The author of Foe on marriage, having Charlie Kaufman adapt your work, and why he likes stories that remind him of Manu Ginobili.
The author of If You Leave Me on the Korean War, listening to your family stories, and the cost of survival.
The dubious distinction, and literary legacy, of Leo Szilard, the physicist and writer “who did the most to create the atomic bomb, and the most to stop it.”
The author of Foe on marriage, having Charlie Kaufman adapt your work, and why he likes stories that remind him of Manu Ginobili.
With his 2016 best-seller I’m Thinking of Ending Things and the new Foe, Iain Reid has made the middle of nowhere into home turf: his wary, watchful novels take place off the grid, both in terms of geography and genre. “We don’t get visitors. Never have. Not out here” says Foe’s narrator, Junior, a young farmer living somewhere in Ontario with his wife Henrietta. His tone suggests that the intrusion of a third party is as unwelcome as it is unexpected. Junior’s anxiety is not misplaced. The visitor is a figure out of an X-Files episode, a proverbial Man in Black claiming to represent a government-funded initiative to relocate Earth’s swelling population to outer space. (“This is a long time coming.”) What’s more, the man, whose name is Terrance, explains that Junior has been selected by lottery as a possible candidate to join the off-world workforce. If his number comes up, choice is not a factor; he cannot decline the call of duty. Service is mandatory. But—and this is where the outsider’s spiel truly starts to seem strange and sinister—arrangements can be made if Hen needs somebody who looks and acts a lot like her husband to take care of her. The pleasure of Reid’s work—and he’s as gifted and scarifying a storyteller as Canadian fiction has produced in a long time—is how judiciously he parcels out narrative information. If I’m Thinking of Ending Things was a brilliant and resourceful variation on one of the oldest tricks in the mind-fuck-fiction handbook, Foe is similarly indebted to a science-fiction tradition encompassing Dick, Clarke and Asimov. These layers of reference are no more than a brilliant disguise, however, cloaking Reid’s true and universal subjects even as they lurk in plain view on every page. Adam Nayman: It seems to me that the through-line between your two novels so far is isolation. In I'm Thinking of Ending Things, you have a young woman who becomes increasingly unnerved as her boyfriend takes her into the country and out of her urban comfort zone; it's sort of a journey away from the center. In Foe, you focus on a couple who already live on the margins of civilization in the middle of nowhere and are accustomed to it, until an outsider shows up. It's an interesting reversal, but there's also a continuity there. Iain Reid: There definitely is that underlying current of isolation [in I'm Thinking of Ending Things] and it’s here as well. It does change a little bit for Foe, as you said, as the isolation here involves things that are familiar for the characters. At least at first, anyway. I think that isolation and solitude are the things that I started out with on this one. I always think of one or two major conflicts or problems when I'm getting going, and on Foe, they were isolation, solitude and confinement. “Confinement” was a word I was thinking of a lot in the early stages. I wanted to know what it was about confinement that I find so unsettling and disturbing, and it ended up going down the path of relationships and marriages. If you've been told for your entire life that you should feel a certain way about something—that you'll like something, or dislike it—you start to believe it. But what if something happens to make you start questioning that attitude? That's sort of what Foe is for me in a lot of ways. I also noticed that Foe begins with the image of headlights in the dark, which is pretty central to I'm Thinking of Ending Things. We talked about that image at the end of our last interview, so maybe it's a fun way to get into the new one. That’s the opening image of the book exactly, yes, and it was absolutely one of the first images that came to mind for Foe too. But the thing that really influenced me before I started writing was this: I was out at an awards ceremony and there was a man who was receiving a prize and the way he thanked his wife from the stage was very disturbing, at least to me. Everyone else was really happy with it, and they thought it was this great acceptance speech; they were almost sighing out loud at how it was. He said things like “I want to thank my wife for putting up with my instability, and allowing me to do what I do.” I thought, “No, I'm sure she has her own thing, her own life, she's not there to prop your genius up.” It seemed so icky to me, as did the idea that this dynamic was something he was being accepted or even congratulated for. So that's when that idea I mentioned before about confinement within a relationship came to me. I wanted to write about a relationship that wasn't ruined by one dramatic moment, like somebody cheating or losing their temper or a secret, but instead had been slowly rotting over time. Once you're in a situation and you're committed to it, what else can happen? How can you get out? That's where things started. Let's talk about how a lot of people are going to come to Foe, which is not only in light of I'm Thinking of Ending Things but also via genre: it's being marketed as science-fiction and the genre stuff is present alongside the portrait of the marriage. And it gets into the sci-fi stuff pretty quickly, so much so that I was surprised. It's very disarming when Terrance shows up and provides all this exposition about the possibility of colonizing outer space to a couple who seem to be living this out-of-time existence in the country. I think I had it in my mind for a long time that I wanted to write a novel about space, to have some type of element about space. And the reason for that is that my brother is a rocket scientist, and he works in that world. So whenever we would be together, the conversation would always evolve or devolve, depending on your perspective, to me peppering him with questions about space travel, and where it's at and where it could go from here, It's fascinating for me, as somebody who has probably a fairly average knowledge of that industry, to learn what it might look like in ten or twenty years. My brother is the kind of person who if you go see a science-fiction movie with him, or a movie about space-travel, he'll pick them apart. So I always thought he'd be a great resource in ensuring that what I was doing was authentic. So going back to the idea of confinement, what is the opposite of that? Space. So I also realized this would be my book about space. I talked to my brother a lot while I was writing but then he read it and he said, “It's not really about space.” Part of that is that I took a lot of things out during revisions, to the point that the outer-space aspect is more of a metaphor than anything else. Science-fiction is always really conducive to metaphor, and in that sense Foe felt a bit old-fashioned to me—almost nostalgic even though it's set in the future. There's a really slippery sense of time throughout, actually; there's very little about Junior and Hen's lifestyle that wouldn't have been more or less identical if they were living in the same place in the 1960s. It felt like I could have been reading a book about two people in 1969 who suddenly learn that there's a Space Race going on between America and the Soviet Union. You’re right to think about the initial moon landing. That was on my mind, too. What would happen if an ordinary person had a chance to be a part of that? If somebody showed up at their house with this mission and this invitation, how would it play out? It's also really effective how you suggest that the world has changed around them in some big ways but they haven't even tried to keep up. There's no reference to technology, social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even though all those things will likely be around in the near future, if not amplified... That's the timeless element we were discussing earlier. I think there is a dynamic to their marriage that's closer to the 1950s or 1960s. There's this assumption that things have changed a lot since then, but I think that restrictive element is still there in some places, including some rural settings. That places things right on the fault lines of some of the larger culture war stuff that's going on now in Ontario and of course in the United States, too. That's not to generalize about “small town values,” because I think those liberal clichés about them can be as reductive and reactionary as the values themselves. But I did feel like Junior and Hen's marriage was suggestive of something larger and older that's also cyclical and maybe inescapable. I mean, Junior could not be a more patriarchal name, right? That’s exactly right. And if you think about sort of what happens in the triangular relationship between Junior and Henrietta and Terrence there’s a shift along those same lines. There is a change that Henrietta goes through, as does Terrence. I think Terrance changes too. Really, the only one that doesn’t change is Junior. Hen’s pretty suggestive as a name too. Ha, yes. Junior talks about them having chickens and how he goes out to feed them and care for them. He also likes it when Hen plays the piano for him... Junior reveals a lot of things by accident; he's not just an unreliable narrator but he doesn't seem to necessarily know his own mind all that well either. In I'm Thinking of Ending Things your narrator had a huge amount of self-awareness, and kept throwing up all these defense mechanisms and checks and balances. I feel like Junior is transparent, and that makes him a unique entry point into a narrative where all is not as it seems— especially not to him, we could say. In this type of marriage, who would be the one who would be permitted to speak for both parties a lot of the time? It would be Junior. He would be the filter that their communal story would be told through. That also I think was part of Henrietta's wanting a change, as she begins to wonder what's best for her, to assert herself, and to take some power back. I was thinking a lot about toughness when it came to her character. Normally if you say that one of your themes is “toughness” people will assume it's a story about boxing or something; I wanted to access toughness in a different way. You've probably heard people talk about a basketball player like Manu Ginobili and how he plays “in between the dribbles,” and I like stories that do that too. So when Junior is telling us things, he's also giving us more than he's saying, and maybe some of it is about Henrietta, more than he even knows. It's funny because, while he gets a lot right about Henrietta and even how she feels about him, he really doesn't know what's going on with Terrance; his suspicion and jealousy become misplaced in a way that's very alpha-male macho and sort of naive at the same time. Yes, exactly, and I think that when I was reflecting on how a marriage like this might disintegrate, that's sort of how it would happen, with the intrusion of a third party, whatever the third party is actually trying to do in the end. Trying to reflect on a way that this relationship is disintegrating in the way that I envisioned, that’s sort of how it would happen. I think that when these people got married they thought that it was love and that it would last a lifetime, but I don't see how that can work if you think of yourself first. This seems like a common thing, actually, that from the male point of view you get married and you're sort of “done.” It's like getting a job or something—you just check off the box and you're married and that's all. That's a horrifying thought from both perspectives, I think: that marriage is a thing to do instead of a process that requires work and effort and change from both parties. The idea that you just take comfort from the fact that you're married, you're in it, and that's it… that's horrific to me. Well, not only that, but culturally we’re conditioned to think that the stubbornness and the laziness of men—and to some extent the flaws of both genders in heterosexual relationships—is “cute.” And then it hardens over time, and any complaints about it are met with truisms like, “Well, you're married, that's how it is.” It's like the idea of “letting yourself go” but not just your body; your sensitivity and your curiosity, too. Junior hasn't let himself go physically, though, and there's a frightening quality to how he describes his own body and his strength—it turns the narrator of the story into a potential source of threat even as he's growing paranoid about what's going on behind his back. It is frightening, I agree. And again, if you think about it in the context of confinement, or the opposite of space, and that physicality that Junior has...Again speaking about metaphors, I think for me what seemed enticing about a story like this right now, again I don’t think I’ve really talked about this yet and I don’t know how much I will, but sort of what’s happening in the world right now, in the western world, politically, ending up stuck with someone strong and scary like that... it's not a joke, it's not charming, it's quite horrific. You're stuck with that. Are you married yourself? No, I’m not. I know that you are. It's funny because marriage is such a clear interest of mine. No kidding. Yeah, and it’s funny, because I have been asked, it must be because people think I’m anti-marriage because of these books and I’m really not, in fact I’m the opposite. I think that marriage is wonderful and I can see how it would be very appealing in certain situations. I would say that I might be married at some point, who knows? I’m not anti-marriage, I just find the idea of it utterly fascinating. We do it in such huge numbers, and so many people do it in such a way that’s sort of like passive acceptance. And yet it seems like the hardest thing you can do. Even having kids, that’s more purely biological right? That you have this desire to protect your children? But to live with one person for your whole life, and the inherent challenges in that... so many people want to do it, or think they want to do it or don’t want to do it, or don’t think about it at all. They just do it. Maybe that's indicative of why the divorce rates are over 50 percent now. And then if you take into account those couples who aren’t divorced, how many are struggling in a very serious way? That notion of being trapped in a marriage because there's no language to even discuss separation evokes the frontier—it evokes the past. But I agree with you that it's no less of an issue now. I think that if I were to write a story about a serial killer chasing somebody, I'd be interested on how the person being chased would try to escape—all the ways available to get out of that situation. I think that's what I was thinking about, actually, in a different context. Foe is a more quiet kind of horror. Did you have fun coming up with all the gimmicky sci-fi stuff? Terrance's stories about his company and their experiments in 3-D printing and replication are quite outlandish but he keeps rooting them in science and it's quite funny, but there's also the possibility—broached by Junior and passed on to us—that Terrance is just full of shit, or crazy, or making the whole thing up. It's funny because that’s the one part of Foe that, when I look back at it—at some of what Terrance says, and how he says it—that makes me laugh a bit. At the same time, he's a character who contains the possibility that anything can happen at any time, which heightens urgency and suspense and tension. It's a balancing act to be as delicate as possible, and the more you try to explain, the weaker the material gets. If I let a reader imagine what's happening—and maybe wonder about a character like Terrance—it's so much better, because then it lives in their imagination. I feel like Terrance and his story are effective because Junior is so out of the loop. If he lived in a city and had a smartphone and a Twitter feed and a bunch of friends, the ambiguity would be gone. He sort of has to go on what he's being told... Exactly, which goes back to you talking about isolation at the beginning. That's why it works. Well, now that we've worked our way back to the beginning, let's end by talking about the fact that I'm Thinking of Ending Things is being turned into a Netflix movie by Charlie Kaufman. I wonder if that last sentence is surreal enough that you just want to sort of talk about it? Yeah. It's been a great experience so far, because it was so unexpected. The last time we talked we discussed how interior I'm Thinking of Ending Things is and how impossible it would be to adapt into a film. A movie version was never in my mind, but if I could have picked anybody to do it I would have said Charlie Kaufman. So it was an unbelievable surprise that he had interest. I've been really happy with everything so far and Charlie has been so nice and kind and generous. At this stage it's still in development and I'm excited to see the final version and how it turns out.
The author of Certain American States on living with titles, the narrative space of relationships, and why short stories are like sauce.
In Catherine Lacey’s short story collection Certain American States (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), characters with rich interior lives are captured in acute moments of existential ennui. They navigate surreptitious affairs and dissolving marriages, run away from their families and hometowns, and generally resist modes of social containment by bravely, brazenly, treading their own paths. Whether “dizzy with failure” or slightly unmoored, Lacey’s characters chart a wide range of emotions—which are often, compellingly, at odds with their external landscapes. In a story cut into twenty-four discrete sections—perhaps an effort to organize wild, expansive prose—the narrator divulges, “There’s a word for the scrambling of senses, but there’s no way to explain how I’m always reeling from unclear feelings and memories, no word that’s not an insult, anyway, or a diagnosis.” As demonstrated in her first two novels, The Answers and Nobody is Ever Missing, Lacey is skilled at creating worlds where intimacy and loneliness and alienation and abundance can coexist. We talked about un-sentimentalizing the process of writing, the Freudian concept of the “narcissism of small differences,” and intimate relationships as a potent narrative space. Anna Furman: I read Certain American States while also reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost and found the two books to be—for lack of a better word—quite complementary. In both books, characters reconcile complicated interior landscapes with external situations/conditions/predicaments. I wonder which books about place or placelessness or lostness informed your writing? Catherine Lacey: A Field Guide to Getting Lost is definitely in there, but I actually didn’t read it till 2016. I think of Grace Paley a lot. I don't love everything she’s written, but I’ve always been drawn to the way a character can kind of just wander around a space in a Grace Paley story. And Lydia Davis too. I don't think I’m anything like Lydia Davis, but I really love Lydia Davis. I was thinking about writing a book of stories that are derivative of Lydia Davis. Sometimes I find myself complaining about something or launching some complaint at my partner and then I realize after, it’s a Lydia Davis story. I think it speaks to how embedded some of her characters are in my head. They become crucibles for me to express something that I might feel. I’m not so much influenced by autobiographical things but more by situation, like odd predicaments that one could get into. When I took care of my dog by myself for the first time, it was a very productive time. I wrote a lot out of it. It was only three days, but there was something about the fact of being alone, just me and this dog for three days, and not knowing anyone else in town, that changed me. I just read Motherhood and listened to a couple interviews with Sheila Heti. And I can’t stop thinking about an interview on the Longform podcast with the writer Elif Batuman. I was totally lit up by that interview. It really tore me a new one, in a good way. As I read this collection, my understanding of the title changed, from referring to certain, specific states in the U.S. to states of being. Did you have other working titles for the book? When did you arrive at Certain American States? In 2014, when I started thinking I had enough stories to finish up a collection, I called it “Small Differences.” I thought it was most exemplary of a new way I was working. It comes from this Freudian concept of the narcissism of small difference. But many of the stories changed and finally “Small Differences” didn't feel sufficient anymore. I had to make a decision on the cover right after the election. “Certain American States” is the oldest story in the collection. It felt like the right title because it has a four-pronged meaning and made me a little bit uncomfortable. I tend to move towards things that feel like too much to say or too embarrassing to say. Then I want to say it. I felt mixed about the title till recently, because I think the word America is pretty ugly. Just as a sound, I don’t particularly like it. And I find the majority of things it connotes to be pretty ugly. Eventually, you just resign yourself to the limits of a title. And at different points in the process of choosing one, you can feel completely convinced that one is great, and then two days later feel like it’s the worst title in the world. Maybe both of those things are true. And all titles are ultimately insufficient. That’s why the whole story is there. In “ur heck box” the narrator describes Midtown Manhattan as a place that looks exactly the way her head feels: “bleak and crowded.” What places look the way your head feels right now? I’m sitting in a public space right now, on a patio area attached to the apartment that I just moved into. It’s just a big slab of Astroturf. I feel like it’s some kind of a fake comfort in the midst of an urban landscape. There are parts of the country where you get four seasons in a day. I feel like, internally, I experience five seasons in a day. Or maybe ten seasons. I wrote “ur heck box” during a period of grief—and what’s striking to me about grief is how much pain you can feel for so long. You become LA weather, but not happy. It’s where nothing changes. In the story “Family Physics,” you write: “Since the World Trade Center, people had stopped whispering about the apocalypse and began to speak of it, plainly and loudly, whenever.” Did you write this story during the post-9/11 Bush years? Since Trump was elected and we’ve all been catapulted into this new political reality that feels apocalyptic to many of us. Did you tweak these stories to reflect that change? When Bush was elected, I was sixteen or seventeen. There was this feeling of defeat and darkness among my few liberal friends in Tennessee. I wrote “Family Physics” during the 2016 election, while I was working at a college in Montana. This felt like a crazy, exaggerated version of the 2000 election. When you’re a kid in high school versus an adult employed at a university, your perspective of what these things mean is completely different. I’ve been thinking about the kind of rage we feel across political boundaries, and yet how neutered that rage is. Nobody really does anything. There’s no real upheaval or shift of power. We just get this teeter totter of eight years of this, eight years of this, eight years of this. It made me think of the country as one big, horrible family going through these periods of time together, with different people feeling more or less like black sheep within that family. There’s different times when more marginal or outside perspectives might feel like they have a place within this country. And sometimes, brutally outcast. I wasn’t consciously sitting down and thinking: I know, it’ll be a family that is microcosmal of the country. It’s only on reflection that I can see that. How do you know when a story is finished? You know how, when you taste a sauce, you know: oh, it needs more of this or less of that? It’s done or it’s not done. It’s kind of like that. And the more sauces you make, the more you know what sort of texture and flavor profile you’re looking for, and how much salinity. It’s like a fingerprint that you don’t realize you’re developing. And you know when all the pieces are there, but you don’t necessarily know how to describe putting all the pieces together. You know how an old grandma might make the best tomato sauce, but when they try and explain the recipe to you, yours doesn’t come out like theirs? I think it’s a bit like that. In the first story, “Violations,” the characters don’t have names but are identified by their pronouns. Why did you decide to write them as she and he instead of as people with specific names? There’s this way that a relationship between a man and a woman, or between anybody and anybody, can be claustrophobic. Whether it’s she or he or me or you, it’s always you and the other. You feel like you have an entire world with this other person. A relationship is an interesting narrative space because it’s not always clear who is in control and who is really writing the narrative. It wasn’t important to me whether the characters had names. It’s hard for me to remember which things the man says and which things the woman says or even what the roles are because they’re switching back and forth so quickly. Their names become irrelevant. Characters are not actual human beings of course, so really it’s a matrix of ideas and feelings and postures and situations. Sometimes it makes sense for that matrix of thought to be held by a female person or a male person. Maybe part of it is that when you’re a younger writer, sometimes it’s better just to limit the variables that you’re having to juggle at one time. It’s easier to make the character have the same sort of biochemical reality and social experience that you have. I had a big break-up two years ago and the anger that you can feel over how the other person will necessarily have a different narrative about what happened during the break-up and why you broke up and why you got together and what happened all those years is so potent and so visceral. Once you’ve experienced that rage, you recognize it. There’s a line in “Violations” that goes: “He had wanted to make sure she wouldn’t write about him, but he knew he couldn’t ask her outright not to write about him, since he was sure such a question would set off a lecture about how he was not within his rights to…” Have friends or family members misinterpreted characters that you’ve written as representing them? There’s this interaction between any writer’s life and what they’re writing about. In the past, I’ve felt extremely nervous about what this or that person thinks of this or that character, if something shows up in my fiction that looks a lot like my life or that person. I’ve been worried about hurting someone’s feelings—or, in writing a story, sometimes I realize that I don’t care anymore. I have an ex-husband and he’s actually a really marvelous person in a lot of ways. I didn’t want him to come across the story without knowing that it was coming. I decided to send it to him ahead of time, and actually, he totally got it and wasn't angry. It made me realize that there’s a lot of wasted energy in being worried about what people are going to think about you because of your fiction. Or what they’re gonna think about what you might think of them, because of what you write in fiction. I didn’t write the story out of malice. I wasn't angry at him, directly, and I wasn't painting anybody out to be the wrong person. I think that if you’re in that place, writing about situations that relate very closely to your life narrative can be a fine thing to do. Also because you can write into spaces that you didn’t get to experience. There’s a lot of things in that story that certainly didn’t happen and the details are not representative of an autobiography. Sometimes you want to exaggerate certain things and tone down other things and see if you change the proportion of story that you experienced. By amplifying one aspect of it and turning down another, what does it look like then? You shuffle the characters around or try and imagine something from someone else’s perspective. I think it can be useful to understand that your perspective on your life is maybe not the most important aspect of it. Some friends of mine that recently got married said, “Ah yes, the final test of getting married, combining your books on the same bookshelf.” And I was like: “the final test of getting married is getting divorced and seeing if that’s a good person to get divorced from.” I wanted to ask you about silence as a device. You write that silence “could choke a person” and about characters that “exchanged the kind of nonspeech that people with nothing to say to each other end up saying to each other.” What does silence in these varying forms mean to you? The way I teach my writing workshops, usually, is a bit different from the traditional workshop method. In my workshop, the student that’s being workshopped has to sit in front of the class and take these questions from the rest of the students. I always encourage the person to sit there as long as they want before answering a question, to decide how they feel about it and let the answer come to them under the awkwardness and duress of a room of people waiting on something from you. It can be a bit of a pressure cooker when you’re silent with someone else. And then there’s the silence of just being a human being and having to walk around the world and spend all your time with yourself. I love multitasking and listening to music and absorbing a podcast and doing ten things at once. But when I remember to leave things at home and just walk my dog without my phone, aimlessly, I find myself writing stories in my head, and it’s so useful. Silence is an endangered species. It’s a very rich, sort of fecund area of human existence that’s not really taken advantage of enough. I read a conversation you had with Leslie Jamison in which you said: “There is really no way to demystify the creation process, though I do think it’s a good idea to un-sentimentalize it.” I think it’s a challenge for interviewers to ask craft-oriented questions that don’t romanticize the writing process. So, maybe, what are the most unglamorous or mechanical parts of your writing process? I wake up most mornings, five to six days a week, and go away. Don’t say anything. I find it’s really helpful not to speak to my partner or my dog or anybody. And just go, drink some coffee and write. Last year, I was living in Mississippi teaching at the university there for a one-year residency. I’ve been pretty transient the past couple years, living in different places every few months, so I’ve had to be more adaptable. I need to work in public, because every time I work at home, I do the laundry instead of working. Or clean something or procrastibake—bake something really elaborate, and then, it’s like 10 a.m., and I’m like, “what the fuck am I doing?” For several years, I had my place, a cafe in Brooklyn, and they just knew me. I felt really comfortable there. I knew where to sit, and what time to arrive so that it wasn’t crowded yet. I really believed that if I left that pattern, I just wasn’t going to write anything else. Now I’ve found that I can write at home. I can write in the afternoon. I can write other times of day. I just prefer working in the morning on a clean brain—before I’ve checked my email or worried about anything that probably needs some worrying. I think it doesn't matter that much, as long as it’s the morning and there’s coffee.
The author of If You Leave Me on the Korean War, listening to your family stories, and the cost of survival.
In Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel If You Leave Me (William Morrow), sixteen-year-old refugee Haemi Lee finds herself caught between the affections of two men: Kyunghwan, her first love, and Jisoo, his wealthier cousin. She eventually marries Jisoo, sacrificing a life with Kyunghwan for what she believes will be the safety and security of her family—a choice that sows seeds of deep unhappiness not just for her, but for future generations. If You Leave Me is a powerful and timely story about the personal cost of survival—the cost to relationships; the cost to families; the cost for generations to come—as well as a vivid, beautifully rendered portrait of love, sacrifice, and tragedy in a country torn asunder by war. The book began as overlapping character-driven stories, and Kim gives all her main characters a voice: Haemi, Jisoo, and Kyunghwan take turns narrating throughout, along with Haemi’s brother Hyunki and, later, her daughter Solee. The agility with which these rich, distinctive voices interweave is one of many strengths in a book that never flags despite its heavy subject matter. Kim says she wanted to consider the effects of inherited trauma by telling the story of a spirited, complicated woman constrained by war and time and circumstance. For Kim, who grew up hearing stories about the Korean War from her family members, in particular her grandmother, the novel grew in part out of a desire to fill in gaps in her own understanding. “When I start writing, it’s nearly always because I am curious about something and want to learn more,” she says. “When writing this book, I wanted to know more about this war that is such a big part of my family’s history.” Nicole Chung: The Korean War and its realities are deep in the marrow of this book, and we follow the characters beyond it. Why did you want to write about this particular era of Korean history and its aftermath? Crystal Hana Kim: It’s so interesting that it’s a timely story right now, because when I began writing it—and even when it went out on submission to publishers—a story about the Korean War didn’t seem as timely. It’s such a big part of Korean identity, and it is still ongoing. But I didn’t realize how little people in this country knew about it; about America’s involvement; about North and South Korea and the fact that they have been two separate countries for less than 100 years. I was so surprised to find that many people here didn’t know all these facts when I talked to them about it. Both my parents are Korean. My mom, who is the only one in her family who lives in America, is one of five daughters; the rest of the family is in Korea and we visit them often. So the war is something I grew up hearing a lot of stories about—which I think has not been the experience for some Korean Americans I know. Many people are hesitant to talk about the war and the trauma they experienced. But my grandmother is a storyteller, and she told me a lot of her stories. The war is part of our history, and I knew a little about it, but I wanted to understand it more fully. And I understand best through writing. “Solee,” a version of one of the chapters in this novel, was published as a short story by The Southern Review and then selected as one of PEN America’s 2017 Best Debut Short Stories. I loved that story when I first read it, and ever since I have been so eager to read this book. Can you talk a little about the evolution of the book, from interconnected stories about this family to the final novel? Where did it really begin for you? When I was an undergrad, I was writing a lot of stories about teenagers and young girls. I came up with this character, Solee—she might have had a different name at the time, but I focused on her because I wanted a way to write about and explore mother/daughter dynamics. Then, when I started my MFA, I really thought I wanted to write a collection of interconnected short stories. The idea of writing a novel was so daunting to me, and I thought connected stories might be more feasible. Solee was one of the first characters I created, and by writing her I realized I was interested in the character of her mother. I wanted to figure out her story, so I wrote a chapter from her perspective, and that led me to other characters. I just kept following my own curiosity about these different people; I didn’t quite know who they were yet. I knew they lived in Korea, but wasn’t sure when. At the time I was also talking a lot with my grandmother, trying to think about larger themes and ideas, and I knew I loved hearing her stories. I decided to write about the Korean War in order to understand it more deeply. I’m so interested in exploring family and this idea of generational trauma. So I started with Haemi, the main character, writing her life and her journey beginning with her teenaged years as a refugee. By then I knew her very well as a character, and I knew what her perspective would be. I felt so deeply for Haemi, I would’ve read about her forever. She seemed so strong in the beginning, and even later, in the depths of her unhappiness, she never quite felt like a victim to me. It was difficult but also powerful to read about this strong woman who cannot have what she wants—or even necessarily feel sure of what she wants all the time—because her life is so much about survival. I’m so glad you didn’t think Haemi seemed like a victim. It was really important to me to write a strong female character. I grew up around strong Korean women. My mom is one of five sisters, all very strong in their own ways, though they all have very different temperaments. My grandmother has always been very strong—my grandparents divorced, which is unusual in Korea, and I grew up hearing my mom tell stories about how my grandmother had to work hard to provide for the family, because my grandfather wasn’t really providing any financial support. She was a single woman running a hotel, raising five children. One time when I was young, I asked her how come she wasn’t like all the other halmeonis I saw when I visited Korea, and she said, “It’s because I have to make money!” Can you talk more about Haemi, and some of the challenges of writing a strong character whose options are so limited because of the time and place she lives in? She’s so smart and determined—you want her to have so many more choices than she does. She has to flee with her mother and brother to a refugee camp. She tries to seize some happiness for herself, but doesn’t get to keep the man she loves. She gets backed into this very hard decision, trading love for what she thinks will be security for her family, and by then the choice feels inevitable. I really wanted this book to feel realistic. Haemi is a character with an impoverished background. She doesn’t have a high school education—that was common for a lot of people back then. She’s also a refugee, living in a country at war, so she is going to be very limited in her choices. So I wanted her to make choices and not be a victim, but also, as you say, she can’t help but be constrained in those choices. She needed to be a realistic person given the time period. That said, sometimes I felt it was important to push back against people’s perceptions of women in different time periods. Once I workshopped a chapter about Haemi, and one of the comments was: “I don’t know that a woman of this time would have these sexual desires.” And I just remember thinking, “What?” I wanted people to understand that women in these circumstances would have the same desires, the same wants, maybe some of the same ambivalence about becoming a mother that many women today experience. I wanted to make Haemi a woman who struggles with motherhood because the cost of survival was so high for her. And that is something her children will notice. Because they’re young, they can’t always articulate it, but they know that something is wrong. At the same time, they also have this kind of unreserved love for her. I thought it was so well done, the way you explored the far-reaching consequences of Haemi’s choice to marry Jisoo and how her resulting unhappiness—and that generational trauma you mentioned before—echoes through the lives of her children. Can you talk a little about that, and also how you wrote the relationship between Haemi and her daughter Solee? I really wanted to write about Haemi and her daughter, and spend time exploring that relationship, because I have always been interested in mother/daughter stories. To me, growing up, my mom always seemed like someone who was louder and more outspoken than a lot of the Korean women I saw when I visited Korea, and I was always very curious about that. My mother and I have a good relationship, but you know, the mother/daughter relationship can just be so complicated. It’s something I have thought and written about for so long. I want to be a mother one day; I grew up around all these strong women; I also have a younger sister—these relationships between women are fascinating to me. What sort of research did you have to do to write this book? Oh, it was so much more than I thought when I started writing! I was mostly following my writerly whims in grad school, and I didn’t realize how much research would be involved. But then I realized my workshopmates didn’t know much about the Korean war, and that would be true of many of my readers, so I needed to provide a lot more background information. And also I just wanted to read and understand more for myself. So I read a lot of historical and political texts about the Korean War. I interviewed my grandmother. I interviewed some of my dad’s siblings, who were alive during the war. I watched documentaries and movies. And I also looked at a lot of photographs, to get a sense of what everyday life was like for people at the time. I wanted to create a visual and sensory experience for the reader, especially because I knew it might be a foreign place for them. What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research? One thing that was surprising but shouldn’t have been was just how difficult it was to find accounts of women’s experiences during and after the war. That was hard and frustrating. I had to get creative with my research, because I was specifically interested in women’s lives during the war, and there was not much information. So I read a lot of sociological studies about women and war and trauma. And let’s see...one of the more interesting things I learned was that, in the years after the war, there were a lot of government campaigns to promote smaller families. They actually had a van go around and provide free IUDs to people. I’m so curious about what those were even like, and how effective they were. Sometimes I wonder if we’re finally seeing more Korean and Korean American stories because of South Korea’s increased cultural influence. In more cynical moments, I think our country is also fascinated by North Korean suffering. Did you feel any additional pressure writing a book set during and after the Korean War for a largely non-Korean audience? When I started writing this, I was really just driven by my interest and my own need to write it. I felt like it was something I had to do. I wasn’t thinking about any readers in particular. But later on, when I had a draft I was revising and I was starting to think beyond the characters, I did start to think about that kind of pressure. I had a conversation about the book with my parents and my uncle, and showed them all of these photos I had gathered over the years. My uncle made a comment like, “Make sure you represent us well and make Koreans proud, show us in a good light.” Wow, that’s so much. It is! I didn’t know how to articulate to them that that’s not my role as a writer. I’m not trying to represent all of Korea. I want to write these characters who have particular experiences. Though I think it’s wonderful if the American reader, or English-speaking reader, learns more about the Korean War or thinks more about what one woman’s experience during that time might have been. So what’s been your family’s reaction since you finished the novel? Have any of them read it. They are all so excited for me. My parents can read English, and they speak English, but it would be hard for them to read a whole novel in English. They’re not going to be able to read this book easily. So they’re hoping it’ll get translated into Korean, and I really hope it will, too. They joked that if it doesn’t, they’ll read one line a day, and it’ll take them the rest of their lives. My mom has been trying to read the essays I’ve written, like the recent one about my grandmother. I really loved that essay. In it, you wrote about the realization that you are more than your own self—your body, your bones, as you put it—you are also your family, and what they lived through. What are some things you learned about your family while talking with them for this book? And did any of their stories come into the novel, or just influence it in some surprising way? I learned a lot more about my grandmother when I interviewed her. Working on this novel also allowed me to hear more stories from my parents. My dad is kind of a silent guy ... but nowadays he talks more and shares more stories. When I started this book, I asked a lot of questions about his childhood, and he’d give such interesting tidbits. When he was little, the kids would go around chasing grasshoppers. They’d pluck their wings, and fry and eat them. They’d catch tadpoles and fish and eat those, too. It was because they were hungry, and it was protein, but as a child he didn’t think about that; he thought it was fun. He also told me about living near a woman whose child was half-white, and there was all this discrimination against them; that’s something I remembered, and wanted to include in my book. And my father vividly remembers the candy and cookies American soldiers would give out. So many of his memories rotated around food, because they didn’t have enough. His life is so different now. Before, I hadn’t consciously thought about just how different it is. Growing up, I didn’t think about my parents being that poor or hungry—I mean I knew, but I just couldn’t imagine it fully. Writing this book helped me to ask more questions about them, about my family, and I became closer to them because I listened to their stories. Have you started to hear from readers? Any reactions that have really meant a lot to you? I’ve heard from readers who’ve said I’m portraying a really complicated woman who they did not hate in the end, even though they didn’t always agree with her. And I’m happy to hear that—I really wanted to write about someone complicated, and have people care for her. I’m really excited to hear from Korean American readers. I didn’t grow up reading Korean American authors, and now I read every one I can find. I feel like it’s been kind of a banner year for Asian American women writers in particular. Is that something you’ve noticed, too? Yes, and I’m so excited! This is a big year for Asian women writers. I also didn’t grow up reading many Asian women writers, or Asian American writers in general, but I think it’s something I desperately wanted. I distinctly remember when I was in Kindergarten, I picked up this book about a Chinese adoptee just because it had a girl like me on the cover. I really wanted to read more books about Asian characters, more books by Asian writers. And maybe that’s represented in the years I spent in college writing these white or raceless characters because I didn’t want to write Asian characters—I just hadn’t read about many growing up, and so I thought that wasn’t literature. I’m so happy and proud about all the Asian American women writing today. It fills me with such joy. Do you think you’ll write more stories set in Korea, during this time period or a different one? I think so, yes. I started working on a novel, and it is half in America, present-day, and half in Korea in the ’80s. Earlier I mentioned being surprised by the amount of research that went into If You Leave Me, but I did enjoy that process, and how informed I felt creating the world of the book. So I think I will keep doing research and writing about Korea. I’m also eager to write about Korean Americans—who knows, it’s early and could still change, but with the second book, I’m trying to do both.
Talking to the creator of Prism Stalker about body horror, complicating stories of subjugation and colonialism, and finding inspiration in Sailor Moon.
Sloane Leong’s Prism Stalker, a new series from Image Comics, begins inside a dream: Human forms abstracted by swirls of creamy pink and radioactive orange. This is how the young protagonist Vep remembers her home—a planet ruined by plague. Her people were rescued by a galactic power known as the Chorus, which recruits them into service with the empire. Vep ends up at a telepathic police academy, training to put down indigenous unrest. Struggling to master her native language, manipulated into complicity, Vep’s disquiet reveals itself during psychic combat; fellow students watch their bodies liquefy or crack apart, fighting through illusions. The moral corrosion of colonialism makes everything slippery. One of Vep’s teachers takes hold of an ancestral necklace, not without tenderness, and then tears it from her neck: “A distraction you can’t afford here.” Before creating her current project, Leong put in time contributing art to various other comics, including Dial H, an uncommonly strange DC monthly written by the Marxist-surrealist China Mieville. Prism Stalker is the first series she owns, in more than one sense; Leong scripts, pencils, and colours each issue herself. For all its overlapping textures, its membranes and trellises, she draws this world with loose ease. * Chris Randle: On your website you describe yourself as a "self-taught" cartoonist, so it felt irresistible to ask: what did you learn from? Sloane Leong: Reading books, reading comics, watching movies and stuff, just absorbing what I saw. I didn't have any formal training. I think I took an art class when I was in, like, third grade, where I learned how to finger-paint beach scenes, which was fun, but nothing beyond that [laughs]. You're from Hawaii...was that helpful in itself? The fact that you didn't grow up in some random suburbs? Yeah, I was born in southern California, so I went to school there for a little bit, then I lived in Hawaii, and that was when I was really starting to come into my own as an artist, painting and stuff. The art scene in Hawaii specifically on Maui was pretty much whale art and beach photography, and beyond that there was really nothing. I was absorbing other more interesting stuff on my own on the Internet, like roleplaying on forums and reading webcomics and fanfic on the internet. How did you first get into work-for-hire comics? The first thing that got published, I think I was 18, and I did a two-page comic for Slave Labor Graphics, for an anthology called Fat Chunk: Robot. I don't think they exist anymore. Did they fold? [laughs] And they published, like, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, right? Yup. Yeah. I didn't really grow up reading comics, I started reading them around 14, so I didn't really have any history or know who published what. But I used to draw for a website called EnterVoid, I don't know if you've heard of it. A lot of Canadian cartoonists were on there, like James Stokoe and Marley Zarcone. Basically you'd make an original character, you'd do a design sheet, and then you would pit your character against another person's character, and you'd have to draw a short comic with them fighting it out. You'd get graded on skill, creativity, and technique, and people would rate you from 1-10, and they'd also do long critiques. It was really brutal [laughs], because there were teens like me going up against 30-year-olds. It was intense but fun, and you could do something short like a five-page comic within two weeks, or they'd have tournaments, and you'd have to draw a 22-page comic within two weeks, with a month's worth of fights. That was formative for me as a cartoonist. Prism Stalker began as a novel, right? Yeah. It was a baby novel, and then I wanted to do a visual novel, like an RPG game, but it was too complicated because I didn't have any experience with gaming. And then after several years I felt confident enough to draw it, so I settled on doing a comic. Do you write detailed scripts for yourself, or just lay out each issue first as thumbnails? Mostly outlines. I'll compile an issue's worth of scenes and ideas, but they're usually only a couple of pages long. I don't write dialogue until I'm actually drawing—as I'm drawing it, I'll be thinking through dialogue and writing it down. To me the characters are super amorphous, and when I start drawing a scene I'll be like, "Actually they wouldn't say this, and they wouldn't act like this." Or the way I intuitively draw them acting out their emotions will alter how I think they should speak, what they're thinking. So I don't plan until I'm in the mix drawing it. I do have a loose overarching storyline, but I don't like going into too much detail, because it kills the momentum for me. It is funny that Prism Stalker started as a novel, because the story most reminds me of this species of psychosomatic '70s science fiction—I was thinking of writers like Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler. Was that in the back of your mind? Oh, totally. I think the most apparent inspiration is Sailor Moon, magical girls shouting out moves, and I wanted to take that and—not dissect it, but elaborate on it, instead of just being like "this is my water attack." There's one move, I think in the fifth issue that I just drew, it's this frog alien and her move is forcing someone to experience what it's like to give birth to hatchlings from their back [laughs]. That's like her psychic move and it's very traumatizing if you're not a frog alien. I just try to take that idea of transmitting an experience and go really weird with it. That made me think of—Dan O'Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for Alien and came up with the basic concept and everything, he had Crohn's disease, and I think he understandably had a lot of frustration and trauma surrounding that. So he was like, my idea for this horror story is, what if men got impregnated? Because that's what it feels like, yeah. Body horror is a big thing for me. I have chronic [gastrointestinal] disease, so every time I eat I get nauseous and sick, it's been happening since I was a tween. So I have this disgust and—not complete fear, but a dread-filled fascination with my body, because I'm not in control of it, and I've had cancer scares and stuff. Asthma. The body is so crazy, in how it can turn on itself. That's a big inspiration for the entire world [of Prism Stalker]. That is such a recurring theme with Delany and Butler as well, this fantasy of the mutable body. You did a minicomic about it, but there's multiple scenes in Prism Stalker—I was thinking of the one where Vep becomes this membrane of frantic lines. I love that part. And it doesn't feel clean or sterile like a lot of clichéd science fiction, the aesthetic is techno-organic. All these giant hives. People pressing into the flesh of a door to open it. And the palette is so tropical. Were you consciously trying to go against all those clichés? Yeah. And I feel like that's my perspective on a radical future, a biological synchronicity between us and our environment. Acknowledging it as something that's alive, although not necessarily conscious, which comes from my native Hawaiian background, having that relationship with the land you're on. So I wanted to do a sci-fi version that was a little more flashy and colorful. I just love how dynamic the human body is on a cellular level, how it can encode data into itself. I feel like a lot of bad science fiction is about overcoming or erasing nature, rather than reshaping it, so that was cool to see. Another thing that struck me was...this is a story about a refugee who's been displaced by a terrorist attack, and ends up working for a private military contractor, but it doesn't feel clumsily allegorical. How did you go about gesturing towards these political ideas, but in a way that's— —not too reductive? Yeah. That reveals the operations of colonialism by displacing it into a different context. I drew a lot from Hawaiian history and culture around the 1890s, when Sanford Dole and other businessmen came to Hawaii to start plantations for sugar and pineapples. There were all these immigrants coming in to work for them, and the natives were working for them, so there were hierarchies involved. The plantation owners would also play mind games, like, they started treating the Japanese really well, to make them feel above the others, above the Chinese workers, above the Hawaiians. It's very messy, you know? Obviously there's oppressive subjugation of the native peoples, of the immigrants, but there's also the colonized people enacting that violence against each other. And I wanted to explore that, so it wasn't such a clean, “here's the oppressor, and here's the victim.” In Prism Stalker's world there's the Chorus, which denotes that they're going for harmony. They feel that they have the right to subjugate people for their own good. When they rescue Vep's people from that terrorist attack on their home planet, it's not like they're forcing them to leave, they're saving them from this horrible disease that's spreading. But there's still trauma involved for them. There's this trope in shitty space-opera movies where the bad guys are so ridiculously evil-looking. And I can appreciate the camp of a villain slinking around his fabulously appointed lair, but that is not how these empires saw themselves in real life, they thought they were doing good. I loved how you capture the euphemisms they use: "It's important for your social health to move beyond your base traditions." All the teachers are different species and races and ethnicities as well, so a lot of them also had to give up their traditions in order to take on authoritative roles at this academy for the Chorus. They're sympathetic, but they want to succeed in this place where they've found themselves. I think of you as somebody who watches a lot of films, and studies—mm, that sounds bad, [pompously] "studies cinema." But you write about it really well. How has that informed your cartooning? Hmm...I feel like it's such a core part of how I learned storytelling, just because I don’t have any formal training besides reading books with titles like How to Draw Comics. I just kind of absorbed media willy-nilly. Movies specifically...I think color and atmosphere was a big thing for me. I don't know, because I feel like my compositions aren't especially cinematic, I don't rely on three-panel wide shots, you know? That doesn't really come into my mind, but the color and atmosphere and mood that movies can achieve, that is present in my mind when I'm coloring. A lot of comics that are colored, as opposed to black and white, it almost feels pointless. It's such a boring, realist use of color, compared to a movie like Black Narcissus, where it's so florid...is that what your approach is going for? It depends on the scene. Like, a lot of the fight scenes I end up going more abstract, especially because there's a lot of psychic abstraction happening in the scene. I'm always trying to find the simplest way to depict something. Not that it'll lack detail, but if I can get away with adding a wash of color to show depth, or wash a whole scene in a very limited palette to control pacing, I'll do that. I'm always trying to use color to make the story and mood clearer. And you even have soundtracks for Prism Stalker. I got the idea from my friend Porpentine, who does Twine games and fiction writing, and Riley collaborates with her a lot, does music for her games. I thought that might be cool, especially because Prism Stalker has a lot of...it's a very noisy world to me. Everything is goopy and membranous and echoing. There's large chambers, crowds of people. Do you have the whole thing planned out right now in your head? Like, do you know how long it's going to run for, what the arc of the story is... Yeah, I have a loose outline, and I pitched it as 25 issues. I thought that was a safe bet. I feel like a lot of Image comics fail when they do that, like, "I'm just going to go on until it's canceled." 25 issues, five trade paperbacks, that seems safe [laughs] ... I think it's also my history with short comics, like, I love doing short fiction and minicomics, one-shot stories, so having something that's ongoing, to me that just means I don't have a pointed theme in mind, and that I'm groping for something to knead it to. [Prism Stalker] is such a clear experience that I'm picking apart that I have an end in mind. Plus you're doing literally everything on this comic yourself, so I imagine you don't have much time to draw other stuff. I'm also working on a graphic novel, I don't recommend it [laughs]. What can you tell me about that book? It's called A Map to the Sun, it's halfway inked, it's about five girls that get forced together to join a basketball team. They're in 10th grade. It takes place in an ambiguous Los Angeles / San Diego-adjacent neighborhood, there's school drama, lots of basketball rivalries. I wanted it to be kind of like Slam Dunk, but there's a hard page count that I can't go past, like, 320 pages, so I can't do a 100-page-long basketball game [laughs]. I'm trying to condense that sort of complex, detailed drama of being a player in a game. Is it also jarring to go from this surreal science fiction to a realist— Yeah. I try to stay looser for A Map to the Sun, especially the backgrounds, it's more brush-y, because I just don't like drawing cars and houses that much, but that and Prism Stalker are both very kinetic, they have a lot to do with the characters' bodies and becoming skilled at a certain thing. I have to ask, because you're doing a book-length comic about L.A.: Have you seen Los Angeles Plays Itself? No, I haven't! It's this three-hour-long film essay about the depiction of Los Angeles in cinema, and the director quotes from dozens and dozens of other movies with narration over that...he talks about how, in classical Hollywood, they couldn't actually shoot movies in China or wherever, they almost never had the budget for that kind of thing, so they would just pretend that these fields outside the city were rice paddies. There's a section where he's showing an old crime thriller supposedly set in Chicago, and the guy is escaping through these hog pens, and the narrator deadpans: "But what about those palm trees?" I did say [A Map to the Sun] is set in Los Angeles, but because it's not "sexy" like L.A. is, I try not to necessarily reference that aspect. I'm mostly referencing, like, the hot, semi-tropical desert property there. I don't know, there's such a specific idyllic feeling, but it can also be really gritty and ugly.
The dubious distinction, and literary legacy, of Leo Szilard, the physicist and writer “who did the most to create the atomic bomb, and the most to stop it.”
By all accounts, Leo Szilard loved being in the hospital. In 1960, he was sixty-two years old and dying of bladder cancer, or so it seemed at the time. Although he had liked his life, dying did have its privileges. In room 812 at Memorial, he could hold appointments from bed, like a child king; he had prompt meals, daily pampering; hourly respite from loneliness. And, though he had gone without a permanent address for nearly a decade, he now had a constant influx of visitors: the nurses who indulged his banter and let him take his own temperature; the doctors who tolerated the proffering of his medical opinions. Cancer, miraculously, had given Leo a social life. It had also, paradoxically, given him time. Propped up on his deathbed with his mind at leisure, Leo could cultivate new hobbies, like researching poison. “How terrible it is that you can’t walk into a drugstore and buy something to kill yourself without pain,” he lamented to his colleague, the physicist and Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe. Barbiturates were good, but cyanide was better, if you could curb the choking sensation. He began a patent for a so-called “suicide kit”: a hand pump that could diffuse a painless dilution of cyanide fumes, making dying as easy as breathing. Around that time—in the hours he wasn’t napping, or amusing nurses, or trying to covertly direct his own radiation treatment—he began writing a book. That book, a collection of eight addled, antic parables about nuclear war called The Voice of the Dolphins, would go on to be hailed by at least one of Leo’s contemporaries as a “science fiction classic.” The cyanide pump, on the other hand, was a morbid failure. So, in his way, was Leo. Leo is best remembered, when he’s remembered at all, for his contributions to a different kind of deadly device. In 1939, he sent a famous letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “In the course of the last four months,” he wrote, “it has become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium.” The letter, cosigned by Leo’s old friend Einstein, was the beginning of the Manhattan Project. * Born in Budapest in 1898, Leo was a mere nerd long before he was ever a maker of bombs: quiet, inward, exceedingly mockable. He had protruding ears, a high forehead, and a collection of whimsical hats. His best (only?) friend was his kid brother, Bela, with whom he spent hours building radios and reading science fiction. As a boy, he discovered the “scientific romances” of H.G. Wells who, in a novel titled The World Set Free, likened atomic power to the discovery of fire, which could “[raise] man from brute.” Wells’s furious utopianism struck a chord with Leo. As a young man, he would go on to start the Hungarian Association for Socialist Students, which proved a gutsy move for a Jewish kid in a collapsing country. In the first of many historical ironies, he moved to Germany, where anti-Semitism seemed comparatively mild. Leo’s plan was to study engineering at the prestigious Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, but engineering proved boring—“the routine application of established knowledge,” in his appraisal. At Willhelm, he attended lectures by Nobel physicist Max Planck, who sparked his interest in theoretical physics, and befriended Albert Einstein by walking him home from school. But even with Einstein’s guidance, Leo struggled to secure a job in his chosen discipline: undoubtedly brilliant, he was also, in the words of his friend Eugene Wigner, “an ass in some respects,” bored by teaching and lab work, distracted by his own quixotic ideas. Tellingly, he put the word “job” in scare quotes. By the end of the decade, he was broke, and Berlin was in crisis. On January 30th, 1933, Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany. A few months later, once Einstein secured him a last-ditch fellowship, Leo moved to London. It was in London, on a street corner in Imperial Park, that Leo had an epiphany, motivated, characteristically, by irritation. He had just read an editorial by Ernest Rutherford declaring the Wellsian dream of atomic power a theoretical impossibility. It occurred to Leo that a nuclear chain reaction could be precipitated by the neutrons, then a recent discovery, in a “critical mass” of uranium. Vindicated, Leo filed his first patent. Five years later, he fled Nazi-occupied Europe for the United States. In 1942, under the auspices of Roosevelt, Leo began work as Chief Physicist at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Lab, where the Manhattan Project was first conceived. He collaborated with Enrico Fermi to create Chicago-1, the world’s first nuclear reactor, partially devised from Leo’s 1934 patent. Unsurprisingly, Leo was a frustrating colleague from the very beginning—a “peculiar man,” in the words of Fermi, with too many ideas and too few social graces, who “seemed to enjoy startling people.” Chiefly, he enjoyed startling “brass hats,” or the bureaucrats and government officials with whom he would be in conflict for most of his adult life. As the Manhattan Project continued, the Met Lab came under the control of Lieutenant General Leslie R. Groves, the director of the Army Corps of Engineers and Leo’s eventual nemesis in life and death. Groves was a career soldier with a puny mustache, a pugilistic face, and a hearty American distrust of intellectuals; Leo was a Hungarian with a heavy accent, a jocular contempt for military authority, and an ecstatic, evangelizing confidence in his own ideas. The two were instant enemies, bound by a beautifully counterpoised hatred. From the first, Leo bristled at the presence of military engineers, whom he believed capable of little more than “putting up bridges,” and resented Groves in particular as a philistine intrusion on the sacrosanct domain of science. He was also, to Groves’s consternation, immediately dismissive of security protocols, which he thought stymied collaboration among physicists. After Groves refused to support one of Leo’s initiatives—his plans for a bismuth-cooled reactor—Leo’s fraught relationship with the Army Corps deteriorated even further. “If you don’t get rid of these engineers,” he said to Arthur Compton, the Met Lab’s research director, “I’m going to quit.” Groves proposed another solution: that Leo be impounded as an “enemy alien” for the duration of the war. Rather than firing or imprisoning Leo, which would trigger a wave of resignations from his colleagues, Compton removed him from daily operations at Met Lab and assigned him a nominal advisory role. But if Leo had less of a say in the making of the bomb, he now had more time on his hands to consider its destiny. Leo had imagined that “liberating the atom,” as Wells described it in The World Set Free, would liberate the world from Nazis. But as the war continued, it became clear that the bomb would function more profoundly as a deterrent to the Soviet Union than as the death knell for the Third Reich. In 1945, Leo decided once again to draft a memo to President Roosevelt, titled “Atomic Bombs and the Postwar Position of the United States,” which cautioned that military use of the bomb could trigger “a preventative war with the Soviet Union.” Roosevelt died before Einstein, again volunteering as intermediary, could deliver it. Leo had entered the Manhattan Project under the auspices of Roosevelt and would leave it under the stewardship of Harry Truman and an administration of dogmatic Cold Warriors. In the spring 1945, Leo finagled his way into a clandestine meeting with Jimmy Byrnes, soon to be named Truman’s Secretary of State, to present him with a version of the memorandum he had intended for Roosevelt. Although the memo was signed by a number of Leo’s Manhattan Project colleagues, Byrnes refused to pass it on to Truman. While the war would soon be over, Byrnes explained to Leo, the use of the bomb on Japan would make Russia more “manageable.” Before the war had even concluded, the bomb had already been conscripted into the fight against Communism. As August 1945 approached, Leo made one last attempt to stop the bomb: Along with Arthur Compton, Edward Teller, Eugene Rabinowitch, and a number of other prominent scientists, Leo helped draft the secret petition that would come to be known as the Franck Report, cautioning Washington about the likelihood of a postwar arms race should the bomb be deployed on Japan. The petition marked the end of Leo’s career in nuclear physics. It was the last of his many attempts to spurn Groves and his ilk, for whom the military use of the bomb beckoned as a career capstone. To Groves, Leo wasn’t simply a rival, or a nuisance, or even just an “enemy alien,” he was a “true villain,” “an inveterate troublemaker,” and “not a great scientist.” Most of all, he was a Jew. “I’m not prejudiced,” Groves told a reporter in 1957. “I don’t like certain Jews. I don’t like certain characteristics of theirs, but I’m not prejudiced … Take Wigner and Fermi—they’re not Jewish—they’re quiet, shy, modest, just interested in learning.” Leo was keenly aware of the fact that his colleagues, too, had stymied his attempts to stop the bomb, most notably Oppenheimer himself, who told Leo repeatedly that scientists had no place in politics. Oppenheimer, Jewish though he was, had never stoked Groves’s racist ire the way that Leo had. “He can talk about anything,” Groves said admiringly, “except sports.” Regal in his despair on national television, it was Oppenheimer, not Leo, who emerged as the Manhattan Project’s high-profile penitent. He became, in the sobriquet of his biographer, the “American Prometheus,” while Leo—the Martian, the Jew, the frumpy, frantic foreigner—has been largely forgotten. During the war, Leo never described himself as socialist or, for that matter, as a Jew. Instead, in a famous quip, he described himself as a Martian. Alien or not, he had always been a moony annoyance, bidden by odd, insistent habits. He didn’t marry until 1951, when he was fifty-three years old, and courted his wife, Trude, by mail over a period of decades—aware, perhaps, that he charmed in prose but chafed in person. Mostly left to his own devices, he seldom bothered with anything so terrestrial as labwork, or laundry, or living in houses. He felt most at home in hotel rooms, roosting anywhere with room service. Leo lived precariously, portably, with everything he owned—clothes, books, papers, patents—slopped into suitcases. His first real permanent address in America was in La Jolla, where he retired and where, in 1964, he died. William Lanouette, in his biography of Leo, characterizes these habits as those of a late-in-life bachelor. But so, too, do they seem like the habits of a lifelong refugee—a European Jew exiled from Europe, and, eventually, as a physicist exiled from physics. After the revelations of the Franck Report, Groves blacklisted him, writing menacing notes to physics departments around the country cautioning against his employment. Leo never worked in nuclear science again. Instead, he wrote about it. With the imprimatur of a former Manhattan Project scientist, Leo found he could publish more or less whatever and wherever he wanted: in The Bulletin of Atomic Sciences, The New Republic, Life. He had always been an easy, authoritative writer with a flair for argument and irony; now, instead of writing letters to the president, he wrote articles for the public, pleading the case for international arms control. Living on the periphery of America’s nuclear politics at the dawn of the atomic age, Leo found, to his chagrin, that he had hardly any influence but plenty of celebrity. Such was the dubious distinction of the man, in the words of Lanouette, “who did the most to create the bomb and the most to stop it. “ * When The Voice of the Dolphins was published, Leo hadn’t worked in physics in over a decade. The title story, composed after his cancer diagnosis, was his attempt to craft nuclear policy from his hospital bed. Over seventy pages long, “The Voice of the Dolphins” takes place in the near future, and follows a cabal of messianic dolphins who take over the Vatican. Possessed of a frighteningly superior intelligence, the dolphins also demonstrate a preternatural understanding of nuclear warheads. To everyone’s relief, they crave only peace. They start a radio show, on which they predict the U.S.-Soviet nuclear crisis of the 1980s. They also resolve it, through a series of byzantine policy proposals. Then, under mysterious circumstances, they die, evoking either a political assassination or the death of Christ. This is, for The Voice of the Dolphins, a happy ending. It’s easy to imagine the Leo of the 1960s dividing his days between writing fiction and envisioning his own funeral, grief-stricken under a fine rain of nuclear fallout. His book reads less like a classic of science fiction than an extended revenge fantasy—a Boschian portrait of what the world would look like without him. Every policy suggestion made by the dolphins had, as one reviewer noted, “been made at an earlier time by Leo Szilard himself,” in an article published in Life Magazine titled “How to Live with the Bomb—and Survive.” When Leo’s former colleagues responded to his article derisively—that is, the way they responded to all of his articles—he decided that, if they “couldn’t take it straight, they would get it as fiction.” He rewrote “How to Live with the Bomb,” point for point, as a short story, then added dolphins. But the charge of aggressive self-plagiarism doesn’t fully capture the book’s peculiar blend of hack shamelessness and high moral purpose. It’s a divided, demented little book, riven by dueling desires for penance and self-promotion—as confused, perhaps, as Leo himself, torn between curing his cancer and committing suicide. In his book, as in his life, it’s hard to tell whether he wanted to save the world or revel in its ruin. Leo was a man who could hardly tie his own shoes but could foresee the split atom while crossing the street; a man who could succeed in building a bomb but who failed to stop it. The Voice of the Dolphins is, perhaps, less a classic of science fiction than an aching inventory of its author’s failures. The title story, Leo wrote, “is not about the brilliance of dolphins, but about the stupidity of man.” In most of the stories, the surest sign of men’s stupidity is that all of them are dead. * Leo remained convinced, to the end of his life, that the nuclear threat wasn’t a scientific crisis but a political one—the singular result of war hawks like Byrnes and Groves who dismissed or demonized him. And as the Cold War mounted, Leo kept faith in his vision of a nuclear arsenal wrested from the hands of politicians, helmed instead by an enclave of scientific elites. But, for all his scientific optimism, there are hardly any heroic scientists in his fiction. There are hardly any humans, in fact, and the ones who survive wish they hadn’t. In “The Mark Gable Foundation,” a man wakes up from a cryogenic freezer to discover that the humans of the future all wear dentures. In the millennia he slept through, science hasn’t solved the problem of the bomb. But it has, reassuringly, solved the problem of teeth, extracting them for “hygienic purposes.” Far from saving the world, science in Leo’s fiction is toothless and inept, piloting humans into a future they never wanted. It’s space aliens, not scientists, who promise salvation in Leo’s fiction. Subverting the decade’s B-movie tropes, Leo’s aliens aren’t hostile invaders but melancholy intellectuals—cosmic outsiders who don’t want to blow up Earth but understand why it blew up in the first place. They’re not Communists, perhaps, but intergalactic fellow travelers; innocent of commerce, they appear to believe that the only thing crazier than nuclear war is capitalism itself. It’s the very unsubtlety of that symbolism that makes The Voice of the Dolphins such a ribald, risky marvel: Leo Szilard, enemy alien trailed by the FBI, wrote a widely-published book of fiction condemning the bomb and eulogizing Karl Marx. In “Notes on Exterminism,” published in the New Left Review in 1980, the critic EF Thompson declared that the arms race was too crazy to admit a class analysis; the bomb was a political concern that subsumed all others. But, in his life as in his fiction, Leo rejected the idea that the atomic thread overrode questions of class and power. He understood, ever since that failed meeting with Byrnes, how thoroughly the bomb was embedded in forms of economic domination. In the introduction to the 1992 edition of The Voice of the Dolphins, Barton J. Bernstein wrote that “My Trial as A War Criminal” marked Leo’s attempt, however conflicted, to echo Marx’s assertion that “history is written by the victors.” But, if there are no real war criminals in The Voice of the Dolphins, there are no winners, either. The book, ultimately, suggests that history—its weight, its wounds—is inherited by the losers. He understood that at stake in the bomb was more than one kind of extinction. Before the death of the species would come, inevitably, the extermination of difference. If his fiction offers any fragile grounds for hope, it is the image of the Martian—the socialist, the Jew, the bitter outsider—as the one who survives. * Leo recovered from his cancer diagnosis, either through the salubrious effects of imagining apocalypse or because he insisted on directing his own radiation therapy. He recovered in other ways, too: the success of The Voice of the Dolphins somehow allowed him to regain, for a brief time, his political credibility. People started opening his letters again, and sometimes they even answered. One of those people was Nikolai Kruschev, to whom Leo, with typical bravado, had sent an unsolicited manuscript of The Voice of the Dolphins’ title story. Kruschev was amused. For a time, they corresponded. That correspondence scored Leo a few successes. It was at Leo’s encouragement that the first hotline between the White House and the Kremlin was established. More characteristically, Leo also managed to secure more vacation days for the scientists at the Atomic Energy Commission. But he will always be a figure regarded more highly for his failures than his successes. His thwarted attempts to stop the bomb had largely effaced his role in building it. That quirk of fate—that he could become one of the most famous failures in nuclear politics, and beloved for it—wasn’t lost on him. Towards the end of his life, Leo reflected on his differences from Enrico Fermi, describing him, in a backhanded sort of way, “as a scientist pure and simple.” For Leo, that “position is unassailable because it is all of one piece….I doubt that [Fermi] ever understood that some people live in two worlds like I do. A world, and science is a part of this one, in which we have to predict what is going to happen, and another world in which [we] fight for what we want to happen. But how many people are able to understand that coexistence of these two separate worlds? I certainly would not understand it were it not for certain accidents in my education." If this “separate world” was one born out of futility, it’s also one he perceived most clearly in his fiction. Thomas Carlyle once described poetry as “failed prophecy,” and the same could be said of science fiction—the genre that H.G. Wells once lamented as a “self-destructive art.” To write fiction like Wells’s or Leo’s is to write fiction that is often debunked by the very future it foretells. This is, perhaps, a good thing. What’s bad for the survival of science fiction is probably good for the survival of the species. Like Wells before him, Leo wrote to capture a collective nightmare. And we hope of nightmares what we seldom hope of novels: to forget them, sooner rather than later. Might the same be said of scientists? Groves, certainly, thought not. In 1965, a year after Leo’s death, he wrote to the editors of the Encyclopedia Americana to complain about an entry on Leo Szilard. “It’s unnecessarily long,” he wrote, “and overstates his importance.”
In Berlin, I watched us queer women watching each other. But nobody seemed to lead anyone inside. Could cruising ever be a part of lesbian culture the way it is for gay men?
When I moved to Berlin I saw queer women everywhere. Women with crewcuts and sturdy knuckles and their collars turned up; women with long dark hair and clean faces who crooked their mouths at me on the subway; women swimming naked in Brandenburg’s lakes, circling one another. They passed me on the street at night, they leant up against the same railing at U-Bahn stations. Recognition slipped sideways from a friendly you’re not alone into the swampy, heady world of queer desire. Germans tend to stare, but translated into the underground of the German lesbian world this meant that complete strangers would catch my gaze and hold it for an entire train journey. Once I stumbled out, almost breathless, dizzy from the way a woman had been watching me, while my straight friend chattered on beside me, oblivious to the entire exchange. It’s odd to be a lesbian in public and feel the frisson of heat rather than danger. There was something about the way we were all looking at each other that couldn’t be easily explained. It wasn’t until I was idly rereading an old Alan Hollinghurst novel that I realised the difference. We weren’t just noticing each other. We were out there to be looked at. We were cruising. * Cruising—the act of going out in public to look for sexual partners, usually for brief or anonymous encounters—has a long history and runs as a bright, dangerous thread through gay literature. Its purposes are manifold, seeking not only sex but partnership, community, and identity. In Gay New York, George Chauncey, writing about the early gay scene in the city from 1890 to 1940, explains that well-known cruising areas offered the chance to find sexual partners and socialise with other gay men. In contending with “the threat of vigilante anti-gay violence as well as with the police… gay men devised a variety of tactics that allowed them to move freely about the city, to appropriate for themselves spaces that were not marked as gay, and to construct a gay city in the midst of, yet invisible to, the dominant city.” Cruising is both community-building and world-building. In an interview with The Guardian, author Garth Greenwell argued that modern cruising still offers vital connections and support: “Cruising has been central in my life since I was 14 years old. It was the first gay community I found in the pre-global internet in Louisville, Kentucky, where I grew up.” And Greenwell, writing for BuzzFeed, scoffed at the idea that the age of Grindr has made cruising obsolete. If so, he says, “it’s difficult to explain the persistence of analog cruising, or the fact that often enough offline and digital cruising happen side by side”. Cruising and literature are inherently linked: cruising is, after all, a form of reading, with its own codes and languages. Unsurprising, then, that so much of gay literature is interested in the politics and romances of cruising. Greenwell’s debut novel opens in a public bathroom defined by its cruising potential by the narrator; there is, he tells us, “only one reason for men to be standing there.” Cruising in What Belongs To You is a tender act, where love and loneliness couple in the “hidden gay world” contained within Sofia’s streets. This hidden gay world is so all-consuming in Alan Hollinghurst’s debut novel The Swimming Pool Library that it becomes hard to remember there is another heterosexual world existing around it—let alone a world containing women, who appear only briefly, usually presented off-screen with faint disgust. (“It was not nice,” one male character remarks, “to think of female fingernails doodling over his smooth man’s body.”) The novel’s narrator, William Beckwith, spends the novel seeking and having sex in public, with almost no effort: “[M]y pick-ups were virtually instantaneous: the man I fancied took in my body, my cock, my blue eyes at a glance. Misunderstandings were almost unknown. Any uncertainty in a boy I wanted was usually overcome by the simple insistence of my look.” For Will, it is “strangers who by their very strangeness quickened my pulse and made me feel I was alive.” The novel revels in public sex, in cruising, in the erotic possibilities offered by this simple insistence of Will’s demanding gaze. Berlin, of course, has long been home to cruising both real and fictional. Christopher Isherwood, poet laureate of gay Berlin, reports frankly that “Berlin meant boys.” Writing forty years later in Black Deutschland, Darryl Pinckney begins his tale of American expatriate Jed in 1980s West Berlin with an explicit Isherwood callback: “Fifty years after [Isherwood’s] adventures among proletarian toughs, Berlin meant white boys who wanted to atone for Germany’s crimes by loving a black boy like me.” Jed is not particularly interested in cruising, but he is still alive to the possibilities it offers, whether “cruising in the Tiergarten. Show me the way to the next pretty boy” or dryly recognising the potential that passes him by; “the boys not giving me a second look,” his inability to “get any of the loitering Turkish boys to respond.” When I first noticed the way in which women were looking at me in Berlin I went back to these books and thrilled again, with Greenwell, at the potential for “the park’s other life, secret and ludic”—where park could read city, train, walk home. But clearly, these books were lacking the very thing that had driven me to them: there were no women. * The world of queer women’s literature is vast and varied, and this year I embarked on a brief, desperate catalogue of lesbian fiction in search of women cruising. I read a limited but comprehensive sample: classics of the genre, more recent releases, some of the pulp fiction of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I came up with a bare collection of disparate threads, not enough to fill even one Hollinghurst chapter. Audre Lorde refers to cruising throughout her memoir Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, but she means picking women up in gay bars, not quite the same as a public search, let alone public sex. Rita Mae Brown, in the groundbreaking Rubyfruit Jungle, never mentions it; neither does Eileen Myles. The characters in Torrey Peters’s self-published trilogy may run into each other in a dystopian future, but the dangers for trans women on the streets are, of course, even more pronounced, and they don’t cruise. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando offers a form of non-explicit cruising when the title character, at that point a woman crossdressing as a man, meets another young woman while walking at night. Orlando sweeps “her hat off to her in the manner of a gallant paying his addresses to a lady of fashion in a public place”; the two meet eyes; and the other woman “rose; she accepted his arm.” The woman, it’s revealed, is a prostitute called Nell, and in Nell’s bedroom Orlando reveals her own womanhood, whereupon Nell bursts into laughter. There is still an implicit sense of eroticism, but it is deliberately hidden "for it cannot be denied that when women get together—but hist—they are always careful to see that the doors are shut and that not a word of it gets into print. All they desire is—but hist again—is that not a man’s step on the stair?" Woolf keeps her doors firmly closed. And though behind the door it is probable that Nell and Orlando are having sex, the scene doesn’t quite work as one of lesbian cruising triumph, not least because there is no moment of mutual queer recognition on the street; Orlando does not reveal her gender until they are safely behind closed doors. In Sarah Waters’s Victorian romp Tipping The Velvet, protagonist Nan comes to cruising by accident. When wandering on London’s streets she is “stared at and called after—and twice or thrice seized and stroked and pinched—by men… I was a solitary girl... in a city where girls walked only to be gazed at.” The solution, Nan discovers in an echo of Orlando, is to dress like a boy—but in another twist, crossdressing Nan is still “gazed at,” now by gay men. Despite being gay herself, Nan engages in sex work with men while disguised as a boy, drawn by a sense of power rather than any sexual fulfillment. But she is still not truly seen, in that crucial visual realm where cruising operates best: “My one regret was that, though I was daily giving such marvelous performances, they had no audience.” Nan finds her audience in a carriage that follows her home, manned by a woman who requests her services. Nan protests, aware that her boy-guise will fall apart when working with a woman, then confesses: I took a breath, and leaned into the dark interior of the coach. "Madam," I hissed, "I ain’t a boy at all. I’m—" I hesitated. The end of the cigarette disappeared: she had thrown it out of the window. I heard her give one impatient sigh—and all at once I understood. "You little fool," she said. "Get in." The moment of desire is electric. Though the strange woman is dangerous and the relationship will quickly turn abusive, the act of being seen, recognised, and solicited as yourself is an overwhelming one for Nan: a moment of lesbian cruising, against all Victorian London’s odds. * Berlin is a good city for queer women; it is a good city for most queer people. Before the rise of Nazism, the Weimar Republic was shockingly welcoming to gay men and women, particularly in the thriving neighbourhood of Schöneberg—where Christopher Isherwood lived, but also where singers and actresses like Claire Waldoff, Marlene Dietrich, and other queer women performed and prowled. The lesbian community in Berlin grew up alongside the gay community; there was even, in 1928, a guide to lesbian bars called Berlins lesbische Frauen. After World War II, Berlin began to slowly recover from the fascist persecution of gay people. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1969; the world’s first Gay Museum was opened in 1985. Berlin began to be known once more as a safe(r) space for queer people. And Berlin has a rare determination to preserve queer women and lesbian culture, rather than allowing it to be subsumed under the larger umbrella of gay male culture. There are bars in Berlin that are still exclusively meant for queer women; there are hundreds of private-public spaces designed for us, from parties to community organisations to sex clubs. Sometimes it feels like a city built for dykes, and through my first months here I watched us watching each other, whether topless on the lake shores in August or bundled under coats in the deep cold of January. But still, nobody seemed to lead anyone aside, and no queer women I asked had any experience of cruising, either. My friend N told me about Stadtbad Neukölln, a sauna which, they said, on a Monday night was full of gay women checking each other out, Berlin’s best lesbian cruising ground. A sauna was indoors but undeniably public, and Stadtbad Neukölln was not a designated gay setting; my heart leapt. Then N blinked and added, “But as far as I know, no one actually does anything. Me and my mates have been going for years, but no one ever has sex there or nearby. Maybe you get a number, if you’re lucky.” Another friend of ours said that lesbians don’t cruise because they want more of an emotional and thoughtful connection with someone before they have sex, but I found this dangerous territory in its implications and, at any rate, unlikely. “Yeah,” N agreed, laughing. “You’ve clearly never been to a darkroom.” “There’s got to be some reason,” I said. I wanted a revelation or discovery: I wanted something new. “It can’t be just that dykes don’t go out and cruise properly because…” “Because we’ll be raped and murdered,” N said, matter-of-fact. “Yeah,” I said. It is this threat of violence that makes the ugly, obvious truth plain. Queer women probably don’t cruise because it is simply too unsafe for us to do so. It’s why Woolf is so careful to close her doors; it’s why Lorde sticks to lesbian bars, spaces created for and by queer women. Queer women’s sexuality is such a threat to patriarchal, heterosexual control that for many centuries its existence was completely denied, or deliberately hidden. The oppression levered against queer women is one of violent control: keeping us trapped, denying our existence, struggling to remake us. And even now, to be a woman in public is to be harassed—catcalled or followed home, leered at or abused. The threat of violence is inseparable from the idea of lesbian cruising. Of course, gay men too, and particularly men of colour, face public violence and control. Cruising is never safe. The books that explore gay cruising dwell, as men do in real life, on the dangers inherent in the act. Hollinghurst’s novels are fraught with violence both within (the HIV risk plays a major role in The Line of Beauty) and without (the “exhilaration” of sex with strangers, Will tells us, “is sharpened by the courted risk of rejection, misunderstanding, abuse”). Greenwell’s narrator is strung with tension, as is his love affair, the prospect of homophobic violence never far-off; Pinckney’s novel, too, is saturated with danger, dwelling on the racist surveillance and threat Jed faces as a black man in public spaces. Out of the theoretical space of literature, cruising is even more fraught, and homophobic violence is an everyday reality. But cities were never built for women, let alone queer women, much as I want to claim Berlin. The streets of our cities have always been men’s domain: often segregated, always controlled, but still made for and by men. Men, then, have more of an ability to forge out the invisible, private gay spaces that, while always at threat, can nevertheless exist. But women moving even as freely on streets as we do now is relatively new by the long standards of history—we haven’t picked up the habit of it yet. Women’s bodies are too immediately at risk to think about trying to create those safe, hidden public spaces. We’re busy hurrying home. * In 1993, academic James Creech published Closet Writing/Gay Reading, which explores what Creech calls “textual cruising,” or “the wink”: signals for a reader that there is gay subtext to be found. He uses a minor character, Lieutenant Weincheck from Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, as an example. The Lieutenant lives alone in a bachelor apartment with twelve potted plants, an Angora cat, and plays the violin—“a sound,” McCullers tells us, “that made the young officers passing along the corridor scratch their heads and wink at each other.” “The wink of the other officers as they pass Weincheck’s door,” Creech explains, “is the same wink that the text directs at its readers.” In this way, authors writing in historical periods during which being accused of gay content was highly dangerous, career-destroying if not life-destroying, authors like Herman Melville and Henry James, could still communicate with their gay readers without worrying about heterosexual disapproval. Straight readers would not even notice the wink that the text offers. “It is much like cruising,” Creech writes. “If the object of interest does not recognize that he is an object of interest, then he is, in fact, uninteresting. He is not the object which the sign is hailing.” Women in public are never completely safe; queer women are doubly unsafe; queer women having sex in public run great and terrible risks. But there is still something vicious and triumphant in what we can wrest out of the streets when we try. Something about Berlin makes us bolder, and our real lives are translated back into text, where the gay wink has to function, like Woolf’s closed door, as a signal for what could be and for the truth of lesbian desire that exists, hidden by necessity or by force. A look that burns like a touch. Hist again for the man’s step on the stair, and don’t break your gaze.
I figured an ideal period of mourning for my father would have been free of disturbances of my own creation. So much for that.
Summers are for baring skin, so it’s hard to feel attractive when rolled gauze becomes part of your sartorial repertoire, concealing your left arm. That’s what a second-degree burn does to you. Last July, I sustained burns from trying to make coffee, a kitchen task I failed at so spectacularly that it forced me to perform daily rituals of self-mummification. Every morning and every night for seven weeks, stretching into September, I rubbed myself with ointment and wore rolled gauze that swallowed the bottom half of my left arm, stretching from my elbow to my palm. The dressing masked utterly grotesque terrain, covered with blisters as bubbly as the vocal sacs on a tree frog. I was somehow able to dodge getting my first kitchen burn until the age of twenty-five, and the timing couldn’t have been more on-the-nose: It happened about a month after my dad died, just weeks after I exited my cocoon of grief in that cramped apartment in New Jersey where my mother lived. I returned to New York in a bid to re-assimilate into life as I knew it before my father’s final hospital stay. The city’s surrounding stimuli felt abrasive; I could barely get through conversations without wanting to cry. I figured an ideal mourning period would have been free of disturbances of my own creation. So much for that. * I grew up accustomed to making coffee in two ways: from a standard Black & Decker coffee machine my father got from Sears that spat your drink out with little interference on your part, or by mixing two teaspoons of Folgers Instant Classic Roast into a boiling pot with an equal ratio of whole milk and water, a concept my mother taught to me that I understand some may find heretical. My roommate introduced me to another method that I hadn’t dared to try until one Saturday morning when she was gone. I figured I could brave it on my own because I’d watched her do it before, the way someone may believe they can make a flag cake with the same easy finesse as Ina Garten just because they saw her do it on Barefoot Contessa. I sat a red, rubbery brewing cone unsteadily on the rim of a mason jar near the edge of my countertop. I soaked coffee grounds with hot water over the filter, when the cone tipped over onto the ground. The water and coffee guts scalded my left arm. I screamed. I ran my arm under lukewarm water and noticed some of it had become pinched, like Saran Wrap on the edges of Tupperware; I observed my skin’s surface turn blue, as if a crust of Elmer’s glue had formed on top of it. When I made the stupid decision to pick at it, the layer tore open. My arm had become a visual monstrosity. Keeping my arm submerged in water became too painful after a few minutes, so I began shouting Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! and looking for Band-Aids, thinking that would be enough. (I understand that, in recounting this, the episode sounds quite comical; I admit that it truly turned me into the most shrill version of myself.) After an hour, the discomfort didn’t subside, so I went to an Urgent Care facility two blocks away. A doctor smeared my arm with cream, dressed my wound, wrote me a prescription for burn ointment, and gave me a Ziploc bag of complimentary gauze and medical tape. He assured me I’d be fine, that the scarring would be minimal in a few weeks’ time so long as I followed his instructions diligently. When I tried to explain my burn on the phone to my mother later that day, we both wondered how I allowed this to happen to myself. There was the obvious reason that my hand-eye coordination already sucked. I am tremulous by disposition, easily rattled, which made me particularly susceptible to this kind of accident. Still, she asked if my father’s death subtly influenced this, if his loss made simple tasks Sisyphean, resulting in a more sly form of ataxia entirely. I wondered the same thing. Everything in my life seemed out of order. This death had left me shaken in ways I couldn’t always be conscious of. Just as I began to believe I could make it through the night without seeing him in a dream, chaos returned, as if the pain of his loss became concentrated on my skin. Every morning after began the same way, adding about ten minutes onto my routine. After getting out of the shower, I’d administer antibiotic ointment that looked like cream cheese to my arm in generous amounts, strangle it with rolled gauze, and secure it with medical tape. I repeated this again once I returned home from work, by the time my wounds absorbed the day’s layer of cream that sat on top of it, gently flushing it with water before wrapping it again. I documented my arm’s progress in photographs that I sent to my mother. She seemed to be the only person willing to indulge my self-pity. I bored my friends with complaints about how much my burn hurt. They perceived my enthusiasm for talking about my burn as a rather unreasonable preoccupation. Through hearing reactions that ranged from faintly sympathetic to politely uninterested, I gleaned that, for most people, a kitchen burn can be a humbling reminder of your body’s limits, or it can rattle you gently, temporarily destabilizing you before you move on with your life. It’s an utterly common ordeal, a minor inconvenience. Not for me. I was determined to make a federal case out of it. * Following my return to the city after my father's death, I’d get drinks with friends and tell them the story of his final weeks. I coached myself into telling the narrative’s many particulars by rote, careful not to omit details I felt would be crucial to engendering their sympathy, like the fact that there wasn’t room for me in the ambulance from his hospital in Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the hospice center in Saddle River, New Jersey, where he died. But after a few tortured walkthroughs, I grew rather exhausted with summarizing my few weeks of hell. I found it impossible to articulate the size of my grief to people who were strangers to the experience. Talking about my burn was far easier. That narrative supplanted the one I’d grown so used to telling people about my father’s march towards death. In my burn, as a matter of convenience, I discovered a tale of progress, complete with the anticipation of a resolution. The burn had initially reduced my arm to the color of raw salmon flesh, but I told friends how that site was gradually beginning to match its surroundings. Unmentioned, but always lurking as subtext through these tales of my ugly skin, was the reality of my father’s death, a story whose conclusion was fixed, inflexible. When my friends rolled their eyes at yet another breathtakingly dull story about the kitchen burn’s improvement, I struggled to respond that all I really wanted to talk about was father’s death, as if the burn became, by proxy, a physical manifestation of my grief. My bandages had a nasty habit of coming undone at inopportune moments, either on the subway or in line for lunch. But I imagined that one day, perhaps sooner than the doctor had predicted, I’d be able to take that gauze off for good. My burn was a twisted blessing. In bandaging it each morning and night, I was working magic, repairing a scab I could heal. As the weeks went on, something began to feel therapeutic about being my own nurse, forcing me to become hyper-cognizant of my own mortality. I wanted so badly to know it was possible for something that had died, or at least flirted with death, to become alive again. At night, I terrified myself with the scenario’s alternative outcomes: What if the water had grazed my face, making the disfigurement more permanent and lasting? This didn’t happen—it was a close call, but my arm was somehow salvageable. I was working towards survival, and survival was a solution that felt achievable. So I observed the means to that end with discipline. Going through the private ceremony of unwrapping my bandage and putting ointment on it every day, twice a day, was my way of restoring order to my life. I was caring for my arm until I could recognize it as a part of myself. * By the beginning of September, my first morning without a bandage, I started to miss my routine of caring for it in the same way I missed taking the subway to the hospital uptown after work where my dad stayed. Life reverted to being normal, and I hated it. Grief hasn’t left me; the scarring from my burns have mostly faded. The skin where my burns once sat now barely blushes, tanning gently like any other patch on my body. I’ve spoken to other people in my age bracket who’ve lost a parent, a list I can count on one hand, and asked them what they’ve done to soothe their pain. How did you care for yourself? I’ve wondered aloud to people. Did you take up knitting? The answer often involves some form of creative production that doubles as therapy. Many told me they began to focus more intently on gardening. Others funneled their emotional distress into redecorating their apartments, taking up a project that results in production, to restore a sense of control. My post-grief hobby took the form of rubbing my scaly, burn-bruised arm and covering it with sterile gauze from the drugstore down the street. I couldn’t bring my father back, and you could say he was a vital limb. If I couldn’t have my father, at least I’d have my left arm.
The author of How to Love a Jamaican on love in its various forms, finding belonging and mediating identity between and beyond borders.
Our existences are a testament to the people before us. Our traditions and rituals, the flavours that become familiar on our palate and celebrations we engage in have origins in atrocity, resilience, conquest, redemption and resistance, but are mostly rooted in how we’ve developed our means of survival and how we’ve preserved self and community. But what happens when we move to new homes or become displaced? When geography ruptures our proximity to ways of living and knowing, it can often act as a catalyst of discomfort, as we wrestle with feelings of shame and reckon our own sense of authenticity and connection to our culture. Alexia Arthurs’s anthology of short stories, How to Love a Jamaican (Ballantine Books), is host to these nuances. Her characters negotiate who they were, are and aspire to be as they confront and traverse their problems with proverbs and parables of their nation’s past. Arthurs creates a world that reminds us that though we have the ability to engender entirely different realities than the ones that we are currently acquainted with, distance does little to sever ties to the places, people and practices of a life now foregone, especially when love is involved. She breathes life into common experiences of immigrants, refugees and people who leave their homeland for unfamiliar grounds. But using Jamaica as a backdrop offers a unique perspective into what makes Jamaicans’—diaspora included—collective realities so distinct. To live in Jamaica is to exist in a paradox. A story, typically passed down orally, speaks to the island as a place, during the era of the transatlantic slave trade, where the most unruly and resistant slaves were sent to be “seasoned,” or broken down, into slavery. Centuries later, that same badniss is an element of our collective identity that we shoulder with pride. It’s evident in our music, our fashion, our language and our dancing but is juxtaposed by the remnants of a religious, colonial past that creeps its way into contemporary institutions and widely held beliefs. The land of wood and water is duly known for having the most churches per square mile in the world, and the influence of Christian values permeate nearly every aspect of our lives, both overtly and insidiously. What this means for many is a limitation of one’s actions and a silencing of desires for fear of reprisal, or being sequestered into the fringes of their communities. Whether it be alleviating or even amplifying parental pressures, having the space to explore sexuality or stepping out of the confines of tradition, for many Jamaicans on the island and in its far-reaching diaspora, the idea of living in the Global North—though accompanied with its own particular challenges—offers a chance for rebirth or at the very least an opportunity to step into a different kind of truth in a foreign utopia, sans the anticipation of judgements that lurk in the shadows of our subconscious. How to Love a Jamaican amplifies a perpetual wrestling between the old world we knew and the new world we know, and how one navigates life’s obstacles with, without or in spite of love. Sharine Taylor: Often, love is explored in the book through the lens of a woman, or how we—island born, part of the diaspora, expats—experience love from the closest women in our lives. What is it about Jamaican woman and how they know love that makes it such a central theme? Alexia Arthurs: I was interested in exploring how Jamaican homes are often female-centric, which is to say that much of the caring, nurturing, and home-making is women’s work. I’ve experienced love from Jamaican women in a fierce, stubborn way. It’s a love that’s protective and consuming, sometimes frustratingly so. Perhaps the determination and intensity of this love is because so much is shouldered by Jamaican women. There seemed to be this juxtaposition between two worlds: Jamaica and America or farrin, really, that represent the old world as a place of possibilities in theory, and the new world as a place of possibilities in practice. I was at a party recently when I asked a woman what part of Guatemala she was visiting from. “Guatemala City, obviously,” she said. “Obviously?” I asked. People have such an interesting relationship with this question of regional possibility. We are taught to rise to a position of value within the limitations of our geographic situation, but that a place like the United States is at the top of the hierarchy of possibility. And yet for many people, the American dream is a myth. I think about this a lot. My family had been middle class in Jamaica, and when we moved to New York when I was twelve, I looked around at the other children in my school and at the homes of my relatives who had been in the States for years already, and had the feeling that my family was starting from scratch. Many of the characters reconcile their present-day issues with nuggets of knowledge from their past, even if they don’t wholly agree with them. What is to be said about how we navigate through obtaining our desires or standing in our truth and whether or not those truths and desires conflict with lessons that have been ingrained in us? I believe that we are always in conversation with our past—the things that have happened to us, the learning we have consciously or unconsciously done. As rooted as we are in the future, the body, the soul, and the mind remembers. It’s healing work to navigate old stories in the midst of new ones, to ultimately have the life that we want. There are moments when the traditionally understood characteristics of what defines a Jamaican man and a Jamaican woman are disrupted—like in “We Eat Our Daughters,” “On Shelf” and the chapter that holds the title of the book—especially when confronted with living in between new borders. What is the larger commentary of how our ideas of masculinity and femininity change between or beyond borders? I mean to suggest that if our ideas about gender roles are flexible based on the cultural context of where we are, doesn’t that point to the fact that gender roles are a construct? Wouldn’t that suggest that they aren’t real? That’s true. A lot of what I witnessed my mom doing in my childhood, especially as a single parent, defied what would be considered traditionally feminine and sort of echoes a colonial Caribbean era that rendered both men and women as being physically capable of doing the same kind of labour. Yeah, I think back to my childhood, a time when my mother used to make coconut milk from scratch on Sundays for the rice and peas. If I’m remembering correctly, she would crack coconuts open, grate the meat and soak it in water to make coconut milk. So-called feminine work. But she also built a chicken coop when my father took too long to do it. I remember he was surprised to come home and see that she had done it herself. I’m always amazed by the duality of the roles Caribbean women take on, sometimes forcibly and sometimes because it’s the only way to get things done. I would say that there’s a responsibility or burden one assumes, unwillingly or unknowingly, when they have their eyes set on leaving for seemingly “greater things.” We know this by the luxury surrounding possessing a visa, or the pride that parents have when their children are studying abroad and the pressure that’s associated with what we know to be success. How are you in conversation with those ideas? I’ve experienced that commonly held narratives of pursuing greater things abroad don’t tell the full story. It’s more complicated than the grass being greener. Lots of immigrants struggle for a long time, and others never stop struggling. Many foreigners are homesick and lonely, and are navigating the pressures of succeeding from back home. It doesn’t help that in a country like the United States, foreigners are made to feel unwelcome. I want to tell truer, more nuanced stories of what it’s like to leave home. And sometimes those stories don’t have happy endings. Yes, this is true. It’s heartbreaking to think about. The characters often teeter between who they are and who they are supposed to be, given what their upbringing has led them to believe. Do you think that there exists a middle ground between the two? I don’t know that there is a middle ground. Perhaps it depends on the individual. Or perhaps there are different kinds of middle grounds. Maybe a middle ground only needs to be observing the old stories, and then choosing to act in an honest, intuitive way. I only know for sure that I’m interested in the internal struggle of expectation versus reality, especially in a small place like Jamaica where communal pressure can be pressing. I think about this in my own life. I was raised to be a good Christian traditional Jamaican woman, first in Jamaica and then in a close-knit Caribbean community in New York, and now none of these roles are interesting to me. Yet, I was telling a friend recently that I’m still unlearning ideas I gained a long time ago about myself and the kind of life I should want. I found that in most cases, when the characters drew on their most familiar banks of knowledge, it helped keep them grounded. Would you agree with that? Oftentimes, I feel drowned by the writing process, so I’m unable to make conclusions about characters, to see them with a critical, objective gaze. But I see what you mean. Does that feel relevant to your own life? I’m thinking this makes sense for me personally, that intuition and groundedness is impacted by everything I know to be true and real and meaningful. It does. Sometimes I’ll hear my grandma’s voice reciting some proverb like, “Wa sweet nanny goat ago run him belly” (What’s good for you now may not be good for you later), and I wrestle between that and what I want. Sometimes it’s helpful but I do wonder if it’s this imaginary paranoia that’s rooted elsewhere. Without trying to sound morbid, I found that death as it’s used multiple times throughout the novel likens the newness of unfamiliar places? It’s unknown, scary and can be seen as a means of escape but in actuality it’s just another state of being that has its own set of rules and regulations to navigate. What would you say to that? How funny, your question is making me realize how much death is in the collection. I love that the imagination can put language and imagery to what is unknown and shrouded in mystery, like the nature of death. Also, I find that death can be a pressure cooker for character development. Speaking of characters, we are first introduced to mermaids by way of a quote from Jamaican-born author and professor Kei Miller and are later introduced to them in various different points in the book. What perspective do mermaids lend to the telling of these stories? A friend, more woo-woo than me, once told me that perhaps mermaids left our restraining world for another plane of existence. I love this. She and I had been discussing mermaids as inspired by my story “Slack,” in which two little girls in Jamaica are sent mermaid dolls from the States. I think of mermaids in the collection as an evolving metaphor. In one story they speak to the desires and dangers of what lures us, in another story they speak to transgressive sex which is a part of the mythical of mermaids, and so on. In a larger sense, mermaids are being used throughout the collection to challenge the mythology of contemporary Caribbean life. “Shirley From A Small Place” felt like all of the lessons from your stories culminating into one. It’s sort of this colliding of old and new—ways of knowing, ways of living, our truths and realities—and how our identities shift to reflect that. What is to be gained from Shirley’s narrative? I love that you feel this way about Shirley’s story. When my agent and I were talking about ordering the collection, we both had the sense that “Shirley from a Small Place” read like it should close the collection. Perhaps for the very reasons you’ve brought up. At its essence I wanted to write a story about a girl who had been everywhere and had seen everything worth seeing, and yet the small place she came from could hold the healing power of home. Right, it’s sort of like, no matter what happens, no matter how transgressive this place could feel at times, it’s still the only place where you’d want to be? Absolutely, speaking for myself, I am first and foremost Jamaican. So much of who I am is because of where I was born and raised and the people who I call my family.
First Nations people don’t believe in crossing the border, but the imaginary boundaries we’re forced to move between can create very real divides.
I’m waiting in the detention room at the John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens, New York, in a very flashy, very out-of-context Prada runway look. I’ve just come back from Milan Fashion Week. The fluorescent lights buzz faintly overhead, as though to add to the dull energy of the room. An Indian man to my left continues to stare at my shoes. I wish I could say this is my first time here, but it isn’t. I’ve sat in this exact chair about five times. “Allaire, Christian,” barks a TSA officer. I get up and walk towards him. He gives me the Manhattan Once Over. (Note: The look catty fashion people give each other in New York City, starting by a judgment of your footwear and then everything upwards.) “You don’t look Native American,” he says. “I forgot my tomahawk at home,” I say to myself, in my head. “Yes, I am First Nations,” I say to him, for real. The TSA officer is holding a thin beige folder in his hands containing my Canadian passport, First Nations status card, and a letter from my reservation’s band office confirming my blood quantum. (In order to be considered a “Status Indian,” you must have at least fifty percent lineage.) With these documents, I am able to work and live in the U.S.—as I have since 2014—through the Jay Treaty, an agreement signed in 1794 by representatives of the U.S. and Great Britain, which guaranteed Indigenous people the right to trade and travel between the U.S. and Canada (then, a territory of Great Britain). The Treaty still very much applies today—though it always seems to be news to TSA officers. I brace myself for the long line of questioning. “So you’re Native American, but from Canada?” he asks, taking a seat behind his desk, which sits on a raised platform like a pedestal. “I’m First Nations, which is like Native-Canadian,” I say. “If you’re Canadian, how do you live in America without a work visa?” “I work in New York with my Native status card, through the Jay Treaty. I also have a Social Security number, and a letter from my company confirming I’m a legal resident.” He tells me that I will need secondary security clearance before I can enter the U.S. This isn’t the first time. I quickly realize I’m not being barred entry for suspicious activity. I’m no terrorism threat. I’m being detained because—along with a recurring unfamiliarity with First Nations rights—the border patrol doesn’t believe I “look Native” enough to fit the profile, and they will need to further confirm my identity before I’m released. I begin handing over the usual list of additional documents—a birth certificate, my social security card, proof of employment—while the TSA officer continues to stare at me. I pause and catch his gaze. “Sorry,” he says. “I’ve never seen an Indian so pale.” * I was born into mixed heritage. My mother is First Nations, specifically from the Ojibwe tribe, which has roots in both Canada and the United States. My father, meanwhile, is a mixture of French-Canadian and Italian. (And in case you couldn’t guess, I inherited his fair complexion.) I grew up on the Nipissing First Nation Native reservation in northern Ontario. While my mother and father lived off-reservation, my mother—one of eighteen siblings—spent her weekends bringing us to our grandmother’s home on the reservation, which served as the central meeting spot for our entire big, crazy, loud family. Every day after middle school, my sister and I would ride the school bus to one of our aunt’s homes on the reserve. The “rez,” as we call it, served as our second home. It still does. Nipissing First Nation itself is divided into eight settlements of Indigenous land. Garden Village, the subdivision I grew up on, is located just southeast from Sturgeon Falls, the town where my parents now have a home. Running along Lake Nipissing, the homes in Garden Village span the beautiful waterfront and follow a single cement road that eventually turns into dirt. There, the pace of life begins to decelerate upon arrival. The days go by slow and the community gossip travels fast, and the mating sounds of cicadas in the summer heat outweigh any traffic noise. Crossing the border—that is, the imaginary one—from off- to on-reserve land is obvious to those who do it regularly. “Are white people allowed on reserves?” a friend once asked me. There are no direction signs or toll booths. There is, instead, a slight shift in the details. During hunting season, slain game can be found hanging in garages, ready to be turned into meat pies or traditional Indian tacos. Some houses have bed sheets hung up in the window instead of curtains. Hidden pathways leading through wild bush reveal secluded beaches. Small billboards advertise cheap native cigarettes, available at the one convenience store where you’re bound to run into a cousin or two. Though my mother’s family has always been comically tight-knit—most of our aunts and uncles live on the same central street—I grew up often feeling like an outsider on the reserve. For one, I didn’t look like my cousins. The hundred-percent, full-blown Indians. The “Rez kids.” I didn’t have their prominent cheekbones, or their dark skin, or their long braided hair. I didn’t hunt or dance in powwows. I didn’t speak their unique slang, like hollering “dewww!” after cracking a joke. I was a half-breed who wore weird gothic cargo shorts, and dreamed of moving to a bigger city. Much of feeling like an outsider stemmed from my parents having their home on off-reserve land. Though I often crossed the border between off- and on-reserve, I never quite fit into either side. My sister and I went to a French-speaking Catholic school until high school. All of my friends were white. Most of the school was white. I, too, passed for white. In elementary school, a First Nations classmate of mine was being teased during recess time. She had a more traditional Indigenous look, with dark skin and very long, dark hair, sometimes worn in a braid. Our classmates surrounded her, hollering racist war whoops like caricatures in a bad John Wayne movie. I didn’t join in the malice, yet I didn’t come to her defense, either. I rarely acknowledged my Indigenous culture unless I was with my family. The imaginary border, as it turns out, created a very real divide. * The TSA officer begins typing on his computer while I continue waiting to be processed. I look around the humdrum room. Having been detained several times before, I’ve become too familiar with the room’s mundane staging. I know that I should sit to the left of the room, where the air conditioning is at least slightly more functioning. It’s the kind of place where joy and compassion come to die. I recognize a few TSA officers here, mostly by their distinctively tired faces. Fellow travellers—or do I call them my cellmates?—sit dispersed around the waiting area of the detention room, some fidgeting anxiously in their seats, others appearing completely unbothered. We make up a sad group of border misfits. Minorities, unsurprisingly, fill the room. There are some Indian, some Chinese. No Caucasians. The TSA officer opens the folder containing my travel documents. “What is this?” he asks, holding up my status card. “My status card,” I say. “I’ve never seen one of these before. You could have made this yourself.” Status cards are government-regulated identification cards, originally introduced by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Each Canadian-born First Nations person of at least fifty-percent lineage has a status card issued to them by their respective band government, and can use it to cross the border to and from the U.S. They can live and work, “freely,” in either country. They don’t need a green card, they don’t need proof of employment, and, technically, they don’t even need a passport. But I don’t dare try to tell him that part. The idea of status cards first came into play during the early days of the Indian Act, originally introduced by the Canadian government in 1876. Prior to many revisions, the Indian Act, which aimed to assimilate indigenous people into “civilized” culture, actually used to restrict Natives from leaving their reservation without a permission slip. Indian agents—and yes, that was what they were actually called—would patrol the borders, sometimes armed, and could arrest anyone without a valid pass. “Where are you travelling from today?” he asks. “I’m coming from Milan. I was there for work,” I say. “What type of work do you do?” “I’m a fashion editor at a magazine. I was in Milan to cover fashion week.” “What magazine?” “It’s called Footwear News.” “You work at a magazine about … shoes?” The TSA officer leaves his desk to consult one of his TSA officer friends. As it turns out, neither of them have ever admitted a Canadian-born First Nations person into the U.S. before. I am what they call a “grey area.” I’m told to take a seat and wait, and that I will need higher security clearance from their supervisor before I can enter. “I’ve lived in New York for three years,” I say, starting to lose my patience. “I cross the border almost every month. Don’t you have some sort of record?” * First Nations people don’t believe in crossing the border. The notion of belonging to Canada or the U.S. is foreign to my people. In our culture, North America—or even more broadly, planet Earth—is seen as one entity, and one piece of land. We call it Turtle Island. (For the TSA, that means we don't fit in a box. And that's an automatic code red.) There is no greater example of this than the Ojibwe creation story. The legend begins with a great spirit called the Gitchi-Manitou a very long, long, long time ago. Looking out in the vast darkness of the universe, the Gitchi-Manitou created the earth and all of its elements. He created the animals, the trees, the water, the plants, the weather, the soil, the fire. Soon after, the Gitchi-Manitou also created the Anishinaabe people, too. The Anishinaabe are considered to be the first people, including tribes such as the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi and Algonquin people. (Meanwhile, other tribes, such as the Cree, have their own version of the creation story.) When the Gitchi-Manitou created the earth, he envisioned the Anishinaabe people living together in complete harmony. And so they did. But it didn’t last long. The Anishinaabe people began fighting amongst each other. Greed sunk its teeth into each distinctive tribe, tightening its grip as great battles intensified over the desire for more land, more food and, ultimately, more power. The Gitchi-Manitou soon realized that the earth would need to be purified. The canvas he painted so beautifully would need to be wiped clean. And like any powerful force, he decided there could only be one way to do it: A great, disastrous, Hollywood blockbuster-type flood. The earth was quickly and violently engulfed by water. The people and all of the elements drowned, along with the earth’s precious soil. Everything, that is, except the animals. A muskrat, a turtle, an otter, a beaver and a loon survived the great flood and floated together in the vast body of water, each taking turns to rest on a single floating log. They were the only ones left. They decided the only way to rebuild the earth would be to retrieve its sunken soil. If they each dove down to the bottom of the water and grabbed a handful of soil, they could begin covering the turtle’s shell with it, using it as a new makeshift island. (The idea wasn’t stupendously logical, but it was the only one they had.) And so they began. The loon—a natural swimmer—tried his luck first. Taking a deep breath, he dove underwater and disappeared for several minutes, eventually re-emerging. “The bottom is too far down,” the loon said. “We’ll never reach it.” The beaver and the otter followed, each agreeing that the soil is too far down. The turtle, bearing a heavy shell on its back, didn’t even bother to attempt. That would be downright foolish. Finally, it was the muskrat’s turn. He was the group’s last bit of hope, and they were running low on it. Taking a deep breath, the muskrat dove down in search of the soil. Several minutes went by—minutes that seemed eternally longer than everyone else’s minutes—and the group feared he drowned. They floated in silence. But just then, the muskrat re-emerged, weak and breathless. Opening his paw, he revealed a small handful of soil, which he poured onto the turtle’s back. The group cheered! The wind suddenly began blowing from all four directions. The water rippled as though coming to a boil. It was the turtle’s shell. It was growing and growing fast, stretching itself from one end of the earth to the other. With it, the soil on its back spread out, too. That’s how Turtle Island was formed. It took a great catastrophe, and for a group to learn how to work and cohabitate with each other, for the Gitchi-Manitou to restore all life back on earth. The Anishinaabe people were created again, and they, too, learned to live as one entity. (Needless to say, they learned from their ancestors’ mistakes.) A new world was born—call it the greatest second chance of all time—and it would be a world without segregation, greed or corruption. It would be a new world without division. * It has now been about three hours spent in the airport detention room. The wall clock seems to exist solely to taunt me, the needle movingggg likeeeeee molasses. Some of my fellow detainees have missed their connecting flights and continue to wait. Nobody is allowed to use a cell phone. A couple tries to whisper something to each other, but are swiftly shushed by a TSA officer. I wonder how many other Indigenous people have sat in this chair. I remember my aunt telling me about her experience just a few months prior, where she was mistaken for another First Nations women of the same name who happened to be on a national no-fly list. Needless to say, her luggage was searched. The supervisor finally arrives. He is the man of the hour. The man standing between my freedom and my deportation. My imagination begins to run wild. I imagine myself having to book a flight back home to Canada, with a suitcase full of frivolous designer clothing that should never be worn outside of a fashion show venue. I think about my Upper East Side apartment in New York, and how I would have to coordinate moving all of my furniture and belongings. I think about the low-maintenance plant I had just bought. Who would water it? Would it just wither and die, like my career? I was pissed. What about my shoes? The supervisor enters the room at a hurried pace and sports a different colored badge than his peers. I make a note that he appears to be Italian. Thank god, I think, that we have something in common. He seems to makes the room nervous—not just the detainees, but the immigration agents, too. For a second I think he is holding a gun in his hands, but then I snap out of my paranoia. It will be fine, I tell myself, even though my heart is pumping faster than the heart of someone on a three-day speed binge. Instead of aiming a pistol at me, he unexpectedly flashes me a kind smile instead. “Let’s see what we have here,” the supervisor says, gesturing for me to come to the front of the room. “Native American entry?” “He says he’s Native American, but he’s born in Canada,” the TSA officer says. “No,” I say, “First Nati—” “Sorry, he’s ‘First Nations,’” the TSA officer says, emphasizing the air quotes. They discuss which immigration section I fall under, as though I am not in the room. The supervisor admits that they haven’t admitted a First Nations person “in a while.” I wonder what “a while” is. He gives me the same look of doubt the TSA officer has been giving since I got here—the “is he really Native, though?” look—and just when I think he’s about to give me the bad news, he closes the folder containing my documents. “We’ll file this under 289,” the supervisor finally says. (I learn that my immigration status falls under that section number of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which reads, simply, that, “Nothing in this title shall be construed to affect the right of American Indians born in Canada to pass the borders of the United States, but such right shall extend only to persons who possess at least 50 per centum of blood of the American Indian race.”) The supervisor stamps my passport and hands me my documents. He tells me I am free to go. Did I hear him right? “What?” I ask. “Welcome home,” he repeats. I grab my bag and compile my documents. The conclusion seems jarringly anticlimactic. That’s it? Moments ago I feared deportation, and now I’m being welcomed home with open arms. Do I get a complementary Mai Tai, too? That’s just the beauty about being First Nations at the border: you never know if you’ll be waved through or strip-searched. As I head out of the detention room, I thank the supervisor for his time. “You said you’re Ojibwe?” he asks. “Yes,” I say. “Interesting,” he pauses. “I thought your people were all dead.” * After being cleared from immigration, I finally leave the detention room. I feel like, and look like, a caged animal set free. I immediately check my phone. I have a few missed calls from my boss at work. Multiple worried text messages from my parents and friends asking if I’ve landed safely. In a haze, I make my way down the airport’s dizzying route of escalators. I move past the excited tourists and the crying toddlers. I arrive at the baggage claim area, where my suitcase is circling the empty carousel. Outside, the airport is the busiest I’ve ever seen it. Just what I need! There is a long queue for taxis that winds and coils and coils and coils. I begin the wait. I fire off some e-mails about the top runway shoe trends from Milan, a topic that feels comically trivial compared to my almost-just-getting-incarcerated moment. I had planned to go straight into the office when I landed, but business hours have now come and gone. (Thank god.) Finally, I get inside a taxi. On the radio, they are debating Donald J. Trump’s refugee travel ban. I politely ask the driver to change the station. “How was your flight?” he asks me, as we begin the ride. “Truthfully, not well,” I say. “Got held at the border for a while.” “Ah,” he chuckles. “Happens to me every time I travel.” He is Muslim. We begin driving toward the city. We cross a toll booth. We cross a “Welcome to New York!” sign. We cross a bridge. The irony isn’t lost on me here; we seem to spend our whole lives crossing borders. And not just the kind at airports. As cultural groups and as distinct human beings, we are constantly transitioning from one thing to the next, overcoming divisive hurdles and entering new territory as a result. For First Nations people, we have yet to come out on the other side. We are not here, nor there. Where we fit into modern society remains undefined. Today, geography is no longer allowed to be fluid. Some of us live traditionally on our secluded reservations. Some of us have fought our way to big cities, or other countries, finding new ways to connect with our culture. Should we have to choose? It’s as though we are stuck in an endless waiting room; we are waiting for someone to call our name so we can move forward, but the only ones calling our name are ourselves. We roar across the Triborough Bridge at a deathly speed that is typical of a New York City taxi. But I am hardly paying attention. I’m almost at my apartment. I open the window for some fresh air. As we are approaching the city skyline, I can’t help but feel the nostalgic comfort of finally arriving home. I even muster up a cheesy little smile. Only I’m not sure that it is home.
In narratives that hinge on proving our humanness, Indigenous people sit stilled in the role of the described. As the described, our words are pit against us.
Sometime in 2011, at fifteen or sixteen, I ordered Beatrice Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree to my childhood home in Joussard, Alberta. My oldest sister, an undergraduate student at Grande Prairie Regional College at the time, had been assigned the book in a Native Studies course. I wanted a glimpse into the intellectual world of post-secondary education, to read and to be moved, irreparably and unsuspectedly. I wanted to tiptoe into the mise-en-scene of a novel, to let what I might witness illuminate a way of writing, a listening and looking practice, that I had only known as the felt suspicion of something more radical, more energetic and enlivening, unrulier and more complicated than “Language Arts.” With In Search of April Raintree I found all of this. I found a book that was more than a book; Mosionier’s story of the lives of two Indigenous girls who enact care against the racialized embargo on care that is Canada, who care for one another in contradistinction to the cruel “care” of the state, of social services, was and is a searing indictment of Canada. It was and is a critique of this ravaged country’s inability to stop compounding the brutalities that Indigenous peoples are made to endure, brutalities that live and breathe in and possess the bodies of those endowed by governments of all sorts to mediate a history that is in fact without end, without mercy. In Search of April Raintree refused to torpedo Indigenous peoples into the gutters of misrepresentation. Mosionier took the work of description into her own hands and because of this she refused to offer up a rhetoric that one might describe as simple. That is, Mosionier wrote in the mode of “truth-telling” to paint a picture of complicated and compromised living in the crosshairs of settler governance. In this way, she laid bare a way of storytelling that always returns us to the possibility of Indigenous life unhampered by a coloniality of the present. As Fred Moten says, “Anybody who thinks that they can understand how terrible the terror has been, without understanding how beautiful the beauty has been against the grain of the terror, is wrong." Each word of Mosionier’s book, each pronoun and preposition, all of them, shook and shake still with a vitality that is in the name of Indigenous freedom and nothing less. There is an art to spinning words so that they are always-already against the monotony of voice and for the polyphony of political speak. This is the terrain of Indigenous writing. It always has been and always will be. * Say forgiveness. With a maw full of smoke, say the aftermath of history. Hold our books in your slippery hands with the ever-loudening fact of their eschewal of the violence of a reading practice that makes a feast out of “a choreography of mangled bodies.”11From my debut collection of poems, This Wound is a World. Mouth the word “enemy,” but do not enunciate it, for it is not a subject position worth keeping in the world. Living as we do in the charred remnants of a time during which the voices of Indigenous peoples were siphoned out of the theatres of culture and into the wastelands of law and order, you, a white and settler you, are beholden to a project of lessening the trauma of description. Everywhere in the colonial archive there are a plethora of descriptions that sought and seek still to hold the position of the Indigenous in a state I can only describe now as against opacity, as against the right to be unseen and unseeable. We might conceptualize colonialism as in part a system of clarity in the visual sense, as a structural and structuring articulation of Indigenous life so as to refuse it the promise of freedom, to refuse us a world-making kinship that was in opposition to the world-engulfing effects of racial capitalism. We were and still are made to exist in a visual field in which we are barred from democratizing the felt knowledge of our dignity.22“Felt knowledge” is a concept that Dian Million uses to signal ways of thinking that emerge from the context of emotional experience. See Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights. In Mohawk Interruptus: Indigenous Life Across the Borders of Settler States, Audra Simpson traces the discursive and political beginnings of "the savage” to the earliest moments of contact at which settlers did the terrible and terror-making work of classification so as to acclimatize the Indigenous to an atmosphere of ideas they had transported with them from Europe. Today, we hear the resonances of this fatal naming ritual repeated and made anew. There were and are ways of thickening words with meaning so as to injure, of making words into evidence of our injurability. Hurled with the right amount of intensity, words floor us. There are words that lay me flat on the floor of the world. One of these words is “simple.” Simplicity is a mode of being in the world available to those enmeshed in white structures of feeling. Simplicity is an affect that motors the cultural imaginary of whiteness; it is an interpretive strategy. Simplicity hides a flurry of forms of social and political violence that rip the lives of those from the badlands of modernity from the freedom of a simple life, from a life emptied of historically contingent tumult. Simplicity belongs only to those who live and write unfettered by all of that which ravages the worlds. It is an emotional orientation that enables one to pick up a book and put down a carcass. Simplicity is a structural impossibility for Indigenous peoples who write despite and in spite of the coloniality of the present. Recently, a collection I wrote was reviewed under the headline, “Billy-Ray Belcourt’s Simple and Radical Poetry.” The title alone steals breath from the bodies of those who are roped into the unlivable and racialized terrain of simplicity. The headline was later modified, “simple” axed, after writers like Gwen Benaway wrote incisive threads on Twitter critiquing it. The review made use of the rhetoric of simplicity: words like “plainspoken,” “straightforward,” and “unmistakable” pile up to chase after a thesis about method in poetry that has at its heart a binary between indecipherability and simplicity. There is nothing fundamentally poisonous about “simplicity,” but its use is bathed in a tradition of wordliness or perhaps “languageness,” to use Layli Long Soldier’s term, that traps Indigenous writers in the poverty of plainness. The piece quotes a review of Mosionier’s Raintree in Queen’s Quarterly: “[Mosionier] sets out to tell a story—her own story—in the plainest available language. Nothing else is needed.” This interpretive behavior is everything in literary history. Theorist Dian Million, in an essay called “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and History,” describes a “new language for communities” to get at the sorrow and love that proliferates in Indigenous social worlds. Million cites both Raintree and Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed as texts that evidenced an artistic practice that broke through the sound barrier of Canadian historical ignorance to tell “politically unspeakable” stories. Indeed, it was recently revealed that a chunk of Campbell’s book was edited out because it detailed sexual abuse at the hands of members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, an avowal that would have surely thrown into relief the chronic problem of police brutality against Indigenous women. This time, Million tells us, produced “a profound literature of experience.” Still, those who look and install meaning into words with the force of a history of impoverished reading negate the profundity of our writing. The meta-claim that is underneath this line of inquiry is what we might call “racial fatalism”: in other words, it is as if Indigenous peoples were so bogged down by history, by bodies that emerge from that history, that we can only write in a way that is “plain,” that is “sparse,” that is “simple.” It’s a liberal interpretative strategy that seeks to empower a “humanity narrative” that is in fact a trapdoor, worthless in the fight against the cannibalistic genre of the human inaugurated in the laboratories of the New World.33To follow this line of inquiry, see the work of seminal Black studies scholars like Sylvia Wynters, Katherine McKittrick, and Christina Sharpe. It is not that we need to be welcomed into the wasteland of the human, to be made fit for the operations of violence that uphold it, but a remaking of the world, one not ruled by Man, one that flowers freedom for those denied it as a symptom of the many-headed hydra that is white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. In narratives that hinge on proving our humanness, Indigenous people sit stilled in the role of the described. As the described, our words are pit against us. Having only in our arsenal words that self-destruct, we shoulder the burden once more of voicelessness. How cruel to have our critiques of the ways in which unlivable lives are manufactured everywhere in Canada heard as evidence of our ability to speak and nothing else! * “My story was maltreated.” So goes Terese Marie Mailhot in her debut memoir Heart Berries. Heart Berries elaborates a theory of ethical living, of how we might tune our ears to hear the always-compounding ways that Indigenous women are denied care. It is not just that we are called on to listen in a mode that might shatter the sound barrier of liberal empathy (to testify), but also and more importantly to treat a story so as to read and act in the direction of the world it begets. So, it is not that contemporary Indigenous writers are speaking in unison, as if in a chorus uttering the same things, all in the name of a singular avowal of that which impedes our flourishing. We are all caught up in the Singularity of coloniality. But, each book, each poem, each story, is against the trauma of description, those ways of reading and listening that make vampires out of people, possessed by an insatiable hunger for a racialized simplicity that makes us into objects of study to be fed through the poorly-oiled machine of analysis. To tell a story of the possibility that swells up even where it is negated requires a sociological eye, an epistemological standpoint, that is borne out of experience, of knowing what it is to be a map to everywhere and nowhere. What’s more, to hear this story of compromised living, of joy against the odds, of the repeatability of a history that lives in the bodies of those who reap the spoils of colonialism, as something more than a “simple” account of a singular life, is to undergo a process of resubjectification, one that requires the abolition of the position of the enemy, the vampire, the one who describes, the settler. You need to read, to listen, and to write from someplace else, from another social locus, a less sovereign one, a less hungry one. All of my writing is against the poverty of simplicity. All of my writing is against the trauma of description. * Today, the world is just beginning, so I pack light. I start and end with books by Indigenous writers. With Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, “I Mommy the edge” between a painful history that is not done with us and a still possible future that proliferates care. I call this the “eroding edge of pathos,” which is where I jump from with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost, an unruly and differently ruled text that welcomes us to “the space of the unspoken and the unwritten and the unsung.” It is here, Gwen Benaway tells us in Passage, that “passage is more than movement,” is in excess of and prior to geographical change, is an ontological force as much as a creative-theoretical one. With these books I pitch a “shaking tent” where we assemble another “congress / of selves,” another world where we perform and enact “everything [we] long to know and hold” (Liz Howard). You are not invited into our tent. We are not yet at that point of hospitality. I will not tell you when this time has come. “There isn’t time here. There isn’t ever time here. There is only here here, only land here.”44See Angie Morrill, Eve Tuck, and the Super Futures Haunt Quollective’s “Before Dispossession, or Surviving It.”
The author of My Name Is a Knife on historical fiction, frontier life, and sharing headspace with her characters.
The mythology of someone like Daniel Boone, in the wrong hands, could be just another settler-saviour narrative, another white-guy-does-the-West fable in an American history already bloated with them. But in the hands of author Alix Hawley, Boone is tenderly broken open to get at what’s past the lore—he’s myth-busted. In her 2015 novel, All True Not a Lie in It, Hawley shifted away from the classic chronology of the Boone story by choosing to zero in on some of the most painful and humanizing parts of his early life, and in doing so stripped him, quite naturally, of his cinematic trappings. Her new follow-up to that book, My Name Is A Knife (Vintage Canada), picks up at the same speedy clip, dropping the reader right back into Boone’s life as he steals himself out of a Shawnee camp and makes his way back to the fort and settlement bearing his name, now abandoned by his family and filled with a handful of hateful and rough settlers who think him a deserter. He fucks up—frequently and in ways that intensify his hardships. But by rendering Boone as fallible, Hawley makes it that much easier for the reader to enter an era typically illustrated in historical fiction with a heavy hand by authors more interested in the "heroes" who tamed it. Here, the narrative is split between Boone and his wife, Rebecca, whose portion offers a more nuanced perspective of a husband as a kind of bumbling spectre, risen from the dead to return to a family who have had to move on out of the necessity of frontier survival. As Rebecca comes to make peace with the man who staggers back into her life and throws a wrench in her new-found autonomy, she also fills the new shape of their days: with children—hers and her children’s children, delivered by her hands—and with doubt, of the survival of everything that’s been created. Knife is a hard book, with no clear protagonists. Hawley does little to tinge the time period with the golden tones of nation-making usually ascribed to it. But by letting each of her characters step between worlds, there are flashes of dark comedy and tenderness that come with living life in tumultuous times that seem, unfortunately, especially relatable. Katie Heindl: You handle Boone so humanely, and by that, I mean, just like a regular guy. He is unaware of, or deflects, his own myth. Daniel always seems a bit surprised that anyone is interested in what he's doing, even Rebecca, only really comfortable in the eyes of his children. There might be an innocence to it if he didn't always reengage in ruinous behaviour. Was it critical to write Boone this way, a person as they might be as the myth was made around them, or did you want to intentionally ground him? Alix Hawley: I'm glad he comes across as a human! And that's a perceptive thought about him and the children. You've got me thinking about that now; he is most comfortable with them, and with kids generally, including the ones in the Shawnee town, although he also feels he's failing them all somehow, whether as provider or protector. My guess is that his own childhood was messy, given the fact that his family was kicked out of their Quaker community, and so he wants to give them more than he had. Paging Dr. Freud. Seriously, though, the historical material suggests he was a magnetic personality from a young age. I can only guess that's true, given the spread of his fame during his lifetime. He was certainly a natural leader, and even worked in government for a while, which I slide over a little in the book. I was interested in celebrity, and which people get it, and how fame metastasizes. And why we need that kind of heroic figure, which has of course been going on forever (I just read Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, a great novel about that need). But rather than having a deliberate sense of grounding, my greatest interest was always psychological. My usual question is: What would it feel like to be this person? (Not "What would it feel like if I were this person," which I've seen a lot of students get tangled up in. It's hard not to!) What would it feel like to be this man? I wanted to dig into what that kind of fame would do to someone who really was a regular guy in most ways. Where Achilles and co. are puppeteered by the gods, Dan gets no divine intervention, however much he wonders about what cards Fate laid out for him. A lot of what he does, he does himself. I found myself getting annoyed with Boone in this book, due in part to seeing him through Rebecca's eyes. The choice to add her as a narrator feels essential in this novel, which is almost sparser, less languid than All True. Was adding Rebecca's voice something you had planned for the sequel, or did she insert herself for you when you were writing this book another way? Writing All True, I was half in love with the character Dan, and half wanting to slap him. I also loved writing Rebecca's parts; she was a brief but powerful presence in that book. I've always been interested in charismatic and unreadable people (and probably need therapy). When I thought about a follow-up, I didn't want it to be just a continuation. I wanted this book to stand on its own, without the reader necessarily having to have read All True first. And in a writerly way, I think every book needs its own problem to work out. Dan's voice took a long time to find—I drafted the first book in the wrong voice, twice—and I felt I finally had him in my bones when I decided to write this novel. So, Rebecca became the problem. What would it feel like to be married to someone like that, and to feel left by him, not knowing whether he was dead or alive, and to want to leave him as well? Even more, what would it feel like to be her, this exact person, and how would she sound? I figured she'd be easier to write, being a woman and a mother like me. That was a dumb thought, as I don't usually write directly about myself anyway. And she was elusive. My early drafts of her narrative were in third person, which only made her even more distant. I wanted her to walk and talk on her own. In the end, her sketchiness in the historical record, and my uncertainty about her, became part of her character. She's someone who lives deep inside herself, keeps her own counsel, never gives much away, wields her power quietly. Writing the voice of someone like that is very hard! She doesn't always admit her desires to herself. She speaks much more sparingly and concretely than Dan, who flings similes around, and whose narrative sections are full of action. It was good to have his voice as a foil, actually. And I got annoyed with him too, and I'm glad you did. Though I still love him, even his blindnesses. I think Rebecca does too. And I love her for her failures also. How close to Boone's life did you keep the chronology? Was it as expansive to write All True and Knife as it feels as a reader to be moving through them? There is always a sense of more, or doubling back, but the promise of momentum regardless—did you make yourself stick to certain timelines and give yourself free rein for filling in the rest? I think the best fiction about the past grows out of gaps, the things we want to know more about, the details and answers that are lost. So, I looked for those holes during the first research, then cut myself off from further reading, forcing myself to fill in character and motivation on my own. (I went back later to check details and dates.) I do try to stick to the general truth of events and chronology, at least of what's known of them. With this book, I did have a stronger sense of momentum, probably because the time frame is much more compressed—where All True covers decades, the majority of Knife covers just a few years, including a single week, the siege, in detail. I did have room, though, to be deeply inside two different characters' heads, and to see each one through the other's eyes. I also had freedom to fill in quite a different Dan in this book, one who's caused a lot of damage and been broken himself. This time I missed the closeness to the Indigenous characters, like Black Fish and Pompey, the "black Shawnee," whom Dan has left behind. Writing the scenes when they meet again here was pretty emotional, because of the personal repercussions for all of them, but also because they represent the greater fracture between the Indigenous and settler groups in the book, who'd seemed very briefly, in this case, to have a chance of making things better, however illusory that was. With All True Not a Lie In It, the title set the stage for even the casual Daniel Boone fan to understand it would be a novel that would put the reader behind the coonskin curtain, so to speak, and work a little bit to expose him. There's humour in it, there's reference to the tall tales and disconnecting accounts of this man's life while also being incredibly earnest, as if to say this will be the real story. My Name Is a Knife is stark and more subtle, because the story doesn't revolve solely around Daniel. Can you tell me about the title, why you chose it, and how you'd like it to set up this book? Oh, God, this title cost me a few months of my life. All True Not a Lie In It comes from something Dan is purported to have said about a fake autobiography someone published in his name. That one leapt at me partway through an early draft, not least because we have so little in his own words (and they may not even be his words, but they fit my sense of him as someone funny and self-deprecating about his bizarrely swollen reputation—this guy from the eighteenth-century backwoods!). So, I liked the wink as well as the sincerity you note. Incidentally, I wasn't a fan, even a casual one, when I started writing. I didn't know anything about him. I was just hooked by the idea of early celebrity, and the way Dan and Rebecca lost their first child, James. This time, the title was really hard to come by. I wanted something else in Dan's words, but nothing felt right. There's literally nothing left in Rebecca's words—she doesn't seem to have been able to write, but might have been able to read—so that didn't work either. I tried other sources from that time, as well as Dan's favourite book, Gulliver's Travels, but everything sounded stiff or too olde-timey, which I have a horror of. I want this book to work now, and not just be an attempt at ventriloquizing past voices. So much of what it's about is still going on. (Here endeth her sermon on how historical fiction is really just fiction.) The main problem became finding a title that yoked Dan's and Rebecca's narratives. So, I had to make it up. (The file name was the cardboardish DB2 for a long time.) I played around with a few versions that included knives, probably as an image of the severing of the marriage, the settler-Indigenous relations, and both characters' internal fights (and also because—knives). Early in the book, Dan says that when he returns from the Shawnee town, hearing his old name, his white name, hurts him. Rebecca later mentions disliking her own name, not wanting her daughters to name their children for her. So, My Name Is a Knife popped up in the end. I hope it makes you want to pick it up, and keeps you thinking when you finish it (please finish it). I need to thank my writing group partners, Corinna Chong and Adam Lewis Schroeder, for putting up with my dozens of "THIS IS THE RIGHT TITLE" midnight messages, and for trying with all their hearts to find the perfect version themselves. And my editor, Anne Collins, for finally saying, during her final manuscript run-through, "No, this is it, this is the title, stop." The choice to end the book from Rebecca's perspective feels intentional to the treatment of the Boone legend, overall. This way, we aren't given Daniel's conclusions or future intentions, nor do we really get a full circle on whether or not he's found peace. Were there other reasons for handing the narrative over to Rebecca? Real writer talk—I didn't want to write the death of either character! Having finally put together this version of Rebecca, I didn't want to end the book with her end (and she died before Dan). And because this novel ended up being so much about their struggle to work out whether or not to stay together, I didn't want to see Dan on his own in his last years. And I'm not sure he deserves to find complete peace, either. I like that it ends with her voice, her observations of him, because she sees him better than anyone, except maybe Black Fish. But, also, because she's angry and damaged herself, and has had to find some reason to keep going. The upswell of the #MeToo movement while I was editing this novel made me see just how furious she is about the whole system. She may not be the most self-aware person, but I'd argue that Dan is even less, in spite of all his introspection and musing about what he's done. A lot of novels are about women thoroughly observing men who carry on unaware (Jane Eyre is the classic example). I'm certainly aware of that tradition. I think I hoped to turn it a little with the way this book begins and ends. A very small wrench in the works. Reading All True and now Knife, it's hard to be oblivious to the Indigenous-settler dynamic at what was, essentially, the violent beginning of colonialism. Boone's relationship with the Shawnee is close, familial, but also damaging, paternalistic and violent. And there are tribal hierarchies based on familiarity versus the unknown—for example, a real fear of the Cherokee in Boone and his family. At the same time, even if we don't see Black Fish and some of the other Indigenous characters as much in this book, you treat their appearances evenly and with the same weight, even the memories of them. How difficult was writing the Indigenous characters in both of these novels given the current prejudicial climate Indigenous people face in Canada and the United States, and that their histories have likely been lost or not as fully recorded to the same extent as men like Boone? It was difficult for me as a white descendant of Canadian settlers to even begin to write about the Indigenous people in the novels. And you're of course right about the fact that any recording of Woodland Nations histories at the time was done by settlers, usually with little benevolence (there's a mention of how the "Indians" always start their meetings with a long talk, which wasn't recognized as oral history). The lack in the record was worse than Rebecca's—so much was lost or misshapen or deliberately thrown away. And I was conscious all the time that because the point of view in my books is Dan's and Rebecca's, every presentation of the Indigenous characters is via white perceptions. Historians usually say Dan appreciated the Woodland way of life more than most Europeans—and part of his fame was as a "White Indian”—but so much of that was a takeover, in spite of his genuine ties to Black Fish and some of the other people he knew well. I had a few known hooks to hang onto with Black Fish's character—he wasn't much older than Dan, he'd also lost a son, he was a powerful leader with a great speaking voice. But he couldn't just be Dan's mirror. I hoped to show him more broadly in his skilled handling of meetings and votes, and more in his relationships with his own family, his wife and daughters. When I'd gathered what I could from research, I wanted to show life in Chillicothe as almost mundane, people going about their business, kids playing, teenagers sulking, etc. I hope very much that it doesn't read as tourist-like, despite coming through Dan's perception. He becomes comfortable there, but he is a romanticizer, and once he's left the Shawnee, his memories are sometimes idealized. I was conscious of that too. Black Fish's retreats into silence, like those of Pompey, the "Black Shawnee" and interpreter, became part of his personality for me, reflecting his knowledge that he won't get complete truth or fair dealing from Dan's people. And all the failed communication and misunderstandings, especially those leading to the siege, were heartbreaking to read and write about. Again, I had a strong sense of hopes for peace and connection raised and smashed, over and over. I read somewhere that it's easy to forget, when writing about actual events, that the people at the time didn't know what was going to happen. As silly as that might sound, it helped me keep up the sense of tension, from a writerly perspective. The Cherokee Jim (his actual name is unknown) was the most difficult for me to write. He was a frequent visitor at the Boones' place before they headed towards Kentucky, and he was one of the murderers of their son Jamesie. The Ndé scholar Margo Tamez was kind enough to speak about him at a reading I gave, saying he was the strongest character for her, and the most sympathetic. I hadn't seen him that way, though I'd understood his action as a warning to Dan's party to stay off unceded land, as they'd been told. He returns in My Name Is a Knife at the darkest level of Dan's mind—Rebecca's too, when she lets herself think about him—and becomes a focus of rage. The way he's dehumanized becomes a symbol of the settlers' flattened image of "Indians." But he's not that simple either. No person is. Babies. There are so many of them! I really liked how each birth added to Rebecca's agency, even her own and not the ones she delivered. Did you intend for them to be a subtle way to notch the passing of time, which in this novel can feel jolting from one big fight to the next, or as something to break up the carnage, or both? Because sometimes I have to admit, my thoughts were, "This does not seem practical." Ha! Completely impractical, but true. There are so many historical babies—Dan and Rebecca came from big families, and had nine children themselves, who started producing their own kids very young—and that's one of the points both the protagonists make, that kids are having kids, all part of the general chaos of the time and place. I actually had to cut out some of the extended offspring, for clarity's sake (doesn't help when everyone has the same name). I did want the births to be Rebecca's territory as a midwife, and also to echo some of the children Dan knew in Chillicothe, the Shawnee town, especially the ones he can't forget. You're right, there's a lot of tension and big fights in Dan's world, and I knew Rebecca's sphere had to feel equally urgent, though her life was ostensibly much more domestic, with all the "smallness" that implies. But what's more dramatic than childbirth? Frontier childbirth, without anaesthetic or forceps or stitches? Having been through two emergency caesarians, I'm always stunned that so many of the women and children around Rebecca survived and were healthy. Her narrative is as much about survival as Dan's is. As for time, I wasn't very conscious about marking its passage—more with trying to keep both the tension and the events of both worlds lined up. A spreadsheet might have helped, but I'm Excel-impaired. Though so was everyone on the frontier, I guess. Verisimilitude. The vernacular and dialogue between characters is so completely consuming, natural and of a time that it easily pulls the reader right into what could seem an otherwise daunting and antiquated world, stiff and not easy to slip into. It's clear you lived with these characters in your head for a long, long time. How was it to share your head with frontiersmen and women, for so long? Do you still? Well, I was teary but satisfied to send them on their way with that final manuscript. And I can still tune in to Dan FM pretty easily; when a reader asks me what he would say or do in some situation, I usually have a quick answer. I can hear Rebecca more quietly. Both voices took a long time to get right, but once they were there, they were there. I think about them still, as well as some of their children—Jemima and James and Israel—and Black Fish, Captain Will, Pompey, Methoataske. They can hang around; I don't mind sharing head space most of the time (I have two young children—parents, you feel me?). I'm drafting another novel now, set in a different place and time, and the main character slammed right into me. So, I thought I had that voice from the start, but it's shifting too as the mess of the draft grows. I still seem to expect instant gratification. I wouldn't have survived very long on the frontier, clearly.
My grandfather had never told me about his trip to the Soviet Union in the sixties, but I don’t know why I was surprised. He never told me anything, not even my grandmother’s name.
Last November, my grandfather told me that he went to the Soviet Union in 1962 as a roadie for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. We were eating dinner, spaghetti squash with watery Bolognese, wine from the basement. The table was set with marmalade-colored Ikea napkins on forest-green linen. “We had to put the harp between the pilot and the co-pilot,” he said, looking at my step-grandmother. “There wasn’t room anywhere else.” Outside, the snow had hardened into a crust. It was the first time I had heard him mention this trip. I had no idea he had ever been to the Soviet Union. My grandfather is in his seventies. If you Google image search his last name, which we don’t share, you will see obituary photos of old Polish women with perms and carnations pinned to their blouses. He is balding. His blue eyes pop unexpectedly, frog like, from behind his glasses. He wears pressed caramel pants, never jeans, and as far as I can tell he has little to no interest in Poland or being Polish. The guest bedroom in his Calgary home has mints on the pillows, bars on the windows, and was renovated to look like Don Draper’s living room. When I visit, the first thing we do is go through his version of a safety seminar. He explains how to open the bars and climb out the window in case of fire. I never listen. I figure I’ll just go out the back door, but the bars annoy me because they are indicators of anxiety rather than danger. No one walks down the streets there. The little fortified bungalow near the airport will never see a pedestrian, let alone a robbery. He ladled the tomato sauce onto a pile of squash, and it flooded the plate. “You understand the context, right?” he said. “You have to understand the context. Montreal was invited to perform in Moscow only because the Kremlin wanted to have a musical exchange with the Philadelphia Philharmonic, and Soviet planes weren’t allowed to land on US soil.” He looked over his glasses at me. I understood some of the context. In 1962, the Cold War was escalating. It was the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis. I guess Washington didn’t want these musicians—probably spies—landing in their territory. Questions of national security and the fear of nuclear fallout were ever present. A war of culture had started to prove ideological superiority, as though a pianist could affirm that collectivization was better than Liberal market capitalism. By inviting Montreal to participate in the exchange, the Soviet musicians could fly on a Canadian plane to the US, and back to Canada, to play at Place des Arts. Then, the MSO would tour the USSR. At least, that is what I understood from his explanation. “The place was grey,” he said, cutting his food with the mannered precision of someone who has learned table etiquette later in life, a class chameleon. “Was it ever grey.” When he talks he uses the cadence of a salesman. Each phrase is constructed towards selling the product of implicit agreement. As I grew older, I learned to not believe everything he said. “You have to understand what was going on there at the time. Bread lines went on forever. All they sold was vodka. Everything was grey, the clothes, the buildings, the sky. It was all grey, so when they saw us, well, that was a different story, but they weren’t allowed to talk to us, even if they wanted to.” * In 1953, Stalin was found on the floor next to his bed, paralyzed, stuttering, pajamas soaked in urine. In their accounts, witnesses always took note of the urine stain, as though the weakness of the man’s body was a surprise, a truth that had to be recorded to be reconciled. Or maybe it was just a crucial humiliation. The paranoid arbiter of life and death pissed himself when he was dying, like anyone else would. He likely lay next to his bed for hours after the stroke. No one wanted to disturb him, because they were afraid of retribution. One of many hundred doctors, imprisoned in the previous months during an anti-Semitic purge, had to be consulted in his jail cell. No free doctors knew what to do. And like those who waited hours and hours before opening his bedroom door, those who attended to the Great Leader in the hospital were terrified. The dentist who removed his dentures was trembling so much that he dropped them on the floor. But none of the nurses or doctors or bodyguards were killed, exiled, imprisoned, or demoted, because Stalin died three days later after an unsuccessful treatment of leeches and oxygen. “It is difficult for most people to imagine how a nation worshipped such a monster,” Oleg Kalugin wrote in his memoir, Spymaster, which details his life as a KGB operative, “but the truth is that most of us—those who had not felt the lash of his repression—did. His propaganda machine was all powerful, I revered Stalin.” In ’62, the MSO would have landed in a world where, only a decade before, musicians were sent to the Gulag for any misstep, any note that displeased the Party. Up until Stalin’s death, music was tightly censored. It had to fit into the aesthetic doctrine of Socialist Realism, or be innocuous enough to maintain the Politburo’s idea of a status quo. “Our bloody tyrant was in a bad mood one day,” the composer Dmitri Tolstoy said in the documentary War Symphonies, describing how Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was banned, “and then he went to the opera.” It isn’t clear what Stalin objected to, maybe the plot’s moral imperative to kill a tyrant or the sex scenes. Either way, an anonymous letter published in the newspaper Pravda a few days later said that the opera “titillates the depraved tastes of bourgeois audiences with its witching, clamorous, neurasthenic music,” and signed off by warning “it might end very badly.” It was no secret that Pravda was the mouthpiece of the communist party, and that this letter was probably penned by the man himself. Shostakovich had to be very careful. Jazz was suppressed. In 1949 all saxophone players in Moscow were ordered to KGB headquarters, where their instruments were confiscated, and their names put on a list. Musicians were put under surveillance. Jazz was considered dangerous. It had bourgeois implications. It glamorized individualism, and experimentation. Songs like “Yablochko,” that mixed traditional folk with military marching music, fit in with the official party line, music that could define the new proletariat, without relying on nostalgia for a Tsarist past. Folk was the music of the common people, so it didn’t threaten communist culture, and marching bands were the metaphorical sound of the army. If there was any evidence of a trumpet mute, a brazen bass player plucking instead of bowing, or a flatted fifth, the musician would be immediately arrested and sent to the gulag. A popular phrase was “today he dances jazz, tomorrow he will sell his homeland.” My friend Chrystia’s family fled Ukraine during World War Two. She told me that the first time she visited, she was walking through the tangerine light of downtown Kiev. A busker played saxophone, and even then, everyone who passed turned their heads away or stared at the sidewalk. The saxophone was still an uncomfortable symbol. People had been so well trained to disassociate from anything suspect that it was Pavlovian, if no longer imperative, to look away from anything that could be dangerous. This legacy of fear runs deep. * My step-grandmother carried an almond cake from the kitchen and placed it between us as we drank the dregs of a bottle of wine. I could feel the sediment in my mouth. She is beautiful in an unremarkable but relentless way, like Debbie Reynolds in Singing in the Rain, with delicate, perfectly placed features and endless small-town Francophone charm. In the ‘60s she worked as a flight attendant in a dusty blue suit with matching pillbox hat, and spent part of the ‘70s stationed out of Casablanca working chartered flights from Morocco to Mecca. When I was a teenager she would bring out nail polish and a file. “If you tried harder,” she said, “you could marry a rich man.” My grandfather cradled his fishbowl wine glass between his fingers. Sun spots freckled his hands. “At the Kremlin, one of the violinists was wearing a nylon shirt,” he said to no one. “Imagine, they hadn’t seen synthetic fabric. It caused a stir in the audience, and afterwards the guy exchanged it for a suitcase of rubles. Of course, he was arrested on the spot by his translator.” Why had I never heard this before? “Those rubles would do nothing in Quebec. It was basically Monopoly money.” I know so little about any of his life. “Wait, what did your mother think of you going there, being Polish?” I asked. “I hadn’t seen her since I was thirteen.” “Really? Why?” “Each of us had a translator who doubled as a KGB handler. It was how it was done. The poor dupe just didn’t know until it was too late.” I have always wondered why my grandfather refuses to speak about certain subjects. One subject he avoids is my biological grandmother. I know nothing about her. She could be dead or alive. She could be my neighbor. I don’t even know her name. When I ask about her, he responds with diversions and evasions. This applies to everything, even his account of this trip to the Soviet Union. The details are difficult to confirm, but the basic facts are easy to research. The tour was three weeks long, with five stops: Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kiev, Vienna, Paris. Zubin Mehta, the Mumbai-born conductor, organized the trip. After my visit, I emailed my grandfather several times to ask for more information. The first time I left the question open, hoping he would fill in missing details. The second time I listed specific questions: What was it like to be in a communist country in the ‘60s? What was Zubin Mehta like? How did Soviets interact with you? What were the musicians like? Tell me more about the concert at the Kremlin? He responded with two short sentences: It’s nice that you’re interested. You should do more research. * Psychologist Michael Slepian published a study called “The Experience of Secrecy” in 2017. The average person, he writes, has thirteen secrets, five of which have never been revealed to anyone. He defines a secret as something that you intend to hide, even if you never have to hide it. The secret exists before and after the point it is concealed. “Secrecy” he writes “is something we do alone in a room.” Examining the effect secrets have on mental and physical health, the study concludes that the burden (and there does seem to be a physical toll) comes not only from the content, but from how preoccupied we are with it. The more our mind wanders to the subject, the more difficult simple tasks become, hills seem steeper, distances farther, everyday chores exhausting. The metaphorical language of unburdening the weight of a secret is maybe more tangible than we understand. Grade five was the beginning of my conscious relationship to secrecy. My friend Mai and I sometimes slipped away from the other kids during recess to talk about what no one talked about. At the edge of the fields and fields of playground, only possible in a prairie city like Edmonton, was a swing set. No one could play on it because fights would break out over whose turn it was, but also because Jared Michaels* said that an old man with a white beard, wearing garbage bags for shoes, hung out there, and had given him a baggie of white powder, telling him to light it. He ended up with second degree burns on half of his face. The adults didn’t know what to do, so that entire end of the schoolyard was out of bounds, and carefully patrolled by volunteer lunch supervisors in yellow vests. The kids knew Jared had lied about the old man, that he had stolen a handful of gun powder from his parents and lit it up as a spectacle for his friends. We were all burgeoning pyromaniacs at the time, so it wasn’t a surprise, but I remember feeling the first hints of pride at diagnosing his stupidity, planning my safer, more impressive grass fires as a response to his, and then guilt when he came to class with blisters running up his cheek to his eyelid. Near the swing sets was an old cedar tree that was perfect for climbing. If you swung back and forth while holding onto the lowest branch, you could use your feet to walk up the trunk, and flip yourself onto the branch. From there, each branch was like a rung on a ladder. When you got to the top, you could watch the playground from above, like a guard in a surveillance tower. I had a dramatic way of telling secrets. I would whisper “I have something to tell you,” in Mai’s ear while we sat on the bench in gym class waiting to be subbed on for floor hockey, “let's talk about it in the tree.” The recess bell would ring. We would run before anyone else could see where we had gone, and climb up. I realized quickly that my family had more secrets than the families around me, and I needed to make sense of it. Their secrets weren’t veiled translations from the adult world that I could decipher as I got older. They were omissions. No one spoke about my grandmother. No one spoke about my father. When I found out that this was because he was schizophrenic, I told Mai. The fact of schizophrenia was as unusual a revelation as the fact that I was supposed to care that some man I never knew, who existed elsewhere, had the problem. I told her in the tree, and the word, which may be outdated now, felt ugly on my tongue. Stigma was latent in the enunciation. It was a word of consonants, medicalized and complicated, with a suffix that could only mean problems, and by the sound of it should only be repeated in private. But there were other secrets. We talked about our shared crush, who had perfect dark caterpillar eyebrows. We talked about BDSM, because I had come across the phrase in a newspaper article about a court case. We talked about our bodies. We talked about things which aren’t mine to share. When we were up in the tree, nothing else mattered. The football fields that ran along 76th Avenue disappeared. Edmonton became a set designed as a backdrop for us. The younger kids playing freeze-tag disappeared. Naomi and Lena, cross-legged behind the skating rink, playing truth or dare in Chicago Bulls caps, disappeared. Who cared that we weren’t invited to French-kiss. Who cared that Cam White, brushing his blonde hair from his eyes like Leo in Titanic, wanted to kiss them and not us. It all faded in favor of excavating the new secret, and sharing the discovery that up until then we had been lied to. And aren’t we all lied to, constantly? * After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev became the new leader of the Communist Party. His tenure is referred to as the Thaw because repression and censorship were relaxed. Millions were released from prisons and labor camps. Those who had died behind their walls were officially exonerated. In 1958, Khrushchev held the inaugural Tchaikovsky competition. The Iron Curtain had only barely lifted, and foreign musicians were invited to compete. A twenty-three-year-old Texan Baptist named Van Cliburn won first prize. He played Rachmaninoff. The musical motifs yearned for a metaphysical Russian past. His fingering lingered emotionally on the notes. It was not the safest way to play music at the time. It would have been discouraged in favor of precise, technically adept fingering. Van Cliburn was humble, boyish. He genuinely, unguardedly loved Russia, and for Soviet audiences it was like someone had cracked open a can, the lid peeled off, the seal broke, he had the effect of Elvis. Teenagers swooned. Thousands camped outside of the concert hall in hopes of getting tickets. People risked punishment to send him tokens of their affection. He left Moscow with suitcases full of gifts. Twenty-five-thousand items: samovars, malachite cigarette boxes, silver cutlery, woodcuttings, music scores, jewelry, photographs, violins, perfume, paintings, letters, valuables that had been hidden away during the terror of the previous decades. Second-place was shared between the nineteen-year-old Chinese pianist Liu Shikun, and the Georgian pianist Lev Vlassenko. After the competition Liu Shikun was sentenced to six years in a Chinese prison for playing Western music. The Cultural Revolution had hit a shrill pitch. Students from the Beijing Conservatory of Music joined the Red Guards in their denunciation of Western, and feudalist, music, beating professors and classmates with boards of nails and belt buckles. The bone in Shikun’s forearm was shattered during an interrogation. After years in the labor camp, one day a guard accidentally left a newspaper in his cell, and the pianist managed to compose a note, attaching characters ripped from the article using pieces of sticky bun as glue. He hid the note in his prison cell until the right moment came years later. He was able to sneak it to a visitor, who then delivered it to a Party member who pardoned him. The third-place winner, Naum Shtarkman, was sent to prison for eight years after the competition, when a witch-hunt broke out against homosexuals at the Moscow Conservatory. He was arrested on his way to a concert for factory workers in the industrial city of Kharkov. They were both in prison when my grandfather visited Moscow. * The dry, nearly fat-free cake was brown and deflated. I cut it into bite sized pieces with a butter knife, because I needed something to do with my hands, and the half-eaten lumps looked like balls of clay. Someone had put on a CD, a Quebecoise chanteuse I had never heard. She was singing from the adjoining pink living room, filling the long silences, so they were less obvious. I had the urge to get drunk. Across from me was a landscape painting. Mountains edged by a lake. I took a bite of the cake. It was dry and difficult to swallow. I washed it down with wine. How do we understand family secrets without considering their relationship to shame? And how do we begin to consider something so murky, so complicated? Shame is a social emotion, administered by the disapproving gaze of another. It filters our perception of ourselves. It is the feeling that who you are is wrong, that who you are must be hidden from the outside world. Etymologists suspect that the root of the word shame is from Proto-Germanic skamo, to cover, and the Greek aiskhyne, to put someone to disgrace. The word stigma has a revealing history too. In the 1560s, it was a physical mark scratched into skin with a pointed stick until it would leave a permanent scar, or a brand burned into skin with a hot iron. In the 1600s, stigmata were marks appearing on the body that mirrored the wounds of crucifixion. Now stigma is an invisible mark that everyone can see. When I told Mai my secrets, I remember trying to fight against a world where appearances were more important than isolation, and self-hate. I thought that if I was open about my father being schizophrenic, then kids couldn’t hurt me by saying I was destined to be cuckoo for cocoa puffs. I wasn’t hiding anything. * Khrushchev delivered the Secret Speech, officially called “On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences,” during a meeting of the Communist Party in 1958. He denounced Stalin’s network of prisons and labor camps. On its face, his speech was an investigation into the Great Purge, though it was also an analysis of Stalin’s methodology, the machine that revered him and rendered him omnipresent. For his own reasons, Khrushchev wanted to show Stalin’s reign of terror for what it was. Stalin, he told his comrades, was a man who gave orders to shoot soldiers retreating from the front line. A man who fabricated crimes and put on show trials to educate his people about the new social order. But, the exposure of this propaganda was disturbing. People in the audience fainted, and later some committed suicide. When someone is forced to repeat an obvious lie, Hannah Arendt observed, even if they don’t believe the lie, through repetition of the lie they submit to the liar. They are forced to choose the world contained by the lie. Self-deception can become a matter of survival. If you are constantly affirming the lie, why not believe it? At least believe it sometimes, or with half of your mind, or because you stop being able to comprehend a world outside of the lie. When do you start to believe that Jazz is dangerous, and that it’s a slippery slope from loving jazz to betraying your family, to betraying your nation, to betraying yourself? Certain lies are exercises in power and social control. What happens when the lie is dismantled? Were the suicides after Khrushchev's secret speech a reaction to the disclosure of these lies? Was it a question of complicity? Was the horror too much? I am not interested in a simple narrative where Western musicians go to the Soviet Union and liberate minds through art. I don’t consider the West to be a place of freedom. Its prisons are full too. Still, as I researched Soviet music to understand what the MSO would be walking into, it became clear that the double lives of these Soviet musicians and audiences offered insight into the loneliness and horror of extreme social censure. In 1957, Glenn Gould began to play in Moscow to an almost empty hall. At intermission, the entire audience used the telephone in the lobby, and called their friends, urging them to come to the concert as fast as they could. After intermission, the hall was so packed that people stood in the aisles, and out the door onto the streets. Tatiana Zelikma, a pianist at the Moscow Conservatory, described this concert by saying “we started to live by each new recording of Gould’s and until his death, his life became part of our life.” One of the first Western musicians behind the Iron Curtain was the soprano Lois Marshall. She toured in a ball gown with lavish layers of crinoline and her limited mobility, the effect of polio, captivated the audience. They were already breathless before she started to sing. “She represented inner freedom,” musician Olexander Tumanov wrote, “which was an absolutely overwhelming concept, because we were all captives in our own country.” * “You remember that guy, what was his name?” my grandfather said, mostly to himself. “He rented a white baby grand. The ladies loved him, but he never paid his bill. I had to go up to his hotel the night before he left town to get him to pay up. He came to the door in sunglasses and a bathrobe with a bottle of champagne.” He pushed back his chair and crossed his legs. “Dino-something-or-other…” I put my fork down next to my plate. “I was wondering,” I paused. “What was your first wife, my grandmother’s, name?” He looked at his watch, then turned to the window. The sun had set outside. It was a dark moonless sky, and the milky way was visible above the snow. He looked at his watch again. “Look at the time, it’s getting late. The game should be on soon.” I stared at him, his eyes, his nose, and couldn’t help thinking, who is this person in front of me? What is he hiding? Why is he hiding it? I finished my glass of wine. My face was burning. Maybe I didn’t need to know anything about him to understand myself better. Somehow, I want to mourn these missing people, lost in the preservation of an acceptable family, but I don’t know how. And each time I ask a question that he won’t answer I feel it again, the hint of shame, the reminder that there is something to keep secret. “The Oilers are playing the Flames.” He pushed back his chair. “We can light a fire in the Chinook room if you want. I know you like a nice fire.” *not his real name.