Speaking to the author of Caste about the insufficiencies of the term “racism,” objectivity versus balance, and the opportunities America’s coming demographic shift presents.
He was a hero, a man who broke a barrier, but everything that’s happened since he died has way more to do with us than him.
The author of I Hold a Wolf by the Ears on spectral encounters and exorcisms, America’s rejection of history, travel literature, and boxing.
Speaking to the author of Caste about the insufficiencies of the term “racism,” objectivity versus balance, and the opportunities America’s coming demographic shift presents.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, is a landmark study of the Great Migration, the period between WWI and the 1970s when millions of African-Americans fled the Jim Crow South. It was an epic subject and an epic task. Told through the lives of three individuals, Wilkerson spent fifteen years exhaustively reporting and conducting interviews. Curiously, despite the subject matter, the word “racism” does not appear once in The Warmth of Other Suns. In the course of reporting The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson realized the term was insufficient for describing the elaborate framework that organizes U.S. society. What she was writing about was actually a caste system, and this became the subject of her second book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Caste is no less ambitious than Wilkerson’s first book. By comparing the racialized system in the U.S. with the millennium-old one of India and that of Nazi Germany, Wilkerson distills what she calls the “eight pillars of caste.” She describes caste as a hierarchical system that assigns roles to members of society at each rung of the social ladder. In a caste system, consciously or subconsciously, everyone knows their place and the place of others simply by looking at them. In a caste system, it is dangerous to act out of place, to break from the script. I spoke to Wilkerson about how the U.S. caste system was born from slavery and how it has mutated throughout history, her choice to include personal experiences, and why the 2042 census projection, which predicts white people will become a minority, could be a turning point for the U.S. caste system. Connor Goodwin: I'll begin with the obvious. The U.S. is not usually viewed as a caste system. What convinced you that caste was the best way to frame how U.S. society organizes itself? And what insight does this caste fretwork provide that, say, race or class alone, does not? Isabel Wilkerson: That’s a great question. It started with my previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which was about the exodus of six million African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to all points North, Midwest, and West. In other words, it was the out-migration of people who had been born to and trapped in a caste system known as Jim Crow. I was describing the world anyone [in the Jim Crow South] was living in, whether the people were in the dominating caste or the subordinated caste—and what life was like in that world. A lot of people who’ve read the book in intervening years have often described it as a book about how they were fleeing racism in the South. But I do not use the word “racism” in the book. Racism did not feel sufficient to describe the organized, multi-layered, fixed repression of the people in that world. That repression was bigger and deeper and more far-reaching than [racism]. So the word I used was “caste.” [“Caste”] was a word that had actually been used by anthropologists and social scientists who went to the South during the Great Migration, primarily in the 1930s—the word they come up with time and time again was “caste.” So when sociologists and anthropologists went to the South and studied it when the caste system was in full force, in its most formal and brutal iteration, they used the word “caste.” In writing about the experiences of people in the twentieth century who were fleeing that caste system, only to arrive in the big cities outside of the South and to discover a different kind of hierarchy that they then had to navigate, additional restrictions that they might not have anticipated, that actually arose because of their arrival. In other words, fleeing the caste system did not free them from the caste system as it existed in other parts of the country. It shadowed them wherever they went. As a result, the language I have come to use is “caste” because it speaks to the structure, that often hidden and unrecognized hierarchy, and the boundaries that the structure imposes to keep the parts separate and ranked. That is why I use the word “caste.” What I found most convincing was that a caste system ascribes roles to people at each tier and everyone subconsciously knows these roles. Can you speak to this idea of scripted roles and what happens when someone steps outside their role? Well, there’s so many examples. Perhaps that is why the word “caste” is so appropriate, because it reminds of just what you said—the roles that we’ve been assigned. We did not choose these roles, they were assigned and affixed to us. In many respects, they hold everyone back because we often don’t get choices as to how we’re viewed, how we’re seen, what our potential is viewed to be. One of the metaphors I use is that of being in a play. If you have a long-running play, everybody knows who’s in what role, and people have been in the roles for so long they know where someone is supposed to be on the stage before they even step on the stage, because that’s what happens in a play. It’s interesting that the word “cast” is applied to a play; “cast” is what’s put on an arm when there’s a fracture to hold the bones in place. So the idea of holding someone or something in place is a hallmark of what caste means. The origins of the American hierarchy of caste began with enslavement. Literally what you looked like determined the kind of work that you would do in the country for 246 years of enslavement and then for 100 years after that in the Jim Crow caste system, [which] did not end legally until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. For most of the country’s history, it was very clear who was doing what based on what they looked like, which signaled where they stand in the caste system. The dirtiest, most dangerous, most dreaded jobs were assigned to people who were enslaved, who had no choices in what they might do, had no choice over their bodies, and this went on for over twelve generations. Even with Covid-19, studies have found that Black and brown people were getting sicker at a higher rate and dying at higher rates. Much of that had to do with the occupational caste hierarchy that became evident during the crisis, especially in the early going, when there was limited protections, limited masks for anyone. These were the people who were on the front lines: the ones stacking shelves at the grocery store, the ones who were driving the busses and public transportation, the ones making deliveries. They were on the front lines, exposed to the public without the protections we now know were necessary and advisable, and allow[ed] others to shelter-in-place and be safer from the virus. Every other week there seems to be another example of someone, generally from what would be viewed as the dominating caste inserting themselves or intruding as an African-American is going about their life and calling the police on them for something that would be seen as perhaps benign by someone else. Someone called the police on two African-American men waiting for a friend at a Starbucks. Someone called the [campus] police on a student at Yale University who was studying and resting her head on her books. There’s police being called on people who are at a pool. These are the current-day manifestations of policing the boundaries and the instant recognition of or belief that certain people belong in certain places and others do not. Is there a way in which the ongoing protests as part of the Movement for Black Lives is challenging the caste script? I think that all the liberation movements that have occurred throughout American history have been an effort to challenge the pre-existing caste system. This is part of a continuum. History unaddressed recurs. American history is one that can be characterized by the underlying structure that we live with, but then these advances that have occurred over time that were often swiftly followed by retrenchment and backlash and a long period of plateauing. It’s this cycle that seems to be recurring and this is a continuing manifestation of the efforts to bring light to, and to somehow transcend, the hierarchies that have been the basis of so much injustice and inequality in the country. You speak of caste as a rigid organizing system that seeks to keep the dominant members on top and the subordinate ones on the bottom. While this organizing system is rigid, what constitutes someone as a member of the dominant caste has changed over time. In what ways has the U.S. caste system reconstituted itself throughout history? The essential hierarchy—the structure—remains the same. But who qualifies to be in the dominant group, who can be permitted, admitted, into the dominant group is one of the focuses of any caste system. The people who qualify to be in the dominant group have changed over time to meet the needs of changing demographics and infusion of people into the country. In 1790, the people who would’ve qualified to be in the dominant group, the people who qualified as white, would be completely different from who would’ve qualified in 1890 or 1924 when a major immigration bill passed that actually restricted people who were coming in from Southern and Eastern Europe and other parts of the world outside of Western Europe. The fact of a dominant group has been ever-present. The fact of a bottom rail has been ever-present and has been more static in its membership—descendants of the enslaved have always been consigned to the subordinated bottom of the caste system. The changes have occurred in the top. This is the reason why [we talk about] the idea of race as a social construct. But we have been so acclimated and so socialized to believe in [race] as [a] law of nature that it has come to be seen as the way things have always been. But it turns out race is not actually that old of an idea, only four or five hundred years old. It arose as a concept with the populating of the Americas which brought together people from different parts of the world who otherwise would not have been identified on the basis solely of their color. They would have been identified as Ethiopian or as Polish or as Hungarian and suddenly they get to the United States and they are put in a queue based on what they look like, based on where they fit in the hierarchy that was created as a result of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. People who had not needed to think of themselves as white, not needed to think of themselves as Black, are suddenly assigned to racial categories that did not exist before, that did not need to exist before. This is how relatively new [race] is, but it has been around long enough, become so much a part of how we think of ourselves, we don’t question it anymore. The language of caste is this new language for understanding ourselves, for understanding our history, understanding how we interact with one another, how we relate to one another, and how we have inherited this framework. No one alive is responsible for creating [and] it’s not anyone’s fault they were born to a particular place in the caste system. This is what we inherited. But once we become aware of it, it is our responsibility to see how it affects us, how it hurts all of us and what we can do to work together to transcend it. In Caste, you reluctantly introduce some personal experiences. Why did you choose to include these, and did that choice in some way resonate with the recent discourse around “objectivity” in journalism? The idea of objectivity was not an issue for me. There’s a whole long conversation that could be had about objectivity. We are a species known for our capacity for emotion, for empathy, for taking in information and inputs from many different sources in order to survive. By definition, it means that we are not machines that can be seen as objective. We are, by definition, taking in inputs and sensory information that we then encode subconsciously and consciously that affect how we see a particular thing. Objectivity is not the same as authority. Objectivity is not the same as doing the research. Objectivity is not the same as doing the hard work to create a document that reflects the research one has done. The goal should be balance. The goal is not to pretend we are machines. We fool ourselves if we think any one person, or any one group, has a lock on objectivity. My work has always been about telling a bigger story through the lives of other people and not making it personal so that someone would think this is singular to her. I’m more accustomed to and feel very at home with focusing in on the stories of others in order to tell a larger story through narrative nonfiction. That’s what I do, that’s who I am, and that’s what I prefer to do. In the process of doing the work that I have felt called to do, I have also run into the very phenomena I am writing about, so that’s the reason why it seemed necessary, reluctantly for me, to include examples from my own experiences. Your last book, The Warmth of Other Suns, told the history of the Great Migration through the lived experiences of three individuals. Whereas that book was very biographical and consisted of extensive in-person interviews, your new book relies more heavily on archives and academic studies. How did this affect your reporting for Caste and did it present any unique challenges (like you couldn’t go back for more interviews)? That’s a really good point. There was a mix of all those things. I did do extensive interviewing and interaction and conversation with people who were dealing with caste in their own ways. The difference is that this is not the same kind of focus on just three people like The Warmth of Other Suns was. This is a chorus of people testifying to the experiences that they might have had of caste. In addition to that work of listening to, hearing, searching out, and being attuned to the stories of people that I was meeting or talking to, I also was looking to the other disciplines that touch upon caste in order to understand it as fully as I possibly could. Anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, economics—all of these various disciplines. I was awash in books. Books, books, books. Books that were written about caste from, say, the nineteenth century. British scholars writing about caste. Indian scholars writing about caste. There was a point where I was having to read a book a day because there was so much coming in, so much that needed to be done. The work was massive to study, absorb, and then distill these disparate cultures, different disciplines, [and] try to condense this into something that would be readable, absorbable, and perhaps illuminating to people. Throughout the book, you bring up the 2042 census projection, which predicts white people will become a minority in the U.S. In what ways might the 2042 census upset the current caste system and, since it is based on race, how might the caste system reconstitute itself if whites, the dominant caste, become a minority? The country will be facing a turning point in its identity and it has a choice to make as to how it will move forward, how it will perceive itself, how it will reconcile a demographic combination that it’s never seen before. If projections hold, this will be a new experience for everyone wherever they might be in what I call a caste system. What I’m trying to say is it will affect everyone and the choice is whether to embrace this change and become stronger for it or to further retrench and reconstitute the caste system as has happened in the past. When you look at the 1924 immigration bill, the response was to shut down additional immigration to keep the country constituted the way it had been. The country is facing an existential question about what it will be, how will it constitute itself, will it embrace a demographic that’s different than what it’s done before. The caste system has been in place from the beginning and has shown itself to be incredibly resilient and enduring and, unless there’s an awareness and enlightenment about that, the possibility is that, without enlightenment and awareness, it will just reconstitute itself as it has in the past.
The author of Life Events on grieving, exit guides, and the way we think about death.
In 1967, British psychiatrist John Mark Hinton tried to outline dying in just 144 pages. Brief as it was, Dying didn’t discuss finality with euphemisms, but centred the experiences of terminally ill patients. And while the book guided the implementation of palliative care in hospices, it did little to acknowledge how those institutions conceal death and illness. Over fifty years later, and in the midst of a pandemic, deaths are not only abstracted in statistics, but we’re being forced to move on without grieving that loss. In her third novel, Life Events (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Karolina Waclawiak considers the pre-grieving stage of loss. Her narrator, Evelyn, is at a crossroads: her marriage is ending and her father is dying, so she becomes an exit guide. It’s in meetings with death doulas and afterlife conventions that she learns how to provide companionship to three terminally ill “clients,” and helps them die. Exit guides help restore dignity to the dying by letting them dictate it or, as her boss proselytizes, “[d]eath isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you do.” While Evelyn struggles with her avoidant relationship to pain and grief, she ultimately makes peace with her failures and choices—something Waclawiak’s characters have evaded at all costs. In her two previous novels How to Get into the Twin Palms and The Invaders, they are outsiders, constantly faced with the pressures to pass as much as they can in order to be accepted. Life Events ends on a more hopeful note, with Evelyn playing back old voicemails from her parents, wondering what will happen when they can no longer ramble on. Sara Black McCulloch: How is everything in LA right now? Karloina Waclawiak: When I went to get my dad out of Texas, because the numbers were going up there, California was fine. And then we drove to Connecticut to bring my dad to my brother, and in the time it took for me to do that... I returned to California and it’s now a disaster. Life Events deals with grief and death and with everything going on with COVID, has this changed your views on grief or shifted the way that you were thinking about a lot of this before the pandemic? In the early weeks of the pandemic, I saw a lot of young people and people my age start talking about health directives, feeling like anything could happen. They started to think about, what would happen if they died? And it really felt like a mass movement that I've never seen before. I think in general, Americans certainly have an uncomfortable relationship with death, if they have a relationship to it at all. And to me, in American culture, it feels like death is really hidden away. Aging is really hidden away. And aging is seen as a threat and something to fix if possible. And so, it was really interesting to me to see the pandemic as this sort of great leveler—where everyone had this acute threat of, what happens if I die or my loved one dies? To me, that's been really the striking moment of the pandemic. And it felt like, wow, everything I wrote about in the book, just their energy, has come to the fore. But with that, you know, I had anxiety. Everyone is already feeling terrible. A book about grief? Do people really want to confront grief? But it is an inevitability. Recently, I saw tweets where people were talking about writing wills just in case, and few people, especially young people, have had to consider that until now. Because of COVID, hospitals have instituted a no-visitor policy, and now a lot of people have been dying in hospitals alone. Their families can’t properly mourn or even hold a funeral. Even during this pandemic and this monumental loss, a lot of us are still not seeing it. It’s so heart wrenching having someone you love die. I lost my mother in September, and talked to my family about this. It was awful, but the idea of... just, what so many families are now facing, like you said: if she were in the hospital and we could not be with her, that would just have added a whole other layer of grief. I can't even comprehend what families are going through, especially if it's somebody who was not previously ill, that sort of dramatic turn, and then having them go to the hospital, not knowing what's happening and really being cut off. And then, you know, being told they're gone. It's just so shocking, and I think, with the pandemic in general, we're all suffering from a collective grief as a society. I truly don't believe it will ever go back to the way It was and a lot of people are grappling with losing the kind of life that they had before. I certainly heard from people who said, “I'm okay right now,” and who are expressing gratitude. I feel the same way—that my life has changed significantly—but I also feel grateful for the life that I have. That collective grief of not going back to the way it was and having to sit with an uncomfortable feeling of not knowing when and then the added layer of grief that comes from watching so many people die. Even if you're not intimately connected with someone who has passed away, just seeing the numbers climb is really debilitating. All of this is to say that I think it is unreal to me to not be able to be with your loved one as they're dying. That was an experience [losing someone] that I had with my mother and my grandfather who passed away over a decade ago. It's such a profound experience. It's really terrifying, and it changes you, but for people to not have the opportunity to mourn feels like another kind of grief. The way we talk about death is through so many euphemisms. We have this urge to compartmentalize it. And the language for death distances us from it. Did you ever struggle to give a language to grief and to that kind of mourning when you were writing the book? I tried to be clear-eyed about it. During the editing process, my mother passed away and even though I had lost my grandfather, like, the level of grief when it comes to losing a parent is not something you really understand until you go through it. So, the purpose of the book was to try to capture that anxiety of pre-grieving and knowing something is coming. And so, it is a book about grief, but it's a specific time: it's not the aftermath. It's the wave that's coming to crash down on you and what that anticipation feels like. I just didn't think that hiding behind euphemism or being particularly flowery about it was going to serve the purpose that I wanted the book to serve. I read Joan Didion's work on grief, and to me that also was so plainly written and so direct. And so, I really wanted to do something similar in capturing the time before and just create work that people could find and just be straight with them about what that grappling looks like. Did you speak to any death doulas while researching the book? The origination of this whole project actually came from randomly listening to the Criminal podcast and there was an episode about an exit guide, and I was so shaken by the episode because I had never heard of volunteers who work as exit guides. The only understanding I had around assisted suicide was Dr. Kevorkian in the ’90s. And so, this woman’s testimonial of why she was providing this service, why there's a whole network of people providing a service, gave a nuanced understanding of that work. I'm certainly a writer who does research. I want to, hopefully, sound like I know what I’m talking about so I did take courses with a death doula and it's interesting because there's certainly a break between people who are okay with assisted suicide and the larger death doula community, so I certainly don't want to conflate the two because death doulas really sit with people as they're dying. They're really going through the whole process of helping someone die naturally. And that was an interesting tension too. I tried to nod to that in the book. I had a bit in there about people’s comfortability with assisted suicide. It is a transgressive act, and it's not even legal in most states in the US. It’s obviously legal in Switzerland, but I really was thinking about the idea of control in death, and how long we allow ourselves to suffer. And taking back that sense of control—not even putting a value judgment on it—just thinking about, how long do I want to live? How long if I know I'm terminal? Do I want to suffer? Is that suffering needless? Is there another way out? And so, I did immerse myself in death communities. I really went deep into the people who attend afterlife conventions. I even attended one myself and wanted to understand what level of grief drives people to even seek out psychics—to really believe in people who say they can give you access to the afterlife. I wanted to provide an empathetic picture of the world of death without necessarily taxing value judgments. In the book, there are discussions among the exit guides—where they assess their own quality of life in percentages, and what “weaknesses” they could live with. For instance, one person says they want to go at 20 percent, which means that they would be fully reliant on an IV, a feeding tube and intubated. It made me think about how in many narratives about death, especially in illness narratives, there’s an honour in suffering and here, people are determining at what point their quality of life is severely compromised and not worth living. We don’t really talk about this or even assess it for ourselves and even now, we’re hearing about people being intubated and how painful that is even though it’s supposed to keep you alive. We don't examine these procedures because they’re tied to a cure, and to medicine and hospitals. They do good, they keep you alive, but not necessarily in the best way possible. And that’s a controversial opinion. I’m okay with people not agreeing with me on that, that at a certain point, if your loved one is dying, and it's terminal, a lot of times people are kept alive, because the family can't let go. I've had friends whose parents have died. It's really hard to make that choice, to say: okay, pull the plug (so to speak). But you really do have to start thinking about quality of life, which is what's really interesting about making a health directive saying, I don't want to be intubated. This is the quality of life that I'm willing to say, like, past this point, I'm not interested in living. The fact that more and more people are thinking about this and actually making those decisions, especially if they have children... that's something that I put in there, too. You don't ask someone who is really close to you to make that decision because they're going to be thinking about their wants and needs over yours. It’s human nature and it’s complicated. But when do you say enough is enough? And when do you really give up? It's almost like you're giving up hope on the person, which feels so loaded, but when it’s clear they're suffering and there's no “what's next?” I remember thinking about that, like where are they going to go from here? There’s no up! I remember reading an excerpt of Life Events back in 2015—“Late-Night Bloomers”? I remember it being written in the third person. I wanted to know why you chose to write it from Evelyn’s perspective instead or what had prompted that change? I worked on that with Paul Reyes, who is a brilliant editor, and that was sort of a selection from the book that I was writing at the time. And it was all in the third person. I wrote to the end and I actually showed it to Paul and asked what he thought of it. The main thought was that perhaps it shouldn't be in third person. And writing that whole draft... I felt so distant from the why—why would Evelyn do this? What was going on in her life that she would make the choices that she made? And it was a totally different book. I just didn't feel like I had access to the characters in the way that I wanted. I threw that whole draft away and I kept Evelyn’s name, what she did, and I kept maybe like a dozen pages, and I totally started over. And it was terrifying! I was under contract for the book. They were really pushing me to publish it within the year. And I felt such a sense of anxiety. Basically, I didn't want to put out a book that I didn't want to write, so I got out of my book contract. And it took getting out of my book contact to feel the freedom of, like, “Okay, I'm gonna take the time I need. I'm going to write the book that I want to write. And who knows, maybe it'll take me ten years. I just don't want to feel like I'm being rushed.” I aged Evelyn down—in “Late-Night Bloomers,” she's in her fifties, I think, and I really thought about, what age is someone at a crossroads? I felt like since this was such a big life event—to want to be around people who are dying, like, what else is going on in her life? I started thinking about the big life events like marriage, children and the markers of progress and stuff. I started thinking about a woman who felt like she had gotten all of those things wrong and really felt stagnant in her own life and was using this as a catalyst in a way to selfishly wake up, along with trying to desensitize herself of her parents dying. I had her going through a divorce and edging towards forty, which is a pivotal year for women because there are a couple of years left when you can actually have children. But what happens when your whole life blows up later in life? And thinking about the sort of life you're supposed to have by the time you're nearing forty, and stripping that from Evelyn, and really thinking about somebody who even in her career hasn't had those highs and what that looks like and then giving her something that really becomes her obsession. It took me six years, but I'm really proud of this iteration. It really took me having to throw the first draft and getting out of the contract to get here. You empathize with your characters, especially the women like Evelyn. Do you always extend that kind of understanding to them, or do you have to come around? I love my characters. I feel like I have to, warts and all, especially if I’m spending so much time with them. It always bugs me when critics are like, “Karolina always writes unlikable female narrators,” and I’m like, “I write them all!” It's hard because in all of my books, I've always written complicated women who make choices that are often transgressive, that are going against the grain of what you're supposed to do as a woman. And so that does rub people the wrong way. I personally find complex women really interesting and I wouldn't want to write about women who aren't making mistakes. But I also never want to torture my narrator. I want to take them as far as they can go and make them uncomfortable. And I definitely know that in making them uncomfortable sometimes it's uncomfortable for readers. I never do it just for the hell of it. They learn something about themselves, but not in a corny way. So much of the book became a question of how you avoid pain and seeing the way Evelyn dissected the ways she avoided pain her whole life, and part of that was getting married and seeing how much more pain that caused her. I think this is probably the first book where my narrator has been able to face herself. I was going to say! [Laughs] I mean, I have women who avoid themselves, or trying to figure themselves out but the willingness to really face yourself, I don't think has been there as much as it has in this book and that felt even scarier! In your two previous novels, I was especially thinking about Cheryl (from The Invaders) who stayed in her marriage because she didn't want to start all over again. But Evelyn ends her marriage and deals with the uncomfortable realities of starting from scratch at thirty-seven. And I think in the past, your characters have dealt with passing in communities—they’re outsiders dealing with their identity but not fully confronting it so they try to assimilate instead. Usually the endings are so explosive because the women are self-destructive. But Evelyn forgives herself. It feels like a natural progression to have your narrator confront herself and forgive herself so she can move forward. I was like, “maybe I'll end this book with a hopeful ending”—a totally new challenge for myself. I really do feel like this book is this journey of self-discovery for her, and the end of that self-discovery is just forgiveness. I think that forgiving yourself is the hardest thing you can do. Giving up resentments against other people is really difficult to do. Seeing the part you played in your issues impacting other people in your life and then saying, “I own that, and I forgive myself for it.” It's growth! And I really wanted Evelyn to start in one place and change. It's not this explosive change, but it felt important to me to end somewhere in forgiveness because she really blamed so much of the way her life turned out on herself. And that fear of making choices, but through being around people who are dying and trying to leave without resentments and leave without unfinished business, for lack of a better term...I think she really wants to learn how to live consciously and take ownership over her actions and ownership over her life instead of being evasive. In The Invaders, Cheryl certainly felt like an evasive character. With Evelyn, while saying that vulnerability was the hardest thing for her to ever do, she was being so vulnerable with the reader, which was something that I felt could also provide nuance to her. It didn't seem reasonable for me to withhold from the reader and, I think in other books, I certainly have withheld in how much you got to know about each woman. And I really love those kinds of books. I love Rachel Cusk’s trilogy because you learn virtually nothing about her character, but I wanted to almost do the opposite of that, where you’re watching the machination of Evelyn try to confront herself. I do feel that in those moments of forgiveness, she is setting herself free and that to me feels like a beautiful endpoint that feels less tragic than the other books I’ve written. At the end of Life Events, Evelyn listens to old voicemails from her parents and it’s a gesture of pre-grieving—of revisiting someone’s voice when and if you lose them. It’s weird because a lot of us dread voicemails, but they can also be a connection to someone we’ve lost. Their voice can have so much more impact on you than, say, a photo. Totally. My phone right now probably has twenty unlistened-to voicemails… Right? Have you saved any voicemails that really matter to you? Especially now that you’ve been grieving? I think you either have denial about what's going to happen, especially if your parents are aging and you don't think about building an archive of what you’ll miss. For me, I certainly wasn't thinking in that way, but I now wish I was because I don't even have any videos of my mom. I remember we would go on trips together and I was always documenting everything because I had my phone. But I was deleting stuff because I needed more memory and so I don't have videos of my mom on my phone. I have some “Live Photos,” which I’ll watch sometimes where I'll see some movement. I deleted so many of her voicemails for the same reason, like where is this message going? And I cleaned up in my inbox, but rarely did I transfer files. Who has a “Mom” file in anticipation of her passing? I certainly wish I had, but I do have a few voicemails that I've listened to when I want to feel really emotional, but it made me think about how memory functions and what we collect of the people that we love. Of course, there was an era of home videos and everybody had a camcorder and stuff but we really only have our phones now and there's a finite amount of memory there. So even thinking about what has value and what doesn't—I have so many stupid photos that I could have deleted to save videos, but I didn't and it's impossible to prepare. Who the hell wants to prepare? I’ve been thinking, with static photographs, that memory is faulty. It’s also a question of access: if you’re looking at photos, it could be you when you were younger with your parents and you have a perception of what was happening but you don’t have that other person’s input and maybe you remembered incorrectly—maybe you’re blocking out things that were painful about that memory. Having a video or voicemail of it feels like a more potent archive than just a photo because you can overlay whatever you want over that photo, but it isn’t necessarily the truth. I think that after someone dies, you’re looking for the truth, but the access to the truth is cut off. There are so many things I wished I had asked my mother that I’ll never know the answer to and I’ll never get that truth. I can ask my dad, but he has his own truth of whatever that was. You’re losing access to someone’s inner life, even if they didn’t give you a lot. With Evelyn and her clients, it’s all about access and access to those intimate moments, in a way. She takes something from a client’s house—it’s such a random object, but in a way, it’s her wanting to preserve a memory of that happening or that the event existed, that the person existed. Even in the training session, there’s a moment where people are asked to give things up and I think a lot about inheritance and which objects have meaning. I used to go to vintage shops all the time and even swap meets, and just looked at family photos and items that have been passed down. You don’t know the journey of that object, but it was always weird to me to go through boxes of people’s photos. How does this stuff end up here? These are all someone else’s memories. We lack that context. It’s interesting because as much as Evelyn clings to objects, when she is helping her clients clear up their spaces, it’s in an effort to help out the people they leave behind—so they don’t have to deal with someone else’s stuff, so to speak. Things can mean something to us, but with enough distance from those objects, they’re simply clutter to someone else. So many things provide painful memories and part of that empathetic gesture of helping people exit their lives is trying to take the pain away from the loved ones who have to live with this choice and live with the death of their loved ones. It’s easing their pain and suffering too. For Evelyn in her divorce, she really doesn’t take that much from the home even though her husband is trying to give her things. That transference of wanting someone to remember a relationship—a relationship that Evelyn is trying to forget—that’s a pain-avoidant thing, too. Sometimes people do it for us or we do it for ourselves; we self-select what we surround ourselves with and often having objects without context is taking a layer of pain and understanding away on purpose. Were Evelyn’s three clients—Daphne, Lawrence and Daniel—inspired by any experiences or people you met in these meetings or the afterlife convention? Daphne was someone who was going to spur the most feelings about her mom and that was the most painful experience for her—looking at the frailty of an older woman. Evelyn was trying to impose a relationship on Daphne. They didn’t know each other, and yet, she really wanted to create memories with her and deviate from what you’re supposed to do based on the training. I was thinking about what it means to be a person alone, having to reckon with the end of your life, so someone like Lawrence, who was at once on top of the world and now at the end of his life, he’s this old, anonymous man in an apartment building where, who knows? You burned bridges. It was about what it means to be no one, in a sense, after you’ve been someone. With Daniel, she was really confronting the type of men that she had fallen for. I think Evelyn is trying to reckon with what it means to try to save people, putting herself in situations knowing that it’s impossible. In a way, that’s a selfish act for her, too, to try to put herself through these trials in an attempt to force herself to learn something. The people that I met travelling in these worlds certainly were trying to prepare for their own parents’ deaths and feeling anxiety about what to do, as if there’s some textbook that you follow of how to be the perfect kid as your parent is dying. There’s only so much preparation you can do. Also, you have to give somebody the dignity of their own experience. You could be trying to have your loved one accept death and be okay with what’s happening and they could be absolutely not okay with what’s going on, not wanting to have some big conversation towards the end of their life or wrap anything up tidily. There is a sense of agency there, that we don’t get to choose how someone dies or what their experience is like, and that goes for either end of it, whether you’re taking care of somebody or you’re the person dying. A lot of this book, for me, was about letting go of that control, of what you think your life should look like. And what the end of it should like. Exactly. The end of life experience and all those expectations. I think that in popular culture, we’ve seen so much of this internal reckoning, where everybody gets to say goodbye. I talked to people who were completely crushed. I mean, we were talking about this earlier, what’s at the fore of COVID right now—their loved one died and they never got to say goodbye. They have no closure. They’re never going to get closure. And you have to find a way to move on anyway. Death is really messy. Death doesn’t necessitate enlightenment either. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but sometimes you get sick, and there’s no narrative you can attach to it to ease that pain or even understand it. And some people don’t want to assign a greater meaning to it. We’re all accepting some profound experience at the end of life—and it is a profound experience, I don’t want to take anything away from that—but you can’t plan for what’s going to happen! It’s such a complicated relationship. I was born in Poland but grew up in America, in American culture. I know what the Polish relationship is with death, just from going back to Poland and having Polish parents. When we visited, we went to the cemetery to see our relatives and pay our respects. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that’s something that happens here. It’s a cultural thing and I’ve always been, in a way, death-obsessed and just thinking culturally about how we navigate death. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings and we all have different needs and wants. We just can’t say what these things are going to look like. We put a lot more effort into hitting targets and milestones instead. There’s no energy or time devoted to death or those health directives. It’s even crazy to me how quickly you even have to go back to work! The bereavement leave? Yeah! The fact that we have very little space for mourning or it’s such a prescribed amount of time: you get x amount for bereavement unless you decide to take more. Grief is such an out of control process and it goes on for a long time. Even just trying to put parameters around something like that. Personally, grief has been physical, emotional and it comes in waves. I can be fine for months and then feel like I’m back at square one. I really wanted to investigate our relationship with mourning and death and why we haven’t made a space for thinking about these things more readily and not figure out the best way to do it. To me, there is no “best way.” I want to raise those questions: what do you want your relationship with death to look like? I don’t really believe in that kind of closure, either—that a formula for grief will help you get there. I don’t think of it in terms of goal-setting either—that’s so strange to me. And what is closure, anyway? That you don’t get to feel this anymore? That speaks to how we as culture don’t want to sit with our uncomfortable feelings, we want to know what the end is and we’re really being tested now because we’re in a situation where there is no end in sight. It’s ultimately about acceptance. You don’t get closure. You don’t know when something is going to end. The way someone you love dies doesn’t look the way you want it to and most of us just don’t get closure and we have to be ok with that. It doesn’t mean we’re happy about it. Acceptance doesn’t mean, “I love it.” Have you been feeling any pressure to be productive or work on anything else? I feel like that’s how a lot of people have been grappling with that uncertainty lately. I wrote one essay since I finished my book. I have not started writing a new book. I’ve been thinking about a new book, but I’ve been absolutely unproductive during this time. I really had to give myself a break about it. I only just started reading again. I haven’t really watched TV. I was telling a friend the other day that I can barely bring myself to watch reality TV. I’m trying to spend a lot of time outside because being in your house all the time is so hard and having to tell yourself things are okay all the time to just get through the day is so exhausting that I don’t have time to be productive.
He was a hero, a man who broke a barrier, but everything that’s happened since he died has way more to do with us than him.
Dozens and dozens of college football stadiums are named after people, and there’s a story behind each. Those backstories are often pretty simple: Some guy gave a lot of money to a university, or a lot of people died in a war. Not much room for mystery there. Well, most of them are pretty simple. Jack Trice was the grandson of enslaved people and the son of a Buffalo Soldier. In 1864, Tennesseans named George Wallace and Phyllis Trice gave birth to Green Trice, the man who would become Jack’s father. Two years later, the federal Army Reorganization Act called for the formation of regiments composed “of colored men.” These calvarymen, who would be given the nickname Buffalo Soldiers by Native American tribes, became part of America’s bloody conquest of the West. Green joined the United States Army in 1882 at Fort Davis in Texas—a fort named after a former U.S. Secretary of War who’d since been the president of the Confederacy. Davis’ Confederacy had then lost a war against that same U.S. Army during Green's lifetime.11Green Trice death certificate We do not know where Green served, only that he helped win the white man’s war against Indigenous people. Green would eventually leave the military and return east. He would marry a woman named Anna, and they would reside in a small town about 30 miles outside of Cleveland. In 1902, their son Jack was born. Green died when Jack was just a young boy, leaving his mother to raise him alone for most of his life. Anna was fearful for him. She wanted her son to know what he would be up against and worried that Hiram, Ohio, a town with very few Black families, would isolate him from racial realities. When Jack was ready for high school, his mother sent him to live with an uncle in Cleveland. She wanted “to get him among people of his own kind, to meet the problems that a Negro boy would have to face sometime, and to give him an opportunity to make social contacts with people of his own race,”22Steven Jones, Football’s Fallen Hero according to a childhood friend. That friend said Trice “was always a part of our school parties in various homes, with never a thought of any difference of color of skin.” But it’s folly to assume any Black child in America didn’t feel racism’s sting, as those in predominantly white upbringings often feel isolation they do not or cannot show. In Cleveland, Trice attended East Tech High School and became a multisport star. The football coach was former Ohio State player Sam Willaman, and the team was nearly unbeatable throughout Trice’s career. One of their few losses was a de facto high school national championship in 1920, when the team rode a train to play in Washington state. Trice played tackle, making him a lineman on offense and something like a modern DE on defense. He was all-state. In 1921, he was one of East Tech’s two Black football players.33Joshua Kagavi, The Jack Trice Story “No better tackle ever played high school ball in Cleveland. He had speed, strength and smartness,”44Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 1979 said Johnny Behm, a high school teammate. Another teammate, Harry Schmidt, said Trice was skilled enough to become all-conference at the college level, even All-American. His barrier against playing football in college was skin, not skill. Deep South powers didn’t integrate until the ’60s and ’70s. Some Black players starred closer to his home, but were usually exceptions. As Jack was completing high school, Iowa’s Duke Slater was an All-American. Near Jack’s hometown, Fritz Pollard was becoming the NFL’s first Black player-coach—but the league wouldn’t hire another Black head coach for 68 more years. After Trice graduated in 1922, Willaman got the head coaching job at Iowa State. Two of Trice’s teammates at East Tech, brothers Norton and Johnny Behm, turned down Notre Dame to join their former coach. A few other standout Cleveland players also became Cyclones. Trice was working road construction when Willaman came to invite him to join the team. Football looked to be Trice’s ticket to a better life. His dad, a farmer, doesn’t appear to have started the first grade until after turning 20. Trice was poised to become the first Black athlete in Iowa State history. The school’s first Black student and first Black faculty member had been George Washington Carver, who’d received a master’s degree in 1896 and gone on to deliver agricultural innovations to Southern farmers.55Kansas City Star, August 2004 Jack enrolled in Iowa State’s animal husbandry program with the goal of earning a degree and using it to help Black farmers in the South. The Des Moines Register called Trice one of the best linemen on Iowa State’s freshman team (until 1972, most college football governing bodies banned freshmen from varsity games). He also won a shot-put event in a Missouri Valley Conference track meet. By 1923, his sophomore year, he was a varsity football starter, which was especially noteworthy. Per that era’s rules, if a player subbed out in the first half he couldn’t come back in until halftime. If he subbed out in the second half, his day was done. After what amounted to a tune-up against Simpson College, Iowa State’s student newspaper recapped his varsity debut: The big colored boy, Jack Trice, is by far the most outstanding performer and gave evidence of being one of the best tackles in the Missouri Valley this year in the last weekend’s play against Simpson. Trice is fast, strong and a heady player. You can find accounts that describe Trice as damn near a Black Paul Bunyan, listing him as 6’2 and 200 pounds, quite big for the era. A program from his first varsity game had him at 182 pounds,66Joshua Kagavi, The Jack Trice Story already the third-heaviest Cyclone. When Jack returned to Ames for his sophomore year in 1923, he’d brought along Cora Mae, his wife. The two had married the year prior. Black people weren't allowed to live on Iowa State's campus, so the Trices lived upstairs in an off-campus Masonic Temple that still stands today. They did the things young lovers do. Jack worked a side job as a janitor, so he had keys to the campus pool, and the two would sneak in to go skinny-dipping, according to the family’s telling. In a letter Cora Mae later wrote to Iowa State, she recalled a conversation they had just before he left for Minnesota, the site of his first major-level college football game. “He came to tell me good bye,” Cora Mae wrote. “We kissed and hugged and he told me that he would come back to me as soon as he could.” Now picture Trice in his Minneapolis hotel room, the night before the game. He sat down on Friday night and wrote a letter on hotel stationery. There’s no telling whom he intended to mail it to or if he intended to mail it at all. The emphasis is his: To whom it may concern, My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life. The honor of my race, family, & self are at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will! My whole body & soul are to be thrown recklessly about on the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped, I will be trying to do more than my part. On all defensive plays I must break thru the opponents line at stop the play in their territory. Beware of mass interference & fight low with your eyes open and toward the play. Roll block the interference. Watch out for cross bucks and reverse end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good. Jack It is a poignant note. It’s also the only thing I could find written about Trice by Trice. It looks like something a Hollywood screenwriter would dream up and in your head you can hear soft strings building toward crescendo. Maybe some drums as the scene cuts to the pregame locker room. Trice knew he was about to be the only Black man on the field, probably the whole stadium. He knew Minnesota was especially imposing. The Gophers already had a national title in their history, and this year’s team would finish 5-1-1 with two All-Americans. And Trice surely knew the risks of football. For decades, football had been killing people on the field. During the 1905 season, President Teddy Roosevelt had met with college leaders and told them to clean the game up. That season, at least 19 high school and college players died, and another 135 were injured, according to the Chicago Tribune, too much even for the ol’ Rough Rider: I have no sympathy whatever with the overwrought sentimentality that would keep a young man in cotton wool, and I have a hearty contempt for him if he counts a broken arm or collarbone as a serious consequence when balanced against the chance of showing that he possesses hardihood, physical address, and courage. But when these injuries are inflicted by others, either wantonly or of set design, we are confronted by the question, not of damage to one man’s body but of damage to the other man’s character.77The Washington Post, October 1905 The next year, admins overhauled football’s rules, which had only evolved so much since the game’s origin as a brawl with a ball. The biggest change was to allow the forward pass—even though incompletions were penalized, which discouraged one of football’s few tactics that didn’t resemble trench warfare. Along the way, college football got rid of some dangerous mass plays like the flying wedge, which meant slamming together tight packs of bodies at full speed. Yet as of 1923, other mass plays remained. Helmets were still leather, and shoulder pads were still insignificant. In 1923, over a decade after the partial implementation of the forward pass, the toll remained similar; at least 18 college football players died that year from injuries suffered on the field. Most accounts of Iowa State’s 1923 trip to Minnesota agree on a few things. Trice was injured on one of the first few plays: a broken collarbone and dislocated shoulder. He stayed in the game. According to the rules, if he left, he couldn't have returned until the second half. At some point in the third quarter, Trice got hurt again. This time it was his abdomen, and this time he was unable to continue. Later, some reports would say doctors found lung hemorrhages and internal bleeding. Trice likely downplayed what was happening inside his body. Multiple accounts say he protested to keep playing but was helped off the field by two teammates and taken immediately to a Minneapolis hospital. A doctor there said his condition was serious, but allowed him to go back to Ames. The injuries were not professionally diagnosed until after Trice rode home on a straw mattress in a train. Perhaps that doctor failed Trice. But note this: We have no way of knowing whether anyone investigated it. Trice arrived at Iowa State’s campus hospital. Sunday night, a specialist determined there was nothing they could do for his internal bleeding, not even emergency operation. Cora Mae was in the campus cafeteria Monday afternoon when one of Trice’s fraternity brothers summoned her to the hospital. “When I saw him, I said Hello Darling," she later wrote. “He looked at me, but never spoke. I remember hearing the Campanile chime 3 o'clock. That was Oct 8th, 1923, and he was gone.” If that first doctor missed Trice’s injuries, what else might be missing? What do we know? The answer depends on which account you’re reading, and when the account was written. Sunday, October 7, 1923 Three stories from reporters who’d attended the previous day’s game reference Jack’s injury directly: Minnesota’s student paper, the St. Paul Daily News, and the Des Moines Register. As part of play-by-play details, each reported Trice was on offense as Iowa State got to the 45-yard line on a reception by a Behm brother, though they differed on which one—two said Johnny. Each described Trice getting injured during that play, then leaving because of it. The Minnesota Tribune’s Sunday edition only has a reference to Trice being substituted out in the third quarter in its box score, but its play-by-play is generally less comprehensive. Monday, October 8 The Ames Daily Tribune said, “Jack Trice, colored tackle, was forced out of the game in the third period with internal injuries and it will probably be four weeks before he will be in condition to scrimmage again.” By mid-afternoon, Trice was dead, as a late edition of Iowa State’s student newspaper reported. He had been trampled in “an off-tackle play.” Tuesday, October 9 In reporting his death, the Minnesota Tribune added to the list of outlets referencing Trice playing offense at the time of the injury, also describing him as one-on-one blocking downfield: “Late in the third period another play was directed at his position and Trice broke through to block the Gopher’s secondary defense. He blocked his man but he failed to get up.” But in other outlets, the particulars of the play that killed him remained vague. “The Minnesota team piled on top of him in an off-tackle play,” the Des Moines Register said. “Trice was crushed in a play through his position,” the Associated Press said. “Crushed in an off tackle play,” per the Cedar Rapids Gazette. And the Minnesota Star differed significantly from the initial reports by attendees. It moved Trice to defense and described him engaging in a dangerous action: “Trice playing a defensive tackle position dived into the interference of an off tackle Minnesota play and was crushed under the weight of several members of the Minnesota team.” Wednesday, October 10 An AP story held up Trice as a sort of martyr. The headline in bold letters: “DEAD FOOTBALL STAR’S LETTER, WRITTEN BEFORE GAME, PLANS SACRIFICE” with a subheading: “Jack Trice intended to use his body and soul recklessly for honor of his family and Negro race.” At this point, the narrative had shifted to fuse not only vague and opposite recollections of what Trice had been doing during the play, but also a grand interpretation of his letter, found in his jacket pocket after he’d died. Recollections of Trice’s death have gotten more confusing over the years, evolving into nothing like those initial reports. Even former teammates ended up saying Trice had been on defense. In 1973, former linemate Schmidt, then in his 70s, recalled the play: Well, [Minnesota] had a powerful offensive drive with good interference, and they had three blockers ahead of this runner. Jack had said in [his] letter that he would throw himself before an interference. He did a roll block. And someone just happened to step on his stomach.88Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice He maintained that any stomping wasn’t intentional. Johnny Behm—one of two brothers described by press box reports as catching the ball on offense during Trice’s injury—remembered it like this in 1979: In the third quarter they tried a power play over him. I was in the defensive backfield so I can’t tell you for certain what happened. But I’d swear the Minnesota end who had to block Trice tackled him instead. Jack landed on his back and the Minnesota fullback ran right over him. Maybe the interference did, too, I’m not positive. Around this time, Trice’s freshman coach William Thompson added to the foggy recollection: Jack used a block against the Minnesota backfield. It was a dangerous block to use in my opinion and it was safe enough if you had the good fortune and the strength to end up on all fours. This was called a roll block. You had to roll under the backfield and that had a devastating effect on the runner, you see. It trips him right at the ankles. The interchangeable nature of football terms and positions from that era can also lead to confusion. What did Trice, Schmidt, and Behm mean by “interference?” John Wilce, who’d coached Ohio State when Willaman played there, wrote this in 1923: Many people do not seem to understand the term ‘interference.’ Interference simply means blocking by players immediately in front of the runner. […] The man with the ball is usually close behind his interference. [...] The roll block by one player followed by a similar block by another, the break block, the combination hard-shoulder block, and the running side-body block are most commonly used by interferers.99John Wilce, Football: How To Play It And Understand It By that definition, which comes from a coach who taught Trice’s coach, interference and the roll block are strictly offensive terms, similar to lead blocking by a modern fullback. But Trice’s letter leads you to believe he considered the roll block a two-way term or perhaps a defensive one, since he mentioned it right after describing his need to be vigilant “on all defensive plays.” So were the initial reports right? Or were the later recollections right? Are Jack’s letter and these football terms helpful in reconstructing the scene? Does Jack’s letter even need to be injected into what happened against Minnesota? And since the most popular version of the story is at odds with reports written by witnesses, what else don’t we know about the play that killed Trice? One would think all these differing accounts, even within the week after the game, would help warrant an investigation. But the day after his death, his school declined a request to investigate. That request came from the head of Minnesota’s conference. John L. Griffith, Commissioner of Athletics for the Intercollegiate Conference, sent a message to [ISU] officials: ‘Associated Press Dispatch from Ames states that your boy died from injuries received when most of the Minnesota line piled on top of him in an off tackle play. Would you care to issue as to whether or not injuries were result of unfair plays?’ An [ISU] official replied to Griffith the same day, stating, ‘Willaman and the men under him advised me that they did not discern any special massing on Jack Trice. He was an exceptional player and of course made trouble for the Minnesota team.’1010Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice That response arrived in a letter with no name or signature. Two weeks later, October 24, Iowa State dean S.W. Beyer sent Griffith a curious note. Inasmuch as Mr. Trice was a colored man it is easy for people to assume that his opponents must have deliberately attempted to injure him. In my experience where colored boys had participated in athletic contests I have seen very little to indicate that their white opponents had any disposition to foul them.1111Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football The lack of official investigation is why we will never know exactly what happened on the play that cost Trice’s life. In general, everyone has since gotten the benefit of the doubt. Ten days after Trice’s death, Minnesota’s president Lotus Coffman sent a letter to Iowa State’s president, offering condolences and saying the play happened directly in front of him. “It seemed to me that he threw himself in front of the play on the opposite side of the line,” Coffman wrote. “There was no piling up." It’s also worth noting Coffman would later ardently defend segregation in campus living at Minnesota, writing Black people desired it: The good sense and sound judgment of the colored students and their parents with regard to this matter has been a source of constant gratification. The races have never lived together nor have they ever sought to live together.1212Minnesota Star-Tribune, September 2017 It is not hard to suppose Coffman wanted to just move on. And any school would have motivation to avoid dwelling on it. Who knows what else an inquiry might have dredged up? Many players died in those days, but if conclusive evidence emerged that a player had been killed with intent, it could have started a second great referendum on the sport, 18 years after Roosevelt put his foot down. The theory of Trice’s self-prophesied roll block leads to a confident conclusion that the whole thing was just an accident. This is the result of a century-long game of telephone. If he screwed up a maneuver and got stepped on, then oh shucks, it’s just a darn shame. It also boosts the poignancy of his letter, creating an eerie prescience. And it could have been an accident. But it also could have been murder. It is not far-fetched to believe the only Black player on a field in 1923 was targeted. According to many reports, Minnesota players deliberately injured Iowa’s Ozzie Simmons 11 years later. They knocked him unconscious as many as three times, forcing him to leave the game by halftime.1313Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football "[Simmons] took quite a lot of physical abuse around the Big Ten because he was Black," said former Iowa sports information director George Wine.1414Chicago Tribune, October 2001 In 1935, Iowa governor Clyde Herring told reporters that the rematch might get out of hand.1515SB Nation, October 2017 “Those Minnesotans will find 10 other top-notch football players besides ‘Oze’ Simmons against them this year. Moreover, if the officials stand for any rough tactics like Minnesota used last year, I'm sure the crowd won't," Herring said.1616Minneapolis Tribune, November 1935; Minnesota’s governor would respond by attempting to cool tensions (and missing the point). He bet Iowa a prize hog. This would later evolve into the bronze Floyd of Rosedale trophy, which the two teams still play for. Simmons would tell a Minnesota newspaper in 1988: “I really had the feeling they were after me because I was good. Oh, I think me being Black added a little oomph to it.” Simmons, like Trice, was a talented player, naturally a focal point for any opponent. So the lines of guilt blur when you try to discern whether the Gophers targeted Simmons because he was talented, because he was Black, or both. At least Simmons lived to tell his side of the story. Wanna know what I think? Forget about the damn letter for a second. Laud it as a beautiful note about what he felt he was up against, but set it aside instead of grafting it onto the facts. We know four of the earliest reports have a consistent version of events, three of them published the day after the game. We don’t know whether Trice was attempting an especially dangerous technique or not, although if you want to theorize he tried a roll block, then perhaps he was engaged with a defensive player and realized the play was particularly screwed, so he chose to “roll block the interference,” which might have played out like a modern-day cut block. And we don’t know why or how key details of the narrative shifted to a certain consensus. The attempt to figure out what happened to Trice is not about trying to find whitey guilty. A probe would have likely reached an inconclusive end, according to a former Iowa State professor who spent years lobbying the school to name the stadium after Trice. "Well, if I were prosecuting the case," Charles Sohn told the Kansas City Star in 2004, "I suppose the best I could get out of it was manslaughter. I don't think there was an attempt to murder. I think there was an attempt to injure." But the clearest failure is this: Trice’s institution didn’t attempt to dig for answers. Members of the Minnesota team were reportedly “grief-stricken” by Trice’s death. And their head coach said, “I don’t know hardly what to say. He was a wonderful player. It doesn’t seem possible. It is something I wouldn’t have had happen for anything.”1717Minnesota Journal, October 1923 Without details, we can neither hold Minnesota culpable nor exonerate anyone. If Minnesota’s players were innocent, then they deserved an investigation that could’ve made that clear. The fact foul play apparently wasn’t evident to Williaman or Coffman doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. After Trice died, Iowa State immediately canceled football practice and took a half day to allow mourning. Four thousand students attended the funeral. The Behm brothers and Schmidt were among his pallbearers. The school president read Trice’s pregame letter aloud. Cora Mae and Anna accompanied Jack’s body home to be buried next to Green. Anna later wrote to Iowa State’s then-president that Jack “was all I had and I am old and alone. The future is dreary and lonesome.”1818Anna Trice letter In some ways, Iowa State publicly did right by Trice. The school collected money to pay for funeral expenses and help Trice’s mother pay off her mortgage. In private, however, Iowa State reminded us of Jack’s place in the world, whether dead or alive. Two days after Trice died, Beyer, considered the godfather of athletics at Iowa State, received a telegram from Missouri athletic director C.L. Brewer, an old friend, about the upcoming Saturday’s game in Columbia: We understand from newspaper reports that you have a colored man playing with your football squad this Fall. I am quite sure, Professor Beyer, you know conditions here, and know it is impossible for a colored man to play or even appear on the field with any team. This has been discussed in the Missouri Valley for a good many years and I know that you understand the tradition that a colored man cannot come here. This whole question is bigger than our athletics and there is no alternative for us other than to say that we cannot permit a colored man on any team that we play. The Iowa State admin responded: We had no intention of using Jack Trice in the game with you. However that is all settled because Jack's injury resulted in his death Monday afternoon. I am handing you herewith copy of letter Jack wrote the day before the game. From the letter one would not help feel that Jack must have had premonition of what actually happened. A year later, Iowa State put a plaque on its gym, an abridged version of Trice’s letter. And then Jack Trice began to fade from memory. Until 1957, when sophomore Tom Emmerson came across the plaque while working on a project for class credit. He might have been the first in a while who was moved enough to research why it was there. He’d been wandering around the gym while waiting for a meeting with a school employee. “Then I went into Harry Schmidt’s office and said ‘Harry, what about that?’” Emmerson told me. “And he said, ‘You don’t know about Jack Trice?’ And it turned out that Harry was on the team in 1923, and he told me the story from personal memory. I then went directly to the library to look it up, and to tell you the truth, I just copied a lot of stuff from articles in the library.” He ended up writing a school magazine article. When asked what happened next, Emmerson said flatly: “nothing” … until Iowa State began building a new football stadium in the 1970s. By that time, student activism was en vogue amid the Vietnam War. Professor Sohn was having a small group discussion with some English students. He shared Trice’s story. The class took up some research projects about Trice’s life, and Emmerson’s story re-surfaced in their findings. Someone suggested naming the stadium for Trice. Even after the class ended in 1974, the stadium idea had taken hold. It’s impressive how hard Iowa State’s students worked to keep it alive. There were over two dozen related stories, editorials, or cartoons in Iowa State’s student paper from ’74 onward, which doesn’t include stories in other papers like the Des Moines Register. Students petitioned. Iowa State’s student government was unanimous in favor. Students would graduate, and others would take up the cause. But Iowa State was still holding out for a big-money donor to essentially buy the stadium’s name. The money never came, and the students never shut up, not even after Iowa State tried to “cut the baby in half,” as a Newsweek article put it, by naming it “Cyclone Stadium/Jack Trice Field” in 1983. Students argued people would default to just calling it Cyclone Stadium. Students also pushed to get a Trice statue on campus. Multiple organizations said no, including the alumni association, because “people thought it was too political,” according to a former ISU student body president.1919Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice Iowa State’s student government unanimously allocated $22,000 of student fees and commissioned the statue, which featured Trice reading his famous letter. It went up in 1988 outside a building named in 1966 for George Washington Carver. What gave the stadium movement its final win was, indirectly, Iowa State naming a building for alumna Carrie Chapman Catt in 1995. She’d been important to the woman’s suffrage movement, but once wrote white supremacy "will be strengthened, not weakened” by that movement. Her backers argued it was taken out of context, but she also spoke of Indigenous people as savages and said uneducated immigrants shouldn’t have the right to vote. Honoring her caused protests on campus, including one student going on a hunger strike in 1996. While all of this was going on, an ISU advisory committee for the naming of buildings recommended in late 1996 the change to the football stadium’s name. In February 1997, Trice became the sole namesake. Administrators objected to speculation that the renaming was a strategic maneuver [to counter Catt Hall protests] as opposed to their acquiescence to student requests or an abiding desire to honor Trice. ‘The name change recommendation was based on its own merits,’ protested university spokesman John Anderson. ‘It’s an idea that’s been around a long time.’2020Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football But it had only been around for a long time because Iowa State’s leadership hadn’t acted. The school’s president Martin Jischke had been around since 1991. “If Jischke had responded earlier, in a more positive way to Jack Trice, he would have had a great win,” Emmerson said. “He would have had ammunition when it came around to Carrie Chapman Catt. He could have said ‘wait a minute, we named the stadium after Jack Trice; we’re not racist.’” For buttoned-up administrators, the unchallenged narrative of Trice’s life was free of anything likely to make overly sensitive white people too uneasy, and still they delayed for decades. For mobilized college students, his short story had a tragic hero and cause for genuine concern, so they fought for him. “I was really surprised actually, when it kept being an issue after it was named Cyclone Stadium/Jack Trice Field,” Alma Gaul, an editor of the student newspaper in the 1970s, told me. “I just figured that was the end of it. We’d got something here. We got the Jack Trice Field. And the fact that, in 1997, they reversed their decision and made it Jack Trice Stadium—even today when I read the sports section and I read ‘Jack Trice Stadium,’ I just shake my head and smile. I can’t believe it actually happened.” Jack Trice Stadium remains the only FBS stadium named after a Black man. Part of his legacy is this: More than a century after he died, activists across the country are fighting the same fight Iowa State’s students did. The naming of streets, buildings, and statues is about what we wish to glorify as a society. It is a front-facing display of our values. That weight demands constantly measuring those values. But change is never easy, particularly when racism is built so firmly into the foundation of the United States and its declared heroes. Trice is a hero, a man who broke a barrier, but everything that’s happened since he died has way more to do with us than him. Those who knew him describe him as shy and quiet. One teammate said, “Jack appreciated his status. Generally, he spoke only when spoken to,” and another said, “He kept his place.”2121Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice He’s inoffensive and two-dimensional because we don’t know all that much about him. In many ways, Trice was an easy Black man for white people to rally around. For white audiences, a docile Black man is a palatable Black man. The Jack Trice of 1923 is forever preserved in that state. We’ll never know exactly what led to Trice’s death two days after the first real game of his college football career. When facts are scarce, all we have are versions of a legend. ___ Excerpted from The Sinful Seven: Sci-fi Western Legends of the NCAA, an ebook about how college sports came to look the way they do today, with non-fiction stories and fiction tales that <shh> tell their own truths about how the NCAA operates, by Spencer Hall, Richard Johnson, Jason Kirk, Alex Kirshner, and Tyson Whiting. You can preorder the ebook here for a minimum of 99 cents (or whatever you want to pay), with 20 percent of those profits going to Feeding America, the nationwide food bank network. It comes out August 1.
The author of I Hold a Wolf by the Ears on spectral encounters and exorcisms, America’s rejection of history, travel literature, and boxing.
Laura van den Berg’s stories frequently toe the line of the uncanny—the landmarks are all recognizable, but something feels off, like the tension built up by the droll repetition of the daily grind is about to break into a nightmare beyond imagining. Though van den Berg now lives in Massachusetts, the hopelessly humid atmospheres of these stories seem more suited to the Florida climate where she was born and raised. Van den Berg’s last book was a surreal-literary remix of a pulp mystery, The Third Hotel, a meditation on grief, slasher movies, and marital landscapes. Her latest work, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a short story collection that bounces between Italy and Iceland, Mexico and Florida. A woman abruptly begins pretending to be her sister while travelling abroad. An artist becomes suspicious that her husband has been lying about his upbringing. A photographer notices something odd in the corner of photos she’s taken. Its weighted, packed-to-bursting prose invites inquisitive readers to explore the dark depths between its spines. Nour Abi-Nakhoul: After your success with The Third Hotel, you return to the short story collection. It’s been referred to as a homecoming of sorts. Did it feel this way to you? Laura van den Berg: Lots of writers move back and forth between the story and the novel, and some writers start with stories and then go on to exclusively write novels. I love the novel. It’s a very separate form than the story, and I love all the ways in which it is very different from a short story. But the short story is the first form of literature that I ever fell in love with. Reading short fiction made me want to be a reader, which made it possible for me to be a writer. For reasons both artistic and deeply personal, it's a form that's super close to my heart. I can't imagine an artistic practice without the short story having a place in it. A common trajectory is debuting with a collection of stories and then following up with a novel, but I published two collections before I published a novel. In that way, it can feel like going back home. Was it difficult to write a novel? Did you have this drive to turn to short stories instead? It was incredibly difficult to write my first novel and it took quite a bit of time, but I knew that it was going to be a novel if it was going to be anything. It felt like a dystopian novel with many moving parts in terms of plot, with more material than can be held by the scope of a short story. The issue was that I was approaching the novel as though it was a short story; I was working on it and revising it in the way that I would if it was a short story. It took me a while to really reimagine my process essentially with a novelistic scope instead of a short story scope. One of my teachers said he felt that a short story was closer to poem than it was to a novel. At the time I really didn't understand what that meant, because I was thinking of it in terms of verse in contrast with prose. But when I attempted a novel, I understood it. There’s a deep compression inherent to the short story, and I think that's true even in long, capacious stories. A story needs to be uncorked a bit to be a novel, and it took me quite a while to figure out how to do that. You’ve been very public lately in your affinity for boxing. The sport was, however, notably absent from I Hold a Wolf by the Ears. I am working on a project now that involves boxing. For a long time, I would talk to friends who are writers about boxing and they’d advise me to write about it. But I wanted to have something completely separate from writing, I didn’t want it to be contaminated by turning it into an artistic project. But at this point I spend so much time in that world that it has inevitably leaked over into my writing. I started in the first place because I was seeing a therapist for an anxiety disorder, and the therapist told me that I needed a hobby. I ultimately ended up at a boxing gym with no background in the sport, and no athletic background at all. A few years ago, walking was a sport to me. I started from the ground up. For my first couple of group classes, everyone else was so much more advanced—they were doing all these cool exercises, and I was literally just walking forward, backward, left, and right for an hour. Had this happened at a different time I think I would’ve found it very frustrating and tedious, but it was a particular kind of tedious that made me think of revising a sentence over and over again. After the first couple of classes when I left the gym, I would feel calmer than I’d felt in years. Boxing helped me start sleeping again, and helped me get my anxiety under control. It’s a deeply challenging sport; you have to have patience and decisiveness and it humbles you. These things have helped me as a person and implicitly help my writing practice. I also hydrate now in a way that I didn’t used to. Can you tell me about some forms of media that had bearing on the stories in this collection? I think of the collection as a gathering of ghost stories. In some stories that ghost is literal, like in "Slumberland," and in others the haunting is more abstract in nature. A lot of the contemporary practitioners of the ghost story and of haunted literature are near and dear to my heart. For me what is so compelling about haunted literature is that it can be a powerful medium for looking at the ignored, the repressed, the unspoken, the unseen and unacknowledged. I'm interested in how the movement of these kinds of stories can compel characters to look in directions that they are disinclined to look at on their own. I love Julio Cortazar’s short story “House Taken Over,” which is in many ways an archetypal haunted house story. I love Mariana Enriquez’s story “Adela’s House,” which is another haunted house story. In different ways, both stories deal with landscape and structure, history and hauntedness in beautiful and powerful ways. I admire Carmen Maria Machado’s story “The Husband Stitch.” There are a couple of ghost stories in Helen Oyeyemi’s collection What is Not Yours is Not Yours that I thought about quite a bit while working on some of stories. The way that hauntings can animate alternate lives, shadow lives, paths taken and not taken. Looking at the popularity of writers like Carmen Maria Machado, for example, people today seem very drawn towards the ghost story. Why do you think that is? One reason why writers keep coming back to the ghost story is that, like the fairy tale, it is endlessly flexible. It can be reimagined and recontextualized again and again, which is why I think the form has such incredible endurance. Contemporarily, we’re at a moment where, for white America, the unwillingness to look, listen, learn, study, and engage, is having disastrous consequences. Historical truths and realities and how they shape the present are being denied. In that sense, I think that that this is a perfect time for the ghost story. As I was saying before, the form is very adept at looking at what the characters don’t want to look at. What about actual physical ghosts? Have you ever seen one? I don’t know if seen is the best word for this. Or, experienced? I've always had a healthy respect for the supernatural. I lived with my grandmother when I was a teenager, and she 100 percent believes in ghosts. One of the first things that she said when I moved in with her was, there’s a ghost in the house from long ago, if you see her come down to the kitchen in the middle of night and turn on the water, don’t worry. I never saw the ghost and just chalked it up to my grandmother being eccentric. So, the idea of supernatural happenings wasn't necessarily foreign to me, but it was not something that I had experienced. And then when I was working on my first novel around 2013, I spent a summer at a residency in the Florida Keys that was horribly, terribly haunted. The manifestation wasn't visual, it was more auditory, and I wasn’t the only person that was affected, several of the other residents were as well. We heard doors shaking, cabinets opening and closing, crying and screaming outside when there wasn’t anyone outside. We would wake up in the middle of the night and all our chargers and lamps would be unplugged. We would plug them back in, and the next time we woke up they would be unplugged again. We had an exorcism ceremony through the residency because the affected people were absolutely losing their shit, as you can imagine. The exorcism fixed the problem because we were unaffected for the rest of the residency. What did the exorcism consist of? It’s a little hazy because at that point I had not slept in maybe 10 days, and this is July in the Key West so it was 102 degrees outside. The whole experience was fairly hallucinatory. In my memory we had agreed on something to communicate to the ghost, a ritualized saying that we would repeat again and again. There was a lot of lighting of candles in different places and making requests of the spirit while they were burning. We lined all the doors and windowpanes with salt. It was some sort of special salt that the exorcist brought with him—but maybe it was just sea salt, who knows. I felt sort of ridiculous when I was doing this but then we didn't hear a peep for the weeks that followed. That’s all so scary. It was terrifying. I have a healthy respect for the supernatural, but I want it to stay in its lane and I’ll stay in mine. It was genuinely very frightening and not something I would necessarily be keen to experience again. I have one other story, which is a little less sensational. After my father died about a year and a half ago, I arrived in Florida and was staying at my sister's house and one of her dogs, Champ, slept with me. I had a dream that my dad was speaking to me through Champ. I woke up at dawn and this dog, who usually sleeps like a log, was sitting upright beside me. And his mouth was opening and closing, and it looked as though he was talking. We just stared at each other like that for a little while, and then he laid back down. There can be such a desire to try and figure out what it was. Was it a supernatural thing? Was it grief? Was it exhaustion? But I think I’ve given up on trying to explain moments like that, and just allow them to the inexplicable things that they are. That's precisely the kind of moment that I'm drawn to writing into fiction, these experiences that can't be explained. Toni Morrison has this beautiful quote from an NPR interview she did, where she says, “If you’re really alert, you can see the life that exists beyond the life that is on top.” There’s so much in that beyond that’s deeply mysterious to me, but I believe that it's there, and that it matters. I’m interested in allowing the presence of the beyond in and thinking about what it has the capacity to communicate to us that cannot be conveyed through more corporeal channels. These questions were of deep interest to me when I was working on this book. Do you think it might be dangerous in a way, to remain open to the beyond like that? Dangerous how? Emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. I think one's relationship to whatever dimensions that exist or don't exist outside of corporeal life is deeply personal. For me, I do think writing fiction requires a degree of emotional or psychological risk. If I'm not risking something, I feel like the story isn’t risking anything. And I do think stories need to be willing to take risks. This can manifest in all kinds of ways. I always want to be very thoughtful about the risks that I'm taking in fiction and not just risking for the sake of risk. That’s what boxing is for [laughs]. A lot of the stories in Wolf did take risks. “Hill of Hell” was an emotionally difficult story to write, and there was emotional risk there for me. I also hope that the spirit of that risk is felt and present in the story. A lot of it is waiting for the right time to write something. “Last Night” was the most autobiographical story in the collection. It's a story that I had tried to write many different ways and many different times. When I wrote the draft that’s in the collection, it was the first time that I tried really writing in an autofiction kind of style. But I was also just ready to write that particular story. Some of it was technical barriers, but it was also emotional readiness. I wasn't prepared to be that raw and vulnerable with that material. I had to wait for the moment when I did feel like I could go there. Questions of risk are questions of timing as well. When you're speaking of unknown terrains, I'm reminded of how your characters frequently find themselves as tourists in foreign countries. Why is this a setting you find yourself circling back to? I think that there are specific ways shifts in location can disorient the gaze. There’s a part of my experience with that exorcism that’s glazed into my memory more than anything else. If you can imagine the residency was set up like a compound that took up about half a city block. There were six of us there, and half of us were affected, which is to say we experienced the haunting, and the other half did not. I asked the exorcist, why did these people get off so easy? Why was it just us? And he said, with absolute authority, “you have the wedge.” His theory of hauntedness is that every place is haunted, there are ghosts all around us at any time. Inside each of us is a wedge, and some ghosts can fit into the wedge and others can’t. Which explains why five people could go into a quote unquote haunted house, and maybe only two would say they felt a chill. I think that travel, and the very particular ways in which it can dislocate and disorient the self, can create new wedges that new types of things can get inside. I was really interested in that in the titular story, and the way that the protagonist taking on her sister’s identity causes her own sense of self and her own life to go completely haywire. I think that travel, because we are removed from our usual context, allows for things to happen that would not have happened at home. That can be very good for fiction. I was thinking about this with “Karolina”: on what terms could these two women meet each other again? They could have encountered each other at home, but there is a kind of charge and intimacy and privacy that can happen between these two women because they're in a hotel room. Because there is this temporariness. Everything is intensified, everything is heightened. Speaking more broadly about form, I was really influenced as a younger writer by abroad novels. I still really love great travel literature, and at the same time I think the history of the of the abroad novel is riddled with problems. Whiteness that’s unexamined, imperialistic urges and so on. It’s up to readers whether this project is successful or not, but one thing that I've been alert to is trying to find new shapes and imagine new possibilities for travel literature. Is this desire to place characters in alienating positions why they all seem so disconnected from each other? It seems very difficult for your characters to find any authentic social connections. They’re all very solitary, and for many of them we’re meeting at times where their lives have been horribly fractured by loss or secrecy. This has given way to a deeper alienation to those around them. A lot of these characters are in the liminal space after a really formative loss. The kind of loss where you walk into the moment one person, and walk out a different kind of person; and maybe you don't know what that means exactly, you just know that something somewhere inside you has fundamentally changed forever. Maybe these characters have walked out the other side of that door, but they don't yet know what that changed self means for them. When you're in that state of profound limbo, it's hard to make connections with the people around you. I was really interested in writing into these metamorphic, mysterious emotional landscapes. I wanted to circle back to something you were saying at the beginning of our conversation about America's rejection of history. This seems juxtaposed with the fact that for your characters memory is something that's always present on an endless loop. These characters have pasts that are really bearing down hard on them, and because of that, memory is very activated. The word looped does feel apt. There's a whirlpool effect, and they're circling and circling and trying to not get sucked down into the center. But this individual memory is very different than national memory, than having a collective understanding of our true history as a country. There's a lot of people who are receptive to trying to figure out how to meet this moment, but still don’t understand how we got here. The answers are all there, it's all encoded in our history: a history that has been undealt with, unconfronted, and unrectified, in any kind of public institutional way as well as in the context of people's private lives. That was something I thought about in “Lizards,” where on the one hand what the husband is doing to his wife is really horrifying and unforgivable. But on the other, she is a character who is enraged by Kavanaugh's presence as a likely Supreme Court Justice yet is all too eager to blank out at the end of the day and to avoid the harder questions. What is she as an individual willing to change in her life? What is she willing to give up? What is she willing to do differently to prevent another Kavanaugh from being in such an immense position of power? The answer to that question is probably not that much. She’s a character whose relationship between her own life choices and the larger power structures that she's kind of starting to notice is really, truly unexamined. “Karolina” is uncanny in its prediction of how mainstream liberal feminism would treat Tara Reade. There’s a criticism in there of a selective politics, where there’s no real application of politics to one’s own life outside of a specific agenda. “Lizards” and “Karolina” are the two stories where that relationship was the most on my mind. The narrator in “Karolina,” for instance, would consider herself to be a feminist and a Democrat. She would be completely horrified by Kavanaugh and Trump. And yet the patriarchal violence in her own family, in terms of her relationship with her brother, has gone completely unexamined and unconfronted. Moreover, she has been complicit in the abuse of her sister-in-law. That’s something that so many people are wrestling with in their own families. The application can’t just be external: protesting, donating, making calls, writing emails. That work is vitally important, and we all need to do it. But the application must be internal as well. That comes down to the power dynamics within our own family structures. This character was never physically violent, but she helped to cultivate an environment where violence against her sister-in-law was possible or even permissible. I was thinking about personal relationships to power and how what goes unexamined can have consequences in powerful and terrible ways as we move through our lives in the greater world.
The author of The Ghost in the House on acts of grace, territorial tendencies, and the silver lining in things being temporary.
Sara O’Leary’s debut novel The Ghost in the House (Doubleday Canada) is a dark comedy about self-awareness, existential dilemmas, and life after death (especially the sort of life that has somehow kept going and wants you to bear witness to how everything has rearranged itself to cover up the gaps you left behind). Thirty-something Fay, the novel’s narrator, realizes that instead of her life being on the cusp of something bigger, it has abruptly ended without her permission. Her husband, Alec, has a new love, and teenaged Dee—who isn’t sure if she wants to belong to the living or the dead—is Fay’s key to communicating with the real world. Also a screenwriter, writer of short stories, and children’s book author, O’Leary’s dialogue delights in what our miscommunications say about ourselves. She uses short, shimmering sentences to play a who’s-really-been-left-behind riddle from chapter to chapter with the reader. What follows is less a coming-of-age story and more a coming-to-terms-with that slyly upturns the traditional who’s-who of ghost stories. “Fay is 37 when she dies and assumes that she still has lots of choices left to make,” O’Leary says. The novel pokes and prods at the denial that often comes with grief, “reconciling yourself to…the fact that life continues even when you’re gone—a sort of It’s A Wonderful Death scenario.” Sara and I spoke in the lead-up to the book’s release, and unpacked the responsibility, desire and motivations behind processing life (and death, and grief) by writing ghost stories. Nathania Gilson: What sparked your desire to write a ghost story? Sara O’Leary: I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, although I’ve lived in a number of haunted houses. The characters in The Ghost in the House are fully imagined but the house itself is the one I used to live in before leaving Vancouver, and I think of it like a lost love. I’ve always really been interested in girl-meets-house stories. Manderley, the setting of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, was based on the house Menabilly that she discovered and brought back to life. Similarly, Lucy Boston bought a house called The Manor and used it as the setting for her Green Knowe books. Both are stories of hauntings and in both cases the house itself becomes a character in the story. I’m not particularly frightened of my own death but I do find it somehow shocking that a person can be in the world one moment and then gone. How can that be? A very dear friend died the year we both turned 36, and while I face constant reminders that I am growing older, she stays fixed in time and now seems impossibly young to me. All the things she was planning to do, all the places she was going to go, the children she wanted to have—all of that went with her. I think it’s fairly common after losing someone to have that dream where they are suddenly there with you, saying that no, no, it was a mistake, and that they never really died. Or sometimes it’s not as explicit as that—just a dream where you walk into your kitchen and there they are, sitting at the table. I suppose that’s what I wanted to explore—how something that’s finally one of the only certainties in life can feel so terribly unreal. And because of my innate sense of the absurd, it made sense to me to tell the story from the perspective of someone who had just died. It’s hard to talk about all this without making the book sound terribly dreary and woe-some, and I really hope it’s not. It’s a story about dying, yes, but I think also about growing up, and truly loving someone, accepting (as my mother used to tell me when I was a child) that life is not always fair. There’s a constant sense of negotiation and bargaining throughout the novel: the desire for more time; wanting to be heard and seen; escaping loneliness. Even sometimes, expressing or acting out on pettiness because of the shield that invisibility and not being “in” the world affords you. What drew you to exploring these feelings from a female character’s point of view? As someone who writes for children, agency is something that naturally interests me. These two streams of my writing crossed over when a book I was writing set in a dollhouse started showing up in the house in my novel. There is something genuinely unheimlich about dollhouses that seemed to fit this story, but they are also very connected to agency. Rumer Godden wrote, “It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot ‘do’; they can only be done by.” I think that Fay’s sense of powerlessness is paralleled by that of the thirteen-year-old girl suddenly inhabiting her house. Fay sympathises with Dee’s feeling that decisions are being made about her life, but not by her. They both feel that they cannot do but only be done by. It felt natural to tell this story from the female perspective. And I think Fay struggles—as many of us do—with the notion that we should be able to have it all. There’s that whole art monster question from Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, whether it’s possible to be both mother and artist. This got me thinking about how sad it is to forgo one and never achieve the other. Fay is full of dreams and aspirations and plans for the things she always expected to have time to do, and I was interested in exploring how it would feel to see all that vanish before your eyes. What would you regret? There’s that Raymond Carver line: “And did you get what/you wanted from this life, even so?” Fay feels she has been cheated. All her bargaining and negotiation is in answer to that, but, ultimately, it’s a futile gesture. She’s had her life and all that’s left to her is a final act of grace. Being embodied is a theme in this novel—specifically, being comfortable in the body you’re given and navigating the world with confidence. Fay seems to struggle with this. What work do you turn to when looking historically to how women’s sense of autonomy and confidence has been expressed? When I still thought I might pursue an academic life, my main area of interest was writing by female modernists, and Djuna Barnes in particular. There’s a little nod to Nightwood in the first sentence of the novel. In fact, you’ve just reminded me that at one point I started a novel set in the 1920s about a girl from Unity, Saskatchewan who runs away to Paris after her father tells her she can’t stay out until midnight on New Year’s Eve. Maybe I’ll go back to that! I do love that period, and interestingly, it was a time when spiritualism was very prevalent. Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows looks at that in such an interesting way, and I think a similar mixture of doubt and belief found its way into The Ghost in the House. The Fountain Overflows is also a book about agency, which is certainly part of its appeal for me. I share the attitude of the main character, Rose: “She found childhood an embarrassing state. She did not like wearing ridiculous clothes, and being ordered about by people we often recognized as stupid and horrid, and we could not earn our own livings.” In my story, Dee and Fay both exhibit frustration with their lack of autonomy over their own lives, and as Fay says, “The only good thing about being thirteen is that unlike being dead, it doesn’t last.” Navigating the world in a female body naturally presents its own set of challenges, but Fay has moved beyond her body, which is in itself a form of freedom. There are three poems I think of as the invisible epigraphs to the book: Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Stevie Smith’s “Away, Melancholy,” and Emily Dickinson’s “The Things that never can come back, are several.” The movement in these poems follows aspiration, loss, and ultimately acceptance, that I think (hope) is also the arc of the novel. It was interesting to me how introspective Fay is for a ghost. She’s wondering how she compares to other ghosts who may or may not be stuck haunting the houses they used to live in; wondering where she sits on the Kübler-Ross grief cycle. What role did humour play in upturning our idea of what a ghost story could be? For me, humour plays a role in everything! There’s always been something intrinsically comic about this story to me, although I think I lost several of my favourite jokes somewhere along the way. At one point I had Fay examining her inability to shake off her attachment to her house and possessions by musing: “If you can’t be Zen about things when you’re dead, then when can you?” Is Fay introspective for a ghost? She does spend a lot of time in the past, but I imagine ghosts have a lot of time on their hands—the original self-isolators.There’s also the question of whether Fay is really a ghost at the beginning of the novel, or is imagining she is. The burst of electrical activity in the brain at the time of death could explain that old truism of one’s life flashing before their eyes. For me, it’s more interesting that the brain’s desire for narrative might mean that those moments are spent constructing an alternate reality—in this case one where life goes on, but you don’t go with it. I do think at the beginning of the novel Fay is guilty of a sort of solipsism that may be what held her back in life and that she initially views the new inhabitants of the house as projections of herself. She does have difficulty in reaching the acceptance stage of the grief cycle, but perhaps it is different when the one you are mourning is yourself. The people who can see and talk to Fay while she’s a ghost are not always kind to her. How are ghost stories a way to explore resentment or unfinished business that might not have been possible otherwise? Are we kind to the dead, I wonder? Or do we often resent them—after all, they left us, didn’t they? Perhaps we would extend to a ghost the same selfish attitude we are often guilty of when encountering those who are bereaved or facing a terminal diagnosis. We’re all too often frightened of our own mortality and can be clumsy and churlish in the face of reminders. Ghost stories appeal to us because of that frisson of fear and unease, and the reflex to “other” Fay as a ghost seems natural because the living are territorial about things like houses and bodies. In Fay’s case, she’s a revenant who finds that there’s no longer room for her in the home she has left behind. Her husband has married a woman who in many ways seems like a perfected iteration of Fay, and with her she brings a child to take the place of the one that never was. The only way Fay can fully return is by displacing others, and so if the living beings in the house are sometimes unkind to her, then it is partly in the face of her refusal to accept the natural order of things. For novelists wanting to delve into these dark, difficult waters, how can they approach the challenge ahead of them? As writers, do we have a responsibility to the dead? If so, the responsibility of the fiction writer is necessarily different from that of the journalist who must concern themselves with facts, or that of the memoirist who is staking a claim against mortality. Of course, our own death is the one thing we cannot write about experientially (apart from those heaven tourism books that purport to describe life after death) and so it follows that books about death are much more likely to be witness accounts. When I think of books about death, I think of Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, written about the loss of her entire immediate family in a tsunami. It is difficult to be so privy to someone else’s grief in the face of an almost unimaginable tragedy but I came away from the book feeling enriched by the enduring quality of the different forms of love. And one of the more moving pieces of writing I’ve read is Lucy Kalanithi’s epilogue to her husband Paul’s When Breath Becomes Air in which she talks about facing death in our death-avoidant culture. It seems to me in each of these cases the impulse in writing about one’s loved ones must be to keep them alive just that little bit longer. So where does that leave writers of fiction? I don’t think it’s possible to answer that without considering the larger question of the function that fiction serves. C.S. Lewis wrote “We read to know that we are not alone” and I’ve always felt that to be true. That is also perhaps as good a reason as any to write—as I chose to do—about grief.
The videos were different from anything I’d ever seen. Rope, leather, buckles, straitjackets, Lycra, latex, gas masks, ball gags. The women had ideas and Vanessa let them act the ideas out.
I dropped out of college at twenty. I got so depressed the words blurred on the pages of the PDFs I was supposed to be reading, even when I printed them out. Books were out of the question: I’d read the same sentence over and over again and get through a thirty-page chapter in a week and a half. All food tasted grainy, mealy, grey. I stopped going to the dining hall and ordered pizza instead, which tasted the same as the food in the dining hall. I emailed professors saying I was sick and they responded kindly, offering to set up times to meet with me during their office hours. My philosophy professor said she’d meet me at a coffee shop over the weekend if that was more convenient for me. She added that “we all run into hard times, especially in college when we’re away from our support systems,” and that I should please let her know if I needed to be connected with a counselor at the student health center. I got too broke to keep ordering pizza so I didn’t eat much. I let the professor help me set up an appointment at the student health center, where I saw a therapist with a PhD named John Neely. John Neely asked about my childhood trauma and I told him I had none. He said to please be honest with him, everything I said would be kept confidential. Desperate to come up with something, I said that both my parents had had affairs. He asked if they were divorced and I didn’t want to disappoint him but I told him the truth anyway, that they were still together and that their marriage was maybe even stronger as a result. “All mental illness stems from childhood trauma,” he said. “You have to understand that.” He told me to come see him next week but I didn’t. For three days, I didn’t get out of bed except to pee and rummage in the kitchen for peanut butter. All the professors emailed me, and when I lifted open my laptop I saw a few emails from the same professor, the French one I had five times a week, with the words How are you doing? and then Where are you? and then This many unexcused absences is going to result in a failing grade. I looked up at the ceiling of my dorm room, which I shared with a girl named Abby who stuck little plastic diamonds around the contours of her eyeshadow. She didn’t talk to me much but she didn’t seem to mind me. On the ceiling was a crack that made me think of an artery traveling the length of a body. I followed the crack from where it began above my bed to where it ended above Abby’s bed. I thought of blood moving through a body. I thought of the fragility of bodies. A body crushed under a fallen tree. A body crumpling to the ground from a blood clot in the brain. All the ways a body could kill itself or be killed. I thought of freak accidents where someone’s artery gets opened and blood jets out. Blood draining from a body. I didn’t shower for two weeks. Abby started staying over at her boyfriend’s on the weekend, and then during the week. I watched Netflix on my parents’ account, shows I couldn’t remember watching minutes after finishing them. My mom called me and I didn’t pick up. My dad called me and I didn’t pick up. Eventually Abby told someone—I have no idea who—and a “wellness check” was performed. Campus security with walkie talkies and chunky belts. But by then the semester was over and I’d already failed all my classes. I was placed on academic probation. I lost my partial scholarship. I told my parents I didn’t want to go back and my mom told me that was OK and my dad said, “Why are you saying that’s OK? What are you teaching her?” And my mom said, “She’s clearly suffering.” And my dad said, “She’s already cost us a small fortune.” And then he looked at me and said, “If you drop out of college, you can’t come back home, do you understand? We’re not going to support you anymore.” My mom cried and begged him not to be so harsh with me. My dad shrugged and said, “Play it as it lays.” I wound up in Chicago, two hours north of college. Someone I kind of knew named Jules had an apartment in Uptown that she was sharing with four people. I had a “room” in the living room made out of bedsheets with a mattress on the floor. Jules had been two years ahead of me in college, graduating around the time I flunked out. I knew her from a production of Edward Albee’s Seascape the drama department had put on where she played one of the lizards. I had done some tech for the play but didn’t really like doing it and never did again. Jules wanted to get famous doing improv in Chicago and so did all her friends but all of them were nannies or dog walkers making googly-eyed gourds and Smash the Patriarchy needlepoints for Fiverr and Etsy and working as “teaching artists” in after-school theater programs. I got a job at Oly’s, an all-night burger-and-quesadillas-and-gyros place on Granville. I made $11 an hour. My mom texted me every day and my dad every week and I sent the shortest responses possible. At night when Jules and her friends were out or asleep, I made little welts in my arm with a pocket knife. I grew my nails out and scratched into my wrists, seeing how close I could get to a vein. It made sense that one day I would be all alone, my phone turned off and the door locked, and I would finally get close enough. I was a virgin. I had never even kissed anyone of any gender. One time in high school a guy tried to finger me in his car and I hit him in the head and ran home. He never said anything about it because he was the kind of guy who’d be embarrassed about being beat up by a girl. When she did talk to me—or rather, at me—Abby described how big her boyfriend’s dick was and how great it felt inside her. She had a nickname for his dick: Dwayne Johnson. She asked me how many dicks I’d sucked and I lied and said twenty-four. She looked worried and told me she could tell I was lying. She said that if I stopped dressing like the guys in Pineapple Express maybe I’d get some. She said, “I honestly think you might be too messed up to fuck. You need to get that fixed.” Jules had a boyfriend who lived in Pilsen, which took hours to get to by train, and she had threesomes all the time without him, sometimes with her friends, sometimes with other people she knew from improv classes. The living room was next to Jules’s bedroom, and I could hear her through her wall and my bedsheet. If the noise of the fucking made me feel bad, I took the pocketknife to my arm. Sometimes I took it to the tops of my thighs. One night I got off work early and Jules was in the apartment alone. All her friends were at the screening of an independent film. They all knew the director but Jules was in a fight with him so she’d stayed home. When I walked in and hung up my coat she was sitting on the couch looking at her phone wearing a tartan crop top and black jeans with a hole in the right knee. Her hair was up but a strand had fallen loose and hung next to the curve of her jawline. I hadn’t noticed her jawline before, but now I couldn’t stop looking at it. “Hey,” she said. “You busy tonight?” It was nice of her to pretend I was ever busy. “No, actually.” “Do you know what a speakeasy is?” “Like, in the ’20s?” She laughed, so I laughed too. “Yeah, I mean, that’s sort of the concept behind them. Except we don’t need them for alcohol anymore, obviously.” I nodded. “There’s this one in Albany Park. You can only get into it if you know someone who’s already in. And you can only bring one guest.” She looked at her phone and began texting, briefly absorbed in some drama. Then she looked back up. “Wanna be my guest?” The speakeasy was underneath a boring-looking liquor store on the block across from a bunch of Victorians. Jules knocked and waited to be assessed through the peephole. A guy who was maybe in his 40s opened the door, the kind of guy who would roll into my place of work around 3 a.m. after a Weezer show. Jules said “Kenny,” and then she said, “Don’t water the flowers,” and the guy nodded and stood aside. Inside was what looked like a garden apartment made into a performance space: there was a three-person band playing in one corner, high-quality photos of oiled bodies having sex in another. People were walking around drinking and talking. There was a couch and two easy chairs in the center where people sat and smoked, and on the coffee table were massive, purplish nuggets of weed. The walls had been painted with Day-Glo paints: flowers and dinosaurs and elves and hairy monsters. “Oh my god, machine elves,” Jules said, pausing at a scene of squinty-eyed elves piecing together a human body out of gears and electric wire. “Yeah,” I said. “Do you know what those are?” I shrugged and gave a half nod, trying not to lie while not revealing my ignorance. She smiled. “You see those when you do DMT,” she said. “God, I want to do DMT.” A guy in black glasses and a T-shirt which pictured what looked like a demon making out with a ’50s housewife came over to us. Jules hugged him and said, “Kenny!” “Who’s this?” Kenny pointed at me. “Oh, this is my roommate. She moved here a few months ago.” “Nice,” Kenny said. “You know, everything here’s free. Like, literally. Whatever you can get your hands on, you can take.” “Even the photos?” Jules asked. Kenny smiled and puffed out his chest. “Even the photos,” he said. “I took them, actually.” Then he grabbed Jules’s hand and pulled her close and whispered something in her ear. “Hey,” she said to me. “Kenny needs to show me something. Are you gonna be OK on your own for a minute?” I worried I wasn’t going to be, but I nodded anyway. “Cool,” she said. “I’ll be right back.” I watched Jules and Kenny disappear into the crowd. I decided to do what I had done at parties before, which was get a drink. It was harder to get into awkward situations when you were holding a drink. The surface area of the kitchen island was completely covered with liquor bottles, and people were taking and leaving them at a steady clip. A girl in a dress made of newspaper gave me a cup of what she told me was hot buttered rum. An inch of newspaper on her left boob had gotten wet and the ink was starting to run. I sipped the rum, unafraid of roofies because a girl had given it to me. It tasted thick and sweet. I stood against the wall and nodded back when people smiled at me in passing. I began to think then. I thought of drinking moonshine and going blind. I thought of drinking so much my organs would begin to shut down. I thought of getting my stomach pumped and choking on my own vomit. I drank faster. Then there was a woman leaning against the wall next to me. She looked older than everyone else there, and her face was thin but in a glamorous way, with creases from her chin to the corners of her mouth like Charlotte Gainsbourg. She wore a maroon velvet jacket and metal bracelets on her wrists that disappeared beneath her sleeves and reappeared as she ran her hand through the uncombed length of her hair or raised her mug to drink. Her legs were wiry and crossed at the ankles, and she wore leather shoes with massive buckles and low heels, the kind that belonged in the 19th century. I wanted to look at her for hours. “Do you like it here?” she asked. “Like, at this place?” She tilted her head to one side. “No, like in Chicago.” I became anxious that I’d already messed up the conversation. “Yeah,” I said. She smiled and I looked straight ahead. I could feel her gaze traveling from my feet to my face. “I’m Vanessa,” she said. I told her my name. “You ever see someone and like them instantly?” she asked. I wanted to say I had but I hadn’t and knew I probably never would. I stayed silent, downing the last of my drink. “Of all the people here,” she wagged her index finger across the length of the room, “I think you’re the most interesting.” I swallowed and then barked out a laugh and then got embarrassed and rubbed the rum from my lips with the back of my hand. “OK, well, that seems wrong.” Vanessa smiled. “Why’s that wrong?” “Because I’m a fuckup.” She laughed. “I’m going to get another drink,” I said. “You’re very beautiful,” she said. I felt my heart begin to race. “Are you hitting on me?” I asked. “Is this a trick?” She shrugged. “I’m not beautiful,” I said. My hair was boy-short, shaggy, my legs thin and my stomach thick enough that I had a small belly. I wore sneakers and skinny jeans that were too tight at my waist and, over my long-sleeved shirt, a hoodie for a mediocre metal band that Abby’s boyfriend had discarded in our room. “You are, but I’m not going to sit here arguing with you. I can’t convince you of anything. I’m just some idiot in a drug basement.” I didn’t know how to preserve my dignity. “I am too,” I said. She brought the mug back to her lips. “Sure, and you’re also beautiful.” I drained my drink. “I’m gonna go find my friend.” She grabbed the sleeve of my hoodie and pulled a flash drive out of her back pocket. It had what looked like her name and number taped on the side. “Take this home and tell me what you think. It’s my work. Or, at least, some of it. If you like it, give me a call.” I put it in my pocket. She looked down at my shoes, Timberlands my mom had gotten me for my 19th birthday. “Do you lace those up every time? Or slip them on?” I looked down with her. “I slip them on.” “Yeah,” she said, and grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “I could tell.” Kenny and Jules had taken molly. They were making out in the Lyft and made me sit in front with the driver, who tried to talk to me about how he never went south of Roosevelt because “thugs live on the South Side.” When we got home, Kenny and Jules tore their clothes off in the hallway and he started fucking her against the wall, his pants at his ankles. I watched for a minute, my hand around the flash drive in my pocket. It was like a video of praying mantises I’d seen in the fifth grade, the female’s body bobbing a little up and down while the male stayed relatively still. Jules’s face screwed up when her eyes met mine. “What the fuck?” she said. “Stop looking, seriously.” I stopped looking and went into my room, where I could hear Jules moaning. Eventually they went into Jules’s room and the moaning got a little more muffled. It felt like the barometric pressure had suddenly dropped in my head. Involuntarily, I imagined Kenny stabbing Jules, Jules stabbing Kenny. I imagined stabbing myself, stabbing them both. Was it possible to accidentally stab someone? Was I someone with such awfulness inside of me that I was capable of accidentally stabbing someone? I used the pocketknife to make a little slice in my forearm. I took my pants off and made another one on my thigh. I felt sick and restless, like a swarm of bees was pressing to be released from under my skin. I got a knife from the block in the kitchen and brought it back to my room and set it next to me. The blood from my forearm and thigh was starting to drip. I didn’t do anything about it. My mom had texted me I love you sweets. I hope you’re having a good night. I turned my phone off. I opened my laptop. I had watched everything on Netflix. I had streamed every movie and show that wasn’t on Netflix. There was nothing left. There was no use for my laptop. Might as well infect it with the malware that was probably on Vanessa’s flash drive. The laptop would make screeching dying-robot sounds that, if blasted at full volume, would drown out the noise of the fucking. The flash drive was called OPUSES and there was one folder inside: TO WATCH. I clicked on it and the thumbnails of a bunch of files showed up with names like TheInquisition.mp4 and AnInquiry.mp4. I thought about Vanessa again, thin in her velvet jacket, and imagined her filming a beheading like ISIS. I pressed my thumb into the knife and drew a little blood. I felt disgusting, the kind of person who would end up grabbing people’s wallets on a train platform, begging on the corner for someone to buy them a pack of cigarettes from a bodega. I decided I would watch one video and then try to find a vein. I chose NotesFromUnderground.mp4. The screen read “Vanessa Redwire Productions” in Metropolis font. There was the thick staticky sound of a video without music. Then the title screen vanished and Vanessa was sitting on a folding chair in shorts and a tank top in a room full of soft white light. Behind her was some kind of metal frame, like a medieval torture rack but friendly-looking. Vanessa was beaming. She crossed and uncrossed her legs. “How are you feeling about this?” said a man’s voice behind the camera. It, like the rack, was friendly. “Amazing,” said Vanessa without hesitation. The man laughed good-naturedly. “I’m glad to hear that.” Vanessa adjusted the straps of her tank top. She was acting at least ten years younger than the woman I’d met at the speakeasy. “Can you tell me when this started?” “Well, as a kid I always wondered what it would be like to be tied up. And then as a teenager I wanted the room quiet and dark while I made myself come. And then in my twenties I bought a sex swing to use with my boyfriend but…” They both laughed. “I’m guessing that didn’t work out so well?” the man said. Vanessa grabbed the edges of her seat and rocked forward and back. “Obviously not.” Then there was a cut and Vanessa was in a full-body black suit made of what looked like Lycra. Something about her bare head made me feel like I was watching an explorer-queen, someone beautiful who didn’t care about her beauty when she was cutting through thickets in an uncharted wood. The Charlotte Gainsbourg creases at either side of her mouth were softer in the white light. A black-haired woman in a shiny latex dress and very high heels was standing next to her holding a leather hood with buckles on all sides and a hole for the mouth. Vanessa stood still as the latex woman put the hood over her head. The latex woman had a hard time getting it on, and Vanessa, the latex woman, and the man behind the camera all laughed. Once the hood was on, the latex woman began to buckle the buckles and ask repeatedly if the buckles were too tight or too loose. Vanessa directed her and the latex woman responded promptly to her direction, a look of worried compassion on her face. Then the hood was secure and Vanessa was giving a thumbs up to the camera. Another cut, and Vanessa had been tied to the rack and was completely suspended. She pretended to be struggling. She made moaning noises as she struggled. The latex woman had gone offscreen but now appeared onscreen again. She was holding a vibrator that looked like a massive microphone. She asked Vanessa if Vanessa liked being tied up and Vanessa nodded. She asked Vanessa if Vanessa wanted to come and Vanessa nodded again. The latex woman held the vibrator to Vanessa’s crotch and Vanessa’s muffled moans intensified. Then the latex woman took the vibrator away and said, “Not yet,” and Vanessa made a whining noise. The latex woman laughed. She turned the vibrator on again and traced Vanessa’s breasts over the Lycra. She traced the inside of Vanessa’s thigh. She teased her like this for a few minutes. Then she pressed the vibrator to Vanessa’s crotch and Vanessa’s muffled voice said, “Oh, oh, oh!” and I didn’t really notice what happened next because I was feeling better than I’d felt in a long time, something bright and colorful was flooding my brain, and there were stars on the ceiling, and my whole body was shaking. * * * I watched all twenty-four videos in the TO WATCH folder that night and then started watching them again and fell asleep on the fifth. I had seen porn before: on my parents’ computer as a kid, when TorontoDude87 sent me a picture of a woman licking an erect dick on AOL messenger; when my friend Trish had dared me to Google “hardcore porn” sophomore year of high school and we’d watched a video of a man thrusting into and choking a woman who wheezed, “Thank you daddy”; when Abby showed me her “dream,” which was a video of a woman on all fours with one guy’s dick in her mouth and another guy’s dick in her ass. I didn’t understand porn, and on the rare occasion that the subject of porn came up in my parents’ house, it was referred to as “degrading” and “obscene.” I decided not to watch it because, I told myself, I didn’t want to be involved in something that was degrading and obscene, but really it was because I didn’t like it. The women always acted scared and worshipped the men. There was always a close-up shot of the man coming on the woman’s stomach or her breasts or her face. Sometimes the women would come and scream and the men would put their hands over the women’s mouths and tell them to be quiet, especially if it was one of those storylines where the woman was cheating on her husband and he was in the next room. Trish told me she could make herself come without touching herself. All she had to do was think of her boyfriend naked and cross her legs together really tight. A lot of people’s boyfriends made them come multiple times in one session: the highest count I’d ever heard was thirty-one. At night while my parents watched PBS I lay in my bed wearing the oversized T-shirt I’d gotten from sleepaway camp and no underwear. I’d touch myself and think of Jake Gyllenhaal and Channing Tatum. When they first appeared in my mind, they were fully clothed. I tried to undress them but I couldn’t imagine them without clothes for some reason. Sometimes they had my dad’s upper body when he walked around shirtless in his towel after a shower (in which case I stopped touching myself immediately and pulled the shirt over my knees and cried), and sometimes they had the oversized biceps and thighs of bodybuilders. They were usually in mid-conversation with me when I imagined them, saying their lines from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or Magic Mike XXL, and I felt rude for interrupting them. So I tried to imagine Trish’s boyfriend instead, his peach fuzz and hi-tops, but that was somehow worse than imagining my dad’s shirtless body. Then I tried imagining erect dicks, veiny and hairy, but whenever I tried that I’d start laughing because I’d be thinking of bratwurst or elephant’s trunks. By the time I left for college, I’d stopped trying altogether. Vanessa’s videos were different from anything I’d ever seen. The women had ideas and Vanessa let them act the ideas out. Rope, leather, buckles, straitjackets, Lycra, latex, gas masks, ball gags, rubber gloves, hoods, duct tape, vibrators, swings, saran wrap. And when the women came no one told them not to make noise. And other women made them come. And they talked to each other, told each other their ideas, said they were feeling great about their ideas. For a few days, I woke up, watched the videos, went to work for nine hours, came home, watched the videos. I felt sick and dizzy when I was away from the videos. I felt like I was falling in love. I barely saw Jules and her friends—I barely took the time to take my shoes off in the hallway before running to my room, closing the bedsheets around me, and watching the videos. Sometimes I would come up for air—get a glass of water, pee, change into pajamas from work clothes—and wonder what it meant that I liked the videos. Before I could draw any conclusions, I’d whisper You like the videos because you like the videos, and then I’d plunge back in again. I came constantly, involuntarily. I decided this was feminism, and that I was a feminist. I began reading feminist sites: there was one I liked in particular that talked about how women’s sexuality should be respected by men. Then I read an article on that site called “The Seeds of Sexual Violence Are Planted Early.” It told the story of a serial rapist and pedophile who remembered being five years old and fantasizing about the way Jabba the Hut put Princess Leia in shackles. “When you’re five and already thinking about shackles, where do you go from there?” the rapist asked. I stopped reading that site and all the rest of them. I thought about destroying the flash drive. I thought about telling Jules and asking if she could help me. But ultimately I made an incision in my left forearm and told myself to stop thinking about it. When I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I decided I owed it to myself to call Vanessa. I called on a Friday, my only day off, around 10 a.m. When she answered, her voice was foggy and tired. She had either just woken up or been up all night. I told her I was the girl from the speakeasy. “Beautiful girl,” she said. “How are you?” I told her I was fine. “Did you watch the videos?” I told her I had. “Very nice. Did you like them?” I was silent. I had no idea how I would begin to say the things I wanted to say. “Well,” she said dreamily. “I know you did, because you’re calling. I don’t give flash drives to a lot of people. If I did, people would think I was a pervert.” She laughed but the word destabilized me and I could feel myself beginning to sweat. “I’m guessing you want more of them,” she said. I could barely say yes, but I did. She gave me an address. I promised I’d be there next Friday. * * * The house was in Humboldt Park, a Chicago Greystone with a neon pink-and-green palm tree filling a corner of the lower left-hand window. Someone was smoking on the porch, a blond girl in a striped hoodie. She was frowning at her phone. When she turned so I could see her face, I recognized her from DontJudgeItUntilYouveTriedIt.mp4, in which a woman in a latex dress puts her feet up on the back of a woman in a full-body cast who is serving as her ottoman. In the video, the blond girl wore full makeup and her hair in ringlets. Now, she wore smudged mascara and strands of her hair stuck out from under her hood like straw. I was worried the blond girl would see me and think I looked suspicious, so I checked my phone, too. I had no new messages and no new notifications on any social media app. I scrolled through my own camera roll: covert pictures of other people’s dogs, a poorly lit picture of some plastic-wrapped food lump whose label read HAM AND RESINS, a picture I’d taken of my arm right after a fresh cut. The blood had swelled to the surface and begun to trickle out the edges, which was always something I liked to watch. I looked at it for too long and then, feeling as though I was about to be found out, put it away. “Hey!” the blond girl was shouting. Her voice was hoarse and deep, not at all how I’d expected it to sound. “Are you watching me?” I shook my head and halfway raised my arms as though I was about to be arrested. “I’m here to see Vanessa,” I said, quieter than I probably needed to. I crossed the street and stood in the front yard and pulled the flash drive out of my pocket, my hand shaking as I did. “She gave me this.” The blond girl looked at me skeptically. She extended her arm and I gave her the flash drive. She inspected it, rubbing her finger over Vanessa’s name and number. “Who are you?” she asked. I said my name. “That’s a horrible name,” she said. “I never heard of you.” “I’m sorry.” She smiled and then wheezed out a laugh. “Thanks for apologizing. Vanessa’s not here right now.” This sent an explosion of adrenaline through my stomach and chest. The buzzing under my skin picked back up in full force. “I’m Andie,” she said. “Spelled with an I-E.” “Nice to meet you.” “Yeah,” she said, and took another drag on her cigarette. “Do you want to sit inside and wait for her? She’ll be back in twenty.” The walls of the living room were crowded with photos of women tied to beds, gagged, wearing collars. They were all tamer than much of what I’d seen in the videos. The couch was large and stiff but obviously expensive, and I more balanced myself on it than sat on it. Where a TV would have been in front of me was a photo blown up to be larger than all the rest, of a woman in Lucite heels and a latex bodysuit with a circular cutout in the chest that showed her cleavage. She was standing facing away from the camera but turning back to wink at the photographer. In her right hand she held a riding crop. Andie went into the kitchen and left me sitting there, surrounded by the pictures of beautiful women. How could Vanessa possibly find me beautiful when she had so many pictures of women like this—well-proportioned, with perfect hair and teeth, capable of holding your gaze even in a photo? I began to feel self-conscious. I was here because I wanted more videos. I wanted them so badly that I was willing to be humiliated by these photos of beautiful women to get them. Vanessa came in through the front door wearing jeans over a leotard patterned with images of outer space. When she saw me, she ran to sit on the couch next to me and held my face in her hands. “Beautiful girl,” she said. “I’m so glad you came.” We went into the kitchen where Andie no longer was and Vanessa made me tea. For herself, she pulled a bottle of Miller High Life from the fridge. She slouched against the counter as she drank, squinting up at the ceiling. I looked up there with her and saw only drywall and light fixtures. “I’m so glad I found you,” she said. “I think I’m a fairly good judge of character, but I didn’t know quite how good until I took a gamble on you.” “I really liked the videos.” She nodded. “I know you did. I knew you would.” “They were like my favorite thing I’ve seen all year.” “My videos? Really? I think that’s one of the highest compliments I’ve ever been paid.” She rubbed the back of her long neck and looked at a point on my face just below my eyes. She was thinking, and it felt as if I was somehow helping her think. She raised her eyes to meet mine. “Have you ever had a boyfriend? A girlfriend?” I shook my head. She frowned. “Have you ever had sex?” I shook my head again, slower this time. “Been kissed?” “No.” She clucked. “My poor beauty.” She got out her phone and began texting. I looked away, as if texting were as private a thing as getting undressed. She put her phone back in her pocket and a woman appeared in the doorway between the kitchen and the next room. She was the most beautiful woman I’d seen in my life, and not because she was wearing silver gradient eyeshadow or a shiny latex halter and miniskirt. There was a softness about her, a fullness, a warmth—the way her thighs pressed together, the way her bangs fell within exactly a few centimeters of her eyebrows, the way she ran an index finger over the edge of her shining lower lip before smacking both lips together. She tilted her head and looked at me as though I were an interesting toadstool she’d found in the woods. “This is Stella,” Vanessa said. “She’s taking her fifteen. Right, Stella?” Stella smiled and nodded. “Davey treats me well.” “Yes,” Vanessa said, assessing me once again from the ground up. “We all love Davey.” Stella took a step closer to me, then another. Her face was inches from mine. I could feel her breath on my chin. “Hi,” she said, and grabbed my hand. My first instinct was to pull my hand from hers, but I didn’t want to disrespect her or Vanessa, so I squeezed her hand instead. She laughed. “You’re cute,” she said. And then suddenly Stella’s tongue was in my mouth. I felt panicked at first, suffocated, but as her lips folded over mine I started to shiver. I started to like it. I kissed back, wanting to be soft, too. I got her lip gloss on my own lips. I grabbed her other hand. “Very nice,” Vanessa said. I’d forgotten she was there. Then Stella was holding the back of my neck and I was leaning in deeper to the kiss. Heat flushed my cheeks, my hands, my chest. There was a tightness in my crotch, the kind I’d felt while watching the videos. Then Stella’s hand was on my chest. She pulled her lips away from mine to kiss my neck, my collarbone. She pulled down my shirt collar and kissed the tops of my breasts. I felt dizzy. I felt warm. I grabbed her by the waist. “Well done, beautiful girl!” Vanessa said. I should have been bothered that Vanessa was still there, but I liked it. I wanted to be watched. I wanted someone to bear witness to Stella and me. To what we must have looked like locked in that kiss. I had nothing to compare it to, but Stella must have had one of the softest mouths in the world. She pulled her lips away from my chest and said, “Is this your first time?” I told her yes and she grabbed me by the waist and pushed me onto the counter. Then she was unbuttoning my jeans and pulling them down to my shoes and pulling down my underwear and I didn’t even think about the cuts on my thighs because I was holding onto the knobs on the cabinets and her tongue was inside me, and Vanessa was saying with a little laugh, “I’m going to leave you two to your business.” * * * The new flash drive of videos was somehow better than the last one. I watched them every moment I was awake and not working. I thought about Stella, too. The way she had electrified me and then come up from between my legs and put her forehead against mine and said, “You’re wearing my lip gloss all over now. It’s peach.” And we’d laughed and I’d put my pants back on and she’d poured me a glass of water and we’d talked about Illinois winters and growing up with dogs and then she’d told me that I was welcome at Vanessa’s house anytime. I composed texts to her in my head. Do you like getting your arms wrapped up? Do you like the way Vanessa laughs? Do you like me? I typically worked the night shift at Oly’s, and the guys working with me were both in their mid-30s and had been there for years: Miguel and Dustin. Miguel, solidly built and bearded in a Cubs snapback, led and Dustin followed. If Miguel wanted to talk about girls, Dustin talked about girls. If he wanted to talk about baseball, Dustin talked about baseball. I usually stayed quiet. Sometimes they called me Lil Sis and made jokes about me burning my hand off in the deep fryer. I laughed along even though they weren’t funny. The night after I got the second flash drive was slow, and Miguel was asking Dustin if he’d seen a subreddit called r/weirdshit. “Yeah,” Dustin said, clearly a lie. Miguel snorted. “Yeah man there was this fucking pervert on there. He fucked his dog, apparently.” “No shit.” My head pulsed. “Yeah he like, was so in love with his dog that he fucked her and she got pregnant.” Dustin paused, the limits of his understanding tested. “I think that’s impossible?” “Well, yeah, but he like put dog semen in his dick. So like the puppies aren’t his but he did the fucking.” I put some cheese curds in the deep fryer. They hissed and bubbled. “That’s fucked up.” Miguel nodded an exaggerated nod. “I mean yeah. There are people who do all kinds of sick shit out there.” Dustin considered this. He put a pasty, floury tortilla—the only kind we had in stock—on the stovetop and sprinkled some cheese on it. “I saw this one movie where this woman wanted to get fucked by a mechanical dick.” Miguel laughed, childishly high-pitched. “Yeah, man. A movie.” “No, for real! It was like a movie in theaters. Like a mainstream movie. She wanted to replace her husband with this, like, machine. And then in the middle of the night her husband leaves because he’s been cucked by this machine-thing and this other guy breaks in and like blindfolds her and tapes her mouth shut.” I retrieved the cheese curds and let them cool on the counter. I tried to think of Stella. Miguel wasn’t saying anything. “So like,” Dustin persisted, “this guy uses the mechanical dick to fuck her but she can’t say yes because she’s blindfolded and gagged so he’s just raping her, and then he basically makes the thing go so hard it kills her.” “Sounds like a bullshit movie.” “I swear I saw it in theaters.” “Yo, Lil Sis,” Miguel said, and tossed me a loaf of frozen garlic bread. I caught it close to my stomach like a football. “You OK with this? We being too weird for you?” “I’m fine,” I said. “Because we can stop. We can stop talking about this fucked-up pervert shit.” I involuntarily thought of Stella’s tongue while looking at Miguel and my face flushed. “Aww shit you’re blushing! Listen, we don’t have to talk about this. But, OK, this is the last thing I’ll say. You need to be careful.” “Yeah,” Dustin said. “These streets are dangerous.” “Like, seriously. This girl who lives a block down from me on Argyle got raped two days ago. By some random dude she didn’t even know.” He lowered his voice. “And they found a child pornographer in Uptown.” “Fuck!” Dustin spat. “Dude, fucking be quiet. We’re gonna have customers in like six seconds and you’re gonna be up in here yelling FUCK like some idiot.” Dustin shook his head. “This dude was doing shit to infants. We’re talking like some kind of Hannibal Lecter sicko. He was tying kids up.” I swallowed and put the brick of garlic bread in the oven. “So I just want you to be safe, OK?” Miguel’s voice came from behind me. “Just carry your pepper spray or your brass knuckles or whatever. There are too many messed up people walking around this city.” When I got home, I didn’t go straight to my room. I sat on the couch and sent my mom a picture of a new pair of shoes I’d gotten. Doing my duty as a daughter. She wrote right back: Wow! Looking good! Getting such an earnest text from her made the skin on my hands prickle with anxiety. Jules wandered into the living room with a bowl of ramen and asked me if I wanted to watch some old Sailor Moon episodes with her. We sat on her bed and I tried to focus on the screen, on Sailor Moon’s ribbony hair and pink mouth, but I kept feeling sick. Maybe I was a bad person. I should stop being a bad person. Maybe all the things I did and said were wrong. I imagined Jules taking a sledgehammer to my head, my skull breaking apart in pieces, frothy spumes of blood. I told her I was getting tired and went back to my room. I made a cut I had to really focus on this time, testing to see how deep I could go without opening a vein. I never cut when there was a risk other people could see my silhouette against the bedsheets, but I wanted to get this one in really quickly, because I was going to be sick if I didn’t. The blood came up fast and thick. I panicked. It was dripping on my sheets, the floor. I tried putting a towel over it, then a pillow. Five minutes in and it looked like someone had been killed in my bed. Crying, I ran to the kitchen and twisted a rubber band around my arm above the cut. I pressed a wad of paper towels against my forearm and looked out the window. In the building across from ours, a greying man in a green sweater was drying dishes. I was pathetic. I was so fucking pathetic. The sound of Sailor Moon paused in the next room and Jules was in the doorway, looking at me, her mouth open. “Oh my god. Do you need any help?” she asked. I shook my head, still crying. “What happened?” I didn’t know what to say. There was no way to explain it. Blood dripped on the floor. “I did it.” Jules’s eyes widened. “Seriously?” I nodded. “OK,” she said, backing away, her fingers curled at her sides. “Feel better.” I couldn’t go to the ER. Bad things would happen if I went to the ER, because they’d see the other cuts. I got out my phone and called Vanessa. “Beautiful girl,” she said, sounding half-awake again. By then I was crying so much I could barely speak. “I had an accident,” I managed. “I’m bleeding a lot.” Her voice sharpened. “What happened?” I made a mewling noise. “Where are you?” I gave her the address. “I’ll be right over.” I was waiting on the front steps, my arm swaddled in paper towels, when Vanessa pulled up. She got out of her car, saw me, and then went back and came out again with the kind of rubber tie phlebotomists tie around your forearm to make your veins pop. She tied my arm off and sat next to me while we both watched the bleeding stop. Then she wrapped me in what felt like yards of gauze and told me to get in the car with her. We sat parked in front of my building, both of us staring ahead. Snow began to fall around us, smudging my view of the streetlights. “You have a lot of scars on your arm,” Vanessa said. “Show me your other.” I rolled up my sleeve. She ran her fingers over the bumps. “I saw some on your thighs too. The other day.” She sighed. “We can’t have this, beautiful girl.” I began to cry again. “I know,” I said. “What makes you do this?” I shook my head. “I don’t know.” She put her arm around my shoulders and pulled me into a hug. I cried into her chest, which was moist and warm and smelled like rosewater. “I’m going to be seeing a whole lot more of you, I think,” she said. * * * What happened next happened fast. I went to Vanessa’s that night and met Davey, who was thin in a button-down and tight jeans and thick glasses. As we shook hands and he said, “Pleasure to meet you,” I recognized his voice from the videos: the man behind the camera. When I told him my name, he shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, “please don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s an awful name. It doesn’t suit you at all.” He turned to Vanessa. “Do you see her hair right now?” Vanessa collected a few loose strands and tucked them behind my ear. “Yes,” she said. “Short and slicked back like that, doesn’t it kind of look like Warren Beatty?” Vanessa burst into an awkward caw, but quieted quickly when she looked at me. “I mean, it kind of does.” “You’re probably too young to remember any Warren Beatty movies, hon,” Davey said to me, “but right now you kind of look like Bugsy. I was so into Bugsy when I was a kid.” Vanessa clapped her hands. “Oh my god, Bugsy!” Davey held my chin and gently swiveled my head back and forth. “You look like a gritty gangster lesbian. Like a dykey Al Capone.” “I love it,” Vanessa said. “Can we call you Bugsy?” “Sure,” I said. The rest of the house was dark, so as we walked through it Davey kept running ahead of us to flip on lights. Here were the wooden stocks in which the girl in the sensory deprivation hood had been locked. The rack from which Vanessa had been suspended. The table to which the girl in the full-body Lycra suit had been strapped and tickled. There was tons of equipment: high-quality cameras, boom microphones, and the kinds of lights I’d seen in pictures of movie sets. We stopped upstairs, in a completely bare room with nothing but white sheets attached to the wall. “We still have to light and stock this one,” Davey said, hands in his back pockets. “Vanessa tells me you’ve been liking our videos.” “I have.” “Well, I knew she would,” Vanessa said. “I know a freak when I see one.” I wanted to ask her what “freak” meant in this context, but I was feeling so good after feeling so bad that I didn’t want to ruin it. “So, I’m the producer,” Davey said. “But really the girls and Vanessa are the directors. And actors.” “Davey’s an aromantic asexual queer,” Vanessa explained, moving to put her arm around him. “He feels neutral-to-negative about sex and he doesn’t get off on anything we do. But he does like filmmaking.” Davey smiled and shook his head at the floor in an enough-about-me way. “Have you seen our page? It’s called Our Hands Are Tied.” Vanessa tsked him. “Why would I make her go to our page? There’s a paywall. She’s a kid working a minimum-wage job.” “Maybe when you get a raise you can become a monthly subscriber.” Vanessa shook her head and slid her fingers through my hair. “Bugsy’s not going to lose money to us. She’s going to make money from us.” I stayed there that night, on an inflatable mattress in what I’d come to think of as The Bare Room. The next morning, Vanessa woke me up with black tea and a croissant. She told me they were shooting four scenes that day and asked me if I could be the boom operator because they were always getting one of the girls to do it and it would be good to have them all free. I said yes, trying not to make it seem like it was the one thing I wanted most in the world. I wore headphones in which I could hear the amplified sounds of the girls moaning, putting on latex mittens, wrapping each other up in chains. I stood by Davey while he sat behind the camera, stepping closer to or farther from the scene as he wished. After that, I thought I’d never feel the buzzing under my skin again. Vanessa cut me a check for $120 at the end of the day and told me she was paying me $15 an hour. I went home that night and could barely sleep from excitement. I went back the next day to be the boom operator, and the next. My supervisor at Oly’s called to ask what was wrong with me. When I called back, it was to tell him I was quitting. I saw Stella again. She lived in the house, along with Andie and three other girls: Dolce, Lea, and Missy. I memorized their names and how they looked wrapped up in straitjackets, taped to poles, suspended from racks. I learned what fetish objects were—girls who were immobilized and deprived of sight and sound and forced to orgasm repeatedly—and what orgasm belts were and what it meant to top and to bottom. Andie, who had grown up the daughter of mechanics, looked babydollish during shoots with red cheeks and full lips and preferred to be enclosed in cages with her head taped up so only her nose, lips, and ponytail stuck out. Dolce was the smallest of the group, a former nurse, and liked to be suspended in the air, blindfolded, tickled, and fingered. Lea had been a runner in college and loved anything that tested the limits of her physical endurance: she would be taped to wooden crosses or hung upside down, or forced to stand for hours with her legs apart as she was edged by a vibrator in an orgasm belt. Missy had escaped a Mormon family in Utah and loved to wear the kind of leather hoods with metal-ringed mouth holes that allowed dildos to be slid down her throat and showed the full edges of her lips as she sucked on them. And Stella did everything: scenes where she was hog-tied, scenes where she was a helpless gagged fetish object, scenes where her legs were spread apart with clamps and one of the other girls fingered her. After we filmed a scene and Davey let us take a fifteen, Stella and I would go into the upstairs bathroom and make out. Sometimes she’d have rope burns on her arms or imprints on her forehead from tape or a gas mask, and that would make it hotter. I slept on the inflatable mattress more often than I slept in my apartment, and I’d arranged the few belongings I had around my new bed. I went to sleep looking at the soft white walls around me and thinking of the sky, or of outer space. I always woke up feeling better rested than I had since before going to college. One morning Davey was standing above me, pushing his glasses up his nose and saying, “Bugsy, if you’re gonna sleep here every night, you might as well stop paying rent at the other place.” When I told Jules I was moving out, she told me that wouldn’t be possible, because I was covering one fifth of the rent and there was no one to replace me. “I didn’t sign a contract,” I said. We were standing on the front steps and Vanessa was in her car next to the curb, smoking and watching us. Jules crossed her arms. “You signed, like, an emotional contract. You moved in with me at the beginning of the year and promised you’d still be here when we renewed the lease.” I looked at Vanessa and then back at Jules. Jules was wearing a too-thin jean jacket and her eyeshadow was smudged above her right eye. Her shirt read The Fantasticks All-Stars 2015, the iron-on letters cracking. “I’m breaking that promise,” I said. “Fuck you!” she spat. “You can’t just break promises like that! I tried to make you my friend!” I stood back, watching her. She was small and furious in the cold. “God, you psycho bitch. This is because you cut your arm open, isn’t it?” “Fuck you too, Jules,” I said. I felt as good as I did making out with Stella, but in a different way. Slowly, Stella told me about herself. She was six years older than me. She had lived in Chicago most of her life. Her father was a county judge who drank and beat her mother. He’d recently ruled in favor of a cop who’d shot a black teenager from Altgeld Gardens eighteen times, continuing to fire bullets into his back long after the teenager was lying face-down on the pavement. Stella hadn’t spoken to her father in ten years. Her mother, who had wanted only to be a well-treated and well-kept woman, had done sex work—that was how she and her father had met—and had died of brain cancer when Stella was fourteen, long before Stella had known she’d wanted to go into the business herself. But she’d always known she wanted to do something that would make people stop what they were doing and watch her. She wanted to be on people’s minds even when they weren’t looking at her. She’d read in a magazine that scientists had discovered that people could have whole clusters of neurons dedicated to recognizing a single celebrity. “You could go inside someone’s head,” she told me, “and point to the cluster of Lady Gaga cells, or the cluster of Rihanna cells.” She wanted people’s brains to have a cluster of cells for her. She decided that changing her name from Abigail Hermann to Stella Hardwycke would be a good start. The thing about Stella, though, was she didn’t want to be famous. At least not Lady Gaga or Rihanna-famous. She wanted to be known and worshipped by people she didn’t know, but she didn’t want to be what she called “sugarpop,” which meant that the barrier to loving her would be so low that virtually anyone walking around in Target or in line at the McDondald’s drive-thru could come to know about her and love her. She wanted her people to have to find her. She graduated high school in Oak Park and went to New York for a few years, doing scenes in straight porn for $1,000 each and escorting on the weekends. In the scenes, which were elaborate, she was dressed in tartan skirts and given a girl to act with, the producer’s twentysomething girlfriend who had no industry experience and whom the producer constantly referred to as “pure.” Stella and the pure girlfriend would pretend to be gossipy teenagers texting on the girlfriend’s bed when Rico or Shane or Johnny would appear in the doorway and summon Stella to him by saying, “I don’t think you’re a very good influence on my daughter.” Ignoring the girlfriend’s protestations, Rico or Shane or Johnny would take Stella into his room, rip off her skirt and tights, and spank her. Oftentimes there’d be a close-up shot of Stella’s squealing face next to a bedside picture of the spanker and his wife and daughter. Then Rico or Shane or Johnny would pin Stella to the bed and fuck her from behind, saying, “I don’t want you in my house, you filthy little slut!” There were several variations on that scene, some of which involved the wife watching and insulting Stella, too. The scene work came regularly for a year but then started to wane when the producer’s eye wandered to different girls. Stella was not deluxe enough an escort to be able to afford her Brooklyn studio without the scene work. She moved back to Chicago and got a job with the civvies as a server at a steakhouse in River North. On weekends, she saw shows at a place in Humboldt Park called The Empty Bottle. It was there during a noise show that she met Davey, who happened to like the same band. He gave her his card in case she ever wanted work. I told her I’d met Vanessa at a speakeasy and Stella laughed. “I swear those weirdos always do their talent scouting in the grodiest places. Who do they think they’ll find?” I snuggled up closer to her. “Well, they found us,” I said, and she kissed the top of my head. Before I spent my first night in her bed, Stella told me we weren’t going to be exclusive. She didn’t believe in monogamy. She’d tried it too many times and it had been stupid every time. I told her I didn’t believe in it, either, even though I’d never done it. I was embarrassed when her room started to smell so much like me, but she didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes after we’d had sex for hours she would hold my forearms in her hands and rub her thumbs against the scars. Sometimes she was quiet when she did this and other times she said “shit,” and other times she said, “I’ve been depressed, too, but it’s never been like this.” Sometimes we strayed from the strap-on and going down on each other and did different things, the kinds of things I’d seen her get to do in Vanessa’s videos. She wrapped me up in tape. She tied my arms behind my back in a binder. Once she tied me to the bed and made me wear a leather hood that blocked out all light and let her lips hover above mine, breathing her Listerine-and-Mountain Dew-and-cigarettes breath into my mouth, and then denied me kiss after kiss. She ground up against me while I was tied down and screamed and spasmed and then I felt a pressure welling in me, an incredible pressure, and saw flashes of light behind my closed eyes and felt my legs begin to twitch and then in my brain every single Stella Hardwycke cell lit up, all cells were Stella Hardwycke cells, all cells were exploding. She took the hood off but left me flush and tied up and kissed me on the cheek. She asked me why I was so cute. I didn’t tell her I was in love. On weekends, I played Catan with Lea, Missy, and Dolce. I ran errands for Davey, to Ace Hardware for a special type of screw whose name I would have forgotten had I not written it in my phone, or to Target to get Lysol or a broom for a scene in which Vanessa was going to buzz Missy’s head. In the credits for each video I was listed as “Bugsy….Gaffer, Key Grip, and Best Boi.” It was some film joke Davey was very pleased with that I didn’t get, but I never asked about it. Sometimes Stella and I went on long walks through the park, or to Garfield Conservatory to look at plants. She told me about monocots and dicots and how bivoltine bees were her favorite pollinators. She said in another, less interesting life she would have been a botanist. Sometimes we went to Wicker Park to get tacos at Picante Taqueria and talk about how the earth was created and why we’re all here and what emotions are made of. She called me Little One, which bothered me, but I didn’t stop her. When my parents texted, I told them how much better I was feeling working my job and living with Jules and that I might even consider going back to school. My dad made it clear I’d be paying for it this time. I told him sure, that was fine. We were set up for a scene in which Vanessa was going to seal Lea in a vacbed and take a vibrator to her clit. I was in my bulky headphones wearing my toolbelt and holding the boom when Vanessa came up behind me and hugged me around the waist. I jumped and set the boom down as carefully as I could. “You scared me,” I said. She laughed in my ear. “I’m always scaring you, Bugsy. I’m scary, you’re jumpy.” Then she let go of me. “Do you want to do this scene and I’ll hold the boom?” “Like, do your part in the scene?” She nodded. “I’m—” “Say yes,” Vanessa said. “You know you’re beautiful.” “I have a potbelly,” I said. She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. It’s better that way, actually.” “Are the subscribers going to want to see a potbelly?” “Yes,” she said without hesitation. “Our subscribers will.” It should have taken longer to convince me but it didn’t. I got into the latex, which stretched and wrinkled in places it maybe wasn’t supposed to, and sat on my knees with a big smile on my face as Lea breathed audibly through her tube. Davey asked me if I was excited and I told him I was and bounced on my knees a little. I did the scene, giggling the way Vanessa and the other girls did while they were domming, watching Lea writhe. Occasionally I pinched her areolas, hard beneath the black latex, and she squealed and shifted and Davey said, “Good, good!” When I had made Lea come a few times, Davey stopped rolling and everyone clapped for me. Vanessa de-pressurized the vacbed and Lea slid out and wrapped her ropey arms around me and told me she’d never had better. Vanessa proposed we all go to Picante Taqueria and then go dancing to celebrate my debut. I wore three-quarter length sleeves without even thinking about it. I sat next to Stella and we all laughed when she dripped sour cream down her chest. In the club I danced with Lea, Dolce, Missy, Andie, Vanessa, even Davey. Stella and I snuck into the bathroom and did bumps of coke and my head felt clear and my ideas were coming fast: We should recruit in coffee shops and boba places, where the hot queers go to mope. We should film a scene where Lea’s hog-tied and suspended from the ceiling and there’s a dildo in her mouth and Stella slides it in and out and denies her any pleasure. We should lower the subscription rate so more people working at Whole Foods or Petco and making zines could have the money to see our content—more subscribers over time would recoup any losses from lowering the rate. We should make Davey dress as Elton John for Halloween and we could all go in drag as his lovers, except Vanessa could stay female and go as his beard. Stella kissed me and told me to stop talking. She wanted to have sex with me in the bathroom stall. She locked the door and pressed me to the wall and shoved her tongue in my mouth. I had never felt happier in my life. Then Cody showed up. He was just at dinner one night, in jeans and a pink hoodie that read MY MANTRA in a blocky mauve font. He had a sprinkling of acne at the base of his chin. I could see very clearly at least one whitehead that hadn’t been popped. He wore a double-undercut with his hair slicked back on top, which reminded me of Hitler youth. He kept complimenting the food, which no one had made: we were eating Chinese takeout. He sat in between Stella and me. When he made a joke—an unfunny joke—about trying to pop and lock as a white fourteen-year-old, Stella laughed and laid her head on his shoulder. The old buzzing started under my skin again. Vanessa told us that Cody was doing some kind of web development at Venmo and wanted a part-time gig on the side. He was going to redesign our website and boost our social media presence. He was going to fiddle with the SEO so we would be the first or second hit when someone googled terms like “forced orgasm” or “multiple forced orgasms” or “lesbian BDSM.” Vanessa titled her head and smiled and said Cody had big ideas for us and was going to make magic happen. Cody deflected her praise with his brittle-looking hands and said he was no magician, he was just a nerd who believed in sex positivity. That night, Cody slept in Stella’s room and I slept on my neglected air mattress. I hated the sound he made when he came: a strangled, breathy noise that would have been good as a soprano but was disgusting as a baritone. I hated the little murmurings they did in between rounds. I hated seeing him walk out into the hallway in his pink hoodie and polka dot boxers and look my way, staring long as if he could see me in the dark, as if I was a dormant threat that could spring to life at any minute. I hated when he showed up the next day and the next. I hated the way Stella checked her phone, waiting for his texts. I hated how Stella and I could only have sex during our fifteens, or in the mornings, and how distracted she was, how fast she made it. I hated his jokes, the way his ugly haircut grew out, the way one night he taught Vanessa how to Lindy Hop, saying he’d learned it in college because he was such a huge nerd and beer made him break out in hives so he’d found other ways to pass the time. And I hated the way everyone applauded them as they Lindy Hopped and Davey said, “I didn’t realize teaching a girl to Lindy Hop was the new spitting game.” I asked Vanessa if maybe it was distracting having Cody around, citing the fact that Missy, Lea, Andie, and Dolce never invited the people they were sleeping with to dinner or to shoots. For the first time since I’d met her, Vanessa seemed annoyed with me. “Unlike those people, Cody’s working for us.” I told her I knew that, but maybe it would be better if Cody got some perspective on the whole thing. He was too close to it. “Bugsy,” Vanessa said. She was chopping carrots, and she quickened her pace. “Stella likes to mix work and play. You of all people should know this. Do you think maybe you’re a bit jealous?” I said I could never be jealous of Cody. “Why not?” I didn’t know how to respond. “Maybe you’re too close to it, Bugsy. Maybe you need some perspective.” I wanted to be better than Cody but I had no way to be. I couldn’t do anything funny unless people were already convinced I was funny, couldn’t be charming unless people already thought I was. I worked extra diligently on set, setting up key lights and fill lights before Davey could ask me to, helping the girls apply their hair and eyelash extensions, buying organic makeup remover for Dolce, who was convinced that carcinogens were seeping into her skin at all times. We filmed what Vanessa called a Solo Series, where the girls were just alone onscreen being tortured by someone holding a magic wand offscreen. Sometimes I was holding the magic wand, but most often it was Vanessa. In one video, Stella was cuffed to a suspension bar with a full latex bodysuit and I was supposed to wear black—not even latex, just clothes—with my back to the camera and rub the magic wand against her clit. The goal, according to Vanessa, was to give the impression that the girls were getting off on the efforts of a nameless, faceless torturer who could very well be the viewer. As the camera began rolling and I kneeled in front of Stella and turned the vibrator up to its highest setting, I could’ve sworn she stiffened. I jammed it against her clit and she moaned and flinched. Davey told me to go easy so I turned it off altogether and waited a few seconds while Stella whined and twisted back and forth. Then I set the vibrator to its lowest setting and traced semicircles around her upper thighs, listening to her muffled gasps. I thought of Cody. His skinny legs. His stupid jokes. I thought of her in bed with Cody, his dick inside her, her arms wrapped around his back. I thought of him breathing into her hair. I switched the vibrator up to high again and circled her labia, teasing her clit. She moaned, deeper and less self-conscious than she usually did onscreen. She had moaned like that before, but it had been for me only. I felt a pressure behind my eyes and blinked out a few tears. I made her come once, then again, then again. I thought involuntarily of the Garfield Conservatory and then of how raw her clit must be and made her come a fourth time, a fifth. Davey told me I’d done a great job. That evening, she texted me to meet her on the front porch. When I came out to see her sitting alone with a blanket over her lap, her face pale and scrubbed of makeup, I was excited. I thought maybe she’d dumped Cody and I’d be the first person to learn about it. I thought maybe we’d kiss. “Hey,” she said as I sat down next to her. “You were savage on set today.” “Thanks.” “You’re just savage all around, aren’t you?” I shrugged. She tilted her head and looked at me like my mom used to when she was worried I was coming down with a cold. “How are you doing?” “Yeah, I dunno, I’m fine,” I said. “Making money. Living the dream.” “Are you taking any time for yourself?” “I guess so, yeah.” “Can you take my advice? As someone who cares about you a lot? I think you need to tell Vanessa and Davey that you need a few days off. I’m worried you’re not sleeping enough.” There were pins jabbing the lining of my stomach. “I’m fine,” I said. “OK. I’m just worried.” We both looked ahead at the house across the street. I counted the cars as they went by. Six until she talked again. “It’s getting serious with Cody,” she said, not looking at me. “I think I’m going to try and be exclusive with him.” My brain began to swell. It felt like I’d just been given a diagnosis of stage four cancer. I clenched and unclenched my fists. “I thought you hated monogamy.” “I know, I know.” She looked me in the eyes again, putting a hand on mine. “I feel like everyone says that until they’ve found the right person.” “It’s kind of traditional, don’t you think?” She laughed. “Little One, things change when you get into your late twenties. You start to want stability. You get it, right? He’s smart, he’s got a nice job, he’s cute. He makes me feel good about myself.” I nodded. “And seriously, you need to sleep with more people besides me! There’s a whole world out there.” She nudged my shoulder. I was rigid. “You gotta get that bang count up.” “OK.” “You get what I’m saying? No hard feelings, right?” I shook my head. I felt like I was underwater. “No hard feelings.” That night, the house was silent. My room was no longer The Bare Room: Vanessa and Davey had gotten me a cheap full bed and some plastic shelves from IKEA and hung a few old movie posters on the walls. My favorite was Who Framed Roger Rabbit because I loved the way Jessica Rabbit looked in her sparkling dress and blue eyeshadow with the sultry curtain of hair over her right eye. I lay in bed looking at Jessica Rabbit, feeling the buzzing under my skin and imagining for the first time in a long time the ceiling collapsing in on me, a single point of drywall becoming knife-sharp and stabbing me in the chest. It would be better to be stabbed than crushed, I thought, because a stabbing would preserve my body and Stella would have to see it when they all heard my screams and came running. She would have to think about how my dead fingers had once been inside of her and my dead lips had once kissed her all over. And the next day Cody would try to comfort her but what would he know about death? Some rich tech dude who cares about a website’s SEO? If we were living in purgatory and the only way out was suicide, Cody would be the last to catch on. The sun could collide with the Earth and he’d be sitting at his ergonomic desk playing League of Legends. I felt as if all my energy was being directed to maintaining my corporeal form. There was nothing left inside of me, no guts, no brains, no emotions that Stella and I had once speculated were “half chemical, half spiritual.” There was a void, and that void was hurting me physically, as if I’d ripped a tendon in half but all over. Lying on my back hurt and so did sitting up and so did lying on my side. My head and feet were so heavy that it became difficult to change positions. My eyes throbbed. My wrists throbbed. I lurched from my bed, making my blocky feet step painfully one in front of the other. At one point in the hallway I had to lean against a wall to catch my breath. The stairs took a long time. I had to sit down repeatedly, but eventually I got to the kitchen and then the laundry room, where Vanessa kept the first aid cabinet. I shook my hands, thinking I’d be better able to use them if they were “looser,” whatever that meant, and opened the cabinet. There was a bottle of sixty capsules of aspirin. I opened it up and saw that not all sixty were left, but there were certainly enough. I took the bottle and staggered into the kitchen and then swung open the fridge, where Missy was keeping a bottle of Smirnoff. I opened the Smirnoff and, gulp by gulp, swallowed a quarter of it and the entire bottle of aspirin. Then I slid to the floor and blinked. Next, Davey was looking into my eyes and there were bright lights behind him. I couldn’t talk because my throat felt torn apart and full of something thick. My stomach was cold; I was cold. I discovered I could breathe out words, so I asked him why he was here. “Why I’m here?” he asked, and he sounded angry. “Because it’s the hospital, Bugsy. Why would I not be in the hospital if you are?” Vanessa was next to him, crying, asking me why I’d done what I’d done. I could see Missy next to her, texting, looking up at me and then down at her phone. She said something about Dolce and Lea taking the next train they could from Hyde Park, where they had apparently been at a party, and Andie getting someone to take her shift at Strange’s—it wasn’t a big deal because most of the patrons had cleared out for the night and no money was hitting the floor—so she would be arriving wherever we were as soon as she possibly could. Then Stella and Cody were at the foot of my bed, and Stella’s face was round and wet, and she was grabbing my ankles and saying “Jesus, Bugsy,” and Cody was holding her around the shoulders. I had to stay in the hospital for a week. I sat in groups with other people in hospital gowns who wanted to talk about their cheating spouses or their theories about the president’s methods of mind control or their hatred of the other people in hospital gowns. I ate roast beef slathered in gravy that looked like frosting. I got up at 6 a.m. so a nurse who called me by my old name could take my vitals. When I told her my name was Bugsy she told me that’s not what it said in my file. I took 200 mg of Zoloft every morning out of a paper cup. When I was released, I was told to keep taking the Zoloft or else I’d end up back in the hospital. When I got back home, Vanessa told me I wouldn’t be working on shoots for a few weeks but she would be paying me anyway. My mom was anxious that I hadn’t called or texted in a week, so I spent hours on the porch telling her made-up details about my life: how I was applying to office jobs, how I was looking into taking a few classes at DePaul, how I had just been taking a “tech cleanse” for a week and I was sorry I hadn’t warned her about it beforehand. I avoided seeing Stella as much as I could, only spending time in the house at night or when I knew she wouldn’t be home. I ignored her texts. I spent time in coffee shops reading books I had been assigned but hadn’t read in college: Sula and Written on the Body and the selected works of Guy de Maupassant. I got myself cheap dinners at McDonald’s or Taco Bell and ate under bright lights, reading the news on my phone. Sometimes I looked at social media and saw pictures of Jules—she hadn’t blocked me for some reason—at parties or music festivals or improv shows, her face painted with Day-Glo paint, flowers in her hair, a cigarette between her lips. The Zoloft made me feel cocooned. I could think about the videos I’d watched or help shoot, or about Stella naked, and I still wouldn’t want sex. My potbelly got bigger. I spent enough time at the Taco Bell that I began to recognize the regulars. There was a couple, a man and a woman, who came in almost every night I was there, sat a couple booths away from me, and argued. The woman sat with her back to me, so I saw only her shoulders in her red, fake leather jacket and her green hair, roots growing out at the top. The man wore plugs in his earlobes and black-frame glasses and had a full beard. I listened as the woman said, “I just think we should try,” and he said to her, “No, babe. I’m sorry, but it’s fucked up. It’s against my personal morals.” One night I moved booths to be closer to them and they didn’t notice me. “Seriously,” the woman said, “it can’t be so weird if other people are doing it.” “Rule 34,” the man said sternly. “What’s rule 34?” He rolled his eyes. “If it exists, there’s porn of it.” The woman’s shoulders slumped. “I just think it would be cool if we could use some toys.” He raised an eyebrow. “Toys?” “Yeah.” “What kind of toys?” “I don’t know.” “So my dick’s not enough for you?” “No, babe! No, I’m not saying that.” “Lesbians use toys,” he said. “We’re not lesbians.” “I’m just saying I saw this video. Just hear me out.” He opened his hands, encouraging her to go on. “There was this girl and she was, um, tied to like a wooden cross. And someone came in with a riding crop and was like, slapping her on the breasts.” He gave an exaggerated nod. “Right. That’s porn. Not what we do.” Then they started talking about how hard a time the man was having at work, how he had all these ideas but his boss wasn’t listening to him. A thought entered my head: Andie was supposedly twenty-two, but she could’ve been seventeen. What if she was lying about her age? What if she was younger than me? What if we were technically making child porn? I lay in my bed that night thinking about it, running through my head every single time I’d seen Andie and what she’d been wearing and how she’d been standing and what I’d thought about it. I asked myself several times whether I’d been attracted to Andie and the answer was yes, I had, I had definitely found Andie hot. If Andie was seventeen or sixteen and I found her hot, then I was attracted to a child who couldn’t give her consent. What if she was fifteen? She had sometimes looked fifteen in certain lighting. At 3:30 a.m., I knocked on Andie’s door. When she didn’t answer, I knocked again. I heard a whine of complaint and footsteps and then she opened the door, blinking herself awake. “Bugsy, I went to bed like half an hour ago,” she croaked. “What do you want?” “Are you twenty-two?” I asked. Her eyes were suddenly wide, which sent ice down my spine. “Of course I am.” “Why are your eyes wide?” “Because I can’t believe you’re asking me this at 3:30 in the morning.” “But it looks like you’re surprised. Or guilty.” “Fucking A. Go to bed.” She tried to shut the door but I held it open. “Show me your driver’s license.” “Are we really doing this?” “If you’re under eighteen, we’re making child porn.” “You’re younger than me. Maybe you’re the reason we’re making child porn.” “I never said we were making child porn. I said if—” “Jesus Christ!” She stumbled back into her room and emerged carrying her purse, which she fished around in until she’d found her wallet. She opened it to show me her ID. “See there? Born December 27, 1997. Are you happy?” It occurred to me that it was a fake ID. “Is it a fake ID?” Her face soured. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Then she closed the door in my face. I laid in my bed but I couldn’t sleep. Why would Andie try to deceive me like this? Deceive us? When it was light outside, I tried to wake Vanessa up. It was entirely possible that she was unknowingly making child porn, but I still cared about her. What did that say about me, that I cared about a child pornographer? I pounded on her door and listened. No noise. I pounded again. She was probably out. I texted her We need to talk. I waited a few seconds, then a minute, then five. No response. Davey wasn’t home, either. I didn’t try to text him, though. It felt more heinous to talk to a male child pornographer than a female one. I spent all day at the Taco Bell, waiting for the couple. When they didn’t show up, I went to Myopic Books, where one of the workers, obviously genderqueer, started following me. They wore granny glasses and a chunky black-and-white sweater and had a round, red face. I disliked them instantly. Luckily, I was able to move quickly to avoid them. And as I moved, I was reading: a paragraph from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, a poem from The End of the Alphabet, six pages from a book about an angry accountant who’s lost in another dimension. I felt myself becoming stronger, smarter, increasingly prepared to fight a life-defining battle. “You’ll have to put those back,” the worker said. I told them I would and then didn’t. They watched me run out of the store. The fact that they cared about the arrangement of books in a store was sad to me, and I felt bad for them. I didn’t sleep the next night, or the next. Colors were brighter. Cars seemed to be moving faster. I started a group chat with Vanessa and Davey, telling them I knew about Andie’s lies and just wanted to take measures for everyone’s protection. They sat me down at the kitchen table and asked me why I was making false accusations. I told them I was trying to be protective of the empire they’d built. Davey asked what empire. I told him to take what I was saying seriously, that Cody had made us bigger than we ever were before and if Davey didn’t understand that then I was just going to have to take matters into my own hands. “What matters?” Davey laughed. “Have you been blowing rails of someone’s coke?” Vanessa looked worried. “Bugsy, honey, I know it hasn’t been an easy month for you—” “It’s been a fine month for me,” I said. “You’re either with me or against me.” I didn’t sleep the next night either. I avoided Andie, which meant I was avoiding both her and Stella, which was difficult to do when I was living in the same house as them. I homed in on the Taco Bell, which was open 24 hours. Finally the man and the woman were back, the man in a black hoodie and the woman in her same fake leather coat. They finally sat down so the woman was facing me, and I noticed she was beautiful: round-eyed, with black lipliner and thick red lips, a slim nose, a mole on her right cheek. I took her beauty as a sign. They weren’t talking, just eating their Supremes. I sat down in the booth next to the woman. “Sorry if this is awkward,” I said. “But you were talking about porn a few nights ago.” “What the fuck?” the man said. The woman laughed. “I remember you,” she said. “You’re the girl who’s like always here.” I nodded. “I happen to be in the industry and I’m trying to solve the problem and clear up everyone’s names.” “Get the fuck away from us,” the man said. “No, no, no,” I said. “I mean, I realize that child pornography is an FBI risk and I want to make sure we’re not creating the potential for a major sting, as all our names are attached to everything we make. I need you to know that we are normal, well-intentioned, hard-working people who do normal, well-intentioned, hard-working things.” The woman frowned. The man said, “Are you a child pornographer?” A few people looked over at us. I ducked my head. “Can we speak in private?” I asked. “If you don’t leave this table, sicko, I’m going to call the police on you,” he said. I left. I felt the woman’s eyes on me. I felt she might be falling in love with me as I had fallen in love with Stella. It occurred to me that maybe the FBI was monitoring my bedroom because of what I’d said and done in the past few days, that my laptop was being keystroked and that the authorities had already found all of the videos Vanessa had given me. I stayed out all night, wandering around Humboldt and Wicker, giving what little change I had to homeless people, blessing them back when they said God bless you. I was the most afraid I’d ever been, since I was a felon, but also the happiest I’d ever been, since I didn’t need to sleep anymore, since I was smarter than everyone, since I could solve perhaps the greatest problem that was hanging like a specter over the industry: that everyone thought we were child sex traffickers, when really we were not. I could outsmart the FBI. I was going to outsmart the FBI. After five nights of not sleeping, I began to notice giant security cameras attached to buildings on every corner. These cameras seemed to have the ability to see that I was a freak, that I liked “unnatural” sex. If I didn’t have missionary sex with a man in twenty-four hours, I was going to be arrested. It would of course be better to be arrested for being a freak than for being a child pornographer but to be arrested at all was a bad thing. I had accumulated tons of missed calls and texts from everyone during my night out. I ignored them all and called Vanessa. “I need a car,” I said. “I need your car.” “Bugsy! Where are you? What’s wrong?” “Don’t ask. Please, for your own safety.” “Tell me where you are. I’m coming to get you.” “No!” I shouted so loudly that people on the street were looking at me, and I realized that maybe they were spies, too. That maybe it wasn’t just the cameras. “Just, please, no. My phone’s being tapped. My laptop’s being keystroked.” “What are you talking about?” “What we’re doing is illegal on accident and I need to get out of town. We should all get out of town.” Vanessa started to say something else but I hung up. She was useless. I would take the bus to the Metra and then I would take the Metra to a different part of the state. I was riding the bus downtown, avoiding calls from Vanessa for her own protection, searching how to stop my phone from being tapped on my phone that was being tapped, when Stella got on the bus. She was more beautiful than I had ever remembered her being. There was actual light coming off her body. I had never believed in god, but she looked like god. I realized she was god. She was god living under the same roof as me, pretending to be a human woman. I’d had sex with god. “Don’t let any of them tell you what you want is wrong,” god-Stella said. “But what I want is wrong,” I said. “It’s very wrong.” She shook her head. “Don’t be scared.” I stood, edging closer to her. The closer I came, the farther away she appeared to be. “Stella,” I said. She raised her glowing head. “Yes?” “I love you,” I said. “I’ve been in love with you for a long time.” The bus screeched and I jolted forward and god-Stella walked through the wall of the bus and I stood at the bus’s pressurized doors, waiting to be let out, waiting to follow her, and I yelled at the driver, “Open these doors, shithead! You’re keeping me from the fucking love of my life!” And then I was in an ambulance. * * * It was the Zoloft’s fault, apparently. They gave me a different pill they told me was an antipsychotic and they changed my diagnosis. More nightgowns, more frosting-gravy, more boring groups. Vanessa and Davey came to visit me every day. The girls were all working during visiting hours, which were typically at night. After a week, my parents showed up. My dad had grown a beard and couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact with me. My mom hugged me, but her hug was tense and resistant. “We got a phone call,” she said, sitting down across from me. “We came here as soon as we could, sweetie.” My dad screwed up his face. “Are you doing drugs?” I told him I wasn’t. “Then what’s going on?” I told him I didn’t know. “Sweetie,” my mom said, “We got a phone call from a woman named Vanessa Redwire. We looked her up.” My dad’s eyebrows arched. A look came across my mom’s face that resembled the looks lawyers in TV shows give to clients who they know aren’t telling the whole truth. “Are these the people you’re associating with?” I looked down at the table. My dad grunted. “You’re my only child,” he said. “And you’ve flunked out of college and started hanging out with pornographers. How do you think that makes me feel?” My mom put her hand on his. “We just don’t want this for you. These people are dangerous, and what they do for a living is morally wrong. We want you to come live at home until you get back on your feet.” My dad withdrew his hand from hers. “I never agreed to that.” “Kevin,” she hissed. “If the options are live with us or make pornography, then what do you think we should choose?” “Make pornography,” I said, raising my eyes to meet hers. “No,” my mom said. “Sweetie—” A nurse came in to announce that visiting hours were over. My parents tried to linger, but she told them they needed to leave. “You’re making the wrong choice,” my dad said. “Think of your future,” my mom said. I told the nurse to take them off my visitors list. I ignored their calls and texts when I got out, responding only to say I’d made my choice. I don’t consider you my daughter anymore, my dad wrote. My mom fell silent. Every day I took three pills in the morning and two at night. I went to yoga classes with Vanessa. I ate a spoonful of peanut butter and drank a glass of milk before going to bed so I wouldn’t wake up hungry. My sleep was important. Seeing a psychiatrist was important. Davey found me someone I could talk to, a counselor who worked in West Lakeview. The counselor was named Randy: he was thin and knobby-jointed with a lilting voice and an eyebrow piercing and told me within the first ten minutes of meeting me that he specialized in LGBTQ issues. I talked to him about college, and the buzzing under my skin, and the pocketknife, and how the videos changed my life, and how I’d fallen in love with Stella. After a few months, I started doing shoots again. The girls threw a party to welcome me back. Stella baked a cake for me. Cody, who was apparently a hobbyist cake decorator, wrote our long national nightmare is over in green frosting on top. He had done something to the SEO to make us the first result for “girl-on-girl bondage,” the third result for “forced orgasm,” and the second result for “forced multiple orgasms.” Subscribers were coming in by the hundreds: at the end of three months, we’d netted a little over 2,000. My hourly rate went up to $20, then $30. On Sundays, Vanessa and Davey would do something called Girl of the Week, where they’d film a live scene with one of the girls for the “elite club” subscribers. They usually let me sleep in during Girl of the Week, deputizing whoever wasn’t in the scene to do the gaffer work. Once I woke up early to find Stella sitting on my bed in the same latex bodysuit and Lucite heels the woman in the giant picture in the living room was wearing. The one difference was Stella’s bodysuit had a hood, with cutouts for her eyes and mouth. “You look good,” I said. She laughed. “I know. It’s a classic look.” “Are you Girl of the Week?” She nodded. “They’re setting up now.” She gave me her hand and I took it, sitting up. “I feel like I haven’t been able to talk to you in a long time,” she said. “Like, really talk to you.” I shrugged. “I haven’t really talked to anyone.” She put a latex finger under my chin, her eyes blinking in their cutouts. “You know I love you, Bugsy.” My heart swelled. “Yeah.” “And I know you love me too.” I nodded. “But you understand why maybe you’ve got to live a little more life before you’ve decided I’m the one you need to be with, yeah? Like, I don’t even know what I’m doing.” I nodded again. She took her finger from my chin and held my hands in both of hers. “I talked to Cody, though. A girl gets tired of monogamy all the damn time.” “What do you mean?” She kissed me, the same way she’d kissed me in the kitchen when we’d first met. Then she pulled away, her lipstick smudged. “He wants me to be happy. And he thinks you’re pretty cute, for what it’s worth. Would you do it with a man?” I laughed and looked at my hands. “No pressure, of course. He’s getting used to everything, too.” I rubbed my fingers over the imprint of her kiss. “Don’t forget about me when you and your wife get rich and famous, OK?” “I won’t.” “Promise?” “I definitely won’t.” “Get some rest, Bugsy.” Then she went downstairs, her heels clunking, and I heard Davey’s muffled voice cracking a joke, giving her directions. I lay back down and listened through my pillow: Stella saying, Hi everyone, I’m Stella Hardwycke and I’m your Girl of the Week! And then buzzing, cooing, moaning. Sounds I’d heard so often they’d become background noise, as much a part of my daily life as a spinning ceiling fan or falling rain. I rubbed Stella’s greasy lipstick off my cheek. Then I closed my eyes and breathed deeper and deeper until I fell asleep.
The author of Death in Her Hands on putting characters in blank spaces, crime solving, and consumption.
Ottessa Moshfegh is famous for writing about uncomfortable characters experiencing uncomfortable circumstances. When I received the press copy of her latest novel, Death in Her Hands (Penguin Press), COVID-19 was, in North America, a penumbra hovering over the early weeks of 2020. By the time I spoke with Moshfegh in early June, the world had changed—becoming, at least for many, a distinctly more uncomfortable place. The protagonist and narrator of Death in Her Hands is an older woman named Vesta Gul (her surname, perhaps tellingly, is oft mispronounced as “Ghoul”). A 72-year old widow, Vesta lives modestly in an isolated cabin in the New England woods with her dog, Charlie. At the beginning of the book, Vesta finds a note that reads: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” There is no body nearby, but discovering the note sets Vesta into motion as an amateur detective. Fleeting impressions of rural neighbours, highway police officers, and strangers from the nearby town, Levant, commingle with dark memories of Vesta’s late husband as she knits together the story of the purportedly murdered woman’s life. Facts blur with Vesta’s imagination as she races to solve—or write—the mystery. Often projecting her own life and identity onto the mysterious Magda, Vesta develops a rich and writerly character study. Suddenly the individuals Vesta encounters in town, the books she finds at the library, and her own path through the woods are enriched with a sense of unforeseen purpose. By turns suspenseful, ominous, and eerily self-reflective, and with dashes of Moshfegh’s signature macabre comedy, Death in Her Hands takes the reader deep into the mind of a troubled narrator. Esmé Hogeveen: At the beginning of Death in Her Hands, Vesta’s life is self-contained and regimented. Vesta’s routines and repetition reminded me of the narrator’s intense desire to retreat in [your 2018 novel] My Year of Rest and Relaxation. May I ask if the experience of boredom—or a lack of external stimuli—is something that interests you? Ottessa Moshfegh: I would never think of Vesta as bored, per se. By typical measurements, her life is empty and we might get bored of being her, but Vesta survives on the food of her mind. Her life in the cabin with her dog is in some ways very similar to her former life with her late husband, Walter—though Walter was disloyal and Charlie is mostly loyal. The main difference is that now Vesta has her freedom. When you ask about boredom, the first thing that comes to mind are limits or feeling stuck, whether due to self-imposed or external forces. Like when you’re a kid and nothing good is on TV. I think that, when the book begins, Vesta has just emerged from a period of great boredom and is ready to be fascinated. Now that Walter has passed away, and she’s alone and in isolation, everything she does has more meaning and weight behind it. Her thoughts matter now. I was intrigued by Vesta’s self-aware, almost writerly perspective. It often feels like she anticipates the reader’s attention. I think that comes from having been watched so closely her entire life. Vesta was scrutinized by her husband and before that by her parents and society. She always felt obliged to behave according to other people’s prescriptions and now that she’s alone, she’s still addicted to certain habits of social decorum. For instance, she feels ashamed to leave the house without brushing her teeth. But she’s also finding ways to break free of those pressures and to pursue her own story. I imagine this topic has come up a lot under present pandemic circumstances, but I’m curious if you think that Vesta’s willful isolation gives her imagination extra license? Specifically, I’m thinking about when Vesta completes the character profile questionnaire from the “TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS” website and thinks, “Magda’s past was mine to discover and know, and I felt I knew her so well already. All I had to do was think.” I think that Vesta’s curiosity about Magda is really a way for Vesta to be curious about herself. Vesta’s depiction—and invention—of Magda’s personality is a projection of who Vesta wishes she herself had been. Like any kind of creative fiction storytelling, the writer invents what doesn’t exist, so the note functions as a prompt for her imagination. On the topic of imagination, I found the line about Vesta choosing to downsize after Walter’s death enlightening: “I felt I needed to hide a little. My mind needed a smaller world to roam.” Do you see comfort and independence as complimentary or juxtaposed in Vesta’s quest for freedom? Before Magda appeared in her life, Vesta tried to structure her time in a way that felt comforting. Without a plan or a loose structure for the day, I don’t think Vesta would know how to function. I think she really fears going crazy or having her mindspace expand beyond her control. Vesta’s experience of mental expansion interests me, because I’m curious about people being afraid of their own minds. I like to think about what aspects of personality are innate, like what exactly is the spirit or the soul or whatever you want to call it? And how much of it do we create, whether via intentional cultivation or in response to situations that force us to adapt? I enjoy putting characters in blank spaces, separated from any worldly attachments, and then seeing how free they are to be themselves. Then I can ask: Who is this character really? And who is she in relation to the world that she inhabits? Vesta, for instance, may be elderly, but I felt that she was very young in spirit. Magda’s note becomes Vesta’s excuse to explore a new environment and to enact Vesta’s twelve-year-old self’s fantasy. I really do think that when Vesta goes into the woods, she knows it will hurt her—like a child leaving the nest. I think she anticipates that the journey will be painful, but will take her where she needs to go. The walk in the woods ultimately leads Vesta to her death, which is where she needed to go. Shattering! Yeah, she had no life left to live, especially after her dog, the only creature left on earth who knew her, is gone. Death in Her Hands deals quite explicitly with crime and mystery genres. I’ve been reflecting that many of your readers may be millennials who grew up watching CSI, Law and Order, or other grisly procedurals, which were then widely accepted as appropriate family entertainment and a way to learn about plot and storytelling. I’m curious whether writing this book led you to rethink crime storytelling and its place in pop culture? I can’t say that I have ever really read a crime novel, but I am a huge consumer of true crime documentaries and always have been. I watched America’s Most Wanted all the time as a child. I think people enjoy feeling scared, but we also like to think we can outsmart a criminal or prove their guilt. Psychologically, solving a mystery can be empowering. It’s a variation of the salvation narrative—like, “I was once clueless, but then I got really smart!” And I think mystery novels and movies and CSI help viewers feel smarter than the criminal and the victim, or at least that’s part of the appeal whether or not it’s true. Within the mystery genre, there is often a crime fighting partnership between an obsessive, intellectual, mystery solver—the Sherlock Holmes, if you will—and a more tempering, self-aware sidekick, who has better social skills—the John Watson. In lieu of a human sidekick, Vesta has Charlie, the dog, with whom she has an alternately doting and abusive relationship. Did it feel important to keep Vesta’s allies in the non-human realm? I’m also curious whether you envisioned Magda as a kind of quasi-sidekick? Not having a witness is an interesting predicament. Consciously or unconsciously, I think people act very differently when they know someone’s observing them and I think that Vesta’s witness is actually the reader. Sort of like [Moshfegh’s 2015 novel] Eileen, there’s the sense that we’re being delivered a story specifically meant for us. It’s not a diary; it’s a directed story that’s trying to convey something particular. It’s measured and well-behaved storytelling, which reflects Vesta’s character. Even in her private thoughts, she tries to be well-behaved. From the very beginning of the novel, we’re introduced to questions around storytelling and the narrator’s integrity. On only the third page, Vesta muses: Nobody will ever know who killed [Magda]. The story is over just as it’s begun. Was futility a subject worthy of exploration? I’m curious if you think there’s a certain kind of detective or narrator—perhaps these are one and the same—who would prefer that the mystery remain unsolved? In other words, does keeping the mystery of who killed Magda open give Vesta a much-needed sense of purpose? Definitely! Vesta’s crime solving becomes a solipsistic process, whereby things that she imagines somehow become real. Whether or not that reflects an element of her own madness, or whether there’s a strange conspiracy, or whether Magda is a ghost whispering clues—we’re meant to question these possibilities. The book’s clues are not traditional. It’s hard for me to talk about the book as a detective novel though, because as I was writing it I had no idea what the mystery would be. I think there are various readings of questions like: Who left the note and why? Was it left by the couple who host a murder mystery party? I felt more invested in allowing my narrator to feel and see things, and to try to make sense of them for herself, than in trying to represent a mystery that could be, at least conventionally, solved. There’s a recurring theme of consumption in your previous writing and food comes up a lot in Death in Her Hands. There’s something kind of sad about Vesta’s sense of what she deserves. Early on, she makes a point of explaining that she shares a diet with her dog for mostly utilitarian purposes. At one point, she describes the bagels she eats every morning for breakfast: I hadn't bought myself a toaster. It seemed like an unnecessary luxury when I had a perfectly good oven. But who wants to heat an entire oven just to warm a bad bagel? It didn’t matter. I ate them cold, one every morning, Tuesday through Sunday. Is reflecting on what, and how, an individual consumes an important aspect of your character-building process? You’re right, consumption is something that I tend to write about a lot! In [2014’s] McGlue, it’s alcohol. In Eileen, it’s alcohol or food, or the magazines she reads and the movies she watches. And then in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, there is the narrator’s constant calibration and consumption of medication, as well as Reva’s eating disorder. I think a lot can be said about a character when we talk about how he or she eats a meal. I mean, it’s something that we all have to do. And for some people, eating or otherwise consuming can be especially expressive. I can relate to Vesta’s disinterest in pleasure and how that manifests in willful self-neglect. I think there’s something chemical that happens when you’re always a little bit hungry. When you don’t allow yourself to be fully satiated, hunger spreads out into the rest of you. You become a little agitated and more mindful of the clock. You start asking yourself: How am I spending my time? It made sense for Vesta to be a little underfed and it also plays out in her judgment of the women in town. Their lives are so completely different than Vesta’s, and she feels both disgust and awe when she sees them filling their supermarket carts. I interpret Vesta’s judgment as also reflecting a great deal of envy and a bit of defensiveness about her own anorectic mindset. Part of how I understood Vesta is that she deprives herself in certain ways in order to delineate a unique identity. But if what’s accomplishing creating that identity is not toasting your supermarket bagel, it’s pretty sad, you know? Several of the characters Vesta interacts with—including the gas station attendant, the police officer, and the middle-class couple hosting the murder mystery party—represent some of the different identities, class positions, and ways of living associated with New England. I know that you’ve had various experiences living on the east coast, so I’m curious if you were consciously interested in considering that setting from an older character’s perspective? Yeah, an older character and also an outsider with no allegiances, who doesn’t trust anyone, especially not the police. I tried to resist identifying the specific locations of Levant or Bethsmane, but I drew from memories of rural Maine, where I’ve spent a lot of time. My family has a cabin, well, a small camp, on a lake outside of Bangor. I don’t know if you’ve read my short story collection [Homesick for Another World], but there’s one story, “Slumming,” about a middle-class teacher from the city who buys a foreclosure in a poverty-stricken town and treats it like a fancy getaway. She goes there every summer and feels really rich. In that story, I also drew from my experiences around Bangor, because as an outsider who could afford to use that space to vacation, my perspective was different from the guys who worked at the gas station. I relate to that town as an outsider and yet it still feels like a kind of home. This is all to say that in Death in Her Hands, I tried to relate to a rural setting from the perspective of an outsider. This is perhaps paralleled in Vesta imagining that Magda is a young girl from Belarus who gets a summer job at a McDonald’s. That idea was also based on a real thing. There are programs that hire Eastern European teenagers to work in highway fast food restaurants every summer in New England as a way to practice their English. It always struck me as the weirdest thing. Imagine coming from Ukraine and suddenly being in rural New Hampshire. How would someone in that position experience America? Returning to the idea of the crime or mystery genre, it’s a cliché to say that “time is of the essence,” but it does seem like time is often mentioned as one of the most valuable resources when tracking a missing person. The events of Death in Her Hands unfold quite quickly, but it’s rare that Vesta expresses urgency around time. As you’ve mentioned, the book’s setting is somewhat vague. Did you also set out to write a narrator with an ambiguous relationship to time? Absolutely! Vesta keeps track of the days based on how many bagels are left in a package. In a way, it’s similar to how many of us are living now, at least those of us who aren’t leaving the house to work, that is. I think that when you’re alone and you have no external responsibilities, time starts to pass differently. I know that I’ve become less aware of the clock and have maybe begun paying more attention to other physical cues. Like, oh, it’s not hot out yet, should I go outside? Or, is night falling? Should I take my walk now? Moments like that. In part, I think Vesta becomes more attuned to the natural world because she lives as a vulnerable human in a rural area. But I also think that she constantly experiences a very subtle sense that someone might be out there, and her lack of responsibilities mean that her sense of time can easily become disordered. When it’s dark, Vesta’s fears become more poignant. She feels more alone in the darkness, which I think is kind of cool. I also like that she orders a darkness suit as armour, and that she equates safety with being invisible or inconsequential is quite telling. I read your recent piece in The Guardian reflecting on the COVID-19 lockdown. I thought it was fascinating when you observed that the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is “isolating herself towards wellness.” Given our context speaking now when many people fear a second wave, I wanted to ask if you have any thoughts or feelings about how the pandemic context will influence people reading Death in Her Hands? This whole thing is so weird, and what’s happening right now with the protest movement across the country and what has happened to precipitate that in the recent past and in the entire history of our country… I mean, a story about a little old lady in the woods does not seem all that important, so I feel very humbled by this moment in the history of our culture. I’m praying my ass off that this is a revolution toward something more human and just. So, if this book can provide any moment of quiet time for someone, I’ll be happy. Reading is very therapeutic, even when what you’re reading doesn’t speak to what you’re struggling with. For example, I adore the novels of Anne Tyler, not because what she writes about solves any of my problems, but because it’s comforting to allow yourself to be taken over by a work of fiction that you know you can put down. So, I don’t know, I mostly just feel so sad for everybody and all the people who are in danger right now. That feels really, really real.
The author of Feminist City on intersectional urban planning, care work, and feminist geography.
Turns out, snow plows are sexist. Not the machines themselves, per se, but the way our cities go about using them. See also: our bus schedules, street lights, or that urban classic, “a disgusting basement bathroom down a treacherous flight of stairs.” All are examined in Leslie Kern’s Feminist City (Verso Books), a work of feminist geography exploring the ways gender and other identity valences complicate the experience of living and working in the modern city. The book examines the city’s paradoxical ability to oppress and emancipate—how an environment teeming with gendered inconvenience, racial discrimination, and sexual violence can also be a locus of queer independence, community care, and emancipatory feminist world-making. Heavily researched but accessibly written, Kern cites Baudelaire on one page and extols the virtues of a teenage day at the mall on the next. The book is a dynamic mix of high and low, facts and feelings, research and reality. Reading it, I spent a lot of time grumbling, “god, that too?” as more and more daily inconveniences were revealed, not as flaws in the place I pay $1800 per month to live, but signs it is functioning as planned. Kern, an associate professor and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University, grounds her book in “the geography closest in”—that is, her own experience. Traversing a childhood in Toronto, family trips to New York City, new motherhood in London, and an academic career in Sackville, New Brunswick, Kern examines times she has encountered the city as, to borrow a phrase from feminist geographer Jane Darke, “patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.” Aware that these experiences are necessarily limited in scope and directed by her various privileges, Kern visits other cities and perspectives through case studies and the work of other critics, writers, and activists. She’s also refreshingly realistic about the extent to which academic discussions of issues like gentrification or the housing crisis can help, looking often to the practical work being done to solve these problems by everyday women, people of colour, queer and non-binary communities. Giving equal space to formal urban policy and improvised methods of community care, Kern’s work acknowledges that studies and statistics don’t guarantee institutional change, and that privileging the well-being of marginalized people is a responsibility of citizens at every level. From our homes in two very different shutdown cities (London, UK, and Sackville, New Brunswick) Kern and I corresponded about feminist-worldbuilding, what COVID-19 can teach us about community, and whether my “Golden Girls commune” retirement fantasy is problematic. Monica Heisey: Let’s start with the city. What, historically, have been some of the promises of the urban environment? Leslie Kern: The promises of the urban environment—and whether they’re kept or not—depend a lot on factors like gender, class, and race, but for most people, the promises would probably fall mainly into the categories of work, finding community, and accessing the public realm. By “public realm” I mean everything from the world of politics to the basic public infrastructures of education, health care, and social services. Less tangibly, the promises of pleasure, freedom, excitement, opportunity, and encounter run through narratives of the city historically and today. The city promises anonymity in ways that small town life can’t, which should open up a lot more possibilities for women to live their lives in ways that don’t conform to strict social norms. Paradoxically, though, women also experience a sort of hypervisibility in public space. You don’t feel very anonymous when you’re being cat-called on the street or groped on the subway. Perhaps the greatest paradox is that whatever freedoms the city does offer depend a lot on women being more like men in terms of their roles and lifestyles. As soon as you “fall” into the traditional roles of mother, caregiver, wife, the city is much less supportive of your needs. For me personally, my first inkling that sexism might have a relationship to the built environment came from my experience of motherhood, of trying to navigate cities—London and Toronto—with a baby. The former seamless mobility of the city for me as an able-bodied person, punctuated by the occasional bout of sexist harassment, was suddenly a maze of barriers that made it very clear that the city wasn’t set up for me. One of the heartening takeaways from your book is that solutions for one demographic—say, new mothers—often benefit others. Accommodating a stroller can make the subway easier to navigate for people with walkers or wheelchairs, for example. There are lots of ways that improvements for one group can benefit others; the converse is also true, though, and that’s where an intersectional analysis is crucial. Policies that, on their face, are supposed to contribute to women’s safety, might actually just be ways to expand policing, extend the reach of the criminal justice system, and justify the harassment and surveillance of poor people, homeless people, queer and trans folks, and people of colour. If “taking back the night” makes the city less safe for people like sex workers, drug users, and homeless people, then there’s nothing particularly feminist about it. If efforts to increase access and safety for public restrooms reproduce a regressive and strict gender binary, making them unsafe for trans, gender fluid, or non-binary people, or anyone not fitting into a narrow box of gender presentation, then those efforts also aren’t feminist, in my opinion. So, for me, the idea of feminist city has to be germinated out of the experiences of those who struggle the most to find a place in the city. Feminist geography is a relatively new field. Can you explain a bit about what your work involves, and what it means to envision a “feminist city?” In many cases, we’re still struggling just to add women and non-men to the picture, for example by gathering gender sensitive data, as Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women details so well. Then there’s the level where we’re trying to figure out how gendered and other identities are constructed in relation to place. We’re also concerned with how power circulates and gets built into the human-made environment. Envisioning a feminist city means thinking about all the ways the spaces of the city and their social norms uphold gender inequalities, and doing it intersectionally, so it doesn’t just reflect the needs of, for example, relatively privileged middle-class white women. I’d also note that even though feminist geography is relatively new, women have been proposing their own designs for homes, neighbourhoods, and cities since the 19th century. They recognized that the organization of these spaces contributed to women’s inequality, and that movement toward women’s education and financial independence would require new spatial arrangements. While reading your book I was struck by urban planners’ insistent failure to understand the needs of their own demographics. You write that cities are designed for a “typical citizen” who’s white, straight, male, able bodied, works a 9-5 job, etc. Surely every census would make clear that the “typical citizen” as he’s been imagined for so long is anything but; cities have access to so much data about their residents! What’s going on here? Part of the answer might be that planning—along with associated professions like architecture, urban design, and even urban politics—is still a male-dominated field. The range of perspectives that are at the table is much narrower than the range of identities that make up the modern city. There’s also the paradox that planners, while thinking ahead to the needs of tomorrow, are very much working with the built environment of the past; buildings are durable, they last long after the social norms that produced them in many cases. And planners are also steeped in social norms, which are not as progressive as many of us would like to imagine. After all, there’s still stigma attached to being child free, single after thirty, divorced, a single parent, polyamorous, living with multiple generations in one home, renting, being queer, etc., even though taken together we are likely a majority in most places. What’s behind this urge to detach the social world from the built environment? Well, the social world is messy, isn’t it? It’s complicated, it involves bodies and feelings and all kinds of “irrational” behaviors, driven by fear and love and desire and greed and compassion in unpredictable and confounding ways. Planning is, by its nature, forward thinking: you’re planning for something, and in order to do that you need the world to seem ordered, predictable, and rational. Too many variables make the map too complicated. But it’s also about priorities. For many cities, economic development, expanding tax bases, and growth have been the highest planning priorities. Next to these goals, social concerns are secondary. The book returns a number of times to co-op community models, and, in the female friendship chapter, to Golden Girls-style retirement communities. I really related—my friends and I imagine this often. Why do we all reserve this fantasy for retirement? Because men have shorter life spans? I jest. Let’s face it, friendship is pretty much forced to take a backseat to romantic relationships and parenthood for a good chunk of many peoples’ adult lives. It’s maybe only at retirement that we can imagine a time when the kinds of friendships we had in our teens and twenties can truly re-emerge. Maybe for women, this is when we start to imagine—or hope?—that some of our endless caregiving responsibilities will let up and we can have more time for ourselves and the relationships that energize us. So many of the potential solutions outlined in your book are about accommodating increased demand on women for care work; is getting men to carry more of this burden an option? How do we get them, like... interested in that? If I knew, I would’ve written that book and made a million dollars. Thinking about it makes me tired in my bones. There might be some things we can do in our individual households. In my first marriage I stopped picking up after my husband or washing his clothes. Effective, but we did get divorced. Ultimately, we have to build a society where it’s impossible for men not to do their share of care work, and that is totally revolutionary. It would mean eliminating the wage gap, so households don’t default to men’s work being more important. It would mean that care work wasn’t looked down upon and devalued. It would mean setting up our cities in ways that didn’t make it seem easier for women to stay home or work from home. It would mean that there is no economic punishment for doing care work—women are supposed to, and do, accept this; men never would. Another group the book doesn’t have much faith in is government. You return often to the reality that we can’t rely on state or urban policy intervention; what can we do to make our cities more liveable for everyone in them? It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t put all my eggs in the urban policy basket. Over the last several decades, cities all over the world have embraced neoliberal agendas designed to put profits over the needs of people, resulting in crises of affordability, privatization of services, and the militarization of public space. How’s that working out for us? Not so great, as this crisis has shown. What’s remarkable is that under this intense pressure, nations and cities have miraculously been able to find ways to fund certain kinds of social services. Imagine! So, while I definitely look to more community-based efforts in general, this crisis reminds me, and maybe all of us, that the state is not powerless to act to redress inequalities. Let’s have a long-term freeze on rent increases. Let’s pay everyone a living wage. We can do it. A favourite passage of mine: Feminist visions of the city have been here all along. Some were never fully realized, and some are in the past, but there are examples of both practices and ideals that are being lived right now, under our noses. What might exist as pockets of resistance or simply alternative ways of organizing care, work, food, and more are sites of possibility for a broader, more transformative vision. It’s empowering to remember that so much of this work is going on already, whether or not it’s formally recognized, and that anyone can decide to be a part of it. Although I would love to see gender truly taken seriously at the urban policy level, I don’t think we have to wait for that shift before we start our feminist world-making projects in our own backyards. For example, artist OlaRonke Akinmowo created the Free Black Women’s Library, a mobile pop-up trading library of books by Black women, especially feminists, that circulates through Brooklyn and beyond. People come to trade books, talk, ask questions, and socialize at the library, which embodies a feminist, anti-capitalist ethos. Another example is the work of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, which serves an extremely marginalized community that includes sex workers, recent immigrants, Indigenous women, homeless women, women escaping violence, and women with addictions. They’re located at one of the geographic centers of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis. Their recent Red Woman Rising report centered Indigenous women survivors in a compelling call to action on gendered colonial violence and a life-affirming focus on healing. These two very different examples both highlight intersectionality and embody a grassroots, women-centred approach to making women’s urban lives more liveable. “The non-sexist city” often sounds like a bunch of connected but independent supportive communities. Is it possible that we just need to re-envision the city as a cluster of small towns? Yeah, it’s very tempting to see all of this as a problem of scale. But for many, the city is an escape from the confines and problems of small town life. There are things that people really value about the city—anonymity, diversity, a productive clash of cultures—that aren’t readily available in most small towns or communities. Any community, no matter its size, reproduces inclusions and exclusions of various sorts. But it’s true that within the city, people do create smaller scale communities that include face-to-face relationships and networks of care. It might not always be possible to scale those up, but I do think we as a society could find ways to better support and value those networks. I relocated to London recently, in part because I was feeling disillusioned with Toronto. It sort of seems like the benefits of living in a big city aren’t reliably accessible there, while the negatives are multiplying by the day. My friends and I talk fondly about moving to the countryside or a small town, and in London at least, the movement of young creatives out of town to places like Margate is already happening. Do you think that’s going to continue? But also, is this just a kind of new twist on the gentrification impulse? Basically: am I part of the problem? Well, yes. But focusing on you or me or our friends doesn’t actually get us very far in our analysis of the problem. My love of avocados is not responsible for Toronto’s condo boom any more than your romanticization of Margate is responsible for the outrageous levels of property speculation in London that have left the city with a tiny vacancy rate and the “opportunity” to rent someone’s walk-in closet for two hundred quid a week. The things that have left you disillusioned aren’t merely matters of taste; they’re serious problems that affect how you and many others live, work, care, and survive in cities. Many people simply can’t afford to do it anymore. Now, perhaps you have a little more choice in terms of when and where you might go, and that might entail some responsibility to think about what you’re bringing to a new community, how you’ll prioritize the needs and knowledges of locals, etc. But overall, we have to worry less about individual choices and more about the structures that drive displacement. Okay, this is sort of a COVID bonus round: is this pandemic an interesting time to be an urban geographer? What do you hope to learn from this global lockdown? At the moment I’m a little removed from the direct urban experience, but the question of what “we” have learned is so interesting because it really depends on who the “we” is. Broadly speaking, “we” have learned what feminists and people from marginalized communities have been shouting ourselves hoarse about for decades: that care work, broadly defined, both paid and unpaid, is literally what allows all of THIS to work, and when it’s disrupted, a crisis can become a catastrophe. So, the organization of this work in terms of both who does it, and where it is done, becomes really important to acknowledge and reconsider. Have we set our cities and social safety nets up to sustain us when crisis hits? Clearly not. So now we have to figure out what we must do going forward into the next pandemic, and into that other crisis that’s already here, climate change. I started self-isolating sort of excited at the possibility that this would involve a major social restructuring. These days, I’m not so sure. Do you think the pandemic will alter the way we think about “key workers,” and maybe force policymakers to prioritize—or at least accommodate—their needs? I’d also like to think that we won’t immediately forget people like grocery store workers and cleaners as we move beyond the immediate crisis. A lot of how we value work, though, depends on who does it and how we see those people and their contributions to the economy and to society. So, if that work is done by women, people of colour, immigrants, youth, and older people and in general we devalue their contributions, then we might not see a major shift. This could also be a moment where some places actively roll back gains; we’re seeing opportunistic right wing states and nations take hold of the crisis as a chance to limit abortion access and LGBTQ+ rights. I think it’s too soon to say whether we’re barrelling towards the Handmaid future or something else, but you know, the discourse matters. The fact that we can talk about universal basic income without the idea being laughed out the room instantly is a good sign.
This wasn’t the first time I had become obsessed with drowning.
Last winter, I took a train to Höchst im Odenwald, a small town an hour south of Frankfurt. Clusters of white rooftops poked above the trees, spindly pines scraping the pale blue sky. The air smelled of chimney smoke. Forests gave way to wide pastures, where cows and sheep grazed and starlings swooped low in search of seeds. Elke Hilbert picked me up at the train station in a wheezing stick shift and told me families took summertime boat trips on the nearby Main River. Her family took a boat there once, when her son Max was a child. She thinks about that trip often. We took a roundabout route to Elke’s home. She showed me Max’s primary school, the traveler’s hostel where he worked as a teenager, the soccer pitch where he used to practice. Later, in the house, I sat at the kitchen table, and Elke brought me coffee and a tray of heart-shaped muffins she’d baked for Valentine’s Day. A neighbor rang the doorbell and gave Elke a basket of black and white cookies. “Please, eat them,” Elke said, pushing the treats toward me. I pulled out my recorder, and for the next five hours we talked about Max. He died in 2015 at nineteen, an apparent drowning in a Galician fishing village. When I visited Elke, he would have been twenty-three. My age. I learned about Max after I walked the Camino de Santiago to Fisterra, a village on Galicia’s Costa da Morte. Fisterra means End of the Earth in Gallego, the local language. The landscape there is austere. Rugged cliffs cut into choppy water. During the wintertime, waves can reach up to forty feet high. The regional delicacy is a barnacle called percebe, and percebeiros risk their lives scrambling down rocks to collect them. Residents told me Fisterra saw a handful of drownings a year—most often pilgrims who underestimated the power of the current, but sometimes fishermen and percebeiros, too. The rocky coast was also notorious for shipwrecks. With any tragedy on the sea, the first to arrive on the scene were fishermen, the people who knew the coast best. Later, a local poet would tell me, “We know death well here.” *** After I left Galicia, I spent a few hours browsing the Internet for reports of drownings in Fisterra. One webpage provided a list of people who died walking the Camino each year—heatstroke, heart attack, a twenty-six-year-old run over by a train. Further searching led me to a news article about a young German man named Max who had gone swimming in frigid water, and the fisherman who had spent weeks searching for him when he disappeared. I googled images of Max, and photos popped up: Bright blonde hair, piercing blue eyes. More searching got me his mother’s email address, and a month later, Elke responded to my interview request. “I think that speaking with you about my beloved son Max could be a kind of ‘psychotherapy’ for me, an effective medicine for both my soul and my heart,” she wrote. We spoke by Skype in October of 2018. I took the call in my pajamas. It was two a.m. in California, where I was visiting my family, and I spoke quietly from a dim corner of the living room, wary of waking my parents. Elke had white-blonde hair and blue eyes like her son, and she apologized repeatedly for her English, though it was near-perfect. As we talked, she told me about Max’s penchant for philosophy and his lust for traveling. She was more reticent to speak of his mental health problems. She mentioned a “psychotic break” and marijuana use but didn’t want to say more. *** People usually have a personal reason for walking the Camino de Santiago, a ready-made answer to the question, “Why are you walking?” Some people walk because they have quit their jobs; others quit their jobs to walk. One man I met while walking had just broken up with a long-time girlfriend. The summer I walked, I walked because I didn’t want to do anything else. I wanted to think of nothing but my surroundings. I wanted to be in motion. Max’s friend Jenny Gast told me he walked because he felt stifled at home. He’d lived there the year after graduating high school, uncertain about his future. He’d excelled in school and considered studying philosophy or literature at university. But after he graduated, his sense of self and purpose began to deteriorate. Sometimes, Jenny told me, Max would come over to her house. They would sip tea on the balcony and talk about the future, their families. His parents were strict, suspicious that his friends were bad influences. They didn’t know how to help him. During one of his examinations the year before, he felt his mind go blank and bolted from the classroom. After disappearing for several hours, he showed up at home, soaking wet, his cellphone damaged. He’d taken a train to a nearby town and stood in the river, contemplating drifting away with the current. Just before he left for Spain, in April of 2015, Max and Jenny, who then lived in Munich, took a meandering drive through Höchst. Why don’t you move to Munich, where doctors could help you? Jenny asked. She thought it was a bad idea to walk the Camino de Santiago, given his mental health. But Max felt that nothing was helping: not the pills doctors made him take, not the time spent resting at home. He was stuck in his head. I need to do something with my body, he told her. I need to walk. *** I visited Fisterra again in December. It rained every day, pounding rain whose roar blended with the crashing surf. The pilgrims were gone, the hotels shuttered, the only remaining people locals. The town was a dreary shell of its summer self. I met Guillermo Traba, a fisherman who had searched for Max and who claimed he could hold his breath underwater for fifteen minutes. When we met for coffee at a dim restaurant on the port, he told me the water was murky the day he started searching for Max. Shadows of algae on the sea floor had looked like ghostly bodies, rocking in the current. Guillermo spent his days diving for razor shell clams and suddenly found himself leading the search for a missing German pilgrim, spending every morning swimming and scanning the water for clues. That search ended, two weeks later, with the discovery of a body floating in the sea. *** This wasn’t the first time I had become obsessed with drowning. A few years before, I had spent a summer writing about deaths on the Kern River in central California, following a rescue team around the valley as they raced to save stranded swimmers and search for bodies. I saw the power and terror of water firsthand. Water could snatch a life away. Bodies sank, released gases, then floated. Professional divers were trained to recover corpses. They trawled the sea, sped down rivers in boats. It was divers like this who had recovered the body of my friend Haley Rue when she drowned. She had fallen into a whirlpool the summer after our first year in college. We’d been backpacking in Europe—she in Austria, Hungary, and Germany, I in Spain and Portugal. We talked every day. I would send her messages from bars and cafés, recounting to her the day’s adventures and the interminable loneliness I felt while traveling from city to city. Once, I wrote her from a corner store in Ibiza. A few hours earlier, I had missed the last bus from the the north side of the island and walked twenty kilometers along the side of the highway, arriving back to my hostel just as night fell. You’re crazy, Haley wrote me, then asked how I was doing. She, in turn, would tell me about the quirky people she met in her hostels and her favorite foods from each city—schnitzel, chocolate cake, cherries. One day in July the conversation stopped. That evening, I read about her death on Facebook. There was a post from a family friend. It said something about prayers, and a river, and Haley. The word drowned. In the years after, I couldn’t stop imagining my friend’s death. I had a running list of questions. How long did it take for her to die? Had she been conscious? Did she know what was happening? Did she struggle? What was the last thing she saw—water or sky? *** After I spoke to his mother, I started thinking about Max as though he were alive. As I wrote alone in my small bedroom, staring at the walls when I felt stuck, I would speak to Max. I’d sit in the grey morning light and throw my questions into the air—Why didn’t you go to Munich like Jenny asked? Why did you keep swimming when the water was so cold? His presence in my life was a constant. I had just moved to Barcelona, my fifth city in two years. I had no friends, no sense of direction. I sort of just ended up here, I’d say when people asked—explanations are always too long. When I wasn’t sending story ideas to editors, I walked around the port of Barcelona and watched the boats come in and out, trying to keep my mind off my loneliness. Writing about Max gave me purpose, a way to spend my days. I turned to his friends, his text messages, his diary, spoke with the last people who saw him alive. Natalie Kapahnke, who had walked for a week with Max through Cantabria, wrote me an 1,800-word email. Max felt like a little brother, she wrote, “the little brother you look after and care for.” They walked with a group, exploring lighthouses along the coast and talking deep into the night. On one of their last evenings together, they made pizza and salad at a hostel. “Max told me that he understood that he has to change and that he misses his family,” she wrote. “Still, he knew that the Camino and the distance was the best for him at this moment.” Asli Hanci, Max’s girlfriend at the time of his death, sent me a few of their last Facebook messages. The messages are quotidian updates, small windows into Max’s mind. In one, Max describes finishing forty kilometers in one day—his longest stretch of walking—and going to eat a quarter-pounder as a celebration. In another, he feels homesick and ambivalent about having left Höchst. He tells Asli to call his parents and let them know he’s fine. He sent his last message to Asli on May 28, arranging to meet her back in Frankfurt or Höchst once he finished walking. He did not mention he planned to go to Fisterra the following day. Juan Mayan had been in Fisterra the day Max disappeared. That evening, while relaxing on the beach, Juan and his wife had seen a young man sitting nearby, smoking a cigarette and staring out to the water. After a while, the man left his backpack on shore and waded into the sea. He swam farther and farther until his body became a speck. When daylight began to fade, Juan and his wife left. The next morning, Juan took a stroll along the beach and saw the backpack untouched. Later, he would learn that though the sea had been calm on May 29, the water was frigid: twelve degrees Celsius—cold enough to cause a body to go into shock. I got a coffee with Max’s friend Jakob. We sat on a terrace in a village north of Frankfurt, drinking in the late-afternoon sunlight. Jakob rolled a cigarette and told me that during high school, he and Max would walk through the forest. They’d sit under a peach tree, or climb a tall oak and lounge in the branches, talking. Jakob still struggles with Max’s death. Did Max want to die? Did he have a psychotic break when he was alone on the beach? Jakob shrugged. It didn’t matter—nothing would change Max’s death. But he wanted to know everything. He wanted to go to Fisterra, see what Max saw. I told Jakob about Haley, how I wanted to know what she’d seen too. As we talked, I thought about one of the first times I’d written about death, when I was a freshman in college and a student had killed himself. After we published the story in the student newspaper, I kept speaking with his friends, even though their quotes would never leave my notebook. It was nice, we thought, just to have someone to talk to, someone who would listen. *** After a few hours at the table with Elke as she recounted the worst days of her life, I felt I owed her an explanation. Why did I want to write about her son? she asked. I told her about Haley. We had met in our first year of college and would have been roommates the following year. We were both from the West Coast and, that first college spring, had experienced a shapeless sense of loss. We missed home and who we had been at home, a world away from the pressure of academics and college social life. On a sunny April day, we skipped class and went to a park. As we were looking at the sky, Haley told me she wanted to move to the Grand Canyon. She liked how big it was, how it was so far away. What would you do there? I asked, and she was quiet for a minute. Maybe be a guide, she said. That sounds nice, I said. An escape. She smiled with her whole face. I like the way you talk, she said. That’s the only sentence I remember in her voice. In July, when I was in Lisbon, Haley went to Innsbruck, Austria. She was in love with everything: the job, the food, the landscape, the people. In Innsbruck, Haley bought a carton of cherries and ate them, one by one, as she walked barefoot on the hot asphalt back to her hostel. In Innsbruck, Haley hiked up a mountain, ate strudel at the top, and tripped a few times on her way down. “In Innsbruck,” Haley wrote on her blog, “I’m a little girl.” A week later, I sat on my hostel bed fanning my face. It was 11 p.m. and hot. I opened my laptop to check Facebook. I saw the post. I couldn’t close my laptop. I tiptoed to the hostel kitchen for a glass of water and screamed. I lay face down on the wood floor and breathed dust until I choked. I texted Haley but the messages didn’t go through. They appeared on my phone screen with a red exclamation point. A few days later, I learned she had fallen into a whirlpool in Germany. She was nineteen. In 2018, I went to Munich to visit the place where Haley died. A friend who had been with her at the river picked me up and drove me to the mountains. We stopped at a forest. The earth was damp from a recent rainstorm, and lightning had felled several large trees. A guide showed up, and he gave me a wetsuit. The friend went to read in a restaurant, and the guide took me up the river. As I clambered and slipped, he showed me how to look out for dangerous rapids. A safe rapid was formed by a pillow of water that rushed against a rock’s surface. A dangerous rapid looked like nothing special: a rock wedged in the current. But moving water needs somewhere to go. If a water pillow wasn’t there, that meant there was a hole in the rock. A hole sucks things—twigs, leaves, animals—with a crushing force. I didn’t want to think about the rocks, but they surrounded us, on the banks, on the riverbed, under my feet. I heard it before I saw it. Crashing water. A wall of sound thundering against my ears. The sound was hidden behind a mass of rock. The whirlpool. There was a hole in the rock, at the bottom. As I sat with Elke, I thought about rivers, and currents, and water that steals young lives. I’d outlived Max and Haley by four years. I told Elke I wanted to write about her son because I was figuring out how to live without Haley. Writing was a way to process, to understand, to mourn. Speaking was, too. Over pizza that night, Elke said that Max and I would have been friends. *** I started writing about Haley. Piecing together nearly five years, recounting all the times I thought about her: when I was hot and facing an open window and a breeze cooled my skin; while lying on grass and staring at the sky; while eating a handful of M&Ms or waffles with whipped cream. I thought of Haley at the beach, in the mountains, on dusty paths that cut through the countryside. I thought of Haley when I stole packets of hazelnut cream from hostels. I thought of Haley when I bought cartons of cherries. I thought of Haley when I wore my traveler’s backpack, when my sandals gave me tan lines, when I sat at a bar alone, when I craved a piece of cake, when I went for long walks. Haley Haley Haley Haley Haley Haley Haley Haley. The story never felt finished. But I thought by letting those words live outside of my head, something else might start. Maybe a stranger would send me an email and we would speak on the phone about the friends we had lost. Perhaps someone would ask for Haley’s mother’s email, or Elke’s email, and they could start correspondences with people around the world. They could discover new ways to think about their children. Strangers could know about Max. They could know about Haley. Imagine: a dozen of us talking into the early morning, across time zones, in our pajamas, making new meaning. The dead could keep on living. Last summer, when the air grew humid in Barcelona, I left Spain. In Berlin, I walked twenty miles in a single day. In Bratislava, I walked down a path until I ran out of road. Being in motion distracts me. I think I’m going somewhere. Fisterra. Fin de Tierra. End of the Earth. Max Hilbert had heard of the town before he began walking the Camino de Santiago in April of 2015, but he didn’t know much about it. As with most good things on the Camino, like the best places to spend the night and the mysterious water fountains that poured red wine, Max had heard about the town through word of mouth. He had been walking for a month and felt stronger than he had in a long time. He wanted to keep going. “I have the feeling, somehow, that I have not finished walking,” Max wrote in his journal. “So I’ll go to Fisterra.” *** Every year, on the anniversary of Haley’s death, I send an email to her mother. I write to her about all my new cities, all the places I’ve visited and people I’ve met these past five years. She writes to me about life in Tacoma, where Haley was raised, and the hours she spends in the garden, thinking about her daughter. During the springtime, after her mother had picked fresh fruit, the two had a ritual. “The first ripe radish, raspberry or cherry tomato,” Haley’s mother once wrote to me, “would always be divided down the middle to share.” A few years ago, I caught a plane to Seattle. Haley’s mother picked me up at the airport and took me to Tacoma. Puget Sound glinted under the late-afternoon sun and the lavender Mount Rainier hovered in the distance. At the house, I put my backpack in Haley’s room, and her mother drove me to Haley’s elementary school, the boardwalk where she had liked to walk, the places where she used to go running. The next morning, I woke up late. I sat at the kitchen table and looked out the window. Haley’s mother, wearing a pink bathrobe, was in the garden, crouched over a bush. When she returned to the kitchen, she set a bowl of blueberries on the counter and searched the cupboard for flour. I haven’t made blueberry pancakes in years, she told me. We sat at the table and ate slowly. I took another pancake, relishing the long, quiet morning, the way the sun streamed through the window, the sweet smell of butter and fruit. I wished I could stay at that table forever. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t need to walk away. I didn’t need to move. There was nowhere else to be.
The author of Blue Ticket on leaving things unsaid, weaponizing humour, and bodily autonomy.
Sophie Mackintosh’s second novel imagines a world in which women’s decisions around pregnancy and childbearing are decided by a lottery. A white ticket gives you children. A blue ticket gives you freedom. The novel’s anti-heroine, Calla, soon falls pregnant even though it was her predetermined destiny not to. She hatches an escape plan, but discovers it’s not so easy to make a clean getaway, or figure out who you truly belong with. Mackintosh isn’t one to shy away from difficult, messy, daring interrogations of how women are seen—and treated—in so-called modern society. Earlier this year, she told British Vogue, “I want to be doing work that makes a change”. A Welsh writer based in London, her debut novel The Water Cure, which was long-listed for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is a multi-voiced, slow-burning novel told from the perspective of three sisters stuck on a remote island. Their parents run elaborate, primitive purification treatments for women harmed by men from the outside world. Written during Brexit and the rise of Trump’s political power, the narrative considered the depths of toxic masculinity: what does it mean to be poisonous to those around you? How does unfairness spread like a disease? “We need a wider range of language to describe these books instead of writing them off as angry feminist dystopia,” Mackintosh pointed out in an interview with BOMB Magazine last year. “These are our real concerns that we’re writing about.” Blue Ticket (Hamish Hamilton) considers female pain, power dynamics, and how we define the true self in a way that sometimes makes the prose physically painful to read. Yet underneath the layers of toughness, a tenderness comes through—one that asks not to be judged; an understanding that resists being reductive. Sophie and I spoke in the lead-up to the North American release of Blue Ticket, while the city of London was still in lockdown. Nathania Gilson: In the acknowledgements of Blue Ticket, you mentioned that you spoke to many people about their experiences of motherhood and babies as part of your research for this novel. What surprised you the most? Sophie Mackintosh: Seeing first-hand the exhaustion and shock of new mothers; the fragmentation and the loss of sense of time really made me understand, a little more, the magnitude of the change. I knew it changes your life, of course, but I didn’t fully understand that a newborn only sleeps for a couple of hours at a stretch, even in the night; that their tiny stomachs mean they need to be fed near-constantly. I somehow had the romantic idea that you have the baby and the first weeks and months are this milky, dreamy time where the baby just sleeps while you regather yourself, and then you just carry the baby around with you and carry on as normal. Also hearing about the physical effects. There are so many weirdly occult, horror-movie elements to it. The nightmarish idea of a forty-eight-hour labour before somehow being discharged with a new baby that needs you so much and a sleep debt you’ll never pay off; of bleeding and tearing, pelvic fractures, the sheer bloodiness and danger of pregnancy itself. For example, I read somewhere the theory that we evolved periods because pregnancy is such a risk—a biological tug-of-war with the mother’s body—that our uteruses just violently purge themselves monthly in order to take no chances. And that newborns will have a tiny period because they’re full of all the mother’s hormones. That freaked me out! And yet, having seen all this and heard of all this and learned all this, I still want to do it. Hearing you talk about the painful reality of being a mother or bringing a baby into the world, it reminds me how much “baby literature” exists in the world. Not just the self-help books that try to prepare you for it, but the myth-making involved, too. Babies being thought of as miniature sphinxes, dignified emperors sat in their prams, seeming powerful and fearless when they refuse to cry. I’m thinking of the Rachel Cusks, Sheila Hetis, Jenny Offills, Pamela Erenses, Lydia Davises, Raymond Carvers, and so on, who have their own interpretations. In the Western world, where it can seem like canonizing or creating “important” literature is the end goal, perhaps, how do you go about making your work feel like it’s yours? I think maybe by keeping my expectations low, or maybe a process of acceptance. To both know that I’m writing about subjects that historically have maybe not been seen as important, and also to know that, in the scheme of things, my book is just a book. To recognize realistically and humbly the smallness of my work, maybe. Not in a way that's self-deprecating, but in a way that's freeing. To realize that there are a million takes one can have on any subject, and this is just mine. And to think of it in conversation with the others, perhaps, but finding its own way and interpretation. Blue Ticket is so full of sights, smells, and sounds that make it feel not so far away from the world we’re in now, and yet. There’s a certain rhythm and cadence to Calla’s thoughts that feels hypnotic and otherworldly. I was wondering how films influence your writing process, or if the experience of watching films is a space where ideas come to life for you? Often when writing I am trying to pin down a feeling as much as an image, and using every tool at my disposal to try and get there. By the end of writing a book, it feels like its own film which takes place in my head. Some films that I was thinking about and watching or re-watching when writing Blue Ticket include [Yorgos Lanthimos’] The Lobster, [Michael Haneke’s] The Piano Teacher, and [Lynne Ramsay’s] Morvern Callar, as well as road-trip movies like [Ridley Scott’s] Thelma and Louise. I'm easily soothed by beautiful images. I feel a certain shame sometimes that my approach to writing is more emotional rather than academic—I feel like I should just know more about theory, or the process of writing as an art form. Instead it sometimes feels like blundering around a thousand messy drafts trying to get at something more indefinable, the way a song can transport you or remind you suddenly of somewhere you’ve never actually been. That subconscious feeling you describe reminds me of an interview that the novelist and visual artist Leonora Carrington gives, where she tells off her great-niece for trying so desperately to intellectualize art. She said we should trust our own feelings about things instead. Instead of “getting” something, we can try accessing the part of our brain that feels more honest, because it’s less weighed down by ego. I think intuition and heart (for want of a better word) count for a lot. You could execute the most technically brilliant and flawlessly researched novel in the world, and it could leave you cold. I like the unconscious connections, the things that come together when you're least expecting it, and the messiness of my own writing process facilitates this; I redraft and rewrite and distill obsessively because I never know what tangent I've gone off is going to prove to be the unexpected core of the work. Though maybe it's easier for me to think like this rather than interrogate what could be my intellectual laziness, so I'm more conscious now of striking a balance. I think some of it also comes from feeling slightly like an imposter. I used to get anxious discussing my own work, as if I could somehow get that “wrong,” when I wrote it, which is absurd, really! If I had built myself a fortress of theory and technique it might have been easier to talk about it. If something does come from an emotional place, it does make it that much more tender. Desire, luck, choice, and “badness” (as the opposite of goodness) come up frequently in the novel. How was the writing of this story a way to shift or challenge the binary of what is possible for women in this world? I think we internalize—and externalize!—the concept of “good” or “deserving” so much, and especially when it comes to women, and then further still when it comes to mothers. There’s still this expectation that you have to be obviously maternal. Some readers find it hard to accept that someone like Calla would have a baby, or should have one. There’s still so much buy-in to the Madonna-whore dichotomy culturally, and I’m interested in how we interrogate that. This expectation of docility; how reproductive sex—as opposed to sex for pleasure—seems a whole different beast in the way we regard it (although I don’t know why that still strikes me as faintly absurd because I know we exist in a puritanical society where pleasure for pleasure’s sake isn’t really trusted). Also, I wanted to challenge the idea that only a “good” or “nice” character is deserving of being loved, or getting what she wants. Because, actually, having a baby is both quite democratic and wildly unfair. Women castigated culturally as “bad” mothers can do it and “good” mothers can have fertility problems, and everything in between. No matter how maternal we are, our bodies can betray us. Maybe we cling to these ideas because they give us some sense of control; that if we’re “good,” we’ll get what we deserve. I know Calla does that sort of bargaining [in the book], and I’m familiar with it, too. I’m aware that she’s a difficult character to root for because she does go against our ideas of what a “deserving” mother looks like—there’s drinking and there’s smoking and there’s indiscriminate sex and selfishness—and you know these things are actually not so bad in the larger scheme of things, but for a mother to be these things still does feel like a taboo. And what does that say about us? It’s quite revealing. We can be as modern as we like but we still assign these moral values. When you were a teenager, what books made you feel known and seen? Do these books still matter to you now, or have other books been important to shaping how you think? I think the main one for me was The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter, which was important to me both because of the language and style. It was so eerie, gothic, and lavish—otherworldly whilst also still being part of the world—and because it gave gravity to the experiences and internal life of a fifteen-year-old girl, which at the time (alongside reading mostly the Great Male Writers and plenty not-so-great), I didn’t know was necessarily something that could be the subject of literature. Every couple of years I’ll read a book (like Bluets by Maggie Nelson, or In The Cut by Susanna Moore), which totally cuts through everything I thought I knew and reinforces for me the power of language. How has growing up in Wales influenced the way you see the world? I felt quite isolated growing up, always very eager to get out, but at the same time it was a very special place to grow up (though when I was younger I was very indoors and definitely took this beauty for granted, I just wanted to be inside). The entire coastline of Pembrokeshire, where I’m from, is a National Park. The landscape feeds into my work for sure, most obviously in The Water Cure, which is based on a real beach that I’m familiar with. I’m fascinated with both the beauty and the uncanniness of the natural world. In the places as remote as where I grew up, it’s quite overwhelming, but also quite eerie. You can imagine magical or unreal things taking place. And dangerous things, too. I’m aware that nature can really turn on you; that you never know what rip-tides are underneath a smooth surface. As I got older, and more independent, I started to realize the possibilities of such a landscape; of a kind of freedom, and started to appreciate it more. I was also educated through the medium of Welsh until I was eighteen, so I’m a fluent speaker, and while it’s a cliché to call it musical it just really is a musical language! My school was very big on making us learn Welsh poems and songs. So, I can see how this switching between languages and the emphasis on the lyrical, rhythmic side of it has influenced my writing. I always do entire read-throughs of my work to myself to see how it feels and sounds. Rage, anxiety, and compulsion spill out a lot in Blue Ticket. The characters are not always kind to each other, or themselves, in a universe where it’s hard to know who to trust. I was wondering how you find—or create—healthy ways of channeling these emotions into your writing? I was also interested in the challenges of writing visceral terror or violence in a way that feels familiar (or easy to empathize with) to the reader? When writing visceral emotions I usually start from thinking about it bodily; really slowing it down. This is something I still do now when I feel something uncomfortable. I think about exactly how I’m feeling in my stomach, my limbs. I try to name the feeling, and make time stop. But I don't want to be gratuitous when describing violence, and I think that leaving things unsaid can often be more powerful. I think we often disregard female pain and anger as histrionic or self-indulgent, but it feels important and interesting to me—worth writing and thinking about. Some people will lose patience with Calla making terrible decisions again and again, and the fact that she’s not necessarily repentant about her compulsive or bad behaviour. It’s not all from a place of emptiness—she also just is quite selfish and likes to have a good time without really thinking about the consequences, and also would really like to be a mother, and actually, those things can all coexist. The characters in Blue Ticket are pregnant women essentially competing against each other for resources, unable to really trust anyone, and underneath it they can barely trust themselves, because their bodies are changing and their desires are alien to them. That sense of dislocation was important for me to represent, and the idea that a pregnant woman isn’t necessarily sweetly domestic, but rather could be very ruthless if needed; rageful. There’s an incredible, incidental scene where Calla’s wandering around in the supermarket at her own leisure, and it struck me, as we navigate a global pandemic, how her experience of it challenges the rituals we have—or have lost—now. She says, “The supermarket made me feel safe. Even in childhood I had believed that nothing bad could happen in a place of plenty.” People often think dystopia is the blockbuster film with special effects, complex choreography and a dramatic soundtrack. How do you set out to write against this—or perhaps, point our attention elsewhere? A funny thing is that I wasn’t really setting out to write a dystopia. I didn't with The Water Cure, either, and am not even totally sure I did. I wanted to write a place that wasn’t ours, in which the rules can be different, and that automatically puts you in a dystopia and then sets up many expectations; the world-building. Perhaps my books are more quiet dystopias. Semi-dystopias? They’re always more focused on how someone navigates the world rather than on how that world came to be. The hypothetical bind is the thing. I think many people can identify with that secret fear that you are one sort of person, and you want to be another sort of person but even if you try very hard to change, to be “better” or even just different, you can never really shake that off—that there’s something intrinsic in you, often something shameful or small that you’re afraid of people seeing. It’s kind of a nightmare, that idea that your soul is basically visible, and found lacking somehow. That Calla wants this thing so desperately, and the judgement is that it’s not for her; she hasn’t reached some kind of invisible and arbitrary standard, and never will. That’s before even thinking about all the societal expectations around motherhood, and the fact that we still live in a world where many women lack bodily autonomy. I’m trying to dig into our deepest fears rather than make a political statement. I wanted the world to feel real to us, to be populated with feelings we can understand and set-pieces we recognize, so that when things are off-kilter we feel that jarring somewhere deep inside us, that sense of something being wrong, somewhere. Blue Ticket did start off more explicitly as a horror, actually. I started with the image of a bloodthirsty, cannibalistic pregnant woman tearing people to shreds. And I’m working on a weird historical fiction at the moment, which nobody could ever describe as dystopian, and yet the process of writing historical fiction also feels, to me, embedded in a speculative tradition: “This could have happened, but this happened instead. But what if it happened this way?” I wasn’t expecting Blue Ticket to make me laugh. But it has moments of humour that sneak up on you. There’s a scene in the book where Calla walks around a hotel barefoot, and meets a man at the bar. “I ate them,” she says, when pressed for an explanation about her shoes. Why is humour an ideal coping mechanism in a universe where so many things can go wrong when you’re a woman? Humour can be such a shield. If you laugh at something, you can pretend you’re not bothered by it. For someone like Calla, who doesn’t want to reveal herself and wants to make sure she comes across as cold and ruthless, laughter can be a weapon, too. A way to take people down a notch as well as distancing herself from having to care. She doesn’t have much else except for her sense of self and ability to react to a situation. So, laughter it is. The names women make up for each other in this world out of affection, or to hurt each other, stood out to me: “swamp monster,” “queen ant,” “cold fish.” Why the comparisons, rather than using birth names or initials? I wanted them to develop something like their own intimate, coded language, the way that lovers and friends do. It’s primarily affectionate, but also hurtful when you turn an affectionate name or mechanism of naming around and use it to be negative. Also, I kind of saw it as their feeling an affinity more with the natural world around them, which to them at various points has been terror and salvation, their turning away from the cities and pasts that has saved them. Calla refers to herself as a failed experiment in the book. Her doctor echoes this sentiment at one point: “I thought you had potential,” he says. “Sometimes I made admiring notes.” What advice would you have for writers who are sweating over the details of career trajectories, and perhaps afraid of the future? There are so many ways to be a writer, so many trajectories you could follow, and so many timescales. There’s a lot happening under the surface, but publishing loves a shiny story rather than thinking about the—frankly dull—legwork that goes into creating books. Plus, we all have lives. Things happen to us whether we choose them or not. I've had the luxury of a quiet few years where I wasn’t caring for anyone or moving around a lot or experiencing major tragedy or change, where my primary responsibility has been to pay rent. I had a full-time office job that was interesting and left me with the energy and headspace to create things. I didn't feel lucky for all this at the time because I was too busy comparing myself with other writers who were living much more successful and glamorous-seeming lives with not a water-cooler and commute in sight. But I really, really do feel lucky now (especially now). Give yourself a break, basically. Because it’s easy to look at biographies and think: Oh, this person went to this prestigious university, and then gained this prestigious MFA right after, and all the while was being published widely, and of course their first novel was snapped up for a giant advance at the age of twenty-three, or whatever. To think that’s the trajectory for everybody, and if you’re not on that trajectory yourself, that you’re failing already... That wasn't my trajectory by any means (I got rejected from every MFA I applied to and wasn't widely published), and it's not the trajectory for so many writers. I can understand being afraid of the future, especially now, because everything feels different; everything feels so up in the air. Talking about trajectories almost feels odd, because what is a trajectory now? How do we move forward and what will the systems we're familiar with look like? So, I think it's more important than ever to concentrate on your own writing journey, however you're able and whatever that looks like for you, rather than try and keep yourself on some arbitrary path or timescale. It might look different to what you expected, but it's yours. Write what nourishes you and what speaks to you in this weird, strange time. Write and don't be scared to write or feel that it's pointless, because I don't ever see a time where we won't need books, where we won’t need to see our world refigured and reflected, to know we’re not alone.
The author of Exciting Times on spreading goodwill, navigating and honouring difference, and the lie of meritocracy.
Naoise Dolan’s debut novel, Exciting Times (HarperCollins), follows twenty-two-year-old Ava as she leaves Ireland for the first time for a teaching job in Hong Kong. It’s a story about taking a not-quite gap year to see what else is out there, and how much money you can make in circumstances different to the ones you grew up in. But it’s also a story about class, gender, sexuality, language, and the danger of the space between how we see ourselves and how others see us. This is Ava’s story, but other people’s feelings and pride are at stake, too. There’s Julian, a British banker, coolly self-aware of his privileges yet non-committal about the arrangement he seems to be in with Ava (living together, sleeping together, a “let me know if you need anything” attitude towards cash and credit cards). And Edith—a twenty-two-year-old Hong Kong local, unapologetically earnest, a lawyer with a “churchy” accent who’d studied abroad in the UK. Both form an unlikely love triangle with Ava who is hungry for connection and belonging as she figures out who she is away from home. The novel hums with the intermingling thoughts of people wanting to be understood, avoiding, oversharing, reading and misreading each other: through drafted text messages that accidentally get sent; international phone calls; thoughts that don’t get verbalized, and things said out loud that should’ve remained a thought. It’s also a story about anticipation: how your whole life can change depending on the people you choose to have—and keep—around. I spoke to Naoise Dolan in the lead-up to the North American release of Exciting Times, in the midst of a global pandemic. Nathania Gilson: I remember how you’d mentioned last year that apologising wasn’t just something women did, but an inherently Irish thing, too—I was wondering if you ever thought about this as you were writing out Ava’s thoughts? There’s a bit in the novel where she says her favourite conversations are the ones where she says precisely what she thinks. I’m wondering how the character of Ava was a way of challenging what we think is difficult to change about ourselves? Naoise Dolan: I think there’s often a flattening honesty to how Irish people see ourselves. We keep everything in proportion, including our own egos. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad quality, although it can cause mild culture shock when we’re communicating internationally. The appropriate Irish response to a compliment is to give someone else the credit or to otherwise deflect it—and I find people from more individualistic countries tend to interpret that as us talking ourselves down, when it’s more that you don’t want to be singled out. You want to spread the goodwill. That said, I wasn’t seeking to claim anything general about being Irish, or even about being a person, in writing Exciting Times. I prefer to show individual characters doing whatever makes sense for them, and then let readers decide if it’s an experience they share. Ava is quite bald in her self-assessments—she’s often wrong, sometimes wildly so, but there’s an attempted honesty in her head that doesn’t come through in her conversations. I don’t think I was attempting to “challenge” that disjuncture between internal and external expression, in that I don’t know if the novel really takes a position on it. But nobody verbalises all their thoughts, so I guess that’s why Ava doesn’t. What Irish writers or poets did you read growing up that you think anyone on the other side of the world should know about? I loved Oscar Wilde when I was a kid, on the off chance his reputation needs my signal boost. Marita Conlon-McKenna wrote children’s books about the Irish Famine that grabbed my imagination for several months. I became obsessed with the Famine off the back of those novels, so much so that I then read Joseph O’Connor’s historical novel Star of the Sea, which also taught me about syphilis and incest at probably too tender an age. Emma Donoghue was pivotal in letting teenage me know that there was a place for Irish LGBT women in books. I don’t know if it’s available in translation, but I also think Máiréad Ní Ghráda’s Irish-language play An Triail is a great text for anyone who’s interested in Ireland’s history of reproductive injustice and misogyny. We studied An Triail in school, and I’ve never read anything in English that I’ve found as powerful on those issues. How did your experiences at Trinity College shape you as a writer? I don’t know if they did! I think to answer that question I’d need a clear sense of who I am as “a writer,” which is still a concept I’m confused by—like, does that category concern itself with my internal psychology and identity, or is it purely about the empirical work I produce? If it’s about the work itself then Trinity didn’t shape my writing at all, because none of my current published work was written there, none of it is set there, and so on. But to the extent that me “as a writer” is about me as an individual, or about where I initially developed various themes and concerns that perhaps later emerged in my writing—I can’t say if doing something else at that age would have made me a different person, or if I would have wound up the way I am regardless of whether I’d gone to Trinity. Like anyone just out of school, I had a lot of growing up to do; so, in that sense, Trinity was formative. But I’ve always liked books and I’ve always liked people, so I can’t imagine a version of myself who could have done something else without encountering books and people that would have shaped me. I was thinking about one of your recent tweets: Sometimes I’m writing something and then suddenly go: ‘am I making these characters male so they can have serious ideas about the world without people assuming I’m trying to parody them?’ As a reader, who do you think historically has gotten to have serious ideas about the world? As a writer, how do you navigate who gets to be taken seriously, and take up space in a story? When I have my characters express thoughts about the world, it’s most often because I think that having ideas is a major part of being human, and therefore a major part of convincingly portraying humans in fiction. I’d find it unconvincing if a character only thought about politics and philosophy, and never considered how to tie their shoes or what to have for breakfast; but I’d find it just as one-dimensional to write characters who never considered broader questions. There aren’t many overt big-ideas conversations in my fiction; it tends to be scattergun hints about how the characters approach things, because that’s the reality of it for me. I don’t voicenote my friends with: “Capitalism, good or bad?,” but my stance will surface as we discuss more immediate matters. Yet I think when novels put women on those planes of thought, people are likelier to assume that the author is using those characters to voice their own opinions, or that they’re trying to make fun of them. Maybe it’s just dialogue, you know? Maybe it’s just texture. Many of my characters’ thoughts are glib or underdeveloped, as are most of the soundbites I come out with in conversation. It’s just character development. It’s also possible, indeed commendable, to think about things without immediately forming an opinion—but I’ve yet to master that approach myself, so I’m loath to grant all my characters a level of intellectual restraint that I lack. I loved in Exciting Times how characters are often the beneficiaries of—and sometimes to blame for—perfectly exacting commentary on each other’s flaws. For example, when Ava says how Julian sees beyond her exterior sparkle to the interior layer of her that only clever people see. And when Edith tells Ava, “I think you want to feel special—which is fair, who doesn’t—but you won’t allow yourself to feel special in a good way, so you tell yourself you’re especially bad.” There’s that double bind of being able to learn about how people see you but also being confronted with something you didn’t notice on your own. I was wondering how you dealt with writing for—or against—this being interpreted as a coming of age novel, not just a romance or love triangle? Yeah, I think we—or certainly, I—want to feel we’re getting the most honest version of how other people see us. When we learn that someone has deceived us, it’s jarring not only because of the deceit itself, but because it suggests that other people might be harbouring perceptions of us that would crush us if we knew. “Please be honest with me” is often actually a request to lie extravagantly, and I think Ava definitely falls prey to that tendency. I wasn’t really concerned with how people would interpret the novel when I wrote it, though. I don’t think there are any categories of fiction that it’s inherently good or bad to belong to. I would find it annoying if people judged Exciting Times by whether it worked as a crime thriller or a Mills & Boon, but only because it would be a dreadful novel by those criteria and it stands a better chance of succeeding on other metrics. I’d never accept it if another author tried to make me apply a particular critical approach to their novel, so I think I have to allow other readers the same freedom with mine. Money—making your own, being controlled by how much other people have of it, the fear of not having any, borrowing some, gifting it, chasing it, subsidising it, not knowing what to do with it—has a big presence in the novel. Sometimes it comes up in a literal sense: a borrowed credit card to pay for drinks; other times, it’s more cultural capital, for example, profiting from listening to other people and collecting the things they tell you for later use. In the writing of this novel, did you discover if there is a normal relationship to have with money? Definitely not! I don’t think it’s normal to have a world where survival is tethered to whether billionaires need our labour. No normal relationship with money can flow from that basic setup. We can perhaps have normal relationships with money in the sense of “accustomed” relationships with it, or “unthinking” relationships with it; but I don’t think I’ll ever really get used to the fundamental weirdness of private property. I don’t really know what it’s like to feel normal in general, though. I’m not sure whether everyone feels as permanently alien as I do, or if that’s an especially autistic or queer experience—but in any event, the prospect of feeling ‘normal’ about anything seems so distant to me that I’m not sure I’d ever use fiction to reach towards that sensibility. I think I’m more interested in exploring ways of navigating and honouring difference while still being in the world with other people. I loved how much Ava noticed things about language—how she enjoys parsing through it; noticing accents; picking up on odd phrases (as Ava points out: real people talk, they don’t "touch base"). How much of this was driven by wanting to reveal the benefits of holding an outsider status, and how much of it was about demonstrating the lure of being an insider; part of the club; the in-joke; the big secret? I think the impact of that material really depends on the reader. For me, I enjoy learning about Irish English because it’s cathartic to understand why the English I read in books was often quite different to the English I heard around me as a child; why I alter my speech when I’m not in Ireland, and so on. It feels like an outsider lens to me because it’s taking a step back to analyze what normally comes to me as a lived experience. For a non-Irish person, though, the information about Irish English in Exciting Times might hold “part of the club” appeal—the sense of getting closer to something that they hadn’t known about previously. Language is tethered to social norms, so I also think it’s difficult to discuss phraseology without at least implicitly dealing with the unspoken aspects of how we relate to one another. There again, insider versus outsider appeal will depend on the reader. I tend to feel like I’m getting closer to social norms when I examine them; but if your instincts are better than mine, then that same analysis might feel more like taking a step back. This novel is set in 2018, before the constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland was removed. What does writing in the near-past, rather than the right now, or near future, allow you to do as a writer? Well, most novels are likelier than not to be about the near-past by the time they reach readers; I finished the first draft of Exciting Times in early 2017, and I think the time-lag between then and its 2020 publication is fairly typical. I couldn’t have set the novel much later than I did at the time. I suppose I could have edited it after Ireland repealed the abortion ban, but I don’t know if doing that would have hugely altered Ava’s consciousness; I think the scar of that law will always be there for anyone who grew up under it. I don’t know if I’d ever deliberately set something in the near-past when I began writing it. It’s likelier, going forward, that I’ll keep giving my characters whatever political consciousness I think they would realistically have; and if the world changes after I’ve finished whatever I’m writing, then I’ll happily think of it as reflecting a now-altered set of conditions. And it’s worth noting that awareness fluctuates—Ava doesn’t think about the level of abortion access in Hong Kong, for instance, because financial barriers become far less of a concern for her there. Omissions are just as telling as inclusions. If I’d written an Irish narrator who hadn’t been thinking about abortion in Ireland, then that would have told us that they had the level of access to money in Ireland that Ava comes to have in Hong Kong. Having Ava never think about abortion in Ireland in 2016-17 would have “set” the novel, and “set” her character, just as much as having her consider it. As a reader who lives on the other side of the world—and isn’t Irish, or English—but has lived abroad as an expat, what stayed with me after reading the novel was the struggle of making sense of who you are, when who you are might not be seen as useful, appreciated, or good. Ava says, "The English taught us English to teach us they were right.” How is novel writing a way to claim who you are, or challenge how much identity should dictate our creative work? Writing novels is, in the immediate, a way for me to stop thinking about myself and do other things that I find more pleasant. Sometimes that’s creating or analyzing a character, sometimes it’s reaching for the best adjective to describe a chair, sometimes it’s deciding whether to end a scene or stretch it out a little bit longer … All those decisions are enjoyable for me because they take me out of my immediate circumstances and into a place where I can have a bit more fun. But when you actually publish a novel, you’re constantly asked about yourself, and people often seek to make connections between you and that novel. There’s no universal identity, so considering the particularities of an author’s circumstances can be illuminating, particularly if they would otherwise be assigned an incorrect label; I’m open about being queer and autistic mainly because I know that many people would otherwise assume that I’m straight and allistic. So, I think ultimately, people are free to make whatever connections they wish between my identity and my work—but I don’t like being asked about it, largely because I would rather talk about things besides myself in general. I’m reading a book about pre-Raphaelite art at the moment, and I find that topic considerably more engaging. You mentioned in the acknowledgements of your novel that everyone deserves to write books if they want to. What advice would you have for someone who might not have the odds in their favor? I’d say focus on whatever’s within your control. There are countless inequalities dictating whether, or when, the literary establishment recognizes and rewards writers. Before it even gets to that point, there are manifold barriers to carving out enough time and energy to finish a novel in the first place. But to whatever degree you’re able to muster the time and energy, it’s within your power to keep your head down and work on something you love. Meritocracy is a lie in terms of eternal reception; but privately, on your own terms, you can produce something brilliant, even if it’s a paragraph a day. That’s not to excuse the unfairness of who gets published and who doesn’t. We absolutely need to stay angry about that, and use that anger to reform the industry. But that’s how I’d advise aspiring novelists to proceed: paragraph by paragraph.
Talking to the author of Strange Hotel about the tolerance and patience of readers, writing “difficult” books, and the urgency that comes with age.
Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, and its follow up, The Lesser Bohemians, were dazzling reminders to the mainstream anglophone literary scene that fiction could still be a language event. Innovative and uncompromising Bildungsromane tracing the formative, furtive, often brutal experiences of their young female protagonists, both books were distinguished above all by the shattering linguistic inventiveness of their first-person voices. McBride’s prose was protean, agitated, and exquisitely receptive, intent on barrelling past mere communication toward a state of total visceral embodiment. Here were sentences and sentence-fragments that seemed wired into the very nerve-ends of their protagonists, capable of registering their every minute physical and emotional perturbation. Strange Hotel (McClelland & Stewart), by contrast, is written in the third person rather than the first, in sentences that, while still rich with McBridean obliquity and a forensic attentiveness to the subtle, incessant fluctuations of the senses and the mind, nonetheless more closely approach conventional syntactic units. But even a more traditionally shaped McBride sentence is rife with inimitable turns of phrase and is still intent on interrogating to the limit what can be registered and expressed in language. If the self is sui generis, requiring, as in McBride’s first two novels, the total breaking apart of language in order to remake language in the self’s own singular image, what does that mean for a self that remains within the boundaries of what might be called conventional expression? Is that self seeking expression, an image of itself, at all? Does it want to be seen? And if not, why not? That self, the protagonist of Strange Hotel, is a woman with a name we do not know and about whom, in many respects, we get to know very little. What we do know is that she is approaching middle age, and that whatever her occupation is—several passages in the book emphasize it has something to do with language—it requires her to travel extensively. A list of cities transitions the reader from one scene to the next. Each scene takes place in another hotel room in another city. The present tense action consists of little more than the woman ordering wine from room service, idly considering if the drop from the balcony would be sufficient to kill her, or watching the sleeping back of a one night stand; what preoccupies her is her past, and the distance, geographically as well as temporally, she might achieve from it in the purposeful anonymity of these hotel rooms. There is something she wants to forget, or more precisely, not remember: "… allowing memory, or any of its variables, admittance is invariably a mistake. Nonetheless, and even knowing that much, time makes a ladder of her anyway." This interview was conducted via phone call in early June. * Colin Barrett: In the opening scene of Strange Hotel, a woman walks into a hotel room in Avignon and suddenly realizes she has been here before. This mundane cosmic coincidence opens a rich seam of memory in her. As she tries to recall the particulars of her previous stay, we come to realize that she is trying to keep other memories at bay, and that she is trying to achieve that by being hyper-focused on the present. As the book proceeds, we see her traverse an endless chain of hotel rooms. Did this premise come first, or did it emerge out of your sense of this particular character, who is capable of elaborating at length on certain things, but being scrupulously reticent about others? Can you even make a distinction between the premise and the characters on one hand, and the writing style on the other? Eimear McBride: I find it quite hard to separate them out. Writing is a complete process of discovery beginning to end. I don’t arrive with the plot ready, or the characters, or the style in which I want to write. It all emerges in a sort of rush and mess together, and it’s my job to pick my way through it and make sense of it. Strange Hotel originally started as a short story, which is unusual for me because I’m really not a short story writer, and clearly, I’m still not a short story writer [laughs]. At the beginning I felt there was a gain in going against what I’d written in the past, and so rather than use fractured perspective, narrative, and syntax to bring the character closer to the reader, I wanted to use language in a really different way. I wanted to write about someone using language as a means of creating distance, not only with the reader but within themselves. It was fun being contrary about that because there had been some criticism of how opaque my other books were, how difficult they were. So it was fun to use really formal, correct, linear sentences, where everything was correctly punctuated, in order to show how even straightforward language doesn’t actually aid communication. I’d written two books about much younger women and I felt the language they were written in really conveyed urgency, that experience of life when you’re young, the almost overwhelming nature of it. In this book the protagonist is someone who is not very inclined to be overwhelmed, who wants to keep her distance, who doesn’t want to be very close to her memories or her pain or to the people around her. Somebody who is going to be much older. And so I realised early on I would be writing about a middle aged woman instead of a young woman. Even though the book is written in the third person, and the reader sees the woman from “outside” herself, there is still, by conventional standards, a paucity of expositional detail about who she is and what her backstory is, to use an industry term. We don’t know her name, why she is in any of the places she is in, etc. Holding back that information while writing in the third person presents its own challenges. What was it that compelled you to make the decision to write this way? I thought, “I’ll have a go.” Of course it’s not proper third person at all, it’s close third. The reader is allowed into her thought process as it’s going along, which is why there is no explanation, why she is thinking the things she’s thinking, and you just have to pick up what the details are, what the backstory is, in the way that you do when you think about your life, when you think about something that happened. You don’t think about the things that led up to it, that’s not how the thought process works. In a way we take lots for granted, our understanding of ourselves. So part of the challenge was to make sure there was enough there to suggest to the reader the bigger picture, but at the same time not succumb to that convention of the character looking in the mirror, describing how they look, etc. That makes sense. I mean, when we are experiencing our memories, thinking about our past, we don’t do so in an ordered, detailed sequence, the way it tends to be delivered in stories. Another trait of the character, and the writing itself, is the heightened attention, the granular focus, she gives to even the completely mundane and generic fixtures in and around the various hotels she’s staying in, the way the light falls on a hallway wall through the slats on the windows, the difference in textures between the filters of British versus European cigarettes stubbed out in the sand on the beach… She does not prioritize deep thoughts. She is not interested in cultivating great moments of revelation, or thinking about works of art or anything profound. What I was interested in is the diplomatic thing the eye does when it falls on anything, it gives the thing the attention it wants to give it, rather than the attention that thing might or might not deserve. Character is the thing I’m most interested in, and how language serves that. In this case, there is a character who is not interested in feeling. At the moment I’m feeling exhausted by how much feeling everyone is having all the time, and how much shouting there is going on, on the internet, etc. Everyone is expressing everything all the time. It was a relief to write about a character who wasn’t interested in making sure everyone knew how she felt. She is someone who is really, really quite preoccupied with not being at the mercy of her emotions. So it was really about writing a book that was about thinking about feeling, rather than feeling itself. The book does definitely have a plot, and she definitely does have a backstory, but her history is revealed in brief, allusive glimpses rather than in chunks of direct exposition. You said you think of character first; in relation to the reader did you agonize over that stuff, about how explicit you should be in fleshing out the character? Did you always know what the key points of her past were, or did it surprise you as you were writing it? It did surprise me. It’s something I always thinks about in the second draft more than the first draft. You can’t just write what you’re writing, you have to be a writer. You are aware of wanting to be read, and while you don’t cater to what you think the reader’s expectations will be, at the same time you have to acknowledge that you are not really writing it to put it in the drawer. You have to give enough to the reader to allow them to make the picture for themselves. But it is very hard to assess that, the writer’s instinct has to try and gauge that, and you can’t know whether you’ve gauged it correctly or not until it’s published and people read it. They understand or they don’t understand. But I think it’s an impossible thing to plan for. I do think that readers are far more tolerant and patient than they are given credit for, and all the faff to get Girl published and all the publishers who thought no one would ever read a book like that, it was proved that that was not the case. There are plenty of readers willing to have a go. It’s not that they necessarily love it or want to read lots of books like that, but they enjoy being obliged to engage with writing in a different sort of way, not just the usual, “Here’s the story, here’s the characters, here’s what happened, the end.” I think there are readers for whom process is enough. It’s not about the big finish. Readers are interested in character. It’s the endless fight isn’t it, the pushing, pushing, pushing, the prioritisation of plot above all else, but there are plenty of readers for whom that is not the be-all and end-all of the reading experience. It’s okay for some books not to have to engage readers in that way, although you’d think from the reaction of the critical press it was the most terrible thing you can do to a reader, expect them to pay attention to a book. That interests me. And I hope there’s enough weirdos out there like me, who are also interested in that! I wanted to ask about the treatment of time. It’s a short book, it traverses huge expanses of time and space, taking place all over the world and over a number of years. Yet each scene takes place in a kind of cool, dead, parenthetical interval, where on the surface nothing much is happening. Things have happened to the character, but each time we see her she is stuck in the present, in nowhere, a kind of nowhere time. When you’re younger, you don’t think about time, and when you’re older things become more urgent. Things feel like they have already slipped by, things have been missed, and I suppose in the midst of the travelling and the hotel rooms there is the idea that wherever you go and however freeing the anonymity is, there is, ultimately, no escape from the self—your self—that is continuing to move through time whether you want it to or not. She really would prefer time not be moving on, not because she doesn’t want to be older, not because she wants to be a young woman again, but because, as becomes clear, she feels that everything that is going to happen has happened. She is seeking a kind of stasis. What she can control is her interactions with other people and so she is seeking to stop the possibility of all that, of future intimacy and closeness. She wants to stop time within herself in a bid to hold herself close to the time that was once meaningful. She’s stuck. She does not want to move on, but also is trying to barricade herself psychically against the encroachment of her own past. She seems to be pursuing the idea that she can will herself into anonymity, disintegrate her personality, allow it to take on new shapes, or no shape at all. But the more she tries to do exactly that, the more she seems to loop back to her foundational concerns, to the matrix of her personality… I think she wishes she could do that. She is able to dissolve herself to a degree, but continuously returns to this very firm sense of herself. That sense of self doesn’t necessarily follow, or isn’t expressed, in all the usual markers of identity, like family, job, financial status, but it’s still there, this fundamental knowledge that she cannot escape, even though she wishes to. I don’t think of the self as being amorphous. While there are all these markers of identity that we display as emblems of self, beyond all that there is a harder, darker, colder bit, right at our centre. A bit that maybe we find harder to live with, but it is the bit that counts, that never changes, that never becomes anything else and which is quite hard to deal with. Lastly, the book got me thinking about hotels. In the book they function as as these sort temporal waystations, outside of time almost, where the protagonists can think about time, her own experiences in time. And above being either luxuries or expediencies, that’s what hotels are, these interstitial spaces that operate by their own logic of time, outside of ordinary time. Wherever you go a hotel operates on hotel time, and you really begin to feel it if you stay in one for more than a handful of nights. You can go get a drink, or have a swim or whatever if there’s a pool, but it’s all preset, on a loop… it gets weird after a time. A hotel is a place you go to wait. You are waiting for a thing to happen, or you are waiting to leave. Eventually, you realize that it’s just you in a space, and there’s nothing else. You don’t have to go cook the dinner, or help with homework, or walk the dog, there’s nothing to distract you. You are a body floating in space, in this anonymous space, just being yourself, and either engaging with that self or trying not to engage with yourself. You don’t have to do anything, that’s the rationale behind a hotel, you don’t have to do anything. I don’t know how comfortable most people are with that... Maybe you should have to make your own bed when you arrive! It would be something to do. Well, that would invest you in some way, into the experience of the room. You realize there’s a whole machinery working around you; of people that are invested in their jobs, in their relations with their co-workers, the welfare of the guests, but you—the guest—are not part of that. You are outside of all that. You are the reason everyone is there. But you yourself, you have no reason.