted her leg over his. * * * To her left lay a barren and craggy landscape, flat. Behind her and to the right sprawled a field overgrown with bluebells. In front of her: the Atlantic and the islands Rum, Muck, and Eigg, or the Hebrides—where Barra was—or Canna, she didn’t know, one of them anyway. The sky was perfect, big white clouds above their heads. She took a picture. All the houses on Skye were white. They walked with their heads down to avoid sunstroke. After two hours, they were nowhere near anyone or anything. Defeated and thirsty, they ended up in a little cove. White sand, turquoise water—as though they were in the Caribbean. She was sunburnt. Jack took off his shirt and tied it around his head. She’d slipped an hour ago and her jeans were ripped at the knee. Her former writing professor had told her that if she attended a few private tutorials with him, her writing—particularly on the sentence level—would improve vastly. He had an apartment that was as shabby as she’d imagined: teetering bookshelves, a faded Persian rug, an ancient gas stove. He offered her a cigarette, lighting it with the blue flame of the stove, and she took it, not knowing yet that she was pregnant for the first time. Now, he said, gesturing to the kitchen table, where an early, terrible draft of her novel sat. Let’s attend to these adverbs. She got an agent after he’d heavily edited her manuscript, then a book contract. Nothing. Not a kiss between them. Not a hand placed on a leg. Still, the night of her reading in Manhattan, after she’d given him back the signed copy of her book, the B of her name made lascivious by her own hand, he had lingered a moment. Then he passed her what at first looked like a credit card but was, upon closer examination, the key to a hotel room. “Hope to see you,” he said in his gentle voice. He gestured to the next woman in line. “She’s all yours.” How she wanted to tell Jack about what her former writing professor had done. How she wanted to share with him how swiftly it had ruined everything—her book, her writing, her sense of agency in the world. Instead she’d thrown the room key in a trashcan. She hadn’t told Jack a thing. He’d have lorded it over her. Told her he’d been right about the guy all along. Tell me what man drives four hours . . . Perhaps the marriage had ended for her that night in New York City. The moment she realized she would have to keep secrets. Secrets worse than infidelity. Secrets about pain. There was litter on the beach. Anchors, chains, that sort of thing. She picked up a chunk of green sea glass and handed it to Jack. “For your book?” she said. “I’m only interested in the Kelvin,” he said. A different sort of man would leave her. Would have left her a long time ago. She hadn’t provided what had been expected. Her belly, as flat as the day she met him. And she had desires. Desires that spanned beyond him. Miles to go before I sleep, she said in her head. And many more men to sleep with. A different man would beat her with the sea glass, until it was embedded into her brain. A different man would throw her into the sea, hands bound behind her back. “Should we keep going?” he said. He took a swig of water and passed her the canteen. To the lighthouse or in general? She couldn’t bear to ask. Her phone buzzed. “He’s okay,” she said to Jack, waving the phone at him. “Ezra’s out of surgery and he’s okay.” “Sure,” said Jack. “You’re not happy?” “It’s not that,” he said. He put the sea glass in his pocket. “It’s just a crush,” she said. “It’s not the thing with Alastair that bothers me,” he said. He looked at his feet, kicked some pebbles around with his shoe. “I understand crushes. I get them, too, Brigid.” She scanned her mind for all the people he could have crushes on. His agent, yes. His editor. His publicist. All the women of publishing. “What is it, then?” she asked. But he was walking toward the ocean, his cargo shorts billowing in the wind. “What is it, then, that bothers you?” she called out. “Tell me, please.” “I have given myself over to you,” he said, turning to her. He folded his arms. “But you. You have always kept a part of yourself separate.” But that’s right, she thought. You can’t have all of me. You don’t get to have all of me. Before she and Jack had left for Skye, Alastair told them that if they looked across to Mallaig, they would see a shaft of light at the entrance of Loch Nevis. The light was nearly always there. Nevis in Gaelic meant “heaven.” She walked to where her husband was standing, and she took his hand, and together they squinted for a long time. * * * When they returned to their little flat, Jack fell asleep, exhausted by the journey. She lay on her back and thought of when they’d visited the Necropolis by Glasgow Cathedral. A boys’ choir had been there, singing among the tombstones. One tombstone was so big she’d thought it was a smokestack. Jack talked about him sometimes—the baby. His baby. Until she’d met Jack, she thought that men didn’t care very much about babies, or children in general. The baby’s name had been Mercury. Jack had come up with it. The perfect, celestial name for a poet’s son who hadn’t lived even one day. It surprised her—the way, every now and then, Jack wept. That was another thing she didn’t think men did. She thought crying was to women what masturbation was to men. Every day, each bent to their respective tasks. She looked at her sleeping husband. His eyelids were twitching. She felt his familiar warmth beside her. Something happened, Jack, and it undid me. Something happened, Jack, and I feel like I can’t tell you. But let me tell you anyway. Her first miscarriage was nothing more than a giant period. Nothing gory. No embryo held in the hand. And hardly pregnant at all—she’d even gotten out a magnifying glass to see the faint, second pink line. Maybe that one didn’t count. The second happened a few weeks before Christmas. The day she’d bought Jack the elf boxers—not just elf boxers. She’d also gotten him a five-hundred-dollar Movado watch, taken out of her advance from The Women of Barra. She bought the gifts, then decided to walk home instead of taking a cab—she felt good. She felt alive with life. A little bean within her, nine weeks along. It was a two-mile walk, no hills or rocky terrain, just straightforward Portland sidewalks. Overcast and in the 40s—an unremarkable day. In her head, she went over what she would write in Jack’s Christmas card. She didn’t want him to make fun of her. He was against sentimentality of any kind, in life and in art. When she opened the door to their apartment, Jack’s cheeks were rosy from wine, and the smell of rosemary and tomato sauce was in the air. Some other poets were over, and he said he hoped she didn’t mind. She did and didn’t. She hid the gifts in her dresser, then walked into the kitchen. She told everyone she was pregnant. They cheered and clinked glasses. She held her belly even though there was nothing to hold. In the morning they had breakfast, and Jack hurried off to teach his last class of the semester. She worked on a story, then a Q&A for a magazine to help promote The Women of Barra. When she saw blood on the toilet paper, she texted Jack. Are you sure? he texted back, which seemed ridiculous, then and now. I’m sure. I have office hours, he texted next. When she thinks of it now, the memory slides in and out of focus. The feeling of something tearing, something moving in her that wasn’t supposed to be moved. The sense she didn’t have anymore—the sense of feeling alive with life. That’s the part she wished she could tell Jack. She wanted to tell him how strongly she’d felt the little bean’s spirit inside of her. But he would laugh it off. Accuse her of magical thinking. He might even invoke Mercury—how he had been the one to know a child’s spirit, if there was such a thing. But, no, Jack. She had felt him. She had felt him as strongly as if she’d once known him—like someone you remember, from a lifetime ago, suddenly and without warning, brought to you by a scent, someone’s perfume maybe, or the taste of something sweet in your mouth. * * * u up? It was Alastair. She looked at Jack, snoring beside her. Yeah. Why? She texted back. the moon, he wrote. She looked out the window. The moon was twice its usual size and blood red. lunar eclipse, he texted. She thought about waking Jack. He would like to see this big red moon. Instead, she found herself knocking softly on Alastair’s door. Alastair and Ezra’s flat had a little balcony. She wanted to watch the eclipse outside, in the cool night air. “Hi,” Alastair said, and stepped back to make room for her. He led her through his apartment, then onto the balcony. They stood together, eyeing the moon. She’d read somewhere that a blood moon was supposed to signify the end of the world. “Did you see it?” he asked her. “The light. The light at Loch Nevis.” “No,” she said. “We didn’t see heaven this time.” “Ah well,” he said. He sat on a folding chair and stretched out his legs. He was taller than Jack, model tall. “Jack’s been to Greece several times,” she said. “He said the light there is better.” “Oh,” said Alastair, laughing. “Sorry to disappoint him.” Across the street, a drunk couple stumbled by, arm in arm, oblivious to the moon. “I missed you,” said Alastair, his voice soft. “Did you miss me?” * * * Once the fellowship was over, they returned to Oregon. Jack finished his book and sold it, and the day it came out his publisher organized a big book launch at Powell’s. The book had generated enormous advance praise—blurbs, profiles, puff pieces—stuff normally reserved for the idiotic fiction that she wrote. The book was called Blood Moon over Glasgow. There was a poem for every day he’d trawled the Kelvin River—listing every item he found. A portrait of our city, a Glaswegian reviewer wrote, Jack Geoffrey has done for Glasgow what Joyce did for Dublin. At the end was a coda. A long poem—some reviewers would refer to it as an epic—about the love between Ezra and Alastair. And how a woman had come between them at the end. How Ezra, returning home from the hospital a day early to surprise Alastair, had seen the kiss between Brigid and Alastair from the window of his taxi, the night of the blood moon. A kiss so sudden it almost hadn’t happened at all. The question was, how did Jack know about it. Had Alastair told him. Had Ezra. Jack was walking to the mic now, after a long introduction by a local poet. He’d cut his hair. A sort of neo-Nazi look, she thought, the hair shaved on the sides but long on top. His signature round glasses and threadbare sweater. Rumpled pants. He reminded her of Woody Allen—or some quote about some person like him—it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. No, that was Dolly Parton. Well whatever, she thought. Same idea. “Thank you,” he said. “After that kind of an introduction, I can only disappoint you.” The crowd laughed, as they always did. “This is a poem about heartbreak,” he said. “I won’t read the whole thing. We’d be here for hours.” Again, laughter, although hers was nervous sounding. “The real trouble,” he began, “when you are married to another writer,” and at this he paused; he was good at suspense, “is you never know what they’re seeing and what you’re missing.” She scanned the crowd for someone she knew. But Jack’s newfound fame had brought with it only strangers. Their friends were at home, not wanting to stand in a line that looped around the block. She had started a new novel in Glasgow, but it was in its nonsense stage—plot-less, self-indulgent. She supposed this was the way life would go now. Her in the audience, Jack on stage. Marital secrets and transgressions mined for material. Infidelity immortalized on the page. He’d changed everyone’s names to ones from Greco-Roman mythology. Alastair had become Aeneas. Ezra was Dido. He’d changed everyone’s name but hers. I am sorry, she said after she’d read the poem for the first time—the proofs on the kitchen table, due back to Jack’s publisher in two weeks. I’m really sorry. It was so quick. Alastair was in shock—I mean, he was still so shaken up from what had happened to Ezra. I think he wanted to feel something, you know? Or be comforted. Maybe that. Maybe it was more of a comfort kiss. Jack stood and poured himself a cup of coffee. It was eight a.m. Too early for an argument. Too early to say the things that needed to be said. He sat across from her, slid the coffee cup her way. She took a sip and slid it back. The page proofs sat to her left. “Well, good,” he said. “Hm?” she asked. “I mean, I don’t regret putting it in the poem anymore.” “The kiss?” “Yeah,” he said. “It was a big risk.” She took the cup but her hands were trembling too much for her to take a sip. “We can recover from this,” she said. “Okay,” he said. He had his faraway look again, as though he were looking not at the floor but into another dimension. “Nothing happened between my professor and me,” she said. “And the thing with Alastair—you said that you get crushes, too.” “Well, that’s the thing,” Jack said, his eyes focusing now on her. “I made it up.” She looked at him as intently as he was looking at her. “I made up the kiss,” he said. “It seemed like a thing that would happen, but I didn’t know that it had.” She took the page proofs and flipped to the poem that contained the kiss between her and Aeneas, as he was referred to in the text. This part would be written about extensively by critics, it being so explicitly in the style of Robert Frost—even lifting some of his exact phraseology: And I saw them, or thought I saw them, Aeneas and Brigid,She wasn’t moving away from the kissHe asked with his eyes, not his lips But it hadn’t really gone like that. The night of the blood moon, she had stood on Alastair’s balcony, looking up at the alien sky. She was wearing a gauzy nightgown, and she could feel Alastair’s eyes running over the length of her body. “Yes,” she said. “I missed you.” That part was true. “Come here,” he said. He reached for her from his spot on the folding chair. “What?” “You heard me.” His voice was a whisper. She felt a ripple through her body. It was happening. She took his hand, felt the weight of it, the hair on his knuckles. His unmistakable smell—both desirable and repulsive—of meat. His undercut. That mole behind his ear. And yet. “No,” she said and drew back her hand. “I’m sorry. I can’t.” He frowned. She took a step backward. He reached for her again but this time with purpose. In one fluid motion, he had a firm grip on her arm. “You know you want to,” he said, and brought her down onto his lap. “No,” she said. She sprung to her feet but he had her by both arms now. He pulled her toward him, and she lost her balance. “You want to,” he said and again pulled her down onto his lap. She could smell the mint stink of his toothpaste. “No,” she said. She let the full weight of her body rest on him a second, then sprung up once more. Below her, she saw a taxi idling at the curb, the milky face of Ezra in the backseat, staring up at them. You know you want to. Did she? Sort of. But also no. And did she kiss him? No. * * * But it was more powerful to let Jack think that she had. “His tongue was like an eel,” she said to Jack after his reading at Powell’s. They stood in their kitchen in their socks. There was an after party in an hour and they were home to get changed. She thought about what she had worn in Glasgow—her black-and-white blouse and mini skirt—but this time with boots. “I can still feel it in my mouth, twitching, slimy, serpentine.” She opened her mouth and let her tongue hang out. “Like this,” she said and wiggled it back and forth. “Alastair’s tongue. It was really awful.” “Not like an eel,” Jack said. “A snake.” She slid her tongue back inside the safety of her mouth. “What’s the difference?” “Snakes are loaded with symbolism,” he said. “You can do something with the simile. But an eel—an eel is just an eel.” “An eel is just an eel,” she repeated. Their kitchen was small, with white subway tiles and white countertops, white appliances, and a white tile floor. He looked at her expectantly. She stood up. He looked at her longingly. Seven weeks now. She’d gotten out the magnifying glass. Not far enough along to tell anyone except Jack. Jack’s phone buzzed. His agent. She was at the party already. “We should get ready,” he said. Her husband was the nicest man she knew. So much had been written about the ends of marriages—the poignant domestic scenes; the moments of bitterness and cruelty and tenderness; the sweeping final paragraphs. So much had been written about violence and love. She thought, suddenly, of Othello smothering Desdemona. “You go,” she said to Jack. “I’m going to stay home.” “You’re not coming to my party?” he asked. He began to walk toward her. She thought of her former writing professor in his Manhattan hotel room, eyeing the door. All the hours that must have gone by. The snow falling in clumps outside. “No,” she said. “I’m not coming.” You’re not? And why? I’m trying to save my life.
‘I Want to Argue with Everything I’ve Ever Thought’: An interview with Catherine Lacey

The author of Pew on confession and original brokenness. 

If there’s one thing that rivals the discomfort of small talk, it’s an awkward pause. It’s a lull that either leads to conversational filler or oversharing. People really risk it all instead of being quiet, which is why that uncomfortable silence is exploited by HR people, priests, and journalists alike. In Catherine Lacey’s third novel, Pew (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the titular character and novel’s namesake already complicates conversations because they have no identity: their ethnicity and gender are described as indeterminate and confusing. They have no memory or backstory. But it’s Pew’s silence that seems to rattle others most; instead of fixating on Pew’s origins, they project onto Pew, and confess their secrets and their sins.  Pew could be post-body, beyond human even, but in a conservative and religious town in the American South, they are interpreted as an uncooperative patient, stranger danger, an archangel, and more ominously, a sacrifice. These communities are founded on conformity, where the right answers to a line of inquiry lead to acceptance and assimilation. It takes only a week for Pew’s muteness to rattle their foundation and saviour complex. Over email, I talked to Lacey about the origins of Pew and, more importantly, if a novel and its characters can originate in a body or somewhere else.  Sara Black McCulloch: You had a very religious upbringing in Mississippi, and I wanted to know how that influenced writing Pew, especially when it comes to shedding identities? Did this start with a voice or something else? Catherine Lacey: The person at the center of Pew is an impossibility—a person without qualities, a person whose appearance is changeable, impossible to define. I think to some degree the desire to inhabit the sort of simultaneous visibility and invisibility that such a body would give a person would appeal to most people, regardless of their background. As a child, I took to religion with a kind of seriousness that made childhood strange, or rather it revealed that American hypocrisy of being a country founded on Christian systems of morality while also claiming to be secular. As a kid who took the Bible very seriously, I was understandably frustrated that moral goodness had no currency at school, in fact it was a hazard. But eventually the Bible came to feel inadequate, full of its own paradoxes and cruelties, so perhaps the book was an attempt to create a kind of annihilated space in my hometown, my home-area-of-the-country.  Pew is also not someone who is shifting between identities because they don’t have one, which frustrates people to the point that there is a breakdown in communication. I read in your interview with the Paris Review that you think a lot about the body and posture—how they influence the rhythm and voice in sentences when you’re writing. To Pew, the body is where so much dysfunction and other bad things start. Did that approach to writing change when you were writing the character? On a purely creative, personal level, the book was an attempt to argue with myself over that point. Does the book have to be in the body? Does the voice necessarily come from a body? I truly am not interested in setting parameters or concerns for myself that remain fixed. I want to argue with everything I’ve ever thought.  The only time Pew really does speak to someone, it’s with Nelson, who warns Pew not to say anything because the community will only hear what they want to hear and twist their words. There’s a pressure for Pew to assimilate as Nelson did, but there needs to be a trauma narrative first. I wanted to know what you thought about trauma narratives and the ideal victim. Does Pew’s silence threaten this community because it challenges their saviour complex?  This phrase, “ideal victim,” is scarily apt. In the last several years, partially from the way the internet provides such an easy confession chamber, the act of sharing a traumatic story has become so common that doing so—personal, public exposure—has, at times, felt requisite. Of course, some people don’t have the option to expose or not expose a personal story, so I’m not talking about that. But I feel strongly that one shouldn’t be required to expose personal trauma to be seen as worthy of equal treatment, or justified in their anger over an injustice. In some ways, this is the way American society has instinctively responded to the increased opportunity for telling trauma narratives. Essentially, trauma is treated like capital, and you must spend it in order to increase the value of your position. I felt this particularly around the time #MeToo first became a thing. I did not want to describe personal experiences in order to participate, but at certain times it felt like that was the price of admission—even when some tried to say it wasn’t required. It seems to me that many BIPOC Americans may often feel this way, that there’s a heightened value being placed on sharing the details of times that your life has been denigrated and if you’re not willing to share that then you have less of a right to complain, to have a voice. Of course, there’s no centralized authority in society that is setting that pattern—it’s emerging from us collectively, which makes it the kind of problem that fiction is best suited to deal with.  I was not directly thinking of any of this as I wrote Pew, but looking back I can see how this concern slips in. They’re not willing or not able or simply not sharing what has happened to them, so the system is breaking down. Nelson didn’t have the option to suffer privately and he resents it. He resents the community around him relishing in their personal experiences of “doing the right thing,” because he recognizes it as the same kind of noxious righteousness that leads people to commit violence in the name of their government or religion or hate group or whatever. Righteousness is so dangerous. It erases nuance. Many people fill in for Pew’s silence and start revealing more about themselves. What they confess to Pew is, at times, much darker and honest than what comes up at the Forgiveness Festival [in the novel]. This made me think about performative public apologies. In a way, when someone asks for forgiveness like that, they seem to be asking people to forget about their harmful actions rather than asking for help or learning from them. Even at the Forgiveness Festival, everyone’s eyes are closed, so the apology never reaches the person it’s intended for. What does forgiveness mean or look like to you? Is it about being good or bad, a fear of God, or just someone understanding how to be in the world? There’s this Protestant concept of being wiped clean, of being redeemed through private confession to God. As a child I was so interested in Catholic confession, in the booth with the priest—we did all of our confession silently, alone. Maybe Protestants repress their shame and guilt more than Catholics do? I would absolutely read that psychological study. I do think there is an increased societal preoccupation with forgiveness right now in the culture and maybe that’s part of the reason I wrote this book now rather than years ago. Perhaps the most useful thing I learned from Christianity—but perhaps even more from my mom than from church—was that there is no point in holding a grudge, that you’re usually better off forgiving someone rather than carrying around anger for them. But it’s also odd to me that I find it easier to forgive individuals than collectives. I remain pissed off about Mississippi’s general hypocritical disregard for the poor and the suffering while they all claim to be Christian but I’m fully ready to forgive individuals for individual things. I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to be, but that’s what I’m working with these days. The epigraph is from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and while I know the reviews of Pew have focused on the unnamed narrator and the summer festival at the end, it also centers on the idea of the scapegoat. I wanted to talk about Pew’s role in the Forgiveness Festival because while they won’t identify themselves, the community abandons them at the end, rendering Pew an outcast full of the town’s confessions and sins. Pew is the scapegoat. I hadn’t thought about the story that way but I think it's a valid and interesting take. There’s this idea in Christianity that all people are born broken and sinful, that faith in Jesus makes a person whole. So, in a sense, by sending Pew to this festival, the question is being raised of, what would Pew have to confess to if they were human, but without history? What is the nature of that original brokenness? The question of innate sinfulness is fascinating to me. What does it really mean to be born incomplete and what is this state of completion people supposedly are striving to reach? While Pew is a narrator with no identity, they do ask us, in a way, to make a choice: do we go along with conventions, or do we abandon them so we can change and grow? This question is especially prescient right now, at a time when we’re being forced to reconsider our relationships to power, money, and each other. Have you been reevaluating your own relationship to and participation in any of these now? Oh, absolutely. I think it’s difficult to accurately or honestly describe how “the now” is changing me, but I think the process of writing Pew helped me defamiliarize myself with my own body and by doing that I see other people’s bodies differently and I suppose that’s all I want reading the book to do. I hope it made me a slightly less shitty, slightly more kind person in the world. I think there are many ways to read the book, to be frustrated by it, enjoy it, to not enjoy it, but the only stance in the reader that I am willing to say is a failure on their part is wanting to know “what” the person at the centre of Pew is. It wasn’t a secret I wanted to keep; it’s the problem I’m asking the reader to approach. And there’s no answer to the problem, or at least I don’t claim to have it.
‘There’s Still Time to Save It’: An Interview with Charlotte McConaghy

The author of Migrations on connecting to the natural world, activist privilege, and creatureliness. 

Birds are having a real moment right now—bird-identification apps, newly converted birders, repurposed Instagram accounts. And even if it’s brought on by all that birdsong we can finally hear, this moment is well overdue. But it’s also terribly fragile. In the last three decades, over a third of North America’s birds have vanished—that’s three billion birds. In India, where I live, the first nationwide study found that 80 percent of observed species were declining. In the UK, where I used to live, nearly a quarter of bird populations face extinction or steep decline.  In Migrations (Flatiron Books), the moment of the birds has passed. Along with that of the bears, deer, wolves, fish, bees, and trees. Set against a landscape of immense loss, Charlotte McConaghy’s evocative new novel charts the story of Franny, who attempts to follow the last flock of Arctic terns as they fly from one end of the earth to the other. Together with the wary crew of a fishing boat, Franny finds herself immersed in terrain that’s as unstable and precarious as her interior world. As McConaghy writes: “There is hardly anything wild left, and this is a fate we are, all of us, intimately aware of.” And if we have any hope of salvaging the natural world, Migrations suggests that we may have to uncover our own wildness first. Richa Kaul Padte: There’s a moment when your narrator Franny is explaining the immense journey of the Arctic terns—from the North to the South Pole and back again, all in a single year. She says, “I think of the courage of this and I could cry.” What, in turn, is the sort of courage required by humans to face the world of Migrations—one in which practically all the animals, birds, and insects that once populated the earth have died? Charlotte McConaghy: Great question! I like to think of the courage of the terns’ journey as a metaphor for the courage that Franny—and all humans—need in facing the looming animal extinctions. It’s so hard not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of this crisis, and to feel hopeless or apathetic in the face of it. It seems too big for any one of us to be able to stop, but I wanted the book to be a battle cry of sorts. To say no, we can make a difference, we can take up this fight, and in fact we have an individual responsibility to do so. Franny’s journey (without giving too much away) is one of hopelessness to a reclaiming of hope, and it requires a lot of courage from her to reach that point; this is what we will need in order to reclaim our own hope—and not only hope, but the energy required to take on a journey as vast as the flight of the terns.  Do you think this hope and energy partly comes from noticing—and in the case of Migrations, remembering—the remaining wildness in the world? There’s this moment when Franny sees the terns and thinks: “Easy to forget how many there once were, how common they seemed. Easy to forget how lovely they are.” Is paying attention a way to energize ourselves in the face of despair? Absolutely! The more we notice these beautiful creatures the more we will value them. And we don’t have to look far. Go for a walk and really look at the trees you see, study their leaves and try to spot the birds that hide among them. Find some water and sit beside it, it won’t take long for water birds to come and sit on its surface or dive below for fish. Sit quietly and listen to the sound of the wind. Spot the little bugs that find their way into your home and instead of squishing them, help them on their way. Everything has an important role to play. Take pleasure from all of these living creatures; every one of them is a wonder. We have the capacity to take such joy from the natural world, and I think you’re absolutely right that this helps to stave off the despair we feel when we think it’s all gone. It hasn’t gone yet. There’s still time to save it. Woven through your book is a “nameless sadness, the fading away of the birds...of the animals.” Franny remarks: “How lonely it will be here, when it’s just us.” This reminds me of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s concept of “species loneliness”—a “deep, unnamed sadness” arising from human estrangement with other species. Both Franny and Kimmerer describe this loss as unnamed; what, if anything, shifts when we try to name it? Perhaps the attempt to name it is what separates us from other species—the need for language to define and understand how we feel and what we yearn for. For animals there is only instinct. One of the things I wanted Franny to be, while thoughtful and contemplative, was more instinctive than most people, wilder, maybe, or more in touch with her wildness. This allows her to connect more deeply with the natural world, but also means she feels the loss of it keenly. I think we all must strive to connect more deeply with the world if we have any wish to salvage it and perhaps lessen some of that unnamed sadness. Whether we have the ability to identify it or not, it’s something that lives in us as deeply as instinct does, and maybe it’s a sign of our creatureliness, and hints that reconnection has the potential to nourish us all. Oh, now that makes me wonder if it’s actually reductive to try and name this sadness! In the sense that maybe our constant need to name, classify and categorize everything—including our feelings—prevents us from forming the sorts of connections we need the most? Yeah, I sometimes think that might be the case too. Overanalyzing and overthinking can feel like the occupation of a writer, which is why it was such a bone-deep relief to write about a character who doesn’t try to analyze what things mean, but instead tries to experience each moment, to really feel them. Franny is guided by emotion and I tried to let the writing process be that way. It’s a difficult thing when your job is to put language to emotion, because you must also know when language has its limitations and try to allow something deeper to shine through on the page.   Something you resist a lot in your text is the idea of human centrality—for example conservation efforts being focused on what benefits us the most. In Migrations, the work to save bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators is well underway, while “no-hopers” are allowed to “fade into extinction.” But, as Franny asks, “wasn’t this attitude the problem to begin with?” Yes, it really upsets me to think about the extinction crisis only in terms of how it will affect us humans. Sometimes it seems like the only argument that ever gets through to people is how damaged our food supply will be when there are no more pollinators to help us grow that food, or the thought of our homes being destroyed by flood or drought or fires or rising sea levels. It distresses me because we are not the only living creatures on this planet, nor the only ones with a right to safety. We are sharing this world; if anything, we are its caretakers. So I didn’t want this book to become a dystopian look at how our lives will be affected, I wanted it to be an existential exploration of how it will feel to be the only living things left here. I think it will be devastating. The thought of a world with only humans is a horrifying thought. The animals deserve to be here as much as we do, and not to serve any purpose, but to exist in their own right. There is a growing tension in your book between climate activists and fishing communities, with the latter often positioned as enemies of the sea. Franny, for example, is shocked when the captain of the The Saghani—the only fishing vessel that agrees to take her aboard—releases a large catch to free a sea turtle caught in its net. I think the only thing that shocked me, though, was her shock. I’ve lived near fishing communities for a long time, and in fact just last month, fishermen in my home state of Goa, India, freed several Olive Ridley turtles.   Is there a truth in the terrible way some conservationists view fishing communities—a truth other than activists’ own privilege?  I think there is huge division between people on this subject, and unfortunately a lot of that stems from a lack of understanding of the other party. I’m a vegetarian, while my father is a beef and lamb farmer. There could be division between us but instead we have enough knowledge to understand each other. For Franny, in the world of Migrations, the seas have been even further ravaged than they are now (although we are headed that way swiftly), so she is aware only of a certain greed on the part of those who continue to fish despite the terrible state of the oceans. She just doesn’t understand why they carry on. For Ennis and his crew, there is even more desperation than there is for fishermen today—fish are so scarce they aren’t really able to make a living from it anymore, and this journey is a kind of last chance for them all, which is perhaps why Franny assumes that their need will outweigh their compassion. What she must learn is that there are complexities to us all; it is the systems that have been put in place that need to change. I’m really interested in how knowledge operates in your book. Franny says of her scientist husband: “Niall has always wanted me to study the things I love, to learn them...in facts. But I’ve always been content to know them in other ways….the touch and feel of them.” This makes me think of the biologist who refuses to believe that a flock of crows befriended Franny in her childhood. At the same time, we see that Franny’s instinctive love of birds and the sea is deepened by Niall’s research, too. Are these two ways of knowing contradictory, or can they compliment each other—even when what we are trying to know is wildness itself? I think part of Franny’s journey is to understand that they can complement each other. There is certainly a sense of contradiction to her—she is hungry for knowledge of birds, sitting in on classes she’s not enrolled in just to learn more about them, while at the same time resisting the thought of making this learning official by committing to any kind of study. She’s frightened, I think, that the science of things might tarnish the magic she sees and feels in the wild. It’s her creatureliness that makes her disinterested in normal societal values—career ambition, wealth, etc.—but she comes to slowly understand that committing to learning about her passion doesn’t have to take the magic from it, and I think this is one of the gifts she gets from her husband. Just as he learns a kind of optimism from her about our potential impact on the natural world—and as we are all inevitably enriched in some way by our partners’ views.   “Creatureliness” is a word you’ve mentioned a couple times now, and it makes me think of Franny “reach[ing]…for poetry, for Mary Oliver and her wild geese and her animal bodies loving what they love.” What is creatureliness, and is it linked to how “we don’t always have to be a poison, a plague on the world…[how] we can nurture it too?” Yes, I think so. I’ve always taken a great deal of inspiration from Mary Oliver’s poetry and her extraordinary ability to recognize how our connection to the natural world can feed and sustain us. I read recently that it’s our separation from nature that makes us harmful to it. That as we advanced technologically, we lost our ability to be harmonious with the rest of the world. I think there are those with a more natural ability to connect with animals and wild spaces, and maybe it’s because they are able to remember their own animal natures. The quiet we are capable of. Perhaps it’s only by reconnecting with our animal sides, or our “creatureliness,” that we will remember what it means not just to exist for our own sakes, but as part of a greater, vibrant, interconnected whole. Our place here can be nurturing and gentle, instead of destructive. This is a very important theme in the book and in Franny’s life. The realization that she, and all of us, can help instead of hinder, gives meaning and purpose to her life, and I hope readers can take a little of this from the novel.
Pregnant During the Pandemic: Three Stories

A COVID pregnancy is riddled with small, subtle losses.

I. Maria—Pregnancy Monday was a bad day. Four patients in the ICU ward where Maria worked died of COVID. The patients had all been in the ICU for two to three weeks. Maria, a licensed clinical social worker, hadn’t seen or spoken with them directly; they had been on respirators, tubes in their mouths, unable to communicate, but she wasn’t allowed in the rooms with COVID patients anyway. She provided support to their families, facilitating end-of-life discussions in Spanish and preparing them for difficult news. When she’d met with the families, they had been more concerned for Maria than themselves: “They saw my belly and were shocked.” No one expects to see a six-month-pregnant woman working full-time in the ICU ward of a busy urban hospital during a global pandemic. “They say, ‘We were worried to come into the hospital, and here you are working here.’ It’s a weird position to be in, ‘cause here I am, trying to provide support and help them process the information being told to them by the medical staff, and trying to help them through the grief process. And they’re worried about me.” This happens more and more with Maria’s patients. Worry over her developing baby serves as a temporary distraction from the loss of their loved ones—a chance to worry about new life in the face of a painful death. “A lot of the families tell me, ‘We’ll pray for you.’ And it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be here to help you.’” Maria has become accustomed to being the object of such anxiety. Her patients regularly fret over her. Other hospital staff express concern. Her friends and family send well-meaning texts with unsolicited advice and links to articles. “‘You’re putting yourself and your baby in danger,’ they tell me.” Such interference is normal during pregnancy; just ask any woman who’s tried to order coffee when she’s showing. America’s culture of pregnancy-related fear-mongering and body policing can cause prenatal anxiety under normal circumstances. COVID has served to magnify this. Many pregnant women are experiencing an increase in depression and anxiety under the pandemic as a result. Maria hasn’t been particularly worried about working in the ICU, though. Her years of work in hospitals have left her feeling prepared for a situation like COVID. “I’ve been trained to look at the research, and all of it says there’s just not enough evidence. So really, I just have to protect myself like I would with the regular flu or any other contagious condition, like TB.” She washes her hands, wears her mask, keeps her distance. She also feels supported by her supervisor, who doesn’t require her to enter patients’ rooms or do anything that makes her feel unsafe. She found out she was pregnant in January. It wasn’t planned and the father wasn’t in the picture, but she decided to go through with it anyway. Her doctor began talking to her about COVID at her first prenatal appointment, even though there had been no documented cases in the US yet. He urged her to stop going in to work at the hospital. Working from home wasn’t an option for her position, though. Because she’s preparing to become a single mother, quitting wasn’t financially feasible either. Maria also had that particularly American quandary of wanting to save her sick days until the baby came. “If I use all my time off now, what will I do when the baby’s here?” Maria likes her job—she likes working face-to-face with families not different from her own, likes being a source of calm and support during a crisis, likes the distraction for the disappointment and loneliness of a COVID pregnancy. “What would I be doing otherwise? Just sitting at home.” A COVID pregnancy is riddled with small, subtle losses. For Maria, there’s no prenatal yoga classes to go to. No big baby shower. No birthing classes and making friends with other moms-to-be. No friends touching her belly and remarking on how big it’s gotten. There are instead quiet mornings with her dog. There’s a bag packed with snacks to fuel her through the long shifts at work. There are texts with other pregnant friends sharing resources. There are plans for a drive-thru baby shower. There are evenings watching movies with her parents with the subtitles on. There’s a stillness and a waiting. Her biggest fear is being separated from her baby at birth. Her hospital’s policy is to quarantine any mother who tests positive for COVID for 14 days—and that includes being quarantined from her own baby. “I worked in the Labor & Delivery ward for a year and a half, and I saw the strain on moms whose babies would go to the NICU. So, it’s a real fear. I get really emotional thinking about it.” There are other labor fears. She is planning for her mother to be her one allowed support person. “But my mom is in her sixties. I worry about exposing her while she’s in the hospital.” She also worries she won’t be prepared for labor. In-person birthing classes have been canceled and the online ones don’t have the interactive element. “I wonder, am I gonna be ready for the delivery? I haven’t been able to prepare the way a mom normally would.” She’s largely alone with these feelings. She lives by herself, so she makes a point to see her parents almost every day. “My pregnancy was a surprise, you know, and it’s just me. As much as I wanna say I don’t need those things—having people around, having a big baby shower—I do. I’ve felt very isolated. Friends who would normally come around haven’t. It’s out of concern for my safety, but I still wish I had that support. I wish I had all the pictures to show my daughter, ‘This is what we were doing to prepare. This is how excited we were for you.’” Instead there is Maria, in her mask. Work serves as a welcome distraction, a place where she can be useful to people in a time of need. “There’s a lot of grief at the hospital right now. A lot of suffering goes on with COVID, and it’s a very stressful situation.” Her hospital serves largely immigrant populations, who’ve been deeply affected by both the pandemic and ensuing economic shutdown. “They come to this country with big hopes and dreams. And then COVID happens to them, and it all ends.” Maria’s been crying more about her patients during this time, though it’s hard to know whether it’s the stress, grief, or pregnancy hormones. “Probably all three.” She tends not to be an emotional person. Her role requires her to stay level-headed, and usually she’s able to hold it all back. But after that Monday with four deaths, she couldn’t take it—she went back to her co-worker’s desk and broke down in tears. “There’s just so much pain right now.” She talks to a therapist once a week. And she talks to her baby, telling her how strong she’s going to be, how excited she is to meet her, how strange the world is right now. “I keep telling myself, ‘At the end of all this, I’m gonna have a beautiful baby girl.’” It’s a strange triangulation: work distracts from her pregnancy disappointments; pregnancy distracts from her work stress; and her pregnancy distracts her patients from the loss of their family members. It’s a COVID-carved shape, with a sleeping fetus at its center. That Friday, there’s finally some good news. Two people with COVID leave the ICU. “Not many people get to leave. And even though I’ll never see them again, it made me so happy. There’s not much good news these days, so I try to focus on that.”  [[{"fid":"6707271","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]]   II. Kate—Labor Kate first thought of going to Canada when they were in line at Costco. It was early March and the line snaked the length of the airplane-hangar-sized store. Kate stood next to her husband Steven, her eight-month bump bulging. She looked at the line, the mountains of toilet paper in everyone’s carts, and felt an anxiety rise up her spine. She turned to Steven and asked, “Would it be crazy to go to Canada to give birth?” “Yes,” he answered. After all, they had a birth plan: a hospital they liked, an OBGYN they trusted, a doula they’d paid for. They had a baby-proofed apartment and friends who’d promised to deliver lasagnas. Could they uproot everything to return to Kate’s native country, where she hadn’t lived in since high school, because of a fearful hunch? A crazy premonition about a pandemic sweeping New York City? “I had to admit, it sounded crazy.” But she couldn’t ignore the mounting sense of dread. Kate had started to worry about COVID in December. Her job required her to follow the news closely. At first, it was a low-level, analytical worry. She read articles, amassed information, figured out what they needed to buy online. “It was like, ‘Do diapers get made in China? Let’s order 300 diapers, just in case.’” She felt like she was playing the stock market. “My mentality was, ‘Let’s just play it safe.’” She started buying living supplies as well, canned foods and toilet paper. Steven went along with it, indulging the pregnant lady. By mid-February, the worry became a constant buzz. She began reading reports of people in the US who were displaying symptoms but were unable to get tested. “I realized it was here and no one knew.” Soon, she was only reading COVID stories.  The buzz got louder. “In early March, I realized, ‘Oh, I can’t leave the apartment anymore.’” She sent an email asking her boss to work from home. His initial response was dismissive; four hours later, he wrote back saying that the higher-ups wanted her to remain working from home. By the next week, the entire office was working from home. Next was the run on toilet paper. “I felt like I kept being proven right.” All the hunches she had, everything she kept doing “just in case”—it all was turning true. “That’s when I said, ‘We need to go to Costco today.’” In line, the idea of driving home to Canada occurred to her. Later that night, their apartment crammed with stockpiled baby supplies and canned food, Kate went online and ordered facemasks. Steven watched her from the doorway. “Kate, I’m worried about you,” he said. “I’ve never seen you like this.” “I had to ask myself, ‘Am I going crazy? Is this all in my head?’” She wasn’t an anxious person; her pregnancy prior to that point had been worry-free, relaxed, “like sitting in a warm bath.” But this new anxiety kept getting louder. It was worse at night. She’d wake up to use the bathroom, check the news, then lie in bed in terror. Outside her window, she watched her block change, the restaurants shutter, the soup kitchen close down, the sidewalks empty. She heard sirens all hours of the night; countless ambulances kept returning to the halfway house across the street to take away sick residents. Soon she couldn’t even get groceries delivered. Then at 37 weeks pregnant, she got her first symptoms. First it was a sore throat. Then the chest pains began. When she called her doctor, she asked her to come in. Kate walked the 45 minutes across the deserted city, no one but the homeless on the streets. “It was eerie.” The doctor ran a slew of tests that all came back negative. The office didn’t have any COVID tests so, based on the color of her phlegm, Kate was diagnosed with bronchitis. She was relieved, but couldn’t shake the anxious feeling that stalked her. “I knew that we wouldn’t be able to get care, even if we needed it. And we had insurance.” Later that week, she found out her husband wouldn’t be able to accompany her in the hospital. She was devastated, livid. “I was doing everything I could to stay safe, and I just felt so powerless. New York is an amazing city, but New Yorkers don’t listen to their government. America is a country founded on ‘fuck this tyranny,’ and that’s not where you want to be during a pandemic.” Then, Cuomo held a press conference in which he shared the projected date of infection peak in New York City: April 8. The day after Kate’s due date. The fear was screaming now. She couldn’t shake it, couldn’t convince herself she was being crazy or paranoid. She kept thinking about the story of the frog that got boiled alive, the temperature of the water increasing so slowly, he never thought to jump out. And all of a sudden, she knew. Steven was taking a shower. She walked into the steaming bathroom. “We need to go to Canada now.” It didn’t feel like her speaking the words, but some other force. Steven looked at her from the shower stall. “Okay,” he said. “You’ve been right about everything else so far, so I trust you.” Everything fell into place. A co-worker lent them a car for several months. Her uncle found them a place to rent. Her cousin in New York took their cats. They left at noon the next day, their car packed with all the baby supplies and canned goods Kate had amassed over the previous weeks. They made sandwiches and stopped only to use the bathroom. “We wore facemasks and everyone looked at us like we were crazy. But we were just a week ahead of everyone else.” It was a ten-hour drive to the border, and the whole time, well-meaning family members kept sending texts. The border was going to close at midnight. No, the border would be open, but the provincial border would close. Steven, who wasn’t a Canadian citizen, wouldn’t be able to get in. “We were driving through the countryside and didn’t have internet, so I couldn’t look any of it up.” All they could do was drive and hope, while fear drummed in her veins. They arrived at the border at 11 p.m. The officer didn’t know what to do with them. “I have to call my supervisor and see if we can let you in.” Kate sat on a hard wooden bench inside the border control office, 38 weeks pregnant, and surrendered to the fear. What if they didn’t get let in? When the officer told them they could enter the country, she started bawling. All the terror and anxiety of the previous weeks sloughed off her. “I realized how scared I’d been. In New York, death felt closer than it ever had.” Labor and delivery is already a time when one walks with death. Despite relatively recent modern advancements in maternal and newborn care, when labor approaches, one still feels the dark edges of mortality closing around themselves, and their baby. COVID and the American response only magnifies that primitive fear. Driving through the Canadian night, Kate felt a weight lifting, death’s shadow receding. Out of the window, she saw grass and trees, instead of abandoned city streets. It was a sharp contrast. Everything felt safer, the intersections and stoplights wrapped in the knowledge that she would be able to get the care she needed. “I was just so grateful we weren’t going to die.” It turned out to be a good thing they’d brought so much canned food—they were required to quarantine for 14 days. They shut themselves inside the apartment her uncle had found and subsisted on tins of tuna fish and beans. Given their exposure and her unconfirmed bronchitis, Kate’s new OBGYN wanted to get her tested for COVID. “I was just so glad to be able to get tested.” It was another stark contrast. In New York, the hospital where Kate had been scheduled to deliver had released photos showing nurses wearing garbage bags and bandanas. “I couldn’t believe how much better the health care in Canada was. I always thought, ‘Oh, I’m in New York, I have great insurance,' but it turned out it didn’t matter.” The results came back the next day. Both Kate and her husband tested positive for COVID. “I didn’t have time to freak out.” Kate was due in two weeks.The town she was in hadn’t had a single case of COVID, let alone an infected pregnant woman about to give birth. As her husband’s symptoms worsened, she began talking with the doctors every day, trying to figure out a plan. She felt like an imposition, an entitled New Yorker bringing the world’s problems back to her hometown. One day while Facetiming, the doctor started crying. “We’re just so happy you’re here. We know the journey you’ve been through, and we just want to help you and your baby.” “I feel like such an asshole for bringing COVID here and putting everyone through this,” Kate said. “You’re doing what’s best for your child,” the doctor said, “and that’s what every mother does.” Steven’s case worsened as her due date drew near. Throughout all her fear, he had been her rock; now it was her turn. “We’re so much safer here,” she told him as his breathing became labored. “We can get care here, and the doctors know us.” Their marriage had never felt stronger. She was hoping that her baby would stay inside until after the 14-day quarantine elapsed and they were no longer contagious. The contractions began several days early, however. Kate would have to deliver without Steven. “I was devastated. It was so hard saying goodbye and going into the hospital without him.” They tell you not to get too attached to any birthing plan, because labor is unpredictable. Kate had lots of ideas of how she wanted her birth to go: she had a doula booked, had taken hypnobirthing classes, wanted to go natural. Just a month prior, Steven’s presence at the birth had been assumed, so much of a given she hadn’t included it in her birth plan. Kate didn’t have any of those supports when she went into active labor. All she had was her notebook from the hypnobirthing class and the peanut ball she’d managed to bring. She directed the masked nurses, who’d never heard of hypnobirthing, on how to adjust the peanut ball, unsure if she was doing the positions correctly. “I just kept thinking, ‘I have a husband at home with COVID who can’t walk; I can’t have a C-section.’” She didn’t have to. Her daughter was born at a healthy eight pounds, eight ounces, COVID-free. Being reunited with her husband upon discharge, several days later, was one of the happiest moments of her life. The first time he held their daughter, she felt a mix of deep joy and profound terror—was he still contagious? He wasn’t. They had to struggle through the first weeks alone, as her husband painstakingly recovered. They couldn’t have relatives come help, lactation consultants visit, grandmothers and grandfathers hold the baby. But they were safe and had each other. And a month’s supply of canned tuna fish.  [[{"fid":"6707276","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] III. Lauren—Postpartum Five weeks after our daughter was born, the world shut down. Very little in my life changed. Lockdown was exactly the same as having a newborn, I told friends, only better. I was already terrified of the outside world, already living in my sweatpants, already worried about money and washing my hands like a hypochondriac. The only difference was that now my partner was home with me. So actually, lockdown improved my life. Our daughter was born in early February, three weeks early and barely five pounds, her skin covered in a rash of pustular blisters. Nothing to worry about, the team of pediatricians told us. A bad case of a fairly common response to the hormones in the womb. Everything was normal then. My doula coached me through the pushing, my partner stayed with me the entire four-day hospital stay. Our parents visited. An incessant cast of nurses, social workers, lactation consultants and doctors rotated through our hospital room, until we finally hung a Do Not Disturb sign. There were signs, in the elevators and hallways, warning to get care if you had a fever and had been overseas, but they got lost in the clutter of all the other notices for breastfeeding groups and domestic violence call lines. We fell into the newborn haze: all-night feeding marathons, diaper changing, rocking and hushing, wondering who this stunned, howling stranger who barely opened her eyes was, and how she could fit into such a small body. With an early-term, underweight infant, the outside world suddenly became terrifying. I refused guests, and made the few family members who visited wash their hands. I didn’t even want to leave the apartment to go sit in the garden. She was so small, I wanted to shove her back inside. She should still be inside me, I’d think whenever I looked at her. Her rash made her seem even more fragile. The waiting room at her two-week check-up was filled with sniffling children and crying babies. Each one seemed like a contagion threat. We stood in a far corner, pushed the elevator buttons with our elbows, and squeezed sanitizer on to our hands at every interaction. She was gaining weight, looked healthy, but the pediatrician was concerned about her skin. “The rash should be resolving by now,” she said. “She shouldn’t be getting new blisters.” We were referred to a dermatologist, who told us the rash was likely the symptom of a rare genetic disorder. I cried. My partner took charge, refusing the skin graft and the herd of young residents who wanted to take a look. The dermatologist gave us a printed-out PDF and told us to watch for seizures. There was a blur of next steps—geneticists and neurologists and ophthalmologists—and a series of appointments, each one brutal and wrenching in its own particular way. The ophthalmologist needed to dilate her eyes for an exam; they swaddled and held her down while the doctor inserted Clockwork Orange goggles to keep her lids open. Our daughter screamed louder and harder than anything that tiny ever should. The geneticist ordered a blood sample to confirm the diagnosis. I used my arms and hair to create a wall around her and shhh’ed while the lab technician pricked her foot and squeezed out blood. She writhed and howled, her mouth a tiny cave of pain. I tried not to cry. In the background of each of these appointments, there was a succession of increasing safety precautions, a time lapse of COVID preventatives. Hand sanitizer appeared at the reception counters. Screenings questions were asked. Masks were worn. Temperature checks administered, plexiglass barriers installed, waiting rooms emptied. The world around us spun out, but we were able to maintain a singular focus on our little girl. It was almost a blessing. The week before the world shut down, my partner’s office sent him to work from home. It was a welcome change after his too-short paternity leave. We’d been joyous, gleeful. He whistled while he set up the computer monitor on the dining table. When shelter-in-place began, my single friends grappled with loneliness and isolation, and I felt like I'd won some secret prize. I was relieved to not have to leave the house, relieved to not have guests, relieved to not be alone all day. My boyfriend cooked breakfast every morning. I wore milk-stained nursing tanks and rarely took showers. We binged new TV series and rubbed $60 medicated ointment on our daughter’s skin. We told no one about her pending diagnosis. The outside world sank away and it was just the three of us. It might have been one of the happiest times of my life. Most times I could ignore the lingering disasters waiting in the background, but they found ways of creeping in. I checked the news on my phone while I fed her late at night, watched the death toll in Italy rise and the images of overcrowded New York hospitals. I Googled images of other children with her same condition, examined the discoloration of their skin and conical abnormalities of their teeth, and cried. I watched my boyfriend suit up in quasi-hazmat gear to go stand in long supermarket lines at 7 a.m. I studied charts of developmental milestones and anxiously watched for her to smile and track objects. COVID was in full swing by the time she was scheduled for a laser eye surgery at seven weeks old. Only one parent was allowed to accompany her, and she was required to take a COVID test. I caught the technicians in white hazmat gear exchanging nervous glances when they saw how small my daughter was. “We have to keep the swab in for 15 seconds,” they told me. “You’ll need to hold her arms down.” The swabbing woke her up. She thrashed her head, let out a cry deeper and more pained than I had heard yet. Her small body wracked with sobs. I couldn’t comfort her—I didn’t want to take her out of the stroller in the middle of the COVID testing lab, and I didn’t want to pat her with my gloved hands. She cried all the way back to the car, until I could squeeze out hand sanitizer, take her out of the stroller, hold her to my chest, and cry with her. When had the world become so painful and terrifying? The surgery ended up being easy. The surgeon showed me images of her eyes, where they lasered the problem areas: “We were able to save her vision.” I chatted with the nurses about furloughed shifts and weak unions. They told me how pretty she was. The effects of the anesthesia were worse than the surgery. She fussed and cried for two days. On the second day, I overheard my partner in a Zoom meeting. “Can I ask what the criteria was?” “I understand.” “If there’s ever an opportunity to return.” He came and stood in the doorway. “I’m sorry,” he said. His company had lost a series of large accounts. It was nothing personal; they hoped to hire him back when this was all over. He sat down on the bed next to me. I felt our world tremble, start to crack. I put my arms around him, cradling our daughter between us, and we made a little cave like that—an island in an unraveling world. Ten minutes later, the geneticist called with the results of our daughter’s blood work. She was officially diagnosed with incontinentia pigmenti. Up until that point, COVID and the effects of the shelter-in-place existed outside of us. People died, lost livelihoods, couldn’t see loved ones, and I too exhausted and consumed to feel any of it. I’d been waiting for life to go back to normal, living a kind of denial. I realized then that life wouldn’t be going back to normal, not for us or the world. COVID, motherhood, and our daughter’s condition were altering us irrevocably, in ways I knew I didn’t even understand yet. I cut my maternity leave short and returned to my job as a high school teacher—cue the Google classrooms and Zoom live classes while breast pumping below the screen line. It wasn’t the vision of early motherhood I’d had. There were no Mommy and Me yoga classes, no smiling strangers congratulating us, no pushing a stroller to cafes on weekday mornings. All the ideas and sense of security I'd had had evaporated, and I was left with what was. Sometime in May, the newborn fog began to break. We started getting more sleep. My partner picked up freelance jobs. Our daughter began laughing when we kissed her, smiling at us first thing in the morning, putting everything in her mouth. Her rash faded into swirls of marbled discoloration. One day I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror—same stained nursing tank, eyebrows grown out and hair undyed for a year, bags under my eyes and wrinkles in my forehead—and wondered what the hell happened. Where was the person I knew, and would she ever be coming back? No, I realized. Life wouldn't always be like this, but it would never be the same as it was. The lockdown that at first felt like a blessing has become stifling. Our daughter has gotten older, sturdier, smilier, and I want to share her with the world. My parents haven't seen her in months, and most of my friends haven't met her. She rarely leaves the apartment or sees faces other than ours. How will that impact her social development? There’s so much uncertainty. How will the rest of her symptoms present—tooth abnormalities, alopecia, learning delays? What will happen when the extra $600 per week of unemployment runs out? Will I even be returning to teach in a classroom this fall? Will our daughter be teased for her discolored skin? When COVID finally ends, what kind of world will we awaken to? Sometimes it feels like standing on the top of a very high mountain; if I start running down, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop. So I have to stay in today, in the present moment. She laughs and babbles and fusses. Right now, we have health insurance and enough money for food and rent. We have each other. “Daddy invented COVID so we could all stay home and cuddle,” my partner tells her. And sometimes, it feels true.
Outside, People Were Crying, Or They Weren’t

Is that bizarre? he asked. That such a brief experience of love was too much?

It was autumn in Michael’s apartment, but August everywhere else. Noise from the neighboring units jutted through the walls like slow-motion fists. I was seated on a chair in an otherwise bare corner, facing Michael; behind him was a tiny world, none of the items in which caught my eye. Light pooled between us on the carpet. It looked like a stain. Outside, people were crying, or they weren’t.   * I wanted to begin with an explanation, as if the body before Michael, in the shape of a bent exclamation point, were a kind of riddle. I told him I would be conducting interviews with a handful of folks from the area for a novel I intended to write: relatives, acquaintances, people of interest like him, and I hoped it would amount to an autobiography of a town, of rural Alberta. At this point Michael angled his head away from his shoulders, such that they weren’t flush anymore, then squinted. He asked how I would manage to write both an autobiography and a novel. Confidently, I said I was interested in how the emotional rhythm of a singular voice, when heard from a sociological distance, implicates a larger population, however wondrous or devastating or simultaneously wondrous and devastating. I did my best to clarify that I was suspicious of the notion that the autobiographical is an individualistic mode, that I believed every person is made up of a community’s memories. I wanted to make use of the form of the novel because it would allow me to sculpt a reality instead of photographing or duplicating one. It also guaranteed a degree of privacy and anonymity, modes through which the rawest kinds of language can surface. I wouldn’t be using voice recorders nor would I take notes, I told him, as either could introduce an aura of formality that might inhibit relatability. Veracity wasn’t the project’s primary artistic concern anyway, I had decided days ago. I was far more interested in the inestimable ways place governs the moods, atmospheres, and climates of confession and self-fabrication. Under certain conditions, I hypothesized, everyone participates in a genre of anthropological speech that breaches the fog of unknowing that, as it turns out, is also what it feels like to sputter out in the ruts of everyday life. The affective slip between stuckness and becoming alert to the force of history against one’s back was what I wanted to attune to. I winked upon describing this framework, in fewer words, to Michael, to suggest I assumed he was following along, that he thought my logic was sound, though it occurred to me immediately thereafter that such body language could be misconstrued to my detriment. So as to disavow a tiny jolt of shame, I rushed to add that writers generally agree one must suspend belief in the factual in order to get at whatever comprises the textures and tones of selfhood, which some remain ignorant to their entire lives. I spoke by way of generalizations without fear he would cross-examine them and therefore me. Sometimes a gesture toward truth, I said, could be more powerful than a simple description of it. Inside a moment of something like but not definitively suspense I analyzed Michael’s lips, which looked like a red smudge in the middle of a dark grey beard. It was as if someone had rubbed a wet thumb under his nose in one swift motion. His mouth seemed to be the work of a careless artist. All faces are still-drying paintings, I thought, when glimpsed from both ends of a long decade. I tried to picture Michael thirty, forty years ago. I wanted him to be beautiful, which meant I was okay making the present into something of a tragedy. Michael had heard some of the project’s premises before, when I rang him up at work last week (he is a newspaper publisher), so I was puzzled by a vacant expression that indicated not boredom but unease. I noticed then that the sleeves of his shirt were rolled up asymmetrically, one to his elbow, the other just above his wrist. I scanned the rest of him; his hair, slicked back with water, extended from his head unevenly. His clothes hung loosely from his thin frame, as if they had just come out of the washing machine. The total effect of his appearance was that he seemed struck by a gust of wind, like someone had plucked him from the air, mid-fall, and sat him down in front of me.  Michael said there wasn’t much he could tell me that wasn’t already in print in the archives back at the office. This town isn’t a literary spectacle, he explained, though I hadn’t believed otherwise. Michael has reported on what matters to the region for most of his adult life, and what matters has often had to do with mundanities and clichés. The stories he runs repeat every year. He suspected it was buried scandals and gossip I was after, he admitted, and that if this was the case the meeting should end sooner rather than later. He said this less accusingly than decisively, crossing one leg over the other. I was, however, of the opinion that a cliché could be an anchor, that it could bind us to the world, to one another. A group of clichés is a reason to live, I said to Michael with an enthusiasm I hoped wouldn’t embarrass him. Michael stared at me searchingly, likely turning over the sentiment in his head, investigating it for its plausibility. Was it intellectual nonsense masquerading as sympathy? Was there something more sinister beneath my performance of eagerness? Or was it something that could knot us together, if only briefly? As if deciding against the latter, Michael said irately that if I wanted him to rehash the last half century of store openings and closings, of council elections and athletic achievements, of industrial developments and petty crime, that he could have sent a digital file of his newspapers and saved me the drive up from the city. Caught off guard by the absence of generosity in Michael’s voice I resorted to a different register, one more exacting and emotional. I told him that I was the interviewer, which made him the interviewee, a position I knew he was unfamiliar with. I didn’t see him as the place where local history was stored and nothing else. I wasn’t driven to distinguish the sayable from the unsayable so as to be controversial. I wanted to illuminate how deeply entangled the two can become. I reminded him I too called the little town home, that it tailgates me like a shadow, despite my having left a number of years ago. I could feel my language flickering, aching. For a long time it made a racket inside me as if someone were striking a rock against my ribcage, I said. I worried it would consume me, but I left when I had the chance. My voice shook as the words leapt from my mouth. I imagined I’d have to sweep up the words later. If this were the case, I continued to imagine, what if anything would a twentysomething find important enough to say to warrant making a mess? I left so I could be as brief as any town, I added. I left so I could be as interminable too.  Silence befell us, but it was interrupted, or intensified, by the faint sound of a pop song from a car stopped at an adjacent intersection. I watched Michael watch me. It was like I had suddenly become un-blurry to him, as if the weather between us had taken a turn. For the worst? I couldn’t yet tell. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded with unblinking, serious eyes, which I took to signify fellow-feeling, empathy, and permission to proceed, however much ambiguity had filled up the room. I want to talk to you about regret, I said. *  Suppose a body were trapped between two parentheses, made out to be an aside, a distraction, a trace of another narrative possibility. Would you set it free, set it loose on the world?  * I admitted to Michael that as a teenager the sight of him had felt like a second chance. Nothing about him was conventionally gay, but he pivoted away from the codes of normative masculinity in quiet ways I embellished in my mind to represent a grace and liberty I might inherit. Where most men were a kind of noise pollution, something akin to TV static, Michael was reserved, thoughtful, calculated. Additionally, surrounded by those for whom joy was a vocation, a task yielding material consequences they felt they were owed, I was fascinated by the elegiac, non-arrogant register in which Michael inhabited the world. This is what constituted sociality for our species, I reasoned. Even his grief was a lighthouse to a boy whose future had no shape to it. Maybe early on I determined I didn’t have to live, Michael said, in a plangent tone, I just had to be alive. It was a difference so precise I had to close my eyes to hear it. What drives a person to make that sort of compromise? he asked. A question I inferred was rhetorical, a question he had to hear himself pose, had to know was inside him all along. Michael explained that for him there are days where all that matters is that he made it from the middle of one century to the start of another. This is because sometimes it feels like yesterday is still ahead of him. It was like someone had taken a photograph of him before he was an autonomous, thinking-feeling subject with an instant camera, the kind that immediately spits out a photograph, but it was taking years and years to develop. Not enough light had hit the surface, so he lived like negative space. By the time he caught a peak of himself, he had already faded. What this meant is that I was a gay man listening to a gay man who hadn’t been listened to. Why have you never formally come out? I asked. During the summer of 1980, Michael said, I fell in love with a boy, a classmate. It happened unthinkingly, against common sense. They had put themselves in danger. Perhaps having a “we,” however fragile, to endanger empowered them to rationalize the irrational in the first place, I thought. They would lay in his bed and hold hands until dawn, nothing else. Michael would squeeze his hand so hard it went numb, but he never protested. They seldom spoke in his bedroom, he clarified. It was as if there were things the dark made it impossible to utter. All sensory faculties fell away except touch, the language-ness of it. In the absence of speech, he told the boy everything. I knew what he meant. What is inside a letter if not light?  They were boys who knew only how to fail at boyhood. It sounded to me like an ethnographic spectacle. They were as afraid of being found out by one another’s parents as they were of the encroaching season. There was a summerness to their little love. The sweat of June and July and August glistened in the small of their backs, is what I heard Michael saying. Did he want to put his tongue to the boy? Was he afraid it was forbidden, that it was a sheet of icy metal? Did the passage of time feel like a personal affront? Did they crane their heads toward the sky so as to believe they had transported to another world? Without warning, Michael said, the boy disappeared. Rumour had it his parents sent him to a conversion therapy camp a few hours away. People didn’t say “gay,” Michael added, afraid it was contagious, that it would sit in the air. Michael waited for him. Michael waited as if he was put on earth to wait. When the boy finally came back, weeks later, he was no longer a person but an outline of one, no longer flush with humanity. Michael would knock at his door and no one would answer. One evening he pounded on the door until he heard sirens in the distance, until all of him turned red and blue. Days later the boy enrolled in a high school on the other end of town, so Michael moved on. It was all he knew how to do, he said. He was still someone’s child and children didn’t get to plunge into their solitude. Unless they did. The boy killed himself that winter; he used his father’s belt. That’s what Michael heard. At the funeral Michael wept and wept in the church bathroom because the truth of the death was lost in a place outside admission. He wept until he was no longer human. Like an animal, he wanted his mourning to be an enormous display. Michael began to cry, softly—to mention a history of tears often had the effect of bringing someone to tears. I held my gaze. The thesis behind my project was that people turned into musical instruments when encouraged to testify about the conditions of their lives. My success hinged on my ability to endure whatever song was sung, so I listened with both eyes, with my hands clasped tightly in front of me. People didn’t kill themselves, not around here, Michael continued. No one forgot. They remembered and remembered. It triggered something powerful in him, a survival instinct. Back then, he wanted to live. He wanted to live because it was the only thing expected of him, of everyone. My god, I didn’t want to die, Michael said with a grimace, as if the thought was a new one, as if its newness disturbed him, challenged the bedrock of his worldview. Perhaps he wasn’t ready to live differently in the wake of that sort of revelation. You know, he went on, that dead boy is more proof of my continued existence than anything else. Do we make ourselves into tragedians trying to accrue proof of our aliveness in retrospect? I thought. Somewhere between love and loss we pitch a tent from which we only look backward.   Was it then that you decided to sublimate whatever longings you had, to live a kind of repressed life? I asked. Yes and no, Michael answered. It was accretive, he explained, a slow build-up of small decisions made in haste. I didn’t shun the gay parts of myself for good, if that is even possible, he said. He always deferred the day he would get the fuck out. With age, immobility turned out to be something he didn’t have to resist anymore, it gave him context, which he thought he had irreversibly forfeited. The future stopped feeling like something solid thrashing against him. The generations that preceded his were socialized to believe homosexuality was a crime. It was only removed from Albertan criminal law two years after he was born, in fact. The sentiment didn’t magically vanquish when reform happened. Heterosexuality was where identity began and ended. So much so that when the AIDS epidemic ravaged gay communities all over the world, the town only caught bits and pieces of the circumstances. What made its way out here, north of the last major city, north of anyone at risk, was enough to piece together an intoxicating myth of gay impurity. To be gay was to be dead, dying. Worse, to harbor the ability to kill. It became easier to clock in and out of Michael’s body than confront the heaviness of his desires. He was unsure what devastation they might wrought. At some point, I thought, he convinced himself he was a stray bullet that silence had clenched between its teeth. Perhaps he was thankful for his captor. Michael’s oral history reminded me of Judith Butler’s observation that we sometimes choose to stay attached to what injures us rather than gamble with what it might feel like to be in the world without the attachment. The psychological investment is so large it seems counterintuitive to relinquish it, irrespective of its consequences. I was also reminded, perhaps un-usefully, of the story of Yellowknife’s arsenic. Let me explain. There are currently 237,000 tonnes of arsenic in the mines near the city. For decades, men hunted gold and, by extension, happiness, another world. Left unchecked, the arsenic production skyrocketed and seeped into the snow, into the surrounding environment, so it had to be locked away. Were the chemicals to escape the chambers in which they have been frozen, biological life would cease to exist. Don’t we all tell ourselves that what’s inside us, our wanting, is annihilative to this degree? Don’t we all suspect our most volatile yearnings, when freed from the pits of our stomachs, could upend a world? What if desire is one of the few forces that troubles the idea of continuums, meaning we are either entirely absorbed or wrecked by it? Don’t we all have it in us to destroy ourselves? In response to the Butler note, Michael produced his own analogy. He mentioned the method of disembodied writing, which is when the writer is made invisible. It’s an approach he trusts, because it doesn’t paint a target on himself or his staff. It occurred to him the other day that we sometimes practice a kind of disembodied living. Like a ghost trying to accentuate its ghostliness, he said, chuckling. It appears I have mastered the art! To remain, I thought, to settle down, to stay put meant that the act of being inhibited, of being forestalled, became the larger ebb and flow of life writ large. Isn’t geographical fate, then, nothing but an obstacle one has to surpass? If a home was a monument to what you lost or were losing out on, wouldn’t you run away?  I felt compelled to reel Michael back into the room. To keep us both from wandering too long in the abstract. Did you ever fall in love again? I asked. At the abruptness of the question Michael turned his head away from me and toward a wall adorned with a degree and nothing else.  I reminded Michael he could pass on any question that discomfited. He smiled. Not exactly, no, he said. Throughout the nineties he had the habit of driving down to Edmonton for weekends at a time to try to breach the prison of indecision and regret he made of himself. He would linger at the gay bar, terrified he would run into someone he knew—which never happened, he clarified— until one or two in the morning. All he wanted was to be seen in a place where exposure was a kind of currency rather than a death wish. Men made advances, most of which he rebuffed. He accepted a blowjob here and there in bathroom stalls but no one had names, including him. He thought about staying in Edmonton, but in the end he had lost the power to be anything but complacent, self-sacrificial. Most importantly, though, even in his thirties and forties, he felt haunted by his first, and only, love, and the thing about memory is you can’t extinguish it. It is as automatic as the spinning earth. He decided it would be wrong to not be as close to that history as possible, as if it were a dying language only he could speak. His love for the boy was so contested and fraught and tragic he is still awash in it. The emotional intensity was enough to last a lifetime. Is that bizarre? Michael asked. That such a brief experience of love was too much? For a second or two I thought Michael expected an answer from me. His eyes were pleading, but whose wouldn’t be? Who wouldn’t bruise themselves in the drama of self-documentation? How could anyone hold such a jagged memory up to the light and not wince? I decided against letting the interview naturally dissipate and asked Michael if he had ever felt empty, like something vital was missing, to which he said emptiness wasn’t something to run from. We all begin with emptiness, he argued: an empty name, an empty house, an empty life. Mine is a life of beginnings, he said. Every morning I start over. I explained to Michael that I experienced emptiness in two ways: either it was an echo from the past boomeranging around a room or it was the sound of air plummeting to the ground upon being sliced through. In both cases, around me it rained emptiness. I would be drenched in it. Perhaps that is a good way to understand our generational differences, Michael said, with an air of self-satisfaction. Michael, without prompt, said he doesn’t nauseate on what his life could have been. It’s his small act of refusal, his silent rebellion. Maybe when he looks in the mirror, he see who he is, which is someone who’s running out of time. All those years of evading death were preparatory. Without knowing it, he was practicing death, a ritual unto itself. Just then he closed his eyes, not in an effort to abate tears but as if succumbing to exhaustion. So I did too. For a short while we were alone in a shared world where nothing needed to be said to grasp one another’s emotional possibility. * Michael walked me to the elevator and then to the front entrance. I thanked him for his time, for his candor and vulnerability, to which he said it was nice to get things off his chest, that I could follow-up if need be, that I knew where to find him. At the edge of the parking lot, I turned back to get one last look at him. Because it was five o’clock and the sun gave him a new face, or because I was twenty-four and lonely in a town that made me feel like a shipwreck, I wanted to kiss him. Instead, I said goodbye for a second time. Now, alone in a hotel room, it’s as if I can still hear desire clamouring inside Michael. It’s like a bird’s wings rattling against a cage. It’s a beautiful and terrible melody I suspect he will die to.
‘America is Always in Therapy and Not Getting Much Out of It’: An Interview with Jason Diamond

Talking to the author of The Sprawl about teen rage, community disconnection, and building better suburbs.

When pressed via Instagram poll to describe what an America with defunded police would look like, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded, “It looks like a suburb.” Initially, the manicured montage of a bland, probably white family living in a spacious house behind a white picket fence with 2.5 kids and a station wagon in the driveway seems like an odd characterization for a non-carceral state. But on further examination, the comparison makes sense. In this imaginary suburb, crime is relatively nonexistent because the community’s affluence is funneled towards resources and social services such as education, libraries, and public pools, instead of the overpolicing of its citizens. Between Ocasio-Cortez’s reclamatory metaphor and Jason Diamond’s defense of the urban fringe, The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs (Coffee House Press), the suburbs are undergoing a bit of an image overhaul as of late. From their inception post-WWII, the suburbs have formed the bedrock for a rich American mythology based on secrets and lies, normalcy and conformity. The first modern suburb, Levittown in Long Island, New York, was initially conceived of as a place where every young soldier returning home from the war could afford to own a home. The result was a tract of 17,000 near-identical homes built on top of fields that once yielded potatoes and onions that fed the very soldiers they now housed. Yet part of the planner’s desire to create an idyllic residential paradise involved consciously excluding Black and brown people; even today, Levittown remains 88 percent white. Diamond acknowledges the suburb’s exclusionary history and argues they can be redeemed. To him, the suburbs are not “a great big boring monolith of conformity”; rather they’re like Anakin Skywalker, a “flawed, imperfect but ultimately good person.” The Sprawl is part melancholic meditation on the meaning of the suburbs, part encyclopedic survey of the suburbs in pop culture references, and part futurist reimagining of the possibilities of suburbia. At its core, it’s both a paean to the place that formed Diamond and a wistful epitaph to where that childhood was discarded. But an underlying spirit of optimism prevails. If Diamond can overcome the trauma of his past, then perhaps there’s hope—a future that looks like a suburb might not be such a bad thing after all. Isabel Slone: The book is heavily rooted in place, yet it’s arriving at a time when most people have been suffocating inside for months. Has shelter-in-place affected the way you perceive the suburbs at all? Jason Diamond: It’s been really strange to see this sudden wave of people start thinking about moving back to the suburbs. There’s this acceptance, on the part of a lot of people my age, that they’re going to move back to the suburbs because they can no longer afford to live in the city or they just feel it’s safer outside, virus-wise. I have mixed emotions about it because I’ve been researching the suburbs for so long, but I didn’t hope for something so tragic as a pandemic to come up and make the book seem timely… You could almost argue that the entire theme of the book was mixed emotions. It’s clear you have a deep appreciation for the suburbs even though your experience growing up there wasn’t wholly positive. Did you feel like you were grappling with the idea of loving something you don’t really like? One of my favourite quotes, and I’m paraphrasing it so I guess it isn’t actually one of my favourite quotes, but Aaron Cometbus said that the two most nostalgic types of people are old punks and Jews. I’m both an old punk and a Jew. I’m a nostalgic person who tries to take a critical approach to things. It’s like with anything you write, you have to be as honest and careful as possible. My childhood in the suburbs wasn’t the greatest, but I do appreciate the idea of the suburbs, so I’m not going to come at them with my knives out either. I’m interested in your use of the term “reconsidering.” Why were you drawn to reconsidering the suburbs in the first place? For me, early on, I was like, “The suburbs suck. I don’t want to be here.” Then I started getting a little older and found myself in the suburbs more often and became really interested in the things I had previously overlooked. When I wrote my first book, Searching for John Hughes, I found myself going back to the Chicagoland area I grew up in, and was really stunned by how beautiful it is and how much interesting stuff there is going on. I didn’t realize the Steppenwolf theatre, this famous American theatre company of the last 50 years, was founded in the suburb right next to mine. Then I started unwinding every little thing that I like and realized that 90 percent of it comes from the suburbs. Lou Reed might be associated with New York City, but he’s from Long Island, you know? Steve Albini moved from Montana to Evanston, Illinois. It’s the same thing with Danzig. I visited his hometown, Lodi, New Jersey, and was like, “This is where Danzig is from?” It wasn’t some weird, creepy bat cave; it was suburban New Jersey. I really just started reconsidering the suburbs for myself. I got to this point where I decided that nothing is 100 percent bad. It's really easy to think otherwise, but I just wanted to expand on what makes the suburbs good and what could make them better. Do you think part of the desire to reconsider is getting older, slowing down? When you’re a teen, suburbs provide this context of something to rebel against. If teens have to move away to find their identity, are the suburbs where parents go to be themselves? I think it's less that they’re trying to find themselves, and more that it's just easier to live there. I can’t speak to suburbs outside the US, but here, there’s definitely this idea that the suburbs are safer and easier to manage. You just get in your car, you don’t have to walk, or deal with any of the spontaneous happenings on the street you experience—for better or for worse—in a city. But it’s important to consider who this ease is built for. Suburbs have not been a friendly place since the get-go. Levittown in Long Island, the first modern American suburb, was built on a foundation of racial exclusion. Suburbs have a long history of excluding Black and brown people. Even my own family: My nana kept these letters she received from the country club saying, “Thank you for applying, but we don’t let your race into our club.” Anything built on a foundation of keeping people out isn’t going to be able to hide that forever. The suburban story is a very American story because we keep sweeping stuff under the rug and haven’t been able to reconcile with it yet. When I visited Celebration, Florida, a suburb originally owned by the Walt Disney Company, it felt like everyone who lived there was doing PR for the place. It’s a very weird, tight situation. For a place that promises space and happiness. It's usually the opposite. Despite all the pop culture references devoted to them, I got the sense that suburbs actually aren’t that much more interesting than any other place. Are we wrong to imbue so much imagination and symbolism on them? I don’t think that impulse is wrong, necessarily. You can take anything and mold it into a book, or an album. Geographically, the suburbs dominate so much of America that it's only natural they dominate much of the conversation. Not to get too off track, but I’ve always found Moby-Dick to be this fascinating book because it’s a about a whale, it’s about a guy chasing a whale, it’s about obsession, but at the heart of it, it's about America coming to grips with being this new, young country. So much of our art is concentrated on trying to make sense of this really bizarre country. I could point to so many different works of art and demonstrate how it explains America at a specific point and time. Basically, America is always in therapy and it's not getting much out of it. It needs to change its therapist, I think. Damn. I didn’t grow up in the suburbs—I’m from a rural area—but sometimes I feel like I did because so much of my favourite music from my teen years was centred around the desire to escape them. That always makes me wonder, why does teen rage feel almost endemic to the suburbs? I would never go out to the suburbs and be like, “Hey, 15-year-old jaded punk kid, you should really like your hometown a little bit more.” When you’re that age, you’re never going to like your hometown. Maybe if you grew up in New York City—I read the Beastie Boys Book and hearing them talking about growing up in NY, it sounds like it was a wonderland. When you’re a teen there’s so much pressure, and if you keep squeezing, that pressure is going to make them explode, either through creativity or through violence. I got lucky that I was more drawn to the creative side. I remember the summer I turned 15, I had a friend whose dad passed away. He and his mom were away for a month to take care of family business and I remember, with his mom’s permission, my friends and I built a skate ramp in the back of his house. How did we learn to build a skate ramp? None of us were carpenters. My one friend just had this skateboard zine that had directions on how to build a ramp. We just kind of used what we had as cobbled it together. It took us maybe a month to build it. It made my friend’s entire life. We spent the whole summer hanging out skating on it. I wish I would have thought of that before I wrote this book because I would have gone back and reconstructed that entire summer. That’s incredible. I was surprised to learn that Gen Z is apparently obsessed with suburban shopping malls. It got me thinking, now that kids grow up with the internet and are able to ease the sense of isolation by finding friends there, does that suburban ennui that feels like a feature not a bug of the suburbs now cease to exist? I don’t think that will ever cease to exist. What has changed, I think, is the concept of regionalism. Growing up in the mid-’90s, I caught the last dying days of any sense of regionalism. Back in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, there were certain garage rock or hardcore scenes that sounded a little different—Chicago had the ska-punk scene, stuff like that. Now that we have the internet gluing everything together across the world, I don’t think that sense of regionalism will remain. I don’t think there will ever be another Dischord Records that only puts out DC bands. But I do think the ennui you speak of is always going to be there. If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching TikTok, or just paying attention to stuff I’ve seen on the internet, teens are more in touch with their emotions these days. But teens are always going to be sad. They’re going to have that kind of energy I am thankful I will never have to experience again unless I have my own kids. Speaking of Dischord, some of the best punk rock records hail from suburbia. Why do you think that is? And what do you make of the criticism that punk’s suburban roots somehow invalidate it, as if privilege and punk rock don’t go together? If we strip away the semantics, we can now safely say that Black Flag was a great American rock band. With every singer they had, they took the rage and anger they were feeling and distilled into something super brilliant. And they were 16- or 17-year-old kids at the time. It's fine to say punk rock comes from a place of privilege, but would people really prefer these kids to sit around on their butts and be boring? To conform and become like the people they didn’t like? I’m glad they didn’t become middle management. In a way, they were using their privilege in a positive way by saying, “Hey, I’m a middle-class white kid and I want to speak out against the things I see.” That’s what a lot of hardcore is. Politically, everything we’re seeing now, I feel pretty prepared for it because I grew up listening to ’80s hardcore. Everyone is just discovering ACAB and I’m like, “You’ve never listened to MDC?” They’re literally called Millions of Dead Cops. I had an MDC pin on my jacket when I was a kid. That’s why I’m not shocked by the current moment. Sure, everything sucks right now, but this has always been the way it is. Black Lives Matter is really galvanizing support and demonstrating how Black people are treated unfairly and white Americans are like, “This is a thing?” That to me is weird. But I’m glad early on I had people say to me, “Listen to Public Enemy. Read Howard Zinn.” There were maybe five people in my suburb that would have told me that and I’m really lucky that either I found them or they found me. I don’t know if I would have had that same luck if I’d grown up anywhere else. There's a quote in the book that goes, “The sprawl has consumed so much of this country with its ugly houses, chain stores upon chain stores, forgotten shopping plazas, and endless stretches of road. But it wasn’t supposed to be this way, and in that fact I see a chance, an opportunity.” Opportunity for what? Sustainability and community. I think these things are severely lacking in many suburban places. I don't like the idea of a place just being built and that's it. There's no nurturing or building that actually helps people that live in these places. We don't need more car dealerships or big box stores; we need libraries and gathering places, for when that sort of thing is acceptable again. We need natural grasses, not turf lawns. We need places to walk and cut our dependence on cars. If suburban places can embrace change like that, I think it would have a huge impact in countless ways, from environmental to quality of life. Community seems like a crucial part of the equation that is currently lacking in suburbs. So how do we go about creating one? There's a chapter in my book where I go to Avon, Connecticut, and talk to locals who organized against a developer. What fascinated me was the two of them had lived two houses down from each other for well over a decade and had never met their neighbors. The more people I talked to in suburban places, the more I found that was the case. So, the simple answer would be, "Talk to people more!" But obviously it needs to be more than that. It's important to note that as the suburbs rose throughout the second half of the 20th century we saw a decline in our social structures, whether that be churches or PTA, we were disconnecting from other people long before we all had smartphones to blame for our lack of attention span. Now, I'm not saying church or the PTA is what's needed to cure what ails suburbia, but getting people together is. It would take a grassroots effort, finding ways to engage people in the suburbs, getting them out of their homes, going out and getting to know other people. How, exactly, we do that with all the things currently taking up our focus is hard to say, especially in the age of social distancing, but I think one of the big things we can do is start by looking backwards, to the ideas of planners like Victor Gruen, who designed the American mall to be something more like the kind of spaces he knew in Austria at the start of the 20th century. It would be nice if our government would start to realize how important the suburbs are to America and work to make them more sustainable, healthier places, but I don't have much faith that will happen anytime soon. We need to rethink the suburbs we already have and figure out how to make them more than just places.
‘Moments Are Part of a Pattern’: An Interview with Rebecca Watson

The author of little scratch on rape narratives and the brutality and permanence of language. 

I wanted to talk to Rebecca Watson about something other than sexual assault, I really did. The author, editor, and journalist, whose debut novel little scratch (Strange Light), was published earlier this month, clearly has a lot to say about many things: the novel form, modern office life, the anxiety of young creatives in the capitalist economy, those little cups of wine you get at poetry readings that are technically free but don’t feel free, because you are paying for them in minutes—hours—of your life spent listening to someone speak in short bursts about their anxiety as though no one has ever had it before, and also it is bad wine, relationships, transit, taking up space in public, women, men, social media, the death of the newspaper… little scratch engages deftly with all of these. But we mostly talked about sexual assault. It can often feel like the only thing to talk about. Michaela Coel’s multi-part rape epic I May Destroy You recently took over the mediascape, reigniting a strain of cultural commentary, first-person essays, and bad-faith “debate” that has burned, at varying degrees but uninterrupted, since the #MeToo movement kicked off in earnest in October 2017. At a socially distanced gathering a few weeks ago, conversation turned, three drinks in, to what a friend called “the inevitable sexual assault chat,” as temporarily out of work comedians, artists, and theatre performers discussed what life would look like after COVID, and whether the New Normal might involve being asked to work with fewer rapists. On a personal level, I’ve been experimenting with calling something a sort-of boyfriend did to me several years ago “rape,” after seeing Michaela Coel’s character Arabella experience the same thing onscreen. I had written it off for years as a not-great evening with a not-great guy, but watching Arabella passionately call out the man—a fellow writer—who did it to her, it seemed so clear. “He is a rapist,” she says, to a room of his peers. “Not rape-adjacent, or a bit rapey. He’s a rapist.” Later she double-checks with two policewomen, who confirm. The unnamed narrator of Watson’s novel lays it out in similarly unequivocal terms: “rape = no consent.” Still, rape is far from the only subject of little scratch, an experimental work chronicling every action (hungover commute, a mediocre soup lunch), feeling (disgust at “the dreaded desk,” the “WHOSE EYES ARE THESE” experience of coffee), and thought (“maybe tweet it?”) an unnamed female narrator experiences in a single day. That her boss sexually assaulted her is just one more thing to worry about, something to mull between WhatsApp messages, coworkers’ tedious demands, the question of her untended literary aspirations, and an increasingly urgent need to pick and scrape at the skin behind her knees. little scratch’s narrator is distracted, bored, horny, funny, traumatized, clever, tired, overworked, and absolutely seething with rage—at her boring job, at the inadequacy of language, at bad men and “good” ones too, and all the ways, overt and subtle, they make women feel small or endangered or disposable. (You can see how we ended up back at rape.) This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Monica Heisey: The book started as a short story, one that won the White Review Short Story prize. Did you always have plans to expand it into a novel, or did that come later? Rebecca Watson: When I first started writing I didn't know what it was at all. It was just like, it kind of happened off the back of… something happened, and I just had this challenge in my head of wanting to write immediacy, so I started by writing a moment. And as I was writing, hyper-focused on the present, it started to feel like part of something bigger. So, I just kept extending it and extending it. And within a few thousand words I was quite clear that it was a book rather than just a passage or a thought exercise. You definitely conveyed the immediacy that you were going for. There’s an aggressive simultaneity I found almost stressful to read. I don't know if you remember that Horse E-books tweet, "Everything happens so much," but little scratch kind of felt like that. What was the process of writing something where the plan is to include everything? It was stressful for me as well! I began writing this book because I was at work on my lunch break, trying to write. And someone came up to me and did ask me what book I was reading at the moment. And I did have that moment of being like, "Fuck's sake, what are books? Have I ever read a book in my life?" So that kernel in the book is based on a real moment, one in which I became aware of so many different things that were going on, and how despite everything I was unable to think of anything. And it just clicked into my head, the desire of a writer to guide the reader from the beginning of the paragraph to the end, and wanting to be able to tell them so many different things at the same time and that being impossible. So that first thought as I was writing that moment up was just “How do I show the reader all these different things without having to make them wait?” I wanted to write everything that was going on at the same time in one moment. And I wrote that, then quite quickly after I was like, “Okay, I can do a moment of immediacy. Is it possible to write a full day of immediacy?” And I found that I could, it started to become a book quite quickly, but there was part of me that didn't want to carry on, because if you keep going, there are points as a writer where you start wanting to skip—like, okay well, I now want to take it to this place but they actually walked to the places after, so can I skip this part, but [with the formal constraints of the book] I couldn't. And I started to run into more and more of those challenges where it was just like, Jesus Christ, how do I do this? But that was kind of the fun of it, the question of like, how do you write the stuff that generally you don't want to write? Or that you want to avoid, because it's always not easy to write? I say the fun of it, but it was really stressful, and I felt as I was writing that the reader was going to have to work. There were points where I felt like I was creating a game for the reader, because they have to kind of become the protagonist and inhabit the book themselves, and for some readers that's fun, and for some readers that will be maybe not what they want to do at all. It was definitely a very active experience. Did it… I will always find it interesting, to ask the reader... was there a set way that you read it? Did you read across? Did you kind of mix it up? There were times where I had to sort of pick which part of the page I was going to devote my attention to first, then loop back to make sure that I had understood the order in which things were happening. The fact that there wasn't really an order and these things were just all happening at once was… disorienting! I kind of tackled the biggest chunks on each page first. I love the word "tackle." [laughs] I think my dumb little brain resisted at first, kept trying to squeeze what you’d written into a more conventionally novelistic reading experience. But once I relaxed into the form, I was reading a lot more freely, letting everything kind of wash over me. All that activity! It was a very different experience from what I've been up to in lockdown. Yeah, I bet it was. [laughs] While you were writing it, did you read other books set in—I'm thinking maybe of Mrs. Dalloway—set in that kind of relentless present? Not really. I mean, Virginia Woolf is someone I was obsessed with—she was the person that first ignited, for me, some kind of excitement about how to play with words and ideas of prose and where it can go. I started reading her when I was sixteen, seventeen, at that moment when everything is so profound anyway, so she's someone who's definitely stayed with me, but I think when I was starting to write little scratch, I'd been reading about Javier Marías. He's a Spanish novelist, and he has this just insane grasp of sentences. The dialogue… there'll be a couple in a cafe, and a man talking to someone, and that bit of dialogue will take him across pages of digression until he takes you right back to where you started and you'll be back at that conversation. He really set me off when I was writing, because he is just in crazy control of the reader, and has this ability to mentally take you so far, but still reel you back in. I thought about him a lot, just for that control. But also, for the ability to travel like that, to take the reader ten pages away, and then snap them right back where he wants them. The book’s setting and form were really striking choices for a sexual assault story. Because we hear literally everything that happens to the narrator that day, every thought in her head, the aftermath of her assault is just one other thing to deal with. Often, in TV or literature or Greek tragedy, rape is this turning point in women's lives—they’re ruined or kill themselves or go mad—but assault is a really commonplace experience that a lot of women just survive. That was quite important to me. There wasn't a specific thing that I read or watched that frustrated me, it was just this recurring sense that rape was the climax of anything that you read or watch. Or the explanation, sometimes—if a woman was acting oddly then the answer was always rape, and I just found that not only boring, but inaccurate. I think I was really trying to talk about trauma and rape, but have it be totally incidental. I mean obviously, it ends up, in some ways, being the climax to this book as well, but I like the idea of it not following the same kind of linear structure you're usually taught to follow. And also, I don’t know, I don't often, like, hear about people in books and TV who've been raped who also have sex… it seems like something that’s hard for people to imagine. I found that so interesting, the narrator’s insistence on her right to a continued, active sexuality, the time she spends delineating the difference between consensual, erotic sex, and what happened to her at the hands of her boss. I feel like depictions of rape, it's always like, “Okay, well, they've been raped so therefore like they can't use their body in any other way now. That's the end of that.” And already sex and rape are confused so much. It was important for me that they existed in two different realms. The book really avoids setting up one “bad” character, or presenting an angelic support source who understands everything. Really, every character in the narrator’s life lets her down in different ways. In particular she goes in on: “not just the bad men but the good ones, the slowing down, the opening WhatsApp to explain consent to men who I thought would get it, at least them, How! How are they not with me here! They don't even know, and they're already not with me.” Yeah. Oh god. I kind of forget that that's in there, but hearing it again I relate instantly, I feel that feeling every day. It was important to me that [the narrator] was also, not complacent, but that she recognized that viewpoint even in herself. The whole book, this whole day with her is really her following a formula that she's expected to follow... of pushing down what's happened, ignoring it, thinking about what outfit it may have been, you know, exactly how those people would have reacted. And she's sort of going through those modes of argument herself, asking if she’d said something or done something or if it was her clothes, her ambitions, her way of being in the world. I didn't really want anyone to be particularly shiny or particularly awful, just everyone participating in the same structure and systems that repeat and repeat and repeat. There are a number of scenes in your book where your narrator struggles to name what actually happened to her, even though she knows, really. I think that’s a very common situation, to call an assault “a bad date” or an abuser “a bit rapey.” I get the impulse to downgrade the experience, in a way—confronting how many things “rape” encompasses means confronting how incredibly common an experience rape is. What do you think about the language we have for describing assault? My protagonist's struggle is being able to match her experience and the brutality of language, and the permanence of language. Like, you're making a decision when you’re using these words. There can be a sense of comfort in being hazy or ambiguous, compared to using the word "rape" or even describing the man as a "rapist" rather than "the man who raped me," which has this real brutality. I think it's important. The way we edge around language enables those experiences to remain ambiguous and for us to see them ambiguously and discuss them ambiguously. There's this thing called "rape," that’s this big, dramatic, “man on a dark street” thing on one hand and then everyday experiences that women and other people have had on the other. So you have rape and you have these experiences that are rape but that we don't call rape. And the term becomes grander and more theatrical as you continue to not categorize any of these things as rape. I've been raped, and I think I didn't know that I'd been raped for a while, because I was just kind of like, this doesn't fit into a mold that I've been taught. It was very helpful for me to actually realize that it was rape. And all of these foggy and unclear feelings were able to actually sit in something that I did understand and could call something. With little scratch it was important that she said she'd been raped, but it was also important that it wasn't said as a climax... I think when she finally says she has been raped, she says, "I have been raped. Yes I know." And for her it’s—rather than something that is upsetting to her—it’s kind of acceptance. Using that language is a way of actually being able to say, yes, it fits into this category, and I can start taking it seriously, and sometimes you need that seriousness to accept it. I sort of wanted to avoid the “how much of this is based on your own life” line of questioning, but I read an essay of yours in Elle UK where you wrote about an experience similar to the narrator’s, and I'd wondered how it felt to write something so immediate—so intimate, about a fictional situation you could, unfortunately, relate to quite closely. Yeah, it was kind of a stupid thing to do in a way. Writing it was a very invasive experience. Not because I felt like I was writing my own life, but because I felt like I had someone else's life very close to me, and a lot of the writing felt like, this is someone’s life, it really was like her voice appearing and talking to me. I felt like I was really just listening to her and writing that down. So that was a very, very personal thing for me, and a very unique and intimate experience to have someone's head so close to mine, and sometimes I kind of feel like, is that me, just because she spent so much time in my head, you know, so to a degree she is me. As a writer creating something, it's like, where else does it come from apart from somewhere inside me? As a female writer, particularly a young debut novelist, this book will be confused with me and will always be confused with me, regardless. Particularly writing first person immediacy, it's a work where the character feels very close to the reader, and you just connect that to the author. Which is something I was aware of even when I was writing—there are kind of like riffs on it in the book where, like, I'd write something and then be so aware that that would be read as me, I couldn't help but say something sly, or rebut within the text. I loved the group chat going in on autofiction. I can understand the instinct—you know, like the reading and writing experience is very intense. There's almost the confusion of reading something that feels real, and instantly there’s the urge to connect that to someone real. Which is not necessarily a bad thing to do, but it does happen to mostly women writers, which can be so patronizing. It’s just the reader being unable to believe that you actually have the capacity to create. There are parallels in this book to my life, but I haven't lived any of this experience—the narrator’s experience of rape is very different to mine, and her experience of the working day is very different to mine, her relationship with her boyfriend is very different to mine. But I have, you know, worked a 9-to-5 job, I have been raped, I have a boyfriend, so sure, you can connect these facts to me. What are you working on now? Oh god. I'm writing my second novel. And it is quite a stressful process! I feel like I learned a lot about who I was as a writer from little scratch. But the problem is that I'm not about to write a second little scratch. Basically, I need to shove away everything that I've learned from writing this. Everything that I've assumed about what I want to be doing, because that was all just about that project. And what I'm trying to write now is quite different—formally, topically. little scratch started as an experiment and wanting to achieve something in terms of writing the present tense. And so, I kind of feel now, you know, as if I've kind of achieved what I wanted to achieve from that, which is a really good feeling. But it makes anything else very stressful. Have you been able to read during the pandemic? A lot of people have been saying their attention spans are just shot, that there's—maybe ironically, for your novel—too much going on all at once for them to focus on reading. Maybe little scratch gave me some practice. I’ve been reading, although what I've been reading has been very different to what I'd usually read. I've been reading a lot of Sarah Waters, people that are very plot-heavy and very quick-moving plot as well. I think I’ve essentially been looking for people that move at a quicker pace than I’ve been able to move these last few months, which was really effective, and I've been very grateful to be able to escape into those books. I definitely feel like I've needed reading more than ever at the moment. I’ve been reading a lot of pop history stuff. Thinking a lot about the past. A bad place, but a better place too. It's just been nice to imagine times other than this one, to remember that people got through them and things moved forward. This moment feels so suspended in amber or something... the idea that progress is possible is a comfort. I definitely feel that. Just remembering that moments are part of a pattern, right? Like they've happened before and they'll happen again. Which means we're going to get out of this one. Hopefully soon... although probably not.
Time in NYC

He had Alex now, he thought. He wouldn’t feel those old pangs. But the loneliness greeted him like a—well, not so much like an old friend. But. You know. Like loneliness.

At the signing of the lease, neither Leo nor Alex found Nikoloz immediately impressive. He was of average build, trending to paunchy; wore his gray, stringy hair in a kind of a shag, loose tufts surrounding a bald stretch on the crown of his head; and sat in a big couch-chair and smoked constantly—Kents, which he happily sucked down to the filter. They were indoors, in an estate agent’s office, but for some reason no one made him stop. “Whatever you need, Nikoloz will take care of it,” Joseph, the landlord, said. “Nikoloz is always around the flat. Nikoloz will always be there for you.” “You alright,” Nikoloz said. Leo and Alex were new to London. They didn’t yet know that “you alright” was a thing people said without expecting any kind of answer. “Sorry?” Leo said. “You don’t hear good?” Nikoloz said. “No, I hear OK.” Leo paused, looking around, wondering how, in a room full of people, he’d gotten himself into this one-on-one exchange. “Although I do worry about tinnitus.” Pause. “From, uh, going to hardcore shows when I was in high school.” Alex looked at him and raised an eyebrow and smiled, and Leo realized he was divulging unnecessary information again. Nikoloz smiled too. “Yeah, you’re alright,” he said. “So like Joseph said, I’ll be there for you. I’m reliable and that. I’m solid and that. I’m always around.” He took a drag. “Always around.” At a cozy pub after with a couple of pints, Leo made Alex laugh imagining just how “around” Nikoloz would be. They were actually both supposed to get back to work, but the euphoria of having finally found a place to live was too much to ignore. So they emailed off their respective excuses and hit The Wellington Arms, and Leo immediately launched into an honestly not too bad Nikoloz impersonation: “Yeah mate, do you have the kettle on, is the kettle on, can I go ahead and pop the kettle on?” It was a small flat but, everyone agreed, really lovely. There was exposed brick, a chandelier in the bedroom, and tall windows in the kitchen that overlooked the backyard of the flat below. The strange bit: those kitchen windows also overlooked the living room of the flat below, which was encased in glass and had been constructed to jut forward past Leo and Alex’s place. Due to that combination of curious design and architectural choices, Leo and Alex could effectively stand in their kitchen and peer directly at the goings-on of their downstairs neighbor. Two things revealed themselves in quick succession. First: The reason Nikoloz was always around wasn’t just a dedication to his craft, but because he was the downstairs neighbor who lived in the flat with the strange glass protrusion. Second: There were quite a few things Leo and Alex would need Nikoloz for. Because while their apartment was, and remained, lovely, it was also very much falling apart. No one thing was unbearable, but the list was long. The chandelier in the bedroom regularly went into rapid-fire horror-movie flickerings. The blinds in the living room were old and hopelessly twisted. A tiny combination washer/dryer worked wellish-enough on its wash setting but when switched over to dry was less than useless. And the bathroom’s air filter shrieked. You’d turn it on and the noise would be alright for a second or two, then violently pitch upwards into an unbelievably piercing, almost melancholic, whistle. Because Alex’s work schedule was more rigid than Leo’s, they agreed it would be Leo’s job to communicate with Nikoloz and oversee these maintenance visits. So Leo would message Nikoloz for help, and Nikoloz would text back elliptically, confusingly, mysteriously: “I blinds not her” “Joseph said it and yeah” “fix want” “are you are” “are in now” “is there one in” “can reaper the boiler?” “It be OK” “no Joseph’s mum out I will see at 2 there” “cant be done well m8 mayb it can be done” … always saying he’d come up at very specific times, 9:50, 3:07, always showing up hours later instead. One time, Leo texted Nikoloz about some minor fix and Nikoloz responded in a manner suggesting that it was in fact he who was interested in hiring Leo’s services for a bit of work: “how much would it cost to clean the roof glass” But even though it would take forever, would take loads of back and forths, Nikoloz would usually come and fix the thing, and fix it well. And then, invariably, he’d look around in awe, as if he’d built the place years ago, under duress and against all odds, and had never before thought to come back and see how it had held up. “This boiler was where Joseph’s dad’s gun safe used to be,” Nikoloz said one late afternoon, excitedly jabbing his fingers toward the gray boxy thing, as if that would make the guns come back. “You had to have it special lock and hidden then, like camouflaged, like a hidden compartment. There were 12 bore shotguns. For hunting. Two Rigbys and a Holland & Holland.” Leo smiled and thought maybe it was time to share an anecdote himself. “I went skeet shooting once. With my dad and my cousin Petey. We were all absolutely, uh”—Leo briefly considered using what felt like a more appropriately English word, “rubbish,” but chickened out—“we were all terrible at it!” Nikoloz looked at him blankly, then kept on telling his story. “Them guns were worth a lot of money back then. I should have taken them and sold them! I’m the one took the secret compartment out!” Then Nikoloz guffawed and Leo guffawed too. Nikoloz liked to tell these very mild origin stories again and again. Leo would come to know them well. He didn’t mind it, the repetition. It was nice, actually, these strange interactions with what Leo understood was this very London type of dude. When else would Leo get to hang out with a real person? Leo had been excited to move to London, although the bulk of the motivating energy, he’d readily admit, had come from Alex. She’d gotten sick of New York, formulated a plan and, true to form, carried it through it with remarkable efficacy and speed. Her new job was at a more prestigious architecture firm than the one she’d previously worked at, where her designs would be more consciously and environmentally executed. She’d effectively willed herself into a transatlantic promotion. After settling in London, Leo had quickly found a permalance gig editing on Love Island. The pay was good and the work was demanding: there was so much raw content coming in and such an appetite for a finished product. It was his edits that he saw become conversation topics nationwide the next day. But it wasn’t exactly… progressive. There was a serious, troubling baseline of disreputability. It was totally compelling and totally fucked up. When he told people at parties or at pubs, they always had a thousand questions. They’d manage a few polite ones to Alex about architecture, then pivot back to Love Island. “They do wanna hear about countervailing beams!” he’d crack to Alex after. “They don’t know I protect them from structural collapse,” she’d answer, deadpan. “They don’t know how close they come to death if not from me.” Alex worked long hours, but they’d always make a point of cooking and eating together. Simple meals, Leo doing the shopping at a Turkish green grocer that hated small talk but had the best tomatoes Leo had ever tasted, and Alex doing the washing up. She would get back from work, and as he was chopping Leo would run her through that day’s insane Nikoloz interactions. It was a bummer that it was so hard for anything to get fixed, Leo thought, it was definitely a bummer, but at least it led to some good material. From the beginning, he’d felt good about the move. He’d moved around with his academic parents when he was a kid and had cherished memories of bland-sounding mid-major European cities. They left Ann Arbor when Leo was six and bounced around some less-heralded bits of the continent. Antwerp, Dusseldorf, and Arnhem, then Riga and Tallinn. He was an only child, not naturally gifted at making friends, but there was this academia-parent circuit, with equally unmoored kids, and so Leo would end up with pals for one or two years at a time. There was loneliness, for Leo and for his parents—every move came with pangs of loneliness; that would have been impossible to avoid—but the pattern itself, of getting up and then settling again, became its own comfort. And, secretly, he prided himself on his heartiness and adaptability. To Leo, at least privately, it came to define him. He didn’t go back to Michigan until his freshman year of high school. After graduating, he did a semester at Central Michigan before dropping out. He thought his parents would be upset, but they actually seemed impressed with him for realizing higher education was very much never going to be his bag. On his own, he would read books about communism and economics. Well, about communists and economists. He’d never had a head for theory; he read a Keynes biography once and his only takeaway was that Keynes was extremely horny. He didn’t feel bad about it, though; he’d long known his appreciation of history’s grand movements came down to the people involved. He moved to New York, but he could have well moved anywhere he’d seen in movies. He took classes and learned video editing—a practical self-sustaining move, but he found that he liked it, and he got good jobs in TV and documentaries. He even worked on some slasher flicks, which he loved. He met all kinds of people, and he fell in love with New York, and then he fell in love with Alex. Looking back later, after the move to London, he realized New York was the first place he’d ever felt totally at peace. Nearly his entire twenties had been New York—ten initially rowdy, increasingly comfortable years. First Chinatown, then Prospect Heights, and, most recently, Astoria, a less-hip neighborhood that, to Leo’s surprise, he found himself loving most of all. And even if some friends had left for Chicago and San Francisco and, God forbid, Montclair, New Jersey, enough were staying around, even post-childrearing. He wanted everything in New York to remain in stasis, waiting for his inevitable return. He missed the city every day. But he was ready for something else. Really, he was. And—and this again he realized only after the move—he’d never fully let go of the possibility that he would keep being moved. Not so much against his will. Just, without his participation in the decision-making process. He’d always thought, somehow, that inevitably a decision would be made, by other people, and that he would have to get up and go. Before the move to London he thought back to the European days, how it felt initially to exist in a new place. He had Alex now, he thought. He wouldn’t feel those old pangs. But the loneliness greeted him like a—well, not so much like an old friend. But. You know. Like loneliness. Alex was a highly motivated person. Leo felt he was too, to a degree—that degree was just a significant few ticks south of Alex. He’d articulated to her, a few times, and she’d always denied it, that she reacted with an almost physical aversion to mental weakness. A few months into London, Alex left for a work trip to Paris and Leo tried messaging a few loose acquaintances to see about pints but no one was around and he tried calling his cousin Petey but his cousin Petey didn’t call him back and so Leo found himself having a bit of an anxiety attack. That whole weekend he found himself Googling “time in nyc” over and over, in part because it made him feel more connected to home, in part because he preferred it to doing the math on the time difference. When Alex came back from Paris, they sat in the kitchen and analyzed his mini-meltdown. “I think you should talk to someone,” Alex said. “I am trying to talk to someone!” Leo said, his voice rising, despite his best efforts to not let it. “I am trying to talk to you!” “Yeah, well. I think you should talk to someone who’s not me.” Leo knew exactly what not to do. Leo knew not to make this about the move. Leo failed. “It was your fucking idea to come here! I was happy in New York!” “Oh my god. You’re an adult. You were offered an opportunity. You made a decision.” “I know that. I know that. I fucking—know that! I just want.” Leo could feel that he was screaming. He was able to catch himself, most of the time. It was incredibly awkward though, incredibly obvious—a reckless scream brought down to a forced whisper. Lowering the volume was, on its own, a capitulation. Still, he forced himself to do it. “I just want,” he said quietly, way too quietly. “A little. Empathy.” “You want sympathy. Empathy would be me feeling what you were feeling. Sympathy is me acknowledging that your feelings of sorrow are valid.” “Yes. Jesus fucking Christ.” He was screaming again. “Do I have to actually say it out loud? Acknowledge that my feelings of sorrow are valid!” It was such a ridiculous thing to say. Even worse to scream. Leo had lost the upper hand. Alex’s lips turned up at the edge. “Your feelings of sorrow are valid.” Leo wasn’t making eye contact. If he did, he wouldn’t be able to stay stone-faced, he knew. He’d either cackle or cry. Alex came up and hugged him, and whispered in his ear. “So many feelings of sorrow. Each and every last one of them valid.” It didn’t fix anything. But it was nice to end on a positive note. *** When Leo had first started contacting Nikoloz about the home fixes, he’d rotate through calling and emailing and texting until he heard back. That became its own running joke for Alex: “Which form of communication is Nikoloz best using to avoid you?” Eventually Nikoloz admitted to him that he only ever checked WhatsApp. That he loved WhatsApp. Then one day, thumbing through their inefficient exchanges, Leo realized Nikoloz had added a picture to his WhatsApp profile. It was Nikoloz as a young man, and, frankly, it was arresting. Time, it turned out, had not been kind to Nikoloz. That same wry smile was there, as was that manic, almost forbidden energy, but the stringy hair, the saggy cheeks, were nowhere to be seen. Leo showed it to Alex. “Holy shit,” she said. “Yeah.” Leo stared at the screen. “He looks.” There was no other way to put it. Nikoloz in a short-sleeve dress shirt open to the sub-chest area, multiple gold amulets on chains around his neck, looking directly at the camera, holding a glass of white wine. “He looks hot.” Alex looked again. “Hot Nikoloz. For sure. Hot Nikoloz.” After that, she always only called him Hot Nikoloz. Alex didn’t care too much about most of the little fixes, but the dryer drove her insane. “How is it getting the clothes more wet?” she shouted one Saturday afternoon, after another failed cycle. “Is this a psychological torture experiment?” “He’s coming Monday!” Leo answered automatically. “He said he’s pretty sure he knows what to do this time!” That’s how it was at first, Leo defending Nikoloz out of habit. He didn’t see him as a kindred spirit, not really, but he did feel a knee-jerk desire to defend his fellow well-intentioned fuck-up from Alex’s ready gaze. It wasn’t until Leo and Nikoloz started spending more time together that Leo began to feel differently about Nikoloz. Leo never smoked, and didn’t even really like people smoking around him. But when Nikoloz came around he found himself cracking a window and, indeed, putting the kettle on and sitting for hours, letting Nikoloz go through a pack. At their hang sessions, which were always at Leo’s flat, Leo found himself staring at Nikoloz’s hands. They were thick, rough, capable hands. The skin was weathered. Most of the time, Nikoloz wouldn’t actually do anything with them. But when he put them into motion, there would have been no doubt to anyone that they were capable hands. “These radiators, they come out of a railway waiting room,” Nikoloz said one afternoon. “You know, the, architecture of old railways, that where they come out of—the guy sold me ’em, yeah, the guy, every time I seen him, he says”—Nikoloz paused—“he says, I wish I didn’t sell you those radiators! I wish I didn’t sell you those radiators! I should never have sold you those radiators!” Leo could tell Nikoloz liked him, but not how he liked him. Did he hold him in any particular regard? Did he find him to be an interesting person? Or did he just find him good enough amusement? Leo often felt like people were dangerously close to laughing at him, not with him, but he mostly didn’t mind. Leo knew exactly who he was. With Nikoloz, though, he realized, he did care. With other people, he wanted attention, warmth, love, their fleeting recognition. With Nikoloz, he wanted respect. One morning, in the kitchen, idly glancing down at the flat below, Leo saw Nikoloz preparing a simple meal of sausage, mash, and buttered brown bread. He hadn’t meant to watch, but there was something magnetic about the brute way Nikoloz went about the process. Alex was in the bedroom on her phone. Leo kept waiting for her to come in and catch him in the act and ask him what the fuck he was doing, but she never did. As the weeks went on, Leo caught himself doing it more and more. It was usually in the mornings, as Alex was getting dressed. Leo would go over to the coffee machine and fiddle with it loudly and stare down at Nikoloz below. It was just little glances at first, here and there. Then it was every morning. Nikoloz was always down there, making his tea, toasting his bread, doing something laboriously, meditatively slow. Leo told Alex he liked making the coffee for the two of them. Which wasn’t not true. But it wasn’t the whole truth. Staring down from his kitchen one morning, into Nikoloz’s apartment, Leo saw what he believed to be a small, framed rendering of the logo of the 1970s Graxis movement, the high point of Moldovan communism. The timing, he’d worked out, made sense. Nikoloz would have been 18 or 19 at the peak of it, and the mass movement which swept the nation presumably would have hit the small village of Petresti, where Nikoloz had told Leo he’d grown up. The Graxis symbol looked like a plus sign on top of a triangle. He’d read about Graxis somewhere, but he couldn’t remember where. He started reading up more. Leo became slightly obsessed with the vision, a history he’d previously known little about. He learned that the movement had been built on a network of student leaders, cells bonded together as a unified organism moving in lockstep. He felt suddenly like he had a dog in the fight, even though that fight had been crushed in the early ’80s and had led to the authoritarian right-wing government that had summarily and violently crushed the student-led network. What Leo kept coming back to, what kept tripping him up, was that Nikoloz had mentioned he’d been in London since 1983, the exact year a coven of the most stringent Graxis leaders had been expelled. The UK Home Office had allowed in Moldovan exiles on the condition they not interfere in politics. Many of the exiles famously flouted the rule, but still, it made sense why Nikoloz wasn’t being forthcoming about his possible radical past. Leo would ask him what his friends were like back in Petresti, and Nikoloz would just smile and say, “They were crazy. They were the craziest ones.” In Queens, Leo had attended a few meetings of the PFA, the fledgling socialist-leaning organization that had pushed the twentysomething former schoolteacher Laura Schvishivli to an unexpected congressional seat (from the district that included Leo’s Queens neighborhood) and had made her a national celebrity. He hadn’t grown up in a politically minded household. His parents’ default philosophy was basically be nice to people. They were professors. They just wanted to think about lectures and research. His friends in New York were worldly, technically—they’d traveled, met strangers, had experiences that suggested life could be many different things. But when he sat around drinking with them at one of the three bars they liked to rotate through, depending on which was least crowded, their rolling conversations would go for hours without finding any friction. Graxis felt so much realer than all the PFA noise. Yes, one was happening now, right now, which he could theoretically belong to, believe in, support in some material way. But it all felt so silly by comparison. PFA was a social media movement. In Moldova, there had been blood in the streets. *** “He had power!” Nikoloz was saying one afternoon. “He had real—you know—power.” They were talking about an old friend of his, a movie journalist from Glasgow who would come to London to interview all the top stars and would always take Nikoloz for a good meal out. “He looked smart, too. Sharp, sharp suits. And he could go into his little book and find the telephone numbers, you know—Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Clint Eastwood. James Garner!” Leo couldn’t quite figure out how they’d gotten on the topic, or why. The conversation had started with Leo telling Nikoloz about his job. Love Island, and its loose ties to the celebrity circuit, was apparently enough to trigger this reverie into old Hollywood. “The first time Angelina came, yeah, no one could be bothered but he went, yeah, and that’s why the studios liked him,” Nikoloz said. “And then after that Angelina would come and she’d always ask for him, and he’d go over and do the interviews. And they could trust him, the studios, yeah? And that’s why he had power.” Nikoloz stopped to drink his tea. “With him I met former president Gerald Ford. You know former president Gerald Ford?” “Your buddy would write for newspapers?” Leo asked. “No, not newspapers. Magazines. Or he used to do private work, like if Paramount Studios wanted him to do something about something.” Nikoloz paused again. In the course of a regular conversation, this might be Leo’s turn to talk. But Leo had a half a year of reps with Nikoloz by now; he knew it was best to let Nikoloz control the flow of the banter. “It’s all to do with the studios,” Nikoloz said. “They are the main, the main people. They are the ones who call the shots. They say, look, go and see this person—you can’t say no. And if you go to them, they say, ‘Ahhhhh. Right. Here’s what you’ll be doing.’ D’jou understand?” Actually, for once, Leo felt like he did understand. Was Nikoloz not—carefully, delicately—lodging a complaint against the class system? Control from above? Was this not the closest he’d come to revealing his revolutionary politics? Leo was desperate to make this subtext into text. But he didn’t want to break the spell of the moment. He imagined the rest of the conversation, the winking, conspiratorial turn it could take, Nikoloz bringing him back into the old hothouses of Moldovan ideological warfare. Forming him into a person who could think in that way. The Graxis way. Maybe it seemed ridiculous, so far removed from that moment in time. But Lenin had lived in London. Marx had died in London. And right here, where Leo and Nikoloz sat and talked, they were barely five minutes’ walk from Three Johns, the actual pub where the Menshevik/Bolshevik split had taken place! That bitter infighting in the back room of that pub between those mad Russian expats had ended in nothing less than the October Revolution. The night before the Bolsheviks took power, Lenin sat in Zelensky’s kitchen, plotting maneuverings on the back of Zelensky’s kid’s drawing books! (A few weekends back, while Alex was away again, Leo had sought to avoid another mini-meltdown by actively filling up his spare time. He did so by taking a “Dead Communists of East London” walking tour.) But it wasn’t just this one example. Every revolution had started, if you thought about it, at some point, with some form of humans sharing words in a kitchen. Leo realized he’d lost the thread. He clicked back in to hear Nikoloz saying, “Years ago you had Laurence Olivier, a real actor. Once you do stage, yeah, you’re good. You know. And not like—Rocky! Rocky, he can only play Rocky! He’s always playing Rocky. He can’t do the overall thing.” Leo had to admit: he was at a loss to figure out how this bit related back to the subterfuge-like class consciousness stuff. But that was Nikoloz’s enigmatic way. *** One evening, while simultaneously Googling and going off about Graxis, Leo found a Frontline documentary about it from the ’90s on YouTube and Alex said she was game to watch. Alex entertained his pet obsessions; she’d be happy to come home after a day of work and listen to him rattle off book summaries. Leo was an amateur, but he was an impassioned amateur, and even if it was all so scattershot and stop-and-start, it was nice, Alex repeatedly told Leo, to feel the heat of his passions. This support had an edge to it, Leo knew. He would bet that in her heart of hearts Alex would say that freelance video editing didn’t represent the complete and total fulfillment of Leo’s potential. She had never said as much, but there had been hints. The thought didn’t offend him: Alex was the kind of person who surely thought a lot of people—herself included, most likely—hadn’t accomplished the complete and total fulfillment of their potential. The thing was, Leo worried that the obsessions, to Alex, represented something beyond—they represented Leo reaching out beyond his station in life. There was a clear logic to it: why would someone take six months to read every book they could find on American labor history if they didn’t, maybe, want to become an American labor historian? That particular obsession fizzled out. Eventually, they all did. But Leo really didn’t secretly want to become a professor, like his parents. He liked what he did, truly, and was actually impressed he’d found a calling. Alex’s version of his best life wasn’t his version of his best life. Still, his perceived feelings about her unspoken feelings lingered. If he ever followed an obsession out to its end, he thought sometimes, Alex would have no choice but to respect it. The narration of the Graxis doc was stiff and the editing predictable, but the images were undeniable. There was power to them. The protesters were so young and sun-kissed and so, so beautiful. The men and the women alike. They wore all white and they knew nothing of the destruction that was to come. Leo and Alex were in bed, watching the documentary on Leo’s laptop. Then suddenly Leo seized. Almost certainly—that dark, long-haired young man appeared on the left of their screen, holding up a massive banner that read “All Power Now” in Moldovan, in front of the marchers—that could not have been anyone but Hot Nikoloz. It had been a joke, that phrase. But Leo couldn’t get it out of his mind. It opened up a world. The WhatsApp photo in his mind’s eye, the young radical. It was a blip, but he was certain. He didn’t say a word to Alex. They finished the documentary and shut the lights and Alex gave Leo a kiss on the lips and rolled over and, as always, passed out within seconds. The next day Alex went off to work and Leo stayed home. He told her they didn’t need him at the editing suite, which wasn’t totally true: the supervisor had said they could survive without him, as that night’s Love Island was a previously-cut best-of catch-up montage. But she had also told Leo that if he wanted to come and get started on the next day’s chop she would gladly throw him the work. Without really thinking why, Leo had turned down the offer, and again without really thinking why, he had told Alex the half-truth. For the most part he did hate seeming less committed to his work than she did. But even if he did always want to project his commitment, he realized now, he had never gone so far as to lie about it before. Leo walked Alex to her bus stop and got the paper and walked back home. When he sat down at the table he realized, with an unsettling clarity, why he’d called out of work. Still in sweatshorts and a T-shirt, Leo WhatsApp’d Nikoloz. “Wanna come by?” Leo put the phone down and picked up his book. It was David Harvey’s A Companion To Marx’s Capital. It was supposed to be on the more readable side of the Marxist theory spectrum, but Leo was struggling. With today open, though, he thought, he’d try to really crack it. He knew Nikoloz sometimes texted back right away and sometimes not for days. But as soon as Leo got through one laborious page, the phone buzzed. “what for” It should have pissed Leo off, getting that message. When they first moved into the place, it surely would have. The dryer was still out; Leo had been chasing Nikoloz to fix it for weeks now. But instead of screenshotting it and texting it to Alex as he would have done once—“NIKOLOZ YOU FUCK”—Leo picked up the phone and stared at it. His heart, he had to admit, was beating fast. He took a beat then wrote— “dryer still broken” —then again— “will make you tea, haha” He cursed himself for the haha. It was a Young Millennial affectation that he’d accidentally picked up from Alex, punctuating everything with one form or another of lmao for no real good reason. He was an Old Millennial and it was unbecoming. He was usually pretty good at catching himself from doing it to his elders. But he’d slipped up and suddenly hated himself for it. Still, two seconds later, the phone buzzed again. “oh yeh right” Leo stared, started to answer, then stopped, and stared some more. Another buzz, another message from Nikoloz. “wanna come down here” Why would he come down there? How would Nikoloz fix anything from inside his own apartment? But there wasn’t even time for the confusion to register. All he knew was that he did want to go down there. He wanted to very badly. He hadn’t realized just how badly he wanted to go down there. To the flat downstairs, the one he’d stared at, the one he’d—there wasn’t really another way of saying—the one he’d fantasized about. The air of righteousness that it held. The cigarette smoke seeped into the wood, the rough brick walls, the austerity that it screamed. The Graxis icon hanging with power. Nikoloz’s place. At that moment, there was nothing he wanted more. He messaged— “Cool … be right down” Leo waited, one palm flat on the book, eyes open staring into the middle distance. He felt his heavy breaths. “yeah cool mate” Leo shut the book and then blinked his eyes shut, hard, for a few beats. He was buzzing, he had to admit it. He tried to shake himself out of it but it was still there, and so it was on shaky legs that he got up and walked out the door. Walked out to go see Nikoloz.
‘It is Mysterious, Ultimately, How Art is Made’: An Interview with Madhur Anand

The author of This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart on Partition, science, and perspective. 

On August 15, 1947, when India achieved independence from British Colonial rule, a series of divisions occurred. The most famous of these was Partition: the division of India and Pakistan, of Hindus and Muslims, of former friends and neighbours, of new lives from the old. Depending on how you read it, Madhur Anand’s This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart (Strange Light) opens on Partition, alternating chapters to tell the stories of two strangers, future spouses, forced to leave their childhood homes, later emigrating to Canada in the hopes of starting a family. There, they must experience harsh Ontario winters, culture shock, language barriers, and nostalgia for a home that doesn’t quite exist anymore.  Midway through, the book hits a partition of its own. Stop, flip it over, and you have the memoir of Madhur Anand, daughter of the narrators of the book’s first half. A professor of ecology and sustainability at the University of Guelph, Anand is trained to look for patterns in the physical world around her, turning to poetry, science, and the theories of both to explain her present and her family’s past. This Red Line is a book about divisions, between generations, languages, geographies, and academic disciplines—divisions that are almost never neatly symmetrical, despite our intentions to read symmetry into them. I call Madhur Anand at her home in Guelph from my family’s home in Ottawa, where we’ve both learned to adapt to the new realities of working from home. We’re interrupted a few times during the conversation, she by her children and I by my brother’s dog. Anna Fitzpatrick: There's one portion you have in your half of the memoir, you're reading Allan Hume's The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds, and you describe it as being outdated but you're reading it for the purpose of finding poems in it. Can you speak to that act of looking for poetry in other forms? Madhur Anand: Basically, I'm newer to creative writing in a sense, to this whole thing of art. Having discovered that I'm an artist is, I don't know. I don't know when that point happens in a person's mind. Certainly, after publishing one book of poetry, I knew that I was going to continue doing it. The problem of course is you don't know how you're going to keep doing it. One can reach and fail and reach and fail, and certainly that happened before my first book as well. It’s an ongoing process. So you look anywhere, honestly. As you can probably tell from my book, I look everywhere for poetry. In the end, it's potentially present everywhere. You gotta keep looking. You gotta keep your eye on things. Everything in life, not everything is going to realize its full potential, including the poetry.  I came across that text almost by accident, while looking for something on the internet. I honestly don't remember initially what I was looking for. I can't always remember the order of things. You know how there are those print on demand services, and they reprint really old texts for you? They all have the same generic cover. All to say that the cover intrigued me at first, because it's a textbook looking cover. Several months later I realized it was the generic looking cover they used for all the old reprints regardless of the subject matter. I judged the book by the cover, but it got me to the book. So, the book itself, I don't know if I described it, but it's a really esoteric text. It is a 19th century description of birds but not birds. There are no bird descriptions; only descriptions of nests and eggs. To me, the idea of a scientific treatise focusing solely on descriptions of eggs and nests and not the birds was just intriguing. I thought, Oh god, if that's not all the metaphor potential I could ever want from my next poetry book, I don't know what is. Not to mention that they're Indian birds, which, I don't know, and generally I feel like people in the West don't know about, because there's tons of scientific work that's very much Western hemisphere focused. US and Europe. But also, tons and tons of literary treatments of birds is also Western focused, robins and swallows and whatever. So I thought, OK, in addition to that metaphor, eggs and nests, there was going to be a lot of language and learning of these other species. They would be literally exotic to me and the readers. Anyway, I started to read it, and when you go into the text, it's like reading the Bible, if you've ever attempted to do that, which I have in my life. As a post-doc, I once just said, "Hey, I'm going to read this from start to finish and see what it's like." Because you hear so much about the Bible. I'm not religious at all, of any type, but I was like, let me just see what this actual text is, the original text. And once I started reading it, it was clear that no poems were coming. And then I sort of just got into the litany of it. The repetition, the pattern, the practice of it. Every day I just read a few pages religiously of this book, and I started to read it, and ultimately I did write some poems, and I do have poems. You mentioned that it was hard to figure out a point where it was hard to call yourself an artist. Were there clearer milestones to calling yourself a scientist? Those are such good questions that I toy with a lot. I always keep flipping in terms of what I think about that. On one hand, I hate the professionalization of either of those terms. They're not really professions per se. They can be, but to me they're both ways of being in the world, and ways of knowing the world. They're different. They can overlap, but they can also be complementary. I haven't quite figured it all out yet, of how they both figure into my life. I feel that one can and should always go through the world thinking that you're artistically or scientifically inclined, and if you want to call yourself that, go for it, if you wish others to call you that, ask them to. I don't feel any problem with any of that. On the other hand, because I am a practicing scientist in the sense of, I have a PhD, I have been a professor, I’ve been doing research for twenty years now, and I know what it means to actually go through the scientific method towards scientific progress, and everything around it. I do feel there's a rigour and training and experience and ethic and community and all those things required to really call yourself a scientist. I think the difference maybe comes to what it is you're trying to achieve with these labels. There's an area of expertise that one develops as a scientist. I am a theoretical ecologist, but I am not a virologist, for example. I think there is validity to those types of labels and there's an ethic of making sure that you are speaking from a place of knowledge and experience. On the artistic side, I think the same thing probably holds true, but I think one of the differences between science and art, and I could be wrong about this and certainly I don't think that artists think this, but I think it's the case in society that there's an expectation. Society in general doesn't feel like there's as much at stake with what artists do. I feel that maybe people don't care as much about that. But artists themselves, as you probably know, care very much. I think they're often questioning what it is to be an artist. Probably it is because of that problem of society not knowing what is at stake. And also not knowing for yourself what's at stake. One always has to question that with art. With science it's a little bit easier to know. So when did it happen for me? I didn't feel it or think it, but if you look back on my actual practice and how I treated the appearance of art in my life—I wrote my first poem in the final year of writing my PhD thesis—and it was at that moment that I think that I became an artist, not because what I was writing was good, not because I was conscious of it, but because of how I engaged with poetry after that point. I took it seriously. I continued to work on it, and I continued to question it, and I continued to do it. I increasingly accumulated ambition for that art like we all do. I wanted to publish, I wanted to share it, I wanted it to be good. In hindsight, I would say it was that very moment only because of how I responded to it. That's it. Of course, as time went on and my first book came out, every little thing that happened after that reinforces it. You can always totally lose your way as an artist, which is I think harder to do as a scientist. In some ways I think because of that there is so much more at stake to remain an artist. Because you could lose it completely. Because it is mysterious, ultimately, how art is made. You have a quote by Feynman that it's hard to get the history right when you are trying to explain something. Going into it, knowing it is a memoir, I still read your book like a novel with the amount of attention to detail, and shifting of perspectives. In your half of the book, you admit the gaps of knowledge in your own history, but with your parents the text seems more sure of itself, even though you're writing through the barrier of someone else's memories. How did you go about researching their stories and getting that voice down? I'm glad you highlight the gaps and the questions, and yet I think generally speaking I was actually very reluctant to actually write any story from the first person of myself at all. I don't think I fully understand myself, right? I'm still only in midlife. My intent was not to write memoir. The function of my side was to give the reader some insight into who is the narrator of my parents' stories. Not who is Madhur Anand, you know? I'm not quite ready to write my full story. There are incredibly large pieces of my life missing on that side. Huge things. When I think back to the little stories that I included, I'm like, "How is it possible that the two most jerkiest guys are the stories that I write about." But I realized they had a function, and it wasn't really about them. It was about a time and a place. It's all to say that yes, there's a gap in memories and questioning and a lot of my side is still unwritten because it's not really about me, and I would like to pursue those perhaps one day, who knows. But there are major gaps there.   Whereas on my parents' side, certainly, again, the goal was not to write a complete biography of these individuals. I always struggled with the idea of the word "biography" because I know it's being called that and I know it's being called memoir, but I actually don't feel very comfortable with those terms. I've accepted them, but I wish there was another word that we could use to describe this book. Indeed, I wrote it in a way in which I felt I wanted it to be read as a novel, because of the big gaps that I knew would remain, gaps both deliberate and unintentional. I can't know what I don't know. In terms of how I achieved it for their side, I started with whatever it is that they wanted to tell me, stories they had been telling me their entire lives, parts of their life I hadn't heard about, and I just tried to get a few more details down. I tried to get as much knowledge as possible. I really just listened. Listening is essential for a writer, like observing is, when you're writing about others. Listening is about being present and allowing the other person to be. There were only a couple of reasons I would interject into their long monologues that I recorded. One would be if I really wanted to get a few more details, because I knew I had to elevate—I think that's the right word—I wanted to elevate these stories to literature and art. Not that stories themselves don't have value, but because that was what I wanted to do. I'm an artist. I wanted to make this into art. I just needed more on my palette, if you will. I needed some details on things. I would interject to get details of things, like colours of things or species or sounds or tastes. Things like that. But that's what we do. That's what writers do. I would also interject if the stories were so difficult for them to talk about, not that I was learning anything new, frankly. It was just finding a way to get it down in a different way. Some of it did end up coming out verbatim. Little bits. But if it was getting really difficult or painful to talk about something, I would kind of shift it. Often, I was asking the same questions but for a different function. I would ask the brand name of my mom's bike, or the colour of it. I wanted to know those things, but I was also asking her so it would take her mind away from the trauma of a particular story for a little way, to just carry us a little bit forward or to try to perhaps recall some of the more present aspects of life. That's kind of how I approached getting down their stories. Because I am me and because I am narrating, even though it's in the first person, I absolutely wanted to enrich, I wanted to bring in a second generation, a second partition, and bring all of the richness that I have gained—I don't want to sound melodramatic—but all of the sacrifices they made, everything they did, most of which was for their children and for the betterment of their children, I wanted to use all of the powers I had gained in my life, which are so different from my mother's life, or my father's life in that I've realized many of the things he's wanted to do. I wanted to bring all that wealth and richness that I have in my life to bear on their stories, and that's where both the poetry and the science, I think that was the function of both of those things in the retelling of their stories. I wanted to talk about narratives around Partition. You talk about how nothing you learned from your parents was new information for you. My grandfather's also a Punjabi Hindu, and his family had to leave their home during Partition, and they just did not talk about it when I was growing up. The writings I could find about it when I started to look were mostly just history books. It seems in the last few years, since the 70th anniversary in 2017, I've seen more things like your book, this concerted effort to get stories down as the generation who lived through Partition is aging. So first I was wondering how open your parents were to talking about Partition when you were growing up, and have you found in your research—or just as a person growing up after this generation—have you seen a shift? Like your family members, they didn't talk about it very much at all. Most of my knowledge of Partition does come from films and books. One of the first ones, there's probably a couple out there, but they're like Gandhi, the movie, I remember watching that with my parents in the ‘80s. But it just kinda happens at the end of that movie, right? You don't actually see that much. It's not actually about it. There were a few iconic things. Certainly, above all, Deepa Mehta's film Earth, but it was in 1999 it came out. I do remember when that came out, it had a particularly big impact on me, but again I watched it on my own. I didn't talk about it with my parents. I really am thankful for those artistic treatments because they do allow people like us to have a window into partition, and I think that's one of the wonderful functions, if I may say, of art. They do allow us windows into things that people don't want to talk about, or you're unable to talk about. If anything, art is so wonderful and books are so wonderful for that purpose. That's what they're for, for learning about the lives of others. If my book serves as that function, that's wonderful. I think it will. I've encountered some second generation Indian kids who all kind of say the same thing, that their parents never talked about it, they don't really know anything about it, and how are we, as second-generation immigrant kids, this is not taught in the history books, how are we going to find out about it if not through literature and books and things like that? This is the way I feel like art can actually, you know, have an impact on society. Anyway. So, Earth, there was an opening scene there are these young people in their twenties sitting on a blanket and having a picnic in Lahore, just as independence is being declared. It did allow me, first, not only to understand the time and place of Partition, but also the time and place of my parents' youth, which is also something difficult for us immigrants to imagine. My parents came from a totally different time and totally different place. It sounds so simple to say such a thing, but it took me writing this book to fully understand how different it is. And I knew it was different. That was the thing that propelled this project forward for me. I wanted to know. I wanted to be there. I wanted to go there, desperately. It's not the same as going to India today. It's not just place. I've been to India several times. I've been to where my mom grew up, but it's not as simple as doing that. It's time and place. When those two variables interact, it can be totally wild. It's really hard to imagine. You asked if there's been a shift in the literature. I too very much noticed the media attention around the 70th anniversary of Partition. I'm grateful for that, for the media, all the Guardian articles, a few other things that came out. Hazlitt actually published a really lovely essay by Rudrapriya Rathore, and she mentions a few books in there that I already had come across. Has there been since then? I haven't noticed much, to be honest. There've been a couple of nonfiction books that have come out. There was a reissue of the collected works of Manto, and there's a film made about his life. He lived through Partition and wrote incredibly potent stories in Urdu that have been translated into English now, from the points of view of prostitutes and criminals and people in insane asylums. It was just an incredible window into Partition. There are still lots of books out there, if people want to read them.
‘History Unaddressed Recurs’: An Interview with Isabel Wilkerson

Speaking to the author of Caste about the insufficiencies of the term “racism,” objectivity versus balance, and the opportunities America’s coming demographic shift presents.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, is a landmark study of the Great Migration, the period between WWI and the 1970s when millions of African-Americans fled the Jim Crow South. It was an epic subject and an epic task. Told through the lives of three individuals, Wilkerson spent fifteen years exhaustively reporting and conducting interviews. Curiously, despite the subject matter, the word “racism” does not appear once in The Warmth of Other Suns. In the course of reporting The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson realized the term was insufficient for describing the elaborate framework that organizes U.S. society. What she was writing about was actually a caste system, and this became the subject of her second book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Caste is no less ambitious than Wilkerson’s first book. By comparing the racialized system in the U.S. with the millennium-old one of India and that of Nazi Germany, Wilkerson distills what she calls the “eight pillars of caste.” She describes caste as a hierarchical system that assigns roles to members of society at each rung of the social ladder. In a caste system, consciously or subconsciously, everyone knows their place and the place of others simply by looking at them. In a caste system, it is dangerous to act out of place, to break from the script. I spoke to Wilkerson about how the U.S. caste system was born from slavery and how it has mutated throughout history, her choice to include personal experiences, and why the 2042 census projection, which predicts white people will become a minority, could be a turning point for the U.S. caste system. Connor Goodwin: I'll begin with the obvious. The U.S. is not usually viewed as a caste system. What convinced you that caste was the best way to frame how U.S. society organizes itself? And what insight does this caste fretwork provide that, say, race or class alone, does not? Isabel Wilkerson: That’s a great question. It started with my previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which was about the exodus of six million African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to all points North, Midwest, and West. In other words, it was the out-migration of people who had been born to and trapped in a caste system known as Jim Crow. I was describing the world anyone [in the Jim Crow South] was living in, whether the people were in the dominating caste or the subordinated caste—and what life was like in that world. A lot of people who’ve read the book in intervening years have often described it as a book about how they were fleeing racism in the South. But I do not use the word “racism” in the book. Racism did not feel sufficient to describe the organized, multi-layered, fixed repression of the people in that world. That repression was bigger and deeper and more far-reaching than [racism]. So the word I used was “caste.” [“Caste”] was a word that had actually been used by anthropologists and social scientists who went to the South during the Great Migration, primarily in the 1930s—the word they come up with time and time again was “caste.” So when sociologists and anthropologists went to the South and studied it when the caste system was in full force, in its most formal and brutal iteration, they used the word “caste.” In writing about the experiences of people in the twentieth century who were fleeing that caste system, only to arrive in the big cities outside of the South and to discover a different kind of hierarchy that they then had to navigate, additional restrictions that they might not have anticipated, that actually arose because of their arrival. In other words, fleeing the caste system did not free them from the caste system as it existed in other parts of the country. It shadowed them wherever they went. As a result, the language I have come to use is “caste” because it speaks to the structure, that often hidden and unrecognized hierarchy, and the boundaries that the structure imposes to keep the parts separate and ranked. That is why I use the word “caste.” What I found most convincing was that a caste system ascribes roles to people at each tier and everyone subconsciously knows these roles. Can you speak to this idea of scripted roles and what happens when someone steps outside their role? Well, there’s so many examples. Perhaps that is why the word “caste” is so appropriate, because it reminds of just what you said—the roles that we’ve been assigned. We did not choose these roles, they were assigned and affixed to us. In many respects, they hold everyone back because we often don’t get choices as to how we’re viewed, how we’re seen, what our potential is viewed to be. One of the metaphors I use is that of being in a play. If you have a long-running play, everybody knows who’s in what role, and people have been in the roles for so long they know where someone is supposed to be on the stage before they even step on the stage, because that’s what happens in a play. It’s interesting that the word “cast” is applied to a play; “cast” is what’s put on an arm when there’s a fracture to hold the bones in place. So the idea of holding someone or something in place is a hallmark of what caste means. The origins of the American hierarchy of caste began with enslavement. Literally what you looked like determined the kind of work that you would do in the country for 246 years of enslavement and then for 100 years after that in the Jim Crow caste system, [which] did not end legally until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. For most of the country’s history, it was very clear who was doing what based on what they looked like, which signaled where they stand in the caste system. The dirtiest, most dangerous, most dreaded jobs were assigned to people who were enslaved, who had no choices in what they might do, had no choice over their bodies, and this went on for over twelve generations. Even with Covid-19, studies have found that Black and brown people were getting sicker at a higher rate and dying at higher rates. Much of that had to do with the occupational caste hierarchy that became evident during the crisis, especially in the early going, when there was limited protections, limited masks for anyone. These were the people who were on the front lines: the ones stacking shelves at the grocery store, the ones who were driving the busses and public transportation, the ones making deliveries. They were on the front lines, exposed to the public without the protections we now know were necessary and advisable, and allow[ed] others to shelter-in-place and be safer from the virus. Every other week there seems to be another example of someone, generally from what would be viewed as the dominating caste inserting themselves or intruding as an African-American is going about their life and calling the police on them for something that would be seen as perhaps benign by someone else. Someone called the police on two African-American men waiting for a friend at a Starbucks. Someone called the [campus] police on a student at Yale University who was studying and resting her head on her books. There’s police being called on people who are at a pool. These are the current-day manifestations of policing the boundaries and the instant recognition of or belief that certain people belong in certain places and others do not. Is there a way in which the ongoing protests as part of the Movement for Black Lives is challenging the caste script? I think that all the liberation movements that have occurred throughout American history have been an effort to challenge the pre-existing caste system. This is part of a continuum. History unaddressed recurs. American history is one that can be characterized by the underlying structure that we live with, but then these advances that have occurred over time that were often swiftly followed by retrenchment and backlash and a long period of plateauing. It’s this cycle that seems to be recurring and this is a continuing manifestation of the efforts to bring light to, and to somehow transcend, the hierarchies that have been the basis of so much injustice and inequality in the country. You speak of caste as a rigid organizing system that seeks to keep the dominant members on top and the subordinate ones on the bottom. While this organizing system is rigid, what constitutes someone as a member of the dominant caste has changed over time. In what ways has the U.S. caste system reconstituted itself throughout history? The essential hierarchy—the structure—remains the same. But who qualifies to be in the dominant group, who can be permitted, admitted, into the dominant group is one of the focuses of any caste system. The people who qualify to be in the dominant group have changed over time to meet the needs of changing demographics and infusion of people into the country. In 1790, the people who would’ve qualified to be in the dominant group, the people who qualified as white, would be completely different from who would’ve qualified in 1890 or 1924 when a major immigration bill passed that actually restricted people who were coming in from Southern and Eastern Europe and other parts of the world outside of Western Europe. The fact of a dominant group has been ever-present. The fact of a bottom rail has been ever-present and has been more static in its membership—descendants of the enslaved have always been consigned to the subordinated bottom of the caste system. The changes have occurred in the top. This is the reason why [we talk about] the idea of race as a social construct. But we have been so acclimated and so socialized to believe in [race] as [a] law of nature that it has come to be seen as the way things have always been. But it turns out race is not actually that old of an idea, only four or five hundred years old. It arose as a concept with the populating of the Americas which brought together people from different parts of the world who otherwise would not have been identified on the basis solely of their color. They would have been identified as Ethiopian or as Polish or as Hungarian and suddenly they get to the United States and they are put in a queue based on what they look like, based on where they fit in the hierarchy that was created as a result of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. People who had not needed to think of themselves as white, not needed to think of themselves as Black, are suddenly assigned to racial categories that did not exist before, that did not need to exist before. This is how relatively new [race] is, but it has been around long enough, become so much a part of how we think of ourselves, we don’t question it anymore. The language of caste is this new language for understanding ourselves, for understanding our history, understanding how we interact with one another, how we relate to one another, and how we have inherited this framework. No one alive is responsible for creating [and] it’s not anyone’s fault they were born to a particular place in the caste system. This is what we inherited. But once we become aware of it, it is our responsibility to see how it affects us, how it hurts all of us and what we can do to work together to transcend it. In Caste, you reluctantly introduce some personal experiences. Why did you choose to include these, and did that choice in some way resonate with the recent discourse around “objectivity” in journalism? The idea of objectivity was not an issue for me. There’s a whole long conversation that could be had about objectivity. We are a species known for our capacity for emotion, for empathy, for taking in information and inputs from many different sources in order to survive. By definition, it means that we are not machines that can be seen as objective. We are, by definition, taking in inputs and sensory information that we then encode subconsciously and consciously that affect how we see a particular thing. Objectivity is not the same as authority. Objectivity is not the same as doing the research. Objectivity is not the same as doing the hard work to create a document that reflects the research one has done. The goal should be balance. The goal is not to pretend we are machines. We fool ourselves if we think any one person, or any one group, has a lock on objectivity. My work has always been about telling a bigger story through the lives of other people and not making it personal so that someone would think this is singular to her. I’m more accustomed to and feel very at home with focusing in on the stories of others in order to tell a larger story through narrative nonfiction. That’s what I do, that’s who I am, and that’s what I prefer to do. In the process of doing the work that I have felt called to do, I have also run into the very phenomena I am writing about, so that’s the reason why it seemed necessary, reluctantly for me, to include examples from my own experiences. Your last book, The Warmth of Other Suns, told the history of the Great Migration through the lived experiences of three individuals. Whereas that book was very biographical and consisted of extensive in-person interviews, your new book relies more heavily on archives and academic studies. How did this affect your reporting for Caste and did it present any unique challenges (like you couldn’t go back for more interviews)? That’s a really good point. There was a mix of all those things. I did do extensive interviewing and interaction and conversation with people who were dealing with caste in their own ways. The difference is that this is not the same kind of focus on just three people like The Warmth of Other Suns was. This is a chorus of people testifying to the experiences that they might have had of caste. In addition to that work of listening to, hearing, searching out, and being attuned to the stories of people that I was meeting or talking to, I also was looking to the other disciplines that touch upon caste in order to understand it as fully as I possibly could. Anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, economics—all of these various disciplines. I was awash in books. Books, books, books. Books that were written about caste from, say, the nineteenth century. British scholars writing about caste. Indian scholars writing about caste. There was a point where I was having to read a book a day because there was so much coming in, so much that needed to be done. The work was massive to study, absorb, and then distill these disparate cultures, different disciplines, [and] try to condense this into something that would be readable, absorbable, and perhaps illuminating to people. Throughout the book, you bring up the 2042 census projection, which predicts white people will become a minority in the U.S. In what ways might the 2042 census upset the current caste system and, since it is based on race, how might the caste system reconstitute itself if whites, the dominant caste, become a minority? The country will be facing a turning point in its identity and it has a choice to make as to how it will move forward, how it will perceive itself, how it will reconcile a demographic combination that it’s never seen before. If projections hold, this will be a new experience for everyone wherever they might be in what I call a caste system. What I’m trying to say is it will affect everyone and the choice is whether to embrace this change and become stronger for it or to further retrench and reconstitute the caste system as has happened in the past. When you look at the 1924 immigration bill, the response was to shut down additional immigration to keep the country constituted the way it had been. The country is facing an existential question about what it will be, how will it constitute itself, will it embrace a demographic that’s different than what it’s done before. The caste system has been in place from the beginning and has shown itself to be incredibly resilient and enduring and, unless there’s an awareness and enlightenment about that, the possibility is that, without enlightenment and awareness, it will just reconstitute itself as it has in the past.
‘People are Grappling with Losing the Life They Had Before’: An Interview with Karolina Waclawiak

The author of Life Events on grieving, exit guides, and the way we think about death. 

In 1967, British psychiatrist John Mark Hinton tried to outline dying in just 144 pages. Brief as it was, Dying didn’t discuss finality with euphemisms, but centred the experiences of terminally ill patients. And while the book guided the implementation of palliative care in hospices, it did little to acknowledge how those institutions conceal death and illness. Over fifty years later, and in the midst of a pandemic, deaths are not only abstracted in statistics, but we’re being forced to move on without grieving that loss. In her third novel, Life Events (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Karolina Waclawiak considers the pre-grieving stage of loss. Her narrator, Evelyn, is at a crossroads: her marriage is ending and her father is dying, so she becomes an exit guide. It’s in meetings with death doulas and afterlife conventions that she learns how to provide companionship to three terminally ill “clients,” and helps them die. Exit guides help restore dignity to the dying by letting them dictate it or, as her boss proselytizes, “[d]eath isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you do.”  While Evelyn struggles with her avoidant relationship to pain and grief, she ultimately makes peace with her failures and choices—something Waclawiak’s characters have evaded at all costs. In her two previous novels How to Get into the Twin Palms and The Invaders, they are outsiders, constantly faced with the pressures to pass as much as they can in order to be accepted. Life Events ends on a more hopeful note, with Evelyn playing back old voicemails from her parents, wondering what will happen when they can no longer ramble on. Sara Black McCulloch: How is everything in LA right now? Karloina Waclawiak: When I went to get my dad out of Texas, because the numbers were going up there, California was fine. And then we drove to Connecticut to bring my dad to my brother, and in the time it took for me to do that... I returned to California and it’s now a disaster. Life Events deals with grief and death and with everything going on with COVID, has this changed your views on grief or shifted the way that you were thinking about a lot of this before the pandemic? In the early weeks of the pandemic, I saw a lot of young people and people my age start talking about health directives, feeling like anything could happen. They started to think about, what would happen if they died? And it really felt like a mass movement that I've never seen before. I think in general, Americans certainly have an uncomfortable relationship with death, if they have a relationship to it at all. And to me, in American culture, it feels like death is really hidden away. Aging is really hidden away. And aging is seen as a threat and something to fix if possible. And so, it was really interesting to me to see the pandemic as this sort of great leveler—where everyone had this acute threat of, what happens if I die or my loved one dies? To me, that's been really the striking moment of the pandemic. And it felt like, wow, everything I wrote about in the book, just their energy, has come to the fore. But with that, you know, I had anxiety. Everyone is already feeling terrible. A book about grief? Do people really want to confront grief? But it is an inevitability. Recently, I saw tweets where people were talking about writing wills just in case, and few people, especially young people, have had to consider that until now. Because of COVID, hospitals have instituted a no-visitor policy, and now a lot of people have been dying in hospitals alone. Their families can’t properly mourn or even hold a funeral. Even during this pandemic and this monumental loss, a lot of us are still not seeing it. It’s so heart wrenching having someone you love die. I lost my mother in September, and talked to my family about this. It was awful, but the idea of... just, what so many families are now facing, like you said: if she were in the hospital and we could not be with her, that would just have added a whole other layer of grief. I can't even comprehend what families are going through, especially if it's somebody who was not previously ill, that sort of dramatic turn, and then having them go to the hospital, not knowing what's happening and really being cut off. And then, you know, being told they're gone. It's just so shocking, and I think, with the pandemic in general, we're all suffering from a collective grief as a society. I truly don't believe it will ever go back to the way It was and a lot of people are grappling with losing the kind of life that they had before. I certainly heard from people who said, “I'm okay right now,” and who are expressing gratitude. I feel the same way—that my life has changed significantly—but I also feel grateful for the life that I have. That collective grief of not going back to the way it was and having to sit with an uncomfortable feeling of not knowing when and then the added layer of grief that comes from watching so many people die. Even if you're not intimately connected with someone who has passed away, just seeing the numbers climb is really debilitating. All of this is to say that I think it is unreal to me to not be able to be with your loved one as they're dying. That was an experience [losing someone] that I had with my mother and my grandfather who passed away over a decade ago. It's such a profound experience. It's really terrifying, and it changes you, but for people to not have the opportunity to mourn feels like another kind of grief. The way we talk about death is through so many euphemisms. We have this urge to compartmentalize it. And the language for death distances us from it. Did you ever struggle to give a language to grief and to that kind of mourning when you were writing the book?  I tried to be clear-eyed about it. During the editing process, my mother passed away and even though I had lost my grandfather, like, the level of grief when it comes to losing a parent is not something you really understand until you go through it. So, the purpose of the book was to try to capture that anxiety of pre-grieving and knowing something is coming. And so, it is a book about grief, but it's a specific time: it's not the aftermath. It's the wave that's coming to crash down on you and what that anticipation feels like. I just didn't think that hiding behind euphemism or being particularly flowery about it was going to serve the purpose that I wanted the book to serve. I read Joan Didion's work on grief, and to me that also was so plainly written and so direct. And so, I really wanted to do something similar in capturing the time before and just create work that people could find and just be straight with them about what that grappling looks like. Did you speak to any death doulas while researching the book? The origination of this whole project actually came from randomly listening to the Criminal podcast and there was an episode about an exit guide, and I was so shaken by the episode because I had never heard of volunteers who work as exit guides. The only understanding I had around assisted suicide was Dr. Kevorkian in the ’90s. And so, this woman’s testimonial of why she was providing this service, why there's a whole network of people providing a service, gave a nuanced understanding of that work. I'm certainly a writer who does research. I want to, hopefully, sound like I know what I’m talking about so I did take courses with a death doula and it's interesting because there's certainly a break between people who are okay with assisted suicide and the larger death doula community, so I certainly don't want to conflate the two because death doulas really sit with people as they're dying. They're really going through the whole process of helping someone die naturally. And that was an interesting tension too. I tried to nod to that in the book. I had a bit in there about people’s comfortability with assisted suicide. It is a transgressive act, and it's not even legal in most states in the US. It’s obviously legal in Switzerland, but I really was thinking about the idea of control in death, and how long we allow ourselves to suffer. And taking back that sense of control—not even putting a value judgment on it—just thinking about, how long do I want to live? How long if I know I'm terminal? Do I want to suffer? Is that suffering needless? Is there another way out? And so, I did immerse myself in death communities. I really went deep into the people who attend afterlife conventions. I even attended one myself and wanted to understand what level of grief drives people to even seek out psychics—to really believe in people who say they can give you access to the afterlife. I wanted to provide an empathetic picture of the world of death without necessarily taxing value judgments. In the book, there are discussions among the exit guides—where they assess their own quality of life in percentages, and what “weaknesses” they could live with. For instance, one person says they want to go at 20 percent, which means that they would be fully reliant on an IV, a feeding tube and intubated. It made me think about how in many narratives about death, especially in illness narratives, there’s an honour in suffering and here, people are determining at what point their quality of life is severely compromised and not worth living. We don’t really talk about this or even assess it for ourselves and even now, we’re hearing about people being intubated and how painful that is even though it’s supposed to keep you alive. We don't examine these procedures because they’re tied to a cure, and to medicine and hospitals. They do good, they keep you alive, but not necessarily in the best way possible. And that’s a controversial opinion. I’m okay with people not agreeing with me on that, that at a certain point, if your loved one is dying, and it's terminal, a lot of times people are kept alive, because the family can't let go. I've had friends whose parents have died. It's really hard to make that choice, to say: okay, pull the plug (so to speak). But you really do have to start thinking about quality of life, which is what's really interesting about making a health directive saying, I don't want to be intubated. This is the quality of life that I'm willing to say, like, past this point, I'm not interested in living. The fact that more and more people are thinking about this and actually making those decisions, especially if they have children... that's something that I put in there, too. You don't ask someone who is really close to you to make that decision because they're going to be thinking about their wants and needs over yours. It’s human nature and it’s complicated. But when do you say enough is enough? And when do you really give up? It's almost like you're giving up hope on the person, which feels so loaded, but when it’s clear they're suffering and there's no “what's next?” I remember thinking about that, like where are they going to go from here? There’s no up!  I remember reading an excerpt of Life Events back in 2015—“Late-Night Bloomers”? I remember it being written in the third person. I wanted to know why you chose to write it from Evelyn’s perspective instead or what had prompted that change?  I worked on that with Paul Reyes, who is a brilliant editor, and that was sort of a selection from the book that I was writing at the time. And it was all in the third person. I wrote to the end and I actually showed it to Paul and asked what he thought of it. The main thought was that perhaps it shouldn't be in third person. And writing that whole draft... I felt so distant from the why—why would Evelyn do this? What was going on in her life that she would make the choices that she made? And it was a totally different book. I just didn't feel like I had access to the characters in the way that I wanted. I threw that whole draft away and I kept Evelyn’s name, what she did, and I kept maybe like a dozen pages, and I totally started over. And it was terrifying! I was under contract for the book. They were really pushing me to publish it within the year. And I felt such a sense of anxiety. Basically, I didn't want to put out a book that I didn't want to write, so I got out of my book contract. And it took getting out of my book contact to feel the freedom of, like, “Okay, I'm gonna take the time I need. I'm going to write the book that I want to write. And who knows, maybe it'll take me ten years. I just don't want to feel like I'm being rushed.” I aged Evelyn down—in “Late-Night Bloomers,” she's in her fifties, I think, and I really thought about, what age is someone at a crossroads? I felt like since this was such a big life event—to want to be around people who are dying, like, what else is going on in her life? I started thinking about the big life events like marriage, children and the markers of progress and stuff. I started thinking about a woman who felt like she had gotten all of those things wrong and really felt stagnant in her own life and was using this as a catalyst in a way to selfishly wake up, along with trying to desensitize herself of her parents dying. I had her going through a divorce and edging towards forty, which is a pivotal year for women because there are a couple of years left when you can actually have children. But what happens when your whole life blows up later in life? And thinking about the sort of life you're supposed to have by the time you're nearing forty, and stripping that from Evelyn, and really thinking about somebody who even in her career hasn't had those highs and what that looks like and then giving her something that really becomes her obsession. It took me six years, but I'm really proud of this iteration. It really took me having to throw the first draft and getting out of the contract to get here. You empathize with your characters, especially the women like Evelyn. Do you always extend that kind of understanding to them, or do you have to come around? I love my characters. I feel like I have to, warts and all, especially if I’m spending so much time with them. It always bugs me when critics are like, “Karolina always writes unlikable female narrators,” and I’m like, “I write them all!” It's hard because in all of my books, I've always written complicated women who make choices that are often transgressive, that are going against the grain of what you're supposed to do as a woman. And so that does rub people the wrong way. I personally find complex women really interesting and I wouldn't want to write about women who aren't making mistakes. But I also never want to torture my narrator. I want to take them as far as they can go and make them uncomfortable. And I definitely know that in making them uncomfortable sometimes it's uncomfortable for readers. I never do it just for the hell of it. They learn something about themselves, but not in a corny way. So much of the book became a question of how you avoid pain and seeing the way Evelyn dissected the ways she avoided pain her whole life, and part of that was getting married and seeing how much more pain that caused her. I think this is probably the first book where my narrator has been able to face herself. I was going to say! [Laughs] I mean, I have women who avoid themselves, or trying to figure themselves out but the willingness to really face yourself, I don't think has been there as much as it has in this book and that felt even scarier! In your two previous novels, I was especially thinking about Cheryl (from The Invaders) who stayed in her marriage because she didn't want to start all over again. But Evelyn ends her marriage and deals with the uncomfortable realities of starting from scratch at thirty-seven. And I think in the past, your characters have dealt with passing in communities—they’re outsiders dealing with their identity but not fully confronting it so they try to assimilate instead. Usually the endings are so explosive because the women are self-destructive. But Evelyn forgives herself. It feels like a natural progression to have your narrator confront herself and forgive herself so she can move forward. I was like, “maybe I'll end this book with a hopeful ending”—a totally new challenge for myself. I really do feel like this book is this journey of self-discovery for her, and the end of that self-discovery is just forgiveness. I think that forgiving yourself is the hardest thing you can do. Giving up resentments against other people is really difficult to do. Seeing the part you played in your issues impacting other people in your life and then saying, “I own that, and I forgive myself for it.” It's growth! And I really wanted Evelyn to start in one place and change. It's not this explosive change, but it felt important to me to end somewhere in forgiveness because she really blamed so much of the way her life turned out on herself. And that fear of making choices, but through being around people who are dying and trying to leave without resentments and leave without unfinished business, for lack of a better term...I think she really wants to learn how to live consciously and take ownership over her actions and ownership over her life instead of being evasive. In The Invaders, Cheryl certainly felt like an evasive character. With Evelyn, while saying that vulnerability was the hardest thing for her to ever do, she was being so vulnerable with the reader, which was something that I felt could also provide nuance to her. It didn't seem reasonable for me to withhold from the reader and, I think in other books, I certainly have withheld in how much you got to know about each woman. And I really love those kinds of books. I love Rachel Cusk’s trilogy because you learn virtually nothing about her character, but I wanted to almost do the opposite of that, where you’re watching the machination of Evelyn try to confront herself. I do feel that in those moments of forgiveness, she is setting herself free and that to me feels like a beautiful endpoint that feels less tragic than the other books I’ve written. At the end of Life Events, Evelyn listens to old voicemails from her parents and it’s a gesture of pre-grieving—of revisiting someone’s voice when and if you lose them. It’s weird because a lot of us dread voicemails, but they can also be a connection to someone we’ve lost. Their voice can have so much more impact on you than, say, a photo. Totally. My phone right now probably has twenty unlistened-to voicemails… Right? Have you saved any voicemails that really matter to you? Especially now that you’ve been grieving? I think you either have denial about what's going to happen, especially if your parents are aging and you don't think about building an archive of what you’ll miss. For me, I certainly wasn't thinking in that way, but I now wish I was because I don't even have any videos of my mom. I remember we would go on trips together and I was always documenting everything because I had my phone. But I was deleting stuff because I needed more memory and so I don't have videos of my mom on my phone. I have some “Live Photos,” which I’ll watch sometimes where I'll see some movement. I deleted so many of her voicemails for the same reason, like where is this message going? And I cleaned up in my inbox, but rarely did I transfer files. Who has a “Mom” file in anticipation of her passing? I certainly wish I had, but I do have a few voicemails that I've listened to when I want to feel really emotional, but it made me think about how memory functions and what we collect of the people that we love. Of course, there was an era of home videos and everybody had a camcorder and stuff but we really only have our phones now and there's a finite amount of memory there. So even thinking about what has value and what doesn't—I have so many stupid photos that I could have deleted to save videos, but I didn't and it's impossible to prepare. Who the hell wants to prepare? I’ve been thinking, with static photographs, that memory is faulty. It’s also a question of access: if you’re looking at photos, it could be you when you were younger with your parents and you have a perception of what was happening but you don’t have that other person’s input and maybe you remembered incorrectly—maybe you’re blocking out things that were painful about that memory. Having a video or voicemail of it feels like a more potent archive than just a photo because you can overlay whatever you want over that photo, but it isn’t necessarily the truth. I think that after someone dies, you’re looking for the truth, but the access to the truth is cut off. There are so many things I wished I had asked my mother that I’ll never know the answer to and I’ll never get that truth. I can ask my dad, but he has his own truth of whatever that was. You’re losing access to someone’s inner life, even if they didn’t give you a lot. With Evelyn and her clients, it’s all about access and access to those intimate moments, in a way. She takes something from a client’s house—it’s such a random object, but in a way, it’s her wanting to preserve a memory of that happening or that the event existed, that the person existed. Even in the training session, there’s a moment where people are asked to give things up and I think a lot about inheritance and which objects have meaning. I used to go to vintage shops all the time and even swap meets, and just looked at family photos and items that have been passed down. You don’t know the journey of that object, but it was always weird to me to go through boxes of people’s photos. How does this stuff end up here? These are all someone else’s memories. We lack that context. It’s interesting because as much as Evelyn clings to objects, when she is helping her clients clear up their spaces, it’s in an effort to help out the people they leave behind—so they don’t have to deal with someone else’s stuff, so to speak. Things can mean something to us, but with enough distance from those objects, they’re simply clutter to someone else. So many things provide painful memories and part of that empathetic gesture of helping people exit their lives is trying to take the pain away from the loved ones who have to live with this choice and live with the death of their loved ones. It’s easing their pain and suffering too. For Evelyn in her divorce, she really doesn’t take that much from the home even though her husband is trying to give her things. That transference of wanting someone to remember a relationship—a relationship that Evelyn is trying to forget—that’s a pain-avoidant thing, too. Sometimes people do it for us or we do it for ourselves; we self-select what we surround ourselves with and often having objects without context is taking a layer of pain and understanding away on purpose. Were Evelyn’s three clients—Daphne, Lawrence and Daniel—inspired by any experiences or people you met in these meetings or the afterlife convention? Daphne was someone who was going to spur the most feelings about her mom and that was the most painful experience for her—looking at the frailty of an older woman. Evelyn was trying to impose a relationship on Daphne. They didn’t know each other, and yet, she really wanted to create memories with her and deviate from what you’re supposed to do based on the training. I was thinking about what it means to be a person alone, having to reckon with the end of your life, so someone like Lawrence, who was at once on top of the world and now at the end of his life, he’s this old, anonymous man in an apartment building where, who knows? You burned bridges. It was about what it means to be no one, in a sense, after you’ve been someone. With Daniel, she was really confronting the type of men that she had fallen for. I think Evelyn is trying to reckon with what it means to try to save people, putting herself in situations knowing that it’s impossible. In a way, that’s a selfish act for her, too, to try to put herself through these trials in an attempt to force herself to learn something. The people that I met travelling in these worlds certainly were trying to prepare for their own parents’ deaths and feeling anxiety about what to do, as if there’s some textbook that you follow of how to be the perfect kid as your parent is dying. There’s only so much preparation you can do. Also, you have to give somebody the dignity of their own experience. You could be trying to have your loved one accept death and be okay with what’s happening and they could be absolutely not okay with what’s going on, not wanting to have some big conversation towards the end of their life or wrap anything up tidily. There is a sense of agency there, that we don’t get to choose how someone dies or what their experience is like, and that goes for either end of it, whether you’re taking care of somebody or you’re the person dying. A lot of this book, for me, was about letting go of that control, of what you think your life should look like. And what the end of it should like. Exactly. The end of life experience and all those expectations. I think that in popular culture, we’ve seen so much of this internal reckoning, where everybody gets to say goodbye. I talked to people who were completely crushed. I mean, we were talking about this earlier, what’s at the fore of COVID right now—their loved one died and they never got to say goodbye. They have no closure. They’re never going to get closure. And you have to find a way to move on anyway. Death is really messy. Death doesn’t necessitate enlightenment either. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but sometimes you get sick, and there’s no narrative you can attach to it to ease that pain or even understand it. And some people don’t want to assign a greater meaning to it. We’re all accepting some profound experience at the end of life—and it is a profound experience, I don’t want to take anything away from that—but you can’t plan for what’s going to happen! It’s such a complicated relationship. I was born in Poland but grew up in America, in American culture. I know what the Polish relationship is with death, just from going back to Poland and having Polish parents. When we visited, we went to the cemetery to see our relatives and pay our respects. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that’s something that happens here. It’s a cultural thing and I’ve always been, in a way, death-obsessed and just thinking culturally about how we navigate death. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings and we all have different needs and wants. We just can’t say what these things are going to look like. We put a lot more effort into hitting targets and milestones instead. There’s no energy or time devoted to death or those health directives. It’s even crazy to me how quickly you even have to go back to work! The bereavement leave? Yeah! The fact that we have very little space for mourning or it’s such a prescribed amount of time: you get x amount for bereavement unless you decide to take more. Grief is such an out of control process and it goes on for a long time. Even just trying to put parameters around something like that. Personally, grief has been physical, emotional and it comes in waves. I can be fine for months and then feel like I’m back at square one. I really wanted to investigate our relationship with mourning and death and why we haven’t made a space for thinking about these things more readily and not figure out the best way to do it. To me, there is no “best way.” I want to raise those questions: what do you want your relationship with death to look like? I don’t really believe in that kind of closure, either—that a formula for grief will help you get there. I don’t think of it in terms of goal-setting either—that’s so strange to me.  And what is closure, anyway? That you don’t get to feel this anymore? That speaks to how we as culture don’t want to sit with our uncomfortable feelings, we want to know what the end is and we’re really being tested now because we’re in a situation where there is no end in sight. It’s ultimately about acceptance. You don’t get closure. You don’t know when something is going to end. The way someone you love dies doesn’t look the way you want it to and most of us just don’t get closure and we have to be ok with that. It doesn’t mean we’re happy about it. Acceptance doesn’t mean, “I love it.” Have you been feeling any pressure to be productive or work on anything else? I feel like that’s how a lot of people have been grappling with that uncertainty lately. I wrote one essay since I finished my book. I have not started writing a new book. I’ve been thinking about a new book, but I’ve been absolutely unproductive during this time. I really had to give myself a break about it. I only just started reading again. I haven’t really watched TV. I was telling a friend the other day that I can barely bring myself to watch reality TV. I’m trying to spend a lot of time outside because being in your house all the time is so hard and having to tell yourself things are okay all the time to just get through the day is so exhausting that I don’t have time to be productive.
Concerning the Many Legends of the Cyclone Named Jack Trice

He was a hero, a man who broke a barrier, but everything that’s happened since he died has way more to do with us than him.

Dozens and dozens of college football stadiums are named after people, and there’s a story behind each. Those backstories are often pretty simple: Some guy gave a lot of money to a university, or a lot of people died in a war. Not much room for mystery there. Well, most of them are pretty simple. Jack Trice was the grandson of enslaved people and the son of a Buffalo Soldier. In 1864, Tennesseans named George Wallace and Phyllis Trice gave birth to Green Trice, the man who would become Jack’s father. Two years later, the federal Army Reorganization Act called for the formation of regiments composed “of colored men.” These calvarymen, who would be given the nickname Buffalo Soldiers by Native American tribes, became part of America’s bloody conquest of the West. Green joined the United States Army in 1882 at Fort Davis in Texas—a fort named after a former U.S. Secretary of War who’d since been the president of the Confederacy. Davis’ Confederacy had then lost a war against that same U.S. Army during Green's lifetime.11Green Trice death certificate We do not know where Green served, only that he helped win the white man’s war against Indigenous people. Green would eventually leave the military and return east. He would marry a woman named Anna, and they would reside in a small town about 30 miles outside of Cleveland. In 1902, their son Jack was born. Green died when Jack was just a young boy, leaving his mother to raise him alone for most of his life. Anna was fearful for him. She wanted her son to know what he would be up against and worried that Hiram, Ohio, a town with very few Black families, would isolate him from racial realities. When Jack was ready for high school, his mother sent him to live with an uncle in Cleveland. She wanted “to get him among people of his own kind, to meet the problems that a Negro boy would have to face sometime, and to give him an opportunity to make social contacts with people of his own race,”22Steven Jones, Football’s Fallen Hero according to a childhood friend. That friend said Trice “was always a part of our school parties in various homes, with never a thought of any difference of color of skin.” But it’s folly to assume any Black child in America didn’t feel racism’s sting, as those in predominantly white upbringings often feel isolation they do not or cannot show. In Cleveland, Trice attended East Tech High School and became a multisport star. The football coach was former Ohio State player Sam Willaman, and the team was nearly unbeatable throughout Trice’s career. One of their few losses was a de facto high school national championship in 1920, when the team rode a train to play in Washington state. Trice played tackle, making him a lineman on offense and something like a modern DE on defense. He was all-state. In 1921, he was one of East Tech’s two Black football players.33Joshua Kagavi, The Jack Trice Story “No better tackle ever played high school ball in Cleveland. He had speed, strength and smartness,”44Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 1979 said Johnny Behm, a high school teammate. Another teammate, Harry Schmidt, said Trice was skilled enough to become all-conference at the college level, even All-American. His barrier against playing football in college was skin, not skill. Deep South powers didn’t integrate until the ’60s and ’70s. Some Black players starred closer to his home, but were usually exceptions. As Jack was completing high school, Iowa’s Duke Slater was an All-American. Near Jack’s hometown, Fritz Pollard was becoming the NFL’s first Black player-coach—but the league wouldn’t hire another Black head coach for 68 more years. After Trice graduated in 1922, Willaman got the head coaching job at Iowa State. Two of Trice’s teammates at East Tech, brothers Norton and Johnny Behm, turned down Notre Dame to join their former coach. A few other standout Cleveland players also became Cyclones. Trice was working road construction when Willaman came to invite him to join the team. Football looked to be Trice’s ticket to a better life. His dad, a farmer, doesn’t appear to have started the first grade until after turning 20. Trice was poised to become the first Black athlete in Iowa State history. The school’s first Black student and first Black faculty member had been George Washington Carver, who’d received a master’s degree in 1896 and gone on to deliver agricultural innovations to Southern farmers.55Kansas City Star, August 2004 Jack enrolled in Iowa State’s animal husbandry program with the goal of earning a degree and using it to help Black farmers in the South. The Des Moines Register called Trice one of the best linemen on Iowa State’s freshman team (until 1972, most college football governing bodies banned freshmen from varsity games). He also won a shot-put event in a Missouri Valley Conference track meet. By 1923, his sophomore year, he was a varsity football starter, which was especially noteworthy. Per that era’s rules, if a player subbed out in the first half he couldn’t come back in until halftime. If he subbed out in the second half, his day was done. After what amounted to a tune-up against Simpson College, Iowa State’s student newspaper recapped his varsity debut: The big colored boy, Jack Trice, is by far the most outstanding performer and gave evidence of being one of the best tackles in the Missouri Valley this year in the last weekend’s play against Simpson. Trice is fast, strong and a heady player. You can find accounts that describe Trice as damn near a Black Paul Bunyan, listing him as 6’2 and 200 pounds, quite big for the era. A program from his first varsity game had him at 182 pounds,66Joshua Kagavi, The Jack Trice Story already the third-heaviest Cyclone. When Jack returned to Ames for his sophomore year in 1923, he’d brought along Cora Mae, his wife. The two had married the year prior. Black people weren't allowed to live on Iowa State's campus, so the Trices lived upstairs in an off-campus Masonic Temple that still stands today. They did the things young lovers do. Jack worked a side job as a janitor, so he had keys to the campus pool, and the two would sneak in to go skinny-dipping, according to the family’s telling. In a letter Cora Mae later wrote to Iowa State, she recalled a conversation they had just before he left for Minnesota, the site of his first major-level college football game. “He came to tell me good bye,” Cora Mae wrote. “We kissed and hugged and he told me that he would come back to me as soon as he could.” Now picture Trice in his Minneapolis hotel room, the night before the game. He sat down on Friday night and wrote a letter on hotel stationery. There’s no telling whom he intended to mail it to or if he intended to mail it at all. The emphasis is his: To whom it may concern, My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life. The honor of my race, family, & self are at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will! My whole body & soul are to be thrown recklessly about on the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped, I will be trying to do more than my part. On all defensive plays I must break thru the opponents line at stop the play in their territory. Beware of mass interference & fight low with your eyes open and toward the play. Roll block the interference. Watch out for cross bucks and reverse end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good. Jack It is a poignant note. It’s also the only thing I could find written about Trice by Trice. It looks like something a Hollywood screenwriter would dream up and in your head you can hear soft strings building toward crescendo. Maybe some drums as the scene cuts to the pregame locker room. Trice knew he was about to be the only Black man on the field, probably the whole stadium. He knew Minnesota was especially imposing. The Gophers already had a national title in their history, and this year’s team would finish 5-1-1 with two All-Americans. And Trice surely knew the risks of football. For decades, football had been killing people on the field. During the 1905 season, President Teddy Roosevelt had met with college leaders and told them to clean the game up. That season, at least 19 high school and college players died, and another 135 were injured, according to the Chicago Tribune, too much even for the ol’ Rough Rider: I have no sympathy whatever with the overwrought sentimentality that would keep a young man in cotton wool, and I have a hearty contempt for him if he counts a broken arm or collarbone as a serious consequence when balanced against the chance of showing that he possesses hardihood, physical address, and courage. But when these injuries are inflicted by others, either wantonly or of set design, we are confronted by the question, not of damage to one man’s body but of damage to the other man’s character.77The Washington Post, October 1905 The next year, admins overhauled football’s rules, which had only evolved so much since the game’s origin as a brawl with a ball. The biggest change was to allow the forward pass—even though incompletions were penalized, which discouraged one of football’s few tactics that didn’t resemble trench warfare. Along the way, college football got rid of some dangerous mass plays like the flying wedge, which meant slamming together tight packs of bodies at full speed. Yet as of 1923, other mass plays remained. Helmets were still leather, and shoulder pads were still insignificant. In 1923, over a decade after the partial implementation of the forward pass, the toll remained similar; at least 18 college football players died that year from injuries suffered on the field. Most accounts of Iowa State’s 1923 trip to Minnesota agree on a few things. Trice was injured on one of the first few plays: a broken collarbone and dislocated shoulder. He stayed in the game. According to the rules, if he left, he couldn't have returned until the second half. At some point in the third quarter, Trice got hurt again. This time it was his abdomen, and this time he was unable to continue. Later, some reports would say doctors found lung hemorrhages and internal bleeding. Trice likely downplayed what was happening inside his body. Multiple accounts say he protested to keep playing but was helped off the field by two teammates and taken immediately to a Minneapolis hospital. A doctor there said his condition was serious, but allowed him to go back to Ames. The injuries were not professionally diagnosed until after Trice rode home on a straw mattress in a train. Perhaps that doctor failed Trice. But note this: We have no way of knowing whether anyone investigated it. Trice arrived at Iowa State’s campus hospital. Sunday night, a specialist determined there was nothing they could do for his internal bleeding, not even emergency operation. Cora Mae was in the campus cafeteria Monday afternoon when one of Trice’s fraternity brothers summoned her to the hospital. “When I saw him, I said Hello Darling," she later wrote. “He looked at me, but never spoke. I remember hearing the Campanile chime 3 o'clock. That was Oct 8th, 1923, and he was gone.” If that first doctor missed Trice’s injuries, what else might be missing? What do we know? The answer depends on which account you’re reading, and when the account was written. Sunday, October 7, 1923 Three stories from reporters who’d attended the previous day’s game reference Jack’s injury directly: Minnesota’s student paper, the St. Paul Daily News, and the Des Moines Register. As part of play-by-play details, each reported Trice was on offense as Iowa State got to the 45-yard line on a reception by a Behm brother, though they differed on which one—two said Johnny. Each described Trice getting injured during that play, then leaving because of it. The Minnesota Tribune’s Sunday edition only has a reference to Trice being substituted out in the third quarter in its box score, but its play-by-play is generally less comprehensive. Monday, October 8 The Ames Daily Tribune said, “Jack Trice, colored tackle, was forced out of the game in the third period with internal injuries and it will probably be four weeks before he will be in condition to scrimmage again.” By mid-afternoon, Trice was dead, as a late edition of Iowa State’s student newspaper reported. He had been trampled in “an off-tackle play.” Tuesday, October 9 In reporting his death, the Minnesota Tribune added to the list of outlets referencing Trice playing offense at the time of the injury, also describing him as one-on-one blocking downfield: “Late in the third period another play was directed at his position and Trice broke through to block the Gopher’s secondary defense. He blocked his man but he failed to get up.” But in other outlets, the particulars of the play that killed him remained vague. “The Minnesota team piled on top of him in an off-tackle play,” the Des Moines Register said. “Trice was crushed in a play through his position,” the Associated Press said. “Crushed in an off tackle play,” per the Cedar Rapids Gazette. And the Minnesota Star differed significantly from the initial reports by attendees. It moved Trice to defense and described him engaging in a dangerous action: “Trice playing a defensive tackle position dived into the interference of an off tackle Minnesota play and was crushed under the weight of several members of the Minnesota team.” Wednesday, October 10 An AP story held up Trice as a sort of martyr. The headline in bold letters: “DEAD FOOTBALL STAR’S LETTER, WRITTEN BEFORE GAME, PLANS SACRIFICE” with a subheading: “Jack Trice intended to use his body and soul recklessly for honor of his family and Negro race.” At this point, the narrative had shifted to fuse not only vague and opposite recollections of what Trice had been doing during the play, but also a grand interpretation of his letter, found in his jacket pocket after he’d died. Recollections of Trice’s death have gotten more confusing over the years, evolving into nothing like those initial reports. Even former teammates ended up saying Trice had been on defense. In 1973, former linemate Schmidt, then in his 70s, recalled the play: Well, [Minnesota] had a powerful offensive drive with good interference, and they had three blockers ahead of this runner. Jack had said in [his] letter that he would throw himself before an interference. He did a roll block. And someone just happened to step on his stomach.88Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice  He maintained that any stomping wasn’t intentional. Johnny Behm—one of two brothers described by press box reports as catching the ball on offense during Trice’s injury—remembered it like this in 1979: In the third quarter they tried a power play over him. I was in the defensive backfield so I can’t tell you for certain what happened. But I’d swear the Minnesota end who had to block Trice tackled him instead. Jack landed on his back and the Minnesota fullback ran right over him. Maybe the interference did, too, I’m not positive. Around this time, Trice’s freshman coach William Thompson added to the foggy recollection: Jack used a block against the Minnesota backfield. It was a dangerous block to use in my opinion and it was safe enough if you had the good fortune and the strength to end up on all fours. This was called a roll block. You had to roll under the backfield and that had a devastating effect on the runner, you see. It trips him right at the ankles. The interchangeable nature of football terms and positions from that era can also lead to confusion. What did Trice, Schmidt, and Behm mean by “interference?” John Wilce, who’d coached Ohio State when Willaman played there, wrote this in 1923: Many people do not seem to understand the term ‘interference.’ Interference simply means blocking by players immediately in front of the runner. […] The man with the ball is usually close behind his interference. [...] The roll block by one player followed by a similar block by another, the break block, the combination hard-shoulder block, and the running side-body block are most commonly used by interferers.99John Wilce, Football: How To Play It And Understand It By that definition, which comes from a coach who taught Trice’s coach, interference and the roll block are strictly offensive terms, similar to lead blocking by a modern fullback. But Trice’s letter leads you to believe he considered the roll block a two-way term or perhaps a defensive one, since he mentioned it right after describing his need to be vigilant “on all defensive plays.” So were the initial reports right? Or were the later recollections right? Are Jack’s letter and these football terms helpful in reconstructing the scene? Does Jack’s letter even need to be injected into what happened against Minnesota? And since the most popular version of the story is at odds with reports written by witnesses, what else don’t we know about the play that killed Trice? One would think all these differing accounts, even within the week after the game, would help warrant an investigation. But the day after his death, his school declined a request to investigate. That request came from the head of Minnesota’s conference. John L. Griffith, Commissioner of Athletics for the Intercollegiate Conference, sent a message to [ISU] officials: ‘Associated Press Dispatch from Ames states that your boy died from injuries received when most of the Minnesota line piled on top of him in an off tackle play. Would you care to issue as to whether or not injuries were result of unfair plays?’ An [ISU] official replied to Griffith the same day, stating, ‘Willaman and the men under him advised me that they did not discern any special massing on Jack Trice. He was an exceptional player and of course made trouble for the Minnesota team.’1010Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice That response arrived in a letter with no name or signature. Two weeks later, October 24, Iowa State dean S.W. Beyer sent Griffith a curious note. Inasmuch as Mr. Trice was a colored man it is easy for people to assume that his opponents must have deliberately attempted to injure him. In my experience where colored boys had participated in athletic contests I have seen very little to indicate that their white opponents had any disposition to foul them.1111Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football The lack of official investigation is why we will never know exactly what happened on the play that cost Trice’s life. In general, everyone has since gotten the benefit of the doubt. Ten days after Trice’s death, Minnesota’s president Lotus Coffman sent a letter to Iowa State’s president, offering condolences and saying the play happened directly in front of him. “It seemed to me that he threw himself in front of the play on the opposite side of the line,” Coffman wrote. “There was no piling up." It’s also worth noting Coffman would later ardently defend segregation in campus living at Minnesota, writing Black people desired it: The good sense and sound judgment of the colored students and their parents with regard to this matter has been a source of constant gratification. The races have never lived together nor have they ever sought to live together.1212Minnesota Star-Tribune, September 2017 It is not hard to suppose Coffman wanted to just move on. And any school would have motivation to avoid dwelling on it. Who knows what else an inquiry might have dredged up? Many players died in those days, but if conclusive evidence emerged that a player had been killed with intent, it could have started a second great referendum on the sport, 18 years after Roosevelt put his foot down. The theory of Trice’s self-prophesied roll block leads to a confident conclusion that the whole thing was just an accident. This is the result of a century-long game of telephone. If he screwed up a maneuver and got stepped on, then oh shucks, it’s just a darn shame. It also boosts the poignancy of his letter, creating an eerie prescience. And it could have been an accident. But it also could have been murder. It is not far-fetched to believe the only Black player on a field in 1923 was targeted. According to many reports, Minnesota players deliberately injured Iowa’s Ozzie Simmons 11 years later. They knocked him unconscious as many as three times, forcing him to leave the game by halftime.1313Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football "[Simmons] took quite a lot of physical abuse around the Big Ten because he was Black," said former Iowa sports information director George Wine.1414Chicago Tribune, October 2001 In 1935, Iowa governor Clyde Herring told reporters that the rematch might get out of hand.1515SB Nation, October 2017 “Those Minnesotans will find 10 other top-notch football players besides ‘Oze’ Simmons against them this year. Moreover, if the officials stand for any rough tactics like Minnesota used last year, I'm sure the crowd won't," Herring said.1616Minneapolis Tribune, November 1935; Minnesota’s governor would respond by attempting to cool tensions (and missing the point). He bet Iowa a prize hog. This would later evolve into the bronze Floyd of Rosedale trophy, which the two teams still play for. Simmons would tell a Minnesota newspaper in 1988: “I really had the feeling they were after me because I was good. Oh, I think me being Black added a little oomph to it.” Simmons, like Trice, was a talented player, naturally a focal point for any opponent. So the lines of guilt blur when you try to discern whether the Gophers targeted Simmons because he was talented, because he was Black, or both. At least Simmons lived to tell his side of the story. Wanna know what I think? Forget about the damn letter for a second. Laud it as a beautiful note about what he felt he was up against, but set it aside instead of grafting it onto the facts. We know four of the earliest reports have a consistent version of events, three of them published the day after the game. We don’t know whether Trice was attempting an especially dangerous technique or not, although if you want to theorize he tried a roll block, then perhaps he was engaged with a defensive player and realized the play was particularly screwed, so he chose to “roll block the interference,” which might have played out like a modern-day cut block. And we don’t know why or how key details of the narrative shifted to a certain consensus. The attempt to figure out what happened to Trice is not about trying to find whitey guilty. A probe would have likely reached an inconclusive end, according to a former Iowa State professor who spent years lobbying the school to name the stadium after Trice. "Well, if I were prosecuting the case," Charles Sohn told the Kansas City Star in 2004, "I suppose the best I could get out of it was manslaughter. I don't think there was an attempt to murder. I think there was an attempt to injure." But the clearest failure is this: Trice’s institution didn’t attempt to dig for answers. Members of the Minnesota team were reportedly “grief-stricken” by Trice’s death. And their head coach said, “I don’t know hardly what to say. He was a wonderful player. It doesn’t seem possible. It is something I wouldn’t have had happen for anything.”1717Minnesota Journal, October 1923 Without details, we can neither hold Minnesota culpable nor exonerate anyone. If Minnesota’s players were innocent, then they deserved an investigation that could’ve made that clear. The fact foul play apparently wasn’t evident to Williaman or Coffman doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. After Trice died, Iowa State immediately canceled football practice and took a half day to allow mourning. Four thousand students attended the funeral. The Behm brothers and Schmidt were among his pallbearers. The school president read Trice’s pregame letter aloud. Cora Mae and Anna accompanied Jack’s body home to be buried next to Green. Anna later wrote to Iowa State’s then-president that Jack “was all I had and I am old and alone. The future is dreary and lonesome.”1818Anna Trice letter In some ways, Iowa State publicly did right by Trice. The school collected money to pay for funeral expenses and help Trice’s mother pay off her mortgage. In private, however, Iowa State reminded us of Jack’s place in the world, whether dead or alive. Two days after Trice died, Beyer, considered the godfather of athletics at Iowa State, received a telegram from Missouri athletic director C.L. Brewer, an old friend, about the upcoming Saturday’s game in Columbia: We understand from newspaper reports that you have a colored man playing with your football squad this Fall. I am quite sure, Professor Beyer, you know conditions here, and know it is impossible for a colored man to play or even appear on the field with any team. This has been discussed in the Missouri Valley for a good many years and I know that you understand the tradition that a colored man cannot come here. This whole question is bigger than our athletics and there is no alternative for us other than to say that we cannot permit a colored man on any team that we play. The Iowa State admin responded: We had no intention of using Jack Trice in the game with you. However that is all settled because Jack's injury resulted in his death Monday afternoon. I am handing you herewith copy of letter Jack wrote the day before the game. From the letter one would not help feel that Jack must have had premonition of what actually happened. A year later, Iowa State put a plaque on its gym, an abridged version of Trice’s letter. And then Jack Trice began to fade from memory. Until 1957, when sophomore Tom Emmerson came across the plaque while working on a project for class credit. He might have been the first in a while who was moved enough to research why it was there. He’d been wandering around the gym while waiting for a meeting with a school employee. “Then I went into Harry Schmidt’s office and said ‘Harry, what about that?’” Emmerson told me. “And he said, ‘You don’t know about Jack Trice?’ And it turned out that Harry was on the team in 1923, and he told me the story from personal memory. I then went directly to the library to look it up, and to tell you the truth, I just copied a lot of stuff from articles in the library.” He ended up writing a school magazine article. When asked what happened next, Emmerson said flatly: “nothing” … until Iowa State began building a new football stadium in the 1970s. By that time, student activism was en vogue amid the Vietnam War. Professor Sohn was having a small group discussion with some English students. He shared Trice’s story. The class took up some research projects about Trice’s life, and Emmerson’s story re-surfaced in their findings. Someone suggested naming the stadium for Trice. Even after the class ended in 1974, the stadium idea had taken hold. It’s impressive how hard Iowa State’s students worked to keep it alive. There were over two dozen related stories, editorials, or cartoons in Iowa State’s student paper from ’74 onward, which doesn’t include stories in other papers like the Des Moines Register. Students petitioned. Iowa State’s student government was unanimous in favor. Students would graduate, and others would take up the cause. But Iowa State was still holding out for a big-money donor to essentially buy the stadium’s name. The money never came, and the students never shut up, not even after Iowa State tried to “cut the baby in half,” as a Newsweek article put it, by naming it “Cyclone Stadium/Jack Trice Field” in 1983. Students argued people would default to just calling it Cyclone Stadium. Students also pushed to get a Trice statue on campus. Multiple organizations said no, including the alumni association, because “people thought it was too political,” according to a former ISU student body president.1919Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice Iowa State’s student government unanimously allocated $22,000 of student fees and commissioned the statue, which featured Trice reading his famous letter. It went up in 1988 outside a building named in 1966 for George Washington Carver. What gave the stadium movement its final win was, indirectly, Iowa State naming a building for alumna Carrie Chapman Catt in 1995. She’d been important to the woman’s suffrage movement, but once wrote white supremacy "will be strengthened, not weakened” by that movement. Her backers argued it was taken out of context, but she also spoke of Indigenous people as savages and said uneducated immigrants shouldn’t have the right to vote. Honoring her caused protests on campus, including one student going on a hunger strike in 1996. While all of this was going on, an ISU advisory committee for the naming of buildings recommended in late 1996 the change to the football stadium’s name. In February 1997, Trice became the sole namesake. Administrators objected to speculation that the renaming was a strategic maneuver [to counter Catt Hall protests] as opposed to their acquiescence to student requests or an abiding desire to honor Trice. ‘The name change recommendation was based on its own merits,’ protested university spokesman John Anderson. ‘It’s an idea that’s been around a long time.’2020Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football But it had only been around for a long time because Iowa State’s leadership hadn’t acted. The school’s president Martin Jischke had been around since 1991. “If Jischke had responded earlier, in a more positive way to Jack Trice, he would have had a great win,” Emmerson said. “He would have had ammunition when it came around to Carrie Chapman Catt. He could have said ‘wait a minute, we named the stadium after Jack Trice; we’re not racist.’” For buttoned-up administrators, the unchallenged narrative of Trice’s life was free of anything likely to make overly sensitive white people too uneasy, and still they delayed for decades. For mobilized college students, his short story had a tragic hero and cause for genuine concern, so they fought for him. “I was really surprised actually, when it kept being an issue after it was named Cyclone Stadium/Jack Trice Field,” Alma Gaul, an editor of the student newspaper in the 1970s, told me. “I just figured that was the end of it. We’d got something here. We got the Jack Trice Field. And the fact that, in 1997, they reversed their decision and made it Jack Trice Stadium—even today when I read the sports section and I read ‘Jack Trice Stadium,’ I just shake my head and smile. I can’t believe it actually happened.” Jack Trice Stadium remains the only FBS stadium named after a Black man. Part of his legacy is this: More than a century after he died, activists across the country are fighting the same fight Iowa State’s students did. The naming of streets, buildings, and statues is about what we wish to glorify as a society. It is a front-facing display of our values. That weight demands constantly measuring those values. But change is never easy, particularly when racism is built so firmly into the foundation of the United States and its declared heroes. Trice is a hero, a man who broke a barrier, but everything that’s happened since he died has way more to do with us than him. Those who knew him describe him as shy and quiet. One teammate said, “Jack appreciated his status. Generally, he spoke only when spoken to,” and another said, “He kept his place.”2121Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice He’s inoffensive and two-dimensional because we don’t know all that much about him. In many ways, Trice was an easy Black man for white people to rally around. For white audiences, a docile Black man is a palatable Black man. The Jack Trice of 1923 is forever preserved in that state. We’ll never know exactly what led to Trice’s death two days after the first real game of his college football career. When facts are scarce, all we have are versions of a legend. ___ Excerpted from The Sinful Seven: Sci-fi Western Legends of the NCAA, an ebook about how college sports came to look the way they do today, with non-fiction stories and fiction tales that <shh> tell their own truths about how the NCAA operates, by Spencer Hall, Richard Johnson, Jason Kirk, Alex Kirshner, and Tyson Whiting. You can preorder the ebook here for a minimum of 99 cents (or whatever you want to pay), with 20 percent of those profits going to Feeding America, the nationwide food bank network. It comes out August 1.