The author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel on reading Tarot cards, working with traumatic material and why writers timeshare their bodies.
The author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel on reading Tarot cards, working with traumatic material and why writers timeshare their bodies.
In his new essay collection, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books), Alexander Chee addresses what can be one of the most challenging feats for a novelist: turning the focus inward. Growing up in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Chee, who is Korean-American and gay, has often felt like an outsider. A contributing editor at The New Republic and an editor at large at the Virginia Quarterly Review, Chee is also the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, as well as an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College. His essays explore the nuances and complexities of his identity—how he fits into the world, how he is perceived, and how he processes his experiences. You can feel Chee thinking on the page. And in sharing his life experiences, from marching in drag to growing a rose garden to becoming a Tarot card reader, Chee is deeply reflective. Hope Reese: Some fiction writers will say that their characters simply "came to life." Is that different when the character is you? Alexander Chee: It is different. And it's a little bit the same. It's very interesting to say, "Oh, the character just came alive," but the character is based on you. There is a way in which our own humanity is secured to us. That's part of why we read, and it's part of why we write. In a way, writing autobiographical fiction offers the opportunity for the writer to come into a different understanding of their lives, or come into some self-forgiveness. In the case of my own first novel, it allowed me to finally talk about some of the most difficult things that had happened to me—things I couldn't even name at the time—without feeling that weight on my chest. Without lying about it. It became clear that that novel prepared the ground for me finally remembering the things I put out of my mind. The reason why the novel couldn't have been a memoir. How does it feel to have this nonfiction collection out in the world? Sharing some of the same experiences you write about in your novel in a different way? I don't experience it that way, exactly. It's more like inviting the reader into the backstage area of the theater. There really isn't a one-to-one equivalency. The most vulnerable thing for me is admitting that these things happened to me. One thing that happened that I'm greatly heartened by is hearing from people who went through the scandal that this is all based on with me. And having them tell me how much they got out of reading the novel. That means everything. You are a professional Tarot card reader and write in an essay that what you love about literature is also what you love about the Tarot. Can you explain? The Tarot is like playing dress-up games with your life. You act as if the cards are strangers, at first. You may be apprehensive about what they could possibly mean to you. Gradually, as you look at the cards and apprehend the story of the cards, you apprehend the story they're telling you about your life. To me, that's a lot like reading. You also write that reading the Tarot could be difficult because it puts you "in too close contact with the lives of others." I have often read Tarot cards at parties. It became a thing for me to do at magazine parties, parties for different literary organizations. And—this also happens when I'm teaching—sometimes people will think that you know the answer to their question. That you're just not telling them. It's a psychological projection. So they can be a little bit intense about how they deal with it if they think you’re withholding an answer they need. But you're just telling them what you're telling them. Sometimes I read for a couple and I can sense that they won't be together for very long. Especially if, when one of them sits down, the other one says, “are you asking about me?” That's usually a sign, on its own, of some kind of insecurity. I did correctly predict that after reading the cards for two people and spoke to the host of the party about them. They broke up later. You spent a lot of time working in bookstores and have written that your literary heroes were once mainly women, often political. Who are your heroes now? It's still true. The difference now is that I know many of them. I just got the new Deborah Eisenberg short story collection, which I'm over the moon to finally have in my hands. And now that some of these younger women who are political, I see also as those heroes. Like Franny Choi, the poet, a queer Korean-American poet. She's amazing. I see the ways that she's putting herself out there, creating community with other poets and other queer writers of color. She's really inspiring to me. Or Diana Oh, the Korean-American playwright. Last fall, when she was putting on a one-woman show, she put out a call for people to review her. Especially non-binary queer, trans, writers of color. She wanted reviews and wanted them from the community she cared about. As I was setting up the media for this book, I took a lesson from that. I'm negotiating what it would mean to put out that call in my own way. Those are two younger writers whose work I feel like I've been waiting for. It's incredibly exciting to me that they exist. You joke in one of your essays about your editor trying to put you in this box—as "the first gay Korean American novelist." How do you feel about these labels? There's ways that your visibility can be counted against you. It always feels like a way to get you to give it up. I did try for a while to simply insist on going the other route. So, for example, when marketing people were talking to me about Edinburgh they would say, "Is it a gay novel? Is it an Asian American novel?" And I'd say: "It's a novel." In doing so, the writer is trying to insist that they belong to the larger story—that they're not excluded from it in these subcategories. But at the same time, one is what one is. I belong to these communities. And I love them. I write for them. So I don't want to become invisible to them in the process. So it's a tricky dance. But we, as a community, have learned that the dream of potentially blending in is an old dream of the '60s. There are actually many different kinds of visibility, in ways that make more space for other people. Who may not have that identity, but it gives them space to create their own. Annie Dillard taught you at Wesleyan College and you write about her influence on your writing. What did she teach you about how to become a successful writer? She was very forthright about how she believed anyone who applied certain principles to their writing would improve as a writer. At this point in my teaching career, I can say that she's right. Talent, in some ways, is a little bit of a thief. It seems to offer you limitless access to opportunity—but even as it does, it reassures you that maybe you don't need to work as hard as everybody else. And that is the thing that will be your undoing. So that the person who steadily works at writing and gradually improves often becomes a writer more often than a talented person. Having been on both sides—as a student and teacher of writing—what unexpected things have you learned from your students? I mean, it’s an ocean. When I was studying writing, it was considered a bit pushing the limit—if not going over the limit—to write about politics in your fiction. And I never really understood why that was the case. It always seemed like a kind of middle class propriety, like, “Don't talk about money. Don't talk about sex.” If you followed those rules in writing, you would never talk about anything. And politics seems to have lagged behind more than sex—politics in fiction seems to be less represented than, say, sex in fiction. It's something that I'm thinking about right now. I think it's more and more true that people are taking on writing about politics, the politics of their characters. I remember very much feeling like Mavis Gallant's stories, for example, were a place where I could see a writer working with, not just the intimate lives of her characters, but the intimate political lives of her characters. How the politics of their countries affected how they lived their lives, quite consequentially. Since I can see how much this generation that I'm teaching is politically energized, I offered a new writing exercise where I asked them to write about the intimate political lives of their characters. And to think through even questions that seemed maybe a little outside of the ordinary—questions like, does your character vote? Are they someone who shows up for school board meetings? Are they just someone who votes on presidential elections? Do they not believe in voting at all? Like, where on that spectrum are they? Trying to get them to understand that these politics belong inside of the stories as much as anything else, as a way to know characters. Because it's very clear right now that, at least in America, people aged fourteen to twenty-two are having a massive political awakening. You write that "only in America do we ask writers to believe they don't matter as a condition of writing." What do you mean by that? It goes back to Boden talking about Yeats and saying that poetry doesn't matter. It's also, I think, something that is a very American attack on artists; rather than attack artists as people do in countries all over the world, attack the consequences of art—insist that art doesn't matter. So despite all evidence of the popularity of the National Endowment of the Arts, conservatives are always trying to kill it, even though it's an economic driver in many communities, because it supports much more than those individual artisans. It's a little invisible to us right now, how much art is at the center of our lives. But at the same time, it's so visible—like when I'm on a subway in New York City at 8 or 9 p.m. and the car is completely quiet as people read on their way home, or on their way to work, or wherever they're going, and just being able to look around a New York City subway car and see book after book after book and the quiet concentration amid the life of the city, we know that the insistence that writers don't matter is something of a mistake. If you had one more story to write before you die, what would it be? I'm thinking about it now as I think about the rest of the work I want to be doing over the next decade, two decades. You know, I'm fifty years old, and I've got pages for about six different books, and ideas and all kinds of thought backed up while I was working on The Queen of the Night. There’s a story in this collection, something that grew in the shadow of The Queen—there's a novel that I've been putting off since 1994 that I have finally put up front, and I'm going to be working on that next. If I'm going to tell a story before I die, that would seem to be the one. You say you want your writing to "make you care." How have you learned how to make people care? I think it rests on a mix of intuition and daring. Minimalism as an art form relies on the shared contexts that are usually dominant paradigms. And then you can hack them by changing the paradigm on the reader—have the reader work to figure out what you're talking about and then have them realize that they're not reading the dominant paradigm that they thought they would be in but in another one altogether. Usually by the time they figure that out, they're interested in going further. When you write about characters who have been traditionally dehumanized by the culture, one of the most radical things you can do is renegotiate the reader's sense of their humanity for them. Take a look at how in historical fiction, the author is reintroducing the reader to a historical figure that they know well. So like, George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo, for example. The view of Lincoln that you've never met before except through him, through Saunders. The same tactic succeeds with characters from otherwise unrepresented communities. If you treat them like they're famous. It's a little bit of a joke about the process—which is to say, the reader thinks they know them in the same way that stereotypes and fame are related, essentially. So you renegotiate their sense of what they object to, what the stereotype is. You present them in a way that sounds familiar and then the reader sees them differently, usually, hopefully. You’re also interested in the effect of writing in a particular tense on the writer—not just the reader. Yeah, just how the act of writing can actually impact the writer in ways you may not have expected. So James Baldwin actually talked about how using the present tense allowed him, in his memoir as he wrote it, greater access to his own memories. It sort of brought back the past quite powerfully. So it's not just me, but I think that's something that is a definite effect of that, when one is writing about events from one's life or events drawn from one's life. There's also kind of a wonderful quicksilver feeling to writing in the present tense that I like. I feel myself in a kind of heightened state of imaginative awareness and capable of seeing more deeply into what I'm writing about. I almost wrote The Queen of the Night in the present tense, actually. Or I should say, I did write chapters of it in the present tense and then rewrote them as the past. But it did help me dig my way into her head more. Sometimes a different kind of authority ... It has that this-actually-happened authority and I've been writing about this phenomenon that Junot Diaz talks about quite a bit, which is called point of telling—where the writer is inventing not just the point of view of the story, but where the point of view was chosen. In other words, not just where one is telling the story from in terms of like a vantage point, like first person, second person, or third, this character or that character, but also like, when does that story come to you? How do you suddenly understand that you have a story whereas before you just had like the undifferentiated day-to-day life? So point of telling is a powerful choice to make in that context, because it offers up the reason why you're in the character's life. You write about some difficult personal experiences, and have said that you need to make sure you can “descend” into the material while still coming out safely. How did you do that? I mean, one way to do it is to commit to a process, where you say to yourself, "Okay, I'm going to write for X amount of time each day," or if you commit to a word count or something. That gives you a kind of boundary for stuff threatening to the identity of the person. The person, the writer is always trying to survive being in the same body. The writer has to give the person what they need and the person has to give the writer what they need ... a timeshare. if you're writing about traumatic material, you need to pay attention to the way in which you are both writing about it—is it safe to describe the things you're describing? If you're in college, and you're writing about difficult family material—you should wait until you are financially independent of your family before you write about that, much less try to publish it. If you are financially dependent on them, you will inhibit yourself in ways you're not quite aware of. Or you might act out in other ways. And both might be injurious to you. Money is an emotional boundary. If you are reliant on money from people who have been abusive to you, it's a compromised boundary. It means that you're not safe yet. Sometimes the events you want write about are so vivid, so intense, so motivating that you think: I have to write about them. But you may not be thinking about the consequences of writing about it, and that certainly matters a great deal. And another lesson you learned as a younger writer was to never take success or failure too seriously. That's true also. The times I write about these difficult things, I do so with the idea that I can take the painful things that happened to me and turn them into something that can help other people. It's very gratifying to me that people are getting so much out of The Autobiography of My Novel essay. That was very painful to write. It was part of a group of essays I wasn't sure I would ever publish. It had been in my files for over a decade.
It is Monday, and Gary Wilensky is getting himself a gun.
On a Saturday afternoon in March of 1993, the snow starts falling in clumps. From the living room window, we watch umbrellas turn inside out. The sky is the same color as the street: charcoal burned white. “They’re saying it could be the worst storm we’ve had in a century,” Mom says. Emergency supplies wait on the coffee table. Long candlesticks, two flashlights, Trivial Pursuit. A brick of meat loaf roasts in the oven. Water bubbles on a burner. The sky cracks in half. A blue bolt aims at a skyscraper but misses. The dog whimpers and flattens into a black-and-white puddle on the floor. This is not her night. We eat dinner with the newscasters. Gusts seventy to a hundred miles an hour . . . Evacuation plan. When my father speaks, my mother shushes him and turns up the volume. He waves her off. “I want to hear this,” she explains. After dinner she asks “Who wants Tasti D-Lite?” and all is forgiven. A frozen low-calorie dessert shop has opened on Lexington Avenue and now our freezer is packed with plastic tubs of an off-white chalk-like substance. A piece of paper on the fridge reads Thin tastes better, the motto of a well-known Manhattan diet doctor my parents went to a few years back. Now they spray butter-flavored liquid on their toast and squirt fat-free blue cheese on their salad. They spoon cold white shavings into their bowls and call it dessert. Life is what happens when you’re making plans reads another piece of paper buoyed by a magnetic pig in a chef’s hat. The words are written in black felt-tip and traced over a second time, as if a mistake has been corrected. After dinner, Dad is laid out on the sofa intermittently snoring and waking up to flip the channel. I am beside him on a love seat, waiting for that moment we were promised, when the lights quit, the TV goes dark, and the only people in the whole world are us. Mom pads to the doorway in her slippers to say she’s going to bed. My father snorts alive, gives a drowsy good night, and goes back to sleep. “I love you,” she says to me, which means be careful or goodbye, or in this case, good night. “Mom?” I ask. “What does it feel like to love something?” She is tired. This is not the kind of question someone should field right after she announces she’s going to bed, but she is used to living with me. “You know how you feel about the dog?” she says, answering one impossible question with another. When my parents fight, it’s about the dog. She is untrainable and leaves puddles around the apartment when everyone is away. Each one blames the other for her accidents. Someone didn’t walk her enough; someone was too lenient with punishment. My mother hired an animal therapist who said the dog understands what’s right and wrong, but suffers from anxiety. The fear of being bad when she’s left alone. At a loss, my mother has been known to lock the guilty party in the hallway outside my bedroom in the hopes that solitary confinement is rehabilitative. She’ll close my door and warn me that under no circumstances . . . On those nights, the dog will shove the black tip of her nose in the space underneath my doorway. A paw pokes through, feeling for an escape route. When I let her in, she creeps into the room, and tucks herself, nose to tail, in a circle of shame on the floor. I pound the mattress, pleading with her to come up on the bed, to be bad, to understand that they’re wrong, not her. But she won’t budge. She is waiting for someone more important than me to forgive her. * On a Saturday night in March, a cyclone banged on Gary Wilensky’s window and lit up his studio apartment in a spastic blue light. Snow spitballed in every direction, and thunder gave way to an achy, wind-borne moaning. Other families in other apartments huddled together behind windows, and those who lived alone watched them through a white veil. The next day, ice clinked against window glass. The airports were closed. Ten inches of snow piled up in Central Park. Governor Mario Cuomo declared a state of emergency. Newscasters prattled on about the Storm of the Century and the Great Blizzard of ’93. All the shovels came out and the digging began. Now it is Monday, and Gary Wilensky is getting himself a gun. Not a real gun, but a movie prop. Still, the one he rents from a shop that services set designers is a real .38 caliber revolver. It’s just been modified to fire blanks. The pistol is heavy in your hand, like a trophy. Like that silver little Smith & Wesson Michael Douglas finds at his feet in Falling Down, a film that’s spent the past two weeks in the number one box office spot. Douglas’s character—an unemployed engineer with a flattop and Eisenhower glasses— blazes a warpath through the streets of Los Angeles, amassing an arsenal and taking out his frustrations over losing his job and family on anyone who interferes with his mission to attend his daughter’s birthday party. “I’m the bad guy?” he asks the cop who catches up with him at the end of the movie. “How’d that happen?” On Thursday, when the snow has turned to cliffs of yellow ice along the sidewalks, Gary makes his way to his therapist’s appointment. He’d begun treatment shortly after he was fired by the Mother. Maybe he thought if he got help, he could wipe clean his past and all would be forgiven. It had worked once before, but that was long ago. Anyway, he’s of another mind-set now. Today, in his therapist’s office, he has news: He’s done with treatment. He’s going to try something else. A few days later, Gary has changed his mind. He needs a real gun. So he drives an hour east to Farmingdale, Long Island. While it’s gotten harder to purchase a gun in the city, between stringent permit requirements and the prior year’s ban on assault rifles, there are still loopholes to the law if you drive out of Mayor Dinkins’s purview in any one direction. There’s talk of the Brady Bill, but that doesn’t concern Gary. He’ll be long gone by the time it’s passed. Right now, what matters is directly in front of him—the Long Island Expressway and the choices that lay ahead. Remingtons, Colts, Smith & Wesson. And real ammo. No blanks. He is a different man than he was only two months ago at the awards ceremony. If his mood was leaden then, now it is jet-fueled. And if he passes exit 37 and sees the exit sign for Roslyn, there’s a version of Gary Wilensky who might blaze out the window, over the loose, shimmying trees and back into his old high school gym, where “Long Tall Sally” would clatter as he twirled his dance partner, all sweaty-palmed and buzzing, pulling her close to his chest and tilting her over the dance floor. American Outdoor Sports is an emporium of weapons: pump action, single shot, bolt action, semis, slugs, choke tubes—even fixed blade knives and spear points. But it’s the Cobra 9mm semiautomatic carbine that hooks him. In February, the New York Times Magazine had a feature on street guns and the benefits of a 9mm semi, which is lighter than a revolver and easier to handle. But the standout feature of a weapon like this particular Cobray is the way it looks. It’s long, T-shaped, and bulky—a little bit Scarface, a little bit Robocop. They call them “ugly guns” on the street because of how absurdly large they are compared to pistols. It looks just like the “ugly gun” Michael Douglas whips out in Falling Down, when he demands the manager of the burger chain serve him breakfast during lunch hours. “Ever heard the expression ‘the customer is always right’?” Sold. Gary will be back in two weeks for a shotgun. In the meantime, there is more to buy. Disguises—a fake mustache, a pile of wigs. Copper red, medium brown, sandy blond, and one wig that’s grandma gray with tight little roller curls. Somewhere along the way he picks up a white rubber mask—the kind a horror-movie villain would wear to hide his charred and pulpy face. Even on its own, laid out on the floor, without a human face behind it, it is the boogeyman, shaking awake that dormant fear from childhood of the faceless man—who, up close, looks as if he’s standing far away, his expression unreadable. A masked man who wants something, but what? From YOU ALL GROW UP AND LEAVE ME, a memoir by Piper Weiss about a privileged 14-year-old girl in ‘90s Manhattan and her tennis coach, Gary Wilensky, who tried to abduct one of his students. Released by William Morrow/HarperCollins on April 10. Copyright © 2018 by Piper Weiss. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
The author of Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion on illusions about the lives of working writers, trends in criticism, and how writers make money.
In Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion (Grove Press), Michelle Dean unearths archival material that connects the lives of ten female critics who shaped the literary landscape in the twentieth century. The subjects are brilliant women who were admired and reviled, often at the same time. They wrote award-winning screenplays, ground-breaking political treatises, and fiery essays, as well as incisive reportage and works of cultural criticism. From Dorothy Parker and Rebecca West to Nora Ephron and Renata Adler, this historical account of their work is anchored to what Dean calls “sharpness”—a quality that short-sided, misogynistic critics often characterize in patronizing terms. Amusing marginalia, letters of correspondence, and biographical information coalesce to reveal elements of their intimate relationships, writing practices, and deep-seated preoccupations. Sharp is peppered with excerpts from now-shuttered publications like The Partisan Review, Life Magazine, and Ms. Magazine—providing a compelling if fragmentary account of the field of journalism. In profiles that braid together personal and professional histories, Dean reinforces the notion that a feminist message can be drawn from divergent, even opposing, threads, and that hostility to feminism has always been baked into the movement itself. We talked about plumbing Susan Sontag’s archive, racial segregation that is endemic to American media, and a certain Hannah Arendt gif that’s been circulating on Twitter. Anna Furman: I read your book completely out of order—as if it was a book of essays or short stories. I started at the Susan Sontag chapter and then worked backwards to the Dorothy Parker section. How did you envision your reader approaching this book? Michelle Dean: It is actually chronologically told. In my original conception of the book, I was going to be very strict in chronology and keep switching from one woman to the next. But when I started to draft it, it was too confusing and difficult to read. So we changed it to the sort of self-profile format that it is structured in now. Sharp is quite research-heavy. How did you approach archival material? Did you find any gems that were outside the scope of the book? I spent roughly three years on the research alone. Then, it took about two years to write and edit. The book is weighted towards the beginning of careers as opposed to the end, and it cuts off by the '90s, so I’m mostly looking at things on paper. By the time people are using email a lot, I’m no longer in there. I did very peripatetic research in that I wouldn’t call any of this a full biography. I’d go into an archive and look at everything they had ever written to women—especially women in the book, obviously, and then subsets of other women writers and critics in their orbit. One of my favorite things to discover was a voluminous folder of correspondence in the Sontag archive with Larry McMurtry. It didn’t make it into the book, but in the first letter, he sends her a key to his apartment. People have connections that you wouldn’t dream of. In Sontag’s case, I also found a letter from Philip Roth that I liked. I was researching in a totally thematic way, so it wasn’t nearly as interesting of an archive journey as it could’ve been. You include some surprising details that add color to the reader’s understanding of these women’s lives (while reading Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag wrote “ha!” in the margins). In working on this book, did you find any interesting annotations in your own, original copies of their books? Well, I’m a weirdo that doesn’t actually annotate books. I was brought up to be too good of a girl, as if that would be desecrating them. I do handwritten notes. As I conceived of this project, I read more and more of these women’s work, but in general they were not authors that I encountered when I was a young literature student in university. I went to Canadian university and Canadian literary education is very focused on Hamlet. I didn’t read some of these women in depth until I got into the project. Certainly, my copy of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes is a book that I’ve had for years. I’m pretty sure that I ran into Dorothy Parker a lot in my youth, and I did a lot of work on Hannah Arendt when I was in school, but the first book that felt like a prized book to me was Joan Didion’s Political Fictions. When I was a lawyer, I read it over and over again. It was my introduction to Didion. I came to her from a much different frame than most people do, which is usually the personal essays, starting with Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I don’t even think I read The Year of Magical Thinking before I read Political Fictions. One of the funny things about doing a book as insanely researched as this one—'cause I really lost myself in the research for several years—is that now that I’m on the other end and I’m like, I really left all that stuff in, huh? I think a lot of working writers will appreciate reading about the financial lives of these women—especially learning about projects that made them little or no money and the impact it had on their lives (Pauline Kael wrote criticism for Berkeley’s Cinema Guild flyers for no money, and then sued her ex-husband for back wages and profits). And then, conversely, how someone like Nora Ephron’s career changed forever when Heartburn became a bestseller, and then again, when she wrote the screenplay for the film version. How important was it to you to include their financial lives? When you read Sharp, it is not a personal book and it is not a memoir. But a lot of the things that were preoccupying me at the time made their way into the book. And like any writer in this era, I’m preoccupied with how to make money. Those details screamed out at me. We don’t talk a lot about how a writer finances work. We assume they just work it out or that they’re super rich, if they’re super famous. In the writing context, that wasn’t actually true. For years I’ve been interested in how a lot of people who wrote reported non-fiction have sustained these years-long projects. So, as I was doing the research, those things occurred to me. Even Dorothy Parker, who was writing literally anywhere she wanted at any point she wanted, was eventually like: you know what, I’m not making enough money and I have to just do this Hollywood contract. I don’t really like it out there but I have to keep working out there because I cannot not make money. Another illusion we have about the lives of working writers is that they’re only working on passion projects and that everything they put forward is speaking from their soul. You can tell that some of their writing was not their most driving passion. A lot of the rhetoric about being a writer in the age of blogs and the pace of it insists that this is new. The amount of output is not so distant from what I can see going on in the lives of these writers. They weren’t writing one poem a month or one book review a month. Rebecca West was writing twice a week in a newspaper, which is a huge amount of output to be generating. They didn’t have email to loosen up the gears a little bit. I became interested in the money aspect because I don’t think we talk enough about how these concrete factors have influenced the writing itself. In general, I’m not under the impression that the men were any better paid. Maybe somewhat, but certainly not enough. In the aggregate, of course, they made more money. It wasn’t easy for anybody to make a living as a writer at any point in the twentieth century. The women you write about were reporters, journalists, screenwriters, and critics—and some of their renowned works were written in the first-person. I’m curious if you considered writing part of this book in the the first person, or perhaps including yourself in the book? There’s this idea that the only way to enact personal connection to a subject is to use the first person, and I don’t think that’s true. Or at least, I reject that the first person is the only way to do it. It seems like it’d be pretty self-aggrandizing for me to write in the first person and place myself in the pantheon of these women. Sharp is not what they call a biblio-memoir, like My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead’s book about how George Eliot changed her life, or Olivia Laing’s work. I’m tripping over your question because I don’t want to sound like I’m insulting the new genre of writing about literature in a personal way or writing in the first person. Even though there’s definitely a lot of concordances with my opinion in the book, it didn’t make a lot of sense for me to include myself. When my friend read an early part of the Dorothy Parker chapter, he said, “It’s so funny, I’ve heard you say this about your own life.” Craig Seligman, who wrote a book on Sontag and Kael, actually, wrote that all criticism is covert autobiography. To me, it was more interesting to enact that, without using the first person, than it would’ve been if I just talked about my boring blog experiences of terrible trolls. Or sexism in the industry. Which, you know, I’ve got plenty of. The idea was to stick to the time period and carefully de-limit the subject that way. The book spans almost an entire century and I already have to get my arms around the lives and work of ten people. Adding in an eleventh just felt like unnecessary, added bulk. I was struck by this line: “There is room, in this deep ambivalence about and even hostility toward feminism, to take away a feminist message.” Can you elaborate on this point? What I mean by feminism is something more specific than the philosophy. It’s the movement itself, which is more about a group of people who behave in certain ways than it is about ideals. I think the hostility that a lot of these women had was toward the group dynamics. In general, they were not team players or people that fit in well with others—writers often aren’t. And that inflected their dislike of something which made a demand on them as a member of a group. I saw a Hannah Arendt-themed gif going around Twitter recently and I feel like her ghost is totally gonna kill me as I talk about this book. In the gif, she’s on some German show and she’s asked, “How do you hope to influence people?” She says, “That’s a very male question, because I’m not looking to influence, I’m looking to understand.” So she did see that there was a gendered component to knowledge-making. And I think everybody in my book did know that. It feels sometimes like these demands for solidarity are their own kind of leash, and dare I say even, patriarchal leash. It’s about a former version of femininity where we thought that women would be sisters and friends and, as the metaphor goes, braid each other’s hair. We’re all individuals and are not always going to agree. Which is not to stay that feminism can therefore embrace the likes of Phyllis Schlafly. It is possible, although not currently in vogue, to look at the fissures in feminism as essential, energy-generating parts of the moment rather than as flaws or political failures. A feminist message can be drawn if we embrace a larger definition of feminism than was this particular woman nice to other women? or did this particular woman express agreement with other women? Except for Hannah Arendt, even McCarthy and Didion did walk it back later. Even though they may have been hostile to certain aspects of the moment, ultimately it was useful to be part of something that tried to assert women’s humanity. It was useful to their work, which is why it’s a theme in the book. There’s a lot of now-shuttered outlets that you include criticism from, like The Partisan Review and the Saturday Evening Post. Which new media outlets are publishing really excellent criticism now? It’s tough. I find myself thinking a lot lately about The Awl closing. The Awl had a lot of resemblances to the early Vanity Fair. [Awl co-founder] Choire [Sicha] will kill me if he sees this, but when I read about Frank Crowninshield [Vanity Fair editor from 1914-1936], I was like, this is Choire. Although Choire didn’t come from a Boston Brahmin family. And Choire was a good writer in his own right, which is not true of Crowninshield. He has an eye for people who have interesting taste and who aren’t going to say the same thing that everybody else says. We don’t have a great venue for that at the moment. We could talk about the collapse of economics. I know that a lot of people in this vein would say that n+1 is the heir to the Partisan Review, but I think n+1 is its own phenomenon. I’m not sure The Partisan Review had the same vision of gaining currency with publishing people as I think is true of the founding of n+1. I read individual things now and again on Hazlitt that I find interesting. I read the Boston Review, actually, and think they are making an interjection into the conversation and not just rehearsing talking points I’ve heard a hundred times before. I love the London Review of Books, too, which I think has a similar vision for itself as a critical instrument—of saying things not in the usual way that everybody says them. My taste is obviously a bit more plebeian than the London Review of Books, though. In other publications, it seems like most of what I read is either a little bit too academically worded, which is where The New Inquiry fell for a long time. Or, it’s just think piece-ing, which to me, is different from criticism. And please understand that I say that as somebody who has written a lot of think pieces in her day. I just think of it as a separate craft. If you were to extend the book to include very recent criticism—say, the last decade—which women would you include? Obviously, Parul Sehgal at the Times. I always read Zoe Heller in the New York Review of Books and Zadie Smith, although hers are usually more personal reflections than outright criticism. I’m also a pretty big fan of Maggie Nelson. Most of these writers are not writing in a Sharp vein, except probably Zoe Heller—she uses similar rhetorical strategies. Weirdly, sharpness is really not in vogue now. People like personally inflected criticism at the moment. Sharp is trying to contextualize a specific tone, as something used to cut through a certain amount of sexism. And sexism that is not just in the business, but in the audience too. I know that there are a lot of people that would like to be called the next Janet Malcolm, for sure. I just don’t know who they are. I think her style of writing is devalued in the major magazines. Critical focus is not currently the popular thing to do in magazines, as critical reporting. What’s popular is to do first-person tour of a subject, which is criticism to some people, but isn’t always equipped with the same thing. For example, readers know a lot, personally, about a writer like Leslie Jamison, whereas after many years of reading Janet Malcolm you still would not know a lot about her personal life. You’d have a good idea about her personality on the page, but it really is distinct from who she is. Renata Adler and Pauline Kael’s kind of writing has gone out of style. They emphasized the pleasures of analysis over the pleasures of building a persona. And those are pleasures, I’m not denigrating it, but they’re different ones. The pleasures of analysis are not quite as popular in literary circles as they once were. The one thing I learned from researching this book, though, is that everything is cyclical. Were there other words you considered before you arrived at “sharp” as the unifying quality? No. I came up with the title Sharp in 2013, when I held a panel at Housing Works books and called it that and it clicked. The panel was about representation of women in criticism. It was back in the heyday of VIDA and byline counts, which now feels like a million years ago. At the time it was me and a bunch of women critics: Laura Miller, Emily Franklin, Parul Sehgal, and Michelle Orange. After that, I thought of this book as Sharp, no matter what. And I sold the book a few months later. Except for a chapter on Zora Neale Hurston and a mention of Ida B. Wells, all of the women you write about in Sharp are white. How did you think through race in your research and writing of this book? The trick about the literary and intellectual history in the United States is that it has been segregated. Black writers wrote for black publications and white writers wrote for white publications. As I write in the book, this didn’t stop the white publications from trying to cover racism or de-segregation, which they did, often with disastrous results. I explore this in the chapter on Hannah Arendt and desegregation. The book is predicated on the idea that not only do these women sort of sound alike, but they also had concrete personal connections. Renata Adler was engaged to Mary McCarthy’s son; Nora Ephron met Dorothy Parker as a child. The problem with social segregation, and, frankly, intellectual segregation, is that I couldn’t make those connections exist where they didn’t exist. You know, racism poisons everything. The Zora Neale Hurston chapter is, in a way, the product of my thinking about who should’ve been elevated in the same way as these women, as exceptional women, but ultimately were not. Another person who could have been included, if we didn’t have this personal connections problem, is Lorraine Hansberry. She started out as a playwright, which is a bit different than the rest of the women in the book, and she died at thirty-four, so she doesn’t have a huge body of work. The book is not meant to be a completely comprehensive account, but about a specific group of women critics who were elevated as exceptional and therefore had certain privileges. As I write in the beginning of the book, they were able to say certain things because of a certain degree of white privilege, and to an extent, middle class privilege. Much as sexism inflected this rhetorical strategy, they needed to use their privilege to challenge it.
In my diagnosis, I saw the first irrefutable proof of myself. But so many others saw a referendum on what it means to be atypical.
After years of threatening to write an autistic teen sex comedy based on my own neurodivergent and sexually frustrated adolescence, I had the opportunity to receive notes on a few chapters from an agent. I furtively sent off a chunk of my first draft filled with observations on what it’s like to have a seizure in the middle of sex ed and the ways in which an inability to read social cues hampers one’s ability to lose their virginity on schedule. He told me that it was “very REAL but also pretty raw.” The criticism I could handle. It was, undeniably, raw, in the way that most first drafts are. It was his compliment, sitting there on the screen in its assured, emphatic capital letters, that threw me. A week later, a fellow mixed martial arts writer reached out to tell me that he liked a piece that I’d written on the late fighter Kimbo Slice’s importance to autistic people. A “really amazing and real read,” he said. I didn’t like seeing that praise when it arrived in lower case letters, either. Like many people with my neurotype, I have a certain affinity for recognizing patterns, and here’s one that I’ve found: no one ever said that my writing was “real” before I knew that I was autistic, or before I started writing about my autism. Despite the commonly held beliefs about the autistic mind, I am perfectly capable of seeing outside of my own perspective. I know full well that that this is not a phenomenon unique to me or those like me. Another pattern that I’ve noticed while observing other people—like white rock critics assessing hip-hop, men explaining women to themselves, or Torontonians who once visited Thailand debating the ketchup content of Pad Thai—is that people who aren’t marginalized in some way love appointing themselves the authenticity police of those who are, often with a passion and confidence that’s inversely proportionate to their actual knowledge. There is something about the word “real,” though, that hits me specifically as an autistic human. As a child, it was the crux of my recurring nightmares, awful, bone-chilling romps through a developing psyche that I can still recall in lurid detail. In the dreams, I was a copy that my parents had been forced to take in when the actual Sarah had died. I would try to forget this fact, but there was always some little detail that would come rushing back to me to ruin the illusion. “I remember that,” I would say each time, usually before I woke up crying. “From when I was real.” These dreams came up when I was finally tested for autism spectrum disorder as an adult. “You were beginning to realize that you were different, but you didn’t understand how yet,” my assessor told me as he confirmed a diagnosis that my terrified subconscious had apparently picked up on almost a quarter of a century earlier. “This was your brain’s way of trying to process that information.” I processed all of this new information with a mix of perverse pride in and a motherly protectiveness for my younger self—what twisted genius comes up with something like that? What scared little girl has to?—and a life-giving amount of relief. Weight had been lifted off my shoulders, my chest, and my brain simultaneously. I was autistic. I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and interacted with things differently than other people, but I was human. Atypical, but real. * Where I saw the first irrefutable proof of myself, though, so many others saw a referendum. “But you’re not really autistic,” an acquaintance posited a few weeks later, when I was still testing out how and if to introduce this new explanation for everything into casual conversation. “You can have conversations. You’re out at a bar. I have a friend who's autistic. Like, real autistic. You can tell. And he could never do this.” He took my wandering eyes and distracted response as signs of concession, not as a testament to my at least somewhat obvious autism, and moved on. I soon got used to this type of exchange. I’m still hoping that I’ll eventually get better at handling it. I spent twenty-seven years trying to convince people that I was normal enough to accept, or at least leave alone, and no one ever fully bought it. When I finally knew why that experiment was such an ongoing failure, though, few believed that either. I was using it an excuse. I was exaggerating. I was faking. I was not as autistic as someone else someone knew and was, therefore, not really autistic. These comparisons only ever go in one direction. No one has ever said to me, “Temple Grandin is a successful scientist, writer, and public speaker, and you have the career of a mildly plucky freelancer half your age. You can’t possibly be autistic.” I suspect that this is because no one is genuinely trying to weigh what they know about me against a set of diagnostic criteria, or fit me into their greater understanding of autistics in the world. What people are really doing when they’re trying to determine if I’m a real autistic is figuring out if I make them uncomfortable or sad enough to count. If I show any coping skills, any empathy, any likability, any fun—essentially any humanity—I must be dismissed. This separation between real autistics and people who are “just quirky,” “just awkward,” or “almost too high-functioning to count” is a mental dance that non-autistics have to do whenever they’re confronted with a three-dimensional autistic human being in the flesh. Otherwise everything they’ve ever thought, everything they’ve ever been told about us, starts to seem a little monstrous. * In NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, the groundbreaking 2015 tome on the subject, author Steve Silberman quotes an interview that Ivar Lovaas gave to Psychology Today in the ‘70s. “You have a person in the physical sense,” the clinical psychologist said of the autistic children that he was studying. “But they are not people in the psychological sense.” Few are willing to put it so boldly now, but despite the efforts of artists, self-advocates, and allies like Silberman, the philosophy remains almost unchanged and unchallenged forty years later. From common language to science to pop culture, almost no one believes that autistic people are real people at all. I see it in the way we’re described as trapped in our own bodies, as prisoners of Autism, an otherworldly evil that has kidnapped us and stolen our voices like a cackling Disney villain. It’s in the way that the organizations that claim to support us insist on imagery that compares us to wayward puzzle pieces and language that alludes to us as both somehow missing and the bringers of an overwhelmingly tragic epidemic. One 2015 report warned of a “tsunami of teens with autism” who would reach adulthood in the coming years. It’s in both the name and the ethos of our most prominent charity, Autism Speaks, which assumes that we can’t do so for ourselves and therefore appoints itself the savior who can and should assume the responsibility, without any thought as to whether they should be listening, as well. The missing can’t be reached for comment. The voiceless have no means with which to express themselves. The not-really-theres have no internal life to share, anyway. So no one tries. In science, we are glorified lab rats, put through byzantine tasks to determine why we do certain things—one recent study involved putting autistic adults through virtual reality scenarios in which they tried to catch burglars to figure out why we have issues with eye contact—but not simply asked what makes us tick. The idea that we should be considered a valuable resource on research about our own lives is still a groundbreaking one. In journalism, we are rarely considered prospective sources for stories about autism in any capacity. Experts are quoted, as are our caregivers. But we remain absent from the conversation. First-person accounts of parents and siblings are praised for their honestly, bravery, and emotion while autistic writers struggle to get published at all. The entertainment business has a similar fondness for stories about us and a distaste for stories from us. Visionaries can dream up a franchise where an autistic man can be an accountant and a hitman on the screen thanks to The Accountant, but they can’t quite bring themselves to imagine that an autistic person could be a writer, director, actor… or even a viewer who might want to see something that’s made with them in mind. When people tell me that I’m not really autistic, they’re trying to distance me from this silencing, exclusion, and dehumanization. Not for my comfort, but theirs. They don’t want to weigh the reality of our interaction against the concept of autism that they’ve accepted. And even if they can convince themselves that it’s different for people like me, people who can talk, people who can assuage their feelings of discomfort by hiding their behaviors and trying to blend in, I know my own reality. Whatever advantages I might have as a verbal human being with a handy batch of coping and masking mechanisms in place, I am no better than anyone else on the spectrum. We are equals. When I say that autistic lives have value, I’m speaking for every single one of them. When other people imply the opposite about any single one of us, they imply it about all of us. * As a teenager, my nightmares about being a hollow specter trying to pass as human eventually gave way to fantasies of being an otherworldly genius. Perhaps no one understood me, I thought, because I was simply too complex and too smart. I spent a lot of time reading James Joyce alone in my room and promising myself that I’d grow up to be the kind of writer who makes their readers work to understand their dense prose, heady concepts, and their labyrinth of allusions and metaphors. Now that I’ve spent so much of my life working to be acknowledged at all—moving, sounding, and performing in a manner that won’t push people away before they can hear me—now that I understand what an immense privilege it is to have anyone who wants to put the effort into understanding you, now that my tiny writing career has given me an opportunity that’s denied to most people like me, I try to write plainly. It’s not an aesthetic or a career decision that I regret often. After all of the massive, ongoing efforts that I’ve put into translating myself for non-autistic consumption, I doubt that I know any other way now, anyway. I feel the occasional pang of self-consciousness and self-recrimination when someone praises me for the simplicity or accessibility of my writing. Does it mean that my writing is simple? Does that mean that I am? But at least they’re reading. At least there’s a solid chance that they’re getting at least some of what I intended out of it. When someone who’s not autistic tells me that my writing is real, though, it chills and confuses me almost as much as those first subconscious stabs at defining the validity of my existence once did. I might try to pass it off with a flippant “how would you know?” But the question that lingers in the back of my mind is what makes them think they know? If almost everything they know about autism is wrong, or at least skewed, then what is it about my work that has allowed them to feel that they can align my voice with their beliefs? Did the basic structure of my unornamented prose strike them as special needs enough to accept? Did a moment of vulnerability convince them that I was tragic enough to actually be from the spectrum? Or was I too placating in my argument? Can they embrace my work—can they feel comfortable in telling me what it means—because I haven’t challenged them enough? For as long as autistic narratives are dominated and controlled by others, these are the concerns that will fester in the pit of my stomach and the back of my brain every time I sit down at my laptop, start to rock from side to side, and write. I have no interest in being told that my writing is real. I need my work to tell you that I am.
The author of Von Spatz on the relationship between creativity and mental health, deer-drawing and Disney, and the allure of American landscapes.
German cartoonist Anna Haifisch's career began in the world of fine arts. She studied printmaking in college, but through a string of trips to New York City post-graduation, she made the switch to focusing her efforts on indie comics, noticing the autonomy and playfulness the medium affords artists. In the past decade, she has made a name for herself through her unique visual style and touching storytelling. Her most notable contribution is the irreverent and endearing series, The Artist, which she originally published as a weekly strip on VICE and later compiled as a book for Breakdown Press. Many of the comic’s plot lines are all too familiar for anyone who’s experienced the lifestyle and insecurities of being a creative, and the book’s resonance with audiences eventually led to a nomination for an LA Times Book Prize in 2017. Haifisch has grappled with the minutiae and tribulations that come with being an artist throughout her body of work. One of her early books, Von Spatz, is being published, for the first time in English, this spring by Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly. In it, Haifisch imagines a fictional rehabilitation center set in Southern California where 20th Century cartoonists Walt Disney, Tomi Ungerer, and Saul Steinberg have retreated after distressing experiences. Disney serves as the book's primary protagonist, and is checked in to the facility after a dramatic freakout at the company’s animation studio in Burbank. Despite the surreal set up, the book feels deeply personal and unexpectedly believable. Haifisch wrote Von Spatz with a loving pathos for her artistic heros at a very volatile point in their careers. It's a complex depiction of the fragility of artists. Matthew James-Wilson: When did you first get into comics and what were some of the first comics that left an impression on you? Anna Haifisch: When I was a child I read a ton of comics like Asterix, and other comics from France. I always loved reading comics, especially when I was sick as a kid. My parents would take out a lot of Asterix books from the library and I would just lay in bed, so glad to be reading them. It was like watching a series on Netflix, you know? That feeling of, “Oh, there are twenty more episodes?” but instead I had twenty more comic books. But then I started studying art in 2004 and by then I was much more into fine art. I wanted to do woodcuts and ended up making super ugly art. I’m glad I did the bad stuff back then. I was really into printmaking and color separations and everything that came with it. It wasn’t until I moved to New York for a job that I came back to comics. I moved in with James Turek, who’s a comic artist from New York who now lives in Germany. So I started taking comics seriously as an artistic expression. Before that I was only doing zines and messing around with the medium. But that was in 2008 I think. Ever since then I’ve been hooked! I feel like a lot of cartoonists I’ve talked to get into comics as kids, then fall out of comics as teens or young adults, and then get back into them once they’re older. How long were you living in New York and what work were you making there? It was back in 2008. I was still studying at the art school in Germany, and this art school was really old fashioned. It was very German in a way, with all of the crafts, the print studios, the letter presses, and what not. Super cool but I felt kind of stuck there. But a lot of stuff was happening in New York at the time. I wrote a letter to Gary Panter and a letter to Kayrock Screen Printing on the back of two posters. Gary Panter actually answered me and was very friendly, but said “Oh, I don’t need anybody’s help right now,” which was totally fine. Then Kayrock Screen Printing—I just found that studio on Google—was like “Yeah, It’s sunny here, come over! We need somebody!” so I was just like, “Cool!” I had never been to the US before and it seemed so amazing. I had to fly out every three months and then come back, so I stayed from about 2008 to 2010 with several breaks. I’ve noticed a lot of your comics make references to places in the US. Seeing the Morgan stop on the L train in Brooklyn really stood out to me when I first read The Artist. The US has always been magnetic to me because of the culture. Whatever is coming out of the US, especially from New York, always seems amazing. I was born behind the iron curtain, and when the wall came down all of a sudden this stuff was available. It just seemed like the US was the way to go. Not becoming a citizen or anything, but going there and being a part of it felt great. When I was there everything looked so foreign to me. Whenever I took road trips with friends I’d love seeing the strip malls, the countryside, the barren lands where almost no one went. I loved the look of it and how simple it was to draw these landscapes. So it all kind of came naturally. It’s more than just a reference, it’s a really personal thing. What comics did you start making after you visited the US? How did The Artist series come about? The Artist came about because Nick Gazin sent me an email in 2015 and said “Hey, do you want to do a weekly comic for VICE?” I was shitting my pants because VICE is such a big company and it had to be weekly which was another big thing. So I was like, “Well, okay. Fuck…” I knew I had to draw and write about something I had a clue of because it had to go on and on weekly and I was scared I would run out of topics. The only thing that came to mind was being an artist, because there’s nothing else I’m really passionate about. I proposed like two episodes to Nick and he was like, “Umm yeah, if you could possibly do a comic about an artist, sure.” and I was like “Yeah, let’s try it!” Then it kind of just became a thing for me. How often do you put your own experiences or life events into the work? Nothing in specific is autobiographical. It’s not so much like, “I saw this and put it into the comic.” But because I’m friends with a lot of artists, and I’m an artist myself, there’s so much stuff to work from. When I have a beer with a friend, they’ll tell me this story about a gallerist, and it becomes a great story for an episode. Because I don’t want to do diary comics, I need a certain level of abstraction with my work. Of course, I’m exaggerating a lot. I hope it doesn’t come across as being ironic or anything. Yeah, I feel like you’re really great at getting a personal tone across with your stories, regardless of however grounded in reality they are. You seem to be invested enough in the characters that they still feel genuine and honest. Yeah! It’s very important to me that The Artist doesn’t come across as a comical figure. I feel for the characters. Of course he’s me in a way, and I don’t want to deliver him to the audience as a prototype or something. He’s definitely more than that. I love him! When did Von Spatz originally get published in Germany, and what has happened since then that brought it to the attention of Drawn & Quarterly? It’s actually my first proper comic book. I wrote and drew it in 2015 and it was published in Germany and France. Misma Èditions and Rotopol Press came together and shared the printing costs, and then it came out in the summer of 2015. It took a while to get to Drawn & Quarterly actually. I’m trying to remember how it got to them. In terms of The Artist, Breakdown Press was first in publishing it because they’re closer to my home since they’re in Great Britain. I think when Drawn & Quarterly came to me I said, “That book is gone, but I have this other book. Do you want to have a look at this?” I just sent over a PDF of it with the English translation in the comments. Then after that they picked it up. I didn’t expect this to be happening. I was just like, “Ah, let’s see what happens,” and when they came back and said, “We actually want to do it!” my heart just skipped a beat while I was in front of the computer. I just started gasping and I hit the desk really hard with my hand out of pure joy and almost broke my finger. It was on my left hand, which is my drawing hand, so I was like “Fuck!” But really, it’s a big thing for me since it’s a big publishing house. I’ve always admired Drawn & Quarterly. The German publishing house Reprodukt picks up so many titles from them, so they’re very present here. I grew up with them! I read Julie Doucet in my teenage days. How old were you when the Berlin Wall came down? How did that affect your exposure to other culture and media growing up? I was super tiny—like three years old. But it took about another four years, when I was eight or nine, until the whole setting of the city looked okay. When I was a child everything looked grey and terrible. Buildings were just torn down because they were wet and falling apart. Plants would just be growing into them. This nasty old look of the city just disappeared. Also when I was a child, I grew up with Czech and Russian illustration, which was awesome stuff. That influenced me a ton as well. But then on the other side, all of the Disney stuff came in. McDonalds was a huge thing when I was a child. I was attracted as much as any child to American culture. It was in a very positive way. I don’t have any bad feelings about the consumerism that took me over. Even back in the day after the war, America was always a big thing here. My grandma always told me, “The American soldiers are the nicest.” It’s just this ongoing history through my family and through the country with America enlightening my warmest feeling, even though now the political situation is as awful as it could be. This book in particular is an interesting examination of America. What attracted you to writing about Walt Disney and the other artists within it? What made you want to tell such a bleak story about someone who’s known for making such jovial work? I think the first thing that drew me into the topic was a photograph I saw of the Disney Studios when they invited a deer over to draw for Bambi. They sat in a circle and drew the deer in a lovely atmosphere, and I just thought, What the hell? This is amazing! I was just hooked to that photograph and Walt Disney. He’s probably the most famous artist and visionary on the planet. Every kid grew up with his stuff. He’s not a fine artist necessarily, he clearly is a cartoonist, and he’s very close to what I do or what most comic artists do in general—drawing and having to bring characters to life. The other thing was, I really wanted to draw California. When I drew the book, I had never been there. But the desert and the big cities—there’s so much ambivalence in that state. So just the pure joy of drawing it was a big plus. Then as another point, thinking about rehab as “the perfect place to be” and bringing those ideas together was always a dream of mine. When I started drawing the book, I always had the pictures of Lindsay Lohan with the e-cigarette and the ankle monitor in mind. Or the Betty Ford Clinic with all of the VIPs chilling there. Whatever they’re doing in there, nobody knows because it’s gated. But it always seemed like the most wonderful place. I really loved the idea of using rehab as a foil for Disneyland, and comparing these two places that are sold as “the happiest place on earth” for different reasons. Yeah! I think it was in Walt Disney’s opening speech at Disneyland that he called it “the happiest place on earth.” I’ve never been. But that idea sort of brings it back to the clinic. One of my favorite pages from the whole book is the page where you see one of the characters looking out into this beautiful landscape with paints and an easel, and proceeding to draw a cartoon cat on the canvas. I think Sam Alden first showed me a print of it and he told me about how it spoke to him being someone who worked at Cartoon Network in Burbank. Yeah, I sent that print to him because he told me about the bleakness of the studio world. He told me about how basic the office space is and he sent me a photo of it. I was amazed and shocked at the same time. This particular panel is just a mouse, alone in the desert, drawing his biggest fear. A cat. The mouse is Tomi Ungerer in Von Spatz. Throughout all of your work, and especially in this book, there’s this constant relationship between being an artist and your mental health. What do you think is the correlation between the two? That’s a tough question. It’s always a question of whether artists are mentally fragile or if making art makes you mentally fragile. It’s the same as “the hen or the egg” expression—you don’t know where it starts. I’m not sure if you’re born as an artist or not. I make this up in The Artist comics a lot. I think that being sensitive—maybe that’s a stupid word—but just being aware of your environment and getting hurt easily by it is probably a big plus for being an artist. You suck it up, and then channel it and make whatever work you want out of it. Making art is so much about vulnerability. So many artists are either comfortable with being vulnerable or they experience being vulnerable so early on in life that they’re more fearless about opening themselves up to people. Totally! Being an artist comes with the privilege of being a bit nutty. The outside world almost wants the artists to be like this. There’s nothing worse than being on a stage and not acting a bit disordered. The audience is almost disappointed. As an audience member you want to be surrounded by this weirdness. I’m trying to get into it more and more, but I don’t have the right formula yet for the relationship between the outside world and the artist’s world. They are quite different, but I don’t know in what ways. I’m not sure if you have to suffer to make a good piece of art or to write a good story—I’m not sure if that has to be the case necessarily. But I think you have to be empathetic to make art. If those feelings aren’t your own, you have to be able to feel other people’s emotions. It sounds a bit hippieish, but I think that’s important. I think that sensitivity allows artists to process things that affect a society as a whole that are much farther reaching than just themselves. Then they’re able to be a voice or a vessel for that idea. Yeah, that’s a perfect way to put it. That’s wonderful! This book celebrates a lot of different artists. How do you see your inspirations filtering into the work that you make? There are obvious hints in the book. The main characters in the book are Tomi Ungerer, Walt Disney, and Saul Steinberg. But I also have very hidden ones. Do you know Ed Ruscha? He had this piece where he made a stone and hid it somewhere—I think in California. This artificial stone is laying somewhere, but nobody can find it. So I put the stone in one of the panels. So there are a ton of little references. Mostly they’re just for myself, but I’m glad if people will see the obvious and not so obvious stuff. I’m not mad if nobody recognizes that one of the panels is a David Hockney piece. For me, it’s like paying a tribute to the artists I admire the most. How has the internet affected your ability to reach an audience outside of your local one? You’ve really become an important figure in the international comic scene in the past few years. Oh, that’s so sweet of you to say. I’ve always wanted to be part of the American comics culture somehow. Even if it was just taking part at festivals. For the first few years that was my main goal. Being there and looking at stuff and buying stuff—everything seemed so wild and reckless. I think my entry was VICE because that brought me to a wider audience. Every other thing I did was only known by a couple friends in the US and a couple of comic stores. But the constant work with Perfectly Acceptable Press, and VICE, and now major publishers, I’m so surprised that it’s actually happening. My heart is really beating because it’s a big thing for me. I never thought it would be possible at all. What sense of community do you get from comics that you feel like is missing from the fine art world you were initially a part of? The comics community is a lot more friendly because there's not as much money involved. I think that’s a very basic and pure fact of it. But still, in the past few months, I’ve thought Oh, this can also be a very toxic environment. There’s a lot of blaming each other and hitting hard on your fellow artists. The judgmental state is maybe even harsher now in the comics community than in fine art. In fine art, a lot of the not politically correct stuff would just slip through the cracks, because people react like “Whoa! This is art!” But with comics, it’s way more personal, and people assume that it’s a story about you a lot of the time. The comics community seems a bit more dangerous lately. But I’m happy to see it from the outside a bit and often from far away, because it’s terrifying. What do you want people to take away from seeing the way that you depict artists in your work? Do you want to help people sympathize with the complexities of being an artist through the book? Yeah, I hope so! One of my main goals is to convey a very lovely and gentle look at artists. Maybe they’re someone in your family or maybe your friend is an artist. I just hope that people can look at them in a very loving way with a lot of acceptance. Sometimes you just have to let them be. The relationship between the artist and the outside world is so undetermined, but the immediate relationship with your family—if it’s your mom and dad, or your brothers and sisters, or your closest friends—they can say something and it can discourage you for half a year. The people whose opinion counts the most can say something about your line quality or the sloppy way you start your day, and then you’re discouraged for a long time. The books aren’t meant to be an educational thing, but I hope that somebody’s mom buys it and realizes that their child or maybe a weird cousin is actually just an artist. They might then look at them with different eyes. I think the depiction of an artist has shifted a lot. Fifty years back, or even in the 1900s or the 1800s, the artist was always a mythical figure. It was like “Yeah, of course he has to hide for half a year in the studio. Eventually he emerges with a brilliant piece of work.” These days if you hide, you’re basically dead. In the fine art world, you’re totally done. That’s a dangerous path to choose. But every artist needs that time to be alone with their doubts and themselves basically. Nobody gives you that time anymore I think. I think that’s pretty new in the depiction of artists in general.
He gave his life to the Russian Orthodox Church. It didn’t deserve to lay claim to him in death, too.
I don’t remember the eulogy spoken for my father at his funeral. On that day almost six years ago, I sat in my childhood church’s well-worn pews of pale wood unable to comprehend the words offered as both a supposed comfort and a celebration. Although my body ached with loss, it wasn’t the fogginess of grief that created this disconnect for me. I couldn’t grasp a single word because the eulogizer spoke in Russian, a language my father did not speak and a language none of his family, including myself, understood. The man who took this honor of remembrance was the Bishop assigned to our Russian Orthodox parish, and he barely knew my father. I grew up as a PK—priest’s kid, as we say in the Orthodox Christian community, a moniker that often requires our own practiced explanation of this label, as most people associate priesthood with celibacy. In Orthodoxy, though, a man’s calling to the priesthood is expected to be embodied by his wife and children. As a result, the requirements of life in the Church molded my childhood: No sleepovers on Saturdays because of Sunday Liturgies. A full week of services heading into Holy Pascha and the following Bright Week. And a striving pride to show the Russian roots of my family. The senior priest, my father’s mentor at my church in Youngstown, Ohio, was a first-generation American born to Russian immigrants. Most of our parishioners were first- or second-generation Americans whose parents or grandparents had emigrated from Russia. This elder priest’s preferences for certain parish members over others seemed to hinge on their level of engagement in Russian culture. Over the years, a string of immigrant families directly from Russia also passed through our church’s doors and into our elder priest’s back office. They would leave with as much help as he could provide for them, often offering up apartments owned by our church for nominal rent or jobs as janitors or landscapers. However forgiving he was of his new immigrant families for failing to attend church, prepare for Communion, or participate in Confession, he was equally critical of his more acculturated flock. He was a priest who could love as well as he could hurt, and the dwindling parish attendance over the years spoke to his tendency to put a church member’s culture over their commitment. My father was the rare second-generation American whose grandparents believed there was no value in teaching their future generations Russian, as they were in America now. It was a conviction that later created a constant tension for my father in his calling to the priesthood. My father spent his entire religious life in some form of service behind the altar of our church. He began in his boyhood as an altar server, moved up in his young adulthood to be ordained as a deacon, and finally was elevated to the priesthood when I was a teenager. Afterwards, he shared a place as parish priest beside his long-time mentor in the same church he’d attended since he was a boy. Despite his advancement in the church, though, my father’s performance as a Russian Orthodox clergy member remained under close scrutiny. Other clergy members, both above and beneath him in the Church’s hierarchy, would regularly chastise my father for his failings. He didn’t grow the full beard and long hair adopted by the traditional Russian clergy, because his facial hair came in so sparsely. When he did try to meet this requirement, his beard would grow in scattered patches across his chin and cheeks, and he would be further remonstrated for looking so unkempt. Instead of marrying a Russian Orthodox girl, he’d married my mother, a Slovak Catholic. Although she converted to Orthodoxy, my mother’s presence as an outsider in the church persists to this day and she is still refused the proper address for a priest’s wife, Matushka, by select parishioners and clergy alike. My father never set foot in Russia himself. His linguistic limitations meant he couldn’t hear the confessions of the Russian immigrants who attended our parish. And the list goes on and on. After his death, I came across a folder of my father’s church notes and papers in his desk. Inside the folder I discovered my father’s block script neatly detailing the phonetics for different Russian prayers and call/responses for various services. Seeing these reminded me of how my father’s hand would shake from nerves as he’d administer Communion to parishioners. My father’s faith was so strong, and his ties to the Church of his birth so embedded, that the criticisms he regularly encountered never weakened his connection to the Church. Until the day he died, he remained committed to his connection to God via the prayers and practices of Orthodoxy. Every morning he would stand in the Eastern corner of my parents’ bedroom, facing Jerusalem, and read the daily scriptures from the Bible prescribed by the church. I can vividly recall how he looked standing there in the mornings, the early light streaming through the window and touching his dark curly hair and broad shoulders, and the kindness on his face when I would brashly interrupt him with a question or a need, as children do. He would always pause to help or answer me, and then quietly return to his reading, seeking communion with our shared Father. My father deeply loved God and the Russian Orthodox Church, and I deeply loved my father. Even now, I find myself connected to the faithful practices of Orthodoxy itself while at the same time utterly dismayed by the cultural practices of the Russian Church. On the world stage, I have begun to see my family’s personal struggles with the Church writ large. Indeed, my father’s own treatment within the church serves as a personalized clue to what the Russian Orthodox Church has become in its partnership with Vladimir Putin: a Nationalist movement. * When Putin’s Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Putin explained the invasion came in part due to his concern for the Russian citizens living there. His choice of language within this rationale was telling. Instead of referring to the necessary protection of Rossisskii, which refers to Russian statehood and citizens, Putin focused on the need to protect Russkii, or the Russian ethnic group. Not surprisingly, the Russian Orthodox Church condoned the invasion of Crimea, further galvanizing its camaraderie with Putin. The Russian Church blessed troops and weapons preparing to go to battle in Crimea. As Putin and the Russian Church continue to coordinate their political agendas, the value in being Russkii is only gaining in strength and relevance. The arrests of one hundred gay men in Chechnya in April of 2017 connects to Putin’s own stated belief that the Russkii population represent a community of people with similar spiritual beliefs, morals, and values. In 2013, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus'—and the Patriarch who governs my childhood parish in Youngstown—stated that same-sex marriage would be a dangerous sign of the apocalypse. Vitaly Milonov, who is credited as the architect of Russia’s now national 2013 law against LGBT “propaganda,” conducts his legislative business from his St. Petersburg office, where the banner “Orthodoxy or Death” hangs prominently. Milonov was awarded the medal “For Service to the Fatherland” by Putin in 2015. In 2017, the Church supported a law, now signed into effect by Putin, that essentially decriminalizes domestic violence. Leaders of the Russian Church argued that physical punishment was an important tradition of Russian culture and should be protected as “an essential right given to parents by God.” Putin’s government has encouraged religious teachings in public schools for almost a decade, with recent proposals seeking to limit these courses to an educational program focused solely on Russian Orthodoxy. The connection between Putin and the Church echoes a powerful and disturbing message: There are those who are the faithful Russians, and then there is everybody else. * Our parish was governed by the Patriarchate, which resides in Moscow. The bishops assigned to shepherding Russian Orthodox parishes within the US are men raised and educated in Russia. Over the course of my childhood we had several bishops assigned to our parish, each of them visiting us once a year with much fanfare. I can recall being a young girl at the table of a darkened restaurant, seated at the end with my family while the Bishop was ensconced in the center, my elder priest and his Matushka flanking either side of him. The entire welcome dinner was conducted in Russian, and I found myself terribly bored by the end. My father simply sat there, smiling into the conversation, while my mother quietly picked at her food. When our Bishop visited, the children in my church would gather around early before the Sunday Liturgy and watch him perform the ritual of dressing in his vestments. During this intricate process various prayers are said over each component of the vestment—the robe of the Sticharion, the long stole of the Epitrichaelion, the broad cape of the Mantiya—and the deacon or altar server given the task of handing the Bishop his garments must enact the specialized rituals for each piece. Hands are kissed, eyes are cast down, and the entire time the Bishop stands on a special circular cloth that represents his seal, and his eminence over his parishioners. At the end of the Bishop’s visit, the children were always given small icons of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. I still have some of these, the icons themselves florid in color and the writing unidentifiable to me in its Cyrillic script. * My father died suddenly from a heart attack, brought on by the stress of keeping a failing parish afloat in a crumbling neighborhood with few parishioners left. After our senior priest died, my father became the main priest at our church, taking on all the duties, services, and social responsibilities required of a full-time clergy member. Unlike the priests before him, though, he received no salary or living stipend. Our inquiries as to why were cast off. “You can’t squeeze blood from a stone.” Our church was floundering financially, but the idea of closing its doors remained out of the question. I know my father saw his work for the Church as his own personal offering to God, but I can’t help feeling that our Bishop and even many of our church’s members saw my father’s willingness as something quite different—as an opportunity to take advantage of. In Youngstown, Orthodox parishes abound, each of them attached to a different ethnic identity. Greek, Ukrainian, Romanian, Serbian, and of course, Russian Orthodox churches litter the decaying neighborhoods of a once vibrant but now derelict cityscape. Their golden domes and stained glass windows give them each the appearance of health, but within each church are more and more empty pews each Sunday as the older generation dies off and the younger generation moves away. And yet, when my father suggested combining congregations into one church, it was regarded as anathema. The Russian church, it seemed, was not the same as the other ethnicities, and the idea of obscuring the Russian part of the church in order to save the Orthodoxy was unthinkable. The two were too deeply intertwined in their identity. Pride in the Russian portion of our faith led communities across Ohio to keep churches open, despite a congregation that couldn’t support a full-time priest. It would then be priests like my father who, under Bishop’s orders, traveled around regularly to these small congregations of three or four people, huddled together inside a frigid church, to celebrate the Liturgy and provide Communion. Even without travel, the service schedule for a full-time parish priest in the Russian Orthodox church is considerable. Sunday Liturgies and Saturday night Vespers each week. Special services held on weekdays for Holy Days marked in the Church calendar, such as Transfiguration or Dormition. House-blessings during the season of Theophany, or Christ’s baptism by St. John the Baptist. Baptisms for new members, weddings, and funerals. And during the forty days of Lent, regular services on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with services every day of the week (and sometimes twice) during the Holy Week preceding Easter/Pascha and the Bright Week following the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. All these my father performed dutifully, while also maintaining an actual profession as a realtor in order to support his family financially. My father would often be up late into the night, working on realty paperwork at the dining room table or the computer. Sometimes, I would come home to find him asleep, his head resting on the stack of papers he’d been trying to finish before fatigue took hold of him. Each of these services, aside from Vespers, required the administration of Prosphora, or Holy Bread. Our family took on the responsibility of baking the bread in large batches each month. It’s a lengthy process requiring several rises of the dough, special cutting of the bread, and the stamping of the loaves with seals identifying the bread as representing Christ, his disciples, and the Virgin Mary. Although my mother often helped, my father found solace in baking the Prosphora and would often insist on doing it himself. He could only find time for it late at night. The smell of yeast is intertwined with my memories of heading off to bed as a teenager, my father’s tall figure bent over the rising loaves of bread as he made a sign of the Cross in water across each loaf before stamping and then pricking the corners of the stamp to symbolize Christ’s crucifixion. No matter how tired he was, he always wished me a restful sleep and shooed away my offerings to help. * I broke with the Church after my father’s funeral. In the years since his death my family and I have found a home in another Orthodox church, this one connected to the Antiochian tradition with its roots resting in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey and far removed from the Russian Church. Our Antiochian Bishop attended a recent parish meeting at our new church, to admonish our congregation for several missteps, each of them relating to how our priest was being cared for by his flock. There had been disagreements about an adequate stipend for our priest and his family’s health insurance and some other issues related to his salary and home maintenance. The Bishop stood up in front of our entire congregation and reminded us that it was our responsibility to care for our priest, just as our priest cares for us. And in the meeting, even as I looked around and felt ashamed that my newly found parish would require such reminders from our Bishop, I couldn’t help wondering where my father’s Bishop had been for all those years of unpaid service. What had our Russian Bishop done to ensure my father’s well-being? The answer is firmly imprinted in the facts of my father’s priesthood. The Bishop, and the Church he stood for, had done nothing to save my father. Instead, my father’s Bishop and his congregation instituted further demands and responsibilities, all the while blocking opportunities that would have lessened his burdens. The overwhelming guidance my father received from his Bishop reflects the pride at the center of the Russian church: Keep the parish open, at all costs. Not until after my father’s death did his congregation seem to acknowledge the effect of his stressful position. In the days surrounding my father’s funeral, parishioners offered my family a steady stream of their own personal recognitions that my father’s health had been declining recently. That he’d looked unwell, fatigued, pale, burdened. Why these observations didn’t concern them before my father’s death, I cannot know. Perhaps if they had spoken up, my father would have listened. As it stands, our own family’s wishes for him to reduce his commitment were always met with the same response from my father: I can’t do that to the Church. * Before my father’s funeral, even within the haze of our grief, conversation amongst our family fluttered with anxious ambivalence regarding whether the Bishop would attend and what that would mean. In my heart, I already knew that if he did attend, the funeral would become about the Bishop and the Church and, yes, the Russkii, and not about my father’s life and legacy. The Bishop arrived just before the funeral was to begin, and his deacons quickly organized the altar and the men serving behind it. One deacon traipsed around my father’s dead body, displayed in repose in his casket at the center of the church, and took picture after picture of the Bishop as he performed the service, entirely in Russian and Slavonic. It is a strange feeling, to have the opportunity to pray at your own father’s funeral taken from you. After the service, the Bishop insisted that we pose for photos with him and my father’s body in his coffin as it was brought outside and into the hearse. I later found these photos published on a Russian website affiliated with the Church. At the mercy meal, the Bishop entered the line first, ahead of my widowed mother. When he acknowledged my mother for the first time that day, the Bishop’s only words of comfort, via a translator, were that my mother had somehow managed to raise two strong Russian sons. It was a final confirmation to me that my father and the family he’d raised would never be adequate in the Russian Church’s eyes. Although our father was a child of God, the Church he loved made perfectly clear he was no Russkii. Per my bereaved mother’s request I wrote the thank you notes to the Bishop in Russian, with the help of Google Translator to form the Cyrillic characters, and with that I was finished. I have yet to set foot in the church of my childhood again. The church where my father served for years as an unpaid priest struggling to keep the parish alive now has a new priest, who I understand receives a regular salary. At a recent family celebration, my mother chose to invite a few parishioners from the old parish. I made a point to welcome them, conscious of the time that had passed since my father’s death. We chatted briefly about our families, and then the conversation took a pointed turn where these parishioners emphasized again and again how the parish was flourishing now that my father was no longer their priest. Although on the outside I patiently listened to yet another critique of my father, his own lifelong embodiment of the values of forgiveness and reconciliation guiding me in the moment, on the inside my heart was breaking. Not for my father, but for the people he loved whose biases prevented them from loving him in return.
The author of Look Alive Out There on neighbours, Generation X, and pot-smoking hippies in Northern California.
For reasons unknown, the public success of young women writers seems disproportionately liable to provoke pronouncements that they are the voice of a generation. Taken literally, the implication is absurd. If, tomorrow, aliens were to descend and encounter the platitude in a research binge through back-issues of general interest magazines, they might assume that demographic groupings of similarly-aged people lie in desperate wait for a singular mouthpiece to proclaim their shared experience and, once located, heave a sigh of collective relief. Maybe there are worse things for the aliens to believe, but that’s not the point. Author Sloane Crosley has written around the designation, but she hasn’t avoided it. Her 2008 debut collection of personal essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, prompted one critic to anoint her, specifically, a voice of “the mall-rat generation,” which, as typical for pop sociological shorthand, manages to be both momentarily evocative and something of an unintended punchline. In the ten years that have followed, Crosley has drawn a panoply of pronouncements and comparisons; author David Sedaris, in whose trenchant wit and undercurrents of empathy many of Crosley’s readers have found a parallel, calls her “relentlessly funny.” In the past decade, Crosley has released a second essay collection (How Did You Get This Number) and a novel (The Clasp) and secured her position as a voice for, if not a generation, maybe a certain type of Manhattanite that is prone to the wackier effects of urban situational alchemy. In Crosley, the particulars of mystified New Yorker neuroses—inevitable when one is working all the time while surrounded by people who are neither friends nor kin—press up against the quotidian banalities that lifestyle publications have decided call “adulting.” Crosley’s third and brand-new essay collection Look Alive Out There (HarperAvenue) surfaces the author’s trademark propensity for fish-out-of-water knee-slappers and their concurrent interrogations of belonging. Several essays detail the intimacy-sans-protocol of sharing space in a city; three, in particular, concern the dynamics between neighbours in turns frustrating, poignant, and sad. “Part of what’s interesting about living in New York is how much business you can choose to have with people who are absolutely none of your business,” Crosley writes in “Immediate Family,” an essay that recounts the author’s attendance of a shiva in her apartment building. We spoke with Crosley about Look Alive Out There, generational designations, and states of coexistence. Kelli Korducki: This may seem like a random question, but, what generation do you feel like you belong to? Sloane Crosley: Oh my god I love this question! Not the Millennial one! You’re not? Interesting! Well, I’m not! I think it’s a fact. I was born in 1978. But like, toward the end. Toward the end of 1978? I mean, I was born in August. But I don’t think it’s a dividing-by-months, splitting-hairs situation. Am I X? I think I’m Gen X. There’s been a lot of debate about this over the years. I thought it would be interesting to see where you see yourself, because everyone I know who was born between the late-’70s and early-’80s answers this question differently. One of the pre-publication reviews of Look Alive Out There used the term “Millennial” about me and I was laughing because, like, I’m almost forty! Doree Shafrir wrote that Slate piece years ago about how people born during the Carter administration should be called “Generation Catalano.” Oh my gosh. That’s so good. The whole generation thing, it can make you feel a little bit trapped… I can’t believe I’m about to voluntarily bring this whole thing up, but when the Me Too list—the shitty men in the media list—came out, it was very interesting to survey the reactions among women who were exactly my age. It seemed like, in general, we were sort of trapped in a purgatory of reaction. Sometimes, it seems like my response tends toward, “That’s the reaction of a twenty-five-year-old,” or, “That seems like the reaction of someone who is hyper sensitive or hyper politically correct.” But then the second you feel that, the other nightmare is—I don’t want to align myself with the Angela Lansburys and Chrissie Hyndes of this world, who have gone on record saying horrible things about that. I think that experience has made me think a lot more about my generation than I have in a long time. I think a lot about how much the conversation has shifted since I was in high school in the early-2000s. It seems like the past, crimes or trespasses perpetrated were written in invisible ink, and this moment has made the ink visible. When Me Too first started blowing up, I thought, "I don’t know that I’ve ever been put in an uncomfortable position or sexually harassed!" And then I started thinking… and the ink sort of came into view. It’s great to think about going forward, in terms of where the lines are. One thing that made me think about age, and where you situate yourself, is that you were in your twenties when you wrote your first book. There was a weird delay with the release of I Was Told There’d Be Cake but yeah, I was twenty-seven. A child! An actual infant! Obviously, the culture has changed in some key ways and you’re in a different phase in your life—in one essay, you write about freezing your eggs!—but I’m wondering whether anything’s changed in terms of your approach to writing? Not much. For nonfiction, I usually begin with a goal or an end in mind—something will lock in where I think, “I have to write about it.” And it’s always something surprising. I’m trying to think of an example from the new book… okay, so for the California essay [“Take the Canoe Out”], it wasn’t until what is the very last moment in the essay, when I got a package in the mail, that I knew I had to write about it. Even though there were plenty of adventures that led up to that. There’s a shorter essay where I’m in France [“Brace Yourself”], and I’m standing in the middle of a large lawn and three women walk away from me at different paces. One is pacing on the phone, one goes marching in and out, and one goes to answer a phone call—usually a moment will lock in like that, and that’s sort of the moment I’m working toward when I write. Or also I’ll picture the ending. Sometimes I’ll picture the last line perfectly and I just have to get to it. My goal, which isn’t always successful, is to try to take the training wheels off of essays, because I tend to have a roundabout way of getting to things. Sometimes that’s charming, and sometimes it feels like a diversion. My goal is always to figure out what’s the best way to make my point as quickly as possible while also entertaining people. Switching gears a bit, the book has those two longer essays about your dynamics with two different New York neighbors that I read as kind of a pair: “The Grape Man,” about a neighbor you’re fond of but don’t really know too well, and “Outside Voices,” about a neighbor you don’t know at all who has become your waking nightmare. Did you consciously set out to offset each of these stories with the other? It’s interesting, the have situational similarities but they weren’t conscious. I’ll often pair a shorter essay with a longer essay that’s thematically similar. There’s the smaller essay I have [“You Someday Lucky”] about my coworkers who are obsessed with the [number-based personality diagnosing system] Enneagram, and I say they’re from Boulder which is kind of the Bennington of the west. And then in the next essay [“Take the Canoe Out”] I fall in with these pot-smoking hippies in northern California. They really have nothing to do with each other, and yet they have everything to do with each other. But those two essays, “Outside Voices” and “The Grape Man,” I tried to separate them as much as possible so that I could let each one breathe. What I like about them is that they’re negative images of each other. It’s how beautiful living in close quarters can be and how hellish living in close quarters can be, and they’re sort of the southern and northern oracle of that theory. It seems to me that a lot of your essays grapple with, either directly or not, the effect that living in New York has on the way you see yourself and your place in the world. Is this something you’re conscious of? Am I totally projecting? I have the same relationship with writing that I have with New York, which is that I’m just ever so slightly outside. I grew up in White Plains, which is a commuter town thirty minutes outside of the city. So, while I’m not from New York, it’s not exactly the same as moving to New York from Florida or England. It’s not Goodbye to All That, where she genuinely can’t identify the bridges. I’m invited to the party, but I don’t feel totally comfortable. But you have to be slightly uncomfortable to be able to walk down the street and notice things. It’s hard to observe something if you’re the life of the party or the white-hot center of it. In that way, New York informs my writing. But you also have a genuine knack for getting plopped into totally foreign scenarios, whether scaling a tough Ecuadorian volcano as a novice climber or playing yourself on Gossip Girl. I really milked that cameo for all it’s worth, huh? You know, I tried finding it on YouTube but couldn’t. Every once in a while, it’ll pop up from a stranger, somebody who decided to re-watch all of Gossip Girl and they’ll notice it and tweet at me. I’m going to find it eventually. It’s exactly as described—one might call it, over-described, in the essay [“A Dog Named Humphrey”]. Sometimes I plop myself into these situations… but I never do it with the intention of getting an essay out of it. It’s just how I live my life. Sure. You’re a writer who just happens to be in strange situations on a regular basis. Maybe it’s what comes from diversifying your friends and your life and having a natural curiosity and things you’re interested in. The same thing that probably makes it so that I’m likely to end up in all these strange situations is probably the same thing that makes birthday parties a real nightmare for me. I think other people have this too—I don’t think I’m alone. I’m getting slightly better as I get older about having faith in people to be social and be fine and leave if they’re not having a good time, and that it’s fine and not a reflection on me, but I always get a little nervous that all these wildly different friend groups won’t get along with each other. But it’s great for writing.
After the deaths of Colten Boushie, Tina Fontaine, and so many others, Canadian society seems much more convinced about what didn’t cause them than what did.
To say dark matter was “discovered” seems disingenuous since, theoretically, dark matter has always been here, filling space we once thought of as empty. In that way it’s not so different from these lands, which my people refer to as Turtle Island. To this day, people claim the Americas were “discovered” in 1492, despite millions of people living on these lands, creating on these lands, building histories on these lands for centuries before Columbus ambled along. Terra nullius, they called it. Empty land. It takes a certain kind of arrogance to assume that everything is empty before you choose to see it. * My family and I had just sat down in a Starbucks when I found out. I opened Twitter, looked at my mentions. An acquaintance had tagged me and a number of Indigenous people I knew. Three words were written at the end of the list: “I’m so sorry.” Nothing more needed to be said. I knew at that moment white Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley had been found innocent of all charges related to his killing of twenty-two-year-old nêhiyaw man Colten Boushie. There’s never a good time to get news that breaks you, but sitting in a Starbucks with your family in the midst of a vacation seems particularly inopportune. My husband and child were visiting Vancouver while I was on a fellowship at a major university. We’d visited the Contemporary Art Gallery that day. The main exhibit, “Two Scores,” was split between rooms. In the first room were Vancouver artist Brent Wadden’s giant woven blankets, which he apparently insists on calling “paintings.” They lacked the artistry of the Squamish weavings we’d seen a few days before at the Museum of Anthropology. The gallery write-up, however, spun this messiness into a positive, describing Wadden’s self-taught weavings as “exploratory… purposely naïve”—even if they were “often inefficient… [and] would confound a traditionally-trained practitioner.” I wondered whether this artist, who lived and worked on unceded Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territory, had any idea of the Squamish history of weaving. I wondered if he’d care that Squamish blankets were placed in an anthropology museum while his were given a solo exhibit in a respected art gallery. Some things only have value when a white man does them. Cynical and unimpressed, we left the gallery to wander towards Granville Island. We spent nearly an hour in a specialty stamp store. We tried terrible virtual reality, which made my eleven-year-old cry. We had fake ketchup sprayed at us by the owner of a magic shop, which annoyed me, but made my husband and eleven-year-old absolutely giddy. We ate perogies and cake crafted to look like the Pride flag. It was, all in all, a pretty tame tourist experience. We only stopped at Starbucks to use the free WiFi to map our trip back to our hotel room. Then I saw the tweet. As I sat there reading the first article I could find, a lump lodged in my throat. Colten Boushie, who was a firekeeper, who would mow the lawns of elders in his community, whose friends were reportedly trying to get away from Gerald Stanley’s farm shortly before Stanley’s gun fired into the back of Boushie’s head, would receive no justice. His family would know no peace. As soon as the story of Boushie’s death came to light, Gerald Stanley came to be considered something of a folk hero among white rural Canadians. He’d done what they all seemed willing—or even eager—to do: kill an Indian. Stanley’s rationale—or lack thereof—didn’t matter. The fact that Boushie was an important part of his community didn’t matter. All that mattered was Stanley had killed an Indian, and like the Hollywood cowboys his actions emulated, he deserved not only his freedom, but a bounty. Over the next few days, he’d get one. A GoFundMe campaign created on his behalf amassed over $100,000 within seventy-two hours. Some things don’t matter when a white man does them. * The first person to realize dark matter existed was Fritz Zwicky, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology. In the 1930s, he was studying orbit patterns within the Coma Cluster, a cluster of over 1,000 galaxies. Zwicky tried to calculate the total mass of the cluster based on its velocity, which should have been straightforward using the virial theorem and Isaac Newton’s theories on gravity. What he found, however, was that there was much more matter in the cluster than the light of its stars suggested. There was something unaccounted for that couldn’t be seen. Zwicky called this mysterious, invisible force “dark matter.” * The lump in my throat grew the entire bus ride home. I felt like I was going to vomit. I thought about Debbie Baptiste, who, upon hearing her son had died, screamed and collapsed to the ground. The RCMP, who were searching her house without her consent, asked if she was drunk. When you aren’t seen as human, your human emotions are no longer relatable, but indecipherable—evidence you’re unstable or an animal or a drunk. The injustice of Colten’s death; the injustice of Colten’s friends not only witnessing his death, but then themselves getting arrested; the injustice of Stanley drinking coffee with his family while Colten’s body grew cold in their yard; the injustice of Debbie Baptiste’s grief being read as drunkenness by RCMP officers tearing apart her house; the injustice of so many white Canadians referring to Colten as a criminal when Stanley was the one on trial for murder—it had all simmered inside for a year. And when I read that verdict and understood that, even in this era of so-called reconciliation, Canadians would continue to see Indigenous people as worthless criminals, and that pain finally, finally boiled over, I wanted to cry or scream or collapse. But I couldn’t. I was in a Starbucks, then I was on a bus. Public pain was impolite. Someone could think I was drunk. Someone could call the cops. I kept myself composed, the way society expected me to; I tried to smile and laugh, the way society expected me to. My body was shards of sharp glass I dutifully held together. A few Indigenous friends told me later they couldn’t sleep after the verdict. All I wanted to do was sleep. Plunge headfirst into a dreamscape where my family, friends and community weren’t seen as disposable, where our deaths mattered, where our lives mattered. As long as I was dreaming, we could be respected and loved and seen as human. I slept for nearly twelve hours that night. * In 1973, Princeton astronomers Jeremiah Ostriker and James Peebles were studying how galaxies evolve. They built a computer simulation of a galaxy using a technique called N-body simulation. What they found, however, was that they couldn’t recreate the elliptical or spiral shapes observable in most galaxies—until they added a uniform distribution of invisible mass. Suddenly, with the introduction of this dark matter, things reacted the way Ostriker and Peebles expected them to. Things started to make sense. As Ostriker and Peebles were doing their simulations, astronomers Kent Ford and Vera Cooper Rubin were studying the motion of stars in the Andromeda galaxy at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. They measured the velocity of hydrogen gas clouds in and around the galaxy, expecting those outside the visible edge of the galaxy to be moving at a much slower rate than those on the edge. But the rate of velocity was the same. For this to be the case, there had to be a considerable amount of dark matter both outside the edge of the Andromeda galaxy, and within the galaxy itself. Rubin concluded that, despite being unable to see dark matter, it must be there—and in levels that increased the farther from the galactic centre one got. It would appear dark matter was affecting the entire universe. * APTN, a news organization that focuses on Indigenous issues, reported on a Facebook post by an unnamed RCMP officer regarding the Stanley verdict. “This should never have been allowed to be about race… crimes were committed and a jury found the man not guilty in protecting his home and family,” the officer wrote. “Too bad the kid died but he got what he deserved.” Colten Boushie was sleeping when the SUV he was in pulled up to Gerald Stanley’s farm. As far as we know from the testimony of both sides, he didn’t try to steal anything. He never even left the vehicle. We would later learn his friends had attempted to break into another car earlier that day, after they realized theirs had a flat. But at the time, Stanley didn’t know this. He saw them pull up, he heard Colten’s friend get on an ATV and attempt to start it. From there, Stanley’s son ran at the SUV with a hammer and smashed the windshield. Stanley himself kicked out the taillight before going to get his gun. I have a feeling the Stanleys’ actions were not what the RCMP officer was referring to when he or she said “crimes were committed,” though their damaging the SUV could have, in fact, been considered mischief under the Criminal Code of Canada. No, I have a feeling the officer was referring to the actions of Boushie’s friends and their failed attempts at theft, despite the Criminal Code of Canada stating that theft is only completed once a person who intends to steal an item causes it to move. Since neither the car nor the ATV moved, theft did not occur. Still, the RCMP officer claims the violent, gun-toting Stanley was “protecting his home and family” and Colten “got what he deserved.” The first time I stole I was in grade four. My family had just moved to Painesville, Ohio, from the motel in Cleveland we’d been living in. Before that, we’d been living at a Salvation Army shelter in Buffalo, New York. You could say we were moving up in the world, though moving up from nothing doesn’t require much. There was a convenience store a few blocks from the mostly-empty house we were renting. It sold twenty-five-cent Little Debbie pastries, which my sister, brother and I loved. My favourite were Fudge Rounds—two chocolate cookies smashed together with chocolate cream in the middle, drizzled with fudge. My siblings loved Oatmeal Creme Pies, which were pretty much the same as Fudge Rounds, except with oatmeal cookies and vanilla cream. I don’t recall exactly when I decided we should steal them, but I knew that I wanted to make my siblings happy. I knew that we didn’t have a lot of reasons to be happy. Little Debbie pastries seemed as good of a reason as any. If I bought something at the store, I reasoned, I’d be less suspicious. Obviously you can’t be both a thief and a patron—or so I hoped the store clerks thought. My siblings and I would scan the streets for pennies, nickels and dimes, dig through couch cushions and crawl under car seats until we had twenty-five cents. Then we’d pull off the heist—taking far more pastries than we wanted when the clerk wasn’t looking, sticking a few in our pockets, then putting the rest back before settling on just one to buy. The first few times it went well. Everyone in our neighbourhood looked poor; we fit in completely. When we moved to Mentor, Ohio, however—a much richer city—we were no longer just another poor mixed-race family in a community of poor mixed-race families; we were the poor mixed-race family in a white, middle-class community, living well outside our means. The first time I tried to pull off a pastry heist there, I was caught. The clerk’s eyes were on my sister and me as soon as we stepped in the door—taking in our stringy, uncut hair, our ill-fitting, donated clothes. She followed us around the store. She wasn’t subtle about it. When my sister and I came to the cash register, the clerk said she knew we were stealing. She saw us pocketing treats in the reflection of the glass. She looked at us with such disgust. She couldn’t tell we were Indigenous, but she could tell we were incredibly poor. The total cost of our attempted theft was no more than five dollars. Probably closer to three. It was almost nothing, but it was enough. We were no longer an eight- and ten-year-old under this woman’s gaze; we were not sad kids trying to cope with poverty and abuse. We were thieves, criminals. Not-quite-humans who would one day get what we deserved. But what did we deserve? To go to some juvenile detention facility and have our responses to poverty punished? How would her reaction have changed if we were visibly Indigenous? Would she have called the cops then and there, as opposed to giving us the chance to leave and “wise up”? Did our white skin give us a chance at redemption my brown cousins wouldn’t have gotten under the same circumstances? When Stanley looked at Colten, did his face resemble that clerk’s face when she looked at my sister and me? Was the same disgust curling his lip? The same sense of righteousness? Did he think of himself as some modern-day cowboy keeping the savage Indians at bay? Unlike my sister and me, Colten didn’t steal anything. So what did Colten, a twenty-two-year-old nêhiyaw man, deserve? To be killed after a day out with friends? To have the white man who fired the bullet that ultimately led to his death cleared of all legal and criminal responsibility for killing him? How is any of this “not about race”? I suppose, in one sense, the RCMP officer is right. This should never have been allowed to be about race. Stanley and his son shouldn’t have grown up in a society where Indians are portrayed as the biggest threat to life in the prairies, where cowboys killing Indians is viewed as heroic and worthy of hundreds of films, where enacting “the final solution of our Indian Problem” was crucial to the country’s success. Perhaps if those things hadn’t been allowed to have been made about race, Colten and his friends might have felt comfortable asking white people like Stanley for help when they first got a flat tire, knowing that even though they’d been drinking, they’d still be seen as people who needed help, and not just drunken Indians and potential threats. Or, if Colten and his friends were making reckless decisions—the types of decisions people sometimes make, whether they’ve been drinking or not—the punishment might have been something less severe and more humane than death by vigilante. Maybe, if none of the history of Canada or Saskatchewan were allowed to be about race, Colten would still be here today. * According to NASA’s website, despite over forty-five years of research since 1973, “We are much more certain what dark matter is not than we are what it is.” It is not in the form of stars or planets. It is not in the form of dark clouds or normal matter. It is not antimatter or black holes. It is not any of these things. It is always something else. Perhaps we can’t see dark matter because we don’t know what to look for. Perhaps we can’t see it because we don’t know how to look. * The next morning the lump in my throat was still there, and my family was still, technically, on vacation. We’d had plans for a full day in the city, ending with a trip to the HR MacMillan Space Centre and Observatory. The Stanley verdict changed everything. I didn’t have the energy to keep pretending I was a blissful tourist on unceded, stolen Indigenous land. I didn’t have the privilege to forget what the Stanley verdict meant for my family, friends, community. I wanted to be around people who were mourning with me, who felt that deep, inescapable sorrow threatening to swallow us all. My eleven-year-old was on the hotel room bed watching TV. I laid down next to them, took a deep breath, and explained the Stanley case, as every Indigenous parent no doubt did that morning. I told them that I was going to go to a rally to support justice for the Boushie family, that they didn’t have to come if they didn’t want to. “No, Mom, I want to come,” they said. I nearly burst into tears, hugged them to my chest. I thanked genetics for giving them white skin to protect them from the racism that has killed both my visibly Indigenous grandfather and my visibly Indigenous uncle, felt sick that this was something I had to be thankful for. “We’ll still go to the space centre later,” I promised. The vacation would go on, the way the rest of the world had. * My kid, my husband and I shivered in the cold outside the CBC Vancouver building. It seemed fitting that the rally started there. A year and a half earlier, just three days after Colten’s death, CBC Saskatoon chose to publish an editorial on Canadians’ right to defend property, carelessly framing Colten’s death as potentially justifiable before any information was really known about the case. CBC’s Ombudsman Esther Enkin even defended this article, claiming that since the RCMP hadn’t immediately laid charges against Stanley, and three of Colten’s friends had been taken into custody for potential “property-related offenses,” the self-defence argument was part of public discourse. Apparently CBC had a responsibility to the public to offer “diverse perspectives”—though Enkin did admit that a line in the article which implied self-defence would form the backbone of the criminal proceedings was unclear and misleading. By now, we can say that Stanley's lawyer should have known better than to argue the fifty-four-year-old was defending himself against a group trying to drive away from him and his hammer-wielding son on a flat tire, that a just-woken twenty-two-year-old posed any significant threat to a man trying to commandeer their vehicle while holding a gun. By now we also know that many, many others were eager to make that argument for him. It materialized on social media, in Facebook posts and online comments made largely by white Canadians. It materialized in a resolution to call for the federal government to expand self-defence laws in Canada, passed by ninety-two percent of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities less than a month after Colten’s death. It materialized in my Twitter mentions when I posted anger and pain at the injustice of Stanley’s acquittal. It was everywhere, all the time. In that sense, I suppose we could have started the rally outside nearly any building in Canada and it would have had the same symbolic effect. There were over three hundred people there that day. Speaker after speaker came to the front of the crowd, from the Skatin and Sts'ailes dancer and missing and murdered Indigenous women advocate Lorelei Williams, to Stō:lo/St’át'imc/Nlaka'pamux multimedia artist and hip hop musician Ronnie Dean Harris, to Sapotaweyak Cree Nation slam poetry champion and artist jaye simpson. Some people were passing out traditional medicines to the crowd. Some were handing out red ribbons for people to wrap around their arms in solidarity. Some were taking around smudge, filling the air with the warm, comforting scent of sage. Some carried photos of Colten they’d printed out before coming. Even though I was only standing in a crowd, even though I was only marching through Vancouver streets, even though I was only lighting candles on the steps of the courthouse where we eventually stopped, it felt good to be doing something with my body. It felt good to think there was a plan others had laid out for me, and all I had to do was follow it. It felt good that there was a place to hold my pain, my child’s pain, that other Indigenous people had made this space for us. “When I say ‘Justice,’ you say ‘For Colten,’” Nuxalk and Onondaga hip-hop artist JB The First Lady called to us. “Justice!” “For Colten!” “Justice!” “For Colten!” My kid, my husband and I yelled until we were hoarse. Our voices, it seemed, were all we could give—that, and ten dollars to go towards speaker rentals. * It’s strange to think that most of the matter in the universe is invisible. We know dark matter exists, we see its effects, but we cannot point to it and say, “There it is! That’s dark matter! Look at it! I told you it existed!” Maybe our single-minded focus on the light makes us unable to see the dark that’s all around, always. Like when you turn off the lights in a bright room and, for the first few seconds, you can’t make out shapes you saw so clearly moments before. In those first few seconds of dark, your eyes would have you believe there’s nothing else there. But your eyes are wrong. Something is there, whether you see it or not. * The first recorded use of the word “racism” was in 1902. The man who used it was an American named Richard Henry Pratt. He was criticizing racial segregation, arguing that it “[killed] the progress of the segregated people” and all classes and races should come together to “destroy racism and classism.” But, as writer Gene Demby points out, “Although Pratt might have been the first person to inveigh against racism and its deleterious effects by name, he is much better-remembered for a very different coinage: Kill the Indian...save the man.” Pratt was what might be called a benevolent racist. Unlike his more extreme contemporaries, Pratt believed that there was no need to kill all Indians, that the problem was not Indians themselves, but “all the Indian there is in the race.” In other words, he wanted the same things that Canada has wanted for centuries: assimilation. He even advocated for Indian boarding schools, the United States’ version of residential schools, ultimately creating the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School out of an abandoned military post. Indigenous children were taken from their homes and forced to speak English, wear Western clothing, cut their hair, forsake their ceremonies and traditions. They were told to be ashamed of being Indigenous, to be ashamed of their own families. Many could not communicate with their parents when they went home, if they went home at all. Many were abused. Many were malnourished. Many got sick. Many died. These stories filter through our families, told in actions more than words—each former student now raising their own kids the way their boarding school teachers had raised them. A legacy of shame and violence, trauma and pain, passed on from generation to generation like so many secrets. And this, from the mind of a man who spoke out against segregation and racism. If Pratt lived to see the impact of his life’s work, I wonder if he would feel remorse. If he would see that what he did to Indigenous families was another form of the segregation and racism he claimed to denounce. I wonder if, upon hearing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada refer to residential schools as “cultural genocide,” he’d realize that he was responsible for that exact thing in America, and apologize until his vocal cords stopped working. More than likely, though, he’d just tell us we had it coming. That what he did wasn’t racist at all, and we shouldn’t be allowed to make any of this about race. * When we finally got to the HR MacMillan Space Centre, the sky was too cloudy to see any stars at the observatory. Instead my husband, my kid and I decided to head into the planetarium to watch a film called “Phantom of the Universe: The Search For Dark Matter.” We leaned back and stared at a giant dome screen as Tilda Swinton explained the origins of the universe to us. Dark matter forms the skeleton of our universe. Dark matter doesn’t emit light or reflect it. That’s why scientists can’t detect it. The dark matter particle doesn’t let anything stand in its way. I wondered how something could be so pervasive, so all-encompassing, responsible for the world as we know it, and still not be able to be clearly seen. Then I remembered what Gerald Stanley’s lawyer said about Colten’s death in his closing argument: “It’s a tragedy, but it’s not criminal.” I remembered the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities trying to push for stronger self-protection laws while simultaneously denying the impact the Boushie killing had made on this decision. I remembered the white people on Twitter flooding Indigenous people’s accounts with racist slurs; claims that Stanley was acting in self-defence; claims that Colten was a criminal who had it coming; that Stanley’s white lawyer dismissing all visibly Indigenous people from the jury as soon as he saw them was not racist; that an all-white jury finding Stanley innocent of any wrong-doing when he shot Colten point-blank in the head was not racist; that none of this was racist. I remembered all the times I’ve pointed out racism in my life and the white people around me claimed I was imagining it. I remembered that, eventually, I started to wonder if I really was imagining it. I am always made to feel as if I am imagining it. To these people, the only words, actions or thoughts that can be considered real racism are those they can’t be blamed for. Could any one of them point to an instance of racism they’d witnessed today? Could they listen to you describe one and not stare blankly until you doubted your own perceptions, your own sanity? Racism, for many people, seems to occupy space in much the same way as dark matter: it forms the skeleton of our world, yet remains ultimately invisible, undetectable. This is convenient, of course. If nothing is racism, then nothing needs to be done to address it. We can continue on as usual. Answer emails. Teach classes. Go to dinner with our families. Go to space centres. Continue our vacations, untroubled. We can keep our eyes shut inside this dark room we’ve created and pretend that, as long as we can’t see what’s around us, there’s nothing around us at all. After all, there’s no proof of it. If the man who coined the term “racism” can despise everything that makes me Indian and get away with it, why the hell can’t you? * I’m writing this less than a week after the Raymond Cormier verdict. He was the fifty-six-year-old white man accused of murdering Tina Fontaine, a fifteen-year-old Anishinaabe girl from Sagkeeng First Nation. Tina’s seventy-two-pound body was found in Winnipeg’s Red River, weighted down with rocks and wrapped in a comforter that witnesses claim Cormier owned. After decades of grassroots work by Indigenous women and family members went unrecognized, Tina’s death finally brought the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people into Canada’s national consciousness. This is racism, Canada finally seemed able to say. This is wrong. Then came the trial. In recordings, Cormier talked about how he had sex with Tina, how he was furious that she was only fifteen, how he was worried he’d be imprisoned if the cops found out he’d slept with her. He was seen fighting with Tina after he sold her bike for drug money. She threatened to call the cops on him for stealing a truck. In the recordings, Cormier seems to admit that he killed her. Still, a jury found him innocent. His lawyer didn’t even have to offer a defense. He called no witnesses, offered no evidence. I suppose he didn’t have to. The evidence washed away in the river. Police officers, emergency workers and social workers saw Tina the day she died. When police pulled over the truck she was in, they ran her name and saw that she was the subject of a missing person report, but they didn’t help her. They left her there. When she was found hours later sleeping between cars in a parking lot, paramedics took her to the hospital. The doctor expressed concern that Tina was being sexually exploited, reportedly urging Tina not to run away from Child and Family Services, but still discharged her. From there, Tina’s social worker took her to eat some McDonald’s and set her up at a new hotel room. She encouraged Tina to stay on the premises, but later said there was no way to stop her from leaving if she wanted to. Then she drove away. Tina’s great-aunt Thelma Favel wasn’t informed any of the four times her niece went missing while in CFS’s custody. When Favel called on August 15 to check on Tina, her social worker said she’d been missing for two weeks. The woman had apparently forgotten to tell Favel. Two days later, Tina, who once wanted to grow up to be a CFS worker, was found dead. But none of this is evidence of racism, I suppose. It never is. When I heard the Cormier verdict, my family was back in Brantford. I was alone in a residence room waiting for the verdict to be announced. As soon as my phone started buzzing, I knew what had happened. What had happened again, and will no doubt happen again and again and again and again to Indigenous people in this country. I want to end this on a positive note. I want to say that I have hope. But at this point I’m so far away from the light, all I can see is the dark.
At first, it was just this hazy glow on the horizon, but then it got brighter and took on more of a definite shape. It was almost as if—it’s weird to say it, even now—it was looking for us.
For the most part, everyone who’d actually seen it agreed that something had happened. Just what exactly was more difficult to say. At first, the reporters had come in droves, but then, just as quickly as they came, they went, and after the official report was printed in the Silver City Tribune, only the lunatics continued to talk about what had happened that night. Only a few weeks later, nearly everyone seemed to agree that nothing unusual had happened, or was ever likely to happen, in our little town. But I remember. At one time it was very, very real. And it was headed toward us. Everyone who saw it stopped whatever it was they were doing and piled into their cars, just like Fernie and me. There was a great big line of us, our taillights streaming, heading together out of town. Out past the last gas station and Fulton Wash. It wasn’t a decision we made; it was more like an instinct. Like the way that your head turns without even meaning or wanting it to toward a highway accident as you’re driving past. Out past town, the land gets hard and flat and there’s no mesquite even. It’s just dirt out there, some scrubby creosote, and nothing, not even a rock, for twenty-five miles till the flat-top range. It’s true, the mountains look closer than that. It looks like you could just walk out and be at the base of them in something less than an hour. It’s funny how the eyes can play tricks on you: that the first known thing on the horizon, whatever it is and no matter the distance, seems close. But at night, there aren’t any mountains near or far and darkness is the closest thing, interrupted only by stars, which, with nothing to compete with out there, are no longer points of light, like in town, but sort of leak out into the rest of the sky. You get this feeling that darkness is just a problem of distance, and that if you could just see a little farther there wouldn’t be darkness at all. * Fernie and I had been sitting out back of my mother’s place. It was just after dark, and Fernie had come by driving Marty’s car, a beat-up Impala with the left window blown. We were smoking cigarettes, leaned up against one another, and Fernie was saying something about how nuts it was that you wouldn’t know something and then once you did you wondered how you never knew it before. We were all set to get married that summer—had been engaged by then almost three years, ever since we were sixteen. Living at our parents’ places, she at hers, me at mine, and trying to scrape up enough money to leave town. She had learned a new word just that morning, she said, and seen it three time since. She asked me if I knew the word. I don’t remember now what it was, but whatever it was I was thinking seriously on it. It was one of those words that you thought at first you knew for sure, but then the more you thought about it the more you realized you didn’t know what it meant. I was just realizing this, and Fernie was just in the middle of saying, “I guarantee you, now that I’ve said it, you’ll see this word all over the place, I guarantee it”—when we saw the lights. At first, it was just this hazy glow on the horizon, but then it got brighter and took on more of a definite shape. Fernie said, what the hell, and we both sat up and looked at each other and then back at the sky. Then the light sort of flattened out, and spread itself toward us. It was almost as if—it’s weird to say it, even now—it was looking for us. There was a moment when it came so close that we actually ducked. Both of us. And closed our eyes, so we missed it: the actual moment when whatever it was passed right over our heads. I really can’t say what would have happened if we hadn’t have ducked. If the thing would have hit us or not. If it really was that close, I mean, or that bright, or that real. All I can say is that it felt that way, and that—when we saw it coming—we had no choice but to duck. It was our bodies that made the decision, not our minds. If it had been up to us, we would have continued to stare up at the sky, at that great big ball of light heading right at us, wondering what in the hell the thing was, what was happening to us. Even if it killed us. We would have just sat there, gaping, with our mouths half-open, like fools. That’s the way the mind works, don’t ask me why. Then Fernie said, again, what the hell, and I shook my head and we turned and looked behind us where, in the distance, we could still see the light. It didn’t retreat as quickly as it came. It sort of lingered in the sky, and where before it had spread itself out in a single plane, now it seemed to be pressed into the shape of a ball, hovering just above Lucky’s Tavern at the far edge of town. A siren wailed. Then another. Fernie and I looked at each other, then headed back to the house. My mother was inside. She was sitting at the kitchen table with the newspaper open. Doing a puzzle, I guess, or scanning the swap column for something we didn’t need. She didn’t appear to have noticed anything. “We’re going out,” I said. I tried to make my voice sound light, but it came out high instead. I had this feeling in my throat like something was pressing on it from the inside and if I didn’t get moving fast, I was going to explode. But my mother still did not appear to notice anything, and I wonder if, after all, there was nothing unusual in how I sounded. If that was instead the way I always sounded on nights, otherwise just like that one, when Fernie and I got it into our heads to go out together and just drive around. My mother said only, “All right. Be careful.” Without even really looking up, and just in the way that she always said it. So Fernie and I got into Marty’s Impala and headed out toward Lucky’s. There were plenty of cars on the road by the time we got out there, and everyone was shouting out the window, “Do you see that? What the hell—?” and beeping their horns at cars that were going too slow because they had their heads hung out the windows, watching the sky. From time to time, a police car or a fire truck screamed past and all the cars pulled off the road and waited for them to go by. It must have taken us the better part of an hour to drive what otherwise would have taken no more than twenty minutes. By the time we got to Lucky’s a dozen or so cars were already pulled off the side of the road. The desert is as hard and dry out there as a parking lot, and one after another, cars pulled off the road behind us and everyone piled out and just stood there, or sat on their hoods, and looked up at the great big ball of light, which hovered almost directly above us in the sky. It’s sort of funny looking back to remember the lines of police and fire vehicles, and how the cops and the firemen when they got out had nothing to do but what all the rest of us were doing. Once in a while you could hear the static buzz of a radio, but for a long time there was nothing to report. Fernie and I sat beside one another, perched on the hood of Marty’s Impala. From a distance, we saw the Honey twins who were in our same graduating class. Glenn raised his hand in a wave, which Fernie and I returned. For some reason we didn’t feel like talking to them, or anyone. Everyone knew everyone else, but for some reason people kept to themselves or stood in little groups of two or three, and were mostly silent. We were waiting for something. What, we didn’t know—but there was a sort of shared respect for whatever it was, this thing that was happening that we could have in no way anticipated and didn’t understand. Then, slowly—so slowly at first we were not even sure if it was happening—the ball began to descend. Someone pointed and shouted and then there was a sort of murmur of confusion as people tried to decide if anything had happened, or if it was going to, and what they should do if it did. When it became clear that the object had, in fact, moved, and was heading slowly toward us, the policemen grabbed their loudspeakers and told everyone, “Back up, back up!”—but no one moved. The ball, though descending, still seemed far enough away that even our bodies remained riveted, and after a while the cops stopped speaking through the megaphones and we all watched, together, in perfect silence, as the strange ball of light made its first contact with the earth. * I had my heart set on marrying Fernie since the very first day I saw her, at the beginning of seventh grade. She and Marty had just moved from California and Marty had started Desert Trophy, a taxidermy business in the old labour hall off the highway. Sometimes, around town, I say to people who know: “Never dreamed, when I asked her to marry me, I’d get stuck with Marty instead.” I say it as if it’s a joke. The way Fernie would have said it, I imagine, if the same thing had happened to her. Sometimes that’s the only way to treat things. It makes the people around you more comfortable. They think to themselves: good thing he can laugh about it, at least; good thing he’s not taking it too hard. After Fernie was gone—just a few months had passed, six months at most: we were still looking—my number came up. Just like that, it turned up in the first draft lottery of ’69. If Fernie had still been around we might have gone to Canada. We’d talked about it, anyway, but just in the way that you talk about a thing that will probably never happen—or at least you figure it won’t. It’s nice—a strange sort of comfort—to think that things would have been different if Fernie had still been around, but I wonder sometimes if it would have made much difference, or if I would’ve come, in any case, to the same conclusion in the end: it was just easier to go. * We had nothing to do the rest of that summer after Fernie disappeared, Marty and me, except wait around for someone to phone us—Fernie, or somebody to tell us about Fernie. But they never did. I started helping Marty out around the shop, more or less to pass the time, and before long I had learned pretty much everything there was to know about stuffing dead birds and polishing antlers and sewing on glass eyes. It’s good work. And genuinely scientific. A lot of people don’t know that. Or this: that if Charles Darwin hadn’t been a taxidermist as well as a scientist, the ship he sailed on to the Galapagos—where he made all his famous discoveries—never would have taken him onboard. Who knows? If Darwin hadn’t known how to slit open a dead bird then sew it up again, we still might think we were moulded from clay, or fell out of the sky. * Later, I got a chance to look at the scatter plot of the December draft numbers; the birthdays ran along the vertical axis to the right and the lottery numbers ran horizontal, underneath. All of us, all the guys that got called up, were blue dots, kind of like stars scattered every which way across a blank sky. Some people complained at the time, and afterward. They said the lottery wasn’t fair—how they did it, you know. It wasn’t random enough. Too many November and December guys got called, they said—because of the way their numbers didn’t get mixed in properly, so were still just sitting there, right on top. But when I looked at the scatter plot—all those blue dots floating every which way—it looked pretty random to me. Also, my own birthday is in June, right in the middle of the year. At least from my perspective, you can’t really get any fairer than that. I was the first person in my family to join the service since my great-great-grandfather had fought, and been killed, in the Battle of Antietam, during the Civil War. My father was born with a hole in his heart, which kept him out of the service back in ’42. He went to college instead, then came home and worked at the bank and resented every minute of it. See, he found out, not too long after the war ended, that the hole in his heart had healed up, and had probably been healed for a while. The medical screeners had been looking at his old records, and that was why he hadn’t been allowed in the war. He was angry all the time, because of it. My mother would say, you ought to be grateful, but my father would have gladly turned in every one of his days spent in our small town for a single hour in the service—just enough time to get himself blown up in exactly the way that my mother warned him he should be grateful he had not. Sometimes I wondered, if my father had not had a hole in his heart and had instead gone to the war, if he would have been as glad as he thought he would have been, or if, more probably, he would have resented getting killed just as much as he resented not getting killed. Some people are just like that. Anyway, by the summer of 1967, my father was dead and not from any hole in his heart. He had been killed in a car accident, driving home from work one day—a distance of six miles. My mother hardly spoke or left the house after that, except to go to bingo or to church, both of which she attended regularly. In a way, now that I think about it, it was because of my father—how much he regretted not getting himself killed in the Second World War—that I didn’t sign up right away to fight in Vietnam, like nearly everyone else I knew. I didn’t want to want anything that my father wanted—but then I didn’t want what he didn’t want either. So where did that leave me? More than anything else, though, it just didn’t seem to make much sense to me, going all the way over to the other side of the world when there were girls like Fernie to marry back home. If my father had still been around, I wonder if he would have given me hell for not joining, and I wonder if that would have made me more likely to join, or less. But my father never mentioned it, even when he still could have. As far as he was concerned, there was only one war, and that was the one in which he should have got himself killed. * By the time I got back, no one talked about the lights and hadn’t for a long time. Even the few T-shirts that had been printed, with cartoon alien faces and space ships, saying, “I survived the UFO landing of 1967,” were all in the discount bins, and it was only ever referred to as a sort of a joke. But Marty and I would still talk about it sometimes. Even though he hadn’t been there (he couldn’t have been; we’d borrowed his Impala that night), he used to ask me to describe what we’d seen. It was always difficult to know exactly what to say. Once I said, “Have you ever seen a beautiful girl walk into the room and you know that your life has been changed?” He must have known I was talking about Fernie, but at first he pretended not to. He chuckled and said, “Sure. Least a dozen times.” So then I said, “Well, then, no, that’s not what I mean. “It’s like,” I said, “it’s like all of a sudden you think that maybe we aren’t just put here for the heck of it, though it seems that way most of the time. And it just sort of—surprises you, knowing this all of a sudden, so you can’t think straight for a little while.” Marty was looking at me with this funny half smile on his face that after a while turned sad. “Well, anyway,” I said, looking away. “It was like a beautiful girl walking into your life, and you just know that things aren’t ever going to be the same.” * I heard a lot of guys in Nam talk about death—or near death. Almost everyone had a story to tell. And it was always the same. This bright light in the distance they were either approaching or that was moving toward them. “No shit,” they’d say, “just like they always tell you.” I remember thinking how terrific it was that in the end it all turned out the same for everyone—white guys and black guys, Baptists, Jews. That it didn’t matter. You could get shot in the jungle one morning, or slip away, all pumped up with morphine, in the middle of the night, and it would be “just like they tell you.” But as comforting as it is to think about that way, it’s also a little unlikely. I don’t mean anyone was ever lying, exactly, about what they saw, but just that somewhere along the way all the nuance got lost. Just as it got lost for all of us back in 1967 when an unidentified object touched the earth. And a light, or a feeling—or something else we hardly had the ability to perceive, let alone to understand—shot through us. Even if we didn’t believe we’d “made it all up,” whatever we’d witnessed that night was so strange—so absolutely unprecedented and unknown—that whenever we spoke of it afterward, we did so by using only the most general terms, and most of us preferred to say nothing at all. * The official explanation was that it had been a simple trick of the light. Similar incidents had been reported for centuries, they said. In Texas, there were the “Marfa lights,” for example, visible on nearly any calm, cold desert night just outside of that town. The whole thing could be attributed to a sort of optical illusion. After the report came out, only the lunatics continued to talk about what we had seen as if it had really been “something.” If it ever came up in public, we would say, “Oh yeah, wasn’t that weird.” One of the Honey twins—Neil—ended up with a Medal of Merit during the war, I remember. He had dragged a buddy of his across half a mile of enemy territory, saving his life, and he got interviewed about it afterward, on the national news. When where he was from came up, the interviewer said, “Home of the alien landing, right?” and Neil had just laughed. I remember feeling angry about it at the time. So what made you jump into your car that night? I remember thinking. What made you go racing off with your brother to that exact spot in the desert, where all of us were waiting, too? What made you stand there with all the rest of us, with your mouth open, looking up at the sky? * There was no note when Fernie left, just a week before we were set to be married. Not then, and not later. No telephone call from the side of a highway somewhere. When we’d run out of places to look and several months had gone by, Marty asked me if I thought, by any chance (he hesitated, an expression on his face like he was apologizing, in advance, for whatever it was he was going to say), there could be a connection between what had happened that night in the desert and Fernie all of a sudden being gone. Already it was mostly a joke, what had happened, but there were still some pretty wild stories going around. Manny Duncan—who everyone knew had been high on amphetamines at the time—had a particularly intimate one, and that, of course, was the story that got circulated most. I told Marty no. “What happened that night was just … light,” I said. But then I thought about it some more. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I figured after a while that it had everything to do with Fernie leaving—and Marty knew it even better than me. He’d sensed it somehow, and that was how come he’d continued to ask me about it, even after everyone else had forgotten about it, or explained it away. To say “light” was just the closest we could come to describing a thing that was bigger than us, that could have been anything, and that we didn’t understand. And that was why I knew then that, despite what I told Marty when he asked, that it had everything to do with why Fernie was gone. She must have just known something then. I don’t know what. She must have seen the way her life had taken, or was just about to take, shape. Known that whatever it was or was going to be was going to be different from the life she had so far known. And me and Marty, we didn’t have any part of it. So, what about what I knew? How I had felt when Fernie had walked into the room at the beginning of seventh grade and I just “knew” all of a sudden: who Iwas, and what my life was going to be about, and the fact that nothing would ever be the same? I still wonder about that sometimes, and the closest I can come to making any sort of sense of it is to assume that it’s possible that both feelings were—and continue to be—true. * I sit in Marty’s studio with the animals all around me, peering at me from the corners and from the high shelves. Some of them are just not finished yet, but others are those that, for various reasons—if they got botched somehow, or the order fell through and we never got paid—we just kept. I know they can’t see, but there’s something about the look they give me when I glance up sometimes from my work and see them staring back at me that makes me feel like they know something I don’t. Even though that’s impossible. I took them apart and put them back together again. The eyes that they look out at me with, I placed those myself. I extracted their skull and their thigh bones and made replacement parts out of galvanized wire. It’s an art, see—a lot of people don’t think of it that way. And I pride myself in the fact that, for the best of them, there is no way of telling that their original structure has been cleanly removed from inside. * When I’m not working, I’m waiting for something. Not for Fernie any longer, but for something. Maybe that’s just life, maybe that’s just being alive. Or maybe, because of what happened that night—August 12, 1967, which to this day, despite the official report, no one has been able to fully explain—I just keep half expecting something like it to happen again. And really, when you think about it, the odds are pretty good. I mean, what are the chances that something like what happened that night would happen just once and once only, exactly when and where it did, in our little town, where nothing has ever happened? It seems to me more likely that these sorts of things happen all the time and we just don’t notice them. Because—I don’t know—we’re distracted by other things, are momentarily looking away, or don’t believe in what we saw. Other times, though, I prefer to think that what happened really did only happen once. That what we witnessed in the hour we stood out there, watching and wondering what would come next, was the pinnacle of achievement of some distant race, after some unimaginable period of time. That there was no motive, no message, and that the brief moment of contact—in which all of us who had driven out to that exact spot in the middle of the desert stood, mouths gaping, staring up at the sky—was all that it was ever intended to be. This story appears in Johanna Skibsrud's forthcoming collection Tiger, Tiger, which will be published April 3, 2018, by Hamish Hamilton Canada/Penguin Canada.
The author of The Recovering on archival addiction narratives, excavating how things get better, and sugar.
There’s writing that’s keen to demonstrate what it knows, and writing that’s eager to show you how it thinks. I don’t mean this as a binary, just as two big presences in my reading life, and it took me entirely too long to discover the singular joy of the latter. How expansive it is, and at its best and most singular how knowingly vulnerable. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, a 2014 collection of essays personal and reported, is a deeply affecting example of this type of writing not only because of its theme of understanding the pain of others, but because Jamison makes such stories of pain at once individually significant and part of a set of stories many of us tell ourselves about hurt. It raises new questions about precisely who hurts, how, and offers refreshing suggestions about how who is hurt by the assumptions we make about either question. It’s this pretext that makes her latest book, The Recovering (Little, Brown and Company), the compelling addiction anti-memoir that it is. It carries you through her own experience with alcohol dependence in her mid-twenties; her hard-fought-struggle to reckon with it; and, as I would imagine she’d suggest, the harmful limits that accompany seeing addiction filtered through the lens of just one person’s experience. The 400-page book pulls from the lives of people famous and obscure; dead and alive; successful and spectacularly not so in the daily project of sobriety. Chantal Braganza: You mention in the book that your first novel, The Gin Closet, was a way of writing about your addiction, if not directly. Leslie Jamison: The Gin Closet was the first time I wrote about any kind of substance dependence. There was a division of labour among the characters. There was one whose life, externally, more neatly lined up with my own, and she had a certain relationship to drinking. But I gave the dependant relationship with drinking to this other woman who looked nothing like me. She was older, lived in a trailer in the desert, and was drinking herself to death. She had this closet where she would go to get drunk. It wasn’t that her drinking didn’t look exactly like mine. It was more that there was some part of me that could sense that the way I wanted to drink—if I followed it as far as it would go—would take me to some place like that, that fully and that destructively. I mapped that speculative self onto a character, who was explicitly more dysfunctional than I was at that moment. Part of The Recovering came from a PhD dissertation you did. Did the book itself have another original form? I think of the genesis of the book as the confluence of a few different rivers of writing. One of was my dissertation, and all of the research going into it: it was an exploration of writers who had lived through addictions—in some cases died of them—who’d turned their addictions into art, and some who created art from a state of sobriety and recovery. It looked at how the narrative of addiction and recovery is shaped, and what their sober creativity looked like. But from pretty early on I knew the form I ultimately wanted all of that work to take wasn’t a scholarly monograph. I wanted it to be this hybrid work that would bring my story into conversation with many. How did you describe this book to people while writing it? Did you feel the need to put qualifiers on what might otherwise be seen as “just another addiction memoir?" I’d say it’s a book about addiction and recovery that tells my story, and the stories of many other people, but also interrogates the genre of the addiction story and how it’s structured. What we ask from it. What we want from it. That idea of doing the act of storytelling—whether it’s mine or someone else’s—and interrogating whether that act of storytelling works, really feels like kind of two core elements of the book that I would try to find some concise way to approach. I remember a job interview where they asked what kind of project I was working on. I remember this guy saying several times, “I just don’t get it. I just don’t understand the book that you’re describing.” It was one of those Chinese finger-trap things where the more aggressively bewildered he was, the less capable I felt in describing the book in any kind of meaningful way. How about the original name, Archive Lush? I filed it under Archive Lush really even before I’d written much of it. Much of that time I was writing it with The Recovering in mind. I loved that title from the beginning. It evoked something expansive, and a little strange. A little like a horror movie, like The Shining. And it evoked both the idea of recovery as this ongoing process. I also wanted it to bring up this idea of recovering stories from the margins. For example, George Cain’s book, Blueschild Baby, had largely been forgotten. Cain is one way that you point to racialized addiction narratives, and how the world has tried to shape them. Specific to Cain’s story, how did you position yourself in relation to this? I really responded to his book. It acknowledges the ways that addiction has been constructed as part of a really toxic political rhetoric that was really just a way of dressing up racial persecution—and at the same time still a deeply destructive, difficult experience. I was also moved by the fact that he had chronicled addiction so artfully, with such subtlety and acuteness, but he hadn’t managed to transcend addiction in his own life. Self-awareness can be profound and create really meaningful art, but can’t necessarily save you. And telling the story of addiction doesn’t always save you from the experience of it, either. His story felt like an important part of illuminating that. You spent so much time in archives to write about authors’ lives. Is there a document that sticks out in your mind as piercing? It isn’t a specific document, but a pattern. When I first plunged into Charles Jackson’s archives, I thought I’d find accounts of his drinking, or traces of his drinking in his personal letters. And there are some. But what I was really struck by, and this made more sense once I realized what was going on, was that his drinking was largely absent from his correspondence, but it was all over his wife’s. You would read letters that Jackson and his wife had each written from a similar set of months, and he’d be going on about how he just couldn’t get going on this new book, how it was really hard for him to write, he didn’t know what he was going to write next—just this kind of stymying megalomania. All of the letters from his wife at this same time would be like, “Charlie had a terrible relapse, I don’t think this is ever going to get better.” And once you notice the pattern, it was like, of course: he’s not able to confront this or articulate it. But his wife, who actually had to deal with cleaning up a lot of his messes, she’s writing about it more openly and candidly. That kind of simultaneity and divergence. Why is it so hard to write recovery well? When you’re writing recovery, you’re surrendering that primal vehicle of narrative—of things being wrong and broken. There’s something about happiness or wellness or positive states that is more aesthetically challenging than states of difficulty, and I think part of it is the danger of flattening positive states into something bland or boilerplate or Tolstoy’s idea that all happy families are alike. I actually think the Tolstoy line false. It’s not so simple. It takes more effort to excavate how things got better; it’s really hard to show consciousness and all those subtle gradations, even when overall what you’re portraying is a more positive state. Addiction runs in your family. Have other members of your family read this? Everyone in my family has. I definitely gave them the chance to read it. if I’m writing about anyone, I try to give them the opportunity to read it. Not that I give people veto power, but I want to give them the opportunity to talk about about it. My brother said that it really helped him understand the fact that he wasn’t addicted to anything. It clarified what the experience of addiction was like by putting his own relationship to booze into sharper relief. He likes single malt scotch and has a huge collection, but he told me the book helped him understand my relationship to this daily obsessive state. It was interesting to me that someone could relate to it in an opposite way—that someone could read an account of addiction and find it a tool of illumination rather than resonance. This is definitely more a comment than a question, but food feels like such a huge presence in this book. I haven’t stopped thinking about the sweets, breakfasts, and what you call the “odd flavour pairings of recovery” since. I always find myself obsessed with bodily experience and sensory experience and food is a really core part of that. Food often shows up in my work as this stage on which a lot of things play out. What does pleasure feel like? What does indulgence feel like? What does self-restraint feel like? What does self-punishment feel like? Food becomes one of the ways I ask those questions. I had a job at a bakery when I was in early sobriety, so a lot of my memories of that time have to do with showing up to work, the landscape of that little shop, and the ways I found that work saving. When you give up booze—and booze is what you’re trained to understand as your source of release in this world—you’re on a desperate quest to find it in other places. I’m not the only sober alcoholic who has a really intense relationship to sugar. I think sugar really does have a role to play in early sobriety. I happened to be working in a temple of sugar at the time, so it only brought it out more fully.
I’d returned to Puerto Rico to drink, yes, but more than that, to see how much—and how little—Hurricane Maria had changed things.
“Colonialism is neither created nor destroyed, only transformed. Or inebriated.”-Andrés Neuman, How to Travel Without Seeing: Dispatches From the New Latin America The trees don’t lie. You can see in their wear, their violent bends, that they’ve been through hell. Abandoned buildings and storefronts don’t lie, either, but those have dotted the urban landscape of the San Juan metro area for as long as I’ve been traveling to the island of Puerto Rico. The graffiti, ever-topical, calls out the gringo colonizers who’ve left the island without the money or infrastructure to cope with destruction: “El Desastre Es La Colonia.” “FEMA Es El Problema.” Where’s the lie? Since Hurricane Maria hit on September 20, 2017, there’s been what the media has described as “an exodus” from the island, with many making new homes in Florida. About 5 million Puerto Ricans are living on the mainland now—more than who live on the island itself. The electric company will be privatized, while still a third of the island exists in the dark. An ongoing economic crisis will see further austerity measures put in place in order to pay down a massive debt, perhaps increasing unemployment with cuts to government jobs; that plan would have to be approved by a government control board of U.S. Congress members thanks to an act called PROMESA, which was signed into law by President Obama in 2016 and further decimated the island’s ability to self-govern. FEMA, el problema, has declared their job done. Chef José Andrés, who’s been feeding thousands for months through his nonprofit World Central Kitchen, has been all but canonized as a saint for not abandoning the U.S. colony like the federal government. The decimated agriculture is being slowly restored thanks to the work of activists. It’s my sixth trip here in two and a half years, and first since the storm. The scenery has, in the past, been incidental. As a food writer, I’m always focused on my plate and my glass, on having a good time, chatting with bartenders and chefs who have become friends and reporting back. While that’s always been complicated, it feels both strange and more necessary this time around: The bad press makes me want to give the island peace, more time to recover; at the same time I know there must be more to what’s happening than that bad press. Bars are little pockets of humanity, where we go to relax and shoot the shit. In bars, we meet friends and strangers. We tell our life stories, over and over. Like trees and vacancies and graffiti artists, they tell the truth of how it’s all going. * My trips began in 2015, when the piña colada changed my life. I’d been to the island before on vacation, and as a kid I’d march across my grandmother’s front lawn waving her Puerto Rican flag out of some ingrained revolutionary spirit. I was comfortable making this the place where I tried to start off on a new path. I tell new friends the story all the time, usually while giving a rundown of my tattoos as we sit next to each other at a bar; it’s part of my self-mythologizing spiel. We pass from the Jeff Buckley–drawn skull to the outline of an oyster shell to the palm tree, through all the rest of the markings on my arms, and then I motion to my ribs. "There's one on either side," I say, explaining the Spanish fragment from Álvaro Enrigue's short story "On the Death of the Author" before I finally get to the showpiece: a pineapple that stretches over my ribs on the left. A pineapple tattoo usually means work in the hospitality industry, but for me, it marks a night I spent in Old San Juan on my first cocktail assignment to find out who was ordering piña coladas, a classic drink born there back in the ’50s. “Travel is not transcendence,” wrote Eileen Myles in an essay called “Iceland.” “It’s immanence. It’s trying to be here.” There’s nowhere else I try harder to be present, to be comfortable and act natural, than San Juan. On that trip, with a reporter’s notebook in hand, I learned a little bit about how to do it. That June night, a Monday, I drank three piña coladas, as though on some holy quest, and did end up born into a new life—of cocktail writing, of a belief in the truth-telling of bars, and of a richer relationship to the island where my grandmother was born. There was so much openness, with Americans and Puerto Ricans and anyone else coming together to create one big party, and I let myself melt into it. That night, I did something for the first time that would become a habit: got to a bar right when it opened, choosing a stool all the way at the end. A ponytailed barman named Mario greeted me at La Factoria; he asked if I liked mezcal, and I lied with an affirmative nod. He made me a pink drink in a coupe glass and told me it was called the Beauty and the Beet; in it, earth and smoke worked together, and mezcal became new habit number two. Throughout that first night of habit-making, I was introduced to more people as the bar filled up: more bartenders, one of the owners, the famous cocktail writer Dave Wondrich who was in town for a rum event. I drank a take on the piña colada and talked to everyone who would let me about its history and its present. They told me you’d usually drink them on the beach, from plastic cups. They made me different rum cocktails, ones that played bitter and sweet off each other. There were shots, I think—the memories are fuzzy. I told a newlywed couple that I was a writer, a half-truth at the time, to try it on for size. A photographer sat at the bar with his wife, there on a honeymoon too, and we still follow each other on Instagram, sharing our lives with each other based on that one night. When I finally made my way to the exit, much drunker than I’d arrived, a mysterious man loomed over me and said, "Tell these fuckers that they did a paternity test on the piña colada and it was made with Don Q rum at the Caribe Hilton." A holy quest, indeed. In the morning, I woke up puffy-faced and hungover, baptized by rum into this new beat, and rolled right onto my computer to pound out 1,200 words on my adventure. A month later, I quit a job I’d hated for six years, convinced by the night’s success that I could be a freelance writer. I had avoided letting anyone in Puerto Rico know that I have even the smallest ancestral connection to the island until a few trips in, when I flew down with a broken foot stuck in a big, stinky recovery boot. I sat at the end of Jungle Bird’s bar, drinking whatever was cheerfully served to me, and finally someone asked, head tilted: “Are you Latin?” And I did what I always do when confronted with that question: Take a deep breath and say, “Well…” before explaining that, yes, I am, a little bit, but also no. Mainly no. I have no claim here. I’m a writer but also a tourist, and tourism “seems both to reverse colonialism and to repeat it,” as Rebecca Solnit wrote in A Book of Migrations, a memoir of her Irish-American ancestry. Travel writing often feels quite close to colonialism. You’re making a profit off the stories of others, off a place you can never really know as a home. But I try to let the deep questions go while I’m there, where I’ve found friends to whom I owe a life I wouldn’t have been able to live without their stories. I try to focus on the food and the truth. * Old San Juan’s cobblestone streets, usually packed with stumbling tourists, seem empty on this Tuesday night. A friend asks how the city appears to me now and I immediately say, “Weird.” Everything is getting back to normal, he says, except that a lot of his friends are no longer home. They’ve left for the States to find work. Usually, I’d begin an evening at the historic dive bar El Batey with a Jameson and soda, but they’re no longer open every day. The sight of the locked door that would usually be open from 1 p.m. until 5 in the morning is disconcerting. Instead, I sit down at La Taberna Lupulo, a packed beer bar, and order a local IPA from a bartender I’d featured in a piece last year. She comes out from behind the bar to give me a hug before quickly moving back to the work of pouring and closing tabs. The energy here, despite the emptier streets, feels as it always has. When my pint glass is empty, it’s time to go to La Factoria. When I enter, every stool is taken—a good sign. Eventually, I’m introduced by the bartender to his friend as a big fan of the band INXS. Eventually, I make the acquaintance of a sad salsa DJ who’s just returned from New York; he has an Alkaline Trio tattoo on his forearm but has been pigeonholed into one genre. I try to leave at three a.m. and am told, “No, it’s just getting started!” I’m served, as usual, two more drinks than I should consume in one night. The door has to be unlocked when I finally stumble out, a bit past four. I wake up the next day, puffy-faced and hungover, more at ease. The feeling that things are amiss remains, though, because they are; outside the city limits, most of the island is without power, clean water, or internet. San Juan is a bubble, stretched. For a hangover lunch, I go to Comedería La Fonda Urbana, which was called La Jaquita Baya on my last trip. The waitress laughs at me when I’m left speechless at the news that there are no tostones. I should know better: Plantains are no longer abundant. Later that night, while sitting at the bar of my friend Maria’s restaurant Gallo Negro, the same waitress greets me. This time, she’s wearing dark lipstick to suit the sultry atmosphere, and the reality of how few people there are becomes glaringly obvious. What was once a small city feels now like a small town, where the only people left know everyone else. On the penultimate day of the trip, the drinking begins, in an unintentionally perfect way, at La Penúltima. The bartender knows immediately that I’m from New York, though we’ve never been introduced. She just moved back after spending a decade in the city, working in some prestigious bars. When she offers me a shot of Fernet as I’m about to leave and sends me off to the next bar with a Last Word in a plastic cup—a “boomerang,” a gift for the bartender—there’s that sense of home, which comes full circle as I take a seat at Jungle Bird once again, this time to eat food cooked by my friend Paxx. I’ve seen them cooking at four spots now, each time better than the last, each time closer to creating a cuisine all their own. The waitress from the day before walks in as a guest. “Hello, I’ll be your server,” she jokes. “Tomorrow, I’ll be with you on the plane.” The bar’s abbreviated tropical menu has a drink named Category 5. They’re out of the ingredients they need to make it. I order, instead, a piña colada. * Back in Brooklyn, I make my way over to a pop-up called El Puente in Carroll Gardens, where I’m greeted from behind the bar by Mario’s familiar grin. “Pirate!” he says, before coming out to hug me—a nod to my Instagram handle, itself an ode to my love of rum and habit of going to the Caribbean to pillage for stories. We catch up from my customary seat at the end of the bar. The pop-up serves as a drop-off point for supplies being sent back to Puerto Rico: They need water filters; they don’t need any more clothes. He’s cut his hair short and is getting used to the cold. The wall behind my back was painted various candy-color shades in homage to Old San Juan’s bright buildings. A friend comes in and takes a seat next to me; he orders a piña colada, but the moment doesn’t feel right. I wish this bar weren’t here; I wish there were no reason to have fund-raisers for Puerto Rico and that the lights were always on everywhere and there weren’t crypto-currency billionaires attempting a new breed of colonialism. New York’s February cold is no place for tropical joy, the kind that changes your life and makes you feel like you could do anything. Piña coladas belong to Puerto Rico, the world’s oldest colony that deserves so much more. But this is reality. I spend a long time looking over the menu before Mario tells me he knows what he’ll make me. “Something called the Beauty and the Beet.” The recipe has changed, he says, as he places it in front of me in a highball glass. Like everything else. Some changes, though, are only temporary. A few weeks later, Mario has closed up El Puente. He’s gone back to San Juan’s warmer weather to work at El Batey. Now I know it will be open on my next trip—for storytelling, for whiskey, for The Police playing on the jukebox. If the trees are still bent, the graffiti gets angrier, and some buildings are left vacant, the bars will be there to welcome you with open arms—with shots of rum, with life-changing piña coladas.
As the actress sped around Rome wearing her makeup from the film Cleopatra, women everywhere embraced a bold look with a complicated history.
In Rome in 1962, one of the biggest movie stars in the world got ready for work. On a regular day, if there ever was one for Elizabeth Taylor, that meant she would do her own makeup. At $1 million, Taylor was earning the highest salary for a female actor ever at that time, and the film she was making, Cleopatra, was one of the most expensive in Hollywood’s short history, with a budget of $44 million. The original makeup artist for the film, Alberto De Rossi, became ill early on in the long, long filming process. So, as she often did in her pictures, Elizabeth did her makeup herself. In the film, she appears on screen in a bright blue dress with a leopard print coat; she wears an emerald green floor length gown; she wears nothing but a sheet. No matter the costume, her eyes—those big, beautiful, moneymaking blue eyes—were framed in thick cat eye liner with blue shadow from her lashes to her eyebrows. Elizabeth had seen what De Rossi did and was able to copy it, likely drawing on her years of experience protecting and creating her image, and knew just what shade of blue made the whites of eyes look whiter and irises bluer. She often kept that blue eye shadow on after she left set for the day, sometimes on dates with Richard Burton, who played Mark Antony, during the period when their love affair became front page news around the world. These pictures helped spark a makeup trend. “Elizabeth Taylor made the public want to buy what she already had to give,” said William Mann, author of How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood. Her eyes are one reason she was famous. Her relationships with men were another. But what really made Elizabeth a star was Elizabeth—her authentic-seeming honesty, the control she had over her life outside of the Hollywood studio system, and her wild, irrepressible charm. No one else could be Elizabeth Taylor on yachts with her men and her jewels, but you could at least wear the same makeup. * Highly visible cosmetics, like Taylor’s blue eye shadow, have a fractured history both in England, where she was born, and in the United States, where she started working as an actress after her family moved to Los Angeles in 1939. During periods including the Victorian era, women in the U.S. and England were condemned for wearing obviously painted faces, wrote historian Madeleine Marsh in her book Compacts and Cosmetics. According to Marsh, the rise of Christianity brought with it an attitude that using cosmetics was a sinful luxury that falsified the work of god. Obvious makeup went in and out of fashion: white face paint and exaggerated rouge indicated aristocracy for both men and women around the late 1500s and 1700s, and then fell out of favor once again. Marsh wrote that women could get away with wearing makeup so long as it wasn’t obvious—only if women needed it to fit strict conventions of beauty, which tended to be centered on white women. A rise in the manufacturing and availability of cosmetics in the 1910s and 1920s in the U.S. and images of actresses like Theda Bara—who spawned the “vamp” look of dark eye and lip makeup—prompted more obvious makeup trends like bold lips. But women who participated in more visible makeup, like flappers, were often not viewed as respectable. Blue eye shadow does anything but look natural. There’s no way to hide that you’re wearing makeup if your eye shadow is electric blue, just as there’s nowhere to hide in the world when you step out with it on. Elizabeth particularly embodies this—she couldn't hide from her fame and was known for embracing glamour. In one of Elizabeth’s less popular films, The Driver’s Seat, she puts on blue eye shadow with a tiny makeup brush, thinner and shorter than her finger. You can’t see where she dips the brush, so the color appears as if it’s springing from her pores. Looking off screen, Elizabeth’s hand is steady as she quickly puts color on her eyes, giving the impression she has done this many times before. To watch her feels voyeuristic, the viewer becoming a part of a long tradition of sneaking around to learn the secrets of womanly trade. A short clip of this scene showed up on YouTube in 2011, and celebrity makeup artist Mario Dedivanovic posted it on Instagram in 2016, sparking a small flurry of discussion on the Internet about how Elizabeth Taylor did her makeup, showing the lingering fervor for her glamour even five years after she died. This scene is literally depicting the work of putting on makeup, but Taylor still makes it look effortless. The makeup brush acts as an extension of her hand; a coy peek over her sunglasses when she finishes seems natural. Putting makeup on in public had generally been taboo for women since ancient Rome, until after World War II in the U.S., when using a powder compact became a status symbol. So women mostly shared and discussed cosmetics with female family members or other women in the know to pass down beauty secrets. Part of keeping makeup application hidden from the outside world was to hide the effort it took to exist as a woman in public, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano wrote in her book Face Value. But Elizabeth’s beauty embodied the ease women are supposed to display even while doing the work it takes to become a made-up woman. * In a world where women are often flattened to the images and roles they represent, a woman in control of her makeup—or lack thereof—is more in control of her life. But blue eye shadow has become pop culture shorthand for a woman who has too much power and too little control over it. Blue eye shadow is sometimes used to indicate a crazy woman, a witch, or a bitch (and Elizabeth has been viewed as all of those, and more). Elaine (Samantha Robinson) in Anna Biller’s 2016 film The Love Witch uses sex and love spells to make men fall in love with her and then kill them when she tires of them. Elaine exhibits extreme narcissism, craving affection and attention from men and punishing them when they don’t live up to her unrealistic ideals. She tries to embody men’s fantasies, and part of that is in the way she looks: long black hair, lacy lingerie, and bright blue eye shadow. Her femininity is exaggerated as she becomes the perfect archetype of a seductress. Her spells are so strong, and she is so captivating, that men feel overcome by their love for her. But when they don’t live up to her own fantasies, it ends in death. This deadly explosion of feminine power is also depicted in Cleopatra. As the young queen of Egypt, Cleopatra falls in love with Julius Caesar, the most powerful man in ancient Rome. Her love seems genuine, but it’s also advantageous to have his power on her side. After Caesar is assassinated, one of his generals, Mark Antony, declares his love for Cleopatra. Together, Antony and Cleopatra try to unite Rome and Egypt. They fail, and commit suicide. Throughout it all, Cleopatra emphasizes her sexuality and power through her clothing and makeup. Blue eye shadow again represents a woman who uses her particularly female power as a sexual being and a queen, and then loses control of where that power takes her. * The real Cleopatra is often believed to have worn blue eye shadow, a notion bolstered in part by Elizabeth’s portrayal of her in the film. Madelaine Marsh wrote that Cleopatra wore a blue-black on her upper lids, and green at the bottom. Historian Andrew Hardy wrote that it’s likely Cleopatra’s eye makeup wasn’t blue at all. Eye makeup in ancient Egypt was most commonly green or grey because of the minerals malachite and galena that were used to make it, according to Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup by Gabriela Hernandez. Autumn Whitefield-Madrano quotes in Face Value a woman who describes bright makeup as associated with childhood; Marsh shares a similar sentiment: “For little girls, experimenting with lipstick and eye shadow is part of the initiation ceremony into a grown-up world … and whatever your age, playing with makeup is fun.” William Mann speculated that Elizabeth wore her makeup from the set of Cleopatra out after work because she liked it, and there may be nothing more to it than that. But it also allowed Elizabeth to emphasize her childlike playfulness, even though she was a mature woman. “To understand Elizabeth—she was like a little girl. She still had the innocence and the spirit of adventure that a little girl would have,” Mann said. By the time she made Cleopatra, Elizabeth had been married four times, become a widow once, had three children, and adopted a fourth while she was filming. She had survived an abusive marriage and had been working, and helping to support her family, since she was nine. But people still viewed her as childish and innocent. Elizabeth was not meek; she worked to control her life and stuck up for herself from the time she was fifteen, when she walked out of Louis B. Mayer’s office during one of his tirades and refused to apologize to him. She had a million-dollar salary for Cleopatra because she worked with her agent to get it on her own, outside of the structure of a film studio. Using blue eye shadow allowed her to be seen as fierce and innocent at once. In her obituary in the New York Times, Cleopatra director Joseph Mankiewicz described seeing Elizabeth for the first time when she was eighteen years old: “She was the most incredible vision of loveliness I have ever seen in my life,” he said. “And she was sheer innocence.” Fierceness allowed her to make money on her terms; sexuality behind the veneer of innocence is often what she was selling. To embrace makeup is to embrace certain contradictions: using cosmetics to look natural or being seen as a decorative object while taking control of that decoration. Often being a woman in public is to live in those in-between spaces, and becoming comfortable with makeup, for those who choose to wear it, is in part to grapple with those conflicts. Simultaneously seductive and subversive, blue eye shadow is particularly emblematic of this push and pull. Elizabeth turned to blue eye shadow throughout her life, harnessing its power to focus on her most valuable physical attributes: her eyes, but also her womanhood. By using it to make up her face, she created the life she wanted—as an actor, a star, and a woman.