Hazlitt Magazine

If You’re Reading This, It’s Jim Joe

There’s something special about the anonymous graffiti artist with his own cult following.

That Arrested Moment: On Stills in Film

I’ve always believed that a carefully chosen frame makes for the more appropriate film poster.

Signs of Life

On the surreal nature of secondary trauma.

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‘We Should Be Articulating Joyful Alternatives’: An Interview with Nona Willis Aronowitz

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

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

The author of My Face in the Light on artistic process, phsyical mediums as a foil to writing, and the tension between surface and interior. 

Martha Schabas’s My Face in the Light (Knopf Canada) is a novel of retreat that never quite becomes escape. Justine, a young actress, is on the verge of withdrawing from her career, her marriage, and her already tenuous notions of who she is. After an odd encounter with a man on a train results in an offer of free rent in exchange for unspecified work, Justine leaves her husband and Toronto, landing in London without specific intentions, increasingly uncertain about her present as she begins to probe into the brief past she shared with her mother in this city.  Defying flight-from-a-staid-marriage conventions, My Face in the Light’s first line establishes that it’s a different fractured relationship that is central to Justine, secondary only to her attempts to investigate herself: “My mother is an artist and I am a liar.” That notion is immediately inverted: “Or, if I scratch the surface, my mother is a sick woman and I am an actress. How different is that from saying my mother is a sick woman and I am a liar?”  Schabas’s prose reflects Justine’s poise and her poses to those who perceive her—the character’s grip on how she is seen onstage and in life—and the constant restlessness of her mind.  Naben Ruthnum: Justine’s mother, Rachel, is a painter, and this novel is rife with descriptions of paintings and the process of artmaking. Did you have a particular approach to describing Rachel’s paintings, or were you more concerned with Justine’s perception of her mother’s work?   Martha Schabas: I thought a lot about the French artist Sophie Calle when figuring out Rachel’s process as a painter. Calle is so good at manipulating the tension between real life and art, toying with the apparent boundaries of each, and that’s one of the novel’s major preoccupations. Rachel’s breakthrough series of paintings—the Heroine Series—came from her habit of following young women around London with a teenaged Justine, and then letting Justine mimic these women at home. This was vaguely inspired by Calle’s obsession with following and documenting strangers in Paris. I wanted to find a way to make Rachel and Justine equally involved in the making of these paintings so that Justine’s contribution wasn’t just incidental and superfluous, but present and felt in the actual finished product. I wanted the paintings to somehow document all the trouble and intimacy in the mother-daughter relationship—Justine’s simultaneous adoration and resentment of Rachel—as much as they document these London strangers. Rachel and Justine collide in their curiosity about these women, and the paintings are meant to evoke this sort of triad of influence.  Artwork-wise, you’re not just talking about painting in the novel: Justine’s acting, initially encouraged by her mother and accepted by her as the course of her life from her mid-teen years on, is an enormous part of her character and of the novel. Just as you vividly describe paintings in the novel, you describe performances, rehearsals, moments; how did you approach writing about acting, and did you have any touchstone writers when you were examining how to execute this? It’s occurred to me that the novel is a bit “anti-acting,” and I’ve wondered what real actors will make of it. I actually trained as an actor, which is a strange thing for me to remember—or admit—because I can barely connect with my former self who wanted that career. I was objectively a pretty bad actor, but I managed to fool people sometimes out of sheer work and will. But it always felt unnatural to me. And you see this a lot with mediocre actors, don’t you? It’s all muscle and ego.  With Justine, I wanted to explore the opposite: an actor who is utterly natural and ego-less. Justine is almost embarrassed by her talent. She comes by it so effortlessly and artlessly that it feels as though she’s exploiting a physical anomaly, like being able to pop her elbow out of joint. She feels like a malleable puppet, and I guess one of the tacit questions the novel asks is if acting is just complete submission to another artist’s vision and to what degree it can be considered artful at all.  It’s funny you should ask about touchstone writers because, while I can rarely pinpoint particular books as expressly influential, there is one for the sections about Justine’s acting: Out of my Skin by John Haskell is this very weird and smart novel about a man who becomes a Steve Martin impersonator in L.A. Haskell’s writing on physicality is so vivid, bizarre, and compelling. The physical detail of the narrator’s transformation, the encroachment of Steve-Martiness onto his whole body, and his eventual complete surrender to the aura of Steve—this was all very helpful to me in my writing of Justine’s work. You’ve had a past life as a performer, and Justine in this novel is entertaining leaving performance of a different sort in the past. This is all true. Justine has an audition for the Royal Shakespeare Company that she deliberately turns away from. In addition to a chance meeting on the train, this non-audition sets the book’s action in motion. What is Justine opting out of in this moment?  She’s starting to opt out of everything, just as you’ve implied. Justine feels like a fraud in all aspects of her life, and walking out of her career as a literal fraud, i.e., an actor, signifies her first step towards truth-telling and figuring out who she really is. Your first novel, Various Positions, was about a younger artist at a different crisis point in her life and career. Something I noticed about the life of that very adult novel, after I’d read it, is that it was marketed as YA in the U.S., due to the character’s age. What did you make of this decision? Does your prior protagonist have links to Justine? It still depresses me to think how wrong everything went with the publication of Various Positions in the U.S. The novel is about a fifteen-year-old girl whose misunderstanding of sex in a patriarchal world leads her towards some outrageous behaviour. The novel was marketed as literary fiction in Canada, which is how I hoped things would pan out in the U.S. Instead, I got only one American offer and it was a YA imprint. I hemmed and hawed but eventually agreed, because my only real hang-up was my pride, and that seemed petty. I hoped that, irrespective of the label, the book would find the right readers in the U.S., but maybe that was naive of me. I didn’t know what a YA label would connote, that it imbued the novel with certain moral expectations that it was never intended to fulfill. The novel is anything but morally instructive. I still hope it will find the right American readers one day. I definitely think there are implicit links between Georgia, the protagonist of Various Positions, and Justine, despite the fact that the former finds her entire sense of identity in her art while the latter feels lost in hers. Maybe their similarities are more tonal. They’re both contemplative, introspective, living at a kind of remove from everyone else. With Georgia, the stylistic challenge was limiting her understanding of the world, distilling her rawness and naivety. With Justine I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted a sophisticated thinker who expresses herself eloquently on the page. You’ve written from the point of view of dancers and actors; do you actively resist writing from the fictional perspective of a writer? Ha, no. I wouldn’t call it active resistance. But these mediums—dance and theatre—aren’t just there to give my protagonists something to do. They interest me for really specific reasons, and I analyze them extensively in the books. They’re both very physical mediums and, in that sense, provide a kind of foil to writing. They both suggest something more instinctive than writing, something bodily, primal that feels almost “pre-thought,” and I was attracted to the challenge of vivifying that in prose.  The physical beauty of Justine’s mother and husband are prominent in the novel—and her own looks are remarkable, including her scar. How do beauty and “flawed” beauty figure into your telling of Justine’s story as both an artist and a person? I wanted Justine to be unreliable in her appraisal of appearances, both in her reverence of other people’s beauty and in her perception of her own scar. She clearly has a complex about the scar and is convinced it makes her unattractive, but people respond to it quite differently throughout the novel, which gives it a sense of shape-shifting when, by definition, a scar is static, unchangeable. In fact, Justine superstitiously believes that she needs to monitor the scar constantly, for fear that it might get worse, to the extent that its terribleness becomes something of her own construction. I wanted the scar to exist on two different levels in the novel—as a real mark on Justine’s forehead, but also as an idea that is constantly revisited and mythologized by both Justine and Rachel. In a sense, the scar is as much a work of art as any of Rachel’s paintings, and I wanted it to occupy that kind of creative space in the novel, to have the same uncanny power. I’m curious about the degrees of neglect in the novel. Rachel is upset, perhaps rightfully so, when she sees the severity of the scar her daughter got while being taken care of by someone else and the inefficiency of the repair. Justine’s treatment of her husband when she decides she wants to be away from him is another, lighter, but perhaps just as permanent, form of neglect. You’re right, neglect is a major subject in the book. I’m surprised you’ve pointed out the mishandling of Justine’s childhood accident by the woman caring for her. For me, the key act of neglect is Rachel’s abandonment of Justine, both before the scar-causing accident and when Justine is recovering. That incident, and Rachel’s absence, is the emotional underlay of the whole novel.  And you’re also right to suggest that history repeats itself. For all of Justine’s determination to be nothing like her mother, we learn that she is capable of—and has committed—quite comparable acts of abandonment, and not only towards her husband. Justine has always tied Rachel’s propensity for neglect to her self-centredness as an artist, and part of Justine’s emotional journey is the realization that that’s reductive. The two floors of Max Haleemi's club speak of two different degrees of objectification, which are deeply entwined. Yes, the novel keeps revisiting the tension between surface and interior, between what we look like and who we are and the ethical problems that arise from that relationship. It might be a very old-fashioned line of moral inquiry, but I don’t think it will ever cease to fascinate me—how completely irrelevant our appearances should be to our inner realities, and yet how impossible it is to accept that on a sheer phenomenological level. Justine takes a pivotal photo towards the end of the novel, one that suggests her relationship to her mother could change. Were you suggesting a truth to this artform that doesn’t exist, at least for Justine, in her art? I wasn’t contrasting photography and acting so much as suggesting that, for all of art’s failings at expressing truth, it’s still a powerful way of getting close to it. And art remains the most meaningful way for Rachel and Justine to communicate. The photograph references a few really key things in Rachel and Justine’s past, but it’s also a new work, full of its own implications, offering its own interpretation of the world. A photograph creates an everlasting present-tense, but this one gestures across time, too. It alludes to Justine’s history while suggesting that things are changing, that Justine has agency in the present and an artist’s control over what she sees.
‘It’s My Love Letter to Superheroes’: An Interview with Villal Pando

The Montréal cartoonist on his debut book The Pursuer, the evolution and influence of comic books, and how a lifelong passion for drawing became a career.

Villal Pando leads a double life similar to many of the costumed heroes he’s read about in the pages of comic books. By day, he is an elementary school art teacher; by night, a freelance illustrator and emerging comic book writer. The Montréal cartoonist’s penchant for shifting identities likely came from his late father, who was a stage actor. As with many masked heroes, losing his dad motivated Pando to follow in his father’s artistic footsteps. His debut book, The Pursuer (New Friday) opens in Crayton City, a fictional American metropolis, in the year 1929, with the abrupt murder of Warren Blake, a wealthy socialite who moonlights as the eponymous masked vigilante. Pando’s story feels at once traditional and also new, reminding readers of the creation of characters like Batman during the Golden Age of comic books in the 1930s, while also feeling reminiscent of the Dark Knight’s more recent turn to gritty realism, a hallmark of Frank Miller’s work from the 1980s and onward. Many of the iconic works from this time broke precedent by portraying morally ambiguous superheroes who weren’t pure or star-spangled. As a young reader, these works shaped Pando’s creative sensibilities. Frank Miller’s two most famous Batman stories—perhaps the most famous Batman stories—provided modern bookends for the classic character: a new grounded origin story in 1988’s Year One, and an endpoint in 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns. Just as these two seminal works bookended the Caped Crusader’s canonical journey, so too did they for Pando’s creative journey. When he was gifted Year One as a child, it kickstarted his journey as a comic book storyteller, while The Dark Knight Returns inspired the fulfilment of his vision years later through The Pursuer. As in Miller’s iconic story, Pando’s protagonist faces off against a super-powered government lackey, in many ways, a stand-in for the Batman vs. Superman confrontation cemented in popular culture for generations. The powerless and gun-toting Pursuer takes on the bulletproof Noble. It’s not just an homage to one of the comic book’s most iconic hero-on-hero fights, but also the perfect metaphor for an indie cartoonist trying to make his break in the comic book publishing world. Pando published The Pursuer through New Friday, an imprint of Lev Gleason Publications, which prides itself on releasing “100% creator-owned and controlled indie comics and graphic novels from exciting new voices.” I first met Pando at the Montreal Comic Arts Festival in May of this year. In our interview, we discussed his journey as a comic book writer, his creative influences, his experience navigating the current independent publishing landscape, and the lessons he’s already learned which he hopes to bring with him throughout his career. Tim Sale, the illustrator of the iconic story Batman: The Long Halloween, passed away on June 16th this year. As one of his most important creative influences, it’s fitting that Pando’s debut title came out just weeks after Sale’s untimely death. Vikram Nijhawan: What initially inspired you to work in comics and illustration? Villa Pando: I’ve always loved drawing as a kid, but I never saw myself as an “artist” or doing this as a career. My father was a stage actor and was very artistically inclined, but I saw his professional struggles and it was scary to imagine myself going that way. It took a long time for me to make the jump. It’s still hard for me to consider myself a true cartoonist or illustrator, because it doesn’t pay all the bills, but I’m happy to be published and to have gigs. There’s nothing more satisfying for me than thinking of an idea and making it real, tangible, and palpable. Drawing has always been a passion of mine, and I just couldn’t quit it. I tried to stop myself. I tried to be reasonable and go in other directions, but I always got pulled back. I know you do a lot of commission-based artwork for comedians and podcast ad designs. Where does your main professional revenue come from? I’m a primary school art teacher. Right now, I’m a substitute teacher, which means I jump around from school to school, but the flexibility allows me to work on my own independent projects. I guess that also means you have some interest in education, in addition to your general artistic interest. Is that fair to say? There’s a lot of intersection between my artistic career and my teaching, but I do try to share my love of comics and drawing with the kids. It’s enriching to find a kid who’s really passionate about art and connecting with them about that. I can take the time to give them tips, and imagine that kid possibly going into the field someday like me.  Did you have any formal artistic education yourself, or were you mostly self-taught? I studied arts education at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), but it wasn’t specifically in comic books or illustration. In those fields, I’m mostly self-taught. I still have a lot to learn, but I think learning to draw is a lifelong process—the older you get, the better you get. So, what inspired you to write The Pursuer? The idea for the story came to me in a flash years ago. The concept continued to grow and stayed with me. I think the death of my father pushed me. I lost him about ten years ago after he had a long battle with cancer. He died fairly young, and that made me realize that you only have so much time to pursue your artistic dreams. That’s very touching and inspiring to hear. I’d love to get into the details of the story world you’ve created. Your book is set during the Great Depression in America, in the early 1930s. There are a lot of familiar genre elements, in terms of neo-noir detective stories, as well as classic vigilante superhero stories. Why did you choose this particular milieu?  I’ve always loved that historical era—the stories, the architecture, the clothing. It was also a time of struggle. We had gone through the 2008 recession around the time I started my script, so that time period resonated with me personally as well. Superheroes also came from that era. Superman was created in 1938, Batman in 1939. Those characters were pure representations of escapism from that difficult time, so setting a superhero story within that era felt right at home. You seem like someone who’s quite knowledgeable about the history of superheroes and comics. Are there any characters that you’ve found particularly inspiring for your own creations? I do love pulp heroes from that time period, classic personas like the Phantom or the Shadow. Basically, I’ve always loved the “dark brooding vigilante” type. Maybe they’re a little less colourful than Superman or Iron Man, but they speak to me. That’s clear to see from the protagonist of your book. Yes, he’s kind of an archetype, and he’s a pretext to the story itself. His colours are toned down, the superpowers are toned down, and he’s overall more grounded. I’m not saying he’s super realistic, but when creating him, I tried to tone down the superheroics, and concentrate more on the human side of the character. The Pursuer inhabits a gritty and realistic world, but as you mention this is also a story with superpowers, namely through the character of Noble, who’s a more Superman-like character. Why did you choose to incorporate the more traditionally fantastical aspects of the superhero genre alongside your story’s gritty realism? I think this story could’ve been done without the superhero context, but I chose it because I love that tradition, and this book was aimed at readers of superhero comics. That’s how I felt when I started this project at least, but honestly I’m not sure if I would have made that same decision today. After working on this book for so long, I might take a break from the superhero genre for my next project. But when I was writing The Pursuer, I absolutely knew that I wanted to pay homage to Frank Miller’s work by adding in my own little Batman vs. Superman confrontation scene, but portrayed in a more realistic way. “Realistic” may not be the right word to describe my approach, but ultimately, I didn’t want to see two gods fighting each other; I wanted to see two human beings with all of their flaws. The flaws were certainly present in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and that’s what makes the story so interesting. “Vulnerable” is the word I’m looking for. I tried to create vulnerable heroes. The dynamic between The Pursuer and Noble is very reminiscent of Miller, and I’m sure your readers who are comic book fans appreciated that. Aside from Miller, are there other writers or artists that have been influential on your work? Yes, but I’m not sure if any of my other influences were as conscious as The Pursuer and Noble’s confrontation was meant to hearken back to Frank Miller. In terms of artists (who I’m not comparing myself to in any way), I love Tim Sale, Mike Mignola, the late Canadian artist Darwyn Cook, and—since I’m a kid of the ’90s, and grew up on the show Batman: The Animated Series—Bruce Timm, who probably considers himself more of an illustrator and animator than a comic book artist. As for writers, Alan Moore and Frank Miller are of course huge names and have influenced me. If their works set the standard for modern comics, then it’s on any emerging creator in the medium to read their catalogues and soak up the quality. But I see myself more as an illustrator than a writer. I had the story idea for The Pursuer in my head, but as I kept drawing, the idea kept changing and evolving.  That’s what happens when you’re both a writer and an illustrator. As you grow as an artist, your tastes change. They don’t necessarily improve, but they change. At the moment, I’m going back and reading the comic classics, the established names like Will Eisner, Wally Wood, and John Buscema. I go through phases—right now, I can’t get enough of black-and-white comics. They really are the best way to enjoy an artist’s line work. I want to go back to something you touched on earlier, about how the idea for your story changed throughout your creative process. In what ways did it change? I might go on a tangent here. In Québec, most Francophone readers grow up reading the catalogue of great French-language and European comics (or “bandes-dessinée”), like Tintin, Asterix, Spirou, and others. When I was eight years old, my grandmother bought me two iconic American books, translated from English into French: Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, and J.M. DeMatteis’s Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt. Those two titles were meant for slightly more mature readers, and they were vastly different from what I was reading at the time, but I fell in love with those stories, and with the superhero genre in general. My standards began at a pretty high point, because after all, Frank Miller was my baseline. I continued to read the popular and acclaimed American comic titles as I grew older, but I never imagined writing one myself until years later. When I was nineteen, my girlfriend gave me a copy of the DC Comics second issue of Identity Crisis, which reignited my interest in superhero comics. It’s an imperfect story, and I know some fans have trouble with how it changes DC’s continuity, but I still think it stands out well as a contained story, with some great artwork, storylines, and human interactions.  I read Batman: The Long Halloween after that, which I loved. Tim Sale’s artwork fascinated me, with his mastery of panel composition, and how he handled flow on the page. It was something I felt I could approach in my own work. I grew up in the ’90s, when everyone seemed to be emulating the style of artists like Jim Lee, Scott McFarlane, and Rob Liefeld. As much as I respected these guys, this style just didn’t appeal to me. Sale, on the other hand, resonated with me. There was something about his style: slightly more cartoonish, bolder lines, less clustered. It gave me the itch to try something of my own. My story began as an experiment with no specific goal in mind, and it ended up being two hundred pages. I abandoned the project for years as I pursued higher education and other opportunities in my life. My father’s battle with cancer lasted five years, and after his death I returned to the story. I’d grown as a person since I last left the book, and through the process of completing it, I shifted the focus more toward themes of grief and loss, which by then I could properly grasp. The most interesting characters for me are the side characters rather than the protagonist, which is what I wanted to emphasis as I rewrote the story. What’s your favourite panel or sequence of panels from the book, and why? It’s difficult for me to say, because I’m hyper-critical of my own work—keep in mind I still have a lot to learn. But I found two pages where I think the visual storytelling kind of works. This is the scene where Deputy Police Chief Robert Luntz returns to his home, and checks in on his wife Theresa who’s asleep. On the right page, there’s a clipping from an old newspaper on the hallway wall, showing a photo of The Pursuer receiving the key to the city in a big ceremony from years before. There’s nothing too special about this scene, it just depicts a daily occurrence, checking up on a loved one. But it’s a very human moment, and I think it says a lot about the character of Luntz. It visualizes his dissatisfaction with his work, and his inner struggle to do his job and leave his wife behind every day. I notice there’s also very little dialogue in this scene. Yes, ideally you want a page to work without the dialogue. When you can take out the dialogue and understand the story, that’s the goal for comic book artists. The newspaper clipping also tells you a little more about The Pursuer’s exploits before he returned to the city, how he was celebrated as a local hero after saving Theresa’s life. The vibe is a lot brighter and happier, in contrast to the situation of the present day storyline, so it also reveals a certain moral decline in Crayton City. The one thing I intended to do was to let the readers play detective with the story, looking for details in the background, and putting together the backstory for themselves. What I find interesting is how The Pursuer appears before his alleged death and after. In the article photo, he resembles the classical perception of a “Golden Age” hero, like portrayals of Batman from his 1930s comics, whereas the version of the character that returns is more like Frank Miller’s darker interpretation of Batman from the 1980s. His transformation almost seemed like a metatextual acknowledgment of the evolution of vigilante characters that The Pursuer takes inspiration from within the real world history of comics. Was that a conscious decision you made, or something you had in mind? I think so, because in general the story’s full of homages to popular aspects of the superhero genre. I’m not pretending that I’m bringing any new ideas to the table in terms of content, but I felt like if I could tell a story that was done well, it would work. This book is kind of my love letter to superheroes, or to what I love about superheroes, anyway. How would you describe the publishing process for this book? This might not have been the smartest move, but I wanted to complete the book before approaching potential publishers. Especially since I wasn’t an established creator, I felt that I needed to have a finished product. It was a good decision in the end, because I realized it was easier for companies to take a chance on you if you have something to show them. I felt an immediate connection with the publishing house New Friday. It helped that they were a Canadian company. It seems a lot of independent comic creators are opting to self-publish, and that the landscape has changed to become more author-centric as opposed to creators relying on name recognition from major publishing companies. Have you noticed this trend? Definitely, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that. Firstly, because of the internet and social media, it’s possible to gain notoriety without these big companies, whereas the traditional route for most aspiring creators in the past was to land a gig at one of the “Big Two” (Marvel or DC Comics). These days, people’s interests have become so wide-ranging, and there’s a lot of content out there to satisfy those interests. Creators now want to tell their own stories, and there are more niche audiences for those stories. New technologies have also helped independent creators, like the ability to mass publish on demand, or funding sources for independent creators like the website Kickstarter.  Although it is a double-edged sword. There’s a lot more stuff out there, but it’s also a lot more difficult to get noticed as a creator if you don’t go through the traditional publishing channels, which is where social media comes in, I guess. It’s easier to create now, but it might not be easier to get to the reader. You’ve got to have a great product, and be prepared to work your ass off to get your product out there—along with a little bit of luck. I’m fairly new to the process, so it’s hard to tell you, but at the moment I’m hopeful.  Speaking of social media, you describe yourself in your Instagram bio as a “reluctant social media user.” Could you describe your relationship with social media, and how that affects your promotion and perception of your work?  I’m a fairly private person. I’m not exactly introverted, but I prefer to put my work out there and allow it to speak for itself. I realize it would be a smart thing to sell myself, because it’s a useful tool for promoting your work, to have consumers get attached to the person behind the work. It’s tough for me, though, because I work at a slower rhythm that isn’t the best for social media, which requires constant posting, content creation, and reaching out. I’m not criticizing this approach, because I see the value in it. I’m just having difficulty getting myself to follow suit. I’ll be putting aside my freelance illustrations for a while to start my second book, or at least completing the script. I’m also looking into hiring an artist to collaborate with, because I work a little too slowly on my own. I’m aiming for a smaller book this time, as well. You draw for “comics” in two senses of the word, with your side gig doing commissioned artwork for comedians. How did this come about? I’ve been doing illustrations for clients for several years. I had a few constant gigs with chemical plants, theatre groups, and other service-based industries. During the pandemic, I began listening to the podcast Bad Friends, co-hosted by the comedians Andrew Santino and Bobby Lee. I’m always looking for content to have playing in my ears while I draw, and I enjoyed listening to them. I knew the podcast was going to blow up, because these guys were funny and renowned. I figured if I did some work for them, some of their followers would check out my work. I did a few illustrations for them for fun, and eventually they contacted me to do some paid work: t-shirt designs and promotional graphics. After that, other emerging comedian podcasters saw my work and contacted me—it’s mostly word-of-mouth in that scene. I don’t have a lot of social media followers, but making that conscious decision to reach out to them and promote myself was worth it. Going from nearly zero Instagram followers to a thousand made a big difference for me. For someone who’s looking to get into comics, given the aforementioned overwhelming amount of content out there right now, how would you suggest a newcomer navigate this abundance of choice to find content they will enjoy? First of all, if you’re lucky enough to have a neighbourhood comic book store, that’s a great place to start. The guys and gals who work there are probably passionate about comics, and they’d be happy to provide recommendations, so they’re a great resource. Comics can be expensive, especially since the pandemic, with the higher cost of paper. People only have so much money to spend on (I’m not going to say “frivolous”, because I don’t see comics that way) that type of product, so they want to make sure they’re getting good content. Comic book store employees will gladly steer you in the right direction based on what you like. If you have a local library, take a little trip there, because they should have a decent selection. If you’re looking for more niche or independent titles, I’d also suggest following comic book artists on social media and taking a chance on their work. It’s easy to go online and search up “what’s good”, and you’ll end up with popular works like Maus, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta. But if you want to step out of that narrow selection, social media’s a great route.  In some way, I think readers should see comics as pieces of art. Maybe not in the sense that they should all be hung in museums, but still, they are medium for artistic expression and I’d have difficulty thinking that reading a comic would ever be a waste of time. You’re never going to regret reading a book. Even if it’s not great, you’ll never regret it. You might regret spending $20,000 on a mint condition Spider-Man title, but you don’t need to do that to get into comics. You just need a comfy seat and a little time.
‘Underachieving Can Be an Act of Profound Self-Care’: An Interview with Rachel Yoder

The author of Nightbitch on anger, needy toddlers, and writing as emotional exorcism.

Inside you, it is said, there are two wolves—one of whom is insatiably hungry for meat. At least that is true of Nightbitch, the hilarious, newly feral central figure of Rachel Yoder’s 2021 debut novel, Nightbitch, just released in softcover (Vintage Canada).  At the novel’s opening, our eponymous bitch is deep in her flop era. Once a promising artist, she has ceased to be productive due to motherhood; her creativity is hampered by a lack of sleep, personal space, and adult conversation. Nightbitch’s main source of engagement is with her two-year-old son, in which Yoder captures the delight, tedium, and mild-to-spicy psychosis of spending all your time with a barely verbal agent of chaos.  Mentally fixated on the banal freedoms experienced by her on-the-road husband and pursued by a gregarious blonde mom (who is either trying to draw her into a multi-level marketing scheme or an herb-centric cult), Nightbitch’s body begins to…change. Her teeth sharpen. Unusual hair grows. A tail emerges at the base of her spine, along with the desire to wag it. At first, this troubles her. Then it cues an after-hours world of lupine delight.  Yoder anchors Nightbitch’s fantastic universe in bodies of flesh and myth, communicating the protagonist’s new power, impulses, and violence with visceral joy. With its cinematic imagery and rich characters, Nightbitch is already being adapted for the screen by Marielle Heller and will be starring Amy Adams in the title role.  Last summer, I spoke with Yoder via a Zoom call from home in Iowa City (her own son was in the kitchen making brownies with his grandmother). Eloquent in speech as in writing, Yoder has an endearing habit of leaning toward her camera when reaching the pinnacle of a thought. Naomi Skwarna: I recently read the essay you wrote in Lithub about dealing with chronic pain and illness. It seemed of a piece with Nightbitch, which is such an embodied novel. How did you tap into that palpable feeling of becoming a dog-wolf-human character?  Rachel Yoder: I think if I have any superpower, it’s probably feeling everything very much. It’s both a superpower and a burden. I’m very sensitive emotionally, and my emotions are closely tied to physical sensations. They’re not disembodied ideas of emotions; emotions have their weight in my body. For instance, it’s hard for me to watch really emotional movies because it feels like work to get through them, and that’s not enjoyable for me. Before I started writing Nightbitch, I’d been having a lot of feelings for two years, and they were trapped in my body. It’s really hard to be incredibly angry and incredibly sad, and to have those sensations in your body and not be able to move through them, not be able to transform them in some way.  We have all this language for talking about feeling stuck. I’ve been going to therapy on and off for many years, and therapists would say you have to move through that. What I’m realizing is that that’s a very actual, physical directive. It’s not a figurative way of talking about it, but literally: how can I take the anger and get it moving in my body, from my chest to another place, out of my body? You start to think about howling and screaming as a way to move anger, and it’s very effective. Man, I wish that were more socially acceptable! The closest approximation I have for that is writing to move stuff through my body. It’s been that way from when I first started writing. Everyone writes for their own reasons, but I need a way of taking what I’m feeling and moving it because it’s too much to hold in my body. And it does make me sick if I don’t move it. Nightbitch felt really good to write because as you can probably tell from what you’ve read, it was just rage sort of pouring onto the page. I was finally able to get it out of my body. The whole book was a practice in doing that, to a certain extent. It’s very cathartic to read. What is it about a toddler-aged child that cues the Nightbitch—both the character and the novel? My son was three when I wrote this. When he was zero to one, I was so happy every moment of every day. I was basically getting high off my baby, holding him for hours and staring at his face. By the time he was three, I’d been home long enough, doing the stay-at-home mom thing, and we’d formed this intense bond. When kids are that young, and really with just one caregiver for most of the week, it’s a very intense relationship. By the age of three, he was very verbal, very demanding as three-year-olds are, and very bonded to me. That was really hard, because it’s an intensity I’d never experienced before—of not only being responsible for someone else, but him literally telling me what to look at, like, no, Mama! Look here! It was very intense, [my son] trying to take ownership of my entire existence. That felt like the tipping point, and a transition needed to happen. The transition was: mother needs to start writing, and you need to start going to daycare a couple hours a day—which was, y’know, a huge tragedy in his little life. Not to project too much autobiography, but in the book, Nightbitch experiences a kind of feral rebirth as a mother, simultaneously becoming a more radical version of the artist she was previously. And so I was wondering: is Nightbitch also about writing the book Nightbitch? The short answer is yes. I had a really bizarre experience of finishing it, writing that final scene, and then just sitting there in a sort of fugue state. I tweeted something like, “The thing about writing a novel is that the process of it makes you the sort of person you need to be to write it.” You know what I mean? Like, you’re not only writing the novel, it’s writing you, and you’re turning into the person that you need to be to write it. That felt true for this book. So much of it was about Nightbitch being authentic and finding her voice. I needed to do that—I needed her to show me how to be authentic, how to be honest. The entire book was an exercise in that. I’ve never heard of writing a book described like that before. It’s a little bit sad though, because you only become that person when you get to the end of it. [Nods in assent] Did you ever have any concern about how some of the Nightbitch’s violence might be interpreted? I might have worried for a minute. But I’ve been—and I don’t quite really understand how or why—somewhat Zen about the book, and that I don’t have any control over how people are going to read it. It’s a weird book. Some people are not going to get it, and/or hate it. I think that’s great. I wouldn’t want to write a book that everyone uniformly loved and was really easy. I’m not saying I’m trying to write books that people hate, but— No, sure, but maybe it’s not your job to worry about how they read it. Yeah. And I guess I just wasn’t as concerned about the violence. Certainly, I’ve seen a lot of content warnings, but I think it all fits into the mythos of Nightbitch. It needs to be there. The parts that were kind of exquisitely bloody, I enjoyed those so much. But I got so anxious and worried about her becoming Nightbitch in social situations! Like, not now, not in the restaurant! I’m the same way. I feel more uncomfortable when she goes full Nightbitch around people. About a third of the way through the novel, Nightbitch notes the difference between being a woman and a dog: dogs don’t need to work; dogs don’t care about art. She also notices that since becoming Nightbitch, she’s become a better mother, and her instincts are pushing her towards being an artist again, too. What I’m wondering is—do we care too much about the wrong things? Yes! Yes. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, especially with women—how we are conditioned to be so competent and so ready for everything. More so than boys are conditioned, right? I’m definitely one of those overachiever types, who is always like, I can do anything! You need me to do something? I will figure out how to do it faster than you need me to do it. It’s like that sort of thing. I really feel like underachieving can be an act of profound self-care and radical feminism. To say, I’m not going to learn any more competencies, I’m done with that. I am my competencies, and my talents are here to serve me. And I’m going to protect those. They’re not to be given away. I’m not here to overachieve in service of other people. I’m here to focus on my dreams and my goals. I think that’s what she’s trying to untangle in that little section. If I do this, I’m happy. How to untangle all of this stuff? This instinct and this ambition and this love for my child? How do I make it all work? She makes it all work by getting really clear about what she needs, what she has to give, and focusing solely on that and not being distracted by all these people who want things from us that take our energy. Do you think most artists can benefit from reaching into their more feral, nature-driven sides? I guess it depends on what sort of artist you want to be. You have to be open to being in touch with a reality that most people aren’t walking around in. And if art is not only what you do, but how you lead your life, if you’re committed to an artful life, what does that mean? We take all this stuff, and we turn it into words, and we put it on paper. We’re not working with clay or working with paint or immediately in touch with a form. If there’s some part that we need to be in touch with, it might be the chaotic part of ourselves. I would liken chaos to nature, and believe there is some need to move into nature and into chaos, and into seeing a new arrangement of the world. Because isn’t that what we’re trying to do? We’re trying to see through the scrim to understand what’s really going on and capture that on the page somehow. In that way, we’re trying to commune with nature. Another way of saying it is, when you go to make art, when you go to write, you have to de-rationalize yourself, right? You enter into an irrational space; you’re not there to find really good points. You’re there to investigate utter chaos. Of course, you can’t always de-rationalize yourself, you have to come back. And so, it’s this constant touching of two worlds—going in and saying: I don’t know why I’m writing. I don’t know why I’m writing a book where a mom turns into a dog. It seems like the worst fucking idea I could think of. And yet, I’m going to enter into this deeply irrational space and see what happens. Art gives us a place to be irrational, be wild, be an animal. And then it’s so lovely because we also have our big rational brain to give it order. How did The Field Guide to Magical Women become a part of Nightbitch’s story? I think I’ve found what my writing tic is, and it is writing a book and then putting another book in the book. Is that something you’ve done before? I have an abandoned novel—I wasn’t very deep into it. It also has a made-up holy text within the text, which then I just wanted to write. I have this impulse to figure out where to put the things I wrote in my MFA! I wrote these beautiful little, you know, lyric essays when I was in my MFA program. Like, what is this? But then I thought, oh! That could be a thing within a bigger thing. I do have an affinity for mysterious, beautiful little texts. So that’s part of the reason it showed up in there. It’s also such an ingrown instinct for me, if I have a question, to go and get a book. So again, it’s just natural. Of course, you go to the library! That’s what everyone does. So the novel ends, to put it vaguely, [minor spoiler here] with a performance that organically integrates her son, and suggests acceptance and recognition from a discerning audience. It feels like a real curtain call. But I wonder, what happens next for Nightbitch? I think it’s a great question. I also know that you’re probably like, I ended the book there! I don’t have to keep writing it! I don’t know that it gets easier. I think it gets different. She’s not holding the anger in her body anymore. She’s using it, and it’s propulsive. She’s learned how to harness it and to focus it, which has been this huge gift, and she has worked through it. [All the characters] are in a different place, but it’s still going to be this negotiation of who gets what time, and how do we make this all work? But she’s moving now. She’s moving, and I don’t know where that’s going to take her but to the fact that she is not stuck. She’s not stuck in the house, stuck in her feelings. She’s able to move and I have a lot of hope and confidence in her that she’ll keep moving. It would take a lot to get her to stop. I love what you said about it not being easier, but different. And that seems like maybe the most hopeful thing any of us could ask for after this year and a half, things feeling so static in a lot of ways. Difference is vital. My therapist always says that your feelings have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There’s a narrative arc; there’s movement. I’ve seen that I can just get stuck. Like, I’ll say, No, this is where it stops. And I keep returning to the beautiful comfort that the structure of a story can give us. Not only in storytelling, but also as we try to work through our daily lives. There’s a beginning and a middle and an end, like everything. You just gotta keep it moving! It might not get easier, but it’ll be different. And you’ll be someplace new. And then you can keep moving from there. That’s really all I know at this point. And that’s what Nightbitch gave me.
‘It Was Just Joy’: An Interview with Nicole Pasulka

The author of How You Get Famous on Brooklyn drag, RuPaul, and genderfuck. 

Early in How You Get Famous: Ten Years of Drag Madness in Brooklyn (Simon & Schuster), Nicole Pasulka’s chronicle of ten foundational years in the Brooklyn drag scene, a nascent queen called Merrie Cherry hosts her first party at a Williamsburg dive. Onstage, performers cover themselves in fake blood, strip, and break furniture while lip-synching to Björk and Éric Serra. This is not, in other words, your grandmother’s drag show. “Merrie had busted open the doors of Brooklyn nightlife,” Pasulka writes, “and invited the amateurs in.” Those amateurs, and the experimental, messy, expansive scene they created in Brooklyn in the early aughts, are the heart of Pasulka’s book and the root of her interest in drag. She follows a handful of performers as they fight their way onto the tiny stages of grimy Brooklyn bars “in search of attention, cash, and adventure”—and the chance to truly make it as a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Along the way, Pasulka makes the case for drag’s unique ability to constantly redraw the contours of identity and mess with expectations. She spoke with Hazlitt about her path into the world of drag. Amelia Schonbek: What’s your first memory of encountering drag? Nicole Pasulka: When I was a kid, in the 1980s and ’90s, we had no cable. But we got one station that played this music video program called The Box every day. It was fuzzy and black and white and you could only kind of tell what was going on. But I remember seeing RuPaul’s “Supermodel” video, which was released in the early ’90s. It’s her sort of vamping around New York City, obviously in full drag, singing a song about being a supermodel. I remember seeing that and being like, whoa! Wait, what? That’s a man, but it’s also a woman. It was all very mysterious how this person existed. I remember being so fascinated. I remember feeling like I thought the world was meant to be like this and look like that. And the idea that it could be different was very intriguing and very exciting. After you moved to New York, did you have a moment of realizing, “Oh, now I’m living a life where I can explore this world?” Every year, the Friday before Pride, there’s a drag march from Tompkins Square to the Stonewall. It’s a lot of radical faeries, a lot of people who are long-time residents of the East Village who dress up in their most inventive DIY finery and march across Manhattan to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in front of the Stonewall. That’s where I was like, “Oh, this is the spirit of RuPaul’s genderfuck,” more so than the drag I saw in the bars, which prior to 2010 felt a bit old fashioned. I found it incredibly liberatory. Eventually you developed your own drag persona. What did that open up for you? Did it shape your interest in eventually writing about drag? In the early 2000 in New York, there was a lot of lesbian community, a lot of lesbian nightlife. My experience of that scene was that it was pretty earnest: it was about being out and proud and representing yourself in the most easily identifiable ways. Being queer was about figuring out who your quote unquote authentic self was. What I discovered along the way, and especially when I started paying attention to drag and getting more into the radical faerie community and gay male nightlife, was that there was this other thing that really appealed to me, which was playing with characters. Camping it up or being intentionally tacky or outrageous and finding parts of yourself through that, too. So, I had a drag persona who was an eighteen-year-old straight guy who rode a skateboard and did graffiti and was kind of your classic dumb pretty boy. He wasn’t exactly failing upward; he was good-natured, he was never unpleasant. That was really fun because people could interact with that persona and I could express some desires I had, or whatever. None of it was serious. I eventually got bored of him because he wasn’t very articulate. But I think I started to realize that the experimentation, the play with identity and gender and personas, was a form of narrative. And it had all of this potential to make things less heavily determined, which was something that I felt like I really needed. Hearing you talk about it makes me realize how few opportunities there are in the world to experiment in that way. Totally. I think when you feel you occupy any kind of marginal identity, a lot of the focus becomes about being understood: clearly communicating who you are and advocating for yourself and making sure that you’re seen. That is all right and good—it makes sense. But I think it can crowd out a really enjoyable type of play that can remind us that none of this needs to be as serious as it is. And, you know, I hate to be that guy, but capitalism also rewards a certain type of clarity, a clearly communicated persona. To be a person who has an easily summarized identity, attitude, politics, whatever—we benefit in our jobs, sometimes in our relationships, in our families, on our social media profiles. You know what I mean? It’s rewarded. It’s also in some ways really unfulfilling. When you start to fuck with that, to disrupt that, to try to think of other ways to show people who you are, suddenly it’s this exhale, this relief. Because the reality is, it’s all to some degree an affectation. It always sounds glib when you say it, but the notion that you can be whoever you want to be—there’s a way in which that is totally not true. But it is still meaningful that a person can make up a character and of their own volition, just put it on stage and work it out. Some of the best drag out there is going to remind you that all of this is a facade. You write in the book about a performance that the drag queen Sasha Velour gave in 2015 in which it feels like she’s messing with the type of facades you’ve been talking about— “the constraints of beauty standards and the expectations placed on female sexuality.” In that performance, Sasha is a Gollum-esque type feral character performing Britney Spears’s “I Wanna Go,” and being hunted by two backup dancers in khaki safari outfits who capture her and turn her into a pop star before she eventually breaks free and sort of mauls them. Sasha was really interested in exploring monsters, you know? Monsters are expressions of our greatest fears. They’re also the outpouring of our cruelty. They are things to be controlled, but they have this power—there are all these tensions. Drag is really good at tethering high concepts to a lowbrow sort of pop culture. When you do Britney Spears, you are specifically playing with what many people think is the most vapid pop there is, but finding, actually, the idea—the self-expression and the manufacturing of it. To be clear, I don’t think Britney Spears is the most vapid pop out there by any means. But there’s an understanding that you’re going to get a completely formulaic, perfectly designed innocuous pop song. And you can project your own cultural criticism onto that story. The fact that drag is often working in the realm of pop songs is not accidental to both its popularity and why people find it such a good place to explore weird ideas. When you started thinking about taking on all of these questions by writing about drag, was there a world of similar books in which you saw this one fitting? I’ve been writing about queer people and LGBT issues for at least ten years, maybe longer. And I always felt it was as relevant to our cultural moment as something like tech or sports. But there’s this idea that queer culture is distinct from straight culture and that LGBT issues are distinct from broader issues in health care and employment and relationships and whatever. Which always seemed to me just rooted in homophobia. So I wanted to write a book that’s on the level of something like Friday Night Lights but is about people who generally just don’t get that level of consideration within literary journalism. The assumption is that if you’re writing a queer book, it’s going to be for a queer audience. The idea of a “queer audience” is just as constructed as anything else. Take a book like Random Family. Many people who read that book don’t have the same kinds of experiences that the subjects of that book have. But more broadly, we all exist under the same institutions, in the same broader culture. There’s no real reason you couldn’t read and appreciate and understand and empathize with the stories that are in that book. Or, what do I have in common with a hedge fund manager, right? But I still want to know about their work. I want to know how they make decisions, what motivates them. The notion that you would only want to read about gay people if you’re really out and involved in the queer community is frankly ridiculous and supports this really false distinction between gay culture and straight culture. Of all of the performances you watched during your reporting, are there any that are especially close to your heart? One of the most spectacular, exciting things I’ve ever seen is a queen called Horrorchata perform Selena’s “Como la Flor” at the Brooklyn drag festival, Bushwig, in 2018. She was in these lavender crushed velvet bell-bottoms. Stunning. But it was really just this moment—the sun had fully set. The crowd was at capacity. People were fucking hype. She co-founded Bushwig, this is her show. And she’s so devoted to Selena. People don’t talk enough about something drag does really well, which is how it can take the context and the emotion and the vibe of a song and repurpose them or reinterpret them, you know? It was this moment of someone expressing their passion and their individuality, but also connecting to community. It was just joy: joy from the audience, joy from her, joy from Selena’s singing on the recording. For people who don’t participate in the drag scene, it’s sometimes still baffling why people like this shit so much. This is why.
That Arrested Moment: On Stills in Film

I’ve always believed that a carefully chosen frame makes for the more appropriate film poster.

Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film. Late one night in Hiroshima, a woman is driving an older man, a visiting actor, back to his hotel. They are in an old red Saab 900, which the actor bought fifteen years ago in Tokyo. He isn’t allowed to drive his own car because of some arcane rule at the theatre residency where he has been invited to direct a play. Initially he had to be persuaded to take the woman on as his designated driver, but he has come to appreciate having her around. His affinity has its limits: the red Saab is, after all, his sanctum, a green room where he is accustomed to contemplating, alone, his messy art and life. He learns not to mind practicing his lines aloud in the back seat. He never lets her smoke inside. That night the actor is slightly drunk and sitting in the passenger seat. Moments ago, they dropped off one of his colleagues from the residency who happened to also know the actor’s dead wife. The colleague said something during the ride that had taken the actor by surprise, something that made him wonder about the extent to which he ever understood his wife. Now that it’s just the two of them in the car, the woman—by now, both chauffeur and confidante—speaks up. “He didn’t appear to be lying,” she says, referring to his colleague. “I know because I grew up with liars.” She tells him what it was like, growing up with a mother she couldn’t trust to save her life. He responds by lighting up a cigarette from her pack, then offers to light another one for her. “Are you sure?” she asks, before accepting at once. He slides open the moonroof, and they take quick drags and hold their cigarettes above their heads to allow the smoke to escape. They look up and glance at the cigarettes in their hands, glimmering like stars in the distance. Halfway through Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Oscar-winning film, Drive My Car, we see two cigarettes sticking out of the roof of a car, framed by the city lights and the night sky above. The moment seems almost inadvertent in its overwhelming beauty, one of those throwaway scenic shots meant to mark the transition to the next scene. And yet the image also sums up the essence of Hamaguchi’s vision: three hours of running time is contained in that one frame. What gets relayed is a sense of connection—two new friends baring their souls at night—and also liberation. The woman and the actor might as well have been holding up little torches of freedom. Having just revealed to one another their respective traumas, their faces appear carefree, unburdened by the past.  I’ve always believed that a carefully chosen still makes for the more appropriate film poster, instead of airbrushed headshots or those post-production images meant to hard-sell the central theme. The publicity materials for Drive My Car, for instance, predictably feature the two protagonists, played by Tôko Miura and Hidetoshi Nishijima, posing with the red Saab in a parking lot or somewhere in the middle of a road. Imagine, instead, a billboard with no garish fonts and no Saabs, just two hands holding cigarettes up in the air one night. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes famously wrote about the punctum of a photograph: the one accidental but meaningful detail in an image which “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.” The punctum of a movie, I feel, is an incidental still frame, that rises up from the sequence of scenes and pierces the viewer, and is therefore best placed as a standalone image to lure more viewers in. In Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, Julie drifts through her twenties studying medicine, then psychology, even writes a provocative op-ed in the wake of #MeToo, before ending up as a still photographer on a film set. We see Julie, played by Renate Reinsve, working alone in her apartment in the final scene, touching up the portrait of an actress on her desktop. Moments before, she discovered that the actress is married to one of her ex-boyfriends, Eivind— while packing up her camera by a window, she’d seen them kiss on the sidewalk and then push a baby stroller together down the road—but over the course of the film, she has learnt to tragically accept that the prospect of a romantic relationship is not the governing force in her life. She first met Eivind years before when she gatecrashed a party one night in Oslo. Back then, she was dating an older man—Aksel, a graphic novelist—but the attraction to Eivind was immediate. That night the two of them didn’t kiss, but instead spent the hours until dawn chatting, sniffing each other’s armpits, and later, watching each other pee in bathroom stalls. More than the other two films in his Oslo trilogy, Trier seems alert to visual possibilities in The Worst Person in the World. In just about every moment, the camera seems aware of what Julie, as well as the audience, might be watching, which is why it was disappointing to find multiple film critics reviewing the movie more as a book. Yes, the story is revealed in grandiose chapter headings like a 19th-century novel (there is even a prologue and an epilogue), and there are the usual blind spots that come into play when a male filmmaker portrays the life of a younger woman, but the fact that Trier is thinking in terms of images, not plot, is evident in Julie’s eventual career choice. The very first shot is of Julie with her back to the camera—surely a nod to the opening image in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror—smoking a cigarette and staring off of a porch. Later, for three silent minutes in the middle of the film, she traipses home through the streets of Oslo and at one point is moved to tears by the splendour of the skyline at dusk. Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker that the film’s popular freeze-frame sequence, where Julie imagines the world literally stopping in its tracks so that she can meet up with Eivind, is “superficial and . . . blatant,” but it seems to me that the scene becomes frustrating only if you’re expecting it to somehow advance the storyline. Once, in my early twenties, when I fancied myself an aspiring scriptwriter in Bombay, I was told that studio executives didn’t so much as squint at a screenplay if it didn’t have a crisp elevator pitch, a plot that could be neatly reduced to an epigram. (Decades ago, Satyajit Ray had mocked this practice by pointing out that even his contemporary Mrinal Sen’s experimental masterpiece, Bhuvan Shome, had conventional underpinnings, a story that could be summarized “in seven words: big bad bureaucrat reformed by rustic belle.”) To judge a film by its story, however, seems to me inadequate. If done well, the message still ends up being prioritized over the medium. A riveting dramatic scene on the page almost always feels tonally imprecise onscreen. I prefer the idea of a movie as a progression of mesmeric stills instead of a recorded form of theatre. In his 1978 essay, “Uses of Photography,” John Berger outlines the difference between private and public photographs: In the private use of photography, the context of the instant recorded is preserved so that the photograph lives in an ongoing continuity. . . . The public photograph, by contrast, is torn from its context and becomes a dead object which, exactly because it is dead, lends itself to any arbitrary use. Staged promotional blowups are typically dead objects. They are prised away from the original meaning of the movie and frequently leave nothing to the imagination. Stills, on the other hand, are akin to those keepsake Polaroids you tuck away in your wallet and sometimes pin up to your desk. They tether you to the memory of watching the film or whet your curiosity about their significance. We are drawn to the “context of the instant” preserved in that one image, that arrested moment, and likelier to lose ourselves in it.
If You’re Reading This, It’s Jim Joe

There’s something special about the anonymous graffiti artist with his own cult following.

At 11:04 p.m. on February 12, 2015—all of twenty-five hours before Valentine’s Day—Twitter started going off.  Like Beyoncé and Radiohead before him, Aubrey Drake Graham had just dropped a new album without much more than a whisper of warning. It was called If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, and it was, like everything Drake touched in 2015, an instant smash hit.  The songs were great, particularly the moody, anthemic “Know Yourself,” but true to the Drake experience, the songs were never the whole point. As the internet picked the thing apart—was it a mixtape or a real album? Was it released only to facilitate his exit from his Young Money contract? How many more songs about his mom was he going to write?—there was one thing that fascinated everyone: the cover art. Apart from a tiny Tarot-esque prayer-hands emoji at the bottom and a requisite parental advisory warning label, the cover was just seven unpunctuated words written in black on a white background, arranged into four lines, slanting downwards as they made their way from left to right, walking a crooked line between the uncontrolled scribblings of a child and the highly intentional creations of a deranged, brutalist-inspired calligrapher. It was the sort of handwriting you’d expect on a note from a psychopathic killer, perhaps written with his left hand to throw off the Feds. And the message—particularly the “too late” aspect to it—seemed to back that up. Was it a subliminal diss to Birdman, Drake’s estranged label head? Or, in the classic Drake-onian style, a kiss off to an ex (or, possibly, several exes)?  As it turns out, what it was, first and foremost, was Jim Joe. 1-800-JIM-JOE Who Is Jim Joe?  I’d been seeing Jim Joe’s work in the alleys and streets of Montreal since 2010 and running a Tumblr devoted to his work since not long after that. Watching my favourite graffiti artist introduce himself to the world on one of the most high-profile releases of 2015 was as pleasing as it was unexpected—the odd experience of coming across Jim Joe’s name in the storm of online content about the album, the sudden sense of recognition at the starkness of the handwriting.  It was a new style for him, but something about it fit instantly. It felt like a kind of promise: that weird writers could toil in obscurity only to blossom on the big stage, that doing what you did and doing it well could garner the right kind of attention, that it was possible to have success on your own terms.  But almost seven years later, the man behind the handwriting is still a mystery, and it’s arguable that he isn’t exactly experiencing success at all, let alone on whatever his terms are. He is, for all intents and purposes, still nobody. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page (yet), despite his name appearing in the pages of W magazine and the New York Times, and online at High Snobiety, Juxtapoz, and The Fader, as well as at Complex on multiple occasions, and in a veritable slew of NYC blogs. He even merited a glossy (albeit brief) profile in Saturdays Magazine in 2017. A member of Kanye West’s creative team probably uploaded an old picture of him to Instagram in September 2015, but that’s the sole full-face shot that’s currently known to exist, alongside a bunch of half-hidden appearances he’s made that seem to confirm that he’s a skinny white guy.  His real name isn’t public, nor is where the name Jim Joe came from. (The title of one of his gallery shows, “WHAT DOES IT MEAN AND HOW DID YOU CHOOSE IT,” may be a winking reference to the question.) Despite the amount of work he’s done in New York City and his connection to Drake’s Toronto, he claims to be from Montreal. He almost certainly attended McGill University there in 2009, meaning he’s likely in his 30s, but, short of a real name, any detail about him must be considered an educated guess at best.  Less a matter of speculation is the fact that, in a few short years, he went from being the most omnipresent graffiti writer in New York City (or, at least, in the East Village and Lower East Side) to probably the hottest visual artist in the rap game, and then, nothing. Receding into the background in a way only the truly anonymous can. It’s a fascinating story, frankly. How does someone create the most iconic rap album cover of the past decade and yet remain a complete cipher? Who is he, and what is he doing now?  But let’s start elsewhere. Why care about someone like this before the Drake cover? Graffiti is one of the least respected forms of art in the world, a public nuisance people pay to erase from their property, an infection that won’t go away no matter how many times it’s painted over.  But it’s simple, and I know it because I’m not the only one. The truth is, Jim Joe is—was?—special.  ITS MOVING KIND OF SLOW The Humble Beginnings  If street cred—respect from the common fan, the absence of doubt from a performer’s narrative arc, the reality that an artist’s artifice is so fake it seems real—is the currency of the rap world, then another hip-hop pursuit, graffiti, has a rough equivalent: ups.  Ups means you put in work. Ups means you’ve been taking risks. Ups means you’ve been up late making your way through back alleys, climbing things that weren’t meant to be climbed, finding your way into buildings where you don’t belong so as to access their rooftops. Ups doesn’t mean you’re good—it means you’re all over the place. For graffiti artists—writers, in the parlance—ups is literal, physical, concrete proof that you live your work.  The more ups you have, the more work you’ve put in, the more cred you have in, and on, the streets. Every lamppost, there you are. Every streetcar, there you are. Every brick wall, you, you, you. Your name rings out in the arena, your enemies undone in a blizzard of fat markers, big cans, and aerosol pssssshes.  Beginning in 2009 in the snowy rues and avenues of Montreal, home of his purported alma mater, McGill University, and then graduating to the avenues and alleyways of Brooklyn and Manhattan, an artist named Jim Joe started getting, as they say, mad ups.  Buildings and rooftops, doorways and New York’s signature roll-down gates, lampposts and fence posts, mailboxes and bus stops, garbage and particle board, newspaper boxes and phone booths, stop signs and fire hydrants, dumpsters and bathrooms, trucks and vans and construction equipment—any solid surface seemed to be game. There’s even Jim Joe on the road. By sheer dint of his omnipresence, his tags have made it into pop culture—keen eyes can spot a Jim Joe on TV (30 Rock, Louie), in music videos (“The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” by Charles Bradley), and in film (The Big Short). Some of his tags even got archived by Google Maps before they were wiped away.  Eschewing the tell-tale visual complexity of the graffiti artist, from the beginning, Jim Joe sought another form of complexity—a lyrical one. Where other writers strive to outdo one another with more complex handstyles, more overwrought tags, more colourful throwups, Jim Joe kept his style relatively simple—one colour only and no unnecessary zig-zagging or criss-crossing.  From his inception, Jim Joe had a few different styles. One was a cursive, signature-like one, a scribble you’d expect to find in the lower right corner of a cheque, or an oil painting. He had a face whose features, when closely examined, turned out to spell his name, a little trompe l’oeil trick of a tag. And he had just plain JIM JOE in blocky capitals. Even your grandparents could read it.  Over time, those blocky capitals edged out the other two fancier tags, though he seemed to shift their exact style every six months or so. They’d slant forward, then fall back. The E would change, or the J would shimmy a bit and start looking like a U, or lose its curl—I’ve seen people online ask who Vim Voe was before.  For Jim Joe devotees—who came together on Tumblr and Instagram to discuss his art and share photos—the styles could be studied like a cross-section of bedrock, a relic from history that told a tale about its unfolding. Or perhaps they represented periods, as Picasso’s Blue. But all of this would be academic if not for what he was writing.  A SLICE OF LIFE OK ASSHOLE Jim Joe’s Street Poetry  Put simply, his best work was poetry: a Jenny Holzer-esque mad verse that obeyed no rhyme or reason—nor copyright law. Appropriative from the very beginning, one of the first Jim Joes I saw, long before I knew his oeuvre would be one I’d come to study for the next decade, in an alleyway off Montreal’s quiet De Maisonneuve Boulevard, just said: CALL ON ME / BY / JIM JOE.            “Call On Me”—a one-line dance number whose throbbing beat and pure simplicity make it more of a Platonic form of a song than a real track—is an interesting pick, disputed as its authorship is. Some claim it’s originally by DJ Falcon and Thomas Bangalter, the latter one half of Daft Punk. Others know it for its release as an Eric Prydz single. As I read through a YouTube thread trying to determine who was its true genitor, I was convinced by both viewpoints alternatingly. In the end, I realized, it didn’t matter. In the streets, it was by Jim Joe.  Many of his early works replicated the “by Jim Joe” formula; one tag in the Montreal Metro had him as the creator of Raw Power, the Stooges’ infamous 1973 LP. But, as time passed, he dropped the “by” and began simply incorporating context-free quotes, like a Bob Dylan lyric or a Dirty Pretty Things line, dropping all pretence of punctuation, even the hyphen. Some quotes he cut off, some had multiple sources. Yet more of his writings turned up nothing upon Googling—they sounded like snatches of dialogue he might have overheard wandering around, a sort of one-man Overheard in New York: SUCCESS IS EASY; I WEPT ON AN AIRPLANE TODAY; ITS COLD IN THE D.  Of course, though he’s name-checked Marcel Duchamp, the art world’s favourite thief, in interviews, he was more than just other people’s quotes. Since the beginning, his words—sprayed on subway walls or across the tops of buildings, written in marker on lampposts, mailboxes, furniture left by the curb, even in sidewalk chalk—had played with the notion of the writings we expect to see in public spaces, particularly copywriting from advertisements and public service announcements. Works like “1-800-JIM-JOE” and giant swooshes with “JUST DID IT JJ” appended in place of the familiar Nike logotype were common for him, exhibiting both a playfulness and a thoughtfulness about the role of graffiti.  Often, he appended years to the end of his tags, dating them as would an artist on a painting or a gallery curator. Even these couldn’t escape his penchant for rule-breaking, though, as he frequently used them to time travel—dropping dates both a year or two ahead of or behind the actual date of the tag’s creation—so frequently that eventually the only way to tell when a tag was from was to study the style of his letterforms.  Though naked tags—just “JIM JOE,” nothing else—represented the majority of his work (if you’re going to get the kind of ups Jim Joe was getting in 2011 and 2012, when Gothamist noted “it is hard to look at just how much of the city he's managed to get his ink on and not be at least a little impressed” and called him “one of the most omnipresent taggers in Lower Manhattan,” you can’t treat every single tag as a grand statement), what drew his fans to his work was the words he appended with regularity.  In addition to quoting others, he used them to be playful (one early one said “NOT LONG IS HOW LONG THIS TAG TOOK ME”), or meta (“MY LEAST FAVORITE JIM JOE,” read one winkingly self-deprecating tag), or to explore his predilection for tweaking pat sayings into pithy turns of phrase (“DON’T JUST DO SOMETHING STAND THERE”). His favourite words tended towards the prosaic—working, sleeping, and walking were his go-to verbs, and “please,” “OK,” “God,” and “asshole” recurred frequently—but there was a beautiful unpredictability to his writing. He was the class cut-up, always trying to recast the constants, always trying to undermine the mundane for a cheap laugh.  In addition to the fact that it was hard to tell what, exactly, his pieces meant, making them a sort of Rorschach test, you never knew what the next Jim Joe you saw was going to say, and in that way, seeking new ones out became a fun game of discovery. As several different Jim Joe fans I interviewed while writing this piece pointed out, his tags turned the city into a sort of urban treasure hunt.  AT LEAST YOU CAN READ IT Walking The Line Between Street Art and Graffiti  Even though Jim Joe’s sheer ups earned him street cred with blogs, his text-centric, lo-fi handstyle earned him few fans in the graffiti community.  Though he came up in a city with a long and storied history when it comes to spray paint, where there are art galleries devoted solely to graffiti and something called Mural Festival every summer, in the streets, Jim Joe’s work never seemed to show up in conjunction with other Montreal writers’ tags, as it would later in NYC. Rather than running with a crew, as many serious graffiti artists do, he was a lone wolf, his slight tags fighting to be seen through the haze like all the others.  Part of the apparent disconnect from any Montreal scene might be down to a simple point: what he’s doing isn’t exactly graffiti. Though the average passerby would be likely to label it as such, graff scholars might be more likely to call it street art.  In essence, where graffiti is insular, seeking to impress other graff writers with its omnipresence and technical skill, street art is more interested in using public spaces as a platform to communicate a message to the public travelling through those spaces—a truth about life, about the artist themselves, about the space in question, or some combination thereof.  A good rule of thumb is that if your grandparents would appreciate it, it’s street art, not graffiti; though, ironically, businesses and municipal governments often hire graff writers to create street art for them in the form of murals. Indeed, street artists often start out as graff writers, and people often create both coincidentally, but given the near mutually exclusive hallmarks of the two genres, it’s rarer to see work that has a foot clearly planted in both worlds.  Banksy, perhaps the world’s most famous street artist, often incorporates graffiti into his work, but his work is unquestionably street art. With Jim Joe, it’s harder to say. What other graffiti artists are making use of negative space like this?  Jim Joe, by merging a largely readable handstyle, a penchant for street poetry, and a relentless drive to tag, was creating something that wasn’t exactly either, and the tension between the genres produced something fascinating. Was he a really bad graffiti artist, or a graffiti-influenced street artist? Did he himself see his work in those terms?  ITS PART OF SOMETHING BIGGER The Beginnings Of Jim Joe’s Art World Cred In the late 1970s, before he became an international art celebrity famous for his text-stuffed paintings, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a New York City graffiti artist. He went by the moniker SAMO—short for “same ol’ shit”—and he tagged Manhattan walls with pseudo-philosophical political messages: things like “SAMO©… 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT GARDE” and “SAMO©… AS AN END TO THE 9-TO-5, WENT TO COLLEGE, NOT 2-NITE HONEY BLUES.” Eventually, he ditched the practice (“SAMO© IS DEAD,” read one tag) and the latter portion of his career saw him thronged by millionaire collectors and art-world celebrities like Andy Warhol.  It’s hard to know how intentionally Jim Joe was following in Basquiat’s footsteps, but before long he, too, started to attract the attention of the more graffiti-conscious end of the city’s art elite. Gallery shows at The Hole followed: first with other writers in May 2011 and then solo shows in June 2012 and January 2014, as well as one in Paris and one in Toronto.  Jim Joe’s gallery work turned out to be a mixed bag. He expanded on several tropes of his wall work, retaining his low-fi drawing style and his habit of borrowing from instantly recognizable imagery (his favourites, the Nike swoosh and his stripped-down line drawing of Mona Lisa, made regular appearances) without venturing too much into territory where he would have less sure footing. Apart from da Vinci’s most famous painting, his street work had occasionally incorporated a winking relationship to the art world—once, he tagged a tree like a gallery work, and one garbage piece was a discarded canvas with, apparently, a better painting on the back.  Still, his early gallery work, if devoid of serious missteps, wasn't generating much buzz. Was this the same artist that a Purple Magazine write-up had called “pure raw talent” in 2012? It seemed to suffer, as the work of street artists and graff writers often does when transplanted away from the street, from its new, less fraught context: absent the illegality of the work, was it still any good? Or, put another way, if a graffiti writer spray paints something, and nobody gets mad about it, can it have any value? If the medium was an important, inextricable part of the message, how would the message fare in a completely new, desaturated medium?  In 2010, comments on a subwayartblog.com post had labelled him “the worst writer in NYC” and “Jim Joke,” and a few years later, he was the target of similar disses from a different type of critic—see articles like “Tagger Jim Joe Pretends to be an Artist @ The Hole NYC.” But while none of his gallery fare took off online the way his funnier tags had, this period was far from a step back for Jim Joe. He continued to plaster the streets and alleyways of New York, and his work began to pop up in places more than a bus ride away from his alma mater: Las Vegas, Rome, Berlin, even in the Catacombs in Paris. Meanwhile, a seeming sponsorship deal with KRINK markers and collaborations with an urban fashion brand, Pyrex Vision, helped bolster his burgeoning image as an aloof, enigmatic, artistic bad boy.  Despite the detractors, by 2013 the rest of the world seemed like it was beginning to buy what Jim Joe was selling. And luckily for him, he was about to make some real connections with another group of ultra-famous artists interested in, above all else, words and quotes.  MY NAME IS MY NAME How Jim Joe Got Big In The Rap Game  Perhaps it’s not surprising that Jim Joe was able to garner fans in the rap world. The two artforms are, if not brothers, at least cousins, both kin from the four corners of the hip-hop world, along with breakdancing and DJing. In fact, graffiti scholar Anna Waclawek posits that since rap’s inception, graffiti has been used as a visual signifier of its sonic uniqueness everywhere from album covers to movie posters to advertisements, a marriage of style and sound that seems to exist as much in corporate America’s conception of Black culture as in actuality.  While rhythmic, rhyming writings and writing on other people’s property both share long histories dating back to the inception of speech and writing, respectively, the modern incarnations of rap and graffiti both trace their lineage to African-Americans and Latinx culture in 1970s New York.  And, in part because of where they come from, for many years they were kept to the margins of American culture, demonized by white middle- and upper-class Americans as forms of creation more degenerate than genius, more rule-breaking than real art.  (And, of course, they both tend to be pursuits that glorify straight male braggadocio; but while they both tap into it and create avenues for it, as a corollary they also both often exclude women and queer people, narrowing the scope of what is said, and by whom.)  But to those in the in-groups of either culture, it’s not hard to see why a creator of one might see a creator of the other as a peer. And to be honest, it’s not like Jim Joe wasn’t dropping hints.  When I asked him where his inspiration came from in an email interview for Concordia’s student newspaper The Link in 2010, his response was typically cryptic (and clearly poking fun at the interview process): I CLOSE MY EYES, OPEN MY BOOK AND POINT AT SOME WORDS. THAT'S USUALLY HOW IT WORKS.  The upshot of his apparently scattershot approach was that a lot of rap lyrics made their way into Jim Joe tags—Chief Keef and Lil Wayne among others, but mostly Drake lyrics. It’s not hard to imagine him listening to the moody tracks as he made his way around New York after dark, the unrelenting forward momentum of the brags and the beats propelling his aerosol hand.  In rap terms, his first big break came in 2013 when Kanye tapped him for some illustration work through DONDA, his creative team—likely through the late Virgil Abloh, a Kanye-affiliated designer Jim Joe had worked with on the stunt clothing line Pyrex Vision.  Though West didn’t use Jim Joe’s cover as the final Yeezus artwork, opting instead for the non-art of the see-through sleeve with the red square, a classically Jim Joe-esque rendition of the infamous ski mask portrait from West’s infamous New York Times interview—when he compared himself to Steve Jobs—took up visual landscape on the album’s iTunes page.  At the time, Kanye was a lightning rod in the rap world, and it wasn’t hard to find people taking notice whenever he tried something new. Drake, expert borrower that he is, was next in line. Where Yeezy had only given Jim Joe a feature verse, if you will, adapting his talents to Kanye’s vision, Drake brought him on in more of a co-producer role, devoting the entire cover of If You’re Reading This to Jim Joe’s vision.  The cover was pure Jim Joe, showcasing not just his work and his style, but also spotlighting his primary mode of communication: enigmatic, faux-deep phrases clipped of context, done up in his jerky, angular handstyle. It was also a significant departure from the typical, gaudily over-Photoshopped rap mixtape cover art aesthetic; the starkness of the If You’re Reading This cover reiterated that less really is more. While the songs were quickly embraced and added to the Drake canon—future ghostwriting rumours be damned—the cover alone was an overnight hit.  The release seamlessly introduced Jim Joe to the Drake meme-o-sphere, as reworkings of the titular phrase quickly began to pop up on everyone and their mother’s Instagram feeds and Tumblr timelines. Font nerds created free, downloadable versions of the font and web nerds created “create your own Drake album cover” sites that would dress up whatever you typed in in Jim Joe’s stark, off-kilter scribble. Today, on Etsy, you can buy birthday cards or credit card covers riffing off the design, or cloth COVID masks reading “If you’re reading this, you’re too close.” Elsewhere, you can find hoodies that say “NO INFLUENCE” and hyper-niche bartender humour T-shirts: “If you’re reading this, put the vermouth in the fridge.” The handwriting style even migrated, sans “if you’re reading this,” onto T-shirts with body-positive phrases like “fat icon.” It’s an enduring look that’s lasted so long it’s no longer even really attached to anything, a direct result of an artist deeply uninterested in suing anyone for intellectual property violation.  For a few years following the album drop, Jim Joe’s presence in the rap world pantheon seemed cemented. He did the If You’re Reading This-era merch and tour visuals. His work was making regular appearances on Drake’s Instagram, and other rappers wanted some of the magic: mere days after Travis Scott name-dropped him in the same breath as Basquiat in an interview with Canadian music nerd extraordinaire Nardwuar, Pusha T dropped an album that went so far as to namecheck him in the opening bars of the song “Got ‘Em Covered”: The flow plays limbo courtesy of Timbo Strip it down nigga, Jim Joe Lest anyone doubt this Jim Joe was the Jim Joe in question, Pusha stopped by Genius.com to annotate the track himself: “Jim Joe is an artist. His style is very minimal. I was introduced to him through Kanye.” An unverified annotation adds, “Jim Joe is an artist known for his very basic, stripped-down font.” U WILL DIE AS WELL Where Did Jim Joe Go?  If Jim Joe’s career has had one constant, it’s been change.  His home city has changed. His handstyle has been constantly evolving. His medium has shifted and expanded. He’s always been faced with the problem of the temporary quality of his work: his tags always being painted over by anti-graffiti crews, or tagged over by other writers, or even tweaked to insult him (an early detractor turned giant JIM JOE tags into RIM JOBs; I’ve also seen at least one turned into a JIM JOKE). And that’s just the spray paint and marker ones—some were even more fleeting. His chalk writings were washed away by the rain; his works on pieces of trash have all been picked up, whether by art collectors or, more often, garbage collectors.  Then there were the ways in which his writing was rearranged by the city itself. A “SLEEP JIM JOE” tag on three consecutive “Post No Bills”-style panels would get jumbled up so it read “IM JOE EP J SLE;” a “SOLO SHOW” might become “SHOW SOLO;” a separate letter on a string of six garbage cans would end up showing “J M JOE,” the “I” turned around or lost to history.  As a reaction to that reality, he’s had to settle for a constantly forward-looking approach. (As he told me in our 2010 email interview, “I RARELY SEE THE MAJORITY OF TAGS I DO AFTER I DO THEM AND BECAUSE OF THIS I HAVE LEARNED TO EMBRACE EPHEMERALITY. THE PHOTOGRAPHS BECOME THE WORK.”) So why shouldn’t he be able to continue to blossom and flourish, working with the crème de la crème in one of the most vibrant, culturally energizing art forms out today?  Of course, there’s a bit of a hiccup here, because if his career has had a second constant, it’s been his anonymity. So little about Jim Joe has permeated out to the culture at large—in large part because he’s closely guarded his identity even as he’s become more and more famous—to the point that his secrecy and the lengths he’ll go to preserve his anonymity constitute a major chunk of what we know about him.  The mystery has also made me ask myself things like: What if Jim Joe is a collective rather than a single person? What if Jim Joe is a Dread Pirate Roberts-like conceptual graffiti/street artist identity passed from one torchbearer to another over the years? Or what if Jim Joe isn’t a man at all? Some tags—“MAN BOY,” “I AM NOT HIM,” and “I AM NOT A MAN”—gesture in this direction. And is there not something queer, in a Halberstamian sense, about this refusal to embrace one’s success in the mainstream, always skulking around and doing your thing at night, in secret?  On the flip side, over the years, that familiar sense of dread crept into my thoughts on occasion: If he is indeed a man, what if he’s … for lack of a better term … bad? Uncritical fandom of men is a dangerous business, after all, and the details we have about him don’t necessarily suggest someone who cares a lot about others. The lone wolf graffiti artist is someone whose M.O. is to break rules, often inconveniencing and annoying those around him. His refusal to communicate—with me or others I spoke with—other than in cryptic, all-caps sentences is only so far removed from the dictatorial vibes far too many successful male artists give off. Would it surprise anyone to discover someone like this had left behind a trail of hurt and harm?  Of course, accusations of anything concrete would likely be easy to find. Around Jim Joe, though, there’s mostly just a confusing, staticky silence. While holding tight the reins on details of your own identity is a trick that many artists have used to bolster their ascensions to stardom (The Weeknd, for instance, refused interviews for the first few years of his career) or elongate one’s career by keeping the baying hounds of fame at bay (rapper MF DOOM, whose all-caps style Jim Joe likely owes a debt to, wore a mask for all his public appearances for decades prior to his 2020 death), becoming famous without anyone knowing even your name, let alone your age, birthplace, and so forth, might not even be possible anymore. How big could Jim Joe conceivably get without his real identity being exposed? Or, on the flip side, how much longer before someone (a disgruntled hater, an overeager fan) lets slip his true identity?  Of course, I myself do know his real name. I learned it not from high-tech sleuthing and going down digital rabbit holes, but the old-fashioned way—from a friend of a friend. But what good is that knowledge, to me or anyone? His identity remaining a secret is an opportunity for us to get something more unusual. Who among us would out Batman, knowing that the world would be left with only a beleaguered Bruce Wayne from here on out? And yet who among us, knowing Batman’s true identity, wouldn’t want to tell someone, to tell everyone? Or at least to drop hints?  It’s a temptation I push against in this very piece—trying to lay out the facts in a way that paints a complete portrait of his enigma without letting slip one detail too many. So often, carefully guarded secrets are blown to smithereens by people in love as much with the mystery of an artist as they are with the work; writing this, it was hard not to recall the way food writers could ruin secret hole-in-the-wall joints simply by alerting the general public to their existence. There’s something about the way people aren’t able to help themselves—they simply have to write about a cool secret, they simply have to flock to check it out. Some cats can’t be put back into bags; so many things in life genuinely are better left undisturbed.  BUT I DONT WANT TO MAKE A PAINTING The Strange Beauty of Jim Joe’s Uncompromising Approach Still, the best way to stay anonymous is to be uninteresting. Maybe that’s something Jim Joe began to understand. Starting in about 2013, he had a really strong half-decade or so run. He did the alternate Yeezus artwork, the Drake cover, and all that OVO merch. He was namedropped a handful of times by rappers you’ve heard of. He did design work and music videos for artists you haven’t. He collaborated with a marker brand and a clothing brand. He had a handful of shows at New York’s The Hole gallery, one in Toronto, and his work on a car appeared at FIAC 2018 in Paris. There was even a limited-edition carpet in 2019.  But the 2020s haven’t seen much by way of Jim Joe. While my NotJimJoe Tumblr account inbox used to be a popular destination, with user-submitted pictures of new tags appearing every few weeks or months from 2012 to 2017, its relative quietude as of late feels like a proxy for Jim Joe’s diminishing street presence. Despite the mainstream success he enjoyed in the late 2010s, submissions have slowed to a trickle in recent years. I only got one in 2020, none in 2021, and none so far in 2022.  Of course, there’s nothing especially surprising about an artist shifting media as they become more successful—not least when what got you there could, in theory, mean fines or jail time. But if Jim Joe is done with tagging, he doesn’t exactly seem to be launching himself into anything else, either. There was a Zoom video class for a Harvard design course during the early days of the pandemic, and he contributed, apparently, to Virgil Abloh’s final Louis Vuitton show, S/S2022, prior to Abloh’s untimely death from a rare form of cancer in the fall of 2021. It seems likely that he’s spent at least some time at Kanye’s Sunday Service thing in Calabasas, but, as one person I spoke to said, a lot of people have collaborated with Kanye. Sure, he’s still tweeting cryptic phrases, but you can schedule those things in advance, and they don’t take a ton of work to write. So, what exactly is he doing with his time?  ***  Perhaps a more salient question than “Where did he go?" is “Why do I care so much?” When I first encountered a Jim Joe tag in 2010, he was nobody and, by every metric I can think of, he essentially still is. There’s no Wikipedia page; no biographical details; no fawning, sprawling magazine profiles. He also expressly wanted to remain nobody. Why did he feel worth maintaining a Tumblr about, one I’ve now worked something like forty or fifty unpaid hours on over the years? Why did he feel worth writing an essay about in my university graffiti course, and in a Google doc created in 2015 that would go on to become the framework for this piece?  But there was something fascinating at the core of it all. I spoke to twelve different people while working on this essay: doing interviews over the phone, Zoom, email, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram DMs with Jim Joe fans, the owner of The Hole gallery, other people who’d interviewed him, someone who knew a family member of his, people who’d picked up one of his garbage pieces off the sidewalk and found themselves enmeshed in the strangeness of his story. Some demurred, or tried to, feeling that what they knew or had to say would amount to little, but most of them had a surprising amount to say; a few of those who didn’t clearly had a lot to share but held back for fear of compromising Jim Joe’s secrecy.  Still, themes recurred—finding his tags was a sort of game; his work came to symbolize the excitement of the big city for young Americans who’d moved to New York for jobs; his mysterious approach to his persona was part of the appeal; people bonded with others, whether friends or romantic partners, who also got a kick out of his work; he was forever hard to pin down, and his email persona was relentlessly Jim Joe, to the point where it became hard to tell where the bit ended and where his real personality began—or if there was anything separating them at all.  But perhaps the central compelling factor to the Jim Joe enigma was his steadfast refusal to let what was interesting about his work grow beyond his control. One of the people I spoke to for the piece highlighted how in the mid-2010s, other New York–based street artists had capitalized on their cachet, striking deals with businesses looking to use graffiti’s street cred to sell things. For Jim Joe, apparently the list of businesses worth collaborating with was vanishingly short.  To this day, who knows what he does for a living. Is he still coasting off the Drake money? Does he come from wealth? His rent isn’t being paid by cushy fees from soft drink or cell phone brands. He’s not collaborating with Nike on limited-edition runs of anything. Is he intentionally being extremely selective, or are brands simply not engaging? If it’s the former, his ethos surely must’ve cost him tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in income. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the number would be in the millions.  In 2017, for instance, Gucci started working with an artist named Coco Capitán whose style (cryptic quotes in a skittish handwriting) bears more than a passing resemblance to Jim Joe’s, one that he appeared to comment on himself, tweeting “FIRST THEY LAUGH, THEN THEY COPY”—the line itself, of course, a rip-off. Was it a case of him having turned the opportunity down, or of having created a market for others to fill? On Instagram a few years ago, I came across an account called Maison Hefner, with over a hundred thousand followers and a coffee book deal, ripping off the same vibes and offering little but slightly less interesting quotes. “There, but for the grace of God, goes Jim Joe,” I thought.  Invariably, every artist makes compromises in order to get their work out. They strike deals with organizations they have mixed feelings about, brown-nose people they hate, stay on in contracts they can no longer morally justify in order to put food on the table, to pay for their children’s educations, to maintain a standard of living they’ve grown accustomed to. What about Jim Joe? Does he have a full-on Superman-style desk job, pushing paper, hitting deadlines? Is this lull in his output a calm before the storm, or the sign of someone walking away from a compromise he’s not willing to make? He feels unbelievably improbable, an artist we need but do not fully have, an enigma wrapped in a mystery shrouded in a can of spray-paint particles. Whatever the politics lurking in the words and phrases he tacked onto his tags—he was, unsurprisingly, anti-cop, and, perhaps slightly less obviously, pro-Bernie—there was always something steadfastly, resolutely anti-capitalist to his approach.  For a while I kept on waiting for him to make his next big move, wanting to time finding a publisher for this piece with something newsworthy in his career, but at this point, I’ve stopped bothering. As the person who made the crack about lots of people collaborating with Kanye put it, “He kind of just dropped off! Which is fine. Totally fine.” The idea that every artist—that every person—needs to be constantly growing towards greater heights of success isn’t just unhealthy, it’s also deeply out of touch with the reality of how life works. Until recently, his work was available on an Artsy profile with a dozen or so gallery-style works, giving off Martin Kippenberger vibes, priced (very modestly for the art world) between $2,500 and $10,000, and one garbage piece reading “YO SPLIFF WHERE DA WEED AT JIM JOE 2010” in his early-career font. I contacted Marcel Katz Art about the price but never heard back. One person I spoke to had successfully sold a piece of his garbage work, for a figure she recalled as being $700 USD, back in 2017. Poking around a bit, I even found a fake, a misattribution so half-hearted it must be intentional—perhaps the greatest sign of an artist’s success.  One of the people I interviewed, a co-founder of the now-defunct website Cult of Joe—which aimed to collect what was special and what was known about him, before he emailed to ask them to take it down—shared a note from an email exchange where there’d been a discussion of collaborating on some T-shirts. In his traditionally inscrutable manner, JJ had replied “NO COIN, NO COTTON.”  And yet there is such a thing as a Jim Joe T-shirt—a limited-edition collaboration with French designer Agnès B, who put on his first—and thus far, only—solo European gallery show in 2012. And, if you count them, all those bootleg tees on Etsy. One even brags that CUSTOM TEXT CAN BE MADE FOR YOU, which sounds like nothing so much as something Jim Joe would write somewhere, whether on a wall, in a tweet or on a canvas.
‘How Many Accents is it Normal to Have?’: An Interview with Pyae Moe Thet War

The author of You’ve Changed on identity, competition, cloud storage, and shedding colonial histories.

"How many accents is it normal to have?" It’s a question I avoid considering too closely, because between my American missionary education, a coming-of-age (and then some) in the U.K., and my Indian family and friends, the best description of my speech is: a mess. A mess best ignored, at that. But when my first book came out—a process involving public events, podcasts, and BuzzFeed videos—I felt, for the first time, the pressure of consistency. I needed to sound like the same person, irrespective of who I was speaking to or where I was. In other words: would the real accent please stand up? Frustratingly, though, there was no real accent, no singular authentic self. My multitudes speak differently, and so, in the end, I settled for the voice that made me feel confident, projected intelligence, and which I believed lent me the most authority (but also the safety of distance, as a young woman writing about sex in India). No prizes for guessing that this accent was British. In You’ve Changed: Fake Accents, Feminism and Other Comedies from Myanmar (Catapult), Pyae Moe Thet War writes: “Speaking from experience, if I had to make a list of the top five things about myself that have served me the most throughout my life, my American accent could very easily rank number one.” For Pyae, born and raised in Myanmar with university degrees from the U.S. and the U.K., the question of accents is also a question of privilege and perception. She writes that in comparison to her boyfriend’s supposedly “sexy” native British speech, or her friends’ “stylish” French or Italian voices, “no one’s ever described a Myanmar accent as sexy, or if they have, I certainly haven’t come across such an account.” From switching accents to passport privilege, from baking a “perfect platter of fudgy brownies” to never cooking Myanmar cuisine, the essays in Pyae Moe Thet War’s debut collection are engaging, spirited, and fast-paced accounts of what it means to be a Myanmar woman today—both inside and outside her country’s borders. Resisting easy categorization and drawing us into the author’s multiple worlds and lives, You’ve Changed candidly explores the many ways we navigate identity in a world whose mainstream culture is dominated by the West. As for accents?  When Pyae first moved to the U.K., “people were very quick to point out that . . . Brummies sounded different to Scouses who sounded different to posh Etonians.” She goes to write: “When people ask me to do a Myanmar accent, I ask them what they think a Myanmar accent sounds like, and they say, ‘I don’t know, like, a Chinese one?’ But shame on me for thinking that all Brits sound the same.” Richa Kaul Padte: In You’ve Changed’s opening essay, “A Me by Any Other Name,” you reference writing the essay’s first draft in 2012 when you were a teenager in college. You also talk about revisiting things you’ve written since the age of seventeen. I can’t imagine even re-reading, forget actively using, anything I wrote at that age! What does this process look like for you? Pyae Moe Thet War: Two things help me keep track of everything I’ve ever written: I only write digitally, and I don’t believe in the delete button, at all. I also just love building on my past work. I don’t know if this is true for all writers, but my brain has a tendency to subconsciously put a pin in the pieces that (for whatever reason) it’s particularly attached to. The opening essay is a great example because that was a piece that I’d rewritten and pitched multiple times to different outlets over several years but no one ever took it (thank god!). But I just knew in my gut that it was special and that I loved it so much, and so I just kept holding onto it and periodically revising it until it found its perfect home. And I’m not always aware of what pieces of writing I’m subconsciously holding onto until something will trigger a memory, and then I go into my archives and dig it back up; and it’s the best feeling when I’m now looking at it with fresh eyes and I’m like, “Wow I’m so glad I didn’t delete this because I didn’t know how to make this better back then but I absolutely do now.” Wow, this is very inspiring to me, as I am a very chaotic notebook-writer with even worse digital organization systems. But I do sometimes glimpse memories of writing and ideas I have lost to this mess, so maybe our conversation is the kick into organization I need! I’m probably getting sidetracked here, but do you use hard drives or cloud storage for all this archiving? I’m very curious about what writers do with their stuff, like, where does it live? I am terrified of losing projects so I do pay extra to have them all backed up onto two separate cloud storage systems. I don’t do this with first/second/third drafts, but if a project is in its final stages, I’ll also email the latest version to myself. For books, I have separate folders for projects that are in the actual manuscript stages, but snippets of drafts are just floating around. I feel like I lied a little bit when I referred to my mess of a cloud storage folder as an “archive.” In my mind, archiving is meticulously organized, like a library. What I’ve done is more akin to getting a giant box with a very secure lid and just throwing everything in there; and it might take me a while to dig up something old, but I always know that it’s somewhere in the box. Does that metaphor make sense? Yes! It makes perfect sense, and is also kind of reassuring because I do think I can manage a massive, disorganized box. You write: “For a long time, my only creative goal was to have a stranger read my writing without once realizing that I wasn’t white.” It was a process of erasing context and specificities—names, places, foods—where, “instead of lying, I just left it all out.” The flip side, you explain, is that now, many years into a public writing career, “Every time I write something that doesn’t have to do with skin whitening creams or my grandmother’s curry . . . I’m terrified that my writing has lost its one appealing trait.” Has this second fear supplanted the first, or have they sort of intermingled? (Or, disappeared all together?) I try to just push that aside altogether, and, almost paradoxically, the way I do that is to let both of those fears coexist. I say this literally all the time, but these days, I write for myself—which is something that I didn’t always do, hence my many fears about how others would perceive my writing. But—and I feel like this is a cliché but it’s so true—at the end of the day, the only thing you have control over when you’re putting your work up for public consumption is the writing. People have asked me how I know when something is good enough to be published or how I overcome these fears of what other people will think, and my answer is that if I like it and I think it’s good and I enjoy reading it, then that’s all that I need. It’s also all I can do that’s entirely in my power. There’s this other aspect of writing marginalized identity that you explore with wonderful honesty: “There was an ugly knot in my stomach that . . . another Myanmar writer, especially . . . another young, female Myanmar writer, would put their book out on submission at the same time as me. . . . Am I allowed to say that? Does that break some sort of code of solidarity among writers of colour?” I loved this, because we’re constantly told, especially online, to replace a “scarcity mentality” with an “abundance mentality.” But the reality of, say, the publishing statistics that you reference in your book, is that there is only a very tiny room for marginalized people that we are implicty or explicitly competing for. I don’t know if you’ve read Zakiya Dalila Harris’ novel The Other Black Girl (it’s great!), but your words about the “other” imagined Myanmar writer really reminded me of Harris’s work. Do we perhaps need to reimagine solidarity in a way that recognizes scarcity rather than forces us to pretend at abundance?  Yes, definitely! It’s okay to say “Hey, doesn’t it suck that it feels like we’re being forced to compete for so few spots?” It’s a really tricky line to walk, and I hate that the onus is on writers like ourselves to walk it; it’s also why I personally don’t like to think of these perspectives as “mentalities,” because I feel like doing so shifts the conversation to an It’s all in your head context. It takes a lot of privilege to say that it’s not a competition, and blindly pushing that narrative just sweeps these actual issues and inequalities under the rug. And it’s also a form of gaslighting, if you ask me. I specifically reference statistics because otherwise someone could try to tell me that I’m being irrational or dramatic or that there’s “room for everyone” or whatever, but the stats explicitly state otherwise. It’s like, we know it’s not a competition, but it sure does feel like it a lot of the time! And that aforementioned privilege could be in the context of race or gender or socioeconomic class or even where you are in your career. Now that I’m a published author, it’s easier for me to step back from this competition mentality, but that absolutely wasn’t the case just two years ago when we were going out on submission—and that’s something that I try to keep in mind when I talk to younger, unpublished writers. I’m like, “This is the reality of the situation. Try to not think of it as a competition, but also know that it’s normal if those feelings do creep up. It sucks! I know! We’re trying to change it!” You talk at various points about returning to Myanmar with a deeper understanding of feminism, thanks in part to your time spent at universities in the U.S. and the U.K. I wonder if you ever experience it the other way too? That is, bringing the perspectives and learnings of Myanmar feminism and women’s movements to Western feminist thought? I’m curious, because for me, even ten years after moving out of a white country, this remains the harder learning, the bigger task. I’ve always noticed a respect for mothers and grandmothers in Myanmar culture that you don’t really find in Western cultures. Yes, of course you love your mom and you celebrate Mother’s Day and stuff, but for Myanmar people, there’s this deference and recognition that this woman literally gave you life, that you are on this planet because you came out of this woman—and I don’t really see that in American or British culture. Additionally, I am ambivalent towards marriage, but if I were to ever get married, I cannot fathom changing any part of my name. Obviously it’s a personal preference, and it’s not inherently an anti-feminist decision to take your male spouse’s last name, but if my potential white fiancé got bothered by my not taking his last name, I’m not even quite sure how I’d bring it with up with Mom and Grandma because it would sound ridiculous to them that that’s even a point of contention. I will also say that I try not to view these different ideas and perspectives as contrasting, or to “pit” them against one another, which is easier said than done. When I was writing [the essay] “Laundry Load.” I absolutely worried that I was arguing that one perspective was “better” than another. What helped was a conversation with my friend Khin where I was confessing precisely this and about how I didn’t feel comfortable talking about “American” (or Western) feminism versus “Myanmar” feminism. She pointed out that my feminism and feminist thoughts were just that: my feminism and feminist thoughts and ideologies, and they were a mix of everything I’ve encountered thus far in life (as opposed to strictly “Myanmar” feminism or “Western” feminism). And that was so freeing to realize because she was absolutely right. I love how you explore the ways that names intersect with power. The name Burma was the product of British imperialism, and post-independence, the country was renamed Myanmar. It was, you write, a “shedding of . . . colonial history,” but also an act “by a new military government. . . . What better way to assert your power than by literally changing an entire name?” This really speaks to what is happening in India right now: a renewed drive towards renaming cities, streets, monuments, and airports to more Hindu-ized words. This is claimed as a rejection of British colonization, but in reality, it’s a set of actions by a right-wing Hindu government intolerant of diversity. How do you balance acknowledging the devastating brutalization of colonization with what are often equally harmful post-colonial governments? Especially when your readership is directly descended from colonizers, and still reaping imperialism’s rewards? Asking, um, for . . . a friend. I really appreciate this question because I think that a lot of white, Western readers don’t necessarily pick up on that specific conflict, because it is admittedly easier to view it as a more straightforward dichotomy when, as you say, it’s . . . not. I’m still trying to figure this out myself, but the best answer that I have is that you do acknowledge that simultaneous struggle, and you kind of never stop acknowledging it. You can’t simply overlook one side; to do so would be to ignore the historical and present complexities of our country (or countries!), and while it might be simpler to posit one approach as “better,” it’d also be inaccurate. Like 99.9% of life, stuff like this isn’t black-and-white, and I’m not sure if it’s even possible to strike a “fair” balance when talking about these topics, but it’s imperative that you’re recognizing that there are multiple discussions to be had and it’s not a clear-cut “one side clearly has the moral high ground” situation.
Signs of Life

On the surreal nature of secondary trauma.

“Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality.” —Andre Breton, The Surrealist Manifesto Hamade’s voice stayed warm and steady, even when he told us, “Four mortars last night. Thirty dead.” And later, “They will bomb the camp hospital today.” I wondered how he did it, how his voice could soothe even as it shocked. Maybe if I understood that, I’d stop flinching when he spoke. Pauline and Matej must know; Pauline’s face stayed smooth, Matej’s voice brisk. “Where? How did you hear? Which groups?” From our apartment in Turkey, Matej wanted to know everything happening across the border in Syria: Hamade’s sources, the exact locations of anticipated attacks, which groups were planning air strikes and which were retreating to the rubble of villages already destroyed by war. He—we—needed details if our teams were to keep working, keep trying to stem the country’s flood of losses. Outside, the sun was rising, seeping through our lacy curtains. In Syria, forty-five kilometres to the east, it lit up the Great Mosque of Aleppo, its marbled prayer hall blackened by rocket-propelled grenades. Syrians kept praying there anyway, the crowns of their heads kissing daylight and ruined stone. Elsewhere in the country, it warmed the faces blinking awake in makeshift camps. Warmed, too, the hands of bakers, already at work kneading manakish bread. Even in a war, signs of life. As the day went on, death tolls rising, I tried to hold onto this. * In the spring of 2014, I moved to Antakya, a border town in southern Turkey. In normal times, Antakya was only an hour from Syria, a smooth and lovely drive lined with cypress trees and small villages of stone. But that time was not normal. The war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rebel groups was stretching into its third year. I heard that road was still pretty to drive, but not exactly pleasant, and definitely not relaxing, surveilled as it was by drones, soldiers, and a dozen militias, all relentlessly watching and waiting for one wrong move. One wrong move—in a sense, that’s what I was there to prevent. My employer, a French humanitarian agency, operated in Syria’s northern Idlib province, providing assisted walking devices and rehabilitation therapy to civilians who’d lost limbs in the fighting. Recently, they had also started a risk education program. Mortars, shells, and rockets that didn’t detonate on landing had become a sight so common, Syrians stopped avoiding them, believing them to be like all other debris of war: the rubble of collapsed buildings, the bullet-ridden walls, the downed power lines. Harmless—if hideous—relics. The damage, they believed, was already done. They were wrong. In 2013, the UN gave up counting Syria’s casualties. But the number who escaped a bombing or airstrike only to later be killed or injured by an innocent-looking scrap of metal was in the thousands—maybe tens of thousands. Risk education helped civilians recognize the devices for what they still were: objects of war, to be avoided at all costs. It was public health in a war zone—and I was in charge of it. But the closest I’d get to the war was this apartment in Antakya, full of frightening, eccentric details: blood-red ceilings, a statue of a snarling monkey in the entryway. In my room, a Barbie nightlamp, except Barbie’s face was stretched too wide, her smile taking on freakish proportions reminiscent of the Joker. And in the living room, a low-dangling rusted chandelier, its few remaining crystals gaudy and tinkering. Underneath, Matej and Pauline, my colleagues and housemates, usually hunched over their laptops, casting huge shadows on walls painted a dark, ominous purple. I tried not to hate it. Not only did I have no choice but to live here, but from the ghoulish living room that doubled as an office, I also managed, remotely, a team of twelve Syrian risk educators. I’d had the same job in Mali, except there, in the desert town of Sévaré, I’d been up-close, traveling every week to the nearby camps of IDPs—internally displaced people—refugees in their own country. But that wasn’t possible here: foreigners were not allowed in Syria. I had no idea how to do this—how to ensure others’ safety without ever putting mine on the line. How to manage a team I’d never meet. How to be the aid worker I’d always dreamed of—working to stanch the greatest humanitarian crisis our generation had seen—without ever encountering the crisis itself. I was twenty-six. I’d never had to contend with the limits of my body, my dreams, my reality. * For Freud and the surrealists of the post-war period, the line between reality and dreams was an artificial one, an arbitrary division carved by the forces of rationalism and convention undergirding Western society. To these intellectuals, dreams—including daydreams, dreams born in sleep, and nightmares—showed us our hidden desires and demons. It was up to us to listen, to reshape our reality towards what we really wanted, and to meet with grace and conviction what we most feared. Ultimately, they saw dreams as a means for remaking the world. * The days in Antakya began with a security briefing, the three of us crowding around Matej’s phone, taking care not to brush against each other as we rubbed the sleep from our eyes. We might hear each other’s snores and farts through the thin walls at night but in the daytime, we were humanitarians. Professionals. On the phone, Hamade, who spoke the best English of the Syrians, recounted the previous night’s fatalities: “Two families dead. A third is missing. They are still digging through the wreckage.” Then, calm as always, he forecasted the casualties of the day ahead. By that point, every town in the rebel-held province of Idlib had designated marasid, civilians who intercepted communications between government pilots and airbases. If an impending strike was discovered, the town’s mosques broadcast warnings on their loudspeakers. Based on this intelligence, the Syrian team suggested an itinerary for the day, which camps they would visit, and which they would avoid. Within the camps, the men usually went to hospitals and rehabilitation centres, and the women to makeshift schools and homes, often built of tin sheets and empty grain sacks. Like street preachers, they sermonized to all who passed by, showing them picture after picture of deformed missiles and firearms, warning of their dangers, their potential for all types of death: painful and long, painful and quick, painful to the point where time lost all meaning, all sense. And of course, before letting their congregants go, they exhorted them to spread the word among their kith and kin. At the end of each day, the Syrians sent photos from the camps, blurry images of dark eyes, water boiled over a fire of twigs, earthen floors turned muddy with rain. Sometimes, an unexploded grenade, casually sitting next to someone’s tent. Sometimes, a scarred face, a stump. Though I knew they were coming, the images were still a shock after a day spent before my screen, coordinating with other humanitarian agencies in Idlib, completing expense reports and updating budgets, and nagging headquarters for the steel-toed boots and solar-powered printers our teams desperately needed. Sometimes, as I mechanically crossed things off my to-do list, I almost forgot about the war, about the fraught project of survival for every Syrian still inside Syria, a survival which was not at all guaranteed, but an hourly gamble. When the photos came, I looked at each one for a long time. Next to me, my mug of Turkish coffee turned cold. From outside, I could hear the laughter of children released from school, could smell the Turkish pide they munched on their way home. In those moments, looking at a life and landscape so alien from the one I inhabited, the distance to Syria felt enormous, almost too vast for my mind to grasp. The fact of physical proximity seemed absurd—not false per se, but something else, something in that grey zone between truth and fiction. It felt, perhaps, surreal. * According to Merriam-Webster, surreal is the term most often-looked up by Americans and Canadians after tragedies: 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, COVID-19. The urge for clarity—for a logical articulation of what we’re experiencing, of a world suddenly beyond our understanding—is never stronger than in moments of tragedy. Of course, by definition, tragedy refuses logic, living in a space beyond comprehension, beyond fairness, beyond reason. *  May 13, 2014 Subject: An unexpected day Dear S, Today, I walked Kurtuluş Caddesı, the city’s central avenue. It’s lined with palm trees that always seem out of place to me, tone-deaf in their presence. They belong in some tropical vacation destination, Miami or Cuba maybe, not on a busy commercial street, not in a city so close to war. Here, I hunt for supplies to be smuggled over the border: first aid kits, flashlights, steel-toed boots to protect the team from stray mortars blowing off their feet. For the most part, I blend in: the war has made Antakya cosmopolitan, refugees and aid workers walking the same streets as diplomats and housewives. But today, for the first time, I encountered suspicion. I was trying to get flyers with pictures of ERW—explosive remnants of war—printed for the teams to distribute. The shop owner, beard henna-ed orange to mark a recent pilgrimage to Hajj, squinted at me. “You going over there to fight, my daughter?” he asked. I fled. Outside, the roundabout clogged with afternoon traffic. Beyond the city, the Nur Mountains rose, freshly green from spring showers. I thought of you—how you love the scent of air heavy with rain, that time we got caught in an afternoon thunderstorm coming back from hiking in the Juras, the way your hair curled in the damp. That last part was a lie. Looking at the Nur Mountains, I’d thought not of S, but of how many people would die that day on the other side of those hills. I’d guessed fifteen. Later, I learned it was eighteen. Close, I thought, and felt strangely proud—until my mind caught up to my thoughts and I wretched, folding in half and heaving and nothing coming out, nothing at all. * The term surreal tends to evoke surrealism, a style often associated with European artists like Dali and Magritte. In his best-known work, “The Persistence of Memory,” Dali foregrounds melting clocks against the cliffs of his native Catalonia. Magritte, in his “Personal Values,” barely contains a giant comb, drinking glass, and matchstick within walls of sky. And Cuban-born Wifredo Lam’s “The Jungle” depicts monster-like creatures, part-human, part-animal, that simultaneously emerge from and merge with a dense wall of vegetation. The power of surrealist art lies in how it renders the familiar bizarre—in the dissonance it exposes between the real and impossible. Such juxtapositions produce contradictory emotions in us: confusion, anger, desire, dread, each amplifying instead of nullifying the other, pushing us into new, uncanny territory. Not exactly real, but something more, or something beyond. * Just like in a dream, time was slippery in Antakya. There were no weekends: we worked every day, all the time. We wore pyjamas at all hours, the coffeemaker always dripping, the trash perpetually full, hummus-smeared plates piling in the sink. My butt was always numb from sitting, my brain tender and cottony. The purple walls were a permanent dusk. Only Saturdays stood out. Every Saturday, I updated an Excel sheet tracking the numbers of Syrian men, women, and children our team had “educated” that week. Also, the number of men, women, and children reported hurt or killed by ERW, explosive remnants of war. The cells tallying injuries and death were cumulative, rising over the months I was there from hundreds to thousands. Once, after updating the cell for “children reported dead from ERW” and watching it clock in at an even 1000, I sat unmoving. My chest seemed to fill with concrete, heavy and irreversible.  When I finally managed to get up, I walked to the kitchen, turned on the faucet to full blast and stuck my mouth under it, swallowing icy water until I thought I might choke. And still, I kept gulping. Only when I raised my head did I see Pauline standing by the fridge, about to bite into a sandwich. “Bad day?” she asked. I knew she didn’t expect an answer. We both knew there were no good days here. But I was learning some days were darker than others, dark enough to make you forget what the light looked like, its warmth on your skin. * Modern horror movies are profoundly influenced by surrealism. Hitchcock, for example, hired Dali to help design a dream sequence in his film Spellbound, scenes leaking with slashed eyeballs, rigged card games, and a cliffside morphing into a menacing face. Without surrealism, art critic and writer Jonathon Jones argues, we wouldn’t have “that inexplicable vein of cinema in which the physical world is violent, erotic.” But to him, the essence of horror is not in flesh-eating monsters or the murderer with the bloody knife. It lies in the tension between those things and the oblivious protagonists, blithely going about their days. The best horror, in other words, is where the mundane meets the monstrous. And this collision disorients, altering our reality—maybe momentarily, maybe forever. * In my second month in Antakya, I spent most of my days toggling between BBC, Al Jazeera, Kanal D, back to BBC, a quick visit to CNN, Al Jazeera again. We’d realized these networks sometimes knew of planned attacks in Idlib before our team did, giving us a chance to warn them away before it was too late. Sifting through news reports was the most useful thing to do in theory, and the most painful to carry out in reality. Imagine: day after day, looking at children’s faces twisted in fear, bodies unconscious in hospital beds, anonymous heads wrapped in bloody bandages. Other times, it was live footage of tanks rolling through deserted streets, the buildings Swiss-cheesed with bullet holes. Once in while, a picture of a family huddled in some dark corner appeared, their few belongings scattered around them—blankets, a yellow duck toy, a Quran. I’d seen some variation of these images on the news throughout my life—but this hit differently, a fist to the throat. After just a month, I could understand some of the Arabic that Syrians used in interviews. Layl. Night. Qatala. Killed. Allah yusaeiduna. God help us. I came to recognize the look they wore, a terror that was at once heightened and dulled from years of carnage. And on a map taped to one of the purple walls, I could pick out the towns under attack—Al-Fu'ah, Kafriya, Saraqib—names that had meant nothing to me just weeks ago. But now, I walked around with those names spilling from my tongue, hoping they still pointed to a place. At night, I heard sounds from that other world. It happened gradually. One night, the metallic pings of gunfire. Another night, a mortar crashing through a roof. I knew it was bad when I heard helicopter wings chopping the air, just moments before the rockets dropped. Whooshh. In the daytime, with sunlight filtering through lace-edged curtains, I could rationalize: Antakya was too far for the noise to travel. My brain was simply recreating the sounds from news footage. But in the dark, I lay very still, the sheets soaked with sweat. I was paralyzed, not by the idea of war coming closer—if that happened, I could run or hide or fight, do something. No, what frightened me was knowing that the horrors I was imagining, and worse, were happening just an hour away. Rubble burying, bombs incinerating. Everywhere, endings. And there was nothing I could do about it. I was far from war, physically. But still, it wormed into my consciousness, refusing to be brushed away into the realm of things abstract and distant and therefore ignorable. * Andre Breton, widely regarded as the founder of surrealism as a cultural movement, quotes French poet Pierre Reverdy: “The more the relationship between . . . juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.” The greater the poetic reality, the closer it feels—and maybe is—to truth. * In the camps, our teams in Syria sought out children, easily lured by the glitter and unfamiliar shapes of shazaya. Shrapnel. They played a game with the kids: whoever could pick out the most objects in pictures that were not safe to play with got damak, Turkish chocolate studded with pistachios. I bought those chocolates. I’d volunteered to do it. Making kids happy would make me happy, I’d thought. Obviously saving their lives should make a person happy—shouldn’t it? But at the supermarket, standing before stacks of candy, trying to decide which one was tempting enough to stand between a child’s life and early death, my brain melted. I couldn’t face it. At the store, I drifted away from my body. That’s the only way I know to say it. From a few feet away, I watched someone who looked like me carefully stack the bars of damak in her basket. I watched her smile at the cashier eyeing her strangely, this customer buying five pounds of chocolate and nothing else. I trailed a few steps behind as she walked home, calling Hakan, the fixer who smuggled things across the border, crossing ruined fields of cucumber and olive groves by moonlight, his bag heavy with damak and ball point pens. Back at the apartment, my doppelganger smoothed her fingers across the chocolate, their wrappers smooth and cool to the touch. I watched her look around to make sure her housemates weren’t watching before grabbing a bar and rushing to my room, bolting the door behind her. Then, I stared as she devoured the whole king size bar—nearly a pound—in a single sitting, not tasting any of it. Later, if not for my churning guts and the wrapper sitting guiltily in the garbage can, I would not know what she’d done. * The old thought experiment: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? What about the inverse: what if you hear the tree fall but you’re not in the forest? What if you see loss of life, clearly and viscerally, but death is nowhere close to you? “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality,” writes André Breton. The cultural movement emerging in the aftermath of World War I was built on Breton’s training in psychiatry, including his work with shell-shocked soldiers in a neurological hospital. To him, distinguishing the “real” from the imagined or misremembered was both impossible and unnecessary. Our imaginings—no matter how bizarre or implausible—were as much a part of our selves and the world as what our brains categorized as “real.” Breton would be adamant that the tree falling made a sound, regardless of who did or did not witness it. He’d argue, too, that death at a distance was as real as death close up. Not in usual terms, but absolute terms—surreal terms. That is to say, imagined events are rendered real by our reaction to them, whether that reaction is just a sigh, a flinch, or something more permanent: an altering of our neural pathways, a shift in our body’s rhythms. A break in how we experience the world. * On Sundays, I Skyped with S. So I wouldn’t be overheard, I went to a café in the old town known for its kunefe, a local dessert made from semolina and sweet cheese, warm and heavy enough to make me drowsy. S’s face, when it appeared on my laptop, jolted me awake. As the war took up more space in my mind, thoughts of him got pushed out. Until, in the middle of the night, listening for barrel bombs or god-knows-what-else, I’d remember him, the calluses on his hand or the curve of his neck, and just for a moment, I’d relax. My jaw unclenched, my shoulders melted away from my ears. Sometimes, I wondered if I’d made him up, a sweet distraction for my darkest moments. But on Saturdays, there he was on my screen, his beard longer than last time, his hair falling into his eyes. With him, I tried to keep it light, upbeat. “What you do for work is amazing,” he’d said when we first met. “Not many people would do that.” And then he’d kissed me. Would he still kiss me if he knew I was walking around half-alive, flinching away from my work, sometimes departing my body? I didn’t think so. Instead, I told S about my favourite person here, Jwan, the finance assistant. He and his mother had crossed over from Syria two years ago. He hated Turkey, hated the language and the cramped apartment he and his mother shared with a Turkish family. He came to our place every few days, mostly to escape his packed home, to struggle with me through budgets and procurement orders. “What should I put as the ‘reason for expense’ for your phone bill?” he asked once, smirking. “Um, you have to coordinate the teams? Like, that’s literally your job?” We laughed, rolling our eyes. This bureaucratic administrative crap had no place in a war zone, we huffed. But secretly, I enjoyed these tasks. They were the only times I felt to be real. In our ugly purple living room, filling out spreadsheets and giggling with Jwan, life felt like something I could hold in my palm. Another time, I told S how most nights, Matej, Pauline, and I watched The Penguins of Madagascar, a cartoon about four penguins carrying out bizarre commando missions to protect their home in the Central Park Zoo. Over three seasons, they battled a lemur with a foot fetish, a stoned alligator, a shamanic baboon—the list went on. We laughed so hard at Penguins that we cried, snot streaking our faces. It was such a release—maybe because it was the only one we had. The three of us never talked about our feelings—or anything, really, aside from work. I was glad for our silences, the places we didn’t go. I was afraid I’d either scream primally or sob hysterically if we ever discussed how it really felt to work and eat and sleep and shit in this garish apartment, far from everyone we loved, acting as glorified personal assistants to the people doing the real work on the ground, just an hour—an impossible hour—away, in one of the most brutal conflicts of the century. No, we couldn’t talk about those things. So, instead, we watched Penguins. When S spoke, I watched his eyebrows, remembering how they felt under my fingers, and his teeth, white and slightly turned out like a chipmunk. I had to be careful with how much of him I took in. It was too easy to want his life, plump with ease and impulse. I wanted to stop for hot jalebi on the way home for work. I wanted to go to dinner at Mumbai’s hottest new restaurant. I wanted to take the train across fields of rice and sugarcane. I wanted to be with him, doing those things together. But I couldn’t. I was here, doing the job I’d always dreamed of, even if it was also undoing me. After our Skypes, I meandered back to the apartment, trying to hold onto the memory of S’s face, his baritone still reverberating in my chest. Suddenly, the cobbled streets of the old town looked romantic. Even the Orontes river bisecting the city, dry and foul-smelling, appeared alluring in its promise to return. But joy couldn’t survive back at the apartment, where the hideous purple walls, the latest news of attacks and my morbid spreadsheet all awaited. As usual, when I entered, Matej and Pauline didn’t look up. I sank into a chair, fighting the urge to bury my head in my hands. What kind of life was this, I wondered? I worried relentlessly for my Syrian team, none of whom I’d met but all of whom I spoke to everyday, who lived close by and forever out of reach. The only two people physically in my life were Matej and Pauline, around whom I spent all my waking hours—but how much did I know of them, and they of me? They knew nothing of S or my life before Antakya. They didn’t know my mother’s name or that my father left us when I was in high school. They didn’t know my favourite smell was sandalwood or my favourite bird, the kingfisher. I didn’t know anything about their lives or families. We never hugged. I hadn’t touched another person in two months. It must have been even longer for them. Our real selves, it seemed, were reserved for our “real” lives—wherever those were. * By the end of my second month, I was constantly imagining the staff I was closest to—Hamade, Jwan, Nivin—dying. Not just dying, but dying violently. Shot down in Idlib’s streets or bombed in their homes or obliterated by ERW or, or, or . . . No one was safe, no matter how much they knew or how careful they were. My hands were always cold. Soon, I stopped sleeping altogether. All night long, I looked at Barbie and she looked back. Every night, as the sky lightened to dawn, I hurtled between confusion—how could I be haunted by things I’d never experienced?—and shame—was I appropriating others’ tragedies, taking their grief for myself? It was not normal, I thought. I was not normal. Matej and Pauline seemed fine. Even the Syrians had adapted. As journalist Rania Abouzeid writes, “The shelling, once unpredictable, was now as regimented as a television viewing guide. Syrians called it ‘the nightly schedule.’ It began a little after 11:30 p.m. . . . A second, then a third strike, each louder and closer, amplified in a night black because of the lack of electricity and otherwise nearly silent in a neighbourhood emptied of families.” Hamade often told us the fighting had its own logic, a rhythm invisible to outsiders. So, I kept hoping I’d adapt, become used to the cadence of attacks I wasn’t directly exposed to, but that still shaped my days and nights. I just had to wait, be patient. Let time normalize the unthinkable. * The unthinkable: Hamade casually announcing a hospital being wiped off the earth. Turkish chocolate and (un)dead kids. Turkish coffee in hand and satellite imagery of chemical attacks on screen. Soft tapping of keyboards during the day and detonations rippling through the nights. Forty-five kilometers close, a world away. * In S’s latest email, he’d signed off with “love.” I’d stared at the screen, my fists curling with joy. A minute later, an email arrived from Hamade. Nivin, one of the Syrian staff, wouldn’t be working that day, he wrote. The building next to hers had been barrel bombed last night. She and her family hadn’t been harmed, Alhamdulillah, but the explosion—the incredible noise and quaking earth and the sheer terror—had caused her to bleed. She was seven months pregnant. I sat, numb and unmoving for I’m not sure how long—maybe five minutes, maybe fifteen. When I clicked back to S’s email, I stared again at the word “love.” Now, I felt nothing, not even a basic recognition. I felt like I was reading a language I didn’t know. * One day, leaving the old town, I saw children lying motionless on the cobblestone. A moment later, they disappeared. On the way back, I passed a car and it exploded. I blinked, and there it was, intact. Back within the purple walls, I imagined a mortar crashing through the ceiling. I shut my eyes and prayed for respite.  * On surrealist images, Breton quoted Baudelaire, “Man does not evoke them; rather they ‘come to him spontaneously, despotically. He cannot chase them away; for the will is powerless now and no longer controls the faculties.’” To Breton, this was high art, a pure production of the subconscious bypassing the rational mind’s tendency to filter and dilute. But the same helplessness over images that one does not wish to see—the tyrannical or “despotic” way they appear—also characterizes acute PTSD. Psychologists agree that repeated exposure to trauma stories, even if that exposure is only second-hand, leads to a “disrupted world view,” one wherein the world no longer appears benign. Now, when I saw people from or on their way to Syria—a woman in full niqab, children spilling out of the Arabic-Turkish language school, men with long beards—I sped up. Not because I was afraid of them but because I was starting to grasp that, in addition to the physical distance imposed by law, my sanity hinged on maintaining a mental separation from Syria. Before, I’d wanted to get as close as possible—or at least that’s what I’d told myself: a “good” aid worker would try to be as close to crisis as she could, all the better to help alleviate it. Now, though I was physically removed from tragedy, I suffered like I was at ground zero. “At any given moment we have only a distinct notion of [separate] realities, the coordination of which is a question of will,” writes Breton. I no longer willed to hold all these different realities in my mind. Now, I just wanted to be in the future, with S. * When I didn’t extend my contract, Matej was furious. “What are you going to do that’s more important?” he yelled. Later, he apologized, but I told him it wasn’t necessary. I had asked myself the same question, with no answer. The Syrians were more understanding. “Your parents will be happy to see you,” Hamade said. He was shorter than I’d expected and his eyes were blue, not brown as I’d imagined. He’d crossed the day before I left to pick up the colour printer that headquarters, after almost three months of my pestering, finally approved. Now, the Syrians could print their own materials instead of having them smuggled from Antakya. I was glad to see Hamade in person, to situate all of him, beyond just his steady voice, in my world. But some distances remained. I did not tell him, for example, that I was leaving not to see my family but to meet a man I’d only known for a few weeks in “real” life. In the taxi to the airport, my phone pinged with Facebook notifications. Friend requests from the Syrians. I accepted them immediately, clicking hungrily through their photos. A close-up of someone’s grandmother biting into an apricot, its juices running down her chin. Jwan standing in an olive grove, hands in his pockets, looking vaguely uncomfortable. (“City boy!” I thought, smiling.) Here was Nivin’s newborn, wrinkled pink. And Hamade standing on a rooftop, collapsed roofs behind him and his two young daughters, porcelain-skinned and smiling beside him. Relief came first, then shame. The Syrians’ realities—at least, as represented on Facebook—were vastly more varied than I’d pictured. Until then, some part of me had felt morally obligated to imagine their lives under war, shellings and dead children and all, even when those images and sounds went rogue, appearing randomly, not just when I allowed them in. I’d become trapped in the purest surreality as Breton defined it: “psychic automatism,” my imagination sputtering haphazardly, in every direction. All just to get it wrong anyway. * Experts agree the best solution to secondary trauma is minimizing exposure. In other words, limiting work hours, leaving your work at work. Obviously, living in our office, every waking hour consumed by the war, I never stood a chance. Now, I wonder why Matej and Pauline weren’t similarly affected. Some experts believe prior trauma, especially in childhood, heightens the risk of secondary trauma later in life. Now, I can see that I’d been burned out from Mali even before getting to Antakya. And growing up, I’d had a father who was violent, always at war with us, himself, the world. Maybe that history primed me in ways that Matej and Pauline weren’t. Or maybe they were affected and just hid it, the way we were always hiding our selves from each other. I’d never know. After I left, we didn’t stay in touch. I felt too guilty for leaving to reach out and they were probably too busy, too focused, too dedicated to their work to bother. They were the type of “good” humanitarian I was not: professional in contexts where professionalism seemed almost inhumane. I still imagine them now, slaving away within those purple walls. * It would be months before my nightmares abated, before I could talk about Syria or watch news from the Middle East without shrinking. Seeing S again helped. We met in Geneva. One part bliss: S in the flesh, his hands, his mouth. Geneva in summer, the sunset blush of Lac Leman. But another part was agony: I saw the Alps and thought of the Nur Mountains, which is to say, I thought of death. S and I ate Swiss chocolate, dark and bitter, but all I could think of was milky-sweet damak, which is to say, all I could think of was death. In Antakya, I’d tried so hard to push against the horror creeping into my consciousness. But this time, the sensations weren’t as unbearable, maybe because I actually allowed myself to feel them. Guilty, exhausted, ruined, and glad to be there, with S. A juxtaposition, I was learning, was not always a contradiction. But after three weeks, S had to return to India. Perhaps I could go with him, I ventured. I had no job lined up and enough savings to last me at least a half year. He touched my face and smiled. Then, gently, he told me he didn’t think that was a good idea. And just like that, it was over. * “The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience,” Breton wrote, nearly 100 years ago. This still rings true today. If that’s the case, then Antakya was the closest I came to absolute irrationalism, months coloured by events and people outside my physical reach. As time went by, I expected my memories of those months, already swaddled in a sort of surreal gauze, to fade. But, instead, the opposite has happened: six years later, my memories of that time have sharpened, skin and skies and walls intensifying into technicolor. Across the years and continents, I can feel the weight of my boredom, my horror, my laughter in Antakya. I can feel the tenderness I was growing for S, its precarity and promise. In fact, I feel closer to all those things now than when I experienced them. A juxtaposition is not a contradiction; the surreal can be truer than reality.
‘I May Dwell in Darkness to Affirm its Opposite’: An Interview with Eugene Marten

Talking to the author of Pure Life about brand names as verbal death, distrusting omniscience in fiction, and elite semicolon use.

Tune in online Tuesday, June 21, 2022 for Strange Light Presents: Eugene Marten in Conversation with Defector editor David Roth—registration is free. At first glance, Eugene Marten’s fifth novel Pure Life (Strange Light) might sound like a departure from the subject material of his previous books, beginning as it does with the archetypal ascent of a small-town high school football player to NFL stardom. Known to the reader only by his jersey number, Nineteen retires early, injured but seemingly destined to slide into what should be a life of fame and fortune and ease. But things go wrong, as the story demands they must. This is in the jacket copy, more or less, so it’s not a spoiler to say all this happens early in the novel: Nineteen’s playing days—and his fortune—are both over and lost before page fifty. What follows is an increasingly nightmarish descent into Nineteen’s brain-damaged psyche, pushed against the brutality of the world he’s leaving behind, in his lost career and family, and the world he enters into as he looks for a miracle cure for what is likely the same chronic traumatic encephalopathy suffered by so many ex-football players. His search eventually leads him to the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, where in his desperation he finds yet another kind of violence, different than that of the playing field or the marketplace but with its own public-facing logic. Marten’s work possesses a kind of assured restlessness that I’ve always admired: his novels do not commit to remaining in only one mode, or to being about only what they seem to be on the first page. In Pure Life, as in his other books, what for many novelists would be spread over three hundred pages gets compressed into a third of that space, by virtue of a relentless onrush of events, and by Marten’s precision at the level of the sentence and the scene. This compression allows his novels to travel past their initial premise into new territories of aftershock and aftermath, into the deeper wanting that lies behind what a character tells themselves they’ve set out to achieve. His protagonists are flawed and susceptible to temptation, like all of us; they each carry their own personal shard of darkness that, turned the other way around, always catches the light of what else might have been possible. Everywhere his characters go and everything they do is rendered in Marten’s unforgettable prose style, a voice that I’ve long counted among the strongest in contemporary literature. I spoke to Marten about Pure Life by correspondence throughout the month of May. Matt Bell: One of the first things a reader is going to notice about Pure Life is your choice not to reveal your protagonist’s name, but to refer to him by his football jersey number, Nineteen. You also don’t name the professional team he plays for, although other players and other teams are named, and you frequently refer to people only by their title or role: Coach, the expatriate, the girlfriend, the Canadian husband, the Canadian wife. I’m curious about the distance this creates between the reader and the characters: is this you purposely holding the reader at a remove, as a novelist, or should we read this more as Nineteen, seeing people not as named individuals but as the roles they play in his life? Eugene Marten: I would answer yes to the last part of your question, and add that my characters are also referred to by the roles they play in their own lives. This may seem like a distancing device at first, but an initial anonymity to me is a better portal to the world of the book. So many names, even in books I love, sound simply too “made up,” more hiccup than handshake, more narrative convenience than connection. Some writers are better than others at it; you can't argue with Barry Hannah's names, or Joy Williams', and though Hemingway has some real clunkers, opening his best novel with the words “Robert Cohn” is a brilliant stroke. I should say, though, that some of the namelessness in Pure Life is not unqualified; Nineteen is likely unable to retain the Canadian couple's names because of cognitive impairment. I should also say, full disclosure, that the christening of characters is just something I'm not very good at. I'm usually not quite able to overcome that initial feeling of self-conscious artifice, but this is not to say I never use names, I just prefer they be “given” to me, sort of dropped in my lap by necessity, a requirement of the book revealing itself. If I have to look in the White Pages, or play mix and match with firsts and lasts, I'd rather not. Of course, this approach has been used in many short stories, but what happens when it's sustained over the length of a novel (if I'm not mistaken, Matt, you're not entirely a stranger to it)? Book sales notwithstanding, I like to think it doesn't keep the reader at arm's length, but results in a different kind of interaction, maybe one more meaningful than that afforded by the added fiction of a name. One might even imagine one’s own name for a character, just as one imagines how that character might look. As you said, the act of naming is important to me in my work too: I had a period of several years where I didn’t use a proper name for anyone. There’s a similar estrangement around brand names and the names of locations and other cultural references in Pure Life, which my own work generally shares. In your novel, it’s also a bit selective, coming and going in places. A minor example: there’s an unnamed automobile in the novel that’s clearly a Toyota, which I know only because I own one too, and I recognized the name of its entertainment system, which is named. There are many elements of your work that remind me of DeLillo’s, but one place all your novels feel drastically different to me is in their approach to modernity. If DeLillo simultaneously celebrates it and feels paranoid about it, your novels are doing something else. Is there a general stance in your fiction toward all the markers and signifiers of the branded, commodified world Nineteen and your other characters are moving through? I think modernity should be given its due, but to me brand names often constitute a kind of verbal death, like finding a bit of plastic in your soup, and I try to use them judiciously. (The sound of the brand, how it interacts with the other sounds, is also a factor.) So I'll use the words around them, suggesting, leading up to, pointing, but leaving the final utterance to the reader—not just so the latter can participate, but to give the object a kind of life, context—roots, if you will. It so often seems that to name something is to discard it before its time—which I suppose could also be the point—but I sometimes prefer to take it just so far and then nod to the reader: We both know what I mean, you take it from here. Now as far as the car you mentioned, it is identified as a Camry in an earlier paragraph, but even if it hadn't been I probably still wouldn't have said “Toyota.” This lends the vehicle the exalted status it has for Nineteen's girlfriend; you have to earn it to say it. On the other hand, the same make is freely mentioned in Honduras, where it has been secondhanded as a common taxi, repurposed along with the old American school buses, NFL jerseys, and other cultural hand-me-downs. So how's your soup? “You have to earn it to say it” is such a smart way to say it, and I love how you explain the esteem given to the different brands and objects changing in different contexts. You mentioned that sound is a factor in these decisions: one of the pleasures of reading your work has always been the power of your prose, and certainly that pleasure continues in Pure Life. There are so many places I could choose to quote from, but I’m going to pick a smaller moment because I think it’s the attention given to the small things that really shows a writer’s commitment to getting things right: When Nineteen is on the street in Honduras, he notes offhandedly once that “traffic was dangerous but purposeful; familiar red octagons said ALTO and were regarded as suggestions.” I’ve had a minor obsession with that semicolon there, with its half-stop that in this context feels to me so much like the country road rolling stop you see everywhere in the Midwest where we both grew up. No one would probably notice if a less interesting sentence was in that spot, but I’m glad for the amount of attention you paid even to this scrap of setting. Assuming it has, how has your approach to your prose itself changed over time? Do you feel compelled to push your sentences in new directions each book, or is it more a matter of trying to deepen and refine your stylistic desires? I like your take on that semicolon; it never occurred to me but makes beautiful sense. Thank you, Professor Bell. For me, the great joy of writing is working with sentences, finding the voice of the book, its sound. The way to the mind's eye is through the mind's ear. So never describe anything, render it. Don't describe a ship, build a ship out of words. Then go sailing. And study grammar. Two things that writers, including me, are often lousy at: typing and grammar. You can muddle through with the former, but every writer should learn the mechanics of his medium. It's the music theory of literature, and copy editors are a great resource for this. Each book I've attempted has always been a bit more difficult than the one preceding it, so the language will take me somewhere I haven't been. But I think, over time, I'm more and more disposed toward subtlety, refinement, sentences that are objects of integrity themselves without calling attention to it, that don't distract from what they refer to. The sublime can be very quiet. Think of a drummer like Steve Gadd. You hear this song somewhere and he seems to be keeping a simple beat, then you listen and hear these wonderful things he's doing with color and time, then realize you were hearing it all along. I suppose this sounds a bit Aesthetics 101, but for me the quest is for that ideal synthesis of form and content, the wine and its bottle, etc. Maybe form redeems content, resolves it, forgives it, loves it, but anyway, I should probably stop making musical analogies. It's useful to a point, but writing is writing. We're told all the arts aspire to the condition of music, but maybe music seeks to escape its condition. In 2016, you launched a Kickstarter with the aim of securing funds to travel to Honduras and the Mosquito Coast to research the second half of Pure Life. The Kickstarter ultimately didn’t fund, but I know that those of us who did back it stayed curious about the novel and about the research you’d proposed. Did you end up taking this research trip anyway, or at a later date? Reading the Kickstarter page now, having read the book, it seems like you had a good bit of what would happen in that part of Pure Life planned out: how did the novel change because of this trip, if you did finally go? (Or, if you didn’t, how did it change your plans for the writing?) I did go on that trip, several months later, and it would have been impossible to finish the book without it. I did have a general sense of where things were going to go once Nineteen made it to Honduras, but the exact logistics were unavailable to me and I couldn’t have just made it up (not to mention the particulars of just being there). I also knew that he was going to get into trouble in the Moskitia but wasn’t sure what kind, and still wasn’t sure when we returned. That part, I had to write my way into. In that same write-up of your intentions for Pure Life, you noted that “the theme of vocation is central to the book, as it is in all my work.” The only thing Nineteen is particularly successful at is football, although the money he makes playing affords him a temporary future as an entrepreneur and real estate developer. After he loses most of his money, it leaves him with another kind of loss, this time of purpose and usefulness to others. What is it about vocation that animates you, and how does that translate to animating your characters on the page? In our system you have to work. For the vast majority of us, it's a basic fact of life. I've had a good number of jobs in my time—I'd say fifty or so—mostly blue collar stuff, a lot of it menial, and there was a seemingly endless hand-to-mouth period where my wife and I supported a young family, were on the verge of eviction and what is now called food insecurity more than once, and bounced desperately from gig to minimum wage gig as though it were a matter of life and death, which case could be made. I lived in terror of homelessness. My story is hardly unique, and people have had it much, much worse, but that might explain my writerly obsession with what people “do.” Whether it's a job, or lack of one, vocation or avocation, labor of love or necessary evil, something that defines us or something to transcend, it's always there. As a novelist, I’m always looking for ways in which the book can be smarter than the protagonist, or have a bigger scope, and I feel what seems to be a similar want in Pure Life, as I did in Layman’s Report. In that novel, I’ve always thought the first chapter admirably widened the playing field of the novel, before we meet Fred; in Pure Life, there are several such times where we step away from Nineteen. The one that’s stuck with me most is when Nineteen is talking with a character in Honduras known to us as the expatriate: Nineteen asks the expatriate how he met his wife, which leads to a four-page paragraph of the wife’s backstory, a tale that “the expatriate didn’t know, though she had tried to tell him,” of the horrors the wife had passed through to get to the time and place where they met. A couple pages later, these memories get referenced again, when Nineteen declines to explain his playing days to the expatriate, pretending not to remember. But then you write, “In truth he remembered nothing as clearly, but he couldn’t convey it to someone who hadn’t played the game, any more than he could have known what it was like to cling to the ice-covered roof of a train roaring through thirty-one tunnels in mountain dark.” It’s such a curious moment, where Nineteen’s consciousness mirrors or perhaps rhymes with that of the expatriate’s wife, a character who never appears in the scene. This is a longwinded way of asking how you think of the limitations or possibilities of the novel: How big of a playing field have you given yourself here? How did you decide what was permissible and what should be avoided? The possibilities of the novel are virtually infinite, and for me this is also its limitation. There's such a thing as too much freedom. I distrust omniscience, it seems to me unanchored, loose, lacking in tension; too “easy” in a sense. So my preferred mode to this point is pretty much close third, generally sticking with one character throughout. We see the story unfold over his shoulder, if not through his eyes. The limitations this imposes help me find that voice (Branford Marsalis, on the notion that jazz musicians just get up there and play whatever they want: “There's no freedom in freedom, there's freedom in structure”) and the opportunity it affords to slip seamlessly between interiority and external action is unique to the medium. I also generally eschew multiple POVs for similar reasons. (I think there was a Russian filmmaker who, back in the Potemkin era, repudiated the importance of montage, saying it cut the world up into little pieces. The same might be said for multiple POV. It might be said the world is already cut up into little pieces, that it is in the nature of the novel to impose some coherence, put the puzzle back together.) The passage you mention, involving the expatriate's wife, is sort of an exception, but we hear her story by not hearing it, and, technically, never leave Nineteen's side. Another occurs later, involving multiple characters in an explicit departure at a critical point in the story, but these are elided one to the other without a break, sort of like single-take camerawork in a film, and we ultimately end up back with Nineteen. So it happens, I hope, in the same earned, qualified way I try to approach other aspects of the book, e.g., naming names. (There are also a couple of sections seen through a video camera, ostensibly online, which is the omniscient POV the internet now provides the world, for better or for worse.) But I think a novel of scope is possible regardless of its POV. (“Call me Ishmael”?) You just have to figure it out. I should also say that the book I'm planning now may contradict everything I said above. In the second half of Pure Life, Nineteen goes through a brutal kind of hell, a series of trials in which he is in some ways a bit character: the people acting upon him don’t seem to care that much that the person they’re doing things to is him, the famous football player. This made me think of Stanley Elkin, who once said he “would never write about someone who was not at the end of his rope,” and that “all books are the Book of Job, high moral tests and tasks set in fairy tales, encoded as clues from the sibyls, all their tricky, forked-tongue talk, land-mined and unforgiving as golf greens, as steeplechase and game board and obstacle course.” Nineteen arrives at his own high-stakes, winner-take-all test in the Mosquito Coast deeply diminished in both body and mind, years past his prime in so many ways. Is there a particular interest in your approach to fiction in what happens to a person once they’ve overshot their success, or come down the other side of it? (Something like that happens in Layman’s Report too, I think.) All of your novels, in one way or another, include passages through various kinds of brutality, experiences for which your characters are not always ready. I'm glad you noticed Nineteen is at times reduced to a kind of bit player in his own ordeal/drama, a taste of the “normalcy” he craves, or at least thinks he does. That was my intention. Even his abductors, rather than simply parlaying his diminished celebrity to some advantage, take ironic pains to remind him he was, ultimately, an also-ran. AKA a human being. We expect him to step up, take charge, “redeem” himself, but for the most part the heroics we get are reminders of past glory. That Elkin quote fits him quite well (and might describe my writing career). I've always been drawn to people/characters in extremis; it's simply what generates narrative language for me. That it increasingly evokes twilight, the auroras of autumn, the sinking of the soul's vessel, etc., may be due in part to the moment I find myself approaching now, but also because we seem at times to be facing our own Götterdämmerung, as a society, as a species, or at least turning a very scary corner. So the writer calmly, dispassionately, asks of the page the proverbial question: What happens next? (Might as well make great music out of it. How's that for redemption?) All this said, I don't consider myself a pessimist. It sounds pat but I may dwell in darkness to affirm its opposite. There's a scene in Firework where the protagonist is enduring a performance of avant garde music which he obviously feels is a bunch of noise to be escaped from, yet I tried to write the section in such a way that the beauty/interest of the music would shine through both because and in spite of his reaction. Not the first time I've tried that, I think, and probably not the last. My favorite season might be autumn, but spring isn't bad either.
Strange Light Presents: Eugene Marten in Conversation

Join us to see the Pure Life author discuss his new novel with Defector editor David Roth in an exclusive virtual event.

Please tune in online on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at 7 p.m. ET for the inaugural Strange Light Presents! Eugene Marten, author of Pure Life, will be in conversation with Defector editor David Roth to talk about this new novel. Registration is free—sign up here. *** ABOUT PURE LIFE A harrowing, intense, powerful new novel that reads like a classic, from one of the great writers of his generation. Nineteen battles his way into the pros, becomes the quarterback, becomes the myth. Marries the owner’s daughter, touches greatness few will ever dream of, retires into what he assumes will be the promised afterlife of days on the golf course, celebrity endorsements, and cushy real estate investments. But markets tank, family disintegrates, fame fades, and the holes in his mind and memory from a career of punishment on the field become too large and frightening to ignore. When he hears of a miracle brain damage treatment forbidden in the U.S., he travels to the Mosquito Coast of Honduras in search of a chance to restore himself to the man he was. Instead, he finds himself on a journey that plunges him into a darkness more violent and horrific than he could have possibly imagined—at once a fight for his life and to hold onto the shards and fragments of the life he’s fighting for. A sports saga, sprawling thriller, and existential reckoning with the rot at the core of the west, told by an unheralded, singular master, Pure Life is a daring, complex, and brutal confrontation with and demolition of our modern myths in the most primal of settings—one as perilous as it is imperiled.  Eugene Marten was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to European parents, emigrated to the U.S. before the age of two, and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where he now lives again after stints in Oregon, New York City, Costa Rica (where the germ for Pure Life originated), Texas, South Dakota, and Los Angeles. In 2014, an excerpt from his novel Layman’s Report earned him an NEA Fellowship.
‘There’s Nothing More Human Than Being Infected with a Virus’: An interview with Joseph Osmundson

The author of Virology on science fiction metaphors, the fascism of wellness culture, and our intimate relationship to viruses. 

It’s the afternoon of Thursday, March 12, 2020, and I’m in bed in my Brooklyn apartment. The bus releases air pressure just below my second story window several times an hour 24/7; after ten years in New York, the city of my dreams, this whoooosh is as soothing as crashing waves to me. I’m talking to Joseph Osmundson on speaker phone because I have tickets to the Tina Turner musical on Broadway tonight. And I want to go. And I’ve been doing a great job ignoring the reasons I shouldn’t. Inside me, an ethical seesaw is turning sideways, morphing into a nightmare carousel: Well, I reason, if we’re about to give things up for a while (a while being a few weeks, I reason), then let me have one last hurrah! I saved and budgeted and gave things up over the winter so I could afford these tickets. I work hard in this city, and my tradeoff is cultural entertainment. I deserve public fun in a room where professional bodies rhythmically inhale and exhale. So, I’m bargaining. Joe, who in addition to being part of my queer nonfiction writing cohort is also a molecular biophysicist who specializes in viruses, says to me over the phone, “It’s time for us to care for the collective body.” I met Joe in 2014 at a Los Angeles LAMBDA writing retreat (lambda, another variant of SARS-CoV-2). Our teacher was Randall Kenan, a gregarious man full of wisdom and sarcasm who had us write ekphrastic essays and called us his possums, and who would pass away early in the pandemic. Joe and I are almost the same age, two small town west coast weirdos lusting after the queer raunch and subcultural promise of the city, coming of age inside of an institutional metaphor of virus as punishment for hedonism. As adults, we have gorged ourselves on enough community and friendship and literature and movement action to understand that viruses are not vindictive. HIV doesn’t care about sodomy just as COVID-19 doesn’t care about elections or birthday parties or grandparents holding babies. Back home in New York, I got to know Joe the professor, the scientist, the podcaster, the Twitter scold, the cyclist who should really wear a helmet, and most of all, the writer. Joe is someone who organizes his life around being able to write, who just can’t not write, even after working, and biking, and drinking, and dancing.   Joe’s advice about the Tina Turner show was the first COVID moment that broke me: a moment at once global and highly personal, the moment when my floodgates of denial could no longer hold. I sobbed in bed, which was good, because Joe is famously a Pisces and it’s more than okay to cry to him; he might actually be annoyed if you didn’t cry. The intensity of emotion was about missing out on the fun I’d looked forward to, yes. What is grief if not disappointment about the way you expected things to go? But it was something else, too: it was the catharsis that comes from having people in your life who will tell you exactly what you need to hear so you can make your own decision to do the right thing.   Around 3 p.m., I accepted that I was going to give up my tickets. A few hours later, Broadway went dark. I wouldn’t have been able to go even if I’d chosen to ignore the gathering dread and take what I selfishly thought I deserved. There’s a reason I haven’t written about this moment yet, or any of my pandemic moments, privately in a journal or publicly in print. And Joe puts his finger on why in his new book Virology (W. W. Norton), as he himself publishes journal entries from 2020: “We were making (too much) meaning in real time.” I found it tedious somehow to write from within the hyperobject. It’s only now, in summer 2022, as I can reflect on summer 2020 as history being archived, that I feel ready to read a book about the era we’re still living through. The Broadway disappointment wasn’t the last time I would turn to Joe for virology therapy. I had been planning a move to California for a year. I had already uprooted myself, but didn’t know if it was safe or ethical to transplant considering how the world had changed seemingly overnight. I didn’t want to abandon New York. Then he told me: “This pandemic isn’t ending tomorrow or the next day. We have to live our lives.” It sounds like the opposite of the “care for the collective body” guidance, but it wasn’t. This is what it means to queer advice. Queer advice isn’t about rules. It’s not a binary of hedonism versus selflessness, self-care versus political warfare. Queer advice is risk aware assessments and reprogramming, adaptation and design. So, I masked up, and moved across the country. Two years and counting into the waves of emotion and variants and political geekshows of this pandemic, Joe has written the book of essays he was born to write. Reading it is like being at the club with Joe in the middle of the night, screaming over the bass about Sontag and quantum mechanics and poppers. It’s sensitive and rigorous, less a book about science than the humming mind of a scientist who happens to be a gay slut who reads too much. Joe’s prose reaches for both the grandest scale of humanity and the literal molecular levels of who we are. In it, he makes his queer advice canon, writing, “Quarantine is a social act, not a personal sacrifice.” In April 2022 I got COVID for the first time. My feverish brain wanted to make rueful meaning of that moment in real time. But Joe and other activists have taught me to examine the ways we talk about viruses. To not treat it like the enemy, to not attribute agency to it. The meaning of that infection was that I got sick for a while, I stayed inside, and I survived. A month later, just as the advance review copy of his book arrived in the mailbox of my new apartment in Los Angeles, Joe got COVID, too. I interviewed him over text and shared docs while he recovered in his Brooklyn apartment with his partner, Devon, and their dog, MAX! We talked about science fiction metaphors, what PrEP has and hasn’t changed, and the fascism of wellness culture. Tina Horn: At the risk (aware assessment) of acting in bad taste, I’m weirdly thrilled to be reading your virus book knowing your body is across the country literally infected with a virus right now. I’m a slut for a stunt, I guess. My brazenness is probably influenced by the fact that I, myself, got the novel coronavirus COVID-19 for the first time a month ago, and my cough is still rattling around, too. Joe Osmundson: “Novel” coronavirus in that it likes conventional narrative structures and believes sometimes fiction is truer than journalism. Our relationships to viruses, whether we’re infected or not, are intimate. The virus can literally get inside us. This virus needs us. It gets stuck to us. It uses us. We initially let it inside and then try to push it out. It eventually will leave us, either to die in thin air (a true wish I have for all my exes) or to move on to another “host.” I wrote an essay in Virology about how we treat viruses as invading enemies in a war of sickness and health, but it’s just as easy to use metaphors of intimate relations, which can of course be either joyous or benign or deadly as well. SARS-CoV-2 is inside me right now, replicating, speaking to my immune system, which is activating itself to respond. There is of course a danger in this—a danger of losing my breath, or of never fully recovering. But there’s nothing more human than being infected with a virus.   Before I got sick, my partner had COVID, and we were isolating in our tiny New York one bedroom. When I tested positive and got to open the door to his room and check on him and hug him and bring him food, when I stopped worrying about infection but just had an infection, it was both frightening but also an immense relief. So little about viral infection is simple. Many of us are in this newest, freshest hell: a triple vaxxxed, post-omicron surges, mask mandates lifting, everyone will probably get it and that’s fine or is it?! era. It feels disrespectful to those who have suffered and died—and those who still will and those who are grieving—to be excited about the literary/dramatic possibility of this conversation, you speaking about having COVID while we discuss your COVID book … but then again, your book is, among many things, about making meaning from tragedy. So, paint us a word picture, Dr. Joe. What is happening in the body and home of someone who is experiencing the symptoms of a virus he’s been educating the world about for two years of a generation-defining global pandemic? How are you and your queer family? I have to admit that I am deeply saddened by this moment in our public life. It was our great hope, in 2020, that the fractures made more clear by COVID-19 would lead to change, and that we would do simple things to care for one another instead of racing back to a false normalcy that was already deadly. And here I am, May 2022, cases once again spiking, and our political leadership rolling back even simple things—mask mandates, vax checks—as more and more people get sick. It is unavoidably true that our biomedical interventions—vaccines and drugs like Paxlovid—help many avoid the worst outcomes of this virus. It is also true that, as ever, biomedicine isn’t enough. We saw this with the HIV crisis: Who does biomedicine leave behind? Even with good HIV drugs for treatment and prevention, cases in the rural south—for example—are still rising yearly. We need more than drugs. My book is a case for mutual care for one another at all levels, including, not limited to, drugs.  Me? I’m a little sad about the fact that it seems like, if we want to live a faggot life in the world, going to bars or restaurants with friends, going to clubs or concerts, COVID-19 is something we are almost certainly going to face (and, frankly, even if we don’t). I said in 2020 that this virus could change what it means to be human; I think, in a way, it already has.  There’s someone in my life with whom I share, let’s say, some preferences for holistic healing modalities. A year ago, she told me to my face she would never let the government vaccinate her, and she doesn’t need to, because she “won’t give the virus permission to enter my body” (said with a little crossing of the arms over the chest). What I find most disturbing about this is how closely she and I think, in some ways, about health. And then the link between this kind of thinking about public health and the warped close-but-no-cigar ideology about trusting the government and the right to bodily autonomy. Especially in this fucking moment of federal reproductive injustice. Which laws do we want off our bodies? I would LOVE to rant about the fascism/wellness overlap in the 2020s Venn diagram. This bizarro horseshoe theory overlap is centered on a belief in freedom as entirely individual, in responsibility for health as fully our own (as if everyone can eat organic and do yoga!) and a (healthy) skepticism of government perverted into what I call a “freedom” defined as the ability to harm others with our “personal” choices. When holistic wellness is centred only on the self, what is it but another non-scientific fascism? Another way to make oneself the perfect body. But, of course, no body can be perfect; all bodies will fall ill. This is just another attempt to look away from the world as it really is. Right, and you explore “the freedom to harm others” in your essay “On Whiteness,” which is deeply relevant to both the Black Lives Matter civil uprising and to the commodification of self care. So this is something anti-establishment white queers like ourselves should be committed to interrogating.  The anti-vaccine “wellness” community turned a (often) healthy skepticism of science into raising a non-scientific epistemology (the vaccines are the virus) to the level of religion: the religion of one’s agency over one’s own body and health, which is obviously a lie. “I can’t trust doctors (maybe fair), so I can heal my cancer with crystals.” “I don’t believe the government actually wants to care for me and my health (fair), so I reject that government’s vaccine.” I've been thinking a lot about where healthy skepticism bleeds into dogmatic reactionary thinking because, in part, of those on the left still hanging onto desperate idiot ideas about the USSR being … good? And Cuba today being … socialist? I’ve seen this around “leftist” vaccine skepticism and “leftist” tacit support of Russia in Ukraine because the “west” and “NATO” “provoked” this violent, deadly, and expansionist war. All of this, I think, speaks to the abject failure of 20th century political frameworks to deal with the world as it is today. Humans on the margins, and most of us are in this context, are subject to an ongoing and life-threatening attack. We need a new politics. For me, this starts with close community and mutual care and will build itself up from there. Close community and mutual care and dismantling white supremacy: this is how we build queer futures! So, what it is about this pandemic specifically that inspires magical thinking, from Q-ANON conspiracies to the myth that the police protect us from harm? Facing the truth would require too much of us. It would require disruptions of the very frameworks of capitalism that let our lives hum along. Plagues force us to look closely at ourselves and one another when we have a whole late-capitalist society built on looking away from violence. I’m typing this on an iPhone made from mineral extraction and child labour. But in my day-to-day life I use my phone to look at porn more often than think about where this technology comes from.   We are desperate for a world in which COVID-19 doesn’t exist. I am desperate for that world. Remember going to The Eagle and kissing and dancing and not being afraid of getting a virus that could kill you? I do! And that freedom to be in public, to dance, to kiss, was precious and valuable and nothing to be ashamed of. But this is the world we live in. It has COVID-19 in it. And rising fascism and climate disaster and geopolitical threats, and also BO and stubbed toes and hangovers and broken hearts. I think (white) Americans are uniquely bad at accepting that the world isn’t a Disney movie and that no one is coming to save us. I spent so long waiting for my own prince to arrive and *snap* make everything better. But we are the grown-ups now, Tina. It’s horrifying. We have to save ourselves, which we can’t do until we can see the world as it truly is. Speaking of seeing the world as it truly is, I’m famously a fan of supernatural allegories for social problems. But in the early stages of the pandemic, I found the idea of entertainment as a response to what we were going through such a tedious prospect: the idea that basically all stories will be defined by this moment for the rest of my life. You talk in the book about some genre fiction metaphors: The Hot Zone and I Am Legend, the military response to disease, and viruses that make us zombies because of our hubris. Popular fiction is a place for us to work through our existential anxieties: nuclear fallout in the fifties, cold war paranoia in the seventies, and so on. Do you think the speculative fiction and big budget summer flicks of the 2020s will be more about plagues or more about social distancing? Or is the biggest horror that has emerged from this era the collision of the personal and political in the arena of public health?   My partner and I started watching the new Russian Doll last night, seven days into our COVID isolation. Idiot move. Too depressing. But it made me think about one thing, specifically, that’s been on my mind. That show is set specifically in the year 2022; it names the year. And yet it’s set in a world as if the panny never happened: no masks, no changes to life’s routines. We have had some incredible pandemic essays, we are now getting some essential pandemic books, but it seems to me that even art-minded mass entertainment like movies and TV is largely … looking away? For movies, it kind of makes sense to me: they’re literally asking us to come back into movie theaters where we share air with strangers. Makes sense that they might not want to remind us of the respiratory pandemic we’re currently still in. But I wonder about art (which can confront our most profound ills) and entertainment (which usually cannot) and the grey area between (which I believe does exist). Escaping our current and ongoing pandemic hell is important; we deserve pleasure and dumb superhero movies. I’m just not sure what type of art and entertainment will help us process, help us heal, and help us, as I say, not just face but rise to this, our one, but ongoing, precious moment in history.   I do believe it’s precious. Queer and trans people are under attack. The world is warming. The -isms are -ism-ing. Abortion is being rolled back, and abortion is awesome. We’re seeing a rise in moral and sexual panic. Fascism isn’t just rising here. This is our moment to dig in. What will we do with it? I had the same thought watching Russian Doll! The reason it’s so striking is that, as an intergenerational trauma time travel story that is also very New York, it makes specific material of the exact date and space: the Astor Place Uptown 6 train platform in 2022. And in behind the scenes promotional photos, you see the crew on location in masks. So, what does it mean for us to have this parallel universe of stories where 2022 is not defined by N95s on people’s faces and littering the streets? When the time loop movie Palm Springs came out on Hulu in the summer of 2020 (when we were in dire need of some fun new content to stream from our couches) there was some commentary about how it became unexpectedly resonant: we all felt like we were living the same day over and over again. Do stories help us relive the past without being doomed to repeat it? I love stories! But stories, like science, are a tool; they are not inherently good (or inherently evil). You have to consider what the story is, who’s telling it, and whether it reifies the status quo (which I would define as evil since the status quo is quite deadly) or challenges it (good, because this may help more people survive). I say this about science in my book, as well: so many view science as inherently good! “Follow the science!” they say. But this is, of course, not borne out by history, as I describe in great detail in the collection, particularly in the essay “On Whiteness,” which is about viruses and the deadly ways of whiteness. But stories do have great potential, and they are necessary in our political work. One example that comes to front of mind is the FX TV show Reservation Dogs. Full disclosure is that my good friend Tommy Pico writes for the show, but it would come to mind regardless. It’s an all-Indigenous American sitcom, with everyone touching the show coming from Indigenous communities, from the showrunner to the grips and extras. The first season fried my narrative brain. It was otherworldly and spiritual but literal and grounded in this world. It looked directly at the manifestations of grief and loss but included the ridiculous and funny in addition to the expected sobs. It has a vision of policing—policing!—rooted in community and justice. It was funny. Like really funny. Nothing like it has ever been made before. That’s the kind of storytelling that makes new worlds possible. Can you talk about the process of updating your 2016 Village Voice piece for the book? I’m interested in the craft of adaptation, but as a follow-up: does it feel different to have that piece archived in book form in the context of the other essays, as opposed to just living on the Voice’s webpage, especially since that legendary publication has since shuttered? Oh! I am so glad you asked this! Adapting or updating published or older essays is such an essential part of collection making, and I’ve talked about it with some writing friends, but I don’t see it discussed much out in the world. A few of the essays are updated for our current world, with the Voice article being one that needed a significant shift in thinking. I was writing that piece in late 2016, when PrEP for HIV was starting to shift the world profoundly; the book was written largely in 2020 and 2021, in the world shifted by PrEP and U=U (the notion that HIV positive people are the safest to fuck in terms of HIV risk) but now on a planet forever changed by SARS-CoV-2. What could that essay possibly say about this moment?  Well, I decided, a couple of things. One, it memorialized that moment in time, so I wanted to keep its perspective as one from that year. But a new lens of analysis was necessary: Biomedicine (namely PrEP and U=U) had profoundly and forever shifted the meaning of the HIV virus (at least for those with access to these interventions). So, the thinking became about how viruses shift over time, which added a layer to that essay. The first essay from the book (“On Risk”) is also cobbled together from three pieces written and published in a hurry in early 2020. I tried my best to keep the urgency and feeling of that moment but to add —again—deeper thinking that wouldn’t have been possible in real time. And then, in terms of the narrative of the book, I added something that was very difficult for me. The emotional weight of editing these old pieces, of looking back at the plot points of our own lives (so many of which are traumatic or horrible, as plot points often are) was heavy. In the essay, I don’t take PrEP, but manage my extra-relationship sex risk with condoms. Shortly after the essay came out, my partner at that time dumped me, and I had to start to make sex safer as a single person, my nightmare. So, I started PrEP myself. That last paragraph of that essay took months to write, not because the sentences are, like, so perfect and beautiful, but because I had to sit, and face the page, and write that moment—probably the hardest moment of my life— there for everyone to see. I’m feeling a distinct tension right now between, on one hand, relief that I can do the joyful things I missed during two years of public health restriction (like kissing at The Eagle, or going to Broadway shows!), and on the other disappointment, fear, and judgment about other people’s increased risk-taking. For example, I went to see Bikini Kill at the Greek Theater a few weeks back: it’s an amphitheater, live music is important to my mental health, it feels like the right moment to reintroduce life-giving activities like this. On the way in, staff were checking vax cards. Great! But my friend had forgotten theirs and I had a moment of dread: oh no, is my friend going to be turned away from a show they bought tickets to? But the staff person waved them in with a little conspiratorial shhh. Now, I happen to know for a fact my friend is vaccinated. But if the staff of this venue were being lax in that moment, have vax cards become a TSA-like theater of inconvenience assuring us of the feeling of safety without creating actual conditions of safety? One more note: at the end of the show, a strange man approached my friends and me to ask us basic questions about the band, quickly launching into a rant about his right to be there even though he didn’t have his vax card. We’re all punks with good boundaries so we just got the fuck outta there, but it was a disturbing mystery moment: what is motivating people to infiltrate spaces of entertainment to attempt ideological persuasion? This tension is the tension of living, I would say. For those of us who've been fags since the '80s, we know this tension: sex feels amazing! Oh, by the way, it can give you a deadly virus and there's no way to have sex without risk! HAVE FUN OUT THERE BABY GAYS! I think the tension is a good thing: It means you give a shit. That pleasure is important to you (because you're a person and people should be able to feel pleasure), but that you aren't willing to sacrifice or harm others to get it. We all want COVID not to be a thing, but it still is, and so we hold the tension as a positive marker of care and interconnection on this planet, until we can have simple and pure pleasure again. Like with HIV: for those with access to PrEP, sex got to take on a new meaning in a post-PrEP world. Sex truly (nearly) without risk! What joy! But, with COVID, we aren't there yet. And so: tension. How beautiful! Because it means we give a shit. And here's the other thing: Humans always fuck up! All of us! And so we need systems with robust protections. Like a concert outside with vaccine checks! Because, when one thing fails (oh, they didn't properly check your vaccine status), you're still at an outdoor venue which is way lower risk! My public health brain (very much not my formal training but very much my faggot-sex-brain training) is about systems robust to failure. You assume a human failure will happen at some point; when that happens, what other interventions will catch it to keep people safe? Because you can't rely on perfection, and you can't trust that nutty people won't act in bad faith (they will). So nerdy bureaucratic shit like public health systems robust to individual failures become actually a queer ethic of care! “Systems robust to failure” is also a great way to describe BDSM! So, in some ways, you have made it your mission to guide people towards a more precise, careful, and accurate way of using language to understand viruses. I’ve seen you on Twitter calling people out for describing COVID’s desire, or its morality. The book contains an entire essay, “On War,” exploring the horror, not to mention futility, of “fighting” a virus using the language of war. Paradoxically, your entire writing career, from Capsid on, is about using poetry and metaphor to experiment with how humans think and feel about viruses. And earlier in this interview, you said, “this virus needs us.” Which is it, Joe?! Susan Sontag asked us—in Illness as Metaphor—to remove metaphors entirely from our thinking about bodies and illness. She called being ill with a disease like cancer so thick with metaphorical thinking attached (at the time, a disease of “repressed feelings”), a “double illness,” the sickness, and the metaphors. I argue, in the book, that pathogens, bacteria, viruses, and fungi, are so small that they’re impossible to talk about without metaphor. When you think about staph bacteria, do you think about a single-celled gram-positive bacterium, or a wound? And even the word staph relates to the shapes of grapes on a vine, a metaphor for how the bacteria look under a powerful microscope. Coronavirus? Because, under an even more powerful microscope, it looks like a crown. This is metaphor baked into the language at such a profound level it cannot be removed, as Sontag might ask. So, it becomes not about a language devoid of metaphor, but which metaphors we choose. For HIV, in Capsid, I had to understand that virus (one I’d grown up terrified of) as something … almost like a lover. My life had given me the circumstances of many people I know who seroconverted. And I needed to love myself as HIV negative, or positive, both; to love the virus that might have already been in me, because when HIV infects you, it does become a part of your DNA. In this collection, the main undergirding metaphor I asked us to infuse in our thinking all the way to the level of our language is care. If so much language around pandemic, plague, and viral infection is driven by war (as we show), how can we change that language to be built from care, connection, and community, even in the face of unprecedented and risk-filled times? Because, whether it’s pandemic or climate change or fascism, we live in risk-filled times, and living well in them means resisting together and insisting on the right to care for every living person.