Talking to the author of Victoria Sees It about books as mirrors, institutional violence in the academy, and misanthropy.
A very Russian turn of events: no solutions, but the trouble passes—so why bring it up?
Talking to the author of Victoria Sees It about books as mirrors, institutional violence in the academy, and misanthropy.
Deb sees the world as Victoria sees it. Then, one day, in the middle of the Cambridge academic term, Deb is gone—as though she never existed at all. Victoria Sees It (Strange Light) is the debut novel from Carrie Jenkins, whose previous and ongoing scholarly work (she is Canada Research Chair in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia) wrestles with love, relationships, and the systems whose gravities shape and deform these bonds. Turning the lenses of this formidable apparatus to fiction, Jenkins now casts an experienced, jaundiced eye upon how harrowing a horror academia can be for any young person—particularly for a woman whom the institution’s exploitative logics have deemed is both sufficiently attractive, and sufficiently vulnerable, to fall within the field of its predations. The novel follows Victoria’s isolated childhood into her friendship (and perhaps tender first love) with fellow college student Deb—only to wrench that rare and delicate connection away, apparently without explanation. The lady vanishes, and our scholar-detective is left to sift a proliferating, senseless collection of clues—glittering baubles and sinister graffiti littering campus, ancient codices and useless secret societies for the idle rich, a helpful police-officer-turned-love-interest, lubriciously assiduous professors—that cannot seem to be made to cohere into any reasonable whole. It is an audacious, unsettling book, culminating in a series of dark twists that ratchet its initial intrigue towards a neo-gothic crescendo of madness and paranoia, as Victoria struggles to orient and assemble meaning while captive in a world whose categories and coordinates have been rendered deliberately unfair and malevolently confused. There is, Jenkins suggests, more than one way for women (especially poor, queer women) to be made to disappear. Anthony Oliveira: Thanks so much for chatting with me, and for this book. I think I am firstly curious about how you would you describe its project—how do you see it? Carrie Jenkins: Well, I think it's a psychological thriller, though it took me a while to arrive at that. [laughs] Thematically it’s concerned with isolation and mental health, and the gendered aspects of both of those things. It's concerned with academia and power. And it's trying to do all this in a way that's quite intimate and humanizing. I really wanted Victoria to be able to speak to us directly, and to as it were trap people in her head with her, so that we get a perspective on the things that she struggles with, including mental health. And other people's conceptions of that, and the isolation that results when those conceptions do not work. I wanted her to speak from her real experiences of those things, and humanize them. A lot of writing about mental health fails to give us the first-person perspective; we have a lot of third-personal, diagnostic, medicalized, language, which can be useful in certain contexts, but there is something that is really missed by the wayside, which is the humanity of living in a world where you and/or it don't quite line up with expectation. What, to your mind, were the seeds of this project? Or maybe another way: at one point, you say “Books are just mirrors.” What is this book mirroring? The first sentence, not the prologue, but the first sentence of the main book, “My mother stopped talking when I was born,” was there very early on, in the first pass of the first drafts. That was the origin, in my head, of Victoria's voice. A lot of what followed from there was just me figuring out why—what does that mean, what is that sentence tapping? This is one of my first attempts at writing fiction at all, and it began with that sentence and Victoria's voice. I wanted to consider this idea of cyclical progress, or lack of progress—things changing but still staying the same. I return endlessly to this theme of something shifting or changing—perhaps generationally, or over time, only to discover that it hasn't really shifted at all. And passing this broken cycle on to the next generation. The way that I ended up writing Victoria, the protagonist… her life is following my life around, to a large extent. So there are a lot of twisted mirrors of places and situations that I've been in or been familiar with, that she then goes into and now has to deal with. Fairly early on I started trying to lean into trusting my subconscious or semi-conscious processes to come up with something that was, in many cases, sort of reality-adjacent. And I ended up with this twisted, semi-digested, semi-conscious horror, this grotesque version of my reality or real situations, like a funhouse mirror. I feel like Victoria, in a number of ways, is a case of but for the grace of fate or whatever, go I—she is in really bad situations that I, very easily, could have ended up in. This book is full of the mirrors of my world and my reality as I've understood it, or as I understand it. The obvious proximity to your own life—the specificity of sight and smell, is very present and striking in the book, even without flipping the cover to compare Victoria’s journey to your own bio. Was that hard? Deciding how much of your life to let seep in, when the character’s biography is so close to your own? It is a weird experience because partly it made things so much easier to just let Victoria follow me around, but it is funny how the memory betrays you—my copy editor found many moments where, for example, a specific song wasn’t released that year, etc. Which was itself interesting, but it was always intentional that Victoria does a lot of the things that I have done, but is not me. From the first sentence, “my mother stopped talking when I was born,” that's not true of me. My mother didn't stop talking when I was born. It became about just letting these, these things, twist, twist themselves, and then land where they wanted to land. Victoria is me—and of course she isn't. This text is so much about institutional violence, and I wanted to ask specifically about the book’s interest and horror at the violence of academia. What is this book saying about the sort of insidious and ancient evil of the academy? That agelessness, specifically, seems to obtain when you talk about Cambridge especially—these august and enduring edifices… It is so strange—right, because that's where a lot of their power comes from—that sense that these forces have been there, for all intents and purposes, forever, without possibility of changing. This is one of those cyclical things, the book’s themes constantly feeling like, oh, this time academia has solved its problems, and now there is no more racism and sexism and colonialism. And of course, that's never what's actually happened; these cycles of apparent progress enter a retrograde phase, and those trapped in them wonder whether you're really going in a straight line, or just round and round in circles. I think everyone who has been in an academic department meeting knows that feeling: that it's just a dance, you just go around, around the steps. And there's very little sense of possibility of ever breaking out of that. I really had the sense, when I was 18 years old—very bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and naively optimistic—I really did believe some of the we've sorted out some of the problems in academia now, and it’s going to be much better. We were supposed to be inheriting a much better academic institution, but… You have a scene in which a senior female scholar dismisses a very urgent concern from a student and then turns around and gives a lecture about how things are not as sexist as they used to be… Yeah, and there is probably some truth in that too, right, because she is probably in her mind comparing it to something much more explicit—literally being told you cannot be here, the kind of overt sexual harassment in front of everybody that is relatively rare now, thank goodness, although not completely eliminated. But you didn’t solve the problem, you didn't know to look below the surface and understand the swirling undercurrents of it, and how those go around in circles, even though it looks like the river is flowing. You didn’t consider how you can get caught up and sucked under. As much as the academy emerges as this crushing force in your book, the literary canon does too. There is a horror on the part of Victoria, who is constantly quoting and footnoting the canonical—usually male but not always male—writers and actually complains at various moments that she can't stop doing that. Right, and it's not entirely academic stuff, because there's also quite a bit of pop culture too, but yes, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes… it is a lot of figures, I think, of the hyper-rational. I don’t know—I’m just the author—but I feel like one of Victoria's obsessions, one of the things she struggles with, is understanding how to manage emotionally within her world. And so she uses “hyper-rational” thinking as a form of anesthetic, sometimes, and the canon provides for that very readily: it provides lots of logic puzzles, and problems that you can get completely lost in if you want to write without thinking too much about the actual world and its problems. So there can be this avoidance tactic. To a large extent, academia can do this, writ large, with the world's problems, but also individuals can do this with their own lives—you can send yourself down a rabbit hole of academic inquiry in order to avoid looking at something you really don't want to look at. I think Victoria does some of that, and I think that the canon of academic philosophy lends itself to her as a mode of doing that. A lot of her choices speak to that same inclination: to just wrap yourself up in the intellectual life. One of the figures you use throughout as the model of how that isn't going to work is Isaac Newton—there's the version of you that wants to pursue the rational and that wants to pursue the science, but who is compelled simultaneously compelled to pursue something that exceeds the rational, that reaches beyond it, and is in some ways destroyed by it too. Absolutely, yes—I’m absolutely personally obsessed with Isaac Newton. He does represent that kind of sanitizing in the rational, in the scientific, to the detriment of the attempt to find something that is actually better or beyond that. But also was at peace with that irreconcilability; he thought the search for these mystical, magical things was just part of understanding the universe, understanding creation. It was all one project for him. I’m fascinated by that. There are a whole bunch of Easter eggs in Victoria Sees It, and lots of them have to do with what look like complete sets that are actually missing a piece, or sequences that actually the repeat, but then get thrown off the cycle in some way. I don’t know if this counts as a spoiler or not… [laughs] I think you're the one who decides that… So Victoria goes searching for her missing friend, and she goes to four different locations which are symbolic of four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. And does not find what she's looking for in any of them, and this fifth element of the missing piece of the puzzle keeps haunting her. One of the things I'm wrestling with in the book, wrestling with rather than trying to say, but specifically wrestling with is that question of the fifth piece. Is it real? Is it something we could actually find? Is it something that we've written out of the history, because it wasn't tidy enough to be squared away with the other four? And if that is something we're doing because we're scared of what it would be if we saw it, if we found it, if we acknowledged it—and what kind of shape would the search for it take? These are the things that troubled me, and which found their way into various thematic structuring principles of the book that are not supposed to be highly visible in the final version. They're more like the process left behind, as a residue. When you mention edited texts and sanitized versions of biographies and missing pieces (as with, for example, Newton), my mind turns to your book’s queer themes. We see your protagonist react almost physically when the word “lesbian” drops, for example. I just wanted to ask how you think the queerness of the text hooks into that larger theme of the missing and unspoken, or how much you were thinking about that as like a major motif in the piece. As I say, I'm just the author, and I don't really claim authority on how important it is as a theme, but as I was writing it, it was really just how it is, this is what and how that character is. But I think it also helped to flag more of the toxicities, and the unspoken parts of what was going wrong. When the word “lesbian” comes out for Victoria, for example—the only time she's heard that word is kids being bullied at school. That was just a term you would call someone when you're putting them through a kind of social death. So she's never really had to come to grips with the possibility that that's a word that applies to her for real and it's not a slur. And that there's parts of her, her relationship with her friend before the friend goes missing, that are clearly suggestive of a bond that could be queer, but she hasn't been given tools for thinking about that as an option. And it really literally takes a woman coming up to her, and very explicitly saying, I'm asking you on a date now, for the penny to drop. And as I was working with the book I realized that it gave me useful material for revealing some more of the ways in which this stuff is pretty toxic—the gendered, sexist, misogynistic aspects of the character’s world come through much more explicitly. With the character’s queerness, it becomes almost about the silence around it. That's the clue, and the fact that she doesn’t talk about it, and that she can't even really hear the word lesbian without viscerally flinching. The institutional oppression is almost secondary in that case; it becomes a function of hetero-normative patriarchy writ large. When you look back on it is, was this a detective story? Was this a ghost story? It is so much about hauntings, but also so insistent on finding its way through to the rational. What, when you look at it, what was this book about? It is funny but honestly, the kind of book that I like to read is not very much like this one. But there is a kind of book where I don't exactly like to read it, but I do feel this immense sense of relief when I get to the end of a book and I feel like, oh, somebody else gets it as well. And so I hope it's one of those books where—and I don't think this will be a universal feeling—but where the right people, when they read it, and get to the end, will think, oh, someone else notices this stuff, oh, it's not just me, which is kind of like the relief I get from reading Kafka or something like that. I have to say, my experience with academia was not dissimilar to Victoria’s and perhaps yours, and there were many moments in reading in which I thought, oh my god, I have had these exact thoughts, I have seen this exact scene, I have witnessed and had this breakdown. I think that’s sort of everybody's autobiography that's been through that particular wringer, through this process of what I think is really fundamentally a pretty toxic institution. These are funhouse mirrors that you don't really have to twist very much to get to their horror story. But I think it also speaks to people who have not been in that situation: to shine a bit of a light on some of this stuff that happens in usually quite closed rooms, and behind closed doors. Some of the ways that academia is abusive and toxic tend to be pretty hidden, and I'm not sure how much awareness there is of the intricacies of how it functions. Your refrain throughout is why is no one noticing that this is happening—there is a way that these institutions, the operations of this whole universe of power mobilize to gaslight you, to leave you wondering: how is this happening to me and why am I being made to feel like the mad one. Yes, towards the end of the book these themes of madness erupt: how to deal with yet another imposition of the institution and environment and labels related to Victoria’s state of mental health, and none of the categories are healthy ones for her at all. I feel very bad for her because she does go through a particularly useless set of mental health professionals; it is possible to imagine very good ones who might actually have been able to help her, but she doesn't meet them and that is unfortunate, but it happens to people—happens to a lot of people. And so, all of the categories that she's offered just do violence to her; they don't support her, they don't help her to understand herself or anything else. And this only leads to further, and more lastingly permanent, isolation. The universe that Victoria has to live in is very unstable—for her, even basic elements of reality are not really very well-defined, and they seem to be liable to change at any minute. There is a moment where Victoria says “I am not a misanthrope.” Is this a misanthropic book—is that distinction important to you? Well, it's not… this is not the view of, like, someone who's a huge fan of humanity. Victoria has got this kind of detached thing going on—she says, and I think she means this, “I didn't have any friends in school, but it’s not like there was something there that I wanted or that I didn't have.” It sounds bad but she didn't actually want that. When she zooms out, she's able to appreciate some of humanity's achievements, but up close everything gets twisted and messed up once you get into the details of how life actually plays out. And I think there's a feeling throughout of constantly zooming in and out, missing the bigger picture or missing the details or not being able to reconcile the very large and the very small. To her, somewhere in between all of these bits, something is wrong, is missing, with humanity and the universe that it is creating for itself. “Misanthrope” isn’t quite right, but she ends up with this very detached perspective, which I think is probably closer to the book’s own worldview. This is not a book that is enthusiastic about humanity.
The author of Last Call on writing difficult-to-read books, true crime, and finding queer community in ’90s piano bars.
During the 1990s, the AIDS epidemic inflicted a harsh toll on New York. By ’97, more than 60,000 people in the city died of AIDS. As Elon Green writes in Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York (Celadon Books), “Death was a constant hum.” Green’s debut recounts the lives of four men who were part of the queer community during this time. They were also uniquely connected by a different tragedy, each murdered by the same serial killer. “The Last Call Killer” was known for targeting queer men in some of the places where they felt most safe: the gay piano bars of Manhattan. Last Call chronicles these bars, which were essential to the formation of the gay community during a time of rampant anti-queer violence. Police were of no use in responding to these assaults, and the AIDS crisis was still largely misunderstood. When the bodies of gay men started showing up in trash cans, yet another fear was introduced into the everyday lives of gay people. “From the beginning, I viewed Last Call as a work of history with crimes and investigations holding it together,” Green tells me over a recent phone call. While his book is difficult, it provides a careful record of an era that deserves to be documented. I spoke with the author at length about how he pieced this story together and why he felt it was so necessary to tell. Andru Okun: Last Call examines a string of murders of queer men in New York City during the 1990s. You write that these killings were largely forgotten and that you became “obsessed with the lives of the victims.” What are some of the factors that contributed to this obsession? Elon Green: When you write about someone famous, it’s very easy. There’s a lot of existing material. I’ve interviewed Mavis Staples four or five times, and if I ever want to find out what she was doing in June of 1962, I can figure it out. Part of what was so exciting to me was that these guys were basically a blank slate and it would take a tremendous amount of work to reconstruct their lives, and doing so would be incredibly satisfying. Also, I think if you look at anyone’s life closely enough you can see something interesting. With these men in particular—one man was in finance, another was selling computers, another was a sex worker, another was a typesetter; you had men who were closeted, men who were out; one who was in the military, one who had AIDs—there was just this astonishing panorama of gay life in these four guys. That seemed like a real gift because that meant I had a lot to write about. The murders you cover stretch back nearly thirty years. I’d like to hear about the process of researching this book and tracking down sources. What I started with were chunks of the trial transcripts. At the beginning, I had to buy it piecemeal from the retired court stenographer. She charged me thousands of dollars for some of the transcript, and she remembered the case very well. Eventually, I became acquainted with the prosecutor in the case and he sent me everything. That transcript provided the bones for the narrative and I was able to put together an outline of events. As I was going along, I interviewed people that I found in the transcripts, whether they be family members, detectives, co-workers, people that found bodies—if they were involved in any kind of way, I wanted to talk to them. Then, of course, there was some newspaper coverage. I was just piecing the story together from whatever I could find. Once the book proposal sold, then I went everywhere. I was getting handwritten notes from detectives. I was trawling the LGBT Center archives. I had acquaintances of the murderer send me letters he had written from prison. As far as the sources directly impacted by these murders, how have they responded to you writing this book? So far, very positively. As far as I can tell, none of them are being blindsided. I was very upfront with what I was writing; I’d sometimes send them chunks of the book and read it to them. I didn’t want them to be surprised by anything, and if an issue was going to be raised I wanted that to happen before publication. A couple of [the victim’s] family members have read it, and it wasn’t an easy thing to do but they got through it. The fact that they finished this book seems to me a pretty extraordinary thing, because I can’t imagine doing it myself. The book is probably hard enough to read if you don’t have a personal stake in the story. I do think some parts of this book are difficult to read, but not because of the way it’s written. If I did it right, the whole book should be difficult to read. You detail a lot of painful history. Did you feel at all apprehensive about telling this story? No, it felt so necessary to do it. To strip a story like this of its historical and political context would be malpractice. In answering the question, “Why doesn’t anybody know about this case?” you have to talk about what was going on in the city and the country at that time. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic; queer New Yorkers were being assaulted to such a degree that it was basically legal to do it—there were basically no legal repercussions—and there was an indifference to their lives. Writing about this felt like not only something I wanted to do but something I had to do. One of the reasons I spent so much time on the nightlife is because it had never been written about in any real kind of way. The bars and clubs of that era, if they were written about at all, it was only through the prism of AIDS. Because, to some degree, the events in this book center around the piano bars, I wanted to make it clear to the readers (and to myself) why people enjoyed going there and what their role was in the life of the city. I wanted people to be able to see these men having a good time. The story of Michael Sakara, a beloved regular of one of New York’s piano bars, was particularly heartbreaking. You put a lot of time into understanding the lives of these murdered men. Can you talk about how you approached writing about them? They were already victims; that was their role in the coverage. They had been reduced to that victim status. To me, there is no point in writing something (especially a book) if you’re just going to regurgitate what’s already been done. The work that hadn’t been done was bringing these men to life on the page. The larger, loftier thing I had envisioned doing was to figure out why they ended up where they did, to understand what brought them to New York at that time. So true crime is not a genre I’m necessarily drawn to, I don’t exactly feed off of it… I don’t like it, either. To some degree, this book is a reaction to how I feel about the genre. Right. So as a journalist writing the story of these men’s lives, which tragically include these extremely violent crimes, how do you decide which details are necessary to tell your story? Yeah, that’s a good question. Very early on in the writing, I was erring on the side of putting in everything I could about the crimes and their aftermath. I just wanted to be thorough. I sent the first chapter to my friend [the writer] David Grann and he said to me, look, this is not a CSI episode. You don’t have to give the reader so much blood and guts. Along with that, I increasingly thought of the family members and friends of the victims. Whenever I was writing something, I’d ask myself if it needed to be in the book and how would they react when and if they read it. When it came to describing the conditions of the victim’s bodies, I decided I was only going to give the reader enough information so that they understand the damage that was done. I’m not going to elide any information that meaningfully changes the situation, but I’m not going to overdo it. I tried to be as minimalist as I could, and my understanding from the reaction to the book so far is that it’s still extremely gory. Yes. It is gory, but it seems like you were intentional about what to include, which seems like a difficult process. Very much so. I showed chapters to a pathologist to make sure every little description was accurate. I did not want anything gratuitous. The era you’re primarily focused on was a difficult one for gay men. You mention that The New York Times avoided writing about gay life and AIDS for years. How do you think mainstream media’s treatment of queer communities impacted prevailing attitudes toward queer people during that time? Oh my god, it’s incalculable. There’s a reason nobody gave a shit about AIDS. Of course, the Times wasn’t the only paper that didn’t give a shit, but they were certainly the most high profile. People care about what they’re told to care about, and if The New York Times and 60 Minutes weren’t covering AIDS, that just wasn’t getting on people’s radar. And if people didn’t care about AIDS, they also didn’t care about all the things that rippled out from it, like the assaults and murders of queer people. I was fascinated by your writing on the Anti-Violence Project. Would you talk about this group and the circumstances that lead to their formation? AVP kept coming up in the coverage. Their role was basically to prod the police and the media into taking these murders seriously. They were keeping their own sort of dossiers on each of the victims. The more I learned about them, the more I felt that they had to have their own chapter. They’ve been this miraculous organization for forty years, and they were on the front lines of keeping the city bureaucracy honest. The reason I wrote about AVP and the conditions that produced them is because, if I didn’t do that, then the reader would not know what the stakes were, what the conditions were for queer life in the city. The reader wouldn’t understand these murders didn’t get attention—even within the gay community—because they were not unusual. There were so many deaths and assaults that four over a span of three years is basically nothing. To be able to convey that, I had to tell the story of AVP and the story of what they were fighting against. What you’re saying reminds me of your piece last year for The Appeal on the pernicious whiteness of true crime. There’s a line where you write, “True depravity is deadly repetition.” People have asked me why these murders didn’t get more coverage. Increasingly, I think part of it is that there are tons of murders in any given year. In New York, the numbers have been drastically diminished since the ’90s, but you’re still not hearing about all of them or even most of them. I’m willing to bet most murders aren’t covered in the newspaper. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody if murders are not covered. Quite frankly, I’m grateful for the coverage that was there. Certainly, that these victims were perceived as gay was a large driver of the lack of coverage and the lack of interest in these cases, but it’s not entirely the problem. Tell me about the “gay panic” defense and what you think this legal tactic tells us about the criminal justice system. The “gay panic” defense basically meant that you could claim that someone of the same gender had come on to you and that you got spooked, so you assaulted or killed them. It was a legal rationalization and it was extremely common, going back to at least the ’50s. To me, it just said that the legal system was looking for a way to not care about anti-queer crime. Part of the evidence for that is that they were for so long ill-equipped to handle these cases. The Manhattan DA’s office under Robert Morgenthau had to bring people in from the outside, including the Anti-Violence Project, to teach them how to prosecute these cases. Right. At one point you write about it as “a new kind of crime.” I would argue that it essentially was, because even if something is technically on the books, if it’s not being treated as a crime then it’s not a crime, at least to the people who are being assaulted. If it’s not being treated as a crime, it may as well not be. I appreciated that this book didn’t center the murderer, Richard Rogers. But when you learned about him, did you get any sense of why he may have committed these murders? I talked to a behavioral profiler; he basically said that motive only means something in the case of a single murder. Once you’re a serial killer, you’re just doing it because you like it. People keep asking me, “Why did Richard Rogers do it?” but there doesn’t have to be some grand explanation other than that he wanted to. I’d be surprised if it was more complicated than that. Between that probability and the fact that he never took responsibility for these murders, I just didn’t give a shit about Richard Rogers. But you did want to interview him, right? I did, but it was mostly due diligence. I mostly wanted to talk to him to check some biographical details. The extent to my indifference to him was that in the original proposal in the book there wasn’t even a chapter about him, and I only wrote about him to fill in a narrative gap. On an emotional level, I cared about the victims, and I didn't care about him. I have tried to treat him with as much humanity as I’ve treated everybody else but, if I’m being honest, he doesn’t matter to me.
The cartoonist on analogue versus digital art, post-punk rock musician Rowland S. Howard, and his idea for a “Tao of comics.”
Paul Pope, the self-styled “comics destroyer,” has long understood that creation is an act of displacement—a “sum of destructions,” as Picasso famously put it. The annihilation of the empty page when overlaid with balanced grids and figures is an extension of this destructive impulse and, in Pope’s graphic design book Pulphope: The Art of Paul Pope, he expresses a desire to discard all “inflated and worn-out edicts which serve only to keep the medium of comics in stasis.” This pursuit of comics’ kinetic future has taken him far afield. In 1995, after self-publishing books such as Sin Titulo, The Ballad of Doctor Richardson, and the Martian science fiction gangster-epic THB, Pope accepted an invitation to work for Kodansha, Japan’s largest publishing company. Producing eighteen pages of art a week, a workload that most comic book artists strive to complete on a monthly basis, he returned to North America with a workhorse mentality towards comic strip production. Marrying the Japanese and European traditions of manga and bande dessinée with a uniquely American ethos, Pope released three graphic novels with DC Comics—Heavy Liquid, 100%, and the blockbuster Batman: Year 100, a dystopian thriller set a hundred years after the caped crusader’s inception in 1939. Pope’s one-man wave of artistic destruction even found entry points in the fashion and film worlds, where he designed two seasons of a capsule men’s line for DKNY, and worked for several years with Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment to develop a feature film adaptation of his young adult comic series Battling Boy. In addition to the conclusion of the Battling Boy series and a secret project that will be announced in late 2021, Pope has been mulling over something called a “Tao of comics”—a protreptic in the comic arts that, in addition to establishing the “rules” of the form, will lay out practices to sustain the cartoonist’s singular lifestyle. I spoke with Paul on the phone to discuss the protean nature of his work, the mentorship of younger artists, and his love of Australian post-punk musician Rowland S. Howard. Jean Marc Ah-Sen: I like this idea of the “Tao of comics” you’ve been talking up lately, because it seems to go beyond the ambitions of drawing manuals or academic elaborations of the comic form. Am I right in thinking that the book you’re planning isn’t in the vein of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way or Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art? Paul Pope: This notion of the Tao, the way I see it, is an attitude towards living that is benevolent and open. That’s the way I feel when I read Lao Tzu. To become a cartoonist, I didn’t go to SVA or Pratt—I was trained in traditional painting and printmaking and art history. The teachers mostly didn’t think comics or even illustration were art. My early masters were the late Pheoris West and Charles Massey of Ohio State University, life drawing and printing professors respectively. I wanted to learn hands-on technique from them. I wasn’t interested in conceptual art. It mattered to me if I actually could draw anatomy and paint. I spent eight years doing figure drawing, painting with Pheoris, learning how to stretch canvases, lithography, and silkscreen with Charles, etc.—learning the technical details about the science of art. “Why do you change your ink out every six months?” “Why do you use this type of brush?” The Tao I want to write will describe not only tools that are good, but also how to live in a holistic way so you can maintain the lifestyle of an artist. As I’m getting older, I am more conscious of that, since you need a lot of stamina to make comics. There are all kinds of social reasons why people drop out of the arts, or pitfalls along the way that might be spider holes, rather than good career or lifestyle choices. Rather than tell people, “You should do this, you should do that,” the Tao is a poetic questionnaire. I know it sounds kind of grandiose to say I want to write a Tao of comics, but it’s more like “a way of comics,” not “the way of comics.” Especially as we move more toward a digitally-oriented society, I notice younger artists asking me questions about simple analogue tools like brushes and inks, that sort of thing. So I’d want to codify that in some sort of book. Are there certain core values that have informed your work over the years? A lot of my tastes are Modernist sensibilities and I consider myself a pop artist too. As far as core values go, I think we have to have room for storytellers and picture-makers without blinders on, but we’re in a kind of revolutionary phase in time. I think—let me start with this: critical thinking, skepticism. The tyranny of social media is we’re given things we’re supposed to believe in just because they’re written. It isn’t natural, it isn’t the way people have always thought or discovered things. We have one group shutting down another group, this group against that group, and vice-versa. It’s a turn-off because, as an artist, I’m interested in exploration of ideas, in free inquiry, and in a long-term call and response with other artists and, at large, with people out there. People I respected growing up were Milo Manara, Moebius, Guido Crepax, Hugo Pratt. You absorb their work and do something to respond to it. I want people to remain critical. Talk, debate, challenge ideas. If you don’t like something, formulate a response to it rather than just try to shut it down. That’s the discourse and, without it we don’t have society. That’s the temperature of the culture right now. If everybody cools down a little bit, it’ll be better. Do these ideas translate as you work across mediums? Can you incorporate the same principles when you’re doing non-comics work, like the print-making you do with Nakatomi, Inc. or when you designed the end credit sequences for Netflix’s Altered Carbon? They’re all different rhetorics, but when it comes to animation, screen printing, illustration, they all have rules—fuzzy rules let’s say. So I think you want to learn the language first. As a visual artist, I think that the skill set you might bring to animation versus screen printing versus comic book storytelling—they’re all different yet related. It’s important to find the things that are specific to the subgenres or the submedias, and how they all kind of relate to the larger picture, which is visual storytelling or the graphic arts. With the likes of Stan Sakai, Colleen Doran, and Jeff Smith, you came out of the American independent comics/self-publishing scene in the early ’90s. Can you talk about breaking into comics by starting Horse Press as opposed to the more traditional route of sending samples to comic publishers and signing work-for-hire contracts? When I got into comics it was the early ’90s, and it was right after the top artists from Marvel and DC splintered into their own company and formed Image Comics. It was like, “Okay, you can be an artist outside of a corporation?” That was exciting. There were also self-publishing examples with books like Dave Sim’s Cerebus and Jeff Smith’s Bone. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was already huge. It doesn’t take a lot of money to start publishing, especially if you work in a printing shop like I did. I cut a lot of costs by doing my own pre-production work in-house. So I read a couple of books on how to self-publish and it was a business model that actually made sense. Considering I was in my early twenties—I mean my rent was 189 dollars a month and I lived on baguettes and hummus and coffee—it’s kind of strange I was able to do this. That’s how it started for me. As an artist still using analogue materials of paper, pencils, ink, and brush, what do you make of the popularity of digital platforms for experiencing comics, and of comics being made digitally? Has the digital revolution levelled the playing field for creators, or created more challenges in publishing? I don’t think it’s levelled the playing field because we still have to have fundamental art skills. If you look at Western art examples, the eye will still see representation of a body. You can say this person has a certain style, but we still read this as a body or as space, which I consider to be formalistic ground rules of picture making. Most comics, whatever the style or subject, rely on figure/ground imagery. The thing I always think about, because of the career I’ve had and maybe because I started drawing before computers were useful for making pictures, is I prefer to make tangible, analogue drawings made out of archival tools on paper. They’re able to last beyond our lifetimes. The life of the art is longer than the life of the artist, usually. I’m always a little bit perplexed about making digital art for its own sake because there’s no document—there’s a digital document, but not an artifact. That’s why I was calling myself a Modern artist before because there’s a body of work that’s left behind. I wouldn’t want to have anything that was only digital, although I do work digitally all the time. In my case, it’s technical rather than creative. I mainly scan art I drew and send digital files to the publisher. I’ll start with a pencil and a blank piece of paper, and work that way. What’s your opinion on the mentorship of new artists? You developed friendships with comic luminaries Moebius and Frank Miller, who looked at your work at various stages in your career. Do you think that built into the conception of what an artist does is the understanding—I don’t want to use a loaded term like “responsibility”—that they engage with the next generation, and carry on a tradition of technical, maybe even philosophical instruction? Not necessarily. I think it depends on your personality, really. I know that I’m not the type of person that wants to be a teacher. The one time I did teach was at a month-long residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. I told the students, “You can come to me with questions, I’ll suggest exercises that we can do, but I’m not going to grade you.” Everybody walked away with a different lesson. I’m more interested in presenting questions and letting people find their own solutions. While I was studying with Pheoris, I also had an epistolary relationship with Alex Toth, and he would tell me things like, “No, you’re doing this wrong, it needs to be like this.” It was pedantic. I prefer to have a mélange of styles where you pick things up from manga, from comics, from literary essays, from art history, wherever—different things that come together because you’re not working in one rigid tradition. Eventually, your style percolates. As I got older, I got to know Bill Sienkiewicz. Even though we’re close in age, I consider him a master beyond my level. We’ve drawn together many times and I ask him questions as we’re working. It’s truly a dialectic. He will say, “Maybe this works, maybe that doesn’t work.” The openness of it is much more in my spirit. Your work has reflected a deep connection with music. You’ve done promotional artwork for bands like Heavy Trash, Thee Hypnotics, and Metallica, you illustrated the last piece of writing Dee Dee Ramone ever published for Spin magazine, and you were going to direct a music video for the Tea Party at one point. Are these projects a way of recharging before you go back into comics work, or a way of signalling your own personal tastes? I’ve had three or four chances to make music videos. I’m sure I could have hit a home run, but there’s never any money in it for the budget. The era of big music videos seems like it’s passed. Even small videos will lose you money. It’s like you show up at the batter’s cage and there’s no bat, to continue this clumsy metaphor. Earlier on, working with bands, it was about flagging my interests, but then you ask yourself how you can make something new. The thing I’ve discovered about the musicians I’ve met is that a lot of them draw. There’s this universal handshake that happens between musicians and whatever I am—a graphic artist or a cartoonist. A lot of them either went to an art school or read comics and science fiction. You meet in this neutral playing field. The strange thing about comics is there’s no sound—we always make sound effects, things that suggest sound and action, but it’s really just a piece of paper. And music has no visual element in itself—the recording is just sound. I think there’s always been a secret fraternity between graphic artists and musicians. I’ve been interested in carrying that forward. You were saying how Rowland S. Howard’s music, especially in Crime & the City Solution and These Immortal Souls, is something you return to often for inspiration. What is it about Howard’s career and tragic end that resonates so strongly with you? When I was a teenager, the Birthday Party was still together—Nick Cave’s band with Rowland S. Howard. There were hidden elements in Howard’s guitar playing that I had to discover later, everything from Gene Vincent, Dick Dale, to Les Paul—in short, the history of reverb. There’s this kind of Byronic thing that post-punks had that I liked where it was kind of romantic to be emaciated and wistful. Because he was Australian and his music had this reverb-heavy sound, it always made me think about space and the desert. The music was full of imagery to me, had this romantic, wide-space sound. I could see ways that it related to Sergio Leone and Moebius—“big picture” pictures, as it were. You took a trip to Egypt and the Middle East two years ago that galvanized your work and recalibrated what sort of relationship you thought was possible with your audience. Can you talk about the experience and what it did for your outlook? From what they told me, it was the first time an American had come to headline a comic convention in North Africa, specifically Egypt. They were so welcoming, which is interesting if you think about where we are in history—going as an American pop artist to meet other Egyptian pop artists. I don’t know if I’m going in the right direction with this thought, but they had a lot of questions about comics and bande dessinée. Many never really had a chance to meet people from the West who did this, so I was just available to talk, like an ambassador of comics or something. There’s a strong French comics tradition there too, which is cool. Lots of late-night discussions about craft and intention, stuff like that. The work there is definitely more politically active because of the time and the place. There’s tons of screen printing, anthologies, and flash art. Some artists were coming from Lebanon. I met a number of artists who had been arrested and put in jail because of their work. I think with the ubiquity of comics today, it’s easy to forget that there is and always has been a history of iconoclasm within the medium. Fletcher Hanks, Spain Rodriguez, Art Young, George Herriman, June Tarpé Mills… Especially here in North America, where we have laws protecting satire and parody, and there [in the Middle East] they don’t. It’s easy to even fall into a net where you didn’t intend to do something that was a parody of the government, but over there it will still land you in jail. It was pretty profound to see that firsthand. It really made you rethink the power of the pen, so to speak. It really felt like a cultural exchange. It changes the intention of making art when you realize it’s actually a political act. I’ve always thought there was a humanistic and political dimension to your writing, asking questions about where society is heading, usually in relation to technology, personal freedoms, and authoritarian government powers. Well, I infuse my work with things I find relevant as a science fiction writer—which is what I consider myself to be. I just happen to draw, rather than make prose. The thing with science fiction is that it’s predictive literature that’s concerned with where society is going, as opposed to “capital F” Fantasy, which seems to me to ask questions of balancing right and wrong, good versus evil, and where we are in the moment. I think the big questions right now would be about artificial intelligence, the relationship of digital technology with the government and media, longevity, and the questions of how we can preserve our lives beyond the human life scale, the ecology. Those are worth writing about because those are real things and they’re there. What do you think about the artist or writer who does not engage along these political lines? Is the apathetic or apolitical artist relevant to an audience increasingly engaging with these subjects? I kind of agree with the notion of ars gratia artis. Art for its own sake is fine. I don’t think the artist has any special responsibility to respond to anything in society. You can just make a pretty picture. And by “pretty,” I don’t mean to denigrate the value of an aesthetically pleasing piece of art. Some artists are very strident politically, but when it comes to aesthetics, I think an artist can just make their art. Nobody even needs to see it. That being said, I think, by its very nature, science fiction does respond to concerns about where we’re going as a people, and that’s a social issue. You almost got the chance to adapt A Clockwork Orange for the now-defunct Vertigo mature readers imprint of DC Comics, which would have paired you with comic and TV writer Grant Morrison. How were you going to approach a book with such loaded audience expectations? Did it incorporate the infamous last chapter that was omitted in Kubrick’s film where Alex DeLarge is legitimately rehabilitated and wants to start a family? I’d been wanting to work with Grant Morrison for a long time, and at one point they were attached to adapt it at Vertigo. I think they’re one of the great writers of our medium. We’d almost worked together a couple of times—I seem to remember there was talk about doing a third year of All-Star Superman with different artists. They don’t remember talking to me about it, but I remember discussing it. When A Clockwork Orange came to me, I said, “Why don’t we recast this as an American story and put it in Los Angeles or Detroit? I won’t draw it, but I’ll help find an artist from Los Angeles to do it, and rephrase everything so the dialogue isn’t going to be a Nadsat mish-mash of English and Russian—make it an up-to-the-minute LA hip hop thing where Alex is a kid from LA and speaks with that vernacular.” Editorial shied away from it. I didn’t want to do a literal adaptation, as much as play with the theme and update it. I love this dystopian story about an attempt to cynically rehabilitate a rebellious, troubled kid who eventually, tragically learns to love the system. I was against adding the final coda with grown-up Alex. But I don’t know if the original text is contemporary enough to make sense to young people now, so that was my suggestion for how it could have been done. But as for a literal adaptation, Kubrick’s film was already perfect, I think. Your art is very large—you draw on 19x24” artboards as opposed to the American standard of 11x17”. Your art rep has described your pieces as having real “wall power.” What are the advantages of working in these dimensions? Before I got into comics, I was studying what they used to call monumental painting. I was looking at Anselm Kiefer and Mark Rothko, Frank Auerbach, artists that would cover an entire wall. When I learned to draw, the action point was my shoulder and, later on, as I got more precise, it was my elbow. When I get into detailed stuff for comics, it’s my wrist and, beyond that, it’s the tips of my fingers on my drawing hand. When I started making comics professionally, I had to estimate what size I should work at and ask myself: how large is the actual drawing for print? Because I was already studying painting in college, I was thinking about making big wall-sized landscapes or images. It was comfortable to work large because I was already doing big paintings. I still draw standing up. It’s funny now because it’s changed the way people think about making comics pages. Most everybody working in comics now has read How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, and it’s full of unnecessary rules and standards that people over time have followed because Stan Lee said it is so. There’s no reason comic book original art needs to be 11x17”. Your linework has changed over the years, and still shows signs of further evolution. In the ’90s, you were working almost from an animator’s tool kit—channelling archetypes and expressive simplicity. Then your line got more detailed, complex—the rendering got to be more rugged. Were these changes intentional, or inevitable stages of progression as you mastered the craft of composition, design, etc.? To bring it back to Howard and expressionism for a second, I want to make sure that the art has integrity and responds to the way I feel. Rowland’s music is full of cues which relate back to the artists he studied, yet he built on what he discovered and twisted it into something new. There are times when I feel the art should be more rugged, as you say, or expressive, more times when it should be meticulous. So depending on the project or drawing I’m working on, it might change. For Battling Boy, for example, I’m trying to channel Jack Kirby and classic comics and kids’ stories. To me, it feels like the story requires a style that’s a little more art brut. If I’m doing a commission of Lone Wolf and Cub, which feels like it should be a little more traditionally fine, I’ll make the linework in a classic Ukiyo-e-style. Original comic art sales are finally catching up with the fine art world, but you decided that you wanted to channel some of that revenue into philanthropic causes. What made you want to get involved with the NAACP during the pandemic? I’m fortunate to be in a place where I have a really good art rep, Felix Lu. Every year, his roster of artists has a think tank about where to contribute a portion of our art sales revenue. This last year, with everything that’s gone on with Black Lives Matter, we raised a lot of money for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and then also because of Felix’s personal history—having lost his wife—assistance for families surviving cancer rehabilitation through the Paltown Development Foundation’s Lu Family Fund. I never thought I’d be able to do that as a guy making comics. There’s this classic notion of how a person should be in society and, according to Aristotle, it was what he called arete—which is his concept of athlete, artist, and saint. In my own ways, I’ve achieved some of those things I guess, but I wouldn’t with a straight face call myself a saint. But to be able to help other people without asking anything in return is a good feeling, I’ll say that. You alternate between creator-owned, auteur-style projects, and big corporate properties whose decades-long essences you have to distill—I’m thinking of your stints on Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Inhumans, and, of course, Batman. Are you writing to different imagined audiences, or is it more about finding properties that you can reconcile with your sensibility and broader goals as an artist? Yeah, the latter of the two. I like what Clint Eastwood said: “One for me, one for them.” So when I work on something that we might call mainstream, whether it’s Spider-Man or Batman, I try to get a sense of what’s the demand. Then I’ll write within the boundaries of the genre limitations and try to hit the bullseye, but go way above the bullseye. That’s always been my attitude. And then when it’s time to write something small and personal—well, I wouldn’t go to Warner Bros. with the idea of a Tao of comics. They wouldn’t touch it. You released new editions of your breakout books Heavy Liquid and 100% with Image Comics—recoloured for a new decade and a new audience. What’s your attitude towards maintaining your backlist? I imagine it’s not just a question of simply keeping the titles in print. When DC Comics moved to Burbank to be closer to their parent company Warner Bros., they went through their backlist and dropped a staggering number of properties. In my case, DC comics returned the rights to my Vertigo books, and I was able to take them to Image Comics. I consider those works to be cyberpunk, dystopian, near-sci-fi things and I think they still have an audience. The books have all remained in print, they’re published overseas, and those books are able to carry over as a placeholder as I’m finishing my new stuff. I’ve been out of the public eye for a while, just working—stealth years—and I got trapped in the Hollywood maze for a little bit, so returning to the roots for me is getting back into comics again. You’ve got multiple books on the go right now. Total THB, colour and black-and-white collections of your unfinished Mars sci-fi epic, a Jungian dream book for Dargaud called Psychenaut, the second and final installment of the Battling Boy series, and a top-secret book so big that it may eclipse everything you’ve ever done before. Can you give an update on the statuses of the first three projects? THB can’t happen until Battling Boy Vol. 2 is finished, which is with the same publisher—First Second Books, a division of Macmillan. That’s in our contract. Those books are aimed at young adult audiences. Psychenaut has kind of been on hold for a while. It’s a book about dream analysis, dream therapy, so it’s very personal and revealing. I wanted to rethink how much I wanted to share. It’s almost finished. That’s something that’s going to happen for my French publisher Dargaud. I have a couple of new things in the works that I hope to surprise people with in the next couple of years though. Your most recent project was a reimagining of Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows and Other Nightmares for Beehive Books’ Illuminated Editions series, which has a curatorial component because artists are invited to illustrate passages from a book in the public domain. What is it about Blackwood’s body of work that compelled you to engage with it? He was a precursor to H.P. Lovecraft. I like pastoral writing a lot. When an author can depict something that’s as static and seemingly tranquil as nature can be, and on top of that add an element of supernatural horror, it makes the work really interesting. The thing I love about The Willows is that most of the novel is just about two guys in a boat going down the Danube. Moving depictions of the water and trees, and this extra dose of phantasmagoria. There’s no monster that pops out from behind a tree or some zombie crawling out of the ground. The horror is all psychological. It’s a type of horror we don’t see a lot of today. Lucasfilm wanted you to decamp to Skywalker Ranch and design spaceships for a sizable block of your life. What was the experience like? It was thrilling and weird. After I did Batman: Year 100, I went through this strange phase where I was in Hollywood a lot, meeting directors and studio heads, working on projects. This went on for a few years. I had done some artwork for one of the Star Wars: Visions books, so I was on George Lucas’s radar. I went up to the Ranch and did this presentation for the directors and crew, not knowing it was a job interview. It was still fairly early in the game with Battling Boy Vol. 1. They told me, “We have a LucasArts job to offer you, but we can’t tell you what it is unless you accept it.” It was shocking because I had to finish Battling Boy no matter what—I had contracts that I couldn’t drop. We were standing behind the Ranch and a deer walked out of the woods. It was such a surreal moment. This was in Marin County on a hill in the springtime. The deer looked me in the eye and then went on his way. It felt like the spirit of Battling Boy was telling me I have to keep on the path that I’m on. So I said no. I only found out later it would have been work on the animated film Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask this, but weren’t there rules about how you were to engage with Lucas? You can’t look him in the eye. Don’t touch him. Don’t call him George. Don’t ask anything Star Wars-related. This is kind of common for people on that level of celebrity. They prime you for those kinds of meetings. Comics began quite literally as a kind of gutter-medium, but it was only through years of advocacy, scholarship, and the establishment of the canonization of comic books—its touchstones that crossed over outside of the direct comics market—that this reputation was rehabilitated. What are your thoughts on a “comics canon,” and what would be included in it? I guess going from the beginning, I’d say Windsor McCay, Charles Schulz, Walt Kelley, Robert Crumb, Alison Bechdel, Frank Miller obviously, Hergé, Moebius, and then we could go into Japan and stuff like that. Make it country by country maybe, or tradition to tradition. I think, in a more general sense, as our culture’s becoming more visually literate, the value of comics as a visual storytelling medium is becoming more valuable. When I was a little kid, I remember unsuccessfully trying to convince my grandfather of the value of Carl Barks’s Donald Duck comics. But I don’t know if I should be the person to say what should or shouldn’t be in the canon. If we looked at the top 100 comics, what I can say is that it should be international at this point. This goes back to Harold Bloom and the Western canon, which is an idea that I believe in, to an extent—we have a bedrock of certain works which make the foundation of the canon, which are required reading, and that can change or adapt over time. But the further you get into the industry, you think more about making work, making money, bills, and less about what should or shouldn’t be considered a great comic. If I like it, it’s great. Every few decades, some doomsayer muses on the death of comics… It always dies. It dies every couple of years because they kill it. They declare it dead, and it comes back. Are there measures the industry can take to maintain its durability against attentions being split between streaming services and video games? Is Hollywood’s compulsive strip-mining of comic book properties enough? Some of my younger friends are more used to listening to music on Spotify or other streaming services, or selecting various random MP3s out of order. I’m not sure either is better, but I’m more used to listening to tracks in the order the artist intended. Album sides. There’s always going to be a schism between the delivery system and the message. I don’t quite know what the answer is. Art never dies really, expression never dies, and I think the kind of people that talk about the death of comics are critics. They’re doing it to get a response out of people, to stay relevant. It just seems stupid because it’s no less dead than speech is dead. It’s people speaking to each other in elaborate cuneiform. That’s all comics are.
The author of Lurkers on growing up in Singapore, thought experiments, and falling out of narrative.
I’ll use the same word to describe Sandi Tan’s titles that she uses to describe LA: slippery. When Sandi says Shirkers, it could mean two things: the technicolour road movie she made with her friends as teenagers in ’90s Singapore, which was then stolen, or the subsequent award-winning documentary she made about the experience. Following up this documentary is Tan’s newest novel with the phonetically twinned title Lurkers (Soho Press). To shirk is to avoid—a slinky shoulder movement, a getting out of something. Lurking implies mystery, roaming around a fixed point—the opposite of getting out of something. When asked, Tan says the projects aren’t meant to be tied by their names, but the shared motif is indicative of her approach to storytelling. Both lurking and shirking are verbs that forfeit attention—Tan is interested in feeling slightly on the outside, wondering where the main action is. Lurkers shifts kaleidoscopically between the residents of Santa Claus Lane, a street which, because of how often the suburbs of LA appear in our media, elicits a twinge of déja vu. This narrative rotation allows the reader to see all characters from all vantage points—like peering out of an open window onto the street, blessed with total omniscience. The last words of the novel’s epigraph are, “Running to the extremes.” The novel, perhaps a demonstration of this phrase, follows Rose and Mira, teenage sisters who dodge grief, plot ways to convince their mother not to move their family to Korea, and navigate a lusty coming of age. Down the street from them is Raymond, an aging supernatural pulp novelist, holed up in his fantasy of gothic romance with plenty of whiskey. Then there is lone ranger Mary Sue, her adopted daughter Kate, and a smattering of surrounding neighbours occasionally getting in on the tangle. The residents of Santa Claus Lane exist on the outskirts of each other's lives, lurking in the background. Each of them running to their own extremes is what brings them in contact with one another. I spoke with Sandi about genre flicks, the collective cultural consciousness transposed onto certain neighbourhoods, and the novel as a great teenage excuse. Emma Olivia Cohen: There’s an anecdote I’ve heard you tell about growing up in Singapore. You’d see the posters for new movies months in advance of being able to actually see the movie. Usually when you finally did see the movie, you’d be disappointed, because in the interim you’d been projecting an idea of what the film would be like using the material from the poster. And what you’d subconsciously created would be more weird, stunning, interesting than the movie itself. Sandi Tan: Yeah, doing this would give a talismanic effect to the movies. Growing up in Singapore, I was so far away from the centre of things that I actually had a lot of space to dream. No one was policing my creative thoughts because they were policing everything else; you have a lot of freedom to imagine your way into things. Some of the most subversive and interesting minds I know are people who grew up in Singapore and were unsupervised as teenagers, keeping up our grades so no one would bug us. The internet takes away a lot of that magical dreaming, because there’s no waiting time. You never have to imagine what things are going to be like. I was forced to imagine things a lot more, and it became a muscle I applied to everything else. Does that dreaming muscle come in handy for writing? Yes. I would have thought experiments all the time. I imagine everyone does—a drawer full of unfinished thought experiments. Imagining my way into various characters as a writer is the same muscle, you’ve identified it correctly. It might be unfair, though, my being disappointed in the movies, because I’d be watching them on pirated VHS tapes I’d go through great trouble to procure from Malaysia. Mostly what was available were horror movies, or movies with a lot of sex and gore. That’s what was popular—those Cannibal Holocaust movies were huge in Malaysia. But sometimes you’d get something like Mystery Train by Jim Jarmusch, which had no way of getting a proper release in Singapore. The pirated VHSes would have been filmed at the opening weekend in LA or something, and you’d see silhouettes of heads of people getting to their seats, you’d hear their laughter. This was the eighties when the worst movies were being made in Hollywood, but they became very magical to me because they were so unattainable. They had a strange distant power. So these very mediocre movies about teenage hijinks in some imaginary America became slightly totemic for me. There are whispers of different genres in Lurkers. There’s the supernatural poltergeist, the spectre of helicopters surveying the neighbourhood for crime, a mystery motif with a reappearing anonymous girl in the window. Do you find these invocations of genre interesting for opening up different possibilities of storytelling? I started writing this book a long time ago now, when I was moving into a suburban neighbourhood in North Pasadena, adjacent to Altadena, an unincorporated part of LA. The houses and the streets were so familiar to me—I’d seen them many many times before. Not in my dreams, but on TV and in the movies. People shot a lot of TV and movies in the suburbs of LA in the ’70s and ’80s, and even later too, standing in for the suburbs that could be “Anywhere USA.” So when I moved into that neighbourhood it was like all the genres, TV shows, movies started bubbling up. I could see various kinds of stories playing out from those pasts that the neighbourhood had experienced in a fictional form on the screen. The stories that make up the book began organically because I could see the landscape as the palimpsest of all kinds of stories that had already been told. It’s like a collective cultural consciousness mapped on to the physical neighbourhoods. I was trying to identify, when I began reading, who the main voice of the book was going to be. But it really oscillates completely between so many vantage points which all have their own narrative arc. It has that familiar feeling of walking down a street and wondering about all the lives contained in the houses, but then also the satisfaction of letting us fulfill that fantasy. A Vertigo vibe. I was looking around at people in the neighbourhood I live and feeling like a lurker myself, feeling like I wanted to know them. And the easiest way to do that for me is to imagine my way into their heads. It forced me to become acquainted with an unlovable neighbourhood. These suburbs aren’t immediately likeable and knowable. There’s something very slippery about LA. It’s built with fantasy in mind, both in its various architectural styles—the different fantasies of different developers—and because the people who move here are all fantasists hoping to escape something. This constant going towards something makes it confusing, interesting, hard to pin down. It’s interesting what you say about going to LA to find a fantasy, because a lot of the characters in Lurkers feel confined in one way or another by their circumstance as well. Does that feeling of confinement contribute to an imagination, or a lack of imagination? Everybody in LA hides in their homes. Maybe because there’s more space or people are moving in and out so quickly. People think that people in LA don’t buy or read books, but I’ve heard that they’re some of the biggest book buyers in the US because they have space to put them. Everybody consumes their media and dreams in their own private fiefdom. There’s less of a chance of running into your friend in the street. So a lot of people tend to look inwards. At one point the character Mary Sue is talking about the concept of the nuclear family, and she describes it as a process of trial and error. She says though her own family had the opportunity to succeed, they failed at the experiment. I was thinking it could be said maybe all of the families in this book fail at the experiment of the nuclear family. Does this failing open up room for new ideas around family and connection? This is something I do feel and believe, perhaps due to my own funny family circumstances. The strongest family bonds I’ve felt or witnessed were often with people who chose their families, or adopted their kids, or were substitute parents, foster parents, aunts and uncles standing in. I like playing with the feeling of choice versus what you were born into. It applies to the choosing of neighbourhoods, or migrating to different places. Human beings have much more propensity for choice and have more control over their lives than they might feel they have. The characters in my book are constantly searching for not just family but also home, and it’s often not where they thought it was going to be. I like the idea of being surprised by life and embracing it, and not just feeling shortchanged by your unhappy family situation. You’re adapting the novel The Idiot by Elif Batuman into a film. One of the major themes in The Idiot is this idea of falling out of narrative, and I feel like a lot of the characters in Lurkers have this ghost life or parallel life that lives alongside them. Kate almost died in a plane crash as a child on her way from Vietnam to America to be adopted, Rose and Mira the teenage sisters are threatened by their mother that they might be moving to Korea at any moment, Raymond lives largely in a fantasy life—I wonder if these two ideas correlate to you, falling out of narrative, and then having this parallel potential life you could have had? I like the idea of falling out of narrative. For the longest time I was trying to figure out my life, and making the film Shirkers and making sense of it with a narrative really freed me. I feel like I didn’t get to finish my growing up, didn’t stop being a teenager until I completed the film, way too many years later. And it’s valuable, making sense of your life. I didn’t think of the characters in Lurkers as being that way, as narrativizing their own lives, but I think when they do, maybe they’ll feel free or something. Or more fulfilled. We all have these things coming back from the past, things we did or didn't do, and you have to choose which path you want to take. I felt as a teenager when I was making Shirkers that I wanted to choose the path that would make a better story. I knew I had the choice of doing something that was tame and boring, or something that was interesting potentially. And I was always after the better story, and that was the thing that kept me sane as a kid with relatives or mentor figures who were less than kind. If I could joke about it and make a story about it, that’s the way I could tame it. There are two teenage pairs in the novel, Kate and Bluto, and Rose and Arik. You write, “being teenagers provided the perfect alibi for their extreme disaffection.” What about teenagehood as a container or excuse is interesting to you? Being a teenager is an alibi for everything. You can do anything and blame it on your being a teenager. It’s just the best. And I think that’s why people try to hang on to it as long as possible. It’s because teenagers can get away with everything—you can blame stupidity on being a teenager, and if you say something bright or charming or smart then you’re precocious. Too many people find that too special a time, and in many ways every single character in the book is an overgrown or misplaced teenager—even Mary-Sue, whose coming-of-age, she feels, arrives in her sixties. I loved the character Raymond. He’s an aging supernatural pulp novelist. He has this imagined fantasy life, which then he writes into books, and the books bring him the money which allows him to have the aesthetic luxe backdrop to the life he wants. But the life he actually wants, which is this dark gothic romance and adventure, doesn't come with the background. He’s essentially set dressing for the life he wants. And then it’s sad, because it doesn't come. I think this is something that’s relevant culturally; we’re all becoming more aware of how to set dress for the life that we want. I know people who are like that exactly, who think they want those exciting things but are actually quite scared really, and want to be living in comfort and are very happy with things around them. There is a famous author I knew that certain details of Raymond’s material life come from—like that the walls of his library are filled with his own books in various languages. And that his entire home is extremely well art directed, like an edifice to himself, slightly tomb-like. But also perfectly art directed in a classic Hollywood-’40s-film-noir way. Like that famous author, I imagine that somebody like Raymond is afraid of the actual world out there, and that’s more frightening than anything he could write about. I’ve heard you talk about the formal structure of movies like Mauvais Sang, where the plot concept allows playful or bizarre sequences to exist within the film because they don’t have to move the plot forward. Are there any sequences or ideas in Lurkers that you wanted to include that were playful and fun, but not necessarily serving something grandiose? Yeah, I think I have all these silly bits. That’s the nice thing about writing a novel—you can throw in a lot of things you think are just fun to write about. Whether it’s the swamps of Florida or the numerous churches that line the freeways in LA. Kate’s experience in Vietnam, the dying city centre of Des Moines, Iowa. Impressionistic sketches of different landscapes. I wanted to collect all kinds of places I’ve been to and noticed things about, and imagine them into the pasts of the various characters and see how they would form them. It makes life less lonesome, you know? Writing novels is my cowardly way of being an extended teenager, because it gives me an excuse for trying to make sense of everything that’s haunted, confused and delighted me. I am more like Raymond than most might think.
The author of Acts of Desperation on labels flattening experience, toxic relationships, and writing through pain.
In December 2020, Megan Nolan’s “The Joys of Frivolous Sex” went viral. An op-ed in The New York Times, the piece ignited a fierce debate in the comments section on the value of physical intimacy with strangers during the pandemic, not to mention a firestorm of tweets both derogatory and defensive. “Living as a purposefully single and promiscuous person was one way to know others, one way to find joy in the world, and it’s gone for now,” Nolan wrote. “Single people have lost something important, and should be allowed to bemoan it.” Though she doesn’t read the comments on her pieces, Nolan did engage with the tweets at first, until, finally, she gave her Twitter password to a friend for Christmas. Once the frenzy quieted down, Nolan tried to understand the response. “I think people maybe have the perception that I pitched The New York Times saying, ‘Here’s the worst thing about COVID.’ Whereas, in fact, they asked me specifically to write about sex,” she said. “So it wasn’t as though I was saying, ‘Here’s the primary issue in the whole scenario.’ I think that’s what people were angry about, is that they perceived me to be elevating this problem above the other problems.” Strangely, in describing her op-ed fiasco, Nolan articulates the unsettling paradox at the heart of her debut novel Acts of Desperation (Little, Brown and Company), which centers on the uneven, toxic relationship between a young, twenty-something narrator and Ciaran, an older Irish-Danish art critic. When they start dating, Ciaran is still embroiled in a stormy on-off relationship with the waiflike Freja; he makes it clear that he’s only with the narrator as consolation until he returns to his true love. From the get-go, it’s obvious that things will go south, but it’s the banality of Ciaran’s abuse that makes Acts of Desperation so painful to read. Though, on the surface, this project tackles a toxic relationship, it’s ultimately about a young woman’s inability to feel comfortable in her skin; in place of any professional or personal ambitions tied to her self-worth, she channels every drop of intensity into winning this unwinnable man’s affection. For those of us who haven’t experienced this type of relationship firsthand, the novel is illuminating. Oscar Wilde said, “everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power,” and I’d argue that every story is about desire except stories about desire, which are about power dynamics. In this case, the most compelling power dynamic exists between the narrator and herself. Kate Dwyer: The title of the book is Acts of Desperation. What do you think this character is desperate for? Megan Nolan: For the first half, she’s desperate to win this guy’s love and to try and corrode his resistance to her. More broadly than that, just not wanting to be in your body. I’ve never found a solution for what to do when you feel like you can’t stand to be in your life or your body or your space in the present moment. It’s a very violent feeling, and I think people try and remedy it with self-destructive methods. The narrator erroneously believes that a romantic relationship will get her to a place where she feels calm and at home in herself. The book is not a mirror of my own thoughts, but it’s definitely based on thoughts and feelings that I had in my earlier twenties. I lost a lot of the ambition I had as a kid and a teenager, so it seemed very natural to turn to relationships instead, because even if you’re doing pretty badly in your life, you can probably find a relationship if you really, really want one. Even if it’s a terrible one with someone you’re not really compatible with. The narrator does have that moment where she acknowledges how unconventional her situation is: “She knows the relationship is strange and uneven and not reciprocal, and that it would confuse and upset people who loved her, but she didn’t believe it to be any of those things.” The book is obviously an exaggerated version of prioritizing a relationship to the detriment of everything else. The—and I know this isn’t a word—un-relatability was kind of the point of it. It’s so strange that an adult woman who has a pretty normal life and the ability to do most things if she tries hard doesn’t even seem to want to look at those things, and only wants to look at love and sex. Do you think she internalized any cultural dynamics that made her believe that this relationship would validate her as a person? Underlying everything else, there’s this crippling lack of self-worth underpinning all of her life. That’s not something you can easily explain. There’s so many women who have violent levels of self-hatred, and there’s no explanation for it; it’s not as though their parents told them they were stupid or ugly. It’s quite inexplicable. Labels irritate me. When I was having a hard time in my earlier 20s, I was always put off when people would describe me as “depressed” or, when I drank too much, “alcoholic.” When I had this series of shitty relationships, people would use the word “abusive” about things that the man had done, sometimes without my having used that word. I’m not saying that none of the behavior described in the book is abusive, but sometimes I felt like those words were really a flattening of things I had experienced. There are a lot of parallels to Knausgård. Would you say that he was an influence? In 2016, I got a small arts grant, so I decided to go somewhere cheap for a couple of months to get some real writing time in. I sublet an apartment in Athens, Greece, and got the first big chunk of the book done then. I only had four or five books with me, so I ended up reading this Knausgård book over and over again. On the first day I started writing, I was sitting out on my balcony reading A Death in The Family. The level of detail he allows himself to put into those books seemed very freeing to me. I was a bit nervous my book would be boring and then Knausgård's books made me feel it was okay to write all the potentially boring minutiae of those things. It was definitely a big influence in terms of permission. What was it like for you, as you were working on this project? Was it mentally taxing? After those first couple of months in Athens, it was just all in my spare time for the next three years. I was freelancing and doing various odd jobs and temping or whatever. What I would do is work a lot in my money jobs, then save up enough to take a month off, and go cat-sit for a friend in the countryside and work on it quite intensively. I had to be really alone to do it. But that meant it was really agonizing because, obviously, it is so personal. And painful. And there were a couple of times where it really took it out of me, and I had to sort of step away for a couple of months one time. At the end of it, not that I’ve followed through with this, but I did think, “Oh my God, I would love to write a happy book next. Because this is just too hard.” Reading back on it, I don’t find it painful anymore, but I was openly crying a lot of the time that I wrote it, you know? It was very intense. There’s this mimesis happening on the page, where the reading experience mimics the experience of the character. That was actually super important to me; it’s funny that you say that. When I read A Death in The Family during that first period, I realized that it’s not this removed observation; you’re really living it as you read it. I’ve always liked the idea that as a novelist, you’re creating an experience. It’s not just a set of things I’ve thought, that you as the reader will now read at a remove.
The author of Like a Boy but Not a Boy on overalls, gender binaries, and Kim Kardashian.
Despite knowing andrea bennett for years, I didn’t realize how perfectly many of our anxieties overlapped until I read their latest book, Like a Boy but Not a Boy (Arsenal Pulp Press). The memoir addresses, with frankness and humour, topics that I, and probably many of you, find at least somewhat uncomfortable to think about: our social class, our faith, our bodies, our mental health, and our mortality. And yet, there is also plenty of joy throughout as bennett navigates their gender, becomes a parent, and finds beauty in what often feels like a burning world. Once, when we were both living in Quebec, bennett and I took a summer weekend road trip with their spouse and a mutual friend. We stopped at Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, a set of waterfalls just outside of Quebec City, to stretch our legs. Strung across the gorge in front of the falls is a narrow, 23-metre-high suspension bridge. As we approached it, the others strode easily across, but bennett and I hesitated. Neither of us had to explain to the other what was deeply unappealing about having nothing but an elbow-high fence and some cables separating us from plummeting into the Ottawa River. By the time the other half of our party was making their way across the bridge, we realized we’d have to join them. I can’t remember what bennett and I talked about as we crossed, but I do remember that, although my cortisol was spiking, the mist from the water, the sun on my skin, the sound of the falls were all so enjoyable that I calmed down enough to feel as though all four of us would likely make it across alive. Reading Like a Boy but Not a Boy feels something like crossing that bridge. I recently caught up with bennett over video call to speak about the book, queer parenting, the quest for immortality, and, for some reason, Kim Kardashian. Ziya Jones: So, tell me, what was it like to release an essay collection in a period when everything is [gesturing frantically] like this? andrea bennett: I’ve been lucky so far. Arsenal, my publisher, has been really supportive. I couldn't ask for more in a year like this. It kind of sucks to launch a book in a pandemic year. But everything sucks in a pandemic year. There are some nice things about online meetings. You can kind of just Zoom in from anywhere. But as a reader, I miss the kind of feedback you get from being in a room. The body language from readers, the vibe of the room. I don’t know how to explain it, exactly, but it exists. Rooms have vibes! There's definitely something about, like, showing up to a venue after work. And you see a bunch of creaky chairs, or it smells kind of like beer, or if you’re like me then you get there late and there aren't enough seats so you sort of shuffle regretfully to the back of the room and find something to lean on. God, I miss leaning uncomfortably in public. Yeah, and actually, some literary festivals are slightly fancier than my normal life. So, I would be lying to you if I said that I hadn't been looking forward to being flown places to stay in hotels and eat free cheese. There is an aspect of my personality that is very luxury-oriented. So, I am bummed about missing that. But it’s okay. You know that GIF of Kim Kardashian where she’s crying over losing her earring in the ocean and her sister's like, “There's people who are dying?” It's a little bit like that. Have you done any readings in sweatpants yet? I’ve mostly been wearing overalls. They’re sort of like a suit of armour. The same way some people wear makeup to help get them into the right headspace, I strap into my overalls. Honestly, I would like to put forward overalls as the official clothing of the non-binary. Non-binary can mean a lot of things, but I think about 90 per cent of us have a fairly large attachment to overalls. I think that’s a fair assessment. Speaking of existing outside the binary, do you want to talk a bit about the title of the book? So, I'm like a boy, but not a boy. It was originally the title of an essay of mine that first appeared in Swelling with Pride, an anthology that Sara Graefe put together for Caitlin Press. The stories centre around queer conception and adoption and things of that nature. The title comes from walking in Montreal one afternoon while I was pregnant—and I think probably wearing overalls. A woman looked at me and said, in French, to the person she was walking with, “You think they’re boys but then they’re not boys.” It was this derisive aside. I don’t know if it was a kind of rude power move in that she thought I couldn’t understand French. But anyways, that rude lady gave me the title for the book basically. It also describes fairly well my early conceptions of my own gender. Once people started talking more about non-binary genders when I was a little bit older, then things clicked into place and I found a nice home for myself there. But, growing up, I did kind of just feel like a boy, but not quite making it over that line. I can definitely relate to that early childhood experience. And then you spend the next two decades or so swinging back and forth between binaries until you’re like, “Wait . . .” “Ohhhhh, I don’t have to stick to one!” Totally. A lot of the more universal themes in your memoir feel very timely right now, like death and mortality and the anxiety that comes along with living in a body that will eventually have to contend with both those things. Does it feel surreal to be releasing this into the world at a time where suddenly everyone is thinking about these concepts more than usual? As someone who is obsessed with fearing death, it’s been an . . . overwhelming year. Perhaps that fear of mortality has also come to the surface for people who don’t usually experience it daily. The funniest or at least most ironic thing is that the book ends on this note of optimism. It’s like, I’ve gone through some shit but I’m in a place where I feel more stable and I feel grateful for where I am. But I don't know what to do with all of the anxiety that I have that propelled me here. In the closing essay I essentially ask, “How do I relax and enjoy my life now that I’m not in survival mode?” Now everyone is in survival mode and we’re basically sacrificing people so capitalism can keep churning. We have so few places to collectively direct our anger other than when, like, Kim Kardashian rents a private island or something. So, yes, it’s weird to have this particular text arrive during a pandemic year, when life is more unsettled than usual for every single person. I included a number of interstitial essays about other people throughout the memoir, and the same is true for them. A few of the subjects felt they’d reached a point of stability with their partners, with their lives. And, unrelated to COVID-19, some of their situations have since changed as well. I guess that’s just a built-in risk of writing non-fiction. We don’t normally get a change as dramatic as a global pandemic, but life always continues after we wrap up the narrative arc. Narratively, essays do need a beginning, middle, and end. As a writer and editor, I understand that. You have to give the reader a sense of conclusion. But that’s difficult with essays, especially if you are—like I did—using them as a space of exploration. It’s hard to feel settled about things. I rarely feel settled about things! There’s this popular koan that I see pop up every once in a while that basically says, “The finality of life is what gives it its flavour.” But I don’t think that way at all! I’ve talked about experiencing anxiety but I also often feel depressed. And yet, I would still choose to keep waking up again and again. I guess there’s some hope in that? It’s interesting that you say that now, at a cultural moment where embracing finality has become part of the zeitgeist. At least online, there’s this semi-ironic move towards framing death as the ultimate out from a world that keeps spiraling into increasingly dire territory. Every fifth meme is like, “lmao I want to die.” Contrastingly, one of your essays concludes with you saying about yourself and your loved ones, “Even if I could quiet the part of my brain that imagines worst-case scenarios . . . I would still, impossibly, want us all to live forever.” Why do you feel that way? I mean, it’s probably kind of selfish. Like, “Here’s my ark, climb aboard! You’re stuck here now!” I think it's partially that I'm afraid of dying. I don't want things to end. I don't want my consciousness to evaporate. That could be like an ego thing, although Freud also talks about the death drive. It could also just be that I like being here, even though it sucks sometimes. And I would like to keep being here. The thought of my life being extinguished, or the thought of someone else's life being extinguished, is just too much for me. Every time I read about how human beings contend with death and dying, none of it rings true for me. I’d love to live several lifetimes. I just feel like the world is an inexhaustible well of cool stuff—there’s always something to appreciate. Yet, life moves through matter and my life breath is taking up a certain amount of matter. So, I don’t get to live forever. But I want to! You write candidly not just about yourself, but about other people in your life. I remember you saying at one point that you felt some anxiety about how other people would react to being portrayed in your work. You come from a journalism background. As journalists reporting on strangers, we have this veneer of “objectivity” to fall back on. Plus, we won’t necessarily cross paths with sources after our stories are published. But when we’re writing about people we know, it gets messier. How do you navigate that? Something that I had written about my mom years earlier pushed our already strained relationship to the point of estrangement. But I’m quite close with the paternal side of the family. There are moments in the book where I'm navigating gender-related stuff with them, concepts that, to them, were pretty new. My dad and I explicitly talked about the essays in advance and he gave me the green light to write about the complexities of that early navigation, even when they were tricky or difficult. It's hard when you have loving relationships with people that have complexities, because you don't want to hurt those people by writing about the times they behaved less than perfectly. But in loving relationships there’s still conflict; there’s still misunderstanding. With queer people there are also often cultural differences between you and your family of origin. You come out again and again; you explain the same concepts again and again. It’s going to be frustrating sometimes. I think it’s important to share that. And I think my family is okay with what I wrote? I hope so? Maybe not . . . but if they aren’t, we can talk about it!! You recently formally changed your pronouns (welcome!). Did the process of writing and releasing the book have any impact on your own relationship to your gender? Yes, in the sense that I gave myself permission to claim non-binary identity. Which will seem so silly to some people and will make so much sense for other people. In my first book, Canoodlers, I was still figuring myself out gender-wise. I was testing things but had no clue what I was doing. By the time I wrote this book I knew what I wanted, but I just had a lot of fear around it. If you read the comments section of any piece about trans people, there's so much hate [and] vitriol. Growing up, I presented as more masculine of centre and I got called all sorts of homophobic slurs, had stuff thrown at me. So that fear was really real. As a society we have this idea of coming out requiring a certain amount of certainty. But I would encourage people to just . . . give it a try! I hope that we open up more space for exploration, in particular for youth. For some people, you come out once and, you know, dust off your hands and that's that. For other people, it’s a process of becoming over the course of their lives. Their gender is fluid and allows more space for exploration. I think the option of space would alleviate a lot of the stress for some of us who are more neurotic. Like, I had this anxiety that other trans people wouldn’t see me as “trans enough.” I know now that was more of an internalized fear. The vast majority of trans people are welcoming. They understand that your interior feeling of gender can be different than your exterior expression. For the longest time, we've seen non-binary identity represented by androgynous, assigned-female-at-birth bodies. But, of course, there are assigned-male-at-birth non-binary people who may or may not present feminine. And there are some of us who are bestowed Kim Kardashian-type bodies and don’t want them. Okay, this is the third time you bring up Kim Kardashian in this interview . . . Oh no. Why . . . What’s with you and Kim? I mean, God only knows. I do find her, and the relationship our culture has with her, sort of fascinating. Her body is a body she has crafted, and it’s one onto which we culturally project a lot of baggage. The baggage of desire and desirability, but also this thing of her body being just at the edge of what is desirable or acceptable. If and when she gains weight (while pregnant, for example), that desirability tips into being “monstrous.” And all of that is complicated by her racial position—a white woman repackaging beauty trends or bodily traits that have historically been associated with women of colour, mostly Black women. Taking those things and repackaging them and then all of a sudden, they’re broadly culturally appealing and she makes gazillions of dollars. Mostly, I find it strange that bodies can have eras. You write a lot about bodies in this book. Your own body, other people’s, the concept of embodiment. How do you approach writing about something that’s a site of discomfort? I like when people write about things that they feel uncertain about or unsettled about or uncomfortable about. So, I pushed myself to do that. Also, like, I live here. So, I have to make my peace with it. And I have to discern what I should work on feeling comfortable with as is and what would be productive to change. I was also writing through the experience of pregnancy as a non-binary person because I think it’s good to have a plurality of experiences out there. Some people who are trans or non-binary and get pregnant will find it a dysphoric experience, others will not. I found the experience fascinating. It was weird to see how people interacted with my pregnant body. The actual experience of basically being a vessel for another human was also really weird. I don’t know if some 28-year-old will pick up my book and read about this and be like, “Oh, this helps.” But I hope it’s helpful to someone. You mentioned that the book features a number of interstitial essays about other people. What made you decide to include them in a book about your own life? In a way I wanted the collection to be a slice of older queer millennial life. To just document a particular type of coming of age. Plus, I love interviewing people and having permission to ask people nosy questions about their lives. When I was thinking about my own coming-of-age story, I was thinking about what it meant to have this desire to leave a small town, to escape so I could be myself. And I think that that's a fairly common narrative when we think about queer coming-of-age and small-town type stories. I was also wondering to what extent that narrative was true or untrue for others. Structurally, it’s a little bit weird, but it felt right to me. And as a poet, I give myself a lot of license to just fuck around and do whatever I want structurally as long as it holds together. The essays came about as a blend of journalistic impulse and poetic license. Money and class also run as a through line. Are you the kind of person who is comfortable talking about money? I probably talk about money too much. It was such an obsession of the early parts of my life because I started living on my own at 17, without any parental support, and I was so poor at first and it sucked. These days I think about money in terms of, like, labour and organizing more than I think about it in terms of financial markets and stuff, which, honestly, I feel should be abolished. As workers, we need to be able to discuss money more freely so that we can have a better understanding of what we’re worth and what we’re owed. All that to say: if any writers, especially freelancers, want to talk about rates and salaries and advances, I’m happy to discuss these things in DMs. But please no one ask me for financial advice. I have no idea what a mutual fund is.
It’s hard to imagine how truly full of dentists Los Algodones is. They are everywhere.
You’d be surprised how many reasons people have to go to Yuma, Arizona. They go for the weather, the four thousand yearly hours of baking sunlight. They go for the casinos, rising up by the highway on the lands of the Quechan and the Cocopah. They go to witness the arsenal of the largest standing army in the world at the Yuma Proving Grounds, where mortars and brimstone missiles pummel the Sonoran Desert. And then there are people who go for the same reason I did: because they’re afflicted with aching and rotting teeth, with broken molars and crooked gums, mouths full of pain that follow them around like debts. Because just across the border from Yuma, so close you can walk it, is Los Algodones—Molar City. The dental tourism capital of the world. Every year roughly 120,000 Canadians and Americans cross the border into Los Algodones. There they spend millions of dollars on dental care that costs a fraction of what it does back home. The town’s population hovers around five thousand, but it’s home to over five hundred practicing dentists who power the local economy and contribute to the booming global medical tourism industry. Medical tourism is a deceptively sunny phrase for the lengths a person will go to escape their pain. It’s a type of migration that can only exist under certain asymmetries of care and certain conditions of capitalism. When health is a commodity it feels realer the more dearly you have paid for it. But medical tourism is the inverse: health as a bargain, health as a matter of exchange rates. Health as a gamble. *** In her novel The Story of My Teeth, the Mexican author Valeria Luiselli describes: “The teeth are the true windows to the soul; they are the tabula rasa on which all our vices and all our virtues are inscribed.” It’s true you can learn a lot from teeth. From the flattening of canines you can learn when ancient cultures transitioned from hunting to agriculture, and proof of famines has been discovered in the hypoplasias on the enamel of the dead. You can tell who ate with their fingers, who lived in the rain shadow of a mountain, who dined on the sacramental nectar of a child deity. Teeth are a biography in the macro, stamped with facts about ourselves that are barely recognizable from the vantage point. The story of my teeth is relatively simple: they’re expensive and they break often. Some people buy Rolexes that keep worse time than a microwave, I pay for teeth that don’t work. I’ve had some two-dozen-plus cavities filled, two root canals, my wisdom teeth extracted, my enamel soaked in fluoride gel, all costing somewhere north of twenty thousand dollars. Some of this I’ve paid out of pocket, some has been covered by insurance via my partner or jobs. I’ll likely have to spend almost as much on more work imminently, though it’s less certain how I’ll pay for it. I think of my teeth as a kind of debt. Even the archaic word for cavities—caries—implies shouldering a burden. Anyone who’s carried debt knows the way it can discolour a life, forcing a sense of foreclosure onto reality, making disaster feel inevitable. *** The morning of my first day travelling to Los Algodones, I woke up in the Quechan Resort Casino with a toothache. The pain emanated from my maxillary second molar, the four-cusped workhorse that allows mammals to chew. My molar was at this point less of a tooth than it was a tiny cairn of crumbling enamel, ruined by cavities to the extent that it could no longer support a crown. The last fragment broke off on a cherrystone a few months before; I remembered holding the fragment over the kitchen sink, cherry juice staining it like blood. It had ached while I travelled: on the plane from Toronto, in the glassed-in smoker’s pen at Washington Dulles airport, during the stopover in Dallas, and again during the one in El Paso. It had ached as I sat in the back of the Uber that drove me from the Yuma airport through the darkened desert to Quechan reservation. I asked the driver if he had ever been to Los Algodones and he told me he was a Marine stationed nearby, and they weren’t allowed to cross the border. Outside my window I could see the pool and the parking lot with its knuckled palm trees, dotted with RVs. Beyond that, the expanse of the desert: endless miles of creosote and broken rock. It was late February, the end of snowbird season and the beginning of long months of unendurable heat. One state north, Bernie Sanders was trying to take the Nevada caucus and bring the country closer to a nationalized system of healthcare than it had come in a century. Less than a month later a global pandemic would make the idea of getting on a plane or crossing a border terrifying. *** In the lobby I was greeted by the tidal hum of slot machines. The Quechan Casino feels less like a palace of sin than it does a server farm: a dim, air conditioned, and windowless silo where machines chirp and flash as they extract your money with a ruthless, algorithmic efficiency. Cigarette smoke rose towards the ceiling and the ATM charged $7 per withdrawal. Outside, the desert air was hot and bacterialess. If the interior of the casino suited tooth pain, a midnighter’s disease, this was dentist country, the sun bright and lidless as a headlamp. The road ran alongside a narrow creek, choked with river grass and paddled by cormorants. This, I realized, was the Colorado River. This was where one the mightiest rivers in the world, the one that fills the Grand Canyon and powers Las Vegas, limps free of the continental United States and into Mexico, dissipating in a brackish delta of mudflats and sandbars. At Hoover Dam, the impounded waters of the Colorado power turbines that weigh hundreds of tons. A day’s drive south and you could throw a stone across it. The enamel of a tooth is made up of millions of microscopic prisms, arranged in rows. Stacked together like a woodpile, they form the hardest and most inorganic substance in the body, a mineral explosion driven by the aggregate electrical current of cell clusters that start to conspire long before we’ve even developed spines. They’re a foreign substance, only partially organic and generated by a flourish of primeval chemistry. They aren’t flesh, but they can hurt like flesh. You can go into debt over them like flesh. You can find yourself crippled by them like flesh. *** The Andrade Port of Entry is the lowest volume border checkpoint along the U.S.–Mexico border. The Trump administration’s vision of a border wall hangs over the Southwest like a hallucinatory fantasy, and you can see evidence of it close to Yuma, where construction was recently completed on over two hundred miles of new fencing, a corrugated monstrosity that resembles a Richard Serra sculpture. But at the Andrade Port, the border is little more than a length of barbed wire fence and a few crumbled concrete outbuildings. A Quechan-run parking lot allows crossers on the U.S. side to park their cars before walking through a narrow passageway and into a shed, ostensibly our last few steps on American soil. Inside there were no questions, no declarations, no people in uniforms wielding rubber stamps. Just an unplugged metal detector and a dog dozing in a wire cage. It doesn’t feel like a place at all. Which is a condition it shares with all borders: feeling separate from the locations they straddle, the last breath between them but unclaimed by each. Modern medicine views the mouth and the teeth inside it the same way. That’s why an annual physical almost never includes a look inside your mouth; it’s less a part of a body than a front gate. But in her book Teeth, Mary Otto explains why this is hubris: “Pain, loss of function, serious illness, and even death result from untreated oral conditions and offer harrowing reminders that the mouth is part of the body and that oral health is essential to overall health.” Dental care is rarely included in conversations about expanding rights to accessible medical care or in the medical industries schemas of health, despite the fact that tooth decay afflicts almost half the population of Earth, and global spending on dental procedures outstrips that of cancer treatments or vaccine research. The mouth’s living tissue is home to millions of microflora and organic systems, varied ecologies, and bacterial cultures that pass through it to the body to provide its life-giving balance. There is no possibility of living without that variety, that puncture between the inside and the out. *** It’s hard to imagine how truly full of dentists Los Algodones is. It’s like trying to imagine a city full of piano movers. They are, quite literally, everywhere. Memories of inconveniently scheduled cleanings quake in the face of the omnipresent availability, the frantic, logicless convenience. They line the streets, sit atop one another in stories, share entrances. The sky in Los Algodones looks down on a canopy of signage, emblazoned with Xeroxed grins. Clinics compete for claims: the quickest, the cleanest, the most painless, the most popular service in town. As soon as I set foot past the border checkpoint I was greeted by men in medical scrubs, construction boots poking from beneath their airy blue pant legs, who thrust pamphlets and flyers in my hands. One man strolled in lazy circles wearing a sandwich board that advertised veneers. In my long history of dental work, I have never once been told the cost of a procedure before agreeing to it. In the dentist’s chair with a broken or infected tooth, you don’t feel like a customer; you feel like someone being offered a lifeline out of medical catastrophe, and only a lunatic would think about money at a moment like that. Better to think of it afterwards, with your mouth swollen and bloody, waiting to see if your credit card is declined. In Los Algodones, however, competitive pricing is the order of the day; it’s on signs and on the flyers shoved into your hands and yelled to you from storefronts. Having a tooth pulled costs roughly $50 USD, about as much as a carton of Duty-Free cigarettes. A dental implant, in which the living root of a tooth is replaced by a metal screw and topped with a prosthetic lump of fused porcelain, runs about $1,600 in Canada and as much as $4,000 in the U.S. (I know because I desperately need two that I haven’t been able to afford to replace the crumbling temporaries following root canals). In Los Algodones they cost around $450, which means I could rebuild one side of my mouth and come out better than if I were to accidentally drop my phone. All this made me feel suddenly, drunkenly rich. I didn’t feel like someone who had flown across the continent on a long shot, but instead like a tourist, secure in the sudden radioactive potency of my currency. I walked with the thin, late season crowd through the streets, numbers dancing in my head. All around me, sunburnt couples strolled, boozy, willing to loiter in their relief. People haggled over the price of Harley Davidson wallets with street vendors, while other vendors across the street selling identical Harley Davidson wallets watched. I stopped in a restaurant where a mariachi band listlessly played a Don Henley set and the bar sagged under gallon jugs of margarita mix crowned with upended tequila bottles. Around me, people drank heavily through swollen jaws. The various accents of the continental U.S. cut the rudiments of Spanish vocabulary into starchy chunks. Hawkers walked between tables, selling hammered tin star fish, tequila bottles shaped like revolvers, cigars, ponchos done up to look like NFL jerseys. Maybe this is what borders are, I thought, places where commerce and commodities and junk and medicine all collect, washing together like flotsam at an inlet. *** Dentists in Mexico are able to offer such cutthroat prices for the same reason it’s easier to buy a pair of Levi’s that are made in Istanbul, or a casserole dish that was assembled in Thailand. The inequities between its national economy and the global superpowers in the West mean that the costs of production and wages are astonishingly low compared to the U.S. and Canada. But Mexican dentists also benefit from subsidized training, which means they don’t graduate saddled by enormous loads of student debt. And in Mexico, dentists are not required to have malpractice insurance, which can cost Canadian or American dentists thousands of dollars per year. This last point is what makes getting your teeth fixed in Los Algodones possible, but it’s also what makes people wary. On internet forums and Facebook, users exchange recommendations and tips with other medical tourists, and there are a minority of horror stories. People have exchanged the pain of broken teeth for the pain of bridges that aren’t correctly set, or implants that come loose. But that’s a risk you run in Canada or the United States, too. The question of why dental care is so expensive in Canada and the U.S. requires some explanation. Dentistry has historically sat adjacent to respectable medicine. The first dentists were itinerant surgeons who worked in city squares rather than in medical colleges. They represented a medieval tradition of travelling cures, and a dentist in the 18th century might as likely be a mesmerist, or an applier of leeches, or a peddler of mercury tonics. At their best, they were individuals gifted with a combination of salesmanship, common sense, and a stomach for gore. This made it unattractive to physicians, who emerged from the same quagmire of competing cures but managed to elevate their own professional standing, not least via the exclusion of other practices. As a hierarchy of human physiology developed, divided, and subdivided into territories of expertise, the mouth and those that worked on it were excluded. Charles Harris, the father of American dentistry, made attempts to integrate dentists into medical colleges during the mid-1800s and was rebuffed. This, even as breakthroughs in science had shown the way that a rotten tooth might transmit infected blood to the brain, and how bacteria and unicellular organisms travelled through the world like a second kind of air, dashing the notion that health could be separated from the environment, or that the body could be segmented into higher and lower orders of importance. This division has had lasting, deleterious effects on the way we think of health, how we conceptualize care, and who deserves it. It’s why potentially life-saving dental treatments like extractions and root canals are often considered “cosmetic” by insurance companies. It’s also part of why people are often embarrassed and ashamed by the state of their teeth. Tooth pain is viewed more as a matter of personal failing than it is a matter of public health, which obscures the way systemic inequity keeps treatment away from the people who need it. As the writer Sarah Smarsh says: “Poor teeth, I knew, beget not just shame but more poorness: people with bad teeth have a harder time getting jobs and other opportunities. People without jobs are poor. Poor people can’t access dentistry—and so goes the cycle.” Physicians and dentists may not sit at the same table, but the diseases they treat do. The bodies we inhabit suffer for their division. *** I am generally a risk averse person, because I’m at least partially convinced that I’m an idiot. When confronted with two conflicting pieces of information (when one Tripadvisor user says a Los Algodones dentist saved their teeth and another says they subjected them to hours of unnecessary pain, for instance), I tend to spend less time making sober appraisals than fearfully contemplating the perfect reality trap that allows facts to exist in the multiple. Days in Los Algodones were disorienting, with its hallucinatory specificity, the way it makes you imagine human teeth being swept out like barber’s clippings at the end of the workday. After I had visited as many dentists as I could, I would walk out of the central commercial district and into the residential neighbourhoods: quieter, sparser streets that had more of the desert backdrop leaking into them. Children played in dusty parks and stray dogs lay around, blinking into the sunlight. I took pictures of a stack of life-sized Spider-Man pinatas stacked in front of a storefront and ate a plate of lengua tacos. I walked back to Los Algodones three times. I picked dentists based on reviews found on forums and at random. Some were glitzy operations, with large staff and on-site hotels where patients could convalesce in the jacuzzi. Others were less familiar. The first dentist I visited was in a concrete bungalow painted with lucha libre wrestlers. Inside, wrestling masks hung from the walls, and the owner, an old man in a brown suit, dozed in his dentist’s chair. When he woke up, he sat me down and readied his tools. I scrutinized the diplomas on the wall, which I couldn’t read anyway. I explained to him the history of my teeth, and he nodded patiently, then made the universal gesture for “open up,” making a large O with his mouth and going aaaahh. When he brought the circular mirror and the probing hook towards me, I flinched. I thought about how far from home I was. I tried to tell him, to reiterate: my teeth hurt. They’re swollen and broken, and I was afraid some were turning grey, but most importantly, they fucking hurt. Hurt when I breathed winter air and ate certain foods. Sometimes they hurt so unpredictably that I woke my partner in the night, near-blind with pain. Please, I told the dentist, be careful. And he was. He found the ruined fillings and the cankered flesh, touched them but withdrew when I flinched. Then he tore a page out of a magazine and wrote down everything I would need to fix them. Extractions, roots canals, implants. Potentially a sinus lift, which is where the gums are peeled away and the bones of the jaw artificially grafted, millimetre by millimetre. This was essentially the same thing prescribed by dentists back home, only in this case he wrote down the prices as well, in neat columns like a receipt from the grocery store. Walking back into the United States takes a lot longer than leaving it. During the peak season, the wait can take hours, as the tourist rush mixes with Mexican citizens who travel back and forth across the border to work on massive agricultural farms during the winter harvest. In line I checked estimates on the U.S. Customs and Border Control’s official app and looked around at the others waiting, trying to spot evidence of bridge insertions and sinus lifts. When the border agent asked me if I had anything to declare, I imagined my future self splitting into a wide grin to display row upon row of pearly, industrially white teeth, fixed to my jaw with titanium composite screws. Arriving back at the hotel at the end of the day, I began to notice something. It was there as I walked across the casino floor: a prickling in the air, and an electric current of risk. The chemical sense of chances both desperate and considered being taken, life savings and the bone white coins set into living flesh, all pushed forward onto the table with the immense desert at your back. But in the end, I didn’t let anyone fix my teeth in Molar City. Whatever feeling of wealth I possessed evaporated when it came time to put some money down. Gambling gives you a feeling of unaccountable wealth right up until the moment you actually place your bet, at which point you see the hard material kernel of your fate taken out of your hands. Sitting in my hotel room comparing prices, I wasn’t confident that I wouldn’t spend too much on the wrong thing. Less a gambler than an idiot. If anthropologists were to unearth my dental remains a thousand years hence, I wondered what conclusions my teeth might contribute to: a snapshot of a rapaciously commodified healthcare system? Evidence of a needless bifurcation in the care of a whole self? Errata from the brink of a pandemic? Or just the deviance of an individually inattentive, unhygienic person? I didn’t want to admit it had gotten that far. Since then, nothing has changed that hasn’t gotten worse. The teeth that hurt still do, more impudently or just more often. I don’t have insurance anymore, but I hope to soon. I nag myself to make appointments. *** People dream of their teeth falling out all the time. Books say these dreams are usually about money. Once, while waiting to get an emergency root canal, I found myself in an enormous luxury mall. It was close to the office of the only oral surgeon who could fit me in, so I walked around and watched people buy rose gold phones, GORE-TEX jackets, Swiss watches. I felt the immense cushioning of non-emergency spending around me through a fog of sleeplessness and painkillers. In the food court I stared at an enormous light sculpture and thought about the money I was losing taking time off work and trying to remember the details of my health insurance. I wondered why my teeth failed so reliably, while on YouTube I could watch a man pull a school bus with his. When I finally collapsed into the surgeon’s chair, he asked me if I wanted nitrous oxide for the procedure. Nitrous is an odorless, colourless gas that produces euphoria upon inhaling. It separates your head from your body, making everywhere down there seem supremely uninteresting. Might as well be watching someone reset a Wi-Fi router. It’s an incredible luxury to be able to watch surgery of your own body with disinterest. It’s so rich it makes sense to me that you can only absorb it in aerosol, mixed in with equal parts oxygen. When the oral surgeon fit the snug little helmet over my nose and turned the valve that released the nitrous, I fell backwards into the purest kind of oblivion. I heard the drill that broke up the dead tooth I could no longer feel. It sounded like billiard balls being pocketed. I felt the oral surgeon force a metal wire into the decayed pulp of the tooth, beneath the mineralized enamel, into the pure root of the tooth. It felt like someone tugging on my shirt sleeve. After the decayed root is removed, an antimicrobial, allergen free cement is poured into the gum, sealing it off. That’s the end of organic life there, the evolutionary layers of calcified balance replaced with ceramics and alloy. The day I flew out of Yuma and back to Toronto, I met a man in a Mexican restaurant. He interrogated the waitress about his order, specifying that he could only eat something soft, which made me suspect he had just come from Los Algodones. We talked a bit about the dentists we’d visited and exchanged the kind of vague but gregarious biographical detail you do when talking to strangers. When I told him I was from Toronto he told me he had once visited there and bought a sumptuous length of blue velvet, decorated with nebulae and comets. He said he was a wizard, which I assume is something like a magician. He chewed his enchiladas delicately. After I left the restaurant, I waited for the bus in front of an abandoned hotel, watching a train carry tanks and army jeeps through town. I still dream of rows of perfectly arranged, decay-free teeth. In my mind’s eye, it’s unclear whether these teeth are artificial or simply imported from another life. The distinction matters less the more I think about it. What matters, the crux of the fantasy, is that these teeth would be completely unreadable. No record of life discernable from their striations, no history of injury or patterns of migration. No price tag, which is how you’d know they were really expensive. They would be so perfect, the material so elegantly arranged and the surfaces so smoothly uncommunicative that they would offer a future observer no information about the body they were embedded in. They would be objects of pure luxury, gleaming and mute down to the cellular level.
The author of White Tears/Brown Scars on white feminism, neo-imperialism, and white women as instruments of power.
I moved from India to the UK when I was a teenager—a sentence that begins numerous stories as old as the diaspora. What often follows: the wonder, the terror, the hall of trick mirrors unfolding wherever you go. This is the reflection I still see today: I’m 19, sitting on my campus-housing single bed with my new friends. We’ve come to adore each other very quickly, and as we chat, laugh, and sometimes disagree, my heart feels light and full. And then, a moment after I finish saying something, my favourite of these new friends widens her eyes and says in the softest, loveliest voice, “Sometimes when you speak, Richa, I feel really scared.” There’s nothing that truly conveys the sinking shame of this moment; unless, of course, you’ve experienced it yourself. Ruby Hamad writes, “The younger cousin of the Angry Black Woman, the Angry Brown Woman is not critical: she is vitriolic . . . She is not assertive: she is scary. She is . . . permanently, well, angry—not because of anything that has been done to her . . . but simply because that is what she is.” Hamad’s book White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color (Catapult) is an expansive uncovering of the ties between white supremacy and white feminism, and the resulting scars borne by generations of women of colour. With interviews, cultural criticism, and historical analysis, Hamad’s is a text in which women of colour will find much-needed solace, but also one that calls on white women to notice how they tearfully assert their own race to gain sympathy and support. The “damsel in distress”—like my soft-spoken British friend—is always white, and by virtue of her whiteness, is never scary or angry, and certainly never wrong. From BBQ Becky to every iteration of Karen, she is “just being honest”—or so she leads us to believe. But, as Hamad writes, “For women of colour to be free of racism and for white women to be free of patriarchy, it is the damsel who must be damned.” Richa Kaul Padte: Ruby, I don’t know how to even begin this interview, because I’ve underlined half your book! But maybe let’s start at its heart: white women’s weaponized tears. You write, “I couldn’t understand why and how I would end up apologizing to them when I knew they had . . . done me harm.” I double underlined and starred this, because it has happened to me so many times! I never gave it name or form, though, and always ended up feeling like I was to blame. Ruby Hamad: Thank you Richa, that is so kind of you to say! This—brown and Black women writing to let me know they’ve experienced that same sensation you just described as they read the book—has by far been the most rewarding aspect of writing White Tears/Brown Scars. You write, “Strategic White Womanhood makes personal what is political.” How does this reversal of the long-held feminist tenet through tears become an act of white power? Ah, thank you for noting that! I was very deliberate in my choice of words there but I think you might the first interviewer to point it out? When I meant there is that Strategic White Womanhood—the name I give to the performative adoption of victim status—strips away political, social, and racial context, so that whatever the woman of colour says (my book focuses on the dynamic between white women and non-white women, though this also applies in other contexts), is reframed as a failing of her own personality. Rather than interpret her words as constructive criticism or as mere disagreement, Strategic White Womanhood positions her as engaging in bullying for her own individual gain. The white woman assumes the role of victim so that the woman of colour’s words are perceived as illegitimate personal attacks, as though she has some kind of vendetta. This, of course, buttresses white power because it negates the power discrepancy between white women and brown/Black women, and so reinforces the racial hierarchy that assigns innocence to white people and various degrees of guilt to everyone else. That racism “is not so much embedded in the fabric of society as it is the fabric” has a lot to do with colonialism, where “White Womanhood . . . whitewashed the crimes of whiteness [and] functioned as the maternal arm of empire.” How did this play out, and what is the legacy it has left us with today? Well, what I say in the book at several different points—and again this is something that surprised me as it seems to have been lost in much of the response to this book—is that my thesis in White Tears/Brown Scars is not only that white feminism exploits women of colour (though of course I do cover that terrain, too) but that there is a deliberate divide that colonizers created between European women and colonized women, and this gulf is the seed from which white supremacy was cultivated. White supremacy positions itself as “good,” “moral,” “innocent,” and “civilized.” All these qualities were said to be embodied in the white woman and to be entirely lacking in all other women, so much so that they were not regarded or treated as “women” at all. So, the legacy of White Womanhood is white supremacy. This is where so many of the attempts of white feminists to grapple with whiteness leave me cold. They still position whiteness as a problem of white males and patriarchy, where in fact, white supremacy has always been both paternalistic and maternalistic in its execution. Where white feminism comes into it is that, in order to understand why we have such a thing as “white feminism,” we have to understand that Western liberal feminism developed out of White Womanhood—itself a very narrow concept that was not so much about white women as people but white women as instruments of power—that was created in order to secure political, economic, and social (read: total) domination for whites in the colonies. So that is another legacy. White feminism is and always has been by its very nature an iteration of white supremacy. You can’t fix white feminism because it is not broken. It functions exactly as intended; you can only fight it until it is defeated. Yes! The innocence and goodness ascribed to white women by imperialism was actively denied to colonized women, who were seen as “at once desirable and disgusting,” depending on what was convenient. You write, “This degradation served as both metaphor and rationale for the inevitable march of Western civilization.” How? Well, metaphorically, colonized women were depicted as “easy,” and so conquering them was akin to conquering their lands. Their supposed “easiness” was then rationalized as the reason for their abuse at the hands of white colonizers. So, in the same way that the women were perceived as so promiscuous they were literally asking for it, the communities and cultures from which these women came were perceived as somehow willingly submitting to being colonized and subjugated. A culture that didn’t “respect” women in the exact way that European colonizers deluded themselves into believing they respected “their” women, was a culture that they believed did not deserve to exist. You explore how white feminism uses the idea of a sisterhood to “appropriate our work to advance the myth of a better world run by women.” And it’s in the name of this same so-called sisterhood that we’re criticized for raising issues of racism in feminism, for wrecking sister solidarity. In this context, white women also “adopt a self serving ‘intersectional feminist’ identity, both as a shield . . . and a weapon.” This really stuck with me, and also made me wonder: should we aspire to something other than intersectionality—and if yes, what? I appreciate this question so much. Again, you alone appear have picked up on an important undercurrent in my book, which is that I am increasingly dissatisfied with “intersectional feminism.” I want to be clear that this is not a problem of Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, but very much a problem of its execution once it became popular among white feminists. Intersectionality and “intersectional feminism,” in my mind, are not the same things. Even long before this book, I was noticing that “intersectional feminism” was only applied to those living in the West. So, we were seeing things like more brown, Black, disabled, queer, trans, and so on people in advertising campaigns for massive corporations like H&M, but there was little patience for engaging with anything but the most superficial critique of the business practices of Big Fashion, including of course the exploitation of the labour of women and girls in the Global South. I wrote several pieces on this in Australian media and gave some speeches on it too, but like a lot of things, the critique didn’t pick up here. That’s a whole other story, but Australia is particularly poor at having these discussions. Another example that I do go into in the book is neo-imperialism and how there is just no room, it seems, for a genuinely critical mainstream feminist critique of Western intervention in the Middle East. What we do see is exaltation when barriers are broken in the military for women and other marginalized genders without much introspection on what the function of the military actually is in today’s world. It’s basically what I only half-jokingly call intersectional fascism—to be so mindful of everyone’s right in the West to engage in imperialism overseas. “Whiteness was invisible. White people just were. They set the standard and we had to try and meet it.” I love that you reference non-white hair and noses to illustrate this (the two features that have plagued me the most!), but also the way you link this invisible standard of whiteness to colourism—“the yearning to distance oneself from Blackness in order to be included in whiteness.” And it’s true, there is such a deep-rooted belief in many (especially privileged) brown communities that we are “practically white.” Who pays the price for this bid that we make to “pass?” Thank you! I want to clarify, as I have seen that line about the white standard referenced a fair bit, that I am paraphrasing Richard Dyer’s statement: “White people set the standard by which they are bound to succeed and others bound to fail.” But to answer your question, well, the people who suffer most acutely as a result of colourism and passing are dark-skinned Black people. The darker skinned you are, the more you will feel on a day-to-day basis the effects of a world that prizes whiteness above all else. We all, however, pay a price, some of us a larger one than others. I can speak to Arabs and the Levant region of the Middle East directly, as that is my heritage, and I will say here that I am immensely frustrated at how eagerly many Levantine Arabs embrace whiteness, as if they really see themselves as part of the white world because they are not as dark as some other races. It’s completely irrational because if the West genuinely regarded Arabs and the Middle East more generally to be “white,” they wouldn’t be invading and bombing it every two minutes. Palestinians would not be living under Israeli military occupation and Lebanon would not be permanently on the brink of total collapse, held hostage to sanctions. And, of course, we would not be blanketly demonized as savages, terrorists, and religious fanatics, as if these are intrinsic “Arab” characteristics. Whiteness is more than skin colour. It is a political status. You are not white merely because you see yourself as white—you become white when other white people decide to confer that status on you unconditionally, meaning you are privy to all the benefits that this status entails. It can’t be stressed enough: as fundamental as anti-Blackness is to racism, if we assume that being “white” is only about skin colour, then we will never understand it well enough to effectively challenge it. As I say in my book, “identity may be about how we see ourselves but race is about how others see us, regardless.” And please Arabs, read Orientalism (or at least an Orientalism explainer) before you try to claim whiteness! Something I think about a lot is how colonialism mapped perfectly on to the existing caste system in South Asia—itself a logic of supremacy based on ethnic purity. For example, British women were known as memsahibs, who “constructed their own womanhood in opposition to the women they colonized” (a very Orientalist move). But today, it’s Indian upper caste women who are called memsahibs, so much so that until I read your book, I didn’t know the word’s origins! And I wonder, is this perfect marriage of imperialism and Brahminical (upper caste) supremacy one of the reasons you don’t explore South Asia much in your book? Because personally, I can’t imagine how we can even begin to address white supremacy until we dismantle our own terrible caste system. I did not know that this is the current usage of the word “memsahib!” How fascinating. The reason I don’t explore South Asia as much as Australia, the US, and Rhodesia is because my main focus was Western nation-states that began as settler-colonies. But yes, India, like many Arab states, has to deal with its own internal system of oppression as well as tackling white supremacy. I cite the work of Neha Mishra, who argues that the caste system, although already in place before colonization, was not one based on skin colour, but that whiteness made it this way over time. I think that indicates how deeply enmeshed they are. I think a similar thing applies to the Middle East, where hierarchies were historically based on religious denomination rather than ethnicity. I think religion continues to be the dominant form of oppression in the Middle East, but over time this has expanded to incorporate race as part of its rationale.
The search for the man behind the first Canadian hip hop single reveals the inequity in how creative contributions are remembered.
One of the earliest known Canadian hip hop songs ever cut is Mr. Q’s 1979 single “Ladies Delight,” though you won’t find that in any history books. Instead, the group credited for being first in Canada on the hip hop tip in The Canadian Encyclopedia, national publications like Exclaim!, and collections like Hip Hop Around The World, An Encyclopedia is Singing Fools, an Ottawa-based duo who released the politically-charged lo-fi song “The Bum Rap” in 1982. Despite the former members of the band denying this claim fiercely on their own upload of the song to YouTube, and a growing wealth of community history and knowledge to the contrary, their name has remained synonymous with being first. Though Mr. Q intentionally cultivated an air of anonymity, his absence from Canadian music history has more to do with the erasure of Black contributions to Canadian arts in the historical record than his mysterious persona. Following the clues Mr. Q left behind in his work reveals a Canadian music industry where few opportunities were afforded to Black artists, and where there was even less desire to substantively document how artists like Mr. Q began carving their own paths. His debut appearance, “Ladies Delight,” is a nod to “Rappers Delight.” Mr. Q even goes so far as to diss the Sugarhill Gang in the song: Now I heard about Sugar, I heard about HillLet me say they got no skillAll these guys wish they could rapOught to go somewhere and shut their yap Like the instrumentals of “Rapper’s Delight,” which is a re-recorded interpolation, not sample, of Chic’s “Good Times,” Mr. Q’s tune makes use of a full band to recreate the hook from Cameo’s “I Just Want To Be.” This style deviates from the Bronx-based hip hop that was emergent at the time, where the presence and influence of a DJ was just as integral as the MC. Lyrically and vocally, Mr. Q’s rapping is playful, sometimes nonsensical, and emblematic of the period. The song leads off a string of singles by Mr. Q that year, all released via Toronto-based label Monica’s Production. Aside from the label’s location, headquartered in Little Jamaica in the city’s west end, there’s not much to pin the anonymous artist to Toronto. But fleshing out his exact ties to the city fundamentally changes the way that the roots of Canadian hip hop are understood: shifting its growth and development from the hands of two white dudes in Ottawa to Toronto’s Caribbean community and specifically, to the basement of a cosmetic supply store on Eglinton Avenue. *** Monica’s Production was named for owner George Lewis’s wife, whose store in the heart of Little Jamaica acted as the headquarters for Lewis’s company and record shop. (Though the record store is no longer, Monica's Cosmetic Supplies LTD still stands on Eglinton, with its yellow sign proudly marking it as the location of "George The Record Man." The Lewises still own and operate the business.) Lewis used the label as a way to put a local spin on popular musical trends and to import music from the Caribbean, releasing singles from reggae artists Hortense Ellis and Johnny Clarke, alongside local transplants Aubrey Mann and Pamela Maynard. The cross between domestic and international artists on the label’s roster casts doubt on whether Mr. Q was in fact Toronto-based. Soul Jazz Records included one of his songs, "DJ Style," on their 2006 compilation Big Apple Rappin': The Early Days Of Hip-Hop Culture In New York City 1979-1982. But it’s Mr. Q’s last 1979 single that puts the artist firmly in Toronto. The B-side to “Party, Party,” “Party Rapp,” finds Mr. Q rapping over a driving, funkier interpolation of Stargard’s “Theme from Which Way Is Up” about a Mississauga train derailment in November of that year. The accident, which caused an explosion and subsequent leak of chlorine gas, saw 200,000 people evacuated from the suburb just west of Toronto. This detail puts the recording of his first four singles somewhere between September and December of 1979 and clearly suggests he’s one of the GTA’s own. In 1980, Lewis changed the name of Monica’s Production to Scorpio Records, and their 1981 release Rap The Night Away offers another clue about Mr. Q’s identity and a larger picture of Canadian hip hop history. These songs were recorded in a similar fashion to the Mr. Q cuts and featured many of the same players—with a live band recreating and rapping over the instrumentals of popular songs of the time, like “More Bounce To The Ounce,” “Take Your Time (Do It Right),” and “Second Time Around.” The album features several original Mr. Q cuts, and this time offers song writing credits. Depending on whether you’re looking at a version released by Amherst Records in the United States or Scorpio’s Canadian one, the record is credited to The Bobby Deemo Band or not credited to anyone at all. (The American version is called More Ounce Rap.) Not much information about “Bobby Deemo” exists online, save for a Maisonneuve article from 2010 that is also scant on details, though it assumes “Bobby Deemo” is one person. In fact, it’s two: Bobby Boyer and Demetrius “Demo” Cates, musicians who made their way to Toronto from Detroit in the early 1970s. “I came up to Canada to record an album,” Cates recalls of his tenure with the Detroit funk group The Fabulous Counts, who dropped the “Fabulous” from their name in 1971 for their Toronto-recorded album What's Up Front That Counts. “I loved Toronto and I wound up staying.” The vocalist and saxophonist, now 71, put down roots in the city and, save for a brief stint in New York, has called it home ever since. Though he had come up in the R&B world, with his move to Toronto came jazzier aspirations, and Cates began to gig with prolific guitarist Lenny Breau. It wasn’t long, though, before R&B called him back, and Cates got approached by a slew of local label owners from the city’s Caribbean community to record. Among them was George Lewis. “I was doing records for these different Caribbean producers, not singing, just playing saxophone,” Cates remembers. “But George and Monica allowed me to do other things because they were starting a company—nobody had a company like theirs. They were using Black musicians, some from the city and some were from the islands, and we started producing these songs.” Cates connected with fellow Detroit ex-pat Bob Boyer and his brother Fred, known then as The Boyer Brothers, and brought them to the sessions. “[Demo] came to me with an idea about a party type thing. [George Lewis] wanted a party record. I was like, ‘Really? What kind of situation is it?’ He said, ‘Do you know anything about rapping?’ Well yeah!” Boyer laughs. Though he was born in Windsor, Ontario, Boyer’s family moved to Detroit shortly thereafter. Looking back, Boyer describes the city as being a formative influence on his vocal style and the ability to rap well before he arrived in Toronto. History confirms not only a rich cultural dialogue between Toronto and Detroit, but that Toronto's hip hop culture has long been supported by the city's Caribbean community. The existence of this music fundamentally subverts the notion that Canadians didn’t participate in hip hop culture until the 1980s. In fact, our connection to the emerging style happened in parallel with cities like New York and Philadelphia as early as 1979. In spite of all of that, few of the figures who did that integral work are remembered in the cultural imagination in the way New York and Philadelphia rappers, like Kurtis Blow and Lady B, are. *** While hip hop was born in the Bronx, the art of rapping dates back much further. Scholars have tied the vocal technique to jazz, the blues, and African musical traditions. For Boyer, it was something he’d picked up off the radio in his youth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “In Detroit, Frantic Ernie, Butter Ball, Butter Ball Jr, Nat Keller—these were the guys on the radio. When they talked, they would rhyme,” he explains. Boyer and his childhood friends would imitate the tight, rhythmic rhyming on their own. “We would go to the show on a Saturday afternoon. Didn’t nobody want to catch the bus because you could get a drink with the bus fare that you’d pay, so we would walk and we would rhyme. It would be seven to eight of us, sometimes ten or eleven, and that’s what we used to do. It’d be like playing the dozens—the kid had to rhyme. If you didn’t rhyme, you were out.” Histories of hip hop in Detroit point to Felix and Jarvis’s 1982 single “Flamethrower Rap” as the earliest hip hop single recorded by a Detroit-based artist. It was released by Toronto’s own Quality Records. The synth-heavy post-disco R&B style bears a strong resemblance to the Bobby/Demo and Mr. Q material, right down to the interpolation of J. Geils Band’s “Flamethrower.” As the hip hop scene in the city progressed, it did so in step with techno, a high-tempo form of electronic music powered by the Roland TR-808 drum machine and synths that emerged in the wake of disco and has shaped the city’s hip hop sound ever since. Toronto’s scene was also heavily influenced by the role of radio, especially with the arrival of DJ Ron Nelson whose Fantastic Voyage show could be heard on Ryerson Polytechnical Institute’s 88.1 CKLN FM. His show helped draw attention to hip hop development throughout North America and acted as a catalyst for more organizing and connections on the local level, fostering the scene’s steady growth. Early on, this took the form of sound systems and DJ crews, like TKO Sound, The Imagination, Kilowatt Sound, and Sunshine, who would play events that Nelson would often organize and promote. These crews and their competitions became the main touch points for hip hop in the city, and drew directly from the influence of Jamaican sound clash culture. They also provided an early introduction to many of the city’s second generation of MCs, spawning the first major-label successes by the late 1980s in rappers Michie Mee and Maestro Fresh Wes. The absence of Mr. Q or Bobby/Demo from the history books could be easily attributed to the relatively small nature of Scorpio’s basement-run operation, so it's important to highlight that as Scorpio was releasing music from Mr. Q and Bobby/Demo it was putting out other important work by local musicians that made waves beyond Toronto, reaching pinnacles of success in the Canadian music industry. One of the last Mr. Q songs features a young Liberty Silver, who became the first Black woman to win a Juno award in 1985 for her album Lost Somewhere Inside Your Love. That year marked the introduction of the Best R&B/Soul Recording category at the awards, and Silver was nominated alongside label-mate Demo Cates, whose album Memories of Moments was his first solo LP of original material and one of several he recorded for Scorpio. Journalist Norman Otis Richmond penned the liner notes for that 1981 record, which opened: "Canada has not been kind to creative artists in general and black artists in particular . . . Demo Cates' first solo album Memories of Moments should reverse this situation." The music being released by Scorpio inspired a real sense of hope and optimism that things would change, but for every artist on the roster who broke down barriers and forged new paths, there has been a more deliberate erasure of those accomplishments. What’s responsible for this cultural amnesia? “[The] role of the market in determining how history is written,” says Canadian hip hop scholar Mark V. Campbell. As the founding director of Northside Hip Hop Archive, he has been working for the past decade to expand the breadth of knowledge and cultural and critical dialogue on the subject of Canadian hip hop. “[The project] is about individuals becoming conscientious of the historical process and leveraging technology and all of the digital affordances at hand to mitigate the ways in which Black life and Black musical accomplishments will be obscured and buried,” he says. As successful and important as they are, Campbell says foregrounding later artists like Michie Mee or Maestro (or even the impact of hit singles like “Rapper’s Delight”) gives forces like sales or chart positions too much say in how hip hop culture and history is formed and remembered. That line of thinking especially promotes and reinforces a narrative that hip hop in Canada didn’t exist prior to the signing of artists and production of records by major labels, a system that historically shut out Black musicians. Through gallery shows, books, events, school curriculum, and documenting archival material, Northside’s work has been about emphasizing the community-driven aspects of hip hop culture. That college radio DJ Ron Nelson is now properly credited as a formative influence on the genre in CBC's recent This Is Not A Drake Podcast, or that Daniel Tate and Rob Bowman’s 2019 gig poster chronicle, The Flyer Vault: 150 Years of Toronto Concert History, uncovers an ad for one of the earliest known performances of hip hop in the city (on November 3, 1979, coincidentally Scorpio season) within the pages of Black community newspaper Share, is proof of the work Northside is doing in expanding the narrative beyond the industry. “[The dominant narrative] obscures the lack of infrastructure from day one that hip hop artists have been working against,” says Campbell. “The recording industry is deeply anti-Black.” *** “‘Q’ like a question mark. It was just to keep people guessing who it was,” explains Jay McGee about why he chose to call himself Mr. Q. “I felt that at the time it was just a side thing, I thought of myself more as an R&B singer.” Over the phone from his home in Flint, Michigan, McGee recounts how, like Boyer and Cates, he came up to Toronto from Detroit in the early 1970s, and became involved with recording for Monica’s Production and later Scorpio Records. McGee had become a regular session vocalist at the studio Kensington Sound, where many of the Mr. Q and Bobby/Demo songs were eventually recorded. He says he enjoyed the challenge and wanted to be as versatile a performer as he could, but he had no aspirations of making rap his career. Boyer and Cates also shared this sentiment, although all three were careful to articulate that they still enjoyed making the music and took it as an opportunity to challenge themselves creatively as artists. “I thought of myself more as an R&B singer,” McGee recalls. “I’ve always heard singers, people who can only do a certain style of music, and I always wanted to be the person who did more than that. I’ve always practiced being rhythmic, but then I want to be a good ballad singer too. I was just trying to be everything that I felt was in me.” Scorpio Records existed in spite of the anti-Blackness of the industry, and for many artists it acted as a supportive alternative. In 1975, Jamaican transplants Crack of Dawn became the first Black Canadian band to sign to a major label in the country. Though McGee would lead a later incarnation of that group, few opportunities like it existed for Black musicians at the time, which made a label like Scorpio a vital home for Black art and creativity. “Most of the other doors were closed to us,” McGee recalls. “To their credit, Columbia had signed Crack of Dawn, but there was nobody else on major labels. We didn’t really dwell on it, though. It produced a cohesiveness between us. We all worked together. It was amazing what was going on in Toronto at that time. We might’ve been forced out of the mainstream but we were working and learning together.” McGee says that the spirit of community fostered by Scorpio manifested in Lewis’s relations with the artists. “George was a lifesaver. I remember one night being between jobs and not really knowing if [my wife and I] were going to eat the next day,” he says. “I was living over on Rogers Road, we were just newly married, and George knocked on the window and said, ‘Jay, wanna come to the studio tomorrow and do a couple tunes?’ He paid me that night and everything was fine.” Though the label ceased releasing new music by the late 1980s, today that community spirit is the only thing standing between Little Jamaica and complete gentrification. While Monica’s Cosmetic Supplies remains on Eglinton in the same place it has occupied since 1965, the future of the business is unclear. Even before COVID-19, the ongoing construction along Eglinton West for Toronto’s planned Metrolinx Crosstown LRT transit project threatened to close the business and many others like it in the neighbourhood. GoFundMe campaigns have been launched, and there are calls from community-led organizations like Reclaim Rebuild Eglinton West to acknowledge the history of the Little Jamaica neighbourhood and enshrine it as the cultural hub that it is before it is completely lost. That the LRT project has been allowed to wreak as much damage as it has already speaks to the ways in which certain histories and narratives are prioritized while others are buried and forgotten. In this context of a quickly gentrifying neighbourhood and the dominance of the Canadian major label system, the absence of Scorpio Records and its artists from national narratives around our own hip hop history is more than just a convenient oversight. The forces that conspire to wipe Little Jamaica off the map are the same as those that continue to exclude Black artists from equal opportunities within the Canadian music industry, and are the same as those that drive organizations like Northside Hip Hop Archive to tell their own histories. There is a rich history of artistry and community in Canadian hip hop outside of major label involvement, and figures like Mr. Q and Bobby/Demo point us to new ways of thinking about success and about influence. Because through community support, they operated outside a system they had no place in and completely changed Canadian music in the process. Interviews for this piece were made possible through the support of the Ontario Arts Council Recommender Grant for Writers.
The author of Taking a Long Look on neighbourhoods, lost writers, and transitional generations.
“I don’t know from community,” said Vivian Gornick when I called her on an early afternoon in late January. “I know from neighbourhood.” As a child growing up in the Bronx, Gornick kept watch over her people—family, friends, lovers, comrades, enemies—those that lived under the same roof or shared the same walls, passing through the same blocks or intersecting at the same corners. Today, Gornick still lives in Manhattan, and has never stopped watching the scenes of the city play out in front of her eyes. “I feel like a tough old New Yorker,” she explained when we talked about the way the city’s population has responded to the pandemic. “And I must say this: I’ve been immensely proud of our ability to comply quickly and early, and in an odd way, I think it has to do with New Yorkers being attached to New York. People are kinder on the street; I see that all the time, I experience it, I practice it, I see how quickly people rush to offer some sort of help when it is still needed.” What turns proximity into solidarity? In the course of her career as an acclaimed critic, journalist, and memoirist, Gornick has often oriented her attention towards the collective: the way that groups of people experience a time or a cause greater than their own individual self. In the last fifty years she has published thirteen books and countless articles, many of which are classics of their respective genres. The 1969 article for The Village Voice, “The Next Great Moment in History Is Theirs,” for example, is a landmark account of a precise era in second-wave feminism as much as it is of her own newfound commitment to that cause. The recently re-released The Romance of American Communism, originally published in 1977, was a kind of oral history that stitched together first-hand recollections of people reflecting on the varying levels of attachment and disillusionment they experienced in years spent organizing with the Communist party. Her memoir Fierce Attachments, published ten years later, was another complex illumination on the nature of love and heartbreak between mothers, daughters, and everyone who comes in between. In the last year alone, four books by Gornick have been released or reissued: alongside Romance, there are new editions of Approaching Eye Level, a collection of essays first published in 1996, and The End of the Novel of Love from 1997, critiques and observations about the changing role of romance in contemporary literature. Unfinished Business, in 2020, was a new work reflecting on the books Gornick has reread most in her life. “The timing of their publication could be chalked up to the return of American socialism, or to the tendency to rediscover women artists in old age,” wrote Dayna Tortorici in a career-spanning retrospective essay for The New York Review of Books. “But the lasting value of her work lies in her commitment to the question of what it means to feel ‘expressive’: to experience the feeling that tells a person ‘not approximately, but precisely’ who they are.” This month, Verso Books publishes Taking A Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in Our Time, previously published essays from the past forty years that encompass her distinctive signatures: there are the authors who do or don’t deserve their due, vivid accounts of unexpected conversations, feminist groups at a crossroads, and the ever-expanding definition of the ineffable affects of what can reasonably be called a sensibility. Always, always there is that feeling of the neighbourly quality that Gornick knows best, of being present to offer and receive as needed. We talked for exactly the hour we had agreed upon—at fifty-nine minutes, Gornick warmly but abruptly wrapped up our call—and in that time our conversation moved between the works included in Taking A Long Look, how Gornick is staying safe in the pandemic, rereading her own rhetoric, and the feeling of living through histories. In having another occasion to consider Gornick, there are more opportunities to celebrate what makes her writing so distinctly her own—she is the rare writer who always wants to find, in a chorus, a voice. Haley Mlotek: You recently wrote about the changes the pandemic has forced on us. I wanted to ask if you have personally developed any new habits over the last year. Vivian Gornick: There’s this contradiction. On the one hand, I can say I live very much as I always have. I live alone, I work alone; of course, I’m used to being alone more than a lot of other people. On the other hand, it feels like it’s going on in some unreal circumstance. I still feel, like everybody else, that I’m living in a fog. I used to go out every single night to a play, movie, dinner, and I forget constantly that I can’t—I’m one of those people who whenever somebody says, like you, “Want to have a conversation?” I always say, “Oh, sure, I’ll meet you in the park.” I forget completely that it has to be the telephone, or this Zooming business, which I hate. In other words, it has created a lot of tension. I’m awed by the realization that I’m living through a world historic crisis. I’m very aware that the world has not been like this in one hundred years. And along those lines, I do have to say that I’m one of those writers who has always resisted the journalistic jump to proclaiming “the world will never be the same,” blah blah blah. When people ask, “What do you think comes next? What do you think the world will be like when this is over?” I always say, “How do I know? What do I know?” I’m aware of it, but I wouldn’t comment on it. Your work frequently references taking a reader behind your eyes and showing them what you want them to see—what are you looking at lately? I’ve been preoccupied with an essay I’ve been writing for a long, long time, on one of those lost writers. I discovered him when his work was republished and was immensely hooked emotionally on the tone, the feel, all the unspoken spokenness in his writing, and I wanted very much to write a piece that would make a reader feel what I felt. That’s always the aim. If I was a journalist, or a correspondent of some sort, I would want urgently for you to have the facts as I have them. But as I am, the hybrid writer, I want to tell a story. I want the reader to feel, rather than be instructed or given information. I guess that’s what my writing life has been devoted to. I don’t think I have a brilliant mind, but I have strong feelings and those strong feelings are my pride. They are what urge me to make my mind elucidate those feelings. I’m curious to know, when you talk about offering a feeling to a reader, if there are any formal qualities to a piece of writing that can communicate emotion—are there any particular properties of language that you find yourself relying on to transfer a feeling? That is such a hard question to answer. Sorry! And you know, especially for me, since I am not a writer who pays a great deal of attention to exactly what you’ve just described. “The properties of language” is a phrase that has never been in my vocabulary. I’m sure I employ some, but I started as a polemicist at The Village Voice, covering radical feminism, and that taught me the meaning of a point of view. I didn’t hesitate to use rhetoric. I was involved in making a political and cultural point, and I was conscious of that. I wanted the reader to feel what I was feeling, but it wasn’t writerly; it was political and cultural. When I wrote Fierce Attachments, I became another sort of writer, a memoirist. The individuation of emotional intelligence was there rather than cultural or political intelligence, but I retained the importance of that point of view, which had to control all the material. The language had to get more and more refined if it was to really do an adequate job of connecting the reader as I wanted to. In this collection, for instance, the last section reproduces some of those feminist essays from those days. I didn’t want them in, because I can’t stand the rhetoric in most of them, but my editor insisted because they’re part of my history. And that’s certainly true. But when I read it, I see the care with which I developed over the years in culling those sentences completely free of rhetoric. I was able more and more to catch myself when I was falling into locutions like “beyond a doubt” or “there is no question that,” and similar stuff that I did more than my share of. I would write these long, fancy sentences that had too many words in them. Now I’m more devoted to the simple sentence, the clear and lucid one. You mentioned something that I did want to ask about—how you decided which essays to include in this collection—and so I guess there’s one answer, that your editor recommended you include what seemed most relevant to your history. If I could bear the rhetoric, it went in. Most of the pieces I still stand by. There’s very little in which I think I was off the mark. The essays that felt like a bridge between now and then are in it, but mostly I think if you look through all the pieces that were written over those years, the line of thinking does develop. I’m looking with more nuance at the situation, which has, of course, remained the same all of those years. I like the pieces in that sense. They make some important observations about the situation as it was then. You know, for us, it was all reinventing the wheel. It was all an astonishing sudden discovery. And the richness of whatever I have written, they’re all much more reminiscent of the time than anything else: of the atmosphere with which people like me were saying, “Can you believe this?” Which now feels so nostalgia-ridden. I often do wish I was back there, because it was so full of hope. When the #MeToo movement hit three years ago, I was so shocked and pained to see, in a certain sense, how little had changed. I’ve been telling this to young people a lot lately. I know as a young woman I thought, forty years from now, my god, it’ll be another world. And in some sense, it is. We’ve accomplished a tremendous amount. On the other hand, it makes you realize it isn’t over until it’s over. To some degree, that’s made me a little bitter. Bitterness isn’t my style, but I do feel it when I regret that as hard as things were forty years ago, you could believe in progress. You could believe a new world was coming. Nevertheless, I’m really proud of all the young women who do so much. It really thrills me that whenever anything happens that’s violently sexist, in ten minutes, the whole world of the internet lights up. Thousands of wonderfully intelligent young women throwing in their two cents. I feel mother to it all, grandmother, but I do like that a lot. In the same way, when The Romance of American Communism was reissued last year, you mentioned being a little surprised by the response and feeling conflicted about the writing. I was wondering how you felt about today’s romance for that particular era of organizing. Well, you know, romance is more than a double-edged sword. Romance is something that I fall to, like many. At the same time, second-wave feminism was very big on resisting romance. I wanted to see things as they were, and I’ve written a lot about that—about resisting sentimentality. When I chose the title, I meant it in a lot of different ways, and now young people respond in ways that are shocking to me. The romance of Communism speaks to some of the downsides of what it was—it speaks for the bittersweet longing to be part of something larger than yourself. The book is meant to be a record of people both succumbing to and fighting the authoritarianism of a piece of moral philosophy that they couldn’t walk away from. I’m very sympathetic to it. It broke my heart. At the same time, I think I romanticized it myself, and so to watch other people romanticize it even further away from the realities has just been a shock to me. That’s essentially it. When I was rereading a lot of your work, I noticed how consistently you write about the role the collective has played in your life, and how important it is to resist or critique the idea of “the brilliant exceptions,” those singular stars of a movement. But I was thinking, too, how hard that is for both writing and research—literature wants a protagonist, and history wants a leader. As a writer, how do you deal with that sort of central tension between the way things are and the elements that make a good story? It’s very hard. Well, actually, I shouldn’t say it’s hard. It depends on what your agenda is. If I set out to tell a story about the psychological and emotional complications among people, that’s one thing. If I am setting out to call attention to a moral or social injustice that I feel strongly about, that’s another thing. When you apply that word to writers—agenda—you say that a journalist has one agenda, and a novelist has another. You take the same piece of material, you take the same set of circumstances, you take the same protagonist, and you come up with something completely different in each. There are different uses at different times. Even in the period of radical feminism that I associate myself with, I hardly ever could go to a meeting. I couldn’t stand the meetings. I did it out of a sense of obligation to the movement, but there was a time when the collective stirred me deeply. As I got older, it became less and less compelling to put aside the injustices that, in seeking justice for myself, I inevitably committed against others. Look again at the #MeToo movement. It has pained me horribly to see due process at work. I won’t go overboard to see men whose crimes were not of a criminal [nature] being punished as if they were. It’s very hard to think two things at once, but I more or less do. I’m very glad that #MeToo developed. I could never disavow it. Never. On the other hand, if I’m in the jury box, it feels like every single case has to be fought on its own terms. There can be no looking at things and saying that it’s just because he’s a man, even though I often feel that way. We’ll never get justice with that approach. Whereas 40 years ago, I think I wouldn’t have thought twice about any of it; I would have been “off with his head,” like everyone else. It’s a hard time to live all over again. I’ve had to think more about these things than I had in a long time, and I’ve enjoyed that. But I have no great wisdom on the subject. It seems that there’s a similar tension between the collective and the individual when you talk about stories of an injustice done by one person. How do you respond to one instance, knowing that one person is an actor in, or a representative of, an entire system, but not necessarily the inventor of it? Precisely. And I think that’s the better part of valour to square that. To pay more attention to individual justice and collective punishment. But then, what changed for you? I know a lot of time passed, and with that time any change is natural, but do you see any sort of defined reasons for how your thinking is different now? When I was writing for the Voice, it wasn’t that I was looking to punish people who others might think were innocent or anything like that. It was just the way I saw things. I went out into the street; I saw sexism everywhere. It was my absorption. It was the colour of the world, the sound of the air. I can’t explain it any more than that. It was the way others have described a sudden conversion to religion. At the same time, I was in the middle of a divorce, and I wasn’t getting divorced because I suddenly saw my husband as a sexist pig. He wasn’t at all. But I had no compassion whatsoever. There were definitely male-female things that were driving us apart without me being overtly political about it. I could never see his side, never. No matter what happened, I just could not see things the way he saw them, and I don’t think that’s true anymore. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. He would often say to me: “It’s taken me my whole life to learn the rules, and now you’re pulling them out from under my feet.” So, there’s too many things to consider here. On the one hand I defend them as individuals for whom the punishment does not fit the crime. On the other hand, I wouldn’t let them off the hook for a second. We have a lot on our plate. We all have to become philosophers. And to go back to your metaphor about being in the jury box, part of what makes this so hard is to watch how quickly people would prefer to think of themselves as prosecutors rather than philosophers. Right. But you have made it a much more interesting time to be living in. Relatedly, there was a phrase in one of your earlier essays that I paused at—you mention the struggle of being in a “transitional generation,” and I instinctively related to that, but it made me think: is any generation not transitional? Does anybody arrive in the moment they’re meant to be in? Well, I don’t think my mother lived in a transitional generation. There are a lot of decades that are sort of somnolent. Politics and society are in a dead lull. Look at Victorian times, for instance; there was no transitional generation for like 50, 60 years. The whole second half of the 20th century is constant turbulence. Just think about the things that have happened since the 1940s and ’50s. My mother used to say to me, with great bitterness, that this time was shocking to her. She said, “We lived decent lives, sweetie.” She would say that the unhappiness was so alive. And I said, “Ma, that’s the only way things change, when the unhappiness is alive.” And that was the truth about her life. She lived this ordinary, repressed life in which people never got divorced, never thought about the actual marriages they were living through. Now it’s change, every ten years. Living through history is bumpy. Yeah. You’re living in history. We’re all living in history. They were not. Me and my brother and my nieces, our lives have been utterly different. Utterly. Okay, my dear, I think that’s it.
The author of Dog Flowers on the tactility of weaving, the complicated nature of writing about family, and being “ghost-sick.”
After American writer Danielle Geller’s mother passed away from alcohol withdrawal during a period of homelessness, she was left with an old leather suitcase filled with her mother’s diaries, photos, letters, and other personal documents. Geller wasn’t raised by her mother and in the aftermath of her death, she began combing through the ephemera to search for clues to better understand a woman she hardly knew. A trained librarian and archivist, Geller used the diaries and letters to retrace her mother’s history, from leaving the Navajo reservation at 19 and marrying Geller’s father, to becoming a mother and struggling with addiction. Geller would write for up to 16 hours a day about their relationship and her own childhood. Every time she finished a section, she’d mail it to her sister Eileen, who at the time was serving a short sentence in jail. These letters would eventually become the first draft of Geller’s debut memoir, Dog Flowers (One World). In Dog Flowers, Geller artfully braids together her mother’s history with her own personal story, a process that reveals how intergenerational trauma, harmful relationships, addiction, and immense grief rippled through both of their lives. The memoir also follows Geller’s journey of meeting her mother’s extended family on the reservation and exploring the Navajo identity she felt disconnected from by being raised by her white paternal grandmother. Throughout the book, some of her mother’s personal belongings, like old family photos, childhood drawings, and diary entries, are presented as though in a public archive. In the final week of January, I spoke with Geller about family, missing the desert, and practicing forgiveness. Samantha Edwards: When you started writing Dog Flowers, you sent what would become the first draft to your sister Eileen. What was her reaction? I believe at one point, she said you couldn’t publish what you had written. Danielle Geller: Yeah [laughs]. Actually, many people have said that to me over the years. My sister, my aunt, basically everyone was trying to put limits on what I was writing or how I was writing about it. That was part of the book—there were so many secrets, so many things left unsaid. It felt like it was all contributing to the hurt and preventing us from healing or repairing our relationships. I was mailing my sister these giant, thick envelopes filled with all these pages I was writing. At first I was writing about our childhood and things she didn’t remember, so it was a way for her to experience her childhood in a way that she didn’t have access to. But as the pages I was writing got closer to the present and about some of her struggles with addiction and things she felt shame about, she wanted me to turn it into fiction. [She’d say,] “Why does it have to be true? Why can’t you change the identities? Why can’t you write a story that’s not connected to me?” Did she come around to the idea of it being a memoir? Did you have to convince her? It took a while, and there was a lot of back and forth. I don’t think I would have been able to convince her that it was a good thing. It really came from her. When she was doing well and sober and more optimistic, those were the moments when she could start to understand why I was writing the book. When she’d relapse, that was when she wanted me to hide and not write about it. But when my book came out, she shared the news on her Facebook page and she wrote a really lovely statement about the release. She wrote that she was angry and felt ashamed, but that she understands now that the book wasn’t about her. It was about so many other things. Before you went through your mother’s personal belongings, like her diaries and letters, did you feel any sort of hesitancy? I didn’t feel hesitation about reading and going through her things, but the longer I worked on the book, the more careful I was about what parts of her life I was willing to share. That was a big realization. It’s not just that my sister changed her mind about the book; I changed the way I was writing our shared history. I grew up thinking one way about our mother and our dad, and as I wrote the book I became more critical of the things I understood to be true. I became much more careful about the assumptions I was making and trying to be more transparent about what I didn’t know. When it came to my mother’s archive, there are four sections in the book where I have photos and letters. There are things that I didn’t share intentionally because I’m not trying to create a public archive of her things. Her collection isn’t one that would usually be solicited to be included in an institution’s archive. She’s not a public figure. She hasn’t done anything that would normally make an archivist seek it out. So there was that question of whose lives are remembered? Whose lives are represented in an archive? How did your thinking change while you were writing? Before I started writing this book I didn’t think of myself as an angry person. I thought I was hurt and that I had been harmed and things weren’t quite fair. But the longer I was working the more I realized, no, actually, I was angry at my mother, my grandma, and my dad, and the ways it felt like they had failed as parents and caretakers. But where do you put that anger when the person is gone? It’s not healthy to hold onto that kind of anger. The more I learned about my mother’s childhood and what she wanted out of life, that anger was replaced with more empathy and more understanding for the impossible situation that she was in. What was your relationship like with your Indigenous identity growing up? Growing up in the east coast, it was hard because I didn’t know many Native American people. There is a Seminole reservation in south Florida, but we didn’t go there very often. As a young kid, it felt like a thing that made me special, like, “Oh, I’m a Native American.” People would ask, “What is the significance of this?” or, “Can you tell me more about your background, your history, or your culture?” And I had the information that I read in books, but it wasn’t something that my mom talked to us about. She didn’t want to talk about it. So every time someone would ask me, I’d have to be evasive. The question would fill me with guilt and shame that I was so disconnected from that part of my background. I’ve connected meaningfully to some aspects of my mother’s culture. I’ve gotten pretty into weaving. I don’t think I’ll ever do it professionally, but it’s something I find relaxing and meaningful. But also, I’m practicing my forgiveness with myself. What about weaving drew you in? There are a couple things about it. It’s really tactile, the working with my hands. I spend so much of my time, especially with writing, where I’m just staring at a screen. It’s like working in this virtual space in your brain. I spend a lot of time looking at nothing when I’m writing and thinking. I’m just staring but not really seeing what’s around me. Weaving really forces me to engage with the outside world, but then it’s also repetitive enough that you’re just doing that same motion back and forth, back and forth, packing down the wool. There’s something very relaxing about that. And then you’re done and you have this physical object. It feels a little more tangible and concrete than writing. One of the things I really liked about Dog Flowers is that it felt realistic . . . or maybe that’s not the right word. But you know how sometimes you read a memoir and everything just seems to work out? Yeah! [laughs] Or there’s this expectation that every moment or experience has to be this grand, profound thing. I don’t mean to suggest that what happened to you isn’t profound, but I enjoyed how the book showed how people actually grieve and get to know one another. I think that’s one of the things that some readers might have trouble connecting to. I can’t paint a totally rosy picture. I think there’s a version where I go to the reservation and I connect with my family and they help me grieve my mother and everything resolves at the end, but that isn’t always how the world works. The thing I’ve learned in life is to let go of some of that wishful thinking because you start projecting what you want without really paying attention to what is actually available to you. Sometimes my husband wants me to be excited about things. I think I’m realistic. Other people call it pessimistic. But it’s a way that I’ve learned to engage in the world to protect myself. You write about the Navajo concept of chʼį́įdii, which is a ghost that’s left behind when someone dies. Contact with a chʼį́įdii can cause illness, which can manifest physically and emotionally in ways that can look like grief. There was a specific line I thought was so beautiful: “I’m not trying to learn how to grieve my mother. I’ve been grieving her absence my entire life. I’m ghost-sick. Possessed.” Do you still feel that way now? The process of writing this book has allowed me to let go of some of that slightly. There are days where I miss my mother, and I carry around things I’ve read in her diaries. Eileen has read the book and we’ve had some small conversations about it. But my sister Alex read it for the first time recently and she’s now just starting to understand or feel some of these emotions about her childhood and her lack of relationship with our mother. I don’t think the process of working through this is necessarily over for me and my sisters. But I think my understanding of loss has changed. I lost my dad in November of last year. I’m so sorry. It’s been a weird process thinking of losing him, thinking about this book coming out, talking about losing my mother. Some of the feelings I have about my dad still feel kind of far away. Some of those same feelings resurfaced, like, why couldn’t have this been different? But I feel like I’m able to let go of that. It hasn’t taken me so long to be at peace with that feeling. This must be a hard time for you right now, especially with having to do press for this book. I’m really sorry you’re going through this. Thank you. There was an amount of dread I felt walking into this month, but I’m just going to feel my feelings, and it hasn’t actually been so bad. That’s good to hear. Where are you living now? I was in Kitchener-Waterloo for a year, and then my husband and I moved to Victoria about a year and a half ago. I teach at the University of Victoria. How has it been living in Victoria? It’s beautiful here! I can’t live in cities anymore. Toronto was way too busy, way too loud for me. Kitchener-Waterloo was a little bit easier, but it reminded me of Pennsylvania in some ways, which wasn’t an entirely comfortable feeling. Victoria is beautiful. You can’t beat the weather. But I do find myself missing home, missing the desert, wishing I was closer to my family.
The author of Girls Against God on self-censorship, feeling liberated from form and logic, and writing to exist.
Jenny Hval’s third novel, Girls Against God (Verso), rejects capitalism, the patriarchy, and oppression. Through non-linear, stream-of-consciousness-style vignettes, an unnamed narrator lives through a difficult childhood in 1990s Norway, grows up and travels to study in America, and comes back to Oslo to start a black metal band and write a film. Originally published as Å hate Gud (To Hate God) in 2018, Marjam Idriss’s English translation highlights an early obsession with hatred that evolves into figuring out how to turn it into something useful. “I remember how much hope there is in hatred,” points out the unnamed narrator. By the end of the novel, the boundaries between what we consider to be reality and understand to be part of a film blur. In Hval’s world, bands are transgressive communities; it’s a place where the potential for witchcraft lies dormant in all women; and God (in the novel, less a religious icon and more of a straight-talking presence that looks after the exploited) is “always in the systems, in the sewers, in the trash, in the garbage.” In the tradition of American experimental novelist Kathy Acker, Hval’s writing embraces finding new ways to express thought patterns, experiences, and stories—and encourages people to let go of logic rather than look for the familiar markers of institutionally accepted creative writing. Over email, I spoke with Hval about the joy of admitting to liking things, what it feels like to create something without an audience or expectations, and the magic of finding your flow in writing. Nathana Gilson: I was thinking about the idea that “being in your 20s is just going back to liking everything you liked when you were 13 but without being ashamed.” In Girls Against God, the unnamed narrator matures from a God-hating teen to a full-grown witch. I was wondering how much you were thinking about self-censorship and actively rebelling against that urge as you were working on the book? Jenny Hval: I think this depends on how old you are. In my 20s, I would have agreed with this comment. But, actually, I was still ashamed—I was just more amused about it. My 30s were better: I admitted to liking things a lot more than I did in my 20s. Girls Against God is definitely about rethinking self-censorship and about the exploding joy of not censoring writing motivated by rage and ecstasy. But it’s even more about how we’re taught self-censorship—in school, at university, in any kind of institution or hierarchy. For example, by toning down or correcting rebellious ideas, disguising the act of reduction as something like “impulse control,” or for that matter, “quality,” “literary canon,” “high art/low art” etc., etc. There’s a line in the book that points out: “Maybe the only way an artist can escape capitalism and patriarchy today is to use art to disappear as an individual.” The narrator insists that the artist’s person, ego, and body must disappear for something new to start. When you started to become interested in making a career of art, who did you look to, or feel inspired by, for proof that art could be in service of something bigger than self-promotion? I am not sure I think that art can, and I don’t think I ever will be. I am very ambiguous about being an artist at a time when so much is about, or in service of, promotion and money. When I started out, I was much more interested in performance art than playing music on stage. I was studying writing, theatre, and performance art subjects at the time—but I also enjoyed the simplicity and down-to-earth nature of playing songs on an acoustic guitar in a bar for nothing and nobody. There was no money, no audience, no expectations. It was interesting as a completely hollow experience in a sort of “if a tree falls in the forest” kind of way. I did this for a long time—first in Melbourne, where I was living, playing in bands that had a very, very small audience [and] later (just as the audience of my Australian band was growing!) I started over back in Oslo, when I moved back there, playing solo to almost no one, again. And then I did it some more in other countries, because hardly anyone had heard of me outside of my own country, for years. I am not presenting a “paid my dues” kind of argument here, but I’m thinking about this experience of empty rooms and low expectations a lot these days when art is nowhere to be seen except in passing or in the past, as abandoned venues, empty theatres, or dirty, tagged-over murals at a subway station. Was there ever anything there in the first place? And would I have been interested in any kind of artistic manifestations if I hadn’t done this long period of playing for virtually nobody? I don’t think I, as a person, could have done this—writing, performing—if it hadn’t been so far underground. You moved to Australia to study creative writing and performance after growing up in Norway. How was Australia different from where you grew up? What do you remember of that period in your life? Things were very different from my experiences in Norway, as well as strangely similar (because I was a white, English-speaking person from a rich, Western country). It was easy for me to be a bit invisible. I really thought I could reinvent myself with a new language and a new hope in a new town. The biggest difference, perhaps, was the relationship with “the world” when it came to art. I felt like in Norway, we were longing for Europe, or even just Sweden, longing to belong or to connect. I read French, British, Swedish, Danish, and German writers, and I felt like I was close. In Australia, I felt like the art histories I knew were remote, and artists knew they were on the edge of the world (as my friend and wonderful artist Laura Jean Englert writes in her song “Australia”: “Here upon this artless wedge / We struggle not to fall off the edge of the world”). I also met an awareness of being on stolen land (obviously this was in a specific and very liberal political bubble of my university—sadly not the opinion of the majority). I think this changed my entire worldview, for which I am extremely grateful. In the novel, magic is seen as a way of dismantling power structures. How can artists reject conservatism in environments where upholding it is still celebrated? Well, I guess, ideally, we should abandon those environments? But who can afford to, apart from the most privileged people? Because we depend on these spaces, we can’t, and then we’re stuck there. Unless we’re not even accepted in them ... which, I guess, most people aren’t. We are stuck in structures that we depend on and want to reject all at once. I have met so many music-industry people who on some level or another hate the industry, yet kind of thrive in it. This is why I always wonder if there is any meaning to it all. I have no good answer, but hopefully exploring ambiguity has some meaning. 2020 was a strange year for so many of us. I wonder how your attitude to productivity and self-expression changed, as what you may have considered normal began to disappear? I tried to be productive, but I was just writing to exist. Then I gave up being productive and got a dog (which I have wanted to for 20 years), which was much more exciting. It was my year of being forced into being just a private person. I no longer felt like I had any other identity. Is that what we call “normal”? Now I find that I do creative stuff that I like more again, but I hardly have time for anything because I have a demanding, loud puppy. You’ve mentioned in the past that language can feel very violent: a physical act. How someone’s native language can feel like it’s fighting with all the new languages they’re expected to keep up with. When working on this novel, how did you feel about obeying expectations like common sense, logic, or structure? I felt quite liberated. I think the anger of the protagonist felt very relaxing. I mean, feeling like I could finally write in my own language and not think so much about form and logic, I felt like I allowed myself to get into the flow of writing. Maybe that is one interpretation of magic? Edvard Munch has a big presence in this novel. What was your interest in his art, or legacy? I’ve never been particularly interested in Munch. He has just been a presence in my life because he is my country’s One Big Visual Artist, a bit like how Grieg is our One Big Composer, or A-ha used to be our One Big Pop Band. So, Munch has been a godlike figure during my school years. I guess the connection to black metal intrigued me when I finally nerded my way into listening to a lot of the classic black metal albums a few years back. There was something about the presentation of the young male figure in the artwork (usually involving corpse paint, a young male figure turned away from—and by—society; the unhealthy, sort of blackened, outsider), and in the music, that was very striking. How do your other lives—as a musician, songwriter, journalist, art critic—inform your novel writing process? I mostly do music 100 percent. I haven’t done a single piece of journalism in nearly 10 years, simply because there is no time. So, I just feel like a musician that also writes on the side. Usually whatever I write of prose ends up as a better song. I wrote a lot last year, but abandoned the manuscript ... Now I’ve condensed 100 pages of prose down into something like four pages of lyrics. And it’s better that way. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that I just feel like a musician with a literary interest, who occasionally ventures into an extended piece of text. The more this other text is informed by my musical experience and stage experience, the better it turns out. And I feel lucky to be able to do this. How can writers growing up with the noise of the internet better listen to their inner dialogue or follow their own intuition? I don’t know ... turn off the internet. Or dive deep into it for a while, but come up for air. You can’t breathe down there.